Thursday, October 15, 2020

Felipe Alfau's Locos: A Comedy of Gestures - making the butterflies dance

When I was first learning to root around in literature, Vintage International was the publisher with the spines that caught my attention.  They were, at the time, the American home of Vladimir Nabokov, Günter Grass, Yukio Mishima, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Mann.  Also, for some reason, E. M. Forster and The Good Soldier, but in general they helped me get some sense of international Modernism.  Lots of interesting things going on out there. I guess they pulled in William Faulkner later, since I only have earlier editions of his books.

Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures (Farrar & Rinehart 1936, Dalkey Archive 1988, Vintage 1990) is one of the books that caught my attention by its company in the line.  It is a perfect fit, a tricky, playful, meta-fiction, with stories about, for example, a man who wants to become a fictional character and enlists the help of Alfau, the author, and another about a woman who is so in love with Death that she not only spends her day going to funerals but occasionally dies, you know, once in a while.  It is not all fantasy of the supernatural sort, though, as in “The Wallet,” about the time the power went out in Madrid during a police convention, so that the criminals were bolder than ever and the police, spending “all their efforts and time upon discussing matters of regulation, discipline and now and then how to improve the methods of hunting criminals” that they had “neither the time nor energy” to stop crime (p. 78).

The stories occasionally have footnotes, always at points where either the author or the characters lose control of the narrative:

(The voice of Carmen was heard from the next room smothered in manly laughter.) 1


1  The reader may disregard this interruption of two characters whom I had not intended for this story, but who are endeavoring to complicate matters on the stage by making noise in the wings.

In this case the footnote is a clue to or intrusion by the other level of the book, where the collection of stories are in fact a novel, with characters recurring across the story, often with different names so it is not clear that they are almost all related.  All of the characters are introduced in the first story, patrons of Locos, the bar that supplies the book’s title.  One character is present only in the form of “a little Chinese figure made of porcelain” with a “butterfly on his shoulder” (8-9.  I can see that the story, looking at it now, is full of clues or hints or jokes about what happens later in the book.  Chinelato’s dance of the butterflies, that is a lovely episode.

For the reader who likes this sort of thing, this is great fun, and for the reader who does not I suppose great tedium.  Mary McCarthy reviewed the novel in 1936, and returned to it over fifty years later for its rediscovery.  “Alfau, or his book, was evidently my fatal type, which I would again meet in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and more than once in Italo Calvino” (“Afterword,” 201).

This Spanish novel by a Spanish writer was, surprisingly, written in English and first published in the United States, where Alfau was an immigrant who wrote for Spanish-language newspaper and did commercial translation.  The Vintage edition of Locos was successful enough that an unpublished novel by Alfau, Chromos, written in the 1940s, appeared in 1990.  I remember it as quite good, but it has been thirty years since I read it.  Locos has stood up well.  Maybe someone can re-discover Alfau again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull - “Who is he, anyhow?”

John Gunther’s memoir Death Be Not Proud (1949), the account of his teenage son’s illness and death from a brain tumor, was one of the small number of actual books assigned by my high school, long long ago, but not so long that a memoir from 1949 did not seem just a bit antique.  Not that I remember it well.  It was earnest, instructive, sad. 

Frigyes Karinthy’s brain tumor memoir A Journey Round My Skull (1937) is a different kind of critter.  Karinthy, in his late forties when he becomes ill, was a comic writer, famous enough in Hungary that his operation was covered in Budapest newspapers.  He has a sense of humor about his illness, a great help in writing a book about it, and presumably in living through it.  And he writes the book himself, so it has a happy ending, for a while, at least.

A true Austro-Hungarian, however the borders have changed, Karinthy spends the first three pages sitting in a café, goofing off, doing the crossword.

And at that very moment the trains started…  Three times I raised my head, and it was only when the fourth train stated that I realized I was suffering from an hallucination.  (“The Invisible Train,” 12-13, tr. Vernon Duckworth Barker)

The interesting thing, from a literary and philosophical perspective, about a brain disease is the change in sensory perception.  We have enough trouble understanding what is around us when our senses work the way we are used to, much less when the brain starts playing tricks.  The subjective / objective split becomes intense.

The climax of the book is Karinthy’s operation, when he is under (only!) local anesthetic, adding another layer of weirdness, and recovery.  Time shifts and is compressed, recurring dreams replace reality, particularly the one described in the titles of Chapter 24, “Half a Dog Running to Telleborg,” in which Karinthy is sure he is half of a dog that has been cut in half by one of the invisible trains first heard in Chapter 1.

This part of the book gets pretty weird.

The following pages came before my eyes like a sequence from a film.  Try as I may, I cannot say for certain whether I has this experience during the operation itself or during my feverish dreams of the next few days.  My excursion in Time (which I shall describe shortly) may have begun at that moment, and is perhaps causing me to place in this chapter a series of pictures which should belong to the next…  In that film, the following sequence appears next, and it is therefore here that I shall include it.  (241)

It is a little apologia for Modernist fiction.  It is the older writers who were wrong, just putting one event after another.

The disease memoir is a well-formed genre now, and the film that most of A Journey Round My Skull resembles, not the weirdness of the operation but the earlier part, the series of symptoms, doctors, and diagnoses, is the last third of Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (1993), the brilliant “Doctors” sequence, in which Moretti bravely recreates his own maddening journey through the Italian medical system.

In the middle of the operation, Karinthy interrupts himself with chapter titled “Addis Ababa.”  He checks in on people back in Budapest, his son (“who was now free to do as he liked, was probably enjoying himself,” 227), his friends, strangers reading about him in the newspaper:

At the morgue in the Szvetenay-ucca the corpses were lying peacefully in their zinc cases.  The only sound came from the dripping of ice as it melted under them.  Some of them wore an expression of indifference, and some one of surprise.  ON every face, there was an expression of some kind that had no meaning, as it had no cause.  An attendant had sat down on the doorstep to eat a hunch of bacon.  His companion was reading to him from a newspaper.  When he came to the title of my operation report the attendant cut himself another slice of bacon.

“Who is he, anyhow?” he asked, in a bored tone.  (236-7)

Meanwhile, the Italians conquer Ethiopia.  Disease memoirs are a form of wisdom literature.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

He’ll drink anything and you know it - some drinking in Appointment in Samarra, and some jazz - he was screaming with jazz

John O’Hara wrote Appointment in Samarra in 1934, but it is set in 1930.  The main character in 1930 is just about O’Hara’s age in 1934, close enough that they can share childhood details about “the various nights” in Pottsville / Gibbsville, PA, not just Halloween but “Gate Night, when you took people’s gates off the fences” (7, 137) and so on, or this great list of “the cigarettes to be smoked: Ziras, Sweet Caps, Piedmonts, Hassans” (139).

What does O’Hara get out of 1930?  A couple of things.  First, a Big Historical Irony: the Depression is not the Depression yet, as far as people know.  If Julian English knew that all of his high status pals, along with the bankers and brokers, were also going to declare bankruptcy right alongside him, soon enough, he might not be so driven to kill himself.  But he is still thinking the old way.

Second, 1930 is still Prohibition, and boy does O’Hara have fun with that.  “’He’ll drink anything and you know it’” (3.III, 55), and that’s meant positively. The book is full of the logistics of Prohibition, whether in the gangster subplot or in detail about exactly how to “make good gin,” which means you take the prescription “rye” from the pharmacist and

cut it with alcohol and colored water.  It was not poisonous, and it got you tight, which was all that was required of it and all that could be said for it.  (1.II, 11)

The last chapter of English’s life is a magnificent piece of drunkenness.  First, with ten pages left to live, English meets a marvelous new character, Alice Cartwright, the confident twenty-three year-old Gibbsville society columnist.  She allows O’Hara and English to take a last run with Eros before Thanatos takes over.  “He hated her more than anyone ever had hated anyone” (201).  That’s the spirit.

The drinks in the chapter are carefully noted until even English is beyond counting, on my favorite page of the novel, when he 1) “had a smart idea”:

He took the flowers out of a vase and poured the water out, and made himself the biggest highball he ever had seen.  It did not last very long.  (203)

Now he can use “the vase for resting-drinking, and the glass for moving-drinking” (204).  He needs to rest because he sometimes needs to sit still and listen.  Alone at home, abandoned by wife and world, he is playing with his record collection, first spreading them out on the floor “to have them near.”

He played Paul Whiteman’s record of Stairway to Paradise, and when the record came to the “patter” he was screaming with jazz.  The phonograph stopped itself but he was up and changing it to a much later record, Jean Goldkette’s band playing Sunny Disposish. (203, link is to Youtube)

Geez, man, Paul Whiteman, in 1930 you can do better.  Living as we do in the age of miracles, all of the songs O’Hara mentions are easy to find.  Perhaps you should skip the godawful lyrics and vocal of “Sunny Disposish” and jump to 2:00, where Bix Beiderbecke is playing lead and jazz occurs.  That recording is from 1927.  English has been keeping up to some extent.

A lesson of this cruel, tragic scene is to not put your records on the floor when drunk, or perhaps ever:

He wanted to cry but he could not.  He wanted to pick up the pieces.  He reached out to pick them up, and lost his balance and sat down on another record, crushing it unmusically.  He did not want to see what it was.  All he knew was that it was a Brunswick, which meant it was one of the oldest and best. (203-4)

This cruel, painful scene seemed like something new in literature.

Bill Vollmann wrote a good piece in The Baffler, January 2014, that contains a number of good lines, including one about O'Hara's cruelty:

In many respects he is a cruel writer; not only does he portray quotidian cruelty unblinkingly and intimately, but his portrayals themselves can be cruel.

I thought about spending a day on O’Hara’s cruelty.  He occasionally takes sudden, surprising jabs at even the most sympathetic characters.  “Like most cynics, O’Hara wishes things were different,” that’s another good Vollmann line, a line that is itself cruel.

Thanks to Dolce Bellezza for suggesting a readalong for Appointment in Samarra, and thanks to everyone who read along.  It is a good book club book.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

And then there were people. Terrible people - John O'Hara fills up Appointment in Samarra

Appointment in Samarra has the restless energy that a jumpy 28-year old pours into a first novel.  The three-day crash of a doomed protagonist would fill the 216-page novel of many writers.  Not this novel.

Three major overlapping techniques:

1.  Speech.  Not dialogue, exactly, but talk, chatter, words said aloud.

“Jeez,” he said.  “Jeezozz H. Kee-rist.  You hear about what just happened?”  (1.I, 15)

I would now like to read a book about the relationship between Hollywood writing and high-falutin’ fiction in the 1930s.  Who borrows from whom; which borrows what.  It is easy to insert your favorite pre-Code Hollywood actor into the book.  Try it here with James Cagney, who in 1930 was almost exactly the right age for the part (Caroline, Julian English’s wife, goes first – she’s Joan Blondell, let’s say – and they’re on the phone):

“It’s about time someone slapped your face.  Now I want you to understand this, old boy.  If you come home drunk this afternoon and start raising hell, I’ll simply call up every person we’ve invited and call off the party.”

“You’ll simply, huh?”

“Oh, shut up,” she said, and ended the call.

“She’ll simply,” he said to the telephone, and gently replaced the handpiece in the cradle.  “She’ll simply.” (8, 171)

It’s not just speech, but internal language, too:

It was a fine night.  (Fine had been a romantic word in his vocabulary ever since he read A Farewell to Arms, but this was one time when he felt justified using it.)  (4.II, 85)

That banality, the “fine night,” is directly assigned to the character, who thinks “fine snow” a couple of times, pounding the word dead before giving it up for a while.

2. People.  There are so many people in the novel.  How many named characters, I wonder?

And then there were people.  Terrible people, who didn’t have to do anything to make them terrible, but were just terrible people.  (4.II, 82)

In my edition there are thirteen named people, none of whom are really characters in the novel, just on that page.  Plenty of the names in this crowded novel are real characters, however briefly, which leads to

3. Digression.  The novel wanders, the narrator wanders.  He starts chapters from a distance – “Gibbsville moved up from the status of borough and became a third class city in 1911, but in 1930” etc., and this, part of the first sentence of Chapter 9, is how O’Hara begins the climax of the novel.  Chapter 3 begins with the history of bituminous versus anthracite coal regions in Pennsylvania, and the consequences to unionization.  The dissertation on zones in the middle of Chapter 8 is an odd one.  “Your home is the center of many zones” (176), then about a half page more on the theme.

Sometimes he simply wanders over to another character.  The most important is Caroline, who we heard on the phone earlier, Julian’s wife.  She stars in a shadow novel, one I can imagine many readers preferring, about a wife dealing with a husband who self-destructs.  Chapter 5 is devoted entirely to what we might call her early sex life, the negotiations of a young American woman in the marriage market of the mid-1920s.  It could be published as a separate story.  Chapter 7 is mostly Julian at work in the morning, but it suddenly hops to Caroline in bed, a two page stream of consciousness passage, like it’s a tribute to Molly Bloom in Ulysses.

The gangster subplot surprised me.  Al Grecco is the right-hand man of the local bootlegger.  O’Hara spends a lot of time with Grecco.  When the plot intersects with the main story, it provides another way for Julian to subconsciously kill himself – suicide by mobster.  Grecco is important enough that, while eating his Christmas turkey dinner, O’Hara spends nine pages on his early history, how a juvenile delinquent became a prizefighter and then a small-time mob enforcer.  And also why his alias is “Al Grecco,” part of a two-page digression within the digression about the reporter, Lydia Faunce Browne, who named him:

Lydia’s secret favorite adjective for herself was keen…  She felt sorry for prostitutes on all occasions; she thought milk for babies ought to be pure; she thought Germany was not altogether responsible for the World War; she did not believe in Prohibition (“It did not prohibit,” she often said).  She smoked cigarettes one right after the other, and did not care who knew it; and she never was more than five minutes out of the office before she was talking in newspaper argot, not all of it quite accurate.  (2.III, 39-40)

This is quite a lot to know about a character who will never be seen again.  Maybe this is the profligacy of a short story writer.

Reese at Typings found it a trial to spend too much time with Julian English.  “Self-destructive alcoholics are hard to take, in fiction as in life.”  O’Hara may well have agreed.  So he wanders off.

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.

Friday, August 28, 2020

L'Axe du loup - Sylvain Tesson in the steps of escapees from the Gulag - The solution could be to carry in your gear an inexhaustible book

In May, I wrote about French travel writer Sylvain Tesson’s In the Forests of Siberia (2011), the book on his long, lonely stay in a cabin on the west shore of Lake Baikal.  Now I have read an earlier Tesson book that is a germ for Forest, a crazy mostly-solo walking / bicycling / horseback trip from Yakutsk to Calcutta, Wolf Axis: From Siberia to India in the steps of the escapees from the Gulag (L'Axe du loup: De la Sibérie à l'Inde, sur les pas des évadés du Goulag, 2004, all translations mine).

The steps are: south across the Siberian taiga, down the east shore of Lake Baikal, onto the Mongolian steppe, across the Gobi desert, up into Tibet, across the Himalayas.  Plus some detours.  Six thousand kilometers, eight months.  And he only takes one book with him!

The “wolf axis” of the title is the north-south axis, contrasted to the east-west flow of people, history and war between Europe and Asia.

Tesson is nominally following the route of Slawowir Rawicz, a Polish officer who claimed to have escaped from a Siberian prison and walked to India, the subject of his 1956 book The Long Walk.  That Rawicz’s book is some mix of fiction and accounts from other escapees is of interest to Tesson, but not of great relevance.  He is skeptical of Rawicz when he starts, and more skeptical when he finishes.  “A lesson here: when publishing a story floating on the edge of credibility, never say that you saw a yeti” (250).  But Rawicz describes a journey Tesson, whose specialty as a travel writer is Russia and central Asia, wanted to do for himself.  He thinks of his own book as a tribute to all of the escapees from the Gulag, and for that matter other refugees along the way, Mongolian, Chinese, or Tibetan.  Many of the most interesting parts of the book are Tesson’s encounters with people who had been in the Gulag themselves, or who were descended from the criminals, Old Believers, Decemberists, and other people sent into the Siberian forests by various Russian governments.

The French love these “in the steps of” travel books.  Who doesn’t.  Tesson bicycles from Lhassa to Darjeeling in the company of his friend Priscilla Telmon, who makes travel documentaries.  She crosses Tesson’s path because she is walking in the steps, from Vietnam into the Himalayas, solo, of the great traveler Alexandra David-Néel.  The French really love this kind of traveling.

Tesson ends the book with a list of everything he brings with him.  There is one book, “An Anthology of French Poetry (Jean-François Revel, Bouquins),” a seven hundred-page brick.  He says it took him ten years of hard traveling to come to this solution to the bookish backpacker’s great problem:

The solution could be to carry in your gear an inexhaustible book.  When I went around the world on a bicycle, I left with religious texts (Bible, Koran, etc).  These are inexhaustible texts, but they exhausted me.  During my long hike in the Himalayas I had novels which eat themselves (Melville, Wells, Hemingway): I devoured them in three days in the light of yak butter candles, and my soul remained hungry during the seven remaining months.  At the base of the Asian steppes, in the company of Priscilla Telmon, I had bound in our horse’s panniers old accounts of voyages (Rubrouck, Marco Polo, Fleming), but I found it too cruel to compare the description of the past to the sad reality of today, and too depressing to enter Samarkand through a post-Soviet industrial suburb while reading, in the pen of Ella Maillart, the evocation of “a blue village, soaring towards the sky.”  (119)

That passage, besides all of the fun book stuff, gives a good example of Tesson’s sensibility and humor.  I intentionally kept one enjoyable Frenchism in the translation, the books that “eat themselves (se mangent)”; we know those books.

A true French writer, Tesson has a habit of reaching for aphorisms that I take as an aspect of his literary culture.  A French thing.

In Darjeeling, I take the time to do two or three important things.

I visit the zoo to see the red pandas, one of the beasts of Creation to which I attach the most value.  The two Darjeeling specimens chew on their carceral despair in a concrete enclosure.  The difference between animal and man is that when they are imprisoned, the first remains beautiful while the second becomes a beast.  (256)

I don’t think British or American travel writers aphorize so strongly.  Few of them would really go for that last sentence.

I don’t think L’Axe du loup is in English.  Maybe someday.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Come and see the blood in the streets - notes on Miguel Hernández, Pablo Neruda, and the poetry of the Spanish Civil War

Months ago, I was reading quite a bit of the literature of the Spanish Civil War, especially the poetry but also George Orwell’s clear-eyed Homage to Catalonia (1938, a good sequel to Joseph Kessel’s 1934 reporting from an abortive start to the war).  Also a single Hemingway story, come to think of it, “Old Man at the Bridge” (1936), a sad little sketch of a refugee.  I guess I should read For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), a famous book.

Mostly poets, though: Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca (I read his best-known plays, too), and the astounding Miguel Hernández.  Alongside them, Pablo Neruda’s surrealist book, Residence on Earth, which incorporates Spain in Our Hearts (1937).

Neruda was working in the Chilean consulate in Spain during the Civil War, helping poets escape the country, that sort of thing.  In his poetry, he had been working in asurrealist mode during the 1930s, but not surprisingly Spain in Our Hearts is political and direct.  Some titles: “Spain Poor through the Fault of the Rich,” “General Franco in Hell” (some other politicians are also assigned to their infernal spots), “The Victory of the Arms of the People.”  Poems as propaganda, some more than others.

from I Explain a Few Things

You will ask: why does your poetry
not speak to us of sleep, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of your native land?
Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!  (tr. Donald Walsh)

I wish I had something to say about Lorca.

Miguel Hernández, he just overwhelmed me.  Years ago, I wrote about Don Share’s translations of his poems, and this time I supplemented that book with the peculiar Selected Poems: Miguel Hernández and Blas de Otero (1972, ed. Timothy Baland and Hardie St. Martin, tr. many hands), peculiar because Hernández and Blas de Otero have nothing to do with each other, so this book is just two separate shorter books under one cover.  I knew nothing about post-Civil War Spanish poets, religious and reactionary compared to the great generation that preceded it, so I was glad to read some of Bras de Otero’s poetry.

But, Hernández.  The book’s section titles are painful enough.  “Poems Written During the Civil War,” “Poems Written in Prison,” “Last Poems before Death” (age 31).  Forget that, how about something from the “Early Poems” section, when Hernández was the “shepherd poet,” self-educated, sponging up five hundred years of Spanish poetry:

Your heart? – it is a frozen orange,
inside it has juniper oil but no light
and a porous look like gold: an outside
promising risks to the man who looks.

My heart is a fiery pomegranate,
its scarlet clustered, and its wax opened,
which could offer you its tender beads
with the stubbornness of a man in love.

Yes, what an experience of sorrow it is
to go to your heart and find a frost
made of primitive and terrifying snow!

A thirsty handkerchief flies through the air
along the shores of my weeping,
hoping that he can drink in my tears.  (tr. Robert Bly)

The Spanish sonnet, of course, is composed of more than imagery but also rhymes and flows and so on.  If only Hernández had been allowed to write more of this kind of sad poem, and fewer about the death of his son from wartime malnutrition.

I meant to write this up for for Stu and Richard’s Spanish Literature Month(s), and now I have.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Witcraft in 1901 and 1951 - a distinguished crankologist is prepared to give lessons in this important subject

In 1901, William James gives a series of lectures in Edinburgh that will become The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).  In 1951, Ludwig Wittgenstein dies.  James and Wittgenstein guide us through Witcraft’s English philosophy for almost two hundred and fifty pages (the chapters are getting pretty long).

1901 features more Mill, now a radical and feminist, and more Carlyle, now a hero of the new Labour Party.  Darwin, Spencer and Huxley are dragging philosophy in a new direction, as are Marx and Engels.  The first great philosophical craze, though, as we have discussed before at Wuthering Expectations, is for Arthur Schopenhauer, taken up by every decadent and aesthete, to be followed by the Nietzsche craze.  Also Hegel: “Before long Hegel-worship was taking hold in England too” (393).  In the 1951 chapter, it’s Kierkegaard; in a theoretical 2001 chapter, it would be Sartre and Derrida and various other French writers.  I would not mind reading a literary or book history of received philosophy.  It explains a lot (of what is in novels).

For example:

For some of Nietzsche’s followers, however, profundity was not enough.  Their leader was a self-styled ‘man of affairs’ who was a political agitator in Australia before surfacing in Chicago under the name of Ragnar Redbeard…  ‘Death to the weakling, wealth to the strong,’ he added… The full doctrine was set out in a pamphlet called Might is Right  Redbeard’s propaganda struck a chord with a young student in California called Jack London, helping turn him into a writer who aimed, as he put it, to proclaim ‘the paean of the strong with all my heart’, while ‘raging  through life without end like one of Nietzsche’s blond beasts’. (390)

Ragnar Redbeard!  This chapter is filled with interesting figures who were not themselves significant writers, but who were great propagators, most notable the Scot Thomas Davidson who “by vocation” was “a rebellious vagabond” of high intellectual powers, who drifted around Britain and the United States thinking and teaching, often in philosophical clubs.  “Davidson got on well with the ‘St Louis Hegelians’, as he called them – yes, a St. Louis specific Hegel-craze, headquartered in the St. Louis Mercantile Library, which I urged you to visit in this post.

Here we see a page of advertisements in the special Christmas edition of Mind! magazine (1901, p. 457).  I have adopted “a distinguished crankologist” as my new self-description, even though I am not particularly distinguished.  Am I ever prepared to give lessons.  I’ve been delivering them on this very website for years.

The long 1951 chapter is essentially a “life and times” of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who I take as a hero of Jonathan Rée’s, an exemplar of the practice of philosophy.  He barely publishes.  He is always thinking and talking, working on the most difficult problems.  His intelligence is astounding; who knows what he could have done if he had remained an engineer.  He has a perpetually complicated, comical, relationship with universities.

Bertrand Russell becomes, in the narrative, something of a villain, a corruption of philosophy.  I don’t know that Rée thinks of Russell as a villain, but narratives have their own logic.

The chapter’s title is “A Collection of Nonsense”:

The main topic of his classes [this is 1929] was still nonsense (or ‘nonsense in the philosophical sense’, as one of his students put it), and he spoke with great animation, sometimes rapidly, with dashes of ‘schoolboyish English slang’, sometimes slowing down and sinking into silence, ‘with perspiration streaming down his face’.  Students were often bewildered, but the effect was ‘hypnotic’. (475)

I suppose I see part of my attraction to Witcraft here.  I take nonsense, and not necessarily in the philosophical sense, as the basis of literature, with meaning and mimesis and all of that built on top of and out of language.  Ideas are made of language.  It is great fun to play with language, but it is also full of traps.  “Philosophy as [Wittgenstein] saw it was ‘not a theory’, but the practice of clarifying thoughts that are otherwise ‘opaque and blurred’” (613).  I do not see literature so differently. So Witcraft is a congenial book.

But it is a big book, too.  There are many other things a reader could do with it.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Witcraft in 1801 and 1851, starring William Hazlitt and Marian Evans - she came to suspect him of ‘excès de raison’, and began to lose interest

The 1801 and 1851 chapters of Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English are both built around writers I do not normally think of as philosophers, William Hazlitt in 1801 and Marian Evans in 1851.  Hazlitt, in 1801, is trying to become a painter, but his first book, The Principles of Human Action, will appear in 1805, read by almost no one except, eventually, John Keats.  Evans in 1851 was the author of one philosophical work, a translation of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846 for the translation), with a translation of Feuerbach in the near future.  So, at this point, philosophers, and more importantly they were reading every important book and meeting a high proportion of the important people.  And their own stories are interesting.

Who else is in the 1801 chapter?  English philosophy has up to this point, and well past it, been hard to separate from religion, and many of the 1801 stars are dissident Protestant clergymen working on religious problems, usually some kind of idealized “rational” Christianity, with philosophical tools.  Hazlitt’s father, the Reverend William Hazlitt, is one of them, along with the genially oblivious Joseph Priestly, one of the great pedagogical hacks:

Liberal Education [which argued that education should be useful and for ordinary people] was published by Johnson in 1765, and Priestly became the mainstay of his business, supplying him with almost 100 works over the next thirty years, ranging from textbooks for use in schools, and elaborate chronological wall charts (a hugely successful innovation), to original works of natural science, politics and theology.  But whatever the topic, Priestly kept returning to [David] Hartley’s themes of necessity, association of ideas and progress toward perfection.  (219)

Yes, this is the same Priestly who discovered oxygen, invented carbonated water, and so on.  These are amazing people.  William Burke, Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Coleridge introduces the era’s hot foreign craze, “’the most unintelligible Emanuel Kant’” (264, Coleridge’s words).  A number of translations of selections from Kant, along with attempts to explicate them, began to appear beginning in 1793.

Hazlitt would soon enough become one of the greatest English essayists and literary critics, but Witcraft skips all that.

The use of Marian Evans in the 1851 chapter is similar, except Rée cannot resist a joke.  The chapters are getting long – 88 pages for 1851 – and the name “George Eliot” does not appear until the last page.  I guess Rée assumes you know?  I mean, I knew.  Anyway, you do not need to know.  The novels, like Hazlitt’s essays, are all later.

In 1851, Evans for the first time published an essay, on history, progress, and religion, in the prestigious Westminster Review, and much of the chapter is about the functioning of the magazine, first as it was run by John Stuart Mill and then by others, including, for a couple of years, by George Eliot – sorry, Marian Evans, who was the “secret editor.”

Mill leads to Thomas Carlyle – “Mill was baffled too: ‘Carlylism’ was a ‘vice of style’, he said, and he ‘made little of it’” (290) – and Sartor Resartus leads to the continuing and expanding reception of Immanuel Kant, from the goldsmith Thomas Wirgman’s summary of Kant in a “map” (292, see left) to Thomas De Quincey’s frequent mockery of Kant and Kantians.  “De Quincey would never forgive the ‘disenchanter’ who infected him with cynicism when he was not yet twenty years old” (294).

Who else is here?  Tocqueville, Emerson – it is nice to read about writers who I have read myself – oh no, Herbert Spencer.  Evans, to use an anachronism, dated Spencer for a while, and it is a testament to her character that she became sick of him.  “After several more excursions, however… she came to suspect him of ‘excès de raison’, and began to lose interest” (357).

Tomorrow, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein wrap up Witcraft.

In a much earlier (1987), much shorter book, Philosophical Tales: An Essay on Philosophy and Literature, Rée writes “It would perhaps be possible to present the history of thought as a succession of integral histories, of the stories which intellectuals have told about their place in history,” an “integral history” being what I call “Whig history,” the story of how everything leads up to right now this minute, with every side path dismissed as unimportant.  Rée’s method in Witcraft, the use of figures like Hazlitt and Evans and the arbitrary fifty-year frame, is that each chapter becomes to the extent possible its own “now,” the story, told again and again, of how the past’s philosophers were fools and lunatics but now we’re finally getting it right.  He’s been carrying this idea around for thirty years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Witcraft in 1701 and 1751 - leaving the modern philosopher with no excuse for saying ‘things which he doth not understand’

Onward into Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English.  I have reached “1701: Politics, religion and the two new philosophies,” which means I have reached John Locke.  I called Hobbes a “major” philosopher, and Locke is beyond that, a significant figure in any history of Western philosophy.  He gets forty percent of the pages in the chapter, and they are more like a standard treatment than is usual for Rée.

Locke’s is one of the “two new philosophies”; the other is the corpuscularianism, badly named by Robert Boyle, the great chemist.  Corpuscularianism is Descartes adapted for the Royal Society, the new organization of what we would now call scientists, a system where

… the natural world is like an enormous collection of machines, operating on the same principles as artificial devices such as levers, locks, watches and air-pumps.  Everything that happens in nature can be reduced to a few ‘Mechanicall Affections of Matter’, as Boyle put it in 1666, without any need for the Qualities, Elements, Species, Essences, Forms and Substantial Forms postulated by the Aristotelians.  (108)

Boyle and the other corpuscularians hauled away a lot of old lumber, if nothing else.  Locke’s ideas have a strong Cartesian basis, too.  Everyone’s did.  There was a English Descartes craze:

By the 1690s readers of English were starting to take the physico-mathematical Descartes to their hearts, while booksellers promoted Descartes-themed publications on topics ranging from card games to hoists and pulleys.  There was also a lavishly illustrated folio volume called An Entire Body of Philosophy, aimed at the ‘Fair Sex’ and written by a French friar called Antoine le Grand…  The ‘Corpuscular Philosophy’, he said, had exposed the ‘Occult Qualities’ and ‘Hidden Powers’ of traditional science as ‘Gibberish’, leaving the modern philosopher with no excuse for saying ‘things which he doth not understand’.  (119)

In the context of philosophy, such a claim is always hilarious.  Here we see another reason I admire Rée – he understand not just literary history but book history.  Ideas do not just float around, but are written in some kind of language and published in some way, both of which affect the ideas themselves.  The Descartes craze is the first of several that appear in Witcraft.

“1751: New Philosophy, New History.”  In the last chapter, Rée used the lively, well-read non-entity John Toland as his hook character, but now he switches to a major figure.  “In October 1751 a young Scot called Adam Smith started work as a professor in the Arts faculty at the University of Glasgow” (149).  Rée can always move forward by checking in on whatever Smith was reading.  Francis Hutcheson, The Fable of the Bees, David Hume, a little bit of Voltaire and Rousseau, George Berkeley.

The introduction to the latter, for example: Smith writes to his mother about a cure, imported from America, that he has found for “’a violent fit of laziness’”: “You take some resin from fir trees or pines, stir it into a bucket of water, let the mixture settle and then drink half a pint twice a day” (164).  It’s the tar water craze, “sparked by a book called Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the virtues of Tar Water (1744), written by Bishop Berkeley, who, having solved, or more accurately demolished, one of the great philosophical problems, retired to a life of family and religious  duties and “extolling the virtues of tar water.”

This is a terrific chapter.  It does not hurt that Berkeley, Hume, and Smith are genial figures, happy philosophers, who write clear prose.  I should note that Rée’s chapters can easily be detached and read on their own, if a reader loves Hume but finds the 17th century just too tedious.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

every simple shewsay is either a yeasay or a naysay - Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft, 1601 & 1651 - The jokes are not always funny

The first chapter of Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English is titled “1601: Philosophy Learns English.”  It is much about translation as philosophy.  For there to be philosophy in English there first must be words for it, and the 16th century is when a large number of them are translated, stolen, or invented.

Rée is going to end the book with Ludwig Wittgenstein, so he is setting up a theme that will lead straight to the end of the book, that in his view philosophy is less about ideas than about words.  Or that there is little distinction.

The easy, clumsy path was simply to absorb the Latin and half-baked Greek.  To opponents, these were “inkhorn terms,” existing only in the inkwell, not in real English.  We in English missed a sure thing by not adopting the 1573 suggestions of clergyman Ralph Lever, who wanted to expel the Latin completely:

Conclusiones became ‘endsays’, and propositiones conditionales were ‘ifsayes’.  Instead of the hideous half-Latin maxim ‘every proposition is either an affirmation or a negation’, we could now say that every simple shewsay… is either a yeasay or a naysay. (20)

And that logique “should be known by the self-explanatory term Witcraft, which also served as the title of his book” (21).  Rée, by pinching the title, suggests that it would work just as well in place of philosophy.*

The attention to language is one of a number of ways that Rée’s approach is what I think of as literary.  Another is that the personality around whom he builds this first chapter is Hamlet, who is fictional, but who was a philosophy student at university in Wittenberg, allowing Rée to look at the trivium and the quadrivium and generally use Hamlet’s fancy college-boy talk for examples.

“A sizable section of Shakespeare’s audiences would have recognized his allusions to humanist philosophy, even if they had no Latin” (28).  This is because they were reading the new English translations of all sorts of books – Cicero, Thomas More, a mangled Diogenes Laertius that was “essentially a history of philosophy – the first in the English language” (30).  Plus the Italians – Giordano Bruno pops up – and the French – Michel de Montaigne – until finally Francis Bacon writes Of the Advancement of Learning (1605), “[m]ore or less absent-mindedly” the first original work of philosophy in English.

“1651: Puritans, philosophers, comedians.”  Thomas Hobbes is the star of the chapter, with the publication of Leviathan in 1651.  Other topics: the Puritan overhaul of university philosophy, the reception of Descartes, the beginnings of philosophy in America, including John Eliot’s 1672 publication of “a thousand copies of a miniature logic primer with a text in Algonquin and glosses in English,” the rise of chronology not just of the Bible but of philosophy (part of Thomas Stanley’s 1655 The History of Philosophy is below), magic and hermeticism, Sir Thomas Browne, Don Quixote, Thomas Urquhart’s Rabelais, Margaret Cavendish.  There is room for some of everything, whatever is interesting.

Hobbes is the first major English philosopher so far, so Rée spends more time working through the ideas in Leviathan, a little more like the usual history of philosophy.  This is a book about people who have ideas rather than ideas that have people (as labels, mostly).  Again, a more literary approach.  Hobbes disagrees:

Genuine philosophy, for Hobbes, ‘dependeth not on authors’, but on robust good sense, abetted by a lively sense of the ridiculous.  The jokes were not always funny, but philosophers were learning how to laugh.  (93)

* Full title: The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft, teaching a perfect way to argue and dispute.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English, some applause - in fact they save us from reading them at all

I would like to – no, I will – spend some time with Jonathan Rée’s Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English (2019), a history of modern philosophy, a book with some claims to art.  I mean that even the reader who does not care particularly about the history of English philosophy will find something of value in the stories Rée tells, his characters, his language, his literary art.

Rée hooks his history onto specific years, fifty years apart, 1601, 1651, and on to 1951, eight chapters that get longer as they progress, with most chapters hooked to one person, Adam Smith in 1751, for example, although they are not all significant philosophers but people who lived through the major philosophical events of the time (“lived” meaning: read books).  To understand what happened in 1751, it is obviously necessary to go back, and probably forward, and to understand one person’s ideas I also need to see those of many other people.  Rée has hammered out a big, rough frame that has room for anything he wants to do.  It solves a lot of problems.  It never seems like a gimmick.

In the Introduction, Rée describes his own discovery of philosophy in Jean-Paul Sartre (Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946), which showed him that “[p]hilosophy was about questioning received ideas, and I wanted more” (1).  He tried Descartes, but that was “unbelievably dull,” so one of the many available histories of philosophy was the next step.  Where literary history is left to specialists, weirdos like me, ignored, and is it ever, even by most readers of the so-called classics, histories of philosophy are “part of philosophy’s core business, and without them no philosophical education would be complete” (3).  It is not like I am actually going to read Kant myself.  I read about Kant.

If the histories are depressing for aspiring philosophers, they come as a relief for the rest of us.  They tell us enough about philosophy to assure us that it is a waste of time.  They save us the trouble of studying the great books with close attention, in fact they save us from reading them at all.  No wonder we like them.  (4)

One of the big problems solved by Rée’s arbitrary dates and personalities is that all of this becomes historicized, meaning that the old books that seem like foolishness in 1951, missteps in the history of ideas, were the hot new thing, full of truths, in, say, 1751, when Adam Smith was reading them.  Rée is always working from someone’s point of view, so whatever they find interesting is interesting.  And we still do not have to read the actual books.

My plan is to review Witcraft, and I mean review it, chapter by chapter, like I did with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis last year.  “This is a great book, and it deserves infinitely more clamorous applause than it has yet received” says Robert Minto in a blog post (“October 2019: What I Read”) he has since deleted for some reason, which means he also deleted the comment where he told me that Witcraft occasionally reminded him of Wuthering Expectations (!), I think mostly because Rée likes to use comical out-of-context quotations as titles.

As art, Witcraft often reminded me of Christopher Benfey's brilliant, wide-ranging literary histories, like The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003) which moves from Melville to The Book of Tea to Heidegger in a way that seems natural.  I wish I knew more books like these.


Sunday, August 2, 2020

John O'Hara domesticates Hemingway - It had been a very fine experience

By using such details, O’Hara almost single-handedly invented what came to be known as the New Yorker story.  (Frank MacShane, “Introduction,” Collected Stories of John O’Hara, vii)

I associate John O’Hara with the New Yorker of the 1960s, when he published something like two hundred stories in the last decade of his life, but here we are back in the 1930s, when it took O’Hara all of sixteen years to write his first two hundred short stories, and they were really short, a thousand words or two (the twenty page “Doctor’s Son” is a major exception).  Collected Stories gives a hundred pages to the first period, 1934 to 1947 (I just read this section), and three hundred to the second, 1960 to 1970, but the number of stories are the same in each.  In the middle period, O’Hara was mad at the New Yorker so abandoned short stories.  Literary history is fundamentally comic.

O’Hara is right in that Gertrude Stein – Sherwood Anderson – Ernest Hemingway line.  I will digress on Hemingway.

I’m in “Big Two-Hearted River,” from In Our Times (1925), where Nick Adams is setting up camp after a long hike to his trout stream.

Nick was hungry.  He did not believe he had ever been hungrier.  He opened and emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan.

He adds some tomato “catchup,” too.  This is a story famous for its lack of story.  Nick walks, camps, fishes, and thinks, but only about fishing.  Since he is a recurring Hemingway character, and because the story must have some purpose, it must mean something, and much effort has gone into drawing meaning out of the story’s negative space.  It’s about the war, that kind of thing.  Nick was in the war.  Now he’s going to catch some trout.  Meanwhile, his spaghetti is hot.

He was very hungry.  Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising.  He looked at the tent once more.  All right.  He took a full spoonful from the plate.

“Chrise,” Nick said, “Geezus Chrise,” he said happily.

I love that moment.  A lot of feeling is contained in that full-mouthed transliteration of speech.  Nick, alone, only speaks three times in the story, and this is one of them.  “It had been a very fine experience,” he thinks when his meal is over.

O’Hara’s little stories kept reminding me of this moment.  It is as if he built an aesthetic off this moment.  How to take that moment and that man, eating his beans, surprised at how good they are, maybe also how hot, and make that trivial, ordinary incident meaningful.  Turn it into a story.  Not necessarily much of a story, but more of a story than Hemingway does.  O’Hara is no avant-gardist.  He is domesticating Hemingway.  New Yorkerizing him.  The Hemingway of the 1920s, I mean.  The Hemingway of the 1930s is also domesticating the Hemingway of the 1920s.

I should give some examples, of O’Hara’s little details and dialogues, but in these particular stories, at least, they are not as good as that bit of “Big Two-Fisted River.”  How about some last lines?  O’Hara is not Maupassant – I now think that Maupassant (the real one) is not Maupassant (Mr. Trick Ending) – but he is kin.  Remember that these are all two to five page stories.  Not much room to move.

For a while he would just sit there and plan his own terror.  (“Over the River and Through the Wood,” 1934)

Mary looked at him and burst into tears.  (“The Gentleman in the Tan Suit,” 1935)

Over and over, first violently, then weakly, he said it, “The bastard, the dirty bastard.”  (“Do You Like It Here?”, 1939)

He hoped she would say no, but he knew she would say yes.  (“Common Sense Should Tell You,” 1946)

This is what John O’Hara looks like to me, right now.  I should try one of his novels.

Friday, July 31, 2020

John O'Hara's pandemic story "The Doctor's Son" - If you wanted an ice cream soda you had to have it put in a cardboard container

The first story in Collected Stories of John O’Hara (1984) is “The Doctor’s Son” (1935), about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.  Several months ago, bookish Twitterists were compiling lists of pandemic fiction, although not, as far as I can tell, reading much of it, and who can blame anyone.  But I thought there were some interesting things in this story.

O’Hara is from Pennsylvania coal country:

The mines closed down almost with the first whiff of influenza.  Men who for years had been drilling rock and had chronic miner’s asthma never had a chance against the mysterious new disease; and even younger men were keeling over, so the coal companies had to shut down the mines, leaving only maintenance men, such as pump men, in charge.  Then the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania closed down the schools and churches, and forbade all congregating.  If you wanted an ice cream soda you had to have it put in a cardboard container; you couldn’t have it at the fountain in a glass. (4)

The switch from the tragic to the trivial fits the narrator, James, who is the doctor’s son of the title but who is only fifteen years old.  His father has more or less collapsed from stress and exhaustion, so a young replacement doctor has been dispatched from medical school on a temporary basis.  James, with  no school, becomes the chauffeur, driving the Model T and filling the new doctor in on mining country culture.

The use of bars as immigrant medical clinics, for example, that was interesting.  The doctor goes to the bars “where the practice of medicine was wholesale” (9), to Kelly’s to treat crowds of Irish immigrants and Wisniewski’s to handle the Poles.  The owner of the latter has the flu, but that does not mean an end to hospitality, so he is passing the bottle around:

Doctor Myers was horrified.  “You oughtn’t to do that.  You’ll give the others the flu.”

“Too late now , Doc,” he said.  “T’ree bottle now already.”

“You’ll lose all your customers, Steve,” I said.

“How ya figure dat out?” said Steve.  “Dis flu make me die, dis bottle make dem die.  Fwit!  Me and my customers all togeder in hell, so I open a place in hell.  Fwit!”  (22)

How O’Hara loves the varieties of human speech.

I should include the mask passage, in case we think we have never done this before:

Doctor Myers at first wore a mask over his nose and mouth when making calls, and so did I, but the gauze stuck to my lips and I stopped wearing it and so did the doctor.  It was too much of a nuisance to put them on and take them off every time we would go  to a place like Kelly’s, and also it was rather insulting to walk in on a group of people with a mask on your face when nobody in the group was wearing one.  (16)

A long, grim passage, when a house call to treat a family with flu uncovers something even worse, diphtheria, was the dramatic highlight for me, but the actual story is about the new doctor starting an affair with the mother of James’s girlfriend (and James is complicit, since he is the driver), which seemed a little thin, but life goes on, I know, except when it does not, even in the face of this:

This graph of the American mortality rate from infectious diseases is taken from a 1999 Center for Disease Control article, “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Control of Infectious Diseases.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Huxley changes into Huxley - who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius

Aldous Huxley wrote good literary criticism, travel writing, art criticism, short stories, as well as four novels during the 1920s, all loose contemporary satires.  London artists and writers and their problems.  Fifteen books during the 1920s, not counting his poetry.  What a monster.  The arts criticism and so on, as represented in Huxley’s Collected Essays (1958), is quite good, as are the two novels I have read.

And then it was goodbye to all that, all of it tossed out for mysticism, pacifism, and psychedelic drugs.  I have had great trouble seeing how the Huxley of Antic Hay turned into the proto-hippie psychedelic prophet of the 1950s.  A long, strange trip.  Brave New World (1932) is the hinge.

England, and apparently the world, is populated with clones, assigned to their social level and occupation in a strict, chemically-engineered hierarchy.  Industrial productivity has increased to the point that everyone has plenty of leisure and recreational drugs; social norms have changed so that everyone has plenty of sex, although Huxley hints at some complications in that area.  It is a utilitarian parody.  How many people would take this deal, so to speak?  For a plot, introduce a character who rejects the deal.

Huxley’s earlier novels are written in what I think of as the Platonic ideal of the British “house style” of the 1920s, clever, witty, and conversational, just a bit arch, capable of darker colors, but generally light on its feet.  (I would like to read an essay about how English Golden Age detective novels have survived so well in part because the British house style was so appealing, compared to, say, its heavier pre-war predecessor or the contemporary American pulp style.  Maybe that is not true, but I would like to see the case made.)  Huxley’s style in Brave New World is weighed down, compared to his novels with a contemporary setting, by the mass of information he has to impart, like all of the nonsense about how cloning and hypnotic conditioning works in the first chapter.

It is a relief, in chapter two, to find some satire.  An administrator is recounting the origin of hypnotic conditioning, when a boy falls asleep with the radio on and “woke up repeating word for word a long lecture by that curious old writer (‘one of the very few whose works have been permitted to come down to us’), George Bernard Shaw, who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius.”  That is a joke about 1932, not 2532.  The parenthetical is possibly more insulting that the punchline.

Just a few lines later, more satire:

“The case of [the boy] occurred only twenty-three years after Our Ford’s first T-Model was put on the market.”  (Here the Director made a sign of the T on his stomach and all the students reverently followed suit.)

This terrific gag, the pseudo-worship of Henry Ford in place of Jesus Christ, in a society where even the people are produced on an assembly line, recurs throughout the novel.  Two things blow my mind, and I wish I had looked them up back in college, but looking things up was work back then: first, Gramsci’s concept of Fordism is from 1934, two years later – all credit to Huxley; second, Henry Ford was not some distant, or even deceased, historical figure.  He was sixty-nine in 1932, running Ford Motor Company, and would live for another fifteen years.  By chance, 1932 was an especially important year for Ford, since it saw the introduction of the flathead V-8 engine, a major innovation.  I wonder if Ford ever read Brave New World.

The two chapters before the last, where the rebel and the ruler debate ethics, quoting Shakespeare and Cardinal Newman back and forth, are where Huxley gives up the game.  Why not write Platonic dialogues or some such thing after this, why bother creating novelistic characters?  And I guess that is what Huxley does.