"There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Writers know that. I have never met a writer who does not crave to be alone. We have to be alone to do what we do."
- Mary Ruefle
"...of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods..."From William Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
I can totally see that hermit.
Doing the work
This week I found myself inspired by the following quote from Ted Thompson:
I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered.
A few days ago, I woke up an hour before the alarm, but instead of resting awake in bed, I got up, went to the kitchen and did edits on a story draft ("The Golden State") that I wrote earlier this summer but had since ignored. Thompson's comment was running through my head as I got up and did the work, and I'm glad I did. Because I do think this story, and my writing in general, matters.
(Via Matt Bell.)
Quote“The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover.” - Wallace Stevens
"I want to put out stuff that’ll be around in 500 years."
The self-publishing industry has no incentive to police itself, because people are paying them up front for editing, promotion and other services. And if you’re paid up front, you have no stake in the future success of a book—you want to do as little as you can do to justify the fees you’ve charged. And that’s one thing the traditional publishing industry DID get right—if an agent only gets paid when you get a deal, and they get a percentage of that deal, they want to get you the best deal possible, and they want you to get more deals, because they have a stake in your success.
I like the ethos encapsulated by the quotation in the title line above - putting out great and enduring books, but not necessarily what sells. Jerry sounds like my kind of people, and I strongly suspect he'll be getting a query from me soon.
"...the tang and sorrow and joy of a people..."
From James T. Farrell's Young Lonigan (the first volume of the Studs Lonigan triology):
The July night leaked heat all over Fifty-eighth Steet, and the fitful death of the sun shed softening colors that spread gauze-like and glamorous over the street, stilling those harshnesses and commercial uglinesses that were emphasized by the brighter revelations of day. About the street there seemed to be a supervening beauty of reflected life. The dust, the scraps of paper, the piled-up store windows, the first electric lights sizzling into brightness. Sammie Schmaltz, the paper man, yelling his final box-score editions, a boy's broken hoop left forgotten against the elevated girder, the people hurrying out of the elevated station and others walking lazily about, all bespoke the life of the community, the tang and sorrow and joy of a people that lived, worked, suffered, procreated, aspired, filled out their little days, and died.
And the flower of this community, its young men, were grouped about the pool room, choking the few squares of sidewalk outside it.
The flower of the community...doing nothing more than loitering outside of a pool room. As Algren might have said, some flower.
"...still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism..."
George Bernard Shaw was once invited to pre-order a copy of James Joyce's then-forthcoming novel, Ulysses. He declined, making this marvelous reply.
To you possibly it may appeal as art...but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it...
Praising the author, while damning the subject matter. Well done, GBS.
Atwood on feminism
At Goodreads, Margaret Atwood answers the question, "Do you consider yourself a feminist?"
I never say I'm an "ist" of any kind unless I know how the other person is defining it (Am I against lipstick, etc.) but in general: I believe women are full human beings (radical, I realize). And that laws should reflect this. However, men and women are not "equal" if "equal" means "exactly the same." Our many puzzlements and indeed unhappinesses come from trying to figure out what the differences really mean, or should mean, or should not mean.
Wise response, that.
"And the lull of the Stevenson, beckoning you to stilted dreams at night."
I really like this poem by Susan Hogan, "The Ballroom Artists' Commune", published at Anthology of Chicago. Further digging reveals that this place, the Archer Ballroom, actually exists in the Bridgeport neighborhood, as a residential artists' colony (I resist the loaded term "commune") and performance space. The "Stevenson" referenced above is the expressway that runs directly behind the building, undoubtedly making the building much more affordable for artists and resistant to yuppie gentrification.
I'm intrigued by the concept of a colony like this; just the idea of all of that creative energy bouncing around, along with the colorful but inevitably hardscrabble existence. But I'm fully aware that such a place would never have worked for me, even during my younger days. (I'm a loner, and didn't even have a roommate when I went back to grad school during my mid-twenties.) I would gladly settle for merely writing fiction set in a place like Archer Ballroom, rather than actually living it.
"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan
"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago
"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.)
"...the free open ways..."
As I wind down my reading of Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems, here's one last, lovely excerpt.
She sits in the dust at the walls
And makes cigars,
Bending at the bench
With fingers wage-anxious,
Changing her sweat for the day's pay.
Now the noon hour has come,
And she leans with her bare arms
On the window-sill over the river,
Leans and feels at her throat
Cool-moving things out of the free open ways:
At her throat and eyes and nostrils
The touch and the blowing cool
Of great free ways beyond the walls.
Really wonderful poetry. I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, and will be on the lookout for more of his collections, especially Cornhuskers, which includes a poem about Joliet!
"Bring me only beautiful useless things."
Here's another dose of Carl Sandburg, from the "War Poems (1914-1915)" section of Chicago Poems:
MURMURINGS IN A FIELD HOSPITAL
[They picked him up in the grass where he had lain two
days in the rain with a piece of shrapnel in his lungs.]
Come to me only with playthings now...
A picture of a singing woman with blue eyes
Standing at a fence of hollyhocks, poppies and sunflowers...
Or an old man I remember sitting with children telling stories
Of days that never happened anywhere in the world...
No more iron cold and real to handle,
Shaped for a drive straight ahead.
Bring me only beautiful useless things.
Only old home things touched at sunset in the quiet...
And at the window one day in summer
Yellow of the new crock of butter
Stood against the red of new climbing roses...
And the world was all playthings.
"I’m a deeply flawed human who is constantly trying to evolve and make my way through life."My writer friend Ryan Bradley has a thoughtful interview up at Fictonaut.
People wouldn’t still be reading books if they didn’t enjoy them. And like it or not that base enjoyment isn’t a product of some deep analysis or high-minded relationship with humanity and the universe. No, it’s much more primal. Enjoying something that has “artistic merit” doesn’t make it any less a form of entertainment, it just means you’re attracted to different aesthetics than the people you think have “low-brow” tastes. We’re all seeking entertainment.Sounds like he struggles with the same highs and lows about the worth of his writing that I do.
"...throw their laughter into toil."I'm finally diving headlong into Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems (1916), which I've owned for about ten years but have only dabbled in until now. I love his lean but muscular "Subway":
Down between the walls of shadowI can already sense some short fiction (or at least the weekly exercises I've been doing this year) arising from Sandburg's poetry, and from this poem in particular. Terrific stuff.
Where the iron laws insist,
The hunger voices mock.
The worn wayfaring men
With the hunched and humble shoulders,
Throw their laughter into toil.
"Literature is not the same thing as publishing. Publishing is ever-nostalgic for a mythic golden age, one that existed before the so-called death of print, the Amazon factor, the rise of self-publishing, and the supposed decline of reading. Literature, as it is read and written, is indifferent." - Chris Fischbach
Summer of Classics: Studs Lonigan
Reading Nelson Algren's personal remembrances of his South Side Chicago childhood (in Who Lost an American?) this morning has helped me decide on this year's Summer of Classics reading: James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy. The books are generally considered to be among the best Chicago fiction ever written, and though I've owned the Library of America three-in-one edition for about ten years (a self-requested Christmas gift), I've only read the first volume, Young Lonigan. I really enjoyed that book, though I remember few of the details now, so I'm going to start over and read the entire trilogy. As a proud Chicagoan and literature fiend, I'm somewhat embarrassed to have not read all of Lonigan yet.
Though you might think that reading just 1000+ pages over an entire summer is a rather unambitious goal for me, pretty soon I'm going to have drive to the suburbs for work every day, and will lose my prime reading time on the train. So a thousand pages might be even more than I'll accomplish. If I manage to finish Lonigan before the end of August, I'll close out the summer with George Ade's Artie, another once-acclaimed but now mostly-forgotten Chicago novel.
I've been published by Akashic!
"...each drop of rain is a drop of regret..."
Like most of Nelson Algren's nonfiction, Who Lost an American? is almost compulsively quotable. Here's some untitled verse from the piece "Paris: They're Hiding the Ham on the Pinball King, or Some Came Stumbling":
I saw the girl with the black coiffure
Against a wall of the Rue Tiquetonne
Turning a parasol under her arm
And how the grass between the stone
Grows a brighter green on the Rue Tiquetonne,
For she stood less tall than the piled crates
When the clocks of St. Denis cried each to each -
A light rain (she told me)
Brings men to a room
A hard one keeps them home.
She did not say each drop of rain
Is a drop of regret on the Rue Tiquetonne.
For, buyer of peaches or buyer of flesh
You pay up your money and spit out the pit.
Peaches and girls both grow a light down
You don't touch either one without money down
What you don't have in money you can save in regret -
Maybe peaches are better. You can spit out the stone.
Seller of peaches or seller of flesh
Wish each other in Hell, then cheat on the weight.
The stair smells of soap and wine and old leather
That men climb to feel their deaths with pleasure -
Death costing little in such weather.
Algren's dubious libations
I'm finally cracking open Nelson Algren's 1963 collection Who Lost An American?, which I picked up a few years ago in a first edition. In the leadoff piece, "New York: Rapietta Greensponge, Girl Counselor, Comes to My Aid", he includes a description of his preparations for a party he is hosting for New York literary society, on the eve of his departure on an overseas voyage.
If all that was needed for a successful Bon Voyage party was one clever move, I'd already made it by buying a gallon of sauterne for $2.98, putting under the soda recharger until it fizzed, and then pouring it into bottles labeled "Mumm's." Because if there was one thing I wanted my New York friends to have, it was the aura of success. I didn't wish them success itself - in fact, I longed passionately for the total ruin of them one by one - but I did want to arrange some sort of aura for them.
"How does a hack like that manage to serve champagne at all hours?" my New York friends often marvel. My Chicago friends don't bother with that. They just say, "Where'd you get that cheap wine?" and toss the remains of their drink in the sink. So much for bobsledding at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
My next move was to snip whiskey ads of Scotsmen playing bagpipes and glue them onto old root-beer bottles, into which I poured the contents of a curious brew distilled on Amsterdam Avenue to which nobody has yet given a name, probably because it has to be got down without fooling around or it won't go down at all. Labeling these "The Best Scotch Procurable" would, I hoped, raise the fascinating issue of where one might purchase the best scotch that is unprocurable; thus providing even inarticulate guests with a topic of conversation.
Actually, although this piece is ostensibly nonfiction, I'm not sure how to accurately characterize it; though it includes caricatures of actual people (particularly Norman Mailer and James Baldwin) it is clearly fiction invented by Algren. Or I hope it's invented, at least for the sake of Mailer and Baldwin, whom Algren skewers relentlessly (and hilariously) here.
"...she could not make them loud enough..."
"The nights were always the worst, when it was darkest and quietest. She couldn't play the piano because of the neighbors, and all she had were her memories. No matter what she did, she could not make them loud enough in her mind. To fill the dark. She hated that they were so soft, pastel chalks, interrupted by car horns, intestinal distress, her own inexplicable sadness."
- Jen Michalski, May-September (collected in Could You Be With Her Now: Two Novellas)
Quote"Dreiser's great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman."
- Sinclair Lewis
Powell's reading, this Wednesday!
I'm doing a reading this Wednesday (7 p.m.) at Powell's University Village (1218 S. Halsted in Chicago, adjacent to UIC) with my good friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson, along with several other writers. I'll be reading a story from my still-unpublished Chicago collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. Come one, come all!
Quote"There is indeed more significant terror of a kind in (Sinclair) Lewis's novels than in a writer like Faulkner or the hard-boiled novelists, for it is the terror imminent in the commonplace, the terror that arises out of the repression, the meanness, the hard jokes of the world Lewis had soaked into his pores."
- Alfred Kazin
Quote"I am a person before I am anything else. I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist...I am a person who does those things."
- Edward Gorey
Ben Tanzer, Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again
I'm starting to think that if fiction writers really want to leave some sort of legacy, to let future readers know their true selves, they should publish at least one work of nonfiction. With fiction, even though a writer weaves a little bit of themselves into most of their characters, the writer still sort of hides behind the characters. In other words, the reader never quite knows how much of a character echoes the writer's personality and experience, and how much is totally invented.
Since I'm incredibly fortunate to know Ben Tanzer as well as I do, when reading his fiction I can usually spot the various aspects of the narrative that reflect his real life. But for those not as fortunate, it's harder to tell what's real and what's invented. Which is why, if you want to know the real Ben Tanzer without actually meeting him, you should absolutely read his latest book, the excellent essay collection Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again.
In this book, Ben bares his soul over the alternately wonderful and terrifying experience of parenting. Through a succession of lively, entertaining and often very funny anecdotes and commentary, he describes the exhilaration, satisfaction, frustration, anxiety and confusion of being a parent: giving your kids guidance and protection while not stifling their individuality; exposing them to the real world while sheltering them from its scarier elements; holding onto them tightly and cherishing them while being able to let them go and live their own lives. And while he revels in seeing his oldest son do his first running event (Ben is an avid, borderline-obsessive runner), or savoring something as simple as the way his kids smell, he also doesn't shy away from describing the anger that a frazzled parent inevitably confronts. Parenthood is far from a perfect experience, and Ben openly and unflinchingly shares both the good and the bad. Anyone who has raised children will find much here to empathize with and enjoy.
This is Ben's best book so far, partly because it's such a thoroughly entertaining read, but mostly because it is such a true expression of his life. Extremely well done. Highest recommendation.
I really enjoyed reading "The Afternoon Party" at the Goreyesque reading last night, but even more I enjoyed hearing the other readers, especially Danielle Wilcox with "Little Sister" (with a wonderfully unexpected narrator) and the incomparable Joe Meno with "The Use of Medicine", a vivid story (from his first story collection Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and written in direct tribute to Edward Gorey) which perfectly captures the adventurous curiosity, innocence and sadness of childhood.
Afterward I reintroduced myself to Meno, and thanked him for being an ongoing influence and inspiration. I took a writing seminar from him years ago, before I had even published my first story, and his positive response to my work (specifically my novice novel, Eden) really helped me believed that yes, I was indeed a writer.
My sincere thanks to Todd Summar and the rest of the Goreyesque crew for letting me be part of this.
"Goreyesque: A Tribute to Edward Gorey"
I'm very pleased to announce that I will be reading at "Goreyesque: A Tribute to Edward Gorey", next Tuesday (April 29) at Loyola University Museum of Art, along with Joe Meno, Sam Weller and several other local writers. LUMA is hosting a traveling exhibition of Gorey's works, and the reading event should be a fine tribute to the great artist and his influence on younger writers. The event runs from 6 to 8 p.m., which the first half devoted to readings and the second half to viewing the exhibition; the entire event is free. I'll be reading my Goreyesque piece "The Afternoon Party" which, at just 26 words, might just be the briefest public reading in recorded history. I might have to deliver it with ponderous, deliberate gravity (I'm thinking of some sort of James Earl Jones/Orson Welles hybrid) just to stretch it out to a full minute.
"...to be lost in something so different than the life we know..."
In "The Unexamined Life", my great friend Ben Tanzer recounts his solo trip to Italy, shortly before becoming a father for the first time.
I eventually resurface to cut through an alley I believe will lead me to Trevi Fountain. It is so dark, quiet, and not crowded, however, that I question whether the previous moments were real or just the longings of a lonely traveler.
But then there is light.
I turn a corner and before me is an explosion of bearded, muscle-bound statues astride waves of all sizes and surrounded by columns and sea monsters that spring forth from every possible direction. I have stumbled onto Trevi Fountain and it is larger than life.
I sit before it, and I try to take it all in, bathed in the streetlights and the drizzle, and lost in its sheer audacity. It's magical really, and as I sit there soaking it all up I am reminded once again of why we travel in the first place, to be lost in something so different than the life we know, as if we have entered another world completely. I feel as if I could leave Rome that night if I had to, satisfied and complete...
The essay is from Ben's latest book, the nonfiction collection Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again. Though I just got the book on Friday and had a busy weekend, I'm already halfway through it, and really enjoying it. Some of his strongest writing yet, I think.
Congrats to my friend Christine Sneed, whose novel Little Known Facts has won the 2014 Adult Fiction award from the Society of Midland Authors. Christine has been a mentor and supporter of my writing for a long time now, and she's a vital member of the Chicago literary community. This honor is well deserved, and I heartily salute it, even though it means Wheatyard (which I entered in the competition) has fallen short. Oh, well!
"...she had traded the anger of what should have been..."
In Laila Lalami's Secret Son, the teenaged protagonist Youssef has just discovered that his father, whom his mother has always said had died during Youssef's infancy, is alive, well and wealthy, unlike Youssef and his mother, who live in poverty in a Casablanca slum:
Always, and especially on days like this, he thought of what could have been. If he had grown up in a normal family, with a father, would he and his mother be struggling so much? The question usually made him feel melancholy, but now that he knew his father had been alive all along, he felt angry and bitter instead. Why should he and his mother be struggling so much? Perhaps that was why his mother had lied to him all these years: she had traded the anger of what should have been and given him instead the sadness of what could have been.
I like that dichotomy between anger/should and sadness/could. I had never quite thought about it that way.
This year's Irish March reading was pretty underwhelming. First off, I forgot all about it until halfway through the month (I was absorbed in my latest Structured Reading), and by the time I started all I could cobble together was William Trevor's The Boarding-House and some of Jonathan Swift's lesser-known satirical works. Though I loved The Boarding-House, and Trevor is one of Ireland's greatest writers, the story wasn't Irish at all, instead revolving around the oh-so-English residents of a rundown London boarding house. Then it was on to Swift, but after reading the brilliant and concise A Modest Proposal, I soon learned that A Tale of a Tub wasn't a story at all, but instead a very long and abstract essay. As I struggled to read the arcane prose, my eyes glazed over repeatedly (it was nothing at all like the imaginative and often fun storytelling of Gulliver's Travels) and I knew that even if I finished the piece it would be a long and unsatisfying slog. So with March ending yesterday, I abruptly ended Irish March as well. Next year I hope to be much better prepared.
"...looking around for somebody to cling to, and look after..."
Strong passage from William Maxwell's short story "Haller's Second Home" (collected in All the Days and Nights):
He didn't really mind being continually pushed and shoved, herded from place to place, and sworn at. After all, it was the Army. It was not a school picnic. What he couldn't stand, as the day wore on, was the misery that he saw everywhere he looked. A great many of the men were younger than he was, and they became so worn out finally that they lost all hope and leaned against the wall in twos and threes, with the tears streaming down their faces. Eventually, he worked himself into such a fury that he began to shake all over, and a tough Irish sergeant came up to him and put both arms around him and said, "Wait a minute, buddy. You're all right. Take it easy, why don't you?" in the kindest voice Francis had ever heard in his life.
But the strangest thing was the continual pairing off, all day long - on the train, at the induction center, at camp, where, long after midnight, you found yourself still instinctively looking around for somebody to cling to, and look after. Somebody you'd never laid eyes on before that day became, for two hours, closer than any friend you'd ever had. When you were separated, your whole concern was for him - for what might be happening to him. While you had one person to look after, among the crowd, you were not totally lost yourself. When the two of you were separated for good, you looked around and there was someone in obvious desperation, and so the whole thing happened all over again.
Maxwell continually shifts the perspective in these stories, from one character to the next, which sometimes prevents the story from fully connecting with me. But when he narrows the focus, like this short passage with Francis Whitehead, the result is impeccable and totally resonant.
Stuctured Reading: African-American Classics
My latest Structured Reading (Richard Wright's memoir Black Boy, James Baldwin's essay collection Notes of a Native Son and Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) is easily the most rewarding and meaningful one I've had yet, because the three books and especially the writers are so tightly connected. Of the latter, it's particularly telling to note that Baldwin disliked Wright's landmark novel Native Son, and Wright openly disdained Their Eyes Were Watching God. And it's probably safe to say that Hurston had few kind words for Wright.
Black Boy is Wright's vivid account of his childhood and teenaged years in the American South during the 1910s and 1920s, before he finally departed for the relative freedom of Chicago in 1927. For me, the biggest shock here isn't the racism (both virulent and subtle) that Wright faced every day of his younger life - such an experience surely was common amongst African-Americans in that place and time - but the fact that Wright ever became a writer at all. His family clearly placed little value on education, and Wright seems to have had no encouragement as either a reader or writer (other than one white person in Memphis who lent him his library card; blacks weren't allowed to check books out of the public library at the time). Reading Wright's long litany of racial insults and predicaments, it's easy to see where the relentless anger that stoked Native Son and Wright's other works came from.
James Baldwin seems to have had a somewhat more advantaged upbringing; though while growing up he was likely as poor as Wright (and lived in a similarly oppressive household), the Harlem of his childhood and its fledgling black middle class likely sheltered him to some degree from the blatant racism that Wright faced. In contrast to Wright's gritty and vivid memoir, the essays in Notes of a Native Son (other than the stellar title piece, about his father's death) have a detached, intellectual tone in which Baldwin discusses race in such vague, abstract terms that the impact of his message is severely blunted. Most tellingly, while Baldwin obviously disliked Wright's Native Son, his meandering piece "Many Thousands Gone" never really explicitly explains why. Baldwin was a passionate observer who had plenty to say about society, but his failure to be specific kept his message from fully coming across.
The best of the three books, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a stirring, triumphant novel that tells the story of Janie, an African-American woman in rural Florida during the 1920s. Janie endures two suffocating marriages before meeting Tea Cake, an exuberant vagabond who proves to be her soulmate, and who exposes her to a joyous, carefree life that was probably as liberated as a woman like her could have experienced. Her story is far from idealistic - her life is nowhere near perfect, not even while with Tea Cake - but as she slowly realizes the possibilities of life, which she dreamed of from an early age yet never quite believed she would be able to experience herself, the reader is drawn along in the wake of her quiet triumph.
Yet despite the considerable power of Hurston's novel, Wright dismissed it, saying "The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought." Wright didn't think the book was symbolic or political enough, which to me is the book's strength: it's a personal story that delivers its message through characterization and story, while Wright openly believed that a fiction writer should begin with an overriding sociopolitical theme and tell a story that delivers that theme, even if the characters end up being two-dimensional symbols. I was greatly disppointed by Native Son when I re-read it a few years ago, partly for its implausibility (Wright never let inconvenient plot details get in the way of his big theme) but mostly because I never felt like Bigger Thomas was a genuine, flesh-and-blood human being, but was instead a mere symbol through which Wright projected his political beliefs. In contrast, Hurston's Janie felt totally real, flawed but vibrantly alive. And I dispute Wright's claim that Their Eyes Were Watching God had no message or theme; though the novel wasn't a discursive, ideological discussion of the African-American's role in society (which Wright was so fond of), it said plenty about female liberation and potential while also telling a compelling, touching story of a memorable life.
"...the pristine glory of this wallpaper..."
In The Boarding-House, William Trevor marvelously describes the monochromatic and faded interior of the titular dwelling, through the eyes of one of its boarders.
A brown wallpaper covered the wall by the staircase. The pattern it bore was one of large oval leaves that once had been depicted in a more subtle variety of shades: purples and dark greens, reds and russets. It was a late-night habit of Mr. Studdy's to lift one of the three Watts reproductions and display for his personal pleasure the pristine glory of this wallpaper, and to make to himself the point about the effect of light on cheaply reproduced color. "A scandal," opined Mr. Studdy more than once, nodding sagely.
After just one chapter I've already been introduced to most of the boarders and staff of the house, all of whom seem appealingly idiosyncratic and/or neurotic. I'm looking forward to immersing myself in their strange little world.
A late start for Irish March
It wasn't until this past weekend that I suddenly realized I had forgotten all about my annual Irish March reading. I was so absorbed in my latest Structured Reading series (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston) that I let half the month slip away without delving into anything by Irish writers. My shelves at home are fairly skimpy in terms of unread Irish works (Eugene O'Neill was of Irish ancestry but American by birth, and Long Day's Journey Into Night is set in Connecticut; Frank McCourt's 'Tis is mostly set in New York City), so unless I find something good at a used book store soon, this year's Irish March will involve William Trevor's early novel The Boarding House, and the lesser-read works of Jonathan Swift (The Tale of a Tub, "A Modest Proposal", etc.) that are included in the edition of Gulliver's Travels that I've owned since high school.
"Stand in for Shane."
Nigel Bird, from his short story "Dirty Old Town":
It was like my birthday in reverse. They gave plenty and I ended up with less than I started with. For the time being, I’d lost the sight of one eye, one front tooth and a button from my favourite jacket. I didn’t mind - it was about time I got myself a few new clothes and the missing tooth just made me look interesting.
I reckon I’d make the perfect front man for the Popes should Shane MacGowan pop his clogs. We’ve been laying bets on him dying before Christmas every year since ’86, and we’re still losing money. I could do it. Stand in for Shane. I know all of the songs and can’t hold a tune. What more could they possibly want?
This passage gave me a good laugh this morning, especially after having listened to the Pogues yesterday on St. Patrick's Day. Nigel is a fellow Kuboa author (this story is from his debut collection, also called Dirty Old Town) and I've had the collection on my phone since last year, but hadn't read it yet. I forgot my regular book at home today and wanted to read something on the train that was more substantial than surfing the Internet, and I came across Nigel's book in my library. Good reading so far.
"Anybody that didn't know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the silence was the sleep of swords." - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Wolf in White Van
Yes, another John Darnielle post...Darnielle's lyrics have always been very literary, and several years ago he published his first work of fiction, a novella for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (which I have not yet read, but intend to grab the first time I see it in person). Now he's about to further solidify his writer credentials with his debut novel Wolf in White Van, which is coming out in October. Really, really looking forward to this.
"What greater cumulative toll the small irritations of life take than its major woes; if instead of the thousand perennial gnats a man could pay in one good snakebite."
- Peter De Vries
"...dressed for a walk in the country..."
I've just started to wade into William Maxwell's short story compendium, All the Days and Nights. I really admire this incisive yet almost offhand description, from "Over By the River", of the apartment building doormen of Manhattan's posh Upper West Side.
Doormen smoking a pipe and dressed for a walk in the country came to work after a long subway ride and disappeared into the service entrances. When they reappeared, by way of the front elevator, they had put on with their uniforms a false amiability and were prepared for eight solid hours to make conversation about the weather.
In just two sentences Maxwell presents two solid visual images (doormen in their informal and formal selves), the sacrifice they endure and implied economic disparity between themselves and their employer (long subway ride), and the false, empty drudgery of their jobs (chatting with tenants about the weather). Well done.
Reading in Public: Chicago, 1964
It's been a long time since I updated my "Reading in Public" series (almost a year and a half now) so when this wonderful photograph came up on Calumet 421, I just had to add it. The photo was taken by Jay King on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in 1964. Not only is this gentleman reading in public, but he's so engrossed by the book that not even walking can distract him; based on the posture of the couple behind him, it appears that he's standing on a corner, probably waiting for the walk light. I certainly hope he looked both ways before returning to his reading. And I wish I could tell which book this was.
"The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight."
- James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone"
"...a raging demon, slashing with his pen..."
In Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts how astounded he was, at seventeen years old, to first read H.L. Mencken.
I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words...Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them for a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
Wright was able to read Mencken’s books only by stealth, as the Memphis public library of the 1920s didn’t check out books to black people. But reading Mencken’s literary criticism stokes a sudden passion in Wright to read the fiction of the previously unknown authors cited by Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in particular, and so he manages to check out more books from the library. He tears through the books and develops, if not quite empathy, then an awareness that struggle and inequality are not confined to African-Americans, and that progress and equality could be fought for with the weapon of words.
It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books - written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lewis - seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.
It’s interesting to note that the fiction writers revered by the young Wright were all Midwesterners, covering a broad swath from Minnesota to Ohio, while Wright dreams of leaving the racist repression of the South for the (relative) freedom and opportunity of the North, specifically Chicago. Although most of the characters of those novels were white, Wright seemed inspired by the lives they lived in the North, even though those lives themselves were often limited and inhibited. To Wright, even the constrained lives of Carrie Meeber and the common folk of Winesburg must have seemed preferable to what he faced in the South, and prodded him toward Chicago and its greater possibilities.
Black Boy is a lively and often gripping account of Wright's young life, which has given me a better understanding of the obvious rage that permeates the pages of his landmark novel Native Son. No author writes in a creative vacuum; everything they create is flavored by their past life experiences, and Wright is a clear example of that. The first installment of my latest Structured Reading effort is now complete, and I'm moving on to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son.
The imaginary libraries of Old London
This is wonderful: British artist Adam Dant has created a series of illustrations that fancifully imagine old London as being full of arcane libraries. The illustration above is his "The Subterranean Bovine Archive," followed by a current photograph of the same street. (Note that the building on the left is identical in both the illustration and photo. The implication is that the newer buildings on the right in the photo were built on the site of the Archive.) More pairings are on display at Spitalfields Life, from Dant's new book, Bibliopolis: Imaginary Libraries in the City of London. The spirit of these illustrations, and especially the quirky names of the libraries, remind me of Ben Katchor's not-quite-New York City; "Library on a Pole" could easily have come, in more modernized form, straight from Katchor's pen.
"This story will put your name before our readers."
Richard Wright published his first story in a black Mississippi newspaper, when he was fifteen years old. Here, in his memoir Black Boy, Wright relates the pivotal exchange between himself and the paper's editor.
"Where's my story?" I asked.
"It's in galleys," he said.
"What's that?" I asked; I did not know what galleys were.
"It's set up in type," he said. "We're publishing it."
"How much money will I get?" I asked, excited.
"We can't pay for manuscript," he said.
"But you sell your papers for money," I said with logic.
"Yes, but we're young in business," he explained.
"But you're asking me to give you my story, but you don't give your papers away," I said.
"Look, you're just starting. This story will put your name before our readers. Now, that's something," he said.
"But if the story is good enough to sell to your readers, then you ought to give me some of the money you get from it," I insisted.
He laughed again and I sensed that I was amusing him.
"I'm going to offer you something more valuable than money," he said. "I'll give you the chance to learn to write."
I like that "I said with logic." He may have been logical, but naively unrealistic. This happened in 1923, so apparently the "we're not paying you but doing you a huge favor" concept is nothing new. Presumably that editor wasn't working for free, yet he expected his writers to do so.
"...wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!"
This is so cool: Shetland poet Jim Mainland's translations of poems of Les Murray, John Milton and Miroslav Holub into Shetland dialect, as well as one of his own poems. This is a portion of the Murray poem:
I wis a slester o lowin pent, lowsin
gowd an siller, cloorin een anidder,
an endin wi a rissenin, rid-tongued aze:
wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!
Beautiful, even though I barely comprehend the words, even after speaking them aloud.
"...war minus the shooting."
George Orwell, on sports and nationalism.
As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don't intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and "rattling" opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
I'm guessing he wasn't a big fan.
"...the extraordinary inside the mundane..."
Library of America has an interview with Bernard Malamud's biographer, Philip Davis.
Malamud puts the big within the small, the extraordinary inside the mundane, the struggling, and the hurt. There are geniuses who tower above us: Malamud’s genius was different, more like that of an ordinary man, made extraordinary by his hard-won literary power.
...he needs attentive readers now in defense of what literature is when it does not merely make a loud noise - readers who can know how big these small things are, even whilst Malamud stays loyal to their ostensible smallness. He took the risks of being neglected for the sake of something not facile, something deep.
Though a friend recommended reading Malamud's short stories first, I think I'll start with his novel The Assistant.
"The First Seven Years"
I love this short story by Bernard Malamud, which Library of America is featuring as its Story of the Week. For some reason I've never read Malamud (not even The Natural - seeing the bombastically mythical Robert Redford movie probably drove me away from that novel), but now I'm thinking I really should. Any recommendations would be greatly welcomed.
Further thoughts on Morte D'Urban
Paging through my writing journal, I happened to come across this entry dated 10/1/13. It neatly encapsulates my feelings about J.F. Powers' great Morte D'Urban, my favorite book of last year.
At first glance I was surprised, even impressed, that a layman like J.F. Powers could write so intelligently about the inner lives of priests. But now I realize, at page 90 of Morte D’Urban, that there’s been no prayer and little preaching, almost nothing about these priests’ spiritual lives. Instead, it’s about the mundane, everyday tasks and worldly obsessions of a bunch of career men. (And quite funny, too, in a subtle and wry way.) It’s showing the universality of priests--instead of being special and a breed apart, they’re every bit the same petty, jealous, closed-minded strivers the rest of us are. And that is one of the book’s greatest strengths.I gave the book as a Christmas gift to my mom, who lived through Father Urban's era and has always been fascinated with Christianity, as both faith and institution. I thought the book would be perfect for her. I'm looking forward to hearing what she thinks of it.