Dalkey Archive Press is a monster of an independent press. It has published works by enough eminent writers to make any larger, commercial publisher jealous, among them: John Ashbery, Djuna Barnes, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Anne Carson, Louis-Ferdinan Céline, Robert Coover, Robert Creeley, Ariel Dorfman, Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, Hugh Kenner, Ben Marcus, Manuel Puig, Rilke, Nathalie Sarraute, Boris Vian, and Marguerite Young; and seemingly all of their titles have introductions by William Gass. Certainly this makes its “indie” status perhaps the most contested of any independent publishers’; and its firm status as a “reprint publisher” – it began as such, republishing extinct editions of earlier books, and continues valiantly to do so – does little to budge its image toward that of a more progressive, active publishing house pursuant to the voices of the younger literary generations. I am, abashedly and in a great many ways, fairly conservative in my “avant-garde” tastes: the 1970s is the last decade I feel in any way up to date with; Rikki Ducornet – much of whose work is published by Dalkey – is as contemporary, exciting, and young a writer as I can think of, a fact that would seem shamefully out-of-touch to most contemporary literary critics; and, having become a haven for the work of the preeminent post-modernist writers, Dalkey may now seem hopelessly behind our ostensibly pre-post-post-postmodern times.
So I’ll try to highlight some perhaps less well-known – or at least less read – works of theirs. Witold Grombowicz’s memoir-as-manifesto A Kind of Testament falls fairly cleanly into the “less read” category, if only because his name is so considerably known; but, upon reading it, I was truly struck – perhaps before anything else – by how astonishing it is that this book isn't more frequently read: it's fun and thrilling and immensely approachable. It has the capacity to become – and, perhaps outside my myopic world, it has – a landmark, must-read text of theatrical-artistic pursuit and analysis, of a kind with Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double or Brecht’s Development of an Aesthetic; it’s exciting in the rare, almost embarrassing way that Artaud and Brecht's works are upon first reading them, in the kind of way that does something to scare away the fear that post-high school cynicism has driven you to aesthetic disaffection. It’s scope is larger than Brecht’s, and even Artaud’s: Grombowicz deals with the genuine pain of trying to fathom how to create an art that felt to him more attuned to an essential expression of humanity.
Gert Jonke’s book Geometric Regional Novel is just terrifically fun and terrifically unexpected, despite its somewhat tediously familiar plot, which regards the predictability of quotidian life amidst the utter chaos of existence. Reading just a back cover synopsis calls to mind the term “Kafka-esque,” and one wouldn’t be wrong in ascribing it to this work. His prose style – as translated from the German by Johannes W. Vazulik – is diffidently expressive in the way few similarly phrased works ever successfully are; Samuel Beckett and Lydia Davis are the only two who immediately come to mind, and the influence of the former on Jonke is quite distinctly noticeable. By some peculiar and subtle work of Jonke’s own, however, these obvious influences are entirely unobtrusive to the power of the book as a self-contained work.
Another book that quite mysteriously manages to overpower its notable forbears is G. Cabreza Infante’s somewhat autobiographical, somewhat travelogue-esque novel Infante’s Inferno, which is translated from the Spanish by the terrific Suzanne Jill Levine, whose The Subversive Scribe, tantalizingly unread on my bookshelf, is in all likelihood also excellent. Infante’s book bears the mark of someone who has recently read Joyce, Swift, and Garcia Márquez’s short stories, but the result is a unique, charming, and fun bildungsroman of sexual confusion in pre-1959 Cuba.
The Mystery of the Sardine, a novel by Stefan Themerson, is entirely its own creature, however. Alternately absurdist, surrealist, and realist, it is a hilarious, unnerving, and bizarre creation, one that, upon its completion, is more moving than it seemed it should have had any right to be. I have not since read anything else by him, but I very much want to, and whenever I come across his other titles I wonder why I’m wasting my time on whatever other book it is that I happen to be reading.
It seems unfair to conclude this without mentioning some somewhat more obvious Dalkey choices. The publisher took its name from one of Flann O’Brien’s novels, and it is only through this publisher that one may find O’Brien’s brilliant and hilarious novels At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. Dalkey has published a remarkable collection of Diane Williams’ short stories called Excitability, and it is behind my favorite Williams book, Romancer Erector; Jim Krusoe's novel Iceland is also excellent and well worth a look. Finally, before things drag on much too long, several of William Gass’ wonderful essays – many of which do indeed also come separately as introductions to other Dalkey publications – are collected in the entirely delightful A Temple of Texts; his pivotal The Tunnel is also published by them. Needless to say, there are many places to look with Dalkey and, while many may seem familiar, none is boring.