"The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - H.L. Mencken
As I've mentioned here previously, I share a birthday and many attitudes (the better ones, of course) with Mencken. (I would have loved to hear his thoughts on our incoming president. I imagine he would have been particularly horrified by Trump's diction.) I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the Mencken I've read - the strength of his prose and boldness of his personality more than offsets the dated and now-obscure subject matter - and hope to read his "Days Trilogy" next.
"...not good and not bad, but both at once..."
After World War II, Knut Hamsun was put on trial for treason, due to his strong connections to the Nazis and Hitler. During his lengthy examination by the state for mental competence (it was surely hoped that, as a beloved but elderly national hero, his dealings with Nazis were nothing more than senility), Hamsun expounded on literature and its parallel to his own personality.
The so-called 'Naturalists', Zola and his period, wrote about people with dominant characteristics. They had no use for the more subtle psychology, people all had this 'dominant characteristic' which ordained their actions.
Dostoevsky and others taught us all something different about human beings.
From the time I began I do not think that in my entire output you will find a character with a single dominant characteristic. They are all without so-called 'character'. They are split and fragmented, not good and not bad, but both at once, subtle, and changeable in their attitudes and in their deeds.
No doubt I am also like this myself.
It is very possible that I am aggressive, that I have in me something of all of the characteristics which the professor mentions. I am sensitive, suspicious, selfish, generous, jealous, righteous, logical, emotional, controlled. But I don't know that I could say that any one of them was more pronounced than the others in me. In addition I am filled by a grace which has permitted me to write my books. But I cannot 'analyse' that.
Brandes has called it the 'divine madness'.
The contradictory polarity that Hamsun described is the only possible way to reconcile the warm humanity of Hamsun the writer with the cold inhumanity of Hamsun the Nazi. (He was undeniably a Nazi. The medical examiners found him mentally competent, a conclusion that was supported by the fact that the old man wrote one final, rational book, On Overgrown Paths, about his post-war experience.) Hamsun had his demons, and a stubborn resolve that made him refuse to ever reconsider any of his strongly-held beliefs. He was yet another example of a great artist who was an often deplorable human being.
(Quotation from Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, by Robert Ferguson, 1987.)
"Don‘t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch. All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again. On the other hand, I advise you not to tremble in the face of months, years even, of procrastination, since there’s something quite formative and educational in waiting." - Robert Walser
Writerly words to live by - don't delay, but don't rush!
“Why is it that knowing how to remain alone in Paris for a year in a miserable room teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’?” - Albert Camus
Because, Albert, struggle always creates greater art than does comfort. One of my reading goals for this year is to finally read The Stranger. (Yes, yes, I know. One of the many glaring gaps in my literary experience.)
Good Reading 2016
1. Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (review)
2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (review)
3. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (review)
4. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (review)
5. Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase (review)
6. Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers (review)
7. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (review)
8. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (review)
9. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter (review)
10.Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (review)
Honorable Mention: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal; Harry Lewis Golden, Carl Sandburg; Steve Delahoyde (editor), Field-Tested Books; John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven; Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
Two things are probably obvious about this list. First, the number of woman authors: six of the top ten. This was a conscious decision on my part. I am seriously under-read in terms of books written by women, something I really want to rectify. I made a vow to read ten books of fiction this year by woman authors, and I met my goal - besides the authors listed above, I also read Margaret Atwood, Katherine Anne Porter, Anne Enright and Marilynne Robinson. Two of the ten really stood out: Pride and Prejudice which, while densely written (or denser than I typically prefer), was a fairly easy read, very enjoyable and often (and unexpectedly) very funny. And Up the Down Staircase was one of the funniest books I've read in years. I was very surprised to see that the book is currently out of print - it would certainly be a great candidate for a New York Review Books reissue.
The second obvious thing is Steinbeck: two of the top four, plus two of the honorable mentions. I now believe he is one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, as I mentioned in my Summer of Steinbeck recap.
Our Souls at Night was simply lovely, and a fitting end to Kent Haruf's career. The book encapsulates the warmth, dignity and optimism with which Haruf treated all of his subjects. I was almost hesitant to finally read the book, knowing that once I finished I would never make another new visit to Holt, Colorado. I will certainly miss that, but I also look forward to re-reading Haruf's novels for the rest of my life.
My Christmas book-giving is usually a good snapshot of what I've read during the year. This year, of the books I read in 2016, I gave a copy of Our Souls at Night (six copies in all) to each household of my immediate family, several of whom I've already introduced to Haruf. I also gifted Cannery Row, Up the Down Staircase, Wild Decembers and The Lathe of Heaven - plus John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, which didn't make my list but I thought was perfect for my engineer brother-in-law.
My reading goals for 2017 are still somewhat vague, though I will definitely keep focusing on woman authors - I still have a lot of catching up to do there, and really want to read more from Le Guin, Welty and O'Brien, and also resume Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy. I'm still mulling over what to read for Summer of Classics. Right now I'm thinking it might be H.G. Wells. Stay tuned.
"...we ought to have meaning as human beings..."
Knut Hamsun, writing to a fellow author, around 1918:
You and I, we shouldn't live from scribbling and emptiness, we ought to have meaning as human beings, marry and have children, make a home and live close to the earth. Think about it. I am old and I know it. I've written maybe thirty books, I don't remember exactly; but I have five children, and that is my real blessing. What do people want with all those books? If it weren't for my children I wouldn't even have the right to a grave.
Like so much of Hamsun's life, this statement is full of contradictions. He said this after the publication of The Growth of the Soil, his wildly best-selling novel that also won him the Nobel Prize. His writing up to that time had made him wealthy, critically praised, and one of the most beloved public figures in Norway - but here he says writing isn't important, and that family is everything. This comes from a man who could never write in his family's home, nor even in the writing hut he built on his property - instead he would go off alone to some far-flung locale, leaving his wife and four children at home. As for living "close to the earth", while he had previously done just that, carving out a farmstead from rocky and wooded land in the far north of Norway, by this time he had sold the farm and moved to a provincial city closer to Oslo, specifically to focus on writing The Growth of the Soil. We should go back to the land, he says, even though he had just left the land behind, to return to a more urban and sophisticated life.
The quotation is from Robert Ferguson's biography, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun - a comprehensive (sometimes exhaustingly so) and insightful profile of the perplexing Hamsun's life and work.
"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quiet, alone with heavens, nature, and God." - Anne Frank
Maddie, my outspoken 16-year-old, remains incredulous that I still haven't read Frank's Diary. I will rectify this omission in the coming year. I'm prepared for tears.
"...you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do."
Kurt Vonnegut, from his 1977 The Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review (compiled in Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations):
When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are...and you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say they stage no confrontations between people because people avoid confrontations in modern life. "Modern life is so lonely," they say. This is laziness. It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
Those students may be correct about people avoiding confrontations in everyday life, which is why fictional depictions of mundane everyday life (other than those by our most gifted writers) are so soul-crushingly dull.
Reading this interview today should prove to be a timely bit of advice for me. In the book I'm working on right now, at the point where I last left off the protagonist is just about to drop in on an old friend, who is now the principal at the high school in the small town where the book is set. The protagonist has had little confrontation in the story thus far (I'm still largely setting the stage) and Vonnegut has now nudged me toward having this meeting between old friends to quickly become, shall we say, quite less than cordial.
"Marley was dead, to begin with."
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
"The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear."
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
"A nurse held the door open for them."
- Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter
"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine
"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers
"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
"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.)
"Do not complain beneath the stars about the lack of bright spots in your life." - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
How fitting to read this quote at the moment, while I'm partway through Robert Ferguson's biography of Knut Hamsun. As a young man Hamsun revered Bjørnson, who was one of the titans of 19th Century Norwegian literature. But Hamsun, being the prickly egotist that he was, soon publicly and scathingly tore down his hero (and others, including Henrik Ibsen) for being of the old guard, and an enemy to the modernism he would soon pioneer.
"...living a reduced version of their former lives."
George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier:
A working man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being. So that in one way things in the distressed areas are not so bad as they might be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up. The people are in effect living a reduced version of their former lives. Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by lowering their standards.
I'm enjoying the book. It's a bit textbook-y at times, but still very good.
Small manila envelope, with information for two Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer books, including what appears to be a library call number, and possibly the librarian's initials. Found inside The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell (Harcourt Brace, 1958).
At The Millions, Jason Diamond surveys the books of Chicago's North Shore suburbs, from Waukegan (which, Diamond notes, generally isn't considered "North Shore", which is generally a enclave of the ultra-wealthy) to Evanston.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life...
Diamond omitted my favorite North Shore novel, Ward Just's An Unfinished Season, which is set in fictionalized versions of Lake Forest and, I think, Half Day (the original name of Lincolnshire). Just's coming-of-age story about a Half Day kid uncomfortably moving through Lake Forest high society is one of those books that has stuck in my mind, years after the fact.
Diamond has just published a memoir, Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned From Watching 80s Movies, which I might check out eventually. I'm a bit too old for Hughes' movies to have much of an impact on my young life (I graduated high school in 1983, the year before Sixteen Candles, his directorial debut, came out) but Hughes was a very big deal to Diamond (the writer grew up around the North Shore, where most of Hughes' classics were set), so the book might still be worth a look.
"...giving a boundary to all of that..."
From Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness:
How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing.
I admire Le Guin's thoughts on the arbitrariness of borders and states (and, in this woeful election season, legislative districts). I also just finished her The Lathe of Heaven. Fascinating premise, and thought-provoking throughout. I've read very little sci-fi or fantasy during my long reading life (much to Julie's disbelief), but Le Guin is one writer I think I could take to.
(Via Austin Kleon.)
"It was never in my stars to be doing the same thing for ever." - Johnny Marr
"...tons of rock and gravel, tons of water running..."
Vivid sense of place here, from The Lathe of Heaven, as Ursula K. Le Guin describes a vaguely dystopic Portland, Oregon, and a commuter train which is passing through a tunnel beneath the Willamette River:
Above the heads of those now riding the GPRT train in the Broadway Tunnel were tons of rock and gravel, tons of water running, the wharves and the keels of ocean-going ships, the huge concrete supports of elevated freeway bridges and approaches, a convoy of steamer trucks laden with frozen battery-produced chickens, one jet plane at 34,000 feet, the stars at 4.3+ light-years. George Orr, pale in the flickering fluorescent glare of the train car in the infrafluvial dark, swayed as he stood holding a swaying steel handle on a strap among a thousand other souls. He felt the heaviness upon him, the weight bearing down endlessly.
I really like how the focus rises upward, all the way to the distant stars, and then sharply back to the protagonist, George Orr. And I'd love to know what a battery-produced chicken is, though I suspect it's a little throwaway detail that Le Guin won't be returning to.
"There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay."
Dan Piepenbring, at The Paris Review:
If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can.
Come to think of it, I was probably most productive as a writer during the Bush Administration, especially the second term when times seemed at their darkest. Creative ferment, or something like that.
"Let the mind take its photograph..."
This is perfect for these last quiet, crisp days before winter. R.S. Thomas, "A Day in Autumn":
It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees’ shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn’s mirror. Having looked up
From the day’s chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.
"...one of the best contained dramas that American sports have ever told..."
The Guardian's Jonathan Bernhart on the Cubs, Aroldis Chapman and that dramatic, almost literary conclusion to Game 7.
This might sound like it’s intended as some form of either absolution or comeuppance for the domestic violence incident involving Chapman last December. It’s not and it never could be, but there’s a reason it sounds that way: a man with extraordinary abilities being humbled by hubris in a moment of triumph is a very, very old story. In the fictional version, the hubris would be the some moral imperfection on the pitcher’s part, and his fall would be delivered not by a bolt of lightning from the gods but through the pitcher’s manager, who over-relied on him and sapped his tremendous gifts when they were needed most. That fall is intensely personal – his team-mates go on to win the game and their place in history – and he is left with the symbolic scar of his “win” in the history books. This is a story of justice and punishment, and it feels right because everyone more or less got what the story thought they deserved in the end. And in that specific sense, the story of Chapman resolved in the best way possible.
"...the true spirit of literature..."
Adam Kirsch, on Bob Dylan's apparent indifference to winning the Nobel Prize:
The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer.
Interesting parallels there between Dylan and Sartre - I wouldn't have ever made that connection. I totally understand what Kirsch is saying. The personal responses of a handful of readers to Wheatyard - including a distant friend who grew up in a town of 200 people, who said I got the small-town scenes just right - mean far more to me than any award ever would. (Not that any awards are in the offing, of course.)
"...feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely...
From a new English translation of Halldór Laxness' Wayward Heroes (originally published in Icelandic as Gerpla, in 1952):
They took great pleasure in the sport of searching cliffs for seabirds and their eggs, lowering themselves on ropes from the brinks of the cliffs and ransacking the ledges and crevices for spoils. The cliffs that men descend for seabirds can often be a hundred fathoms or more, and those who forage them feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely and dangle freely in the air than they do inching themselves over their edges.
The original English translation (The Happy Warriors, 1958) was done indirectly, via a Swedish translation. This appears to be the first direct Icelandic-English translation. I find Laxness' writing to be interesting, though challenging, and will be keeping my eye on this one.
(Via Tin House.)
"And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class – the private schoolmaster, the half-starved freelance journalist, the colonel’s spinster daughter with £75 a year, the jobless Cambridge graduate, the ship’s officer without a ship, the clerks, the civil servants, the commercial travellers and the thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns – may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches." - George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
...which is on my short-term reading list. I hope to read it this year, or early next year at the latest.
"Here things are pretty awful and little hope of improvement." - Samuel Beckett, on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature
I wonder if Bob Dylan's virtual silence indicates a similar lack of enthusiasm over winning the award.
"...these sweaty wayfarers..."
They are pioneers, these sweaty wayfarers, for all their telephones and bank–accounts and automatic pianos and co–operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs is a pioneer land.
Reflections on Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (published October 23, 1920) and Midwestern small towns, then and now. I haven't read the book in years, and it deserves another visit.
"Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage." - Winston Churchill
Churchill could have easily been describing Trump: a bigmouth who can't take criticism.
"We can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid." – Audre Lorde
"...he saw the sadness in her surroundings..."
From Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves:
(Via Sam Sattler.)
"The covers of this book are too far apart." - Ambrose Bierce
Summer of Steinbeck
Until this summer, the only John Steinbeck that I had read was The Grapes of Wrath (ten-plus years ago) and the nonfiction A Russian Journal (last winter). At the outset, my only definite plan for this year was to finally read East of Eden. To broaden the experience, I also planned to read several selections from the omnibus The Short Novels of John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men was a no-brainer choice (I was already familiar with the story, from seeing the Steppenwolf Theater stage version while I was in high school), and Cannery Row also a top candidate, though I was only vaguely familiar with it. Beyond those, we also own copies of The Winter of Our Discontent (his final novel) and his early story cycle, The Pastures of Heaven.
East of Eden was the most daunting challenge - I'm usually put off by longer books, and struggle to maintain interest after a few hundred pages - but proved to be a rewarding experience. The book is a boldly ambitious, multi-generational epic that tells the story of California pioneers, roughly within the Biblical frameworks of Adam and Eve, and especially Cain and Abel. It's slow, and sometimes maddeningly detailed, but it works. As I mentioned on Goodreads, even the ponderous passages about patriarch Cyrus Trask - not really essential, at first glance - were indeed critical to explaining how his progeny came to be the men they were. A great book, though admittedly not one that I'll ever read again.
Cannery Row (which I will indeed re-read in the future) was outright fun - a rollicking and hilarious story of social misfits in Depression-era Monterey, California. Most of their lives are spent, besides drinking or pursuing hopeless get-rich schemes, in revering Doc - the erudite-yet-everyday man who runs a business in town that collects and sells marine specimens - and trying to do something special for him. Their attempts at "something special" are expectedly disastrous, but Doc mostly remains patient with them, recognizing their good intentions, but also delivers a strong dose of tough love when they go a bit too far. You can tell Steinbeck had a lot of fun writing this book - and "fun" isn't a word that is commonly used to describe Steinbeck's work.
Next up was Tortilla Flat. Halfway through, a thought came to mind, and in pursuing the hunch I looked up, for the first time, a chronological listing of Steinbeck's works. And I wasn't surprised to see that this novel was only his fifth book, published in 1935 when Steinbeck was 33 years old. Though he wasn't exactly young and this wasn't among his very first books, I was struck by how much this felt like the work of a younger, less mature writer. The characters are thinly-drawn, and almost caricatures, their premise of their lives is implausible (a diet almost entirely consisting of red wine, with almost no food), and the narrative is episodic and disjointed. To me, it almost seemed like a sketchbook for Cannery Row. (Incidentally, I recently read that Steinbeck had reservations about Tortilla Flat after publication, having come to the conclusion that he had written about the paisano characters in an unflattering, perhaps even racist, light. Actually, I didn't find the book overly racist, but only because the characters were so cartoonish. Had they been more vivid and real, I might have thought Steinbeck had more of a sinister intent.)
My worry - that Steinbeck's early books were apprentice-like work - made me become less than enthused by the prospect of reading The Pastures of Heaven, his second book which was published in 1932. What a surprise it was, then, to find the book to be a fully-realized, richly drawn, highly realistic set of stories. The stories are about the lives of the residents of a rural, secluded valley - "The Pastures of Heaven" - located some distance from the "big city" of Monterey. The way the stories were connected - by the setting, of course, but also by recurring characters - made me think of this as sort of a California version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (with the only missing common element being Anderson's omnipresent central character, George Willard). It's more than a story collection, with recurring characters drawing the individual pieces into a coherent whole. It's certainly closer to being a novel than the episodic Tortilla Flat.
Despite both books being well-regarded, I backed away from The Winter of Our Discontent and The Moon Is Down, since their settings (amongst East Coast academics and in wartime Norway, respectively) seemed so distant from Steinbeck's familiar Northern California haunts. Of course, Steinbeck was such a good writer that he probably could have had success with any setting, but either book would have seemed like too much of a departure from everything else I read during the summer. (I'll certainly read both books eventually, but they just didn't fit this summer.)
So instead, I turned to his 1947 novella, The Pearl. From summaries I had read, I assumed this was another California book, but after only a few paragraphs I realized that The Pearl is actually set in Mexico, on the Gulf. So while the setting isn't California, I decided to keep reading once I saw that the characters (the poor, living off the land) and theme (the divide and tension between social classes) in the first chapter were consistent with my other Steinbeck reading. As it turns out, The Pearl was the perfect book to finish my summer - sort of like a light, refreshing dessert after a rich meal. Not that the story was light in tone - a definite sadness pervades - but that it is so plainly and simply written. No huge cast of characters, no detailed histories, no deep philosophy. Just a sad, sometimes heartbreaking parable of the false promise of material wealth, which is very consistent with Steinbeck's worldview.
Overall, the six books show Steinbeck's admirable range, from weighty, multi-generational epics to comic romps to plainspoken parables. Yet he wrote in these various styles while remaining faithful to his central obsession: the plight of poor Americans and their struggle to survive in a harsh, unrelenting society that treats them, at best, with indifference. Reading these books this summer, and The Grapes of Wrath earlier, has made me realize that Steinbeck is one of the very best writers that America has ever produced.
"I can't follow your banner any more than you can follow mine."
Fascinating: H.G. Wells' 1928 letter to James Joyce. In short, Wells wasn't a fan.
Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I would go out of my way to save it from destructive or restrictive interruption. It has its believers and its following. Let them rejoice in it. To me it is a dead end.
I laughed out loud at the line "You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality." Quite good, Wells. (Via The Paris Review.)
"His face was pressed against a glass that sometimes wasn’t there."
On the short stories of John O'Hara.
Instead, he got a more practical and—for his kind of writer—more useful education knocking around, spending marathon hours in speakeasies and working at a series of small-town newspapers. He became, among other things, one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the eavesdropper’s secret—how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.
I like that idea of a "knocking-around education." I've never read O'Hara, but I think I might enjoy his work. Unfortunately, there aren't any of his stories in the handful of anthologies that I own, so I'll need to put some extra effort into this.
"I have a huge set of memories..."
Edward Hirsch writes movingly of his friend William Maxwell, in the Summer 2004 issue of Tin House:
I didn't take long to discover that when he talked about the past, it was vividly, even painfully, present to him. It was if at any moment he could close his eyes and slip through a thin membrane in time. He didn't need a petite madeleine to send him there. I once asked him if he missed the past. He looked at me with some surprise and replied that he didn't miss the past because he was never separated from it. He said, "I have a huge set of memories, which I carry around like a packed suitcase."
I've enjoyed everything I've ever read of Maxwell, who seems to have been an even greater human being than he was a writer. I think Time Will Darken It will be the next of his that I'll read.
Quote"To be up to the eyebrows in a great work of literature is such happiness." - William Maxwell
"...a cap pistol as a Valentine's Day present for his wife..."A fond remembrance of John Steinbeck, by his friend Nathaniel Benchley:
There was, oddly, a lot of little boy left in him, if by little boy you can mean a searching interest in anything new, a desire to do or to find or to invent some sort of diversion, a fascination with any gadget of any sort whatsoever, and the ability to be entertained by comparative trivia. He was the only adult I have ever seen who would regularly laugh at the Sunday comics; he raised absolute hell in our kitchen with an idea for making papier-mache in the Waring blender with a combination of newspaper and water and flour; and he would conduct frequent trips to the neighborhood toy store, sometimes just to browse through the stock and sometimes to buy an item like a cap pistol as a Valentine's Day present for his wife. To be with him was to be on a constant parranda, either actual or intellectual, and the only person bewildered by it was his children's nurse, who once said, "I don't see why Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Benchley go out to those bars, when there's all that free liquor at home."Yes, I had to look up "parranda." It's Spanish, and roughly translates as a party or spree. I finished my Summer of Steinbeck yesterday, and am writing up my thoughts on this great writer.
Quote"Time itself is a tragedy, and most of us are fighting a war against it. Our victories are only delays..." - Rebecca Solnit
"What we've been told need not be momentous..."
"All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth - or perhaps untruth, some flash of light - is just occurring. It is clamorous with the moment's happiness or pain. To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, now gone forever, it in some way to admit him to our friendship. What we've been told need not be momentous, but it can be good as receiving the darting glance from some very bright eye, still mischievous and mischief-making, arriving from fifty or a hundred years ago."
This quotation is by Eudora Welty, from her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship (which she co-edited), and which was re-quoted in the introduction to What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. I've admired Maxwell for several years now, and just read my first Welty (The Optimist's Daughter) earlier this year, and after enjoying some excerpts from What There Is to Say, I've been hunting for the book ever since. I finally found a nice used copy of it at Open Books this week, and am eager to start it soon. There is such great humanity and warmth in both writers' fiction, and two were genuinely good friends, that I'm sure the book is a real treasure.
Wishful thinking, Holmes...
Basil Rathbone, in the 1943 film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death :
"There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out...The time is coming, Watson, when we cannot fill our bellies in comfort while the other fellow goes hungry, or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold...And God willing, we’ll live to see that day, Watson."
The days of grab and greed are still very much with us. The Republican Party has even nominated the very embodiment of that ethos as its presidential candidate.
Despite loving the Holmes stories from a young age, and being a fan of the TV adaptations starring Jeremy Brett and (to a lesser extent) Benedict Cumberbatch, I've actually never seen any of the Rathbone films. I should try to catch a few of those one of these days.
 Based on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual", which I think is a much better title than that of the film version.
(Via The Ploughshares Blog.)
Quote"If one bolts the doors and windows against the world, one can from time to time create the semblance and almost the beginning of the reality of a beautiful life." - Franz Kafka
"Today I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at 10.30, enjoy long conversations with my wife, welcome the world outside my head, and cheerfully go whole days without visiting my desk at all. There are fewer imperatives. I have either proved whatever it was I wanted to prove, or I accept that now I never will. I used to fear that if I didn’t get to work immediately I would forfeit the urgency that had built up the day before. Now I know it will all still be waiting for me, and what it loses by inattention it might gain by insouciance. I return to it, when the mood is on me, as a painter will return to his canvas, adding a dab of colour here or over-painting there before popping out again for absinthe." - Howard Jacobson
I first assumed that "Burlington Bertie" was a Bertie Wooster/rich-layabout reference, but instead it's an old English music hall song:
I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty
And saunter along like a toff
I walk down the strand with my gloves on my hand
Then I walk down again with them off
I'm all airs and graces, correct easy paces
So long without food I forgot where my face is...
Magazine clipping, which shows what appears (based on the captions on the reverse side) to be the winning entry in a hairstyle contest. Found inside The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (Bantam, 1951).
"...maybe my curse and the farm's curse got to fighting..."In Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, Bert Munroe, after a series of business failures in Monterey, has moved to the titular valley and bought an abandoned farm, which the locals believe to be cursed.
Bert had been frowning soberly as a new thought began to work in his mind. "I've had a lot of bad luck," he said. "I've been in a lot of businesses and every one turned out bad. When I came down here, I had a kind of idea that I was under a curse." Suddenly he laughed delightedly at the thought that had come to him. "And what do I do? First thing out of the box, I buy a place that's supposed to be under a curse. Well, I just happened to think, maybe my curse and the farm's curse got to fighting and killed each other off. I'm dead certain they've gone, anyway."For the sake of the narrative, I hope Allen is right. Even by just the third chapter, I can already see one possibility for the two curses to wreak havoc on the Munroes.
The men laughed with him. T.B. Allen whacked his hand down on the counter. "That's a good one," he cried. "But here's a better one. Maybe your curse and the farm's curse have mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes. Maybe there'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know."
The gathered men roared with laughter at that, and T.B. Allen memorized the whole scene so he could repeat it. It was almost like the talk in a play, he thought.
"...but only as media of exchange..."From John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat (1935):
Clocks and watches were not used by the paisanos of Tortilla Flat. Now and then one of the friends acquired a watch in some extraordinary manner, but he kept it only long enough to trade it for something he really wanted. Watches were in good repute at Danny's house, but only as media of exchange. For practical purposes, there was the great golden watch of the sun. It was better than a watch, and safer, for there was no way of diverting it to Torelli.Torelli is a local grocer who regularly accepts barter for his wares, and Danny's friends' "extraordinary manner" is a polite euphemism for theft - they steal anything that isn't nailed down, and usually barter it to Torelli for gallon jugs of cheap wine. (And they then often steal the barter back from Torelli.) As for the sun, they'd probably even steal that if they could.
Quote"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce
Quote"Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference — with words." - Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick must have said this a long time ago - today, making a point in writing is a lot easier than making a living in writing.
"...a blended whiskey guaranteed four months old..."As a bourbon drinker, I can't help but appreciate this passage from Steinbeck's Cannery Row:
Lee Chong's station in the grocery was behind the cigar counter. The cash register was then on his left and the abacus on his right. Inside the glass case were the brown cigars, the cigarettes, the Bull Durham, the Duke's mixture, the Five Brothers, while behind him in racks on the wall were the pints, half pints and quarters of Old Green River, Old Town House, Old Colonel, and the favorite - Old Tennessee, a blended whiskey guaranteed four months old, very cheap and known in the neighborhood as Old Tennis Shoes. Lee Chong did not stand between the whiskey and the customer without reason. Some very practical minds had on occasion tried to divert his attention to another part of the store. Cousins, nephews, sons and daughters-in-law waited on the rest of the store, but Lee never left the cigar counter.The list of whiskies reminds me of my dad who, while avoiding the sort of rotgut that Steinbeck describes, still favored older brands like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniels, V.O. and Old Overholt. I wonder what he would have thought of the recent bourbon revival. I think he might have appreciated an occasional taste of some small-batch variety, but ultimately he would have gravitated back to his old, familiar, and cheaper standbys.
Quote"I always knew I was not going to measure up as a literary giant, so from the start I put my hopes on making myself a name as a literary pygmy, that is, one writing one great but undoubtedly odd, sui generis, irreplaceable, one of a kind, modestly immortal book." Jaimy Gordon, in her introduction to Keith Waldrop's Light While There Is Light
Quote"The rhythm of a café lends itself to the writing and correcting of verses that roll onward as the cigar smoke once did. You can’t write a novel in a café." - Juan Villoro
Quote"I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp." - William Faulkner, in his resignation letter to the U.S. Postal Service
I would guess that his customer service skills were appalling. His resignation was undeniably a win-win for both literature and the USPS.
Quote"All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis." - Kurt Vonnegut
"Go through the motions, Adam."I really like the following exchange in East of Eden between Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask. Adam, once so boldly ambitious in his dream of developing his land in the Salinas Valley, is morosely despondent after his wife Cathy shot him, and then abandoned him and their twin baby boys.
Samuel leaned over the basket and put his finger against the palm of one of the twins and the fingers closed and held on. "I guess the last bad habit a man will give up is advising."So plainly stated, yet so deep with meaning. It's lately become obvious that the twins will ultimately become the book's Cain and Abel analogs - previously I thought those analogs would be Adam and his brother Charles. And though the story's ending is still far off, and thus there's still plenty of time for change, it seems like I won't be getting as much of the Hamilton family - and especially the wonderful Samuel - that I had hoped for. Instead, right now the focus is fully on Adam and Cathy and their suddenly separate lives. Which is great, too - both are fascinating characters in their own right.
"I don't want advice."
"Nobody does. It's a giver's present. Go through the motions, Adam."
"Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true."
"Why should I?" Adam asked.
Samuel was looking at the twins. "You're going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow."
Adam did not answer, and Samuel stood up. "I'll be back," he said. "I'll be back again and again. Go through the motions, Adam."