Summer of Melville has ended.Summer of Melville was a mixed blessing. I'm glad to have finally read Melville in depth, but I'm even more glad to be finished. I ended it last night, several days early - had I enjoyed the experience more, I could have continued on until a more typical ending of summer, either August 31st or Labor Day. Other than my long-time favorite Bartleby the Scrivener, I highly doubt that I'll ever read Melville again. He's simply not my style of writer - dense, long-winded, pedantic, with flashes of brilliance that occur far too rarely to endure the dross.
Moby-Dick was everything I expected, both good and bad, and I can easily see why the novel is so divisive, and how everyone who reads it either loves it or hates it, with very little middle ground. Then Bartleby (possibly the first office-politics fiction ever written?) was as great as always, and Benito Cereno was a pleasant surprise, with its building tension and mystery overcoming what could have been just another seafaring tale. But The Confidence-Man was a bloated collection of essays masquerading as fiction, the stories in The Piazza Tales (other than Bartleby and Benito Cereno) were fairly underwhelming, and Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was useful only as evidence that Melville should never have attempted poetry.
The above is simply a brief recap of my experience. If you want to read my Goodreads reviews for more depth, here they are:
Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno
The Piazza Tales
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
With Melville behind me, I'm eagerly moving on to much more modern and concise fare, and started Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains (or Closely Watched Trains, depending on your translator) this morning.
Quote“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—days when summer is changing into Fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.” - E.B. White, from Charlotte's Web
Lately I've noticed the return of crickets, and a definite cooler snap in the air. Fall is coming already. Bring it on.
"Far footfalls died away till none were left."Sobering verse from Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War:
One noonday, at my window in the town,
I saw a sight—saddest that eyes can see—
Young soldiers marching lustily
Unto the wars,
With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;
While all the porches, walks, and doors
Were rich with ladies cheering royally.
They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
(It was the breezy summer time),
Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime
Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.
Weeks passed; and at my window, leaving bed,
By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,
On those brave boys (Ah War! thy theft);
Some marching feet
Found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;
Wakeful I mused, while in the street
Far footfalls died away till none were left.
Melville's Civil War poems have been criticized for their distance from the subject; he visited the battlefront only once, in 1864. But the perspective of this poem - the narrator at home, watching cocky young men march off to war and their likely doom - is much closer to Melville's personal experience, and the poem is much richer for it.
Summer of Melville update
Summer of Melville is now winding down. I've read Moby-Dick, Bartleby and Benito Cereno (in a single volume), The Confidence-Man and the story collection The Piazza Tales. I was underwhelmed by the last two, and strongly considered ending the summer early. But with one week left, I've decided to keep it going with one last book, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his collection of Civil War poems. Melville dedicated himself almost exclusively to poetry during his final few decades, so after reading some of his novels, novellas and short stories, it will be interesting to read his poetry which obviously meant much to him.
I've enjoyed my Melville immersion, but I'm also looking forward to returning to fiction which is more modern and concise. I've already lined up books by Bohumil Hrabal, William Maxwell and my great friend Ben Tanzer for September.
Quote"A writer, or any other kind of artist, who partly or largely need not depend on pleasing the public, who in effect has his fee guaranteed whatever the quality of his product, is tempted to self-indulgence and laziness." - Kingsley Amis
"...writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it..."George Horace Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son is a fictional series of letters from a Chicago meatpacking tycoon to his son, in which the father, "Old Gorgon" Graham, tries to impart wisdom, advice and the occasional remonstrance to his son Pierrepont. Here, he tells of repeatedly trying to set up the overeducated son of a business colleague in a suitable career:
Got him in a bank, but while he knew more about the history of banking than the president, and more about political economy than the board of directors, he couldn’t learn the difference between a fiver that the Government turned out and one that was run off on a hand press in a Halsted Street basement. Got him a job on a paper, but while he knew six different languages and all the facts about the Arctic regions, and the history of dancing from the days of Old Adam down to those of Old Nick, he couldn’t write up a satisfactory account of the Ice-Men’s Ball. Could prove that two and two made four by trigonometry and geometry, but couldn’t learn to keep books; was thick as thieves with all the high-toned poets, but couldn’t write a good, snappy, merchantable street-car ad.; knew a thousand diseases that would take a man off before he could blink, but couldn’t sell a thousand-dollar tontine policy; knew the lives of our Presidents as well as if he’d been raised with them, but couldn’t place a set of the Library of the Fathers of the Republic, though they were offered on little easy payments that made them come as easy as borrowing them from a friend. Finally I hit on what seemed to be just the right thing. I figured out that any fellow who had such a heavy stock of information on hand, ought to be able to job it out to good advantage, and so I got him a place teaching. But it seemed that he’d learned so much about the best way of teaching boys, that he told his principal right on the jump that he was doing it all wrong, and that made him sore; and he knew so much about the dead languages, which was what he was hired to teach, that he forgot he was handling live boys, and as he couldn’t tell it all to them in the regular time, he kept them after hours, and that made them sore and put Stan out of a job again. The last I heard of him he was writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it, because failing was the one subject on which he was practical.Lorimer was the long-time editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and is credited with growing it from a small-circulation publication into the national cultural institution it would eventually become. Based on what I've read here so far, he was also a talented writer in his own right.
"Let us go then, you and I..."Happy (belated) 100th anniversary, Prufrock!
It teems with paradoxes: It’s a dramatic monologue that contains zero drama, a series of questions that seek no answer, the product of a consciousness that may not be conscious, the lament of a soul that comes alive only in order to die.Julie and I often quote random lines from the poem - not as often as we quote lines from Seinfeld, but often enough for it to be a touchstone for us. My favorite lines are probably these:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
"...to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition..."Melville's The Confidence-Man includes the tale of the fictional Colonel Moredock, an Illinois pioneer who - there's no nice way to say this - killed Native Americans for sport.
"'At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, and at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingecy arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects—the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'"Our current governor, Bruce Rauner, may often seem heartless, but at least he's a big, cuddly teddy bear compared to the bloodthirsty Moredock.
Murakami fans, thank your lucky stars for Dave Hilton.Haruki Murakami remembers his a-ha moment, at a Yakult Swallows game in 1978.
The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.Though more prosaic folks might dismiss this, saying that Murakami already had the talent and passion for writing inside of him, and that it just happened to emerge at this moment, I like the idea that an ordinary, line-drive double by a journeyman American ballplayer is what started it all.
Quote"I love Ireland. It is my home, but you know, I sometimes feel I have been trying to leave all my life, and never made it. But I don’t know if writers ever are properly in the place where they live, they’re always in a slight state of exile." - Anne Enright
"...equality for all..."From "The Government of Death", by avant-garde musician - and little-known poet - Sun Ra:
all governmentsVia Robert Archambeau, who has an interesting discussion of Sun Ra as the outsider and the dispossessed.
set up by men
but the government of death is a
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but
"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"Summer of Melville continues, with The Confidence-Man (1857), which takes place entirely on a Mississippi River steamboat. In this scene, a hearty backwoodsman encounters a invalid miser, who has just bought an herbal remedy from a quack "herb-doctor." ("Yarbs" are apparently "herbs" in the local dialect.)
He must have overheard some of the talk between the miser and the herb-doctor; for, just after the withdrawal of the one, he made up to the other — now at the foot of the stairs leaning against the baluster there — with the greeting above.In many ways, The Confidence-Man is a more difficult read than Moby-Dick. It's sort of a picaresque, but with no protagonist and barely any plot. Instead, it's a long series of philosophical conversations between unnamed strangers, one of whom is inevitably trying to rip off the other. I hope the first two hundred pages I've read so far are some sort of slow buildup to something dramatic.
"Think it will cure me?" coughed the miser in echo; "why shouldn't it? The medicine is nat'ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me."
"Because a thing is nat'ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?"
"Sure, you don't think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?"
"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"
"But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?"
"What's deadly - nightshade? Yarb, ain't it?"
"Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs — ugh, ugh, ugh! — ain't sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?"
"Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?"
"I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him."The late E.L. Doctorow, on Moby-Dick.
So let me propose that having done his first hundred or so pages of almost entirely land-based writing, Melville stopped to read what he had written. What have I got here?—the author’s question.Indeed, of all the things Ishmael could be accused of, haste is certainly not one of them.
“This Ishmael—he is logorrheic! Whatever he writes about, he takes his time. With this Ishmael, if I have a hundred or so land-based pages, if I am to keep the proportion of the thing, and the encounter with the whale is my climax, I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him. My God.”
"To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain."Interesting take on compassion, from Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"; the narrator has bent over backwards to help Bartleby, but soon realizes that his employee is probably beyond hope.
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder.Bartleby is still one of my favorite short stories ever.
Quote"I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop." - E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)
Update on Summer of MelvilleMy Summer of Classics (this year, renamed "Summer of Melville") continues. I just finished Moby-Dick yesterday (in a word: "Whew!") and this morning started another re-reading of the long story "Bartleby the Scrivener"; this is the third or fourth time I've read the story, and am enjoying it as much as ever. After that, it will be the novella Benito Cereno, and then The Confidence-Man. My old blog friend Golden Rule Jones is a big Melville fan, and at a recent lunch he recommended the latter novel as a fine way to round out my summer reading.
I'm going to refrain from any extensive commentary until the summer is over, so for now I will just say that Moby-Dick was every bit as thrilling and exasperating as I expected it to be.
Moby admirers might appreciate Peter Orner's recent essay "Brief Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab" at The Rumpus, in which he reflects on whether Ahab's monomaniacal quest was simply a ploy to avoid going home.
Quote"If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well." - Henrik Ibsen
Quote"I think self-confidence is a very dangerous thing for writers. I tend to write in a fragile, edgy, doubtful sort of way, trying things out all the time, never confident that I’ve got something right." - William Trevor
Literary cyclingHow fitting to read this list ("The 10 best books about cycling") just a few hours after my weekly Saturday morning ride. I've already added the Wells, Krabbe and Bartolini books to my list (the Beckett was already there, though I haven't looked for it aggressively, and I've read The Third Policeman but didn't care much for it). I'll never be a racer and probably not even a daily rider, but I love my weekly rides. I never go for speed, just for good exercise and enjoying the outdoors.
Quote"...the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!" - Herman Melville
This is interesting. Literary Hub queried nearly 50 non-American literary people on what they considered to be three quintessentially American books, which they provided along with their commentary. The most-cited writers (Faulkner, Melville, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Twain) are far from surprising, though I would have expected Hemingway to rank higher. In total, 96 books were named, of which I have only read 18:
Ragtime, To Build a Fire, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Long Goodbye, On the Road, The Road, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Day of the Locust, Moby-Dick, Little House on the Prairie, Babbitt, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Virgin Suicides, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Scarlet Letter, The Big Sleep
And, of course, another dozen are on my shelves, waiting to be read.
"...obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth..."In the passage below, Melville describes the aftermath of a whale killing, after the stripped carcass has been set adrift. And, of course, Melville uses that event to preface yet another metaphor.
Desecrated as the body is, a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some timid man-of-war or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the distance obscuring the swarming fowls, nevertheless still shows the white mass floating in the sun, and the white spray heaving high against it; straightway the whale's unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log — shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabouts: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There's your law of precedents; there's your utility of traditions; there's the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There's orthodoxy!It's digressive asides like this that make Moby-Dick the odd and thorny novel that it is. When Melville is as spot-on as he is in this passage, the asides are a delight; the problem for me is that there are too many of them. I've come to the conclusion that the book is one-third adventure story and two-thirds lecture. I would really prefer those proportions to be reversed.
"...predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist..."
A week of sweeping fogs has passed over and given me a strange sense of exile and desolation. I walk round the island nearly every day, yet I can see nothing anywhere but a mass of wet rock, a strip of surf, and then a tumult of waves.
The slaty limestone has grown black with the water that is dripping on it, and wherever I turn there is the same grey obsession twining and wreathing itself among the narrow fields, and the same wail from the wind that shrieks and whistles in the loose rubble of the walls.
At first the people do not give much attention to the wilderness that is round them, but after a few days their voices sink in the kitchen, and their endless talk of pigs and cattle falls to the whisper of men who are telling stories in a haunted house.
The rain continues; but this evening a number of young men were in the kitchen mending nets, and the bottle of poteen was drawn from its hiding-place.
One cannot think of these people drinking wine on the summit of this crumbling precipice, but their grey poteen, which brings a shock of joy to the blood, seems predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist.
I sat in the kitchen part of the evening to feel the gaiety that was rising, and when I came into my own room after dark, one of the sons came in every time the bottle made its round, to pour me out my share.
It has cleared, and the sun is shining with a luminous warmth that makes the whole island glisten with the splendor of a gem, and fills the sea and sky with a radiance of blue light.
I wasn't familiar with the word poteen, which Webster's defines as "whiskey illicitly distilled in Ireland." That makes sense. I'm sure that, despite its gray color, it was an inviting and essential part of everyday life that got many people through long stretches of chill and damp, until the sunshine returned at last.
Quote"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well." - Robert Louis Stevenson
"...fit roosting-place for their homeless selves..."In Moby-Dick, a book full of ominous premonitions, this memorable description is particularly forboding:
Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.The eerie crows - or were they sea-ravens? - perched all over the playground equipment in Hitchcock's The Birds immediately comes to mind.
Quote"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." - John Milton
Quote"Life passes into pages if it passes into anything." - James Salter (1925-2015)
"God keep me from ever completing anything."Writers, your unfinished works aren't failures. They are masterpieces, destined to be finished by future generations! From the infamous "Cetology" chapter of Moby-Dick:
But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!That chapter is regularly cited by readers as the most patience-trying, eye-rolling section of the book, but I actually enjoyed reading it this morning, particularly with the contrast between its weighty tone and and the giddyness of the red-clad Blackhawks fans who were crammed into my train for the downtown victory rally.
"I can stand it; yes, I can."
Touching scene from Chapter 22 of Moby-Dick, just as the Pequod is going out to sea. Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad are the owners of the ship, and though both are in retirement, it is clear that neither has yet gotten over the lure of the sea.
It was curious and not unpleasing, how Peleg and Bildad were affected at this juncture, especially Captain Bildad. For loath to depart, yet; very loath to leave, for good, a ship bound on so long and perilous a voyage—beyond both stormy Capes; a ship in which some thousands of his hard earned dollars were invested; a ship, in which an old shipmate sailed as captain; a man almost as old as he, once more starting to encounter all the terrors of the pitiless jaw; loath to say good-bye to a thing so every way brimful of every interest to him,—poor old Bildad lingered long; paced the deck with anxious strides; ran down into the cabin to speak another farewell word there; again came on deck, and looked to windward; looked towards the wide and endless waters, only bounded by the far-off unseen Eastern Continents; looked towards the land; looked aloft; looked right and left; looked everywhere and nowhere; and at last, mechanically coiling a rope upon its pin, convulsively grasped stout Peleg by the hand, and holding up a lantern, for a moment stood gazing heroically in his face, as much as to say, "Nevertheless, friend Peleg, I can stand it; yes, I can."
I can just see the old man's face, jaw clenched but quivering, and with a tear at the corner of his eye.
"There is no other cure for sorrow.""Next came the son of the virgin, Dionysus, bringing the counterpart to bread, wine and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
His blood, the blood of the grape, lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
When, after their daily toils, men drink their fill, sleep comes to them, bringing release from troubles.
There is no other cure for sorrow."
Euripides, from The Bacchae
Quote"Words and expressions will be forced into use, in spite of all the exertions of all the writers in the world.” - Noah Webster
"Ode on an Abandoned Shopping Mall"Move over, Keats.
O what voices haunt these most mournful ruins!Which begs the question...was Stonehenge or Machu Picchu merely the Dixie Square Mall of an ancient era? Will fossilized Cinnabons someday be cherished as prehistoric relics?
Where chained to a kiosk rudely overturn’d
Ghostly vendors still accost to ask if they might buff your nails.
And echoing o’er the cracked tile, the clunking whine of a Weazel Ball
Caged before the Kay-Bee Toys, forever tumbling.
O Weazel Ball, tumble on! Bold weasel, never canst thou clasp thy prize!
"...deliriums and death..."Summer of Classics has begun, and I'm a few chapters into Moby-Dick. Here, Ishmael describes the lowly New Bedford public house called The Spouter-Inn.
Projecting from the further angle of the room stands a dark-looking den—the bar—a rude attempt at a right whale's head. Be that how it may, there stands the vast arched bone of the whale's jaw, so wide, a coach might almost drive beneath it. Within are shabby shelves, ranged round with old decanters, bottles, flasks; and in those jaws of swift destruction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him), bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death.I'm enjoying the book so far, but Melville's tendency to meander is already apparent. (That first chapter, which argues at considerable length that every human being is innately drawn to the sea, was already a bit trying.) But I already know the book will be full of digressions and tangents, and since I'm giving myself the entire summer to read it, I'm just going to take it easy and slow and enjoy Melville's flights of fancy. At least he was a skilled enough writer to make the digressions entertaining to read.
Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without—within, the villanous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom. Parallel meridians rudely pecked into the glass, surround these footpads' goblets. Fill to this mark, and your charge is but a penny; to this a penny more; and so on to the full glass—the Cape Horn measure, which you may gulp down for a shilling.
Quote"I expect some of the substance of these volumes has remained somewhere in my mind, corrupted by haphazard associations I cannot trace and misunderstandings that occurred at the time of reading. Yet I will not count the hours spent with them as lost." - Fred Chappell
Quote“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.” - Christopher Morley
Summer of Classics, a/k/a Summer of MelvilleThis year I'm devoting my annual Summer of Classics to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Though I've long been put off by the novel's bulk and legendary digressions, it really can't be any more daunting than reading the complete Studs Lonigan trilogy last summer. Though I'm a notoriously slow reader, I can't imagine the novel will consume a full three months, so I expect to fill out any remainder of the summer with Benito Cereno, yet another re-reading of Bartleby the Scrivener and/or several of Melville's public domain works that I've found on Project Gutenberg. I'm finishing up another novel right now, but will commence once that's done and after I've procured a decent used copy of Moby.
Hear, hear!Why we need a biography of Kent Haruf.
But no is an interesting story, one that doesn’t get told often enough. Writers’ lives are filled with failure and rejection, and not just because editors are blind to their genius. For every Great Gatsby that gets tossed back on the slush pile, there are thousands of manuscripts rejected because they simply aren’t that good. And when a writer faces that rejection, not just once, but for decades, and finds the combination of humility and confidence to keep working on his craft, keep believing he was meant to be a writer - that’s a story we all could learn something from.I'm eagerly (and wistfully) looking forward to Haruf's final novel, Our Souls at Night - but not until it's out in paperback. I have all of his novels in paperback (ever since I found Plainsong on the book swap shelf at a Starbucks), and it wouldn't seem right reading this one in anything but.
Herman WoukVery cool: Herman Wouk to publish first memoir aged 100. What a radical concept in this excessively confessional age: a writer who thoroughly experiences and writes about the world before finally turning the focus on himself. Quite a contrast to the rash of youngish serial memoirists out there.
Quote“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” - William Zinsser
"...noise or wine or sex or gluttony..."In Black Like Me (1960), the white writer John Howard Griffin disguises himself as an African-American in order to experience, firsthand, that other side of society. After starting in New Orleans, he moves on to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is simmering with imminent racial unrest after a white jury refused to indict members of a mob suspected of lynching Mack Charles Parker. Here, he reflects on African-Americans' seeming ability to remain joyous in the face of injustice and deprivation.
The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even that of the heartbeat. I wondered how all of this would look to the casual observer, or to the whites in their homes. "The n***ers are whooping it up over on Mobile Street tonight," they might say. "They're happy." Or, as one scholar put it, "Despite their lowly status, they are capable of living jubilantly." Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured forth like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder, to cover the whisper in every man's soul, "You are black. You are condemned." That is what the white man mistook for "jubilant living" and called "whooping it up." This is how the white man can say, "They live like dogs," never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness. Otherwise, the sounds of the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails.Or, as the old blues lyric goes, "I'm laughing just to keep from crying." Powerful book, one that I'm really enjoying.
"I like that devilish thing in children."William Trevor, from a 1989 interview with The Paris Review:
My skill in art and English made me impatient, and I found those subjects rather dreary to teach as a result. “Why are the art room walls covered with pictures of such ugly women?” a headmaster asked me once. “And why have some of them got those horrible cigarette butts hanging out of their nostrils?” I explained that I had asked the children to paint the ugliest woman they could think of. Unfortunately, almost all of them had looked no further than the headmaster’s wife. I like that devilish thing in children.Trevor (one of my favorite writers) must have been a marvelous teacher, though at least one headmaster's wife would surely disagree.
Genius.Radical publisher Richard Carlile was once brought to trial in England on charges of blasphemy and seditious libel for publishing Thomas Paine's writings, which were banned by the authorities. His response?
At his trial Carlile argued that the jury could only judge whether Paine’s work was seditious and blasphemous if they heard it for themselves, and splendidly read out the whole of Paine’s The Age of Reason, an attack on institutionalised religion and church corruption. This was a sneaky ploy to get the book into the public domain: verbatim trial proceedings could legally be published. It later sold 10,000 two-penny copies.Despite its official suppression, The Age of Reason became one of history's seminal texts. Thank goodness for rational, forward-thinking people like Carlile.
Quote"I believe the most interesting human beings, so far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender. The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” - Joseph Mitchell
"...throw it to hell and gone..."Harry Mark Petrakis' "The Passing of the Ice" tells the story of Mike, one of the last icemen who once delivered big blocks of ice to businesses and homes every day before the trade finally ended with the rise of commercial refrigeration. Mike's world is slowly vanishing, which he grimly acknowledges.
"Sometimes," Mike said, and there was a fierce edge to his voice, "I want to drag out that ice and cut it down and throw it as far as I can, throw it to hell and gone. I want to empty the big house once of every last block and scatter every last damn chunk over the hill. Make the fat man sit up. Make everyone understand that after forty years an iceman don't just lay down his pick and tongs with a goddam whimper."Mike's vow is poigantly echoed in the final scene of the story, which I won't spoil here. I've always been fascinated by industries that are in their dying days, and have long been aware that Petrakis wrote a novel about Chicago icemen, Twilight of the Ice, which was published in 2003. After reading this story (first published in 1962) and a summary of the novel, it's clear that Petrakis expanded the kernel of the story into the later novel, which I'm now very eager to read. Now if I can just readily find it.
Greatest ever Chicago book?Chicago Reader names the winner of The Greatest Ever Chicago Book Tournament, which is...um, a book which focuses on three individuals, only one of which has anything to do with Chicago. And as much as I loved the runner-up, Studs Terkel's Working, I've never thought of it having a particular focus on Chicago. Apparently I greatly differ with the judges on what, exactly, a Chicago book is. Of the books in the tournament, my top two choices would have been Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make; and only recently have I realized, and been baffled by, the tournament's complete omission of Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, which just might be the greatest Chicago book of all.
"Tonight and all the other nights."In Harry Mark Petrakis' story "End of Winter", Wally - married, with two kids and third on the way - has been cheating on his wife, Della. And, as anyone who has watched Mad Men or any other domestic drama of the past forty years will not be surprised to hear, he finally gets caught.
"There was no meeting tonight," she said. "Lawrence called for you. And then I thought of all the other meetings late at night that you have attended the last few months. All the other things that suddenly fall into place. Then I knew it was a girl."I like what Petrakis does here with verb tenses. Della first says "it was a girl", as if hopeful the affair is in the past, or soon will be. But instead of confirming her suspicion by repeating her verbatim, Wally says "there is a girl", as if he's not quite ready to put the affair behind him. Then, after seeing her strong reaction, he downplays the significance of the affair, switching from is to was, and saying that the affair didn't mean that much to him - past tense, insisting that it's now behind him. But when she repeats him, she changes the verb to present tense. She's saying that although the affair might be over (but not necessarily over, I think - Wally seems to have enjoyed it too much for that) she will never forget or forgive his unfaithfulness. It seems highly likely their relationship will never be the same. Very subtle, and very well done.
Her face was naked and her flesh tight across her cheeks.
"Yes," I said. "Tonight and all the other nights. Yes, there is a girl."
She must have expected me to say that, but still her face loosened as if the bone beneath the skin had suddenly broken. I was sorry I had not lied, that for a little while I had not indulged all the heated denials.
"Do you want a divorce?" she asked.
"Del," I said. "It was just a girl. I don't want a divorce. It didn't mean that much to me."
"It means that much to me," she said.
Quote"It’s a very, very grim play. Nevertheless, it’s a play that is full of extraordinary, touching scenes of real love and real devotion of Cordelia to him and him to Cordelia that don’t redeem the action on the stage, but do something to elevate the spectator or the reader in a way that I find very moving.
That’s what good literature can do. It doesn’t evade any of the terrible things in life. It faces them and faces them squarely, but puts them in a context in which they have a richer meaning than they would as simply raw, descriptive facts."
- Anthony Hecht, on King Lear
Bukowski, via WaitsI haven't read much Charles Bukowski (though I did include a reference to the poet in Wheatyard), but after hearing Tom Waits' beautiful reading of "Nirvana" (on the third disc of his album Orphans), I finally tracked the poem down, and really like it. Here's a taste:
And the young man watched the snow through the window.
And he wanted to stay in that café forever.
The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.
And it would always stay beautiful there.
I can just see this entire narrative, playing out in my mind.