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.