Monday, September 28, 2020

So far nothing terrible had occurred - John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra


Dolce Bellezza suggested a readalong of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934), and although I did not do much to promote it, I did get the book read, as did several other people, so here we go.

Julian English owns a Cadillac dealership in a small coal city in Pennsylvania.  He has a rough three days, December 24 through December 26, 1930.  December 1930 was a bad time to be in the business of selling Cadillacs, or much of anything except alcohol.  That “appointment” in the title, pinched from a Somerset Maugham parable, that’s with death.

When Bellezza and I were discussing the readalong, I noticed that all of the covers prominently featured an automobile.  I did not know much about the story, but I took all those cars as a clue.  “So far nothing terrible had occurred” (1.II, 10) but I’m afraid that’s only six pages into the novel.

In June 1930, English borrowed twenty thousand dollars from a jolly Irish raconteur.  In this novel, packed with money and prices, are we ever going to need the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator:

So, when I get a passage like this (it’s Christmas; the novel is full of parties), I am ready:

“They have a cover charge of a dollar and a half or two dollars, and there goes twenty bucks already, not including ginger ale and White Rock, and sandwiches!  You know what they charge for a plain ordinary chicken sandwich at the Stage Coach?  A buck.”  (2.ii, 32)

That’s thirty dollars to get in the door and sixteen dollars for the “plain ordinary” (a nice taste of O’Hara’s touch with speech, there).  Even in small-town Depression-era Pennsylvania, nightclub prices are a rip-off.

Converting, then, English has borrowed the current equivalent of $320,000 for his business, and six months later, that money is gone.  “The other ten thousand had gone for expenses, real ones, like payments on notes, payroll, and so on” (7, 159).  The phrase “real ones” tells you what you need to know about the first ten thousand, although there is a long paragraph with the details of English’s impulsive squandering.  Now it’s the end of the month and he won’t be able to make payroll.  A few pages later he locks himself in the bathroom and “put the barrel in his mouth,” but there are fifty pages left in the novel and anyways we know that it’s a car that will kill him, presumably a Cadillac, not a gun.

O’Hara, in Samarra, is an anatomist of social status, not exactly class but a complex combination of wealth, income, profession, marriage, residence, club membership, party-giving, ancestry, religion, education, wartime service, and public behavior.  English is about to suffer a severe loss of the first three, at least.  The story of the novel, or his story in it, is his succession of self-destructive public behavior, beginning with throwing a drink, unprovoked, in the face of the man who lent him all that money.  It is like he is getting ahead of the disaster.  Before society or the economy or whatever other outside forces destroy him, he will destroy himself.

The question, then, or the real story, is to what extent English’s self-destruction is conscious or subconscious, to what extent, moment by moment, he realizes what he is doing and where he is heading.  The form of the novel is good for this kind of story.  Outside forces versus inside; sociology versus, or mixed with, psychology. 

The psychology, and for that matter the sociology, might be a bit received.  English, especially at the end, seems to be literalizing Freud’s death-drive.  I wondered about this as I read, but I am always a skeptic about the depth of the thinking of novelists, against their perception and style, where they do such wonderful things sometimes.

I guess I’ll stop here and spend some time with O’Hara’s style tomorrow.

Page numbers are form the 2013 Penguin Deluxe edition.  Dee-luxe.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Kawabata's Snow Country - He spent his time watching insects in their death agonies

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (1948, although mostly published 1935-7) is a short novel about the sad, hard life of a hot springs prostitute, filtered through the point of view of one of her wealthy, useless*, over-aestheticized clients.  Kawabata’s earlier novel, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (1930), is about the brutal, hard lives of big city nightlife prostitutes, mostly homeless teens.  There the filter is the Ulysses-inspired fragmentation and craziness of the literary technique.

These do not feel like social novels.  The literary techniques, fizzy and modern or calm and poetic, are up front, the thing I am reading page by page.  But I can see the social novel, the critique, hidden behind the style.  And thank goodness, because I would lose patience quickly if I thought I was supposed to sympathize with Shimamura, the tourist client.  “Some dude’s problems with a prostitute” may be my least favorite literary genre.  But here the coldness and solipsism of Shimamura, the telling of the story, is part of the critique, much like the energy and novelty and fun of Asakusa (the neighborhood and the novel) obscures its brutal side.

The novel begins with Shimamura on a night train, on his way to the hot spring.  In a long passage, he watches an attractive woman, not looking at her directly, in the train window:

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other.  The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world.  Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.  (15)

Kawabata is giving the cinematographer a challenge.  He is himself acting as cinematographer, for several pages, overlapping the woman, the landscape, condensation, various light and color effects, and the character’s own face.  My understanding is that this scene is the germ of the novel, the first part that Kawabata published, a pure demonstration of the male gaze.  Di at The little white attic has also just read Snow Country, and she picks out some bits of this passage more beautiful than the one I chose.

She also picked something from my favorite part of the novel, one of several “passages about insect deaths.”   “He spent his time watching insects in their death agonies” (109).  The fluttering dying moths have obvious symbolic counterparts in the geishas, culminating in one who falls and possibly dies with the same gesture as a dying moth.  Or I mean she appears to fall with the same gesture – this is all Shimamura’s perceptions.  And then he falls, either because he has a profound experience of aesthetic sublimity or because he has a stroke, or both.  That’s my interpretation of the obscure ending right there.

Edward Seidensticker translated Snow Country.  He emphasizes the haiku-like qualities of the novel, which would include all of the details about seasons, colors, and those poor ephemeral moths.  I wonder how much actual haiku is in the novel, and then how much – well, look:

How large the crow is, staring up from the cedar in the evening breeze – so says the poet. (92)

Or (count the syllables):

How large the crow is,

staring up from the cedar

in the evening breeze.

I do not remember another signal, a clue, as strong as “so says the poet,” so maybe this is the only case, with the translator showing off alongside the author. Maybe I have invented all this, but now I wonder.

My page numbers are from the old Berkeley Medallion paperback, which likely match up with no other edition.

* When not on a spa sex tourism vacation, he spends his time “translating Paul Valéry and Alain, and French treatises on the dance from the golden age of Russian ballet” (108) even though he has never seen a ballet.  “The book would in all likelihood contribute nothing to the Japanese dancing world.”

Monday, September 14, 2020

Freya Stark in Iran and Wright Morris abroad - travel with meaning - the beautiful world, full of surprises

When I read Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps (1936), about a walk through the Liberian forests, I wondered about the pointlessness of the trip itself, aside from getting material for a book, and I am hardly arguing with that. Sylvain Tesson openly writes his books to finance, and possibly make sense of, his adventures, his life as a traveler. But I also recently read a couple of travel books that seemed more purposeful. 

Freya Stark’s The Valley of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934) is her first book. It is about several expeditions to the Iranian frontier, to the mountains north of Tehran, in part to visit the ruins of the fortresses of the legendary medieval Order of Assassins (borrowed Wiki photo to the left) and to exotic Luristan, a border area with Iraq just barely under the control of the central government, which is, when Stark is, building the region’s first road and cracking down on headgear. Hats, everyone had to wear the right hat.

Anyway, the point of these expeditions, somewhere between anthropology and espionage, was that Stark was completely in love with West Asian culture, and wanted to know everything about it. Language, literature, geography, history, everything. That’s how she spent her life, abandoning Europe for Iraq and Iran, learning Arabic and Persian and any other language that crossed her path, just absorbing it all.

[Fatima] and I amused ourselves by feeding a family of hens in the speckled shade of the young trees: her uncle gave us glasses of pale tea. Along the dusty road cars sped by: two British officers in sun helmets: they would be shocked if they noticed me sitting here like a gipsy. Luckily I was beneath their notice: I was free of all that: the empty Persian plains were around me, and crested Mountain ranges: the beautiful world, full of surprises, rushing through space we know not whither, was mine to do what I liked with for a while. (p. 162, Modern Library edition) 

That passage, abuse of colons and all, is not typical of Stark’s prose, but is typical of her attitude. What a life. 

Wright Morris’s Solo (1983) is a study-abroad memoir by an old man remembering his youth. Morris spent the year after graduating from college – in 1933, fifty years earlier! – in Austria, Italy and Paris, learning everything a young American thinking about becoming a writer might learn. I have not read any of Morris’s many novels, and I assume my enjoyment of Solo would be greater if I knew how he converted his experiences into fiction – his bizarre winter in a castle owned by a French lunatic must have been turned into a novel – but the good-humored, open-minded portrait of American innocence, or ignorance, is enjoyable regardless.

Morris and a buddy are bicycling across Italy. They run into trouble with the police, who knows why. It is 1934:

Bouncing along in the car, the lights flickering up ahead, it occurred to me that we were having a bizarre adventure, one of those that we would long remember. For the first time I was wearing handcuffs! “Had run-in with the Fascisti!” I would write on the postcards showing the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The word for this sort of thing was lark. We were having a lark. I had not yet read the stories of Hemingway, so I did not recognize the characters. (145) 

Three nights in Mussolini’s prisons is highly educational, as long as it is only three nights. “We found our biciclettas right where we had left them, but everything that could be unscrewed had vanished, including the chains” (151). The education via tourism resumes. Paris awaits.