"The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow." - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn was born 95 years ago today. I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but had to abandon August 1914 - after 200 pages, the author was still doing character introductions, each one of which involved telling the person's life story. I didn't sense that ending any time soon, and so with the daunting prospect of 700 pages still ahead, I gave up. I was surprised at how slow and ponderous the book was, especially after enjoying the tight and spare prose of Ivan Denisovich. I still might tackle The Gulag Archipelago someday, if I ever get particularly ambitious.
"...a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions..."
Willa Cather, from her short story "A Gold Slipper":
In the moment her bright, curious eyes rested upon him, McKann seemed to see himself as if she was holding a mirror up before him. He beheld himself a heavy, solid figure, unsuitably clad for the time and place, with a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions - an inexpressive countenance. Not a rock face, exactly, but a kind of pressed-brick-and-cement face, a "business" face upon which years and feelings had made no mark - in which cocktails might eventually blast out a few hollows. He had never seen himself so distinctly in his shaving-glass as he did that instant when Kitty Ayshire's liquid eye held him, when her bright, inquiring glance roamed over his person.
McKann is a coal merchant, and Kitty is an opera singer that McKann sees perform. Much of the story involves their stark differences, which are told through a long conversation they later have on a train bound for New York. Fine story, one that reminds me a lot of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. That paragraph above is excellent throughout, and I particularly like the "pressed-brick-and-cement-face": McKann is an industrialist, a capitalist, and the face he has isn't natural like "a rock face" would be, but instead manufactured from years of business dealings.
Several times during the past few years I've done "structured reading" - reading three related books in succession, which I've found interesting in how the books contrast with and even comment on each other. My next structured reading will be sometime next year, consisting of three novels of early 20th Century Midwest realism: Cather's My Antonia, Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I already own the first two, but need to pick up a copy of Tarkington. Looking forward to that.
"Strange to think of the endless labour..."
Margaret Atwood, from Oryx and Crake:
Then he makes his way to a jagged concrete overhang that was once part of a bridge. Beneath it there's a triangular orange sign with the black silhouette of a man shovelling. Men at Work, that used to mean. Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.
Fifty pages in, and very good so far. To this point Atwood has offered only tantalizing glimpses of the degraded, almost post-apocalyptic world Snowman lives in, and how it got that way, which keeps me eager to read more.
"Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same..."
Kenneth Fearing was a noir novelist and poet, and probably best known for the novel The Big Clock. The Neglected Books blog posted his poem "Cracked Record Blues" (from Afternoon Of A Pawnbroker And Other Poems, 1944), which I like quite a bit:
Cracked Record Blues
If you watch it long enough you can see the clock move.
If you try hard enough you can hold a little water in the palm of your hand,
If you listen once or twice you know it’s not the needle, or the tune, but a crack in the record when sometimes a phonograph falters and repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats
And if you think about it long enough, long enough, long enough, long enough then everything is simple and you can understand the times,
You can see for yourself that the Hudson still flows, that the seasons change as ever, that love is always love,
Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same;
You can count upon your fingers that two plus two still equals, still equals, still equals, still equals -
There is nothing in this world that should bother the mind.
Because the mind is a common sense affair filled with common sense answers to common sense facts,
It can add up, can add up, can add up, can add up earthquakes and subtract them from fires,
It can bisect an atom or analyze the planets -
All it has to do is to, do is to, do is to, do is to start at the beginning and continue to the end.
Fearing was a Chicago-area native who attended Oak Park-River Forest High School (alma mater of my father-in-law) and the University of Illinois (alma mater of both Julie and myself), and later co-founded The Partisan Review. After being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in 1950 and asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, he simply replied, "Not yet." Gotta admire that.
Poe and Verne
At The Guardian, Robert McCrum writes an intriguing overview of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As McCrum notes, despite its many eccentricities the novel was highly influential, and even inspired a sequel by Jules Verne. That novel, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm, was published in its first complete English translation last year by SUNY Press, whose Verne edition even includes the full text of Pym. My college friend James Peltz is co-director at SUNY Press, and was kind enough to send me a copy a few months ago. My appetite for Poe has really been whetted by my recent re-reading of his stories (I just started "The Pit and the Pendulum" last night), and I'm now eager to read Pym and then Verne's sequel, probably early next year.
"...enough Mormons and mesquite between him and that old stump-armed man..."
Another great paragraph from Kent Haruf's The Tie That Binds:
Lyman was forty-two when he left on that west-bound train, and as I recall his plan involved joining the U.S. Army. The train stopped in Denver, but he didn't get off there and he didn't get off in Cheyenne either, nor in Salt Lake, nor in any other place, until the train had finally stopped for good in Los Angeles to turn around and come back east. I suppose he wanted to be sure there were enough mountain ranges and enough Mormons and mesquite between him and that old stump-armed man to prevent himself from being dragged back and put to work again. Because once he had actually managed to escape he sure as hell wasn't going to take any chances; he wasn't ever going to sweat his overalls plowing sand again, not if he could help it, not if it was just a matter of putting enough miles between himself and that sand. And in the confusion of December 1941, he had that ready excuse: he was going to join the army to fight the Nips and the Huns - never mind that he had never fought a thing before in his life.
Damn, that man can write. Hard to believe this was his very first novel.
"Think of how many monumental things in our lives are decided in the silence of a kitchen table."Nice interview with Peter Orner at Fiction Writers Review. The thoughts he encapsulates in the above quote come at a timely moment for me, because right now I'm struggling with my novel in progress, trying to figure out how to get the narrative out of the protagonist's head and really have something happen. Orner might say that's really not necessary, and that a story can just take place at "the kitchen table." More for me to ponder.
It's very nice to see that in his new book Orner has revived the character Walt Kaplan from his early novella Fall River Marriage, which I really enjoyed reading last year.
This is pretty wonderful. A Swedish urban explorer went through Stockholm's old Public Records Building, and took a bunch of great photographs. The photo above is of a "bokstörten", or book slide:
The Book Slide or "bokstörten" as it is called in Swedish. This invention was added to the stair case in the days of the second world war. The idea being that should Sweden become attacked by an aggressor in the war, then the archives and books here could be loaded onto ships fast using this book slide to slide them down to the water front and then they could be sailed off to some secure location.Books have all the fun. The rest of us have to take the stairs. That building looks marvelous - I strongly encourage you to check out all of the photos.
"...persistence, a congruence of lives..."Seamus Heaney's poems in North are very much about the permanence of the past. In "Belderg", the narrator talks to a farmer who has unearthed neolithic remnants in his fields. An excerpt:
A landscape fossilized,The book is lovely throughout, and especially during the first section.
Its stone-wall patternings
Repeated before our eyes
In the stone walls of Mayo.
Before I turned to go
He talked about persistence,
A congruence of lives,
How, stubbed and cleared of stones
His home accrued growth rings
Of iron, flint and bronze.
QuoteI cannot be weaned
Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.
- Seamus Heaney, "Antaeus"
Nothing says "creepy Halloween art" quite like Arthur Rackham's fantastic wraparound cover illustration for Poe's Tales of Mystery & Imagination, which I'm enjoying this week. Boo!
Poe in OctoberThis Halloween week, I'm tempting fate and reading an Edgar Allan Poe story every night, right before bed. (Tempting fate, because when I first read "The Premature Burial" back in college, also right before bed, it freaked me out so much I was awake half the night.) Last night, it was "The Tell-Tale Heart".
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.A warped motive indeed, and yet just a few sentences later the narrator denies he's a madman. This story is so tightly wound, so visceral in its mania, that it's probably my favorite Poe story ever. It's relatively short for a Poe story, with only a minimum of the florid Victorian wordiness that Poe often succumbed to. The conciseness of the prose illustrates the narrator's madness so vividly - more words would have dampened the impact.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was also the first Poe story I ever encountered. My wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Murphy, read it aloud to our enraptured class. I don't know many other teachers who would do likewise for a bunch of overstimulated fourth-graders, but he never underestimated us. He even read Shakespeare to us, at length, and Beowulf. He was one of the very best teachers I ever had.
Quote"But we can’t cut ourselves off from writing about—which is another name for being intensely curious about—other people because it’s hard. And we can’t let gender or race or anything else get in the way of the work we have to do—as human beings—imagining the lives of other human beings. How could we? Sure, we’ll fail. That’s the whole point. But worse not to try. It would mean more disconnection than actually exists" - Peter Orner
Quote"Crimes can be redeemed, but nothing saves you from mediocrity."
- Juan Villoro
Ben Tanzer, OrphansAs always, I'm never objective about any of my great friend Ben Tanzer's books, so please take this review with as many grains of salt as you wish.
What struck me most about Orphans is that while so much here is familar - the narrative voice that is totally Ben's, along with most of his usual preoccuptions, including marriage, fatherhood, belonging, loss, work, love, sex, rock and roll, physical release and, yes, chemical stimulants - he has translated that voice and those preoccupations into a futuristic dystopia. That familiar voice is somehow comforting even as it describes a dying world of societal and economic collapse, environmental degradation and brutal class divisions. In this dystopia, Ben's usual preoccupations are dramatically amped up, transformed from a state of simple existential angst to the very survival of his protagonist. The stakes here are so much higher than his realist fiction, and the outcome much more emphatic.
The Orphans dystopia is vivid and menacing. Society is run by a single omnipotent Corporation, which exploits workers until they are no longer useful, after which they are cast aside. An elite social class lives in luxury while the vast multitudes hustle and scrape to survive. Black helicopters patrol the skies, dispersing and even killing anyone who dares to congregate on the streets. Hordes of the unemployed, still wearing their business suits, wander about, desperately imploring the fortunate employed for work. The inner city, while still maintaining a veneer of normalcy, is increasingly threatened by an ever-encroaching wilderness. And the dwindling middle class, represented by the protagonist Norrin Radd, is tolerated by the Corporation while their skills are still needed; in Norrin's case, his powers of persuasion are vital in selling real estate on the rapidly colonizing Mars to the elites who are increasingly desperate to escape Earth before society completely collapses.
As fascinating as the setting is, though, all of it is backdrop to the story of Norrin, his relationship with his wife and young son, and especially the quandry he faces in balancing his family life with his career. Does he do whatever the Corporation demands of him, including months-long business trips to Mars, to provide for his family, or does he try to somehow make a living at home and spend as much time with his family as he can? While he thinks (or merely hopes) that he has that choice, over time he comes to realize that yielding to the Corporation is all he can do in order to survive.
An important aspect of this career-versus-family struggle is the Terrax, one of most interesting elements of the narrative. In his past books, Ben's male protagonists often compare themselves to an impossible ideal of what they believe a man, husband or father should be, inevitably falling far short of their expectations. When this ideal is just imagined and intangible, falling short of it is something these men can live with; they may not be satisfied with themselves, but they can still get by. But in Orphans, falling short of this masculine ideal results in something much more tangible and dramatic, because of the Terrax.
The Terrax is an essential cog in the book's society, a jack-of-all-trades robot that does most of the dirty work, with the Corporation finding them to be more reliable than human employees for mundane tasks. Some Terraxes are even programmed to be substitutes for interplanetary workers like Norrin, whose bodies and personalities are replicated in a Terrax, which serves as a surrogate husband and father in the worker's family while he's away. The Corporation has found that this makes the family happier during the worker's absence, which in turn creates a more focused and productive worker. But while this may be good for Norrin's family, it's not good for him personally, as he's already full of insecurities and doubts about how good a family man he is, again measuring himself against an impossible ideal. Norrin grimly sees his Terrax as the perfect version of himself, one he can never measure up to. In the Terrax he has a very real rival, though a rival more in his own mind than to his family, who clearly recognize the differences between Norrin and his Terrax, and prefer the real thing. The presence of his Terrax, along with his insecurities and the Corporation's increasingly unreasonable demands, ultimately drives Norrin to make a critical, fateful decision. Which, in retrospect, is probably the only choice he could have made.
Orphans is both familiar and yet unprecedented in the context of Ben's earlier work, a thought-provoking meditation on the struggle between family and career, all of it told through a brisk, often thrilling story. Very well done.
"...when the possibility of endless fear and confusion is still muted and tamped down..."From Ben Tanzer's forthcoming novel, Orphans:
"You will soon be asleep," the voice continues, making love to me and wrapping me in warmth and joy.I'm halfway through my second reading of the book, and mentally formulating a formal review. Very good read. Plenty to think about.
Sedatives are wonderful, but this is about more than sleep, it's also about nourishment and replenishment, and drugs alone can't guarantee that, hence the voice.
The voice is female, the voice of the lover, the wife, the object of desire, affection and need, and ultimately the mother, everyone's mother who ever lived. The first voice you hear upon entering the world, a time when everything is possible, when love is pure, and when the possibility of endless fear and confusion is still muted and tamped down, because at that moment, and at this moment, it doesn't have to be that way.
"Close your eyes. Think good things, happy things," the voice says.
Clearly, there's no accounting for taste.Of the 74 books that I've rated five stars on Goodreads, 35 have an average user rating of four or lower; interesting to note how widely my opinion often varies from the average reader. Below are the 35 books, with the average rating in parentheses.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (3.50)
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (3.55)
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (3.59)
Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (3.65)
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (3.67)
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (3.68)
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (3.71)
John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (3.71)
James Meek, The People's act of Love (3.72)
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (3.72)
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (3.76)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (3.79)
Ian McEwan, Atonement (3.81)
Stephen Elliott, Happy Baby (3.82)
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener (3.84)
William Trevor, A Bit on the Side (3.84)
Par Lagerkvist, Barabbas (3.84)
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (3.85)
James Joyce, Dubliners (3.86)
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (3.86)
Jack London, To Build a Fire (3.89)
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (3.91)
Kent Haruf, Plainsong (3.91)
Knut Hamsun, Pan (3.92)
O.E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (3.92)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (3.93)
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm (3.93)
W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe (3.94)
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (3.94)
Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (3.96)
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (3.97)
Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas (3.97)
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (3.98)
George Selden, The Cricket in Times Square (3.99)
J.F. Powers, Morte D'Urban (3.99)
Boy's gotta have it.
Yes. And not just because I list "Bartleby & Company" as my employer on Facebook. I'd love to bring this to staff meetings, and when the boss asks for volunteers, I'll say nothing as I raise the mug meaningfully to my lips.
Interesting find from our public library book sale: a 1960 collection of Thoreau's insights on nature and mankind. Having Thoreau distilled into a more digestible form (I liked Walden but thought it dragged and meandered too much) is nice enough, but I also really like the format. Though short in length (for which a publisher might have simply just settled for paperback), it's a compact hardcover with lovely illustrations opening each section. It's not particularly valuable (I've seen online prices starting at five bucks) but still a welcomed addition to my collection.
Quote"October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight." - Henry David Thoreau
"It’s just so easy to take things back..."Lavinia Ludlow consents to TNBBC's "Would You Rather" interview. I particularly like this response.
Would you rather give up your computer or pens and paper?I'm the same way, though I use pen instead of pencil. I'm glad to realize that I use the manual process to "commit and worry about revisions later", and not just because I'm some sort of Luddite. My own Would You Rather interview should appear a few months from now.
Easy. Computer. I still draft everything with college rule lined paper and a mechanical accounting pencil. This makes for a nightmare when I have to transition everything to a word doc but I feel handwriting my drafts forces me to commit and worry about revisions later. It’s just so easy to take things back when they’re on a computer screen.
Quote"There is justice, hardly poetic, in the way I find myself tied up in destiny with millions of people when what I want most is to be separated from them." - J.F. Powers, while imprisoned for refusing military induction during World War II
"...a not exactly religious commercial practice..."Pete Hamill, on J.F. Powers:
"He has etched curates and monsignors dueling for the favors of a bishop; old pastors outfoxing young assistants; bored bishops made uncomfortable by the zeal of young priests. His theme is almost always the conflict between the true religious spirit and a not exactly religious commercial practice, and his heroes are men - not saints or devils."I'm halfway through Powers' Morte D'Urban, which won the National Book Award in 1963. I'm enjoying the novel quite a bit, particularly the tug between the spiritual and the worldly, which is represented by many of the priests in the book to one extreme or the other, but with both extremes combined in the form of Father Urban, the protagonist. There are occasional echoes of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (an inevitable comparison, given both the subject matter and setting), although I find Powers' satire to be much more subtle, wry and effective than Lewis showed with Gantry, which often seemed more like a polemic than a novel.
Quote"I descended into Hell and brought back cheap beer in plastic cups." - Eric Lundgren, The Facades
Indeed, that sounds like Hell to me. The book is on my to-read list, though even though the hardcover has a lovely design I'm going to wait until it comes out in paperback.
"...fives, tens and twenties literally forgotten ..."In the opening chapter of J.F. Powers' Morte D'Urban, the author introduces the protagonist Father Urban, a priest of the fictional Order of St. Clement who has a rather flexible relationship with the traditional vow of poverty.
As a Clementine, he possessed nothing, and the cassock he wore around the Novitiate was pocketless - St. Clement of Blois, the Holy Founder of the Order, having regarded pockets rather than money as the root of all evil - but Father Urban was away from the Novitiate most of the time, and while he was away his pockets filled up. Nevertheless, he was true to his vow of poverty - to the spirit, though, rather than the letter. For someone in his position, it could not very well be otherwise. Always, after an accounting at the Novitiate, there would be a surplus: not Mass stipends, which had to be turned in and processed, but personal gifts from grateful laymen and understanding pastors, fives, tens and twenties literally forgotten among Father Urban's effect or prudently held out because traveling first-class cost so much more than a tight-fisted bursar could be expected to make allowances for without losing respect for himself and his job.I particularly like the term "tight-fisted bursar" - I'm envisioning a craggy, green-visored old man rolling his eyes at the latest expense report submitted. Coming in, I was hoping this book would be a more subtle cousin to Elmer Gantry, and I'm encouraged so far.
Tom Gauld and Wimbledon
I love this trio of cover illustrations created by Tom Gauld for Nigel Williams' "Wimbledon Poisoner" trilogy. Each cover stands beautifully on its own, but together they create a greater, cohesive whole. There certainly seem to be plenty of nefarious goings-on on this quiet Wimbledon block. I particularly like how the first and last covers imply classic whodunit mysteries, while the second cover enhances the whodunit motif...with aliens.
Quote"Coming here is following a call to be quiet. When I go quiet I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something very great." - Brother Patrick Duffy, from Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon
"...you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better..."H.L. Mencken is one of my literary heroes, and not just because we share a birthday. His erudite, curmudgeonly wit never fails to charm me, even though his now-dated cultural references often fly right over my head. I've read many scattered pieces of his here and there, but only one full book, the anthology The Vintage Mencken. With so much of his material available, I've struggled over which book of his to read next. But after reading this mention yesterday of The American Language on the Barnes & Noble site, I think my search has ended. Here's Mencken's "American" translation of the famous "all men are created equal" passage from the Declaration of Independence:
...All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain't got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don't interfere with nobody else. That any government that don't give a man these rights ain't worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of goverment they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any goverment don't do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests.Thank goodness Thomas Jefferson was so much more eloquent than the rest of us schmoes.
Fond memory from 2008
Photo by Jason Pettus. Dang, that night was cold.
In honor of the great Forgotten Bookmarks blog, here's a forgotten bookmark that I was pleased to find recently: an instruction manual for a KMC digital alarm clock (LED! 100% Solid State!), circa 1980s. Found inside Blue Highways: A Journey Into America by William Least Heat-Moon.
"...pastels to iridescents to no paint at all..."In the opening chapters of Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, William Least Heat-Moon describes driving ever deeper into the Kentucky mountains.
The licks came out of the hills, the fields got smaller, and there were little sawmills cutting hardwoods into pallets, crates, fenceposts. The houses shrank, and their colors changed from white to pastels to iridescents to no paint at all. The lawns went from Vertagreen bluegrass to thin fescue to hard-packed dirt glinting with fragments of broken glass, and the lawn ornaments changed from birdbaths to plastic flamingoes and donkeys to broken-down automobiles with raised hoods like tombstones. On the porches stood long-legged wringer washers and ruined sofas, and, by the front doors, washtubs hung like coats of arms.I really admire how he describes the steady progression into impoverished areas without ever mentioning poverty itself, but instead by its physical manifestations. Blue Highways has been on my shelf, never read, for ten years, since I picked up a bargain used hardcover at Brattle Book Shop in Boston. I'm really enjoying it so far, and am not sure why I've put it off for so long. Possibly from being intrigued but ultimately underwhelmed by Least Heat-Moon's later effort, River-Horse.
"'Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)
Quote"Though my weekends go by soon enough, I look toward Monday without a sigh." - Studs Terkel
"...the body and soul of a poem are one."My friend Jeff Sypeck is an ambitious man. He recently attempted to translate a 9th Century poem from its original Latin into English, in a single day.
Because the poem is only 10 lines long and grammatically compact, I made the same careless assumption as the day I broke ground in my garden: "How hard can this be?"In one word: hard. Still, I greatly admire the effort.
"Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly.""One reason that people have artist’s block is that they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again." - Marshall Vandruff
I sincerely hope my current lack of creativity is just this sort of dormancy. Looking to blossom again soon.
(Via Steve Himmer.)
"I think I’d like a ride in that wiener bus."Milwaukee chef Sanford D'Amato reminisces about riding the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile with Julia Child. That's her quotation above - oh, how I wish there was an audio recording of her saying that.
"...you must not deny experience of that which lies beyond the sun..."Having just previously read The Odyssey, it was quite interesting this morning to read Dante's inclusion of Ulysses (Odysseus) in Inferno. According to Dante, Ulysses was consigned to hell not because he was a pre-Christian pagan, but because he committed the sin of being a fraudulent counselor. Dante has Ulysses speak the following:
I sailed away from Circe, who'd beguiled meTo Dante, Ulysses was a fradulent counselor because he convinced his underlings not to return home after the victory at Troy, but to venture forth and see the world - purportedly for their own good but in reality (as he admits above) to support his own wanderlust:
to stay more than a year there, near Gaeta -
before Aeneas gave that place a name -
neither my fondness for my son nor pity
for my old father nor the love I owed
Penelope, which would have gladdened her,
was able to defeat in me the longing
I had to gain experience of the world
and of the vices and the worth of men.
'Brothers,' I said, 'o you, who having crossedGo for the gusto, he says - even if the gusto will ultimately kill you. Ulysses was the only one of the entire crew to make it home alive.
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left
unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.
Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.'
"...where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts..."In Canto XIII of Inferno, Dante enters the seventh circle of hell. There, in the portion reserved for those who committed suicide, the suicides take the form of trees and bushes. One sufferer describes the their fate.
"When the savage spirit quits
the body from which it has torn itself,
then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
It falls into the wood, and there's no place
to which it is allotted, but wherever
fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.
It rises as a sapling, a wild plant;
and then the Harpies, feeding on its leaves,
cause pain and for that pain provide a vent.
Like other souls, we shall seek out the flesh
that we have left, but none of us shall wear it;
it is not right for any man to have
what he himself has cast aside. We'll drag
our bodies here; they'll hang in this sad wood,
each on the stump of its vindictive shade."
This certainly makes me think of the verdant lushness of my yard in a whole new light.
"On occasion, I write pretty well."
This is beautiful: Kurt Vonnegut's 1960 letter to then-Senator John F. Kennedy, volunteering to work on JFK's presidential campaign. He played it pretty straight until that second-to-last line.
Seeing this 1954 photo of commuters getting off the Illinois Central train in Park Forest, Illinois, reminds me that I still want to read Walter H. Whyte's landmark study The Organization Man, which was based on the denizens of Park Forest, one of America's first centrally-planned suburbs. After Whyte's book, I'd also like to read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Sloan Wilson's bestselling novel of the same era and subject matter. Based on this photo, it looks like Park Forest had quite a few gray-suited organization men back then.
"I find the region on the whole quite weird..."Emerging author Eric Lundgren:
One of my ambitions is to write about the Midwest not in a gently humorous mode, a la Garrison Keillor, or as a theatre for quietly snuffed realist dreams, but in a sort of estranged, almost grotesque mode, the way Flannery O’Connor wrote about the South, or the way Thomas Bernhard wrote about Austria. This could be a deeply bad idea. I find the region on the whole quite weird, including the widely held belief of its inhabitants that it’s a second-class place and not really worth discussing in detail.His debut novel, The Facades, sounds interesting and is firmly on my radar.
"...the Bank had stopp'd payment at four..."Edward Bulwer-Lytton ("It was a dark and stormy night...") has the widespread reputation of being a hackneyed writer. But his son Robert Bulwer-Lytton (aka Owen Meredith) appears to have been every bit his father's equal for that aspersion. His drama-in-verse, Lucile, is a monstrosity of almost 70,000 words and over 8,000 lines of sing-songy, AABB-rhymed poetry, which just a glance tells me I have no interest in reading at any length, nor even a few pages. The editors of The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse were kind enough to include the excerpt below, which quite humanely spares us from having to read the interminable remainder. One thing I love about the anthology is its many examples of poets who tried to use, with virtually no success, such comically unpoetical subject matter as free trade, steam power and, in this case, bank fraud.
A fortnight ago a report about town
Made me most apprehensive. Alas, and alas!
I at once wrote and warn'd you. Well, now let that pass.
A run on the Bank about five days ago
Confirm'd my forebodings too terribly, though.
I drove down to the city at once; found the door
Of the Bank closed: the Bank had stopp'd payment at four.
Next morning the failure was known to be fraud:
Warrant out for McNab: but McNab was abroad:
Gone - we cannot tell where. I endeavor'd to get
Information: have learn'd nothing certain as yet -
Not even the way that old Ridley was gone:
Or with those securities what he had done:
Or whether they had been already call'd out:
If they are not, their fate is, I fear, past a doubt.
Reading this gives me confidence that if I ever write a fictional satire based on my years in banking, it won't be the worst finance-related literature ever written. Robert Bulwer-Lytton already has that covered.
"...You lustful sons of lax-eyed lewdness..."
I haven't posted anything from The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse in a while, but this one is too melodramatically awful to pass up. The following is from "The Roman: A Dramatic Poem" by Sydney Thompson Dobell (1824-74). The scene opens with a group of merry youth traipsing through the countryside, only to be interrupted by a rather glum monk, who claims they are literally dancing on his mother's grave, and remonstrates them thusly:
Steps first on me. I say there is a grave,
I say it is my mother's: that I loved her,
Ay, loved her with more passion than the maddest
Lover among ye clasps his one-day wife!
And I steal forth to keep my twilight vigil,
And you come here to dance upon my heart.
You come and—with the world at will for dalliance,
The whole hot world—deny me that small grave
Whose bitter margin these poor knees know better
Than your accustom'd feet the well-worn path
To your best harlot's bower. The turf is fair!
Have I not kept it green with tears, my mother?
You lustful sons of lax-eyed lewdness, do you
Come here to sing above her bones, and mock me,
Because my flesh and blood cry out, 'God save them?'
It should come as no surprise that Dobell and his cohorts comprised what was known as the Spasmodic School of Poetry.
"...under heaven let it the highest be..."In Guthrun's Lament (from The Poetic Edda), after recounting her life's many woes, Guthrun grimly foresees her own funeral pyre:
Raise up, ye earls, the oaken heap,
under heaven let it the highest be,
that fire may burn the hate-filled breast's
carks and cares, and quell all sorrow.
It should be noted that Guthrun's woes were largely self-inflicted. Every time a loved one is taken from her, she urges other kin to wreak revenge on the perpetrator, even though she knows that those kin will likely die in the process. And she personally avenges the deaths of her brothers at the hand of her husband Atli by killing the children she had with Atli, and serving their hearts and blood to their father at a celebratory feast. Then near the end of her life she laments that her kinfolk are all gone. Sorry, honey, but that's what bloodlust will do for you.
I really enjoyed The Poetic Edda, despite its fragmentary and often self-contradictory nature. Truly a classic of Western literature.
"Before him went the shriek of shells - Aerial screamings, taunts and yells..."Today marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg. Here is Herman Melville's stirring poem of the same name.
O Pride of the days in prime of the months
Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
Fell Dagon down-
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; God walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.
He charged, and in that charge condensed
His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
And Right is a strong-hold yet.
Before our lines it seemed a beach
Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
Pale crews unknown-
Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
And searching-parties lone.
Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
Our centre held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
Shall rest in honor there.
(Via Patrick Kurp.)
"Never spakest thou word that worse could hurt me; Nor that made me, Völund, more bitter for vengeance..."I'm continuing my slow journey through The Poetic Edda. It's been a rewarding if sometimes ponderous experience - the archaic phrasing and grammar, the repetition and the often didactic nature of the narratives (many of the lays exist solely to record names of families and places) have sometimes tried my patience. But it's been a very good read overall. This morning I had the pleasure to read Völundarkvitha (or The Lay of Völund), which translator Lee Hollander calls "stark and powerful," adding that the lay "stands by itself in richness of invention, its grim compactness. Limned with a few broad strokes, the characters stand before us indelibly..."
I was so impressed by this ancient work that I have posted the entire text below, rather than just linking to the online source. Hollander's translation isn't freely available online; this translation is by actually by Henry Adams Bellows (1936). The ellipses indicate places where the original text has been lost.
Völundarkvitha (or The Lay of Völund)
There was a king in Sweden named Nithuth. He had two sons and one daughter; her name was Bothvild. There were three brothers, sons of a king of the Finns: one was called Slagfith, another Egil, the third Völund. They went on snowshoes and hunted wild beasts. They came into Ulfdalir and there they built themselves a house; there was a lake there which is called Ulfsjar. Early one morning they found on the shore of the lake three women, who were spinning flax. Near them were their swan garments, for they were Valkyries. Two of them were daughters of King Hlothver, Hlathguth the Swan-White and Hervor the All-Wise, and the third was Olrun, daughter of Kjar from Valland. These did they bring home to their hall with them. Egil took Olrun, and Slagfith Swan-White, and Völund All-Wise. There they dwelt seven winters; but then they flew away to find battles, and came back no more. Then Egil set forth on his snowshoes to follow Olrun, and Slagfith followed Swan White, but Völund stayed in Ulfdalir. He was a most skillful man, as men know from old tales. King Nithuth had him taken by force, as the poem here tells.
1. Maids from the south through Myrkwood flew,
Fair and young, their fate to follow;
On the shore of the sea to rest them they sat,
The maids of the south, and flax they spun.
2. . . . . . . . . . .
Hlathguth and Hervor, Hlothver's children,
And Olrun the Wise Kjar's daughter was.
3. . . . . . . . . . .
One in her arms took Egil then
To her bosom white, the woman fair.
4. Swan-White second,-- swan-feathers she wore,
. . . . . . . . . .
And her arms the third of the sisters threw
Next round Völund's neck so white.
5. There did they sit for seven winters,
In the eighth at last came their longing again,
(And in the ninth did need divide them).
The maidens yearned for the murky wood,
The fair young maids, their fate to follow.
6. Völund home from his hunting came,
From a weary way, the weather-wise bowman,
Slagfith and Egil the hall found empty,
Out and in went they, everywhere seeking.
7. East fared Egil after Olrun,
And Slagfith south to seek for Swan-White;
Völund alone in Ulfdalir lay,
. . . . . . . . . .
8. Red gold he fashioned with fairest gems,
And rings he strung on ropes of bast;
So for his wife he waited long,
If the fair one home might come to him.
9. This Nithuth learned, the lord of the Njars,
That Völund alone in Ulfdalir lay;
By night went his men, their mail-coats were studded,
Their shields in the waning moonlight shone.
10. From their saddles the gable wall they sought,
And in they went at the end of the hall;
Rings they saw there on ropes of bast,
Seven hundred the hero had.
11. Off they took them, but all they left
Save one alone which they bore away.
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
12. Völund home from his hunting came,
From a weary way, the weather-wise bowman;
A brown bear's flesh would he roast with fire;
Soon the wood so dry was burning well,
(The wind-dried wood that Völund's was).
13. On the bearskin he rested, and counted the rings,
The master of elves, but one he missed;
That Hlothver's daughter had it he thought,
And the all-wise maid had come once more.
14. So long he sat that he fell asleep,
His waking empty of gladness was;
Heavy chains he saw on his hands,
And fetters bound his feet together.
15. "What men are they who thus have laid
Ropes of bast to bind me now?"
Then Nithuth called, the lord of the Njars:
"How gottest thou, Völund, greatest of elves,
These treasures of ours in Ulfdalir?"
16. "The gold was not on Grani's way,
Far, methinks, is our realm from the hills of the Rhine;
I mind me that treasures more we had
When happy together at home we were."
17. Without stood the wife of Nithuth wise,
And in she came from the end of the hall;
On the floor she stood, and softly spoke:
"Not kind does he look who comes from the wood."
King Nithuth gave to his daughter Bothvild the gold ring that he had taken from the bast rope in Völund's house, and he himself wore the sword that Völund had had.
The queen spake:
18. "The glow of his eyes is like gleaming snakes,
His teeth he gnashes if now is shown
The sword, or Bothvild's ring he sees;
Let them straightway cut his sinews of strength,
And set him then in Sævarstath."
So was it done: the sinews in his knee-joints were cut, and he was set in an island which was near the mainland, and was called Sævarstath. There he smithied for the king all kinds of precious things. No man dared to go to him, save only the king himself.
19. "At Nithuth's girdle gleams the sword
That I sharpened keen with cunningest craft,
(And hardened the steel with highest skill;)
The bright blade far forever is borne,
(Nor back shall I see it borne to my smithy;)
Now Bothvild gets the golden ring
(That was once my bride's,-- ne'er well shall it be.)"
20. He sat, nor slept, and smote with his hammer,
Fast for Nithuth wonders he fashioned;
Two boys did go in his door to gaze,
Nithuth's sons, into Sævarstath.
21. They came to the chest, and they craved the keys,
The evil was open when in they looked;
To the boys it seemed that gems they saw,
Gold in plenty and precious stones.
22. "Come ye alone, the next day come,
Gold to you both shall then be given;
Tell not the maids or the men of the hall,
To no one say that me you have sought."
23. . . . . . . . . . .
Early did brother to brother call:
"Swift let us go the rings to see."
24. They came to the chest, and they craved the keys,
The evil was open when in they looked;
He smote off their heads, and their feet he hid
Under the sooty straps of the bellows.
25. Their skulls, once hid by their hair, he took,
Set them in silver and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair from their eyes he fashioned,
To Nithuth's wife so wise he gave them.
26. And from the teeth of the twain he wrought
A brooch for the breast, to Bothvild he sent it;
. . . . . . . . . .
27. Bothvild then of her ring did boast,
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . "The ring I have broken,
I dare not say it save to thee."
28. 'I shall weld the break in the gold so well
That fairer than ever thy father shall find it,
And better much thy mother shall think it,
And thou no worse than ever it was."
29. Beer he brought, he was better in cunning,
Until in her seat full soon she slept.
"Now vengeance I have for all my hurts,
Save one alone, on the evil woman."
30. . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
Quoth Völund: "Would that well were the sinews
Maimed in my feet by Nithuth's men."
31. Laughing Völund rose aloft,
Weeping Bothvild went from the isle,
For her lover's flight and her father's wrath.
32. Without stood the wife of Nithuth wise,
And in she came from the end of the hall;
But he by the wall in weariness sat:
"Wakest thou, Nithuth, lord of the Njars?"
33. "Always I wake, and ever joyless,
Little I sleep since my sons were slain;
Cold is my head, cold was thy counsel,
One thing, with Völund to speak, I wish.
34. . . . . . . . . . .
"Answer me, Völund, greatest of elves,
What happed with my boys that hale once were?"
35. "First shalt thou all the oaths now swear,
By the rail of ship, and the rim of shield,
By the shoulder of steed, and the edge of sword,
That to Völund's wife thou wilt work no ill,
Nor yet my bride to her death wilt bring,
Though a wife I should have that well thou knowest,
And a child I should have within thy hall.
36. "Seek the smithy that thou didst set,
Thou shalt find the bellows sprinkled with blood;
I smote off the heads of both thy sons,
And their feet 'neath the sooty straps I hid.
37. "Their skulls, once hid by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver and sent them to Nithuth;
38. "And from the teeth of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child does Bothvild go,
The only daughter ye two had ever."
39. "Never spakest thou word that worse could hurt me,
Nor that made me, Völund, more bitter for vengeance;
There is no man so high from thy horse to take thee,
Or so doughty an archer as down to shoot thee,
While high in the clouds thy course thou takest."
40. Laughing Völund rose aloft,
But left in sadness Nithuth sat.
. . . . . . . . . .
41. Then spake Nithuth, lord of the Njars:
"Rise up, Thakkrath, best of my thralls,
Bid Bothvild come, the bright-browed maid,
Bedecked so fair, with her father to speak."
42. . . . . . . . . . .
"Is it true, Bothvild, that which was told me;
Once in the isle with Völund wert thou?"
43. "True is it, Nithuth, that which was told thee,
Once in the isle with Völund was I,
An hour of lust, alas it should be!
Nought was my might with such a man,
Nor from his strength could I save myself."
"...her arms did gleam..."
In this stanza from Skírnismál (or The Lay of Skírnir, from The Poetic Edda), the Norse fertility god Frey waxes eloquent about a giant maiden he has become smitten with.
From on high I beheld in the halls of GymirThe Norse gods seem somewhat odd. This is just one of many references to the beauty of maidens' arms, a body part which isn't usually cited as a favorite of lusty males. These gods are also often less than all-powerful and seem to have particular difficulty hooking up with desirable women - in this case, Frey has to send his valet Skírnir to the land of the giants as some sort of emissary/pimp. Zeus rarely had that problem.
a maiden to my mind;
her arms did gleam, their glamor filled
all the sea and air.
Book Recycling finds
This year's Will County Book Recycling was a letdown - first, because Julie wasn't feeling well and decided not to go, and second, because the quantity of available books seemed lower than earlier years. I only came home with three books - Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (which I've been wanting to read for some time), Jack London's Call of the Wild (for bedtime reading with Maddie - my boyhood copy somehow disappeared) and the intriguing book shown above.
The book is a 1963 profile of one of my favorite writers, Sinclair Lewis, by his biographer Mark Schorer. Schorer's bio of Lewis is a massive 900-page doorstop which, despite my interest in Lewis, I have no inclination to read. But this volume is basically a hardcover-bound pamphlet (just 44 pages) that briefly surveys Lewis' life and writing career and which I find much more appealing. The book came from the library at Joliet Central High School and still has the little pocket in the front where the checkout card used to be. Not surprisingly, the book wasn't terribly popular - it was only checked out 30 times between 1965 and 1988. And based on how many of the checkout dates are clustered, it looks like many of those checkouts were renewals (probably by students whose Lewis term papers were taking too long to finish), so I'd guess that no more than 20 students read the book during the 23-year period.
The book is from a series of author profiles published by University of Minnesota Press. I'd love to find more volumes from the series, including those on Nathanael West, Herman Melville and T.S. Eliot. (Eliot is a kindred spirit - he was a Midwest native and misplaced banker, working as a clerk at Lloyd's of London for eight years.) The image below is of the back cover, which lists the 28 volumes in the series as of the publication date.
Wheatyard at The Page 69 TestMarshal Zeringue's Campaign for the American Reader blog empire is a longtime favorite of mine. Today he was generous enough to publish the short essay I wrote about Wheatyard for his Page 69 Test blog. The concept behind "the page 69 test" is simple: when you come across a new book, open it to page 69 and read that page, and if you find that sample intriguing, the book might be worth exploring at length. By page 69, the author should be well past the introductory formalities and be fully into the narrative, so that page probably gives a good flavor to what the book is like. I picked up this habit from Marshal and now apply it, almost subconciously, to almost every book I find. My sincere thanks to Marshal for running this piece.
"...yet be sparing withal..."I'm starting off this year's Summer of Classics with The Poetic Edda, a medieval verse compilation of Old Norse myths and legends; this edition is Lee Hollander's translation, from 1962. I'm particularly enjoying Hávamál (or The Sayings of Hár), which poetically dispenses advice on living, including how to conduct oneself as a guest in someone else's home. I admire this bit:
The cup spurn not, yet be sparing withal:The general gist of this hospitality section so far seems to be "don't drink too much, and keep your mouth shut." Timeless advice indeed.
Say what is needful, or naught.
For ill breeding upbraids thee no man
If soon thou goest to sleep.