Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books and things read, 2015

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Krokodil
Angell & Marzluff In the Company of Crows and Ravens
Scieszka & Smith The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
Marly Youmans Glimmerglass
Gene Wolfe The Shadow of the Torturer
Anton Chekhov Sakhalin Island
Anton Chekhov "The Seagull"
Anton Chekhov "The Cherry Orchard"
Lev Tolstoy Tolstoy on Shakespeare
Anton Chekhov "Three Sisters"
Anton Chekhov "Uncle Vanya"
Anton Chekhov The Notebook of Anton Chekhov
Gorky, Kuprin & Bunin Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov
Gene Wolfe The Claw of the Conciliator
Rosamund Bartlett Chekhov: Scenes From a Life
Anton Chekhov "Ivanov"
William Shakespeare "The Tempest"
Harvey Pitcher Chekhov's Leading Lady
Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited
Edith Wharton Ethan Frome
Walter Scott Guy Mannering
Mikhail Bulgakov Heart of a Dog
Franz Kafka The Castle
Yukio Mishima Spring Snow
Anonymous The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (Jeff Sypeck, trans)
Anton Chekhov The Steppe
Fr Alban Butler Lives of the Saints
T.S. Eliot The Waste Land and Other Poems
Julie De Sherbinin Chekhov and Russian Religious Culture: Poetics of the Marian Paradigm
Heiko Haumann A History of East European Jews
Ezra Pound ABC of Reading
Alberto Moravia Contempt
Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales
Aeschylus The Oresteia (R. Lattimore, trans)
Sophocles, the Theban plays (var trans.)
Greek Tragedies, Vol. I, Richmond Lattimore, ed.
Greek Tragedies, Vol. III, Richmond Lattimore, ed.
Hesiod Theogeny
Tristan and Iseult as told by Joseph Bedier
Henry James New York Revisited
Aeschylus The Complete Plays
Sophocles The Complete Plays
Mikhail Bulgakov A Country Doctor's Notebook
Bertolt Brecht "Der Augsburger Kreidekreis"
Arthur Scott Bailey The Tale of Rusty Wren
Mikhail Bulgakov White Guard
Various Der Weg Zum Lesen
Thucydides The Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley trans.)
Hesiod Works and Days
Äsop Fabeln
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter, a Critical Case Study
Selected Essays of Samuel Johnson (W.J. Bate, editor)
W.B. Yeats "Cathleen ni Houlihan"
W.B. Yeats "On Baile's Strand"
W.B. Yeats "Deirdre"
W.B. Yeats "The Death of Cuchulain"
Selma Lagerlöf The Wonderful Adventures of Nils
Anton Chekhov In The Twilight
Lionel Terray Conquistadors of the Useless
D.H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley's Lover
Euripides The Complete Plays, Vol I
Edith Wharton The New York Stories
Gertrude Stein Three Lives
Gertrude Stein QED
Alexander Pushkin The Captain's Daughter
Isak Dinesen Out of Africa
Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast
Sandra E. Adickes To Be Young Was Very Heaven
Michael Smith Tom Crean
David Von Drehle Triangle
Virginia Woolf Selected Stories
Gunter Grass Katz und Maus
Angela Thirkell Wild Strawberries
E.R. Dodds The Ancient Concept of Progress and other essays
Marly Youmans Maze of Blood
Jennifer Niven The Ice Master

The surprise winner of all of the above books is Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War. What a great book that is. I'm usually not a fan of history, non-fiction in general not being all that well written, frankly, but this is a tremendous book. In 2016, hopefully, I'll read Herodotus and Xenophon, the bookends of Thucydides, so to speak.

I did not, I see, finish my Greek Tragedies Project, and have one fat volume of Euripides to go. Well, it'll be waiting for me in 2016, alongside the last of the Shakespeare and everything else I haven't read yet (an infinitude of literature, which is a good thing for me because one hates to run out of new things to read). I did manage to read more books in German this year than in years past, and that's likely a trend that will only increase, though I still read German fairly slowly, depending on the writer's vocabulary and use of figurative language. But I already have a stack of German novels waiting for my attention next year, another good thing.

I would like to take a moment to recommend Jeff Sypeck's The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier, a translation of a long medieval poem that starts with a tradesman slapping a king and goes on to incorporate ideas of nobility and then swallows the Crusades whole. A ripping yarn in a strange poetic form that Sypeck makes sing in colloquial English. Buy a copy at his Quid Plura? blog.

Marly Youmans continues to put out superb novels. Early in 2015 I read her excellent Glimmerglass, a book about life and inspiration. Very late in 2015 I read her latest, Maze of Blood, which is naturally getting good reviews and you should buy two copies, give away one and read the other. I will hopefully be able to write something both worth reading and coherent about this excellent new novel. I've twice already written incoherently about it. Go read the book, is what I mean.

Because it's traditional for these obligatory "what I read this year" posts to also say something about what I wrote this year, I will tell you that I completed a first draft of a novel called Antosha!. It used to be called Antosha in Prague, but I have decided that an exclamation point is necessary for this one. It is some of my finest writing, some of my best thinking. Clearly unpublishable. I also have revised, for the nth time, a novel called Mona in the Desert. I am working on the pitch letter, so I can query the novel to literary agents in 2016. Mona is a nonlinear narrative about women and love, spanning 60-odd years, with large doses of literary theory and philosophy. Clearly unpublishable. Currently I am drafting a new novel, called Nowhere But North, a book about a fictional American expedition to Antarctica in 1914. It's about Emersonian ideals versus human decency, by which statement you can tell I think the two are opposed. The book is in three parts, which overlap and tell the story in sideways-reverse chronological order. Clearly unpublishable. I expect to finish the first draft come spring 2016, at which point I'll go back to Antosha! and revise that MS. I do not plan to write any more novels after I complete Nowhere But North. I do plan to buy more hats.

The German-language blogging seems to have been a mistake. I will do more English-language blogging. Possibly a foray into Esperanto at some point, too. Has anyone written a novel in Esperanto? Yes, I see that lots of people have.

What else, what else? In 2016, I plan to read more poetry, more Ruskin, the rest of Euripides, whatever Aristophanes I haven't read, more theology, more Melville, the final six (five?) books of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, more Virginia Woolf, more Shakespeare, more early 20th-century British women novelists, a lot of Chekhov, and I don't know what else. That Le Guin trilogy, certainly. Max Frisch's Homo Faber. The German-language edition of The Hobbit I picked up a few years ago. More Henry James. I might read Middlemarch and the epic of Gilgamesh and The Long Ships finally. I'll come up with plenty of things to read, I always do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In Our Stars: notes on Marly Youmans' "Maze of Blood"

I realize that Marly Youmans' remarkable new novel Maze of Blood is based loosely on the biographical facts of Robert E. Howard, who shot himself in the head when it became apparent that his consumptive mother had fallen into a terminal coma. Conall Weaver, Youmans' fictional pulp fiction writer, lets "normal" life, "normal" love, and "normal" success pass him by as he remains in the family home, providing his mother the care and attention his mostly-absent physician father won't provide. Conall's friends have gone away, to college or other callings, as he stays behind in his small Texas town where he is an outcast, a freak who writes foolish stories nobody in his home town will read. That Conall makes more money than his neighbors is no mark of success to them. He is not one of them, and never will be. My argument is that, despite Conall Weaver's suicide at the age of 30-something, this is not a tragic story of lost opportunities.

Youmans has, in previous books (Thaliad and Glimmerglass especially), shown that the creation of art is itself an otherness, a thing not of "normal" life. To choose the way of art is turn from the "normal" path, at least in part, because the "normal" world is not generally friendly to a life of making art. Conall Weaver chooses the way of art. More importantly, he also chooses the way of compassion, staying with his mother, nursing her when she is too sick to care for herself, honoring a childhood promise many of us would forget as we grow into adulthood. Conall strains against both the way of art and the way of compassion, and it would be easy to see him as a defeated man, brought under by his obligation to his mother and his entrapment in a small Texas town. I do not think we are meant to see Conall Weaver this way, though. Youmans is a subtle writer, and I've been thinking about how little Maze of Blood feels like a story of defeat and desperation. It wasn't until I was leafing through Butler's Lives of the Saints last weekend that I began to think that Conall Weaver's story is possibly one of grace, like the grace achieved by Flannery O'Connor's characters. Conall Weaver, then, presented as a sort of anchorite, choosing to remain in that small town to look after his mother, because he knew it was wrong to go. (This is all a bit too reductive, I know, but I'm going to follow this angle anyway.)

I don't really know if that's Youmans' argument, that Conall Weaver stayed where he was because he knew it was wrong to go anywhere else. He chose to remain with his mother, possibly making a professional sacrifice but, you know, possibly not. It might simply be that Conall's place was with his mother, and he knew that. He and his mother formed a sort of small private world, and if you don't insist on a Freudian spin, maybe there was nothing wrong with that small private world. Maybe Maze of Blood isn't a story of repression and loss. Maybe it's a story of Conall Weaver making the most of what he was, of what he had. Maybe his mother and his small republic of letters was the biggest world he could have, and when his mother died, he recognized the impossibility of entering a new--another--world. Hence the borrowed pistol. Conall's dedication to his mother was the correct moral choice if you take selfishness off the table. The villain of the piece, if there is one, is Conall's father, a doctor who spends as much time away from home as he possibly can, proud of Conall's success as a writer but taking almost no responsibility for his wife's quality of life.

I don't think that Youmans intends us to look at Conall Weaver's story and think, "Oh, what a pity, what a pity." I don't think that we are to see Conall remaining at home as a great tragedy. I think a lot of reviewers recognize Youmans' high achievement in prose and storytelling, but somehow misunderstand the action of the tale, seeing a thwarted hero's journey. These readers miss the particular truth of Conall Weaver by looking for a happy generality they can apply to themselves, I think. Conall Weaver was victorious on the moral plain, the place where it counts. This is one of the great strengths of Youmans as a novelist: she defies the easy commonplaces of fiction, refusing to align her novels with the cliches of the day. She gives us beautiful and discomfiting works of art, and we should pay better attention.

(I thought I was going to quote from Maze of Blood, but apparently I'm not. Maybe in my next post, when I talk about the book instead of talking about myself.)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Happy Christmas

Best gifts received, 2015:
  • A small hexagonal box of which I unfortunately don't have a photo handy
  • Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy in the original covers (Earthsea was my teenage choice for high fantasy, much preferred to LOTR; I last read the books about a decade ago and they held up fine)
  • Drinking With the Saints by Michael Foley, a mixology guide that's a cross between Butler's Guide to the Saints, the Roman missal, and Paul Clarke's Cocktail Chronicles. I like that Foley takes the theology seriously, that faith isn't the butt of jokes.

Monday, December 21, 2015

no-limit Texas hold 'em

Yesterday I read the first half of Marly Youmans' latest novel Maze of Blood. There is a point, about a third into the book, where Youmans does an amazing and subtle thing: the protagonist Conall (a professional genre fiction writer) and his girl Maybelline (a schoolteacher with ambitions of being a writer) are having an argument about stories. Conall denies that the real-world events all around him are compelling stories; real life is dull and empty compared to the fantastic tales he writes. Maybelline denies that the fantastic tales Conall writes tell the truth about actual human life; they are false and ignore the intimate details of real lives. Both of these people, Youmans shows, are wrong; both "realism" and the fantastic have the power to tell truths, both large and small, about real life. Youmans brilliantly demonstrates this by having the lives of Conall and Maybelline exist simultaneously as prosaic narratives and as myth-sized wonder tales, the daily lives informing the mythic fictions, the mythic fictions transforming into the daily lives, the real-world scene in which Conall and Maybelline have their argument itself existing in both worlds, both the "real" and the fantastic, the whole narrative wobbling ironically around these people's denials. It's just wonderful stuff, high-degree-of-difficulty writing, and Youmans is wise enough that she doesn't point out what she's doing, she just does it and perceptive readers might ask themselves how their own lives are both prosaic narratives and mythic battles between primal forces. Great writing indeed.

The closest thing I can think of to what Youmans does here is the bit in Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight where, as the narrator V describes Sebastian's various novels, the narrative itself becomes those novels for a few pages. That was a cool trick, Vladimir. Youmans does something different, but it is also a cool trick. I could barely contain my excitement while reading that chapter. Yes, I thought. Yes, this is the stuff.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Three, Wise"

The first raised an astrolabe. There’s the Star, he said. We’re directly below it. Where are we?

Yehuda, the second answered. He was tired of carrying the chest of valuables. He'd thought they'd assign him the astrolabe.

Directly below is vague, don't you think, asked the third. You can't triangulate with one sighting. We should have maps, stand apart on the edges of the plateau. Can we identify one woman in these villages? What if she's in al-Quds?

Let's just walk, the first said. We're bright fellows.

Behind the three, the starlight fell upon the raised swords of Herod's soldiers.

This is my small contribution to Loren Eaton's annual Advent Ghosts shared storytelling event. Every year Loren invites a large and varied group of writers to come up with 100-word stories that might be creepy and might have the season as a theme. It's always a good time and I always dash off my story at the last minute. Thanks again, Loren!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

World Cup, or Science Learned Aboard The Bus

"In the Flat-Earth model, the South Pole does not exist at all and Antarctica is instead a gigantic ice-wall extending the circumference of Earth holding in the oceans like a giant bowl, or a “world cup.” As strange as this concept may sound at first, it is a fact that if you set a bearing due South from anywhere on Earth, inevitably at or before 78 degrees Southern latitude, you will find yourself face-to-face with an enormous ice-wall towering 100-200 feet in the air extending to the East and West the entire circumference of the world!" --from the Flat Earth Society website

I've been doing a lot of reading about Arctic and Antarctic exploration lately, so this was amusing to stumble upon. Perhaps I'll add a flat-earther to my work in progress novel. I already have a (spoiler alert!) hollow-earth theorist in there.

Monday, December 14, 2015

"by diligent study and a series of systematic visits" Melville admires Turner

Moby-Dick, Chapter 3 "The Spouter-Inn"

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.--It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.--It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.--It's a blasted heath.--It's a Hyperborean winter scene.--It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture's midst. THAT once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist's design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

von dem Dritten Reich, rückwärts: ein letztes Bericht über Katz und Maus

Also, ich habe der Roman des Günter Grass Katz und Maus genaugelesen. Ich bin nicht so sicher, was ich uber das Buch denken sollen. Grass scheint zu sagen, ich glaube, dass man musst Helden der einen oder anderen Art haben. Das heisst, dass während der Zeit des Dritten Reich, wann Leute war neue Helden gegeben (z.b. Horst Wessel, nach der ein Schul war genannt, ein Schul wo der Helden des Buch, Joachim Mahlke, geht nach er war vertrieben seinem erstem Hochschul aus), man soll hangen zu die Traditional Kulturenhelden an. Pilenz, der Erzähler des Katz und Maus, anbetet Mahlke, wer anbetet die Jungfrau Maria und auch wenige Polnischen ehemalige Kriegshelden. Also, Grass zeigt in die Vergangenheit, von dem Dritten Reich, rückwärts, für dem Weg vor (vielleicht aber: für dem Weg unter oder durch der Nazis?). Das ist ironic, ja? Denn die Nazis haben auch zu die Vergangenheit aussehen, aber zu eine andere Vegangenheit, vielleicht eine falsch eine.

Als ich sage, ich bin nicht sicher was Grass hier meint. Ist es besser, nur unsere eigenen Obsessionen erkennen und zerstört werden, oder ist es besser, mit den Behörden zu kooperieren und zu überleben, vielleicht auch Belohnungen verdienen? Grass macht die Antwort nicht klar. Hat Pilenz Mahlke schieben in den Weg der Selbstzerstörung? Pilenz glaubt es, manchmal, aber er wirft auch Mahlke, der "schon immer ein Publikum." Aber macht "das Brauchen eines Publikum" machen Mahlke der Ingenieur seiner eigenen Tragödie? Ich weiss nicht.

Ist das wirklich Pilenzs Schuld? Jedenfalls, er war ihn, die Katz auf Mahlkes Hals -- seine Maus, das heißt -- setzte. Das Angriff hat aller Mahlkes Obsession mit seiner Hals (und hängen Dinge von ihm) beginnen. Pilenz fuhlte dass er fuhr der Mahlke den Selbstmord, oder jedenfalls trieb ihn in den unterwasser Untergrund, wovon Mahlke nie auftauchte. So was meint das als Metaphor?

Aber, ganz, ein Grosse Buch, uber der Grosse Mahlke. (Bitte entschuldigen Sie mich für mein schlechtes Deutsch.)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Not My Own, Not Private, But Idaho

Mighty Reader and I spent the High Holy Day of Pilgrims in Idaho, eating a whole lot of excellent food with some wholly excellent people. Thanks awfully, Excellent People, for feeding us and helping us drink all that boose we bought. Thanks also to Trip Taylor, for having his excellent book store open on Friday. We buy books wherever we travel, and Taylor's selection has never disappointed us. This visit's treasures:
  • Heinrich Boll: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum
  • Isak Dinesen: Seven Gothic Tales
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Sonnets From the Portuguese
  • Virginia Woolf: Jacob's Room
I took the whole of last week off from work, actually, and yet I did not manage to write the one long chapter of my novel-in-progress that I thought I'd write. Instead, I played a lot of violin (Bach and Monti and some gypsy stuff, in case you wonder), got a haircut, flew twice over the mountains and drank all that boose mentioned above. I also discovered that the page numbers in the index to my 1934 Modern Library edition of Bulfinch's Mythology do not in fact match the text. I can't believe that in all these years, I haven't used the index, but there you have it.

photo credit: Miss Tilman

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Mother Courage and Her Children"

THE CHAPLAIN: I realize you are serious, Mother Courage. Well, there've always been people going around saying some day the war will end. I say, you can't be sure the war will ever end. Of course it may have to pause occasionally-for breath, as it were--it can even meet with an accident-nothing on this earth is perfect. A war of which we could say it left nothing to be desired will probably never exist. A war can come to a sudden halt- -from unforeseen causes--you can't think of everything--a little oversight, and the war's in the hole: and someone's got to pull it out again! The someone is the Emperor or the King or the Pope. They're such friends in need, the war has really nothing to worry about, It can look forward to a prosperous future.

MOTHER COURAGE: If I was sure you're right ...

THE CHAPLAIN: Think it out for yourself: how could the war end?

THE CLERK (suddenly): What about peace? Yes, peace. I'm from Bohemia. I'd like to get home once in a while.

THE CHAPLAIN: Oh, you would, would you? Dear old peace! What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?

THE CLERK: In the long run you can't live without peace!

THE CHAPLAIN: Well, I'd say there's peace even in war, war has its islands of peace. For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace, yes, they're provided for, or the war couldn't keep going. In war-as in the very thick of peace-you can take a crap, and between one battle and the next there's always a beer, and even on the march you can snatch a nap--on your elbow maybe, in a gutter--something can always be managed. Of course you can't play cards during an attack, but neither can you while ploughing the fields in peace time: it's when the victory's won that there are possibilities. You have your leg shot off, and at first you raise quite an outcry as if it was something, but soon you calm down or take a swig of brandy, and you end up hopping about, and the war is none the worse for your little misadventure. And can't you be fruitful and multiply in the thick of slaughter-behind a barn or somewhere? Nothing can keep you from it very long in any event. And so the war has your offspring and can carry on. War is like love, it always finds a way. Why should it end?
The above dialogue is from Berthold Brecht's 1939 play "Mutter Courage und ihre Kinde" (trans. Eric Bentley), which we saw last Friday evening in a performance by the Seattle Shakespeare Company, using a translation by David Hare. I don't know Mr Hare, but his translation is a bit livelier than Mr Bentley's, so I'm assuming it's a more recent work.

"Mother Courage and Her Children" was written, apparently in about a month of "white hot" inspiration (or anger, if you will), as a response to Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. Brecht set the play not in the 1930s, but rather over the course of 12 years (1624 to 1636) during the 30-Year's War. The name "Mother Courage" comes from a play by Grimmelshausen, who was a witness to the War. It is a rattling, blackly-comic antiwar statement, with some dandy vaudeville-style songs. Typical Brecht, in other words.

I want to focus on the central theme of the play, the central irony Brecht introduces in the work. Early on, Mother Courage makes a speech about the so-called courage of generals and the men who fight under their command, pointing out that in a well-run army, the men wouldn't need to be courageous: if generals didn't go into battle with too few men, or if they were actually competent tacticians and the troops didn't have to improvise on the field, courage would be unnecessary. It's just like, Mother Courage goes on to say, the idea of virtue: in a well-ordered society, citizens would not have to struggle to be virtuous, because the society itself would be built upon virtue and virtuous behavior. We only have to force ourselves to be courageous and virtuous when society is corrupt.

This idea, repeated throughout the play, seems awfully bleak. But what is shown (rather than what is said) in "Mother Courage" are people being courageous and virtuous. Brecht claims, then, that despite war and corruption and violence and death, people do force themselves to be good, and kind, and loving. Despite it all, and this struggle which goes on in the face of endless war and indifference to suffering, is how humanity survives. Mother Courage is no hero, but two of her children are, and Courage loves even her non-heroic son (another terrible irony at the end of the play is Courage's longing to see Eilif again if she can locate the army in which he is a soldier; she has no idea Eilif's been executed for brutally murdering a family of civilians--which act was quite legal only a week before when there wasn't a cease-fire in effect, as Eilif points out to no avail).

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

a book I apparently wrote

Tonight Mighty Reader and I will see Berthold Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" as performed by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. Does this count as participation in German Literature Month? I say it does and maybe I'll write about das Musiktheaterstück this weekend. It could happen. I see I haven't said much about Gunter Grass' Katz und Maus lately. The reason for that silence is simple enough: I'm a very slow reader in German, or at least of Herr Grass' German text, which is a bit more slangy and conversational than I'm used to reading, and also much of the vocabulary is new to me, so I lean hard on my Langenscheidt's, which is a slow way to read a novella. I'm making progress and I see where I have stolen a lot of my own writerly tricks. I should re-read all the Grass novels I read in my youth, or late youth, or early middle age or whatever it was, and see what else I've stolen from Grass.

Although, even with that debt to Grass, when I think about the novel I'm now writing, I tend to think of it as a Henry James novel (Washington Square-era James, not Golden Bowl-era James, that is). Part of that has to do with setting (Greenwich Village, 1913-14), but most of it, I think, has to do with the approach to character I've chosen for this. Anyway, I don't see a lot of the Danzig Trilogy in my Nowhere But North. I see it in a lot of other things of mine, including the unreliable narrative of The Astrologer, a book I apparently wrote.

When I have finished writing the current stretch of Nowhere But North's first draft (I'm about 14,000 words into a 30,000-word section), I will finally read Marly Youmans' latest novel, Maze of Blood, which looks quite good. Jeff over at Quid Plura? just wrote about it, and I keep forgetting in the fog of war to go read his post. Maybe I'll do that now. You should, too, I'll bet.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Plagiary

A few minutes ago I saw the word "plagiary" in the table of contents of a reference book. I first misread the word as "plag-iary," rhyming with "aviary," or "bestiary." I took it to mean a collection of plagiarisms. And then I remembered that there is no such word as "plagiary" meaning a bestiary of plagiarism, and I was disappointed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

die Dinge die hängt um den Hals des Joachim Mahlke

Zählen alle die Beispiele, die Dinge die hängt um den Hals des Joachim Mahlke. Zuerst ist natürlich der Adamsapfel, die die Katze vor ein Maus nimmt. Dann ist der Schraubenzieher, die schwimmt mit Mahlke ("Mahlke" bedeutet "einen kleinen Mensch," aber Mahlke is auch der einzige Junge wer ein Werkzeug unter Wasser zu verwenden denkt). Dann ist die schwartze-und-weisse Katze. Auch gibt es eine Jungfrau Maria Medal, und dann einen neuen Schraubenzieher aus Edelstahl, das Mahlke hat von unter Wasser gebracht. Und dann, wir werden das später sehen.

Während wir über Namen sprechen, es ist mir interessant dass "Joachim" bedeutet in Hebrew "von Gott erhöht." Meint der Name etwas tiefer und weiter in der Roman? Ich weiss nicht. Ich werde davon nachdenken, aber. Joachim Mahlke ist doch katholisch, Sie wissen.

Also, Mahlke hängt Dinge um seinen Hals, um Beachtung weg seiner gross Adamsapfel zu nehmen. Aber Mahlke erzahlt nicht diese Geschichte, ja? Warum erzahlt der Erzahler die Geschichte? Wegen er hat etwas um seinen Hals gehangt. Etwas um mit Mahlke zu tun.

Monday, November 2, 2015

"oder einer von uns" die erste Blick am Katzen und Mäuse

... und einmal, als Mahlke schon schwimmen konnte, lagen wir neben dem Schlagball Feld im Gras. Ich hätte zum Zahnarzt gehen sollen, aber sie ließen mich nicht, weil ich als Tickspieler schwer zu ersetzen war. Mein Zahn lärmte. Eine Katze strich diagonal durch die Wiese und wurde nicht beworfen. Einige kauten oder zupften Halme. Die Katze gehörte dem Platzverwalter und war schwarz. Hotten Sonntag rieb sein Schlagholz mit einem Wollstrumpf. Mein Zahn trat auf der Stelle. Das Turnier dauerte schon zwei Stunden. Wir hatten hoch verloren und warteten nun auf das Gegenspiel. Jung war die Katze, aber kein Kätzchen. Im Stadion wurden oft und wechselseitig Handballtore geworfen. Mein Zahn wiederholte ein einziges Wort. Auf der Aschenbahn übten Hundertmeterläufer das Starten oder waren nervös. Die Katze machte Umwege. Über den Himmel kroch langsam und laut ein dreimotoriges Flugzeug, konnte aber meinen Zahn nicht übertönen. Die schwarze Katze des Platzverwalters zeigte hinter Grashalmen ein weißes Lätzchen. Mahlke schlief. Das Krematorium zwischen den Vereinigten Friedhöfen und der Technischen Hochschule arbeitete bei Ostwind. Studienrat Mallenbrandt pfiff: Wechsel Fangball Übergetreten. Die Katze übte. Mahlke schlief oder sah so aus. Neben ihm hatte ich Zahnschmerzen. Die Katze kam übend näher. Mahlkes Adamsapfel fiel auf, weil er groß war, immer in Bewegung und einen Schatten warf. Des Platzverwalters schwarze Katze spannte sich zwischen mir und Mahlke zum Sprung. Wir bildeten ein Dreieck. Mein Zahn schwieg, trat nicht mehr auf der Stelle: denn Mahlkes Adamsapfel wurde der Katze zur Maus. So jung war die Katze, so beweglich Mahlkes Artikel - jedenfalls sprang sie Mahlke an die Gurgel; oder einer von uns griff die Katze und setzte sie Mahlke an den Hals; oder ich, mit wie ohne Zahnschmerz, packte die Katze, zeigte ihr Mahlkes Maus: und Joachim Mahlke schrie, trug aber nur unbedeutende Kratzer davon.
Also, oben gebe ich die erste Seite aus Katz und Maus von Günter Grass. Hier finden wir alles, was wir im Auge behalten müssen, während wir die Geschichte zu lesen. Wir der Adamsapfel des Mahlke sehen, und wie es lenkt die Aufmerksamkeit auf sich, und wie Mahlke bestraft wird wegen seiner Adamsapfel, etwas dass ihn anderes macht. Die Geschichte des Mahlke wird über seiner komisches, großes Adamsapfel drehen. Beachten Sie, dass die Kehle! Die Katze hat ein weißes Lätzchen. Etwas schoen für die Hals, ja?

Auch, bitte beachten Sie so wie drei verschiedene Dinge im dieses Scene zusammen geschehen: Mahlke und die Katze, die Jungen und ihr Sport, und die weit Welt ausser dem Stadion. Der Roman ist aus solcher Seiten gebaut.

Was auch? Die Dreieck mit Mahlke, der Erzähler, und andere Krafte. Der Verrat von Freunden. Und meisten wichtig, dass Mahlke schwimmen konnte. Und was auch? Zahnschmerz, vielleicht? Der versteckten Schmerz dass zum Erzähler spricht. Ich bin jetzt nicht sicher über der Zahnschmerz, aber ich werde das im Auge behalten.

Schlagball meint baseball, ja? Tickspieler meint was, aber? Catcher? Power hitter? Ich weiss nicht.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Die Katze gehörte dem Platzverwalter" oder wahrlich zum Günter Grass?

Ich lese im Moment, für Deutsche Literatur Monat, die Novelle Katz und Maus von Günter Grass. Ich habe der eigentlich einmal auf English gelesen, wann ich jung war, wann ich habe die ganze "Danzig" Trilogie gelesen. Dies ist die erste Zeit dass ich werde die Novelle auf deutsch lesen, sehr aufregend.

Die Romanen von Günter Grass sind sehr wichtig für mich; personlich, ich bin als einen Romanschreiber um Grass stark verdanken. Ich glaube Grass war der ersten Romanschreiber, dass ich habe gelesen, wer hat "magical realism" genutzen. Es war nur später dass ich habe solche Künstler so wie Garcia-Marquez entdeckt. Ich war an die Zeit ahnungslos wie man so viel mit Metapher konnten tun. Katz und Maus war eine ganze Augen-offnung Erfahrung.

In wahrheit, ich kann nur ein wenig über der Novelle errinern. Schulkindern, aller Knaben, schlechter Knaben wahrlich. Schlagball, und mehr Schlagball, und Erzahlungen über Schlagball Spielen. Ich bin sicher, dass es gibt mehr als Schlagball in der Novelle. Ein Katz und ein Maus, ja?

Ich habe viele Krimis zu lesen, um für diese Lesung vorzubereiten. Die letzte Krimi war über Pandabären. Wirklich. Aber Pandabären sind Tiere, ja? Ich lese sehr langsam, auch, und so um zu lesen "Katz und Maus" (welches Buch ist ja kurz) brauche ich der ganzen Monat November.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

when skies are grey

Seattle, University District, afternoon with rain.

Text, text, where did my text go? I had written something, not about the autumn weather that seems to have finally settled in over my city, the winds pulling all the colorful autumn-painted leaves from the trees now black-limbed with rain, and why all these hyphenated words, Bailey? I donno. This was not the text I had put beneath this photo last night but Blogger, she hates me. Maybe I'd written something about how I am well and truly underway with a new novel, having now written over six thousand words of the first draft, which is a pretty good start I think. Maybe I'd written something about how my basic approach to drafting scenes has expanded over the years and that the boundaries of a dramatic scene have become quite permeable and so the narrative spreads, or maybe sprawls, quite finely these days. Certainly I had not written about a woman named Lydia, who phoned me at my office to set up an appointment to show me a line of bespoke business suits. "How on earth did you decide to phone me?" I asked Lydia. She had no good answer and the whole thing has the feeling of an elaborate practical joke, but I'm going along with the joke because I am rather fond of fine men's suits though I am not the sort of fellow who pays $250 for a bespoke shirt. Lydia was quite insistent even after I told her I'm more Ralph Lauren than Mr Turk. No doubt Lydia and her corporate masters will be disappointed when I fail to place an order next week. But I'm sure I hadn't written about that last night. No, it was something to do with the sky, the wet golden leaves in the gutters, and Paris, maybe, which was in the midst of autumn rains a month ago when we visited. But I can't remember what it was. I can tell you that this morning, when I was walking down the hill toward the bus stop, the street lights were all still lit. First time for that this year, a sure sign that the perpetual night of winter quickly approaches.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

1,001 African nights with Isak Dinesen

I was young, and by instinct of self-preservation I had to collect my energy on something, if I were not to be whirled away with the dusk on the farm-roads, or the smoke on the plain. I begun in the evenings to write stories, fairy-tales, and romances, that would take my mind a long way off, to other countries and times.
I have been reading Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, a collection of memoir and essays inspired by the decades Dinesen spent in Kenya on a coffee plantation. The book is not the story of Dinesen's unhappy marriage to her cousin the Baron Blixen and her later love affair with hunting guide Denys Finch-Hatton. The book is a collection of episodes from Dinesen's memory, carefully-crafted moments in time that give the reader the mood of Dinesen's idea of Africa, rather than the story of her life on the plantation.
As I was standing before my house a shot fell, not far off. One shot. Then again the stillness of the night closed on all sides. After a while, as if they had been pausing to listen and were now taking it up once more, I heard the Cicada chiming their monotonous little song in the grass.

There is something strangely determinate and fatal about a single shot in the night. It is as if someone had cried a message to you in one word, and would not repeat it. I stood for some time wondering what it had meant. Nobody could aim at anything at this hour, and, to scare away something, a person would fire two shots or more.

[...]Two minutes later a motorcycle rounded the drive at a terrific speed and stopped in front of the house, and someone knocked hard upon the long window of my sitting-room....Outside was my mill manager, wild-eyed and sweating in the lamplight....His cook had had a day off, and in his absence a party had been given in the kitchen by the seven years old kitchen Toto, Kabero...As, late in the evening, the company became very gay, Kabero had brought in his master's gun and, to his wild friends of the plains and shambas, had acted the part of a white man....

I knew the children who had been shot, from the plains of the farm, where they had herded their father's sheep. Wamai, Jogona's son, a lively little boy who had for some time been a pupil at the school, was lying on the floor between the door and the table. He was not dead, but not far from death, and unconscious even, though he groaned a little. The child that shrieked was Wanyangerri, who had been the youngest of the party in the kitchen. He was sitting up, leaning forwards, towards the lamp; the blood spouted, like water from a pump, from his face--if one could still say that, for he must have stood straight in front of the barrel when it was fired and it had taken his lower jaw clean off. He held his arms out from his sides and moved them up and down like pump-spears, as the wings of a chicken go, after it has had its head cut off.

When you are brought suddenly within the presence of such disaster, there seems to be but one advice, it is the remedy of the shooting-field and the farmyard: that you should kill quickly and at any cost. And yet you know that you cannot kill, and your brain turns with fear. I put my hands to the child's head and pressed it in my despair, and, as if I had really killed him, he at the same moment stopped screaming, and sat erect with his arms hanging down, as if he was made of wood.
That is the way the narrative is built: events arise from the dark, take shape and accumulate actors and conflict and then are finished, vanishing into the blue mist. The episodes, either tragic or joyful, are interrupted by colorful digressions as Dinesen wanders off the road into the tall grass to point out a Serval cat hidden in the top of a tree and a brief description of how she once shot such a Serval cat after midnight and half regretted it forever and then she has led us back onto the road again to finish the tale of a tribal council. All of it is splendidly done, easily managed, confident and precise. Out of Africa is one of the best-written books I've ever read.
One year the long rains failed. That is a terrible, tremendous experience, and the farmer who has lived through it, will never forget it. Years afterwards, away from Africa, in the wet climate of a northern country, he will start up at night, at the sound of a sudden shower of rain, and cry, "At last, at last."

In normal years the long rains began in the last week of March and went on into the middle of June. Up to the time of the rains, the world grew hotter and drier every day, feverish, as in Europe before a great thunderstorm, only more so.

The Masai, who were my neighbors on the other side of the river, at that time set fire to the bast-dry plains to get new green grass for their cattle with the first rain, and the air over the plains danced with the mighty conflagration; the long gray and rainbow-tinted layers of smoke rolled along over the grass, and the heat and the smell of burning were drifted in over the cultivated land as from a furnace.

Gigantic clouds gathered, and dissolved again, over the landscape; a light distant shower of rain painted a blue slanting streak across the horizon. All the world had only one thought.

On an evening just before sunset, the scenery drew close round you, the hills came near and were vigorous, meaningful, in their clear, deep blue and green coloring. A couple of hours later you went out and saw that the stars had gone, and you felt the night air soft and deep and pregnant with benefaction.

When the quickly rushing sound wandered over your head it was the wind in the tall forest trees--and not the rain. When it ran along the ground it was the wind in the shrubs and the long grass--and not the rain. When it rustled and rattled just above the ground it was the wind in the maize fields, where it sounded so much like rain that you were taken in, time after time, and even got a certain content from it, as if you were at least shown the thing you longed for acted on a stage--and not the rain.

But when the earth answered like a sounding board in a deep fertile roar, and the world sang round you in all dimensions, all above and below--that was the rain. It was like coming back to the Sea, when you have been a long time away from it, like a lover's embrace.
The literary touchstone for Out of Africa is Tales of the Arabian Nights, including the framing story of Scheherazade. Dinesen spins her tales not only because she loves to tell stories, but also to keep death at bay, to preserve the lives of her Kenyan farm, her Kikuyu and Somali and Masai neighbors, her friends from neighboring farms, and her lover Denys Finch-Hatton. Dinesen says these names, describes these places, and they live; even those who die within her narratives return ("That man died at the beginning of the story. But go on.") because Out of Africa is a great pattern, a web or a loom, not a single forward-moving story, not a novel. It's a dream, I think, dreamt by Karen Blixen after she was forced to sell the farm and move back to Denmark, and the book has indeed a dreamlike quality, as if these episodes were not possible in waking life.

I had no idea what I thought the book would be. I was expecting a romance, but not a romance where the partner was a land and not a person. Dinesen's prose is steady, mild, gentle. There is something magical on every page. It is, I tell you, one of the greatest books I've ever read.
So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn. In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun. Your mind runs, transported, upon a fresh deep green track.
Dinesen provides just such a fresh deep green track for her readers.

Here is a sort of interview with Karen Blixen, not too long before her death. It is not particularly enlightening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nowhere But North but this time I mean it

I have been talking, off and on since late 2010, about a novel I intend to write, a novel that will be called Nowhere But North, also known as "the Antarctica book." Looking back over this blog I see that I have announced annually since late 2010 that Nowhere But North would be "the next book I write." So far, that announcement has been a lie and I have kept finding other novels to write instead. But this time, I tell you, it is not a lie. I must finish typing up the changes to the MS of Mona in the Desert, and then I must read The New York Stories of Henry James and then, I tell you, then I will sit me down and start in on the first chapter of Book III of Nowhere But North. Do not ask me why I will start approximately 25% of the way into the book, or I will have to tell you that I am writing the story in chronological order but the MS will not present the material in that order and I plan to cut it into long strips and put the last bits first and the first bits last, three times in a row, with the very end of the story coming in small episodes between those long strips. It's a cinematic technique whose name I don't know but has been used often enough so I cannot call myself exactly an experimental writer. But Book II, mind you, has a very cool idea that I hope I can pull off, though it is also not entirely original. Originality is overrated. The novelty of the techniques do not matter one whit as long as the effect on the reader is what is made new, you Mr Pound you. And I think that's what Ezra might have meant anyway, else why write all those cantos?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

on transhumanism

The extraordinary claim that the technological enhancement of the human brain's neocortex will make us more "godlike" suffers from a mistaken comparison between God and human beings. God is not a super-creature among creatures. The characteristics traditionally predicated of God with respect to knowledge, power, and love, for example, are not possessed by God in a greater degree than they are possessed by human beings. When we use terms such as omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving when referring to God, we must remember that all such language about God is at best analogical and that, finally, God transcends all such categories. The temptation to be "like God" is an old one, and it always needs to be resisted, even in its modern technological guise.

Folks like Kurzweil strike me as having a thinly-veiled contempt for humanity, as if what we are is "merely" human, that humanity is and always will be inferior to machines, and that the creations of man (that is, machines) are in some way more virtuous than humanity itself, and so the worship of the machine is founded upon a form of self-loathing, Kurzweil despising himself for being an animal, an ape, a man. After Nimrod built his tower, when he climbed to the top he was astonished to find that he was no nearer to heaven, that the god of Abraham remained beyond his grasp forever.

Wait, wait: this isn't about reading or writing, is it? No, it's not directly, but I am planning a novel featuring a philosopher, so I will be thinking a lot about philosophy and the metaphysics of humanity for the next several years. Tomorrow, though, if I find time, I will post about Out of Africa.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Elizabeth Gaskell writes about Twitter

I am an old woman now, and things are very different to what they were in my youth. Then we, who travelled, travelled in coaches, carrying six inside, and making a two days' journey out of what people now go over in a couple of hours with a whizz and a flash, and a screaming whistle, enough to deafen one. Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;--but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken. Well, well! they may all be improvements,--I dare say they are; but you will never meet with a Lady Ludlow in these days.
from My Lady Ludlow, 1858

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

There is nothing more dreary than old age in animals

Her old blind dog, Baby, was sick and like to die. Baby had been the first gift from her friend the widow, Mrs. Lehntman in the old days when Anna had been with Miss Mary Wadsmith, and when these two women had first come together.

Through all the years of change, Baby had stayed with the good Anna, growing old and fat and blind and lazy. Baby had been active and a ratter when she was young, but that was so long ago it was forgotten, and for many years now Baby had wanted only her warm basket and her dinner.

Anna in her active life found need of others, of Peter and the funny little Rags, but always Baby was the eldest and held her with the ties of old affection. Anna was harsh when the young ones tried to keep poor Baby out and use her basket. Baby had been blind now for some years as dogs get, when they are no longer active. She got weak and fat and breathless and she could not even stand long any more. Anna had always to see that she got her dinner and that the young active ones did not deprive her.

Baby did not die with a real sickness. She just got older and more blind and coughed and then more quiet, and then slowly one bright summer's day she died.

There is nothing more dreary than old age in animals. Somehow it is all wrong that they should have grey hair and withered skin, and blind old eyes, and decayed and useless teeth. An old man or an old woman almost always has some tie that seems to bind them to the younger, realer life. They have children or the remembrance of old duties, but a dog that's old and so cut off from all its world of struggle, is like a dreary, deathless Struldbrug, the dreary dragger on of death through life.
From "The Good Anna" section of Three Lives by Gertrude Stein. A struldbrug is a creature from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a human who does not die, but does age, getting older and older and older and sticking around on the earth, ancient.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

an arduous and troubled life in Gertrude Stein's "Three Lives"

Anna led an arduous and troubled life.

Anna managed the whole little house for Miss Mathilda. [...] This one little house was always very full with Miss Mathilda, an under servant, stray dogs and cats and Anna's voice that scolded, managed, grumbled all day long.

"Sallie! can't I leave you alone a minute but you must run to the door to see the butcher boy come down the street and there is Miss Mathilda calling for her shoes. Can I do everything while you go around always thinking about nothing at all? If I ain't after you every minute you would be forgetting all the time, and I take all this pains, and when you come to me you was as ragged as a buzzard and as dirty as a dog. Go and find Miss Mathilda her shoes where you put them this morning."

"Peter!",--her voice rose higher,--"Peter!",--Peter was the youngest and the favorite dog,--"Peter, if you don't leave Baby alone,"--Baby was an old, blind terrier that Anna had loved for many years,--"Peter if you don't leave Baby alone, I take a rawhide to you, you bad dog."

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline. The three regular dogs [...] together with the [...] many stray ones that Anna always kept until she found them homes, were all under strict orders never to be bad one with the other.

A sad disgrace did once happen in the family. A little transient terrier for whom Anna had found a home suddenly produced a crop of pups. The new owners were certain that this Foxy had known no dog since she was in their care. The good Anna held to it stoutly that her Peter and her Rags were guiltless, and she made her statement with so much heat that Foxy's owners were at last convinced that these results were due to their neglect.

"You bad dog," Anna said to Peter that night, "you bad dog."

[...]Innocent blind old Baby was the only one who preserved the dignity becoming in a dog.

You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life.
I'm reading Gertrude Stein's first novel, Three Lives, published in 1909 by a vanity press in America while Stein lived in Paris. The book's sideways Brothers Grimm sort of prose made the publisher think that English was not Stein's first language, and he vainly pressured her to have it professionally edited and rewritten into standard English prose. Stein's first publisher did not get what was going on, but he was a publisher of primarily books about genealogy and family histories, not a publisher of novels. All of the major publishing houses had passed on it and so Stein was forced to finance the book herself. She was lucky to have a large inheritance. It's amazing, really, that this book made it to market.

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to reading Stein. She's doing, in Three Lives anyway, the sort of thing I do in my own writing. There is no plot, no principle action of the story; the narrative is made up of events, surely, events that illustrate the psychology of the characters, and so things are constantly happening, but the only connectedness between those events are the characters. There's no real causation in the novel, no puzzle to solve, no goal to be reached. In other words, it's a lot like life. I'm really enjoying the book so far. Stein could clearly see the comedy of being human. Yes, yes, stereotypes of immigrants and minorities, and all of that. She had her prejudices and blind spots. But she could write, and she knew what she was about with her ideas of structure, of making everything in the narrative of equal importance, of writing about character rather than quest.

Before an unhappy romance drove her to flee to Paris, Stein was a medical student. I am constantly amazed at the link between physicians and novelists. Though perhaps there is a greater link between, say, taxi drivers or bricklayers and novelists. I have done no particular research into this.

I am reading the Penguin Classics edition of the book, which contains as back matter Stein's early unpublished attempt at a novel (QED). That's a nice touch, editors of Penguin Classics, but what the hell is going on with the layout of this book? The gutter is so tight that it is nearly impossible to read the text along the right-hand margin of the left-hand pages. I could become quite cross about this were I so inclined. Gertrude Stein gets none of the blame for this, I hasten to add.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones" Edith Wharton in old New York

Her house, in a minor way, bore witness to the craving. One felt it to be the result of a series of eliminations: there was nothing fortuitous in its blending of line and color. The almost morbid finish of every material detail of her life suggested the possibility that a diversity of energies had, by some pressure of circumstance, been forced into the channel of a narrow dilettanteism. Mrs. Quentin's fastidiousness had, indeed, the flaw of being too one-sided. Her friends were not always worthy of the chairs they sat in, and she overlooked in her associates defects she would not have tolerated in her bric-a-brac. Her house was, in fact, never so distinguished as when it was empty; and it was at its best in the warm fire-lit silence that now received her.
Mrs Quentin is the protagonist of Edith Wharton's short story "The Quicksand." Mrs Quentin has returned home one evening to encounter her son, Alan, in a dark mood. Only moments after she has cast off her furs and begun laying out tea, Mrs Quentin is suffering "the mother's instinctive anger that the girl she has not wanted for her son should have dared to refuse him."
Aloud she murmured, "You must give her time."


"To move out the old prejudices and make room for new ones."

"My dear mother, those she has are brand-new; that's the trouble with them. She's tremendously up-to-date. She takes in all the moral fashion-papers, and wears the newest thing in ethics."

Her resentment lost its way in the intricacies of his metaphor. "Is she so very religious?"

"You dear archaic woman! She's hopelessly irreligious; that's the difficulty. You can make a religious woman believe almost anything: there's the habit of credulity to work on. But when a girl's faith in the Deluge has been shaken, it's very hard to inspire her with confidence. She makes you feel that, before believing in you, it's her duty as a conscientious agnostic to find out whether you're not obsolete, or whether the text isn't corrupt, or somebody hasn't proved conclusively that you never existed, anyhow."
Mrs Quentin and her Alan are shallow and wicked, contemptuous of the whole world and even--though they'd never admit it even to themselves--of each other. "Her friends were not always worthy of the chairs they sat in" is such a great line; I'm probably going to steal it and claim it as my own.

Wharton's stories are full of this sort of thing, of people blind to their own shortcomings, or mistaking their character flaws for virtue. I am reading the NYRB volume of The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. So far, they are all very much structurally of the Maupassant school of "naturalism," which means of course that they all have a quite unnatural plot twist at the end. The quality of having a moral lesson also gives Wharton's tales a sort of O. Henry feel to them. I try hard to overlook both this moral lesson and the plot twist, because otherwise they are fine stories, generally well-observed character studies with some beautiful descriptive passages. I am reading them as research, of course, of turn-of-the-century New York culture. When I'm done with the Wharton, I'll read NYRB's The New York Stories of Henry James, which contains much I've previously read but it will be good to have them all crammed together at me in one big chunk.

photo credit: Mighty Reader

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"if the men wore scarlet trousers" a last gasp from Lady Chatterley's Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover is a wish-fulfillment novel, a social and sexual fantasy that attempts to put the world--damaged irreparably by the competing forces of capitalism and Marxism--back to rights. It is a failure, both as a social program and as a novel, but at least as a novel the book is a spectacular failure, a failure worth having been done. A good half of it is an artistic success, a wild and reckless thing shining with aesthetic joys and madness. Lawrence thought--as I believe he thought of all his novels--that he was making something important and useful and beautiful. Chatterley is nowhere as successful as Sons and Lovers or Women in Love, and I've found myself rather mocking the novel when I think I should be praising it.

Some of it, admittedly, is easy to mock. Lawrence's conviction that uninhibited sex between men and women (Lawrence dismisses gays and lesbians as less than genuine humans), combined with a return to a pre-industrial economy where luxury is eliminated and humans seek the simple animal pleasures of life, is naive and Lawrence's attempts at uninhibited writing about sex are very often as clumsy as his writing about neoprimitive society. I pause to admit that my own prudishness might be a force behind my giggles over these sex passages, but a lot of it's merely inelegant prose, unworthy of Lawrence. Some of it's pretty good, though. All of it, even when it fails, demonstrates that Lawrence was writing with furious courage and I admire that a great deal. He doesn't pause when saying things that might embarrass him or his reader; he just pushes on, his eyes aflame, a bit like William Blake's loonier moments.

Though perhaps I'm trying too hard: "Come, ladies and gents, join me in applauding the erotic dance of Lawrence's limping spawn!" Why am I so concerned about defending this malformed novel? I am of course less interested in the late David Lawrence's reception than I am about my own writing, yes? Am I so intent on holding up Lawrence's book--which was banned and never published in complete form until well after the author's death--because as a writer I sympathize with his difficulty in getting a very personal and wacky and weirdly moral(istic) book published? Yes, yes, I think that's so. Every critical stance is an implicit claim about reality, you know. So maybe I'm done with Lady Chatterley's Lover. I will leave you with a bit of the book's ending:
The pits are working badly; this is a colliery district like Tevershall, only prettier. I sometimes sit in the Wellington and talk to the men. They grumble a lot, but they're not going to alter anything. As everybody says, the Notts-Derby miners have got their hearts in the right place. But the rest of their anatomy must be in the wrong place, in a world that has no use for them. I like them, but they don't cheer me much: not enough of the old fighting-cock in them. They talk a lot about nationalization, nationalization of royalties, nationalization of the whole industry. But you can't nationalize coal and leave all the other industries as they are. They talk about putting coal to new uses, like Sir Clifford is trying to do. It may work here and there, but not as a general thing, I doubt. Whatever you make you've got to sell it. The men are very apathetic. They feel the whole damned thing is doomed, and I believe it is. And they are doomed along with it. Some of the young ones spout about a Soviet, but there's not much conviction in them. There's no sort of conviction about anything, except that it's all a muddle and a hole. Even under a Soviet you've still got to sell coal: and that's the difficulty.

We've got this great industrial population, and they've got to be fed, so the damn show has to be kept going somehow. The women talk a lot more than the men, nowadays, and they are a sight more cock-sure. The men are limp, they feel a doom somewhere, and they go about as if there was nothing to be done. Anyhow, nobody knows what should be done in spite of all the talk, the young ones get mad because they've no money to spend. Their whole life depends on spending money, and now they've got none to spend. That's our civilization and our education: bring up the masses to depend entirely on spending money, and then the money gives out. The pits are working two days, two and a half days a week, and there's no sign of betterment even for the winter. It means a man bringing up a family on twenty-five and thirty shillings. The women are the maddest of all. But then they're the maddest for spending, nowadays.

If you could only tell them that living and spending isn't the same thing! But it's no good. If only they were educated to LIVE instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn't need money. And that's the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend. But you can't do it. They're all one-track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn't even to try to think, because they can't. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great god Pan. He's the only god for the masses, forever. The few can go in for higher cults if they like. But let the mass be forever pagan.

But the colliers aren't pagan, far from it. They're a sad lot, a deadened lot of men: dead to their women, dead to life. The young ones scoot about on motor-bikes with girls, and jazz when they get a chance, But they're very dead. And it needs money. Money poisons you when you've got it, and starves you when you haven't.
These pages, the end of the final act, are the real Lady Chatterley's Lover, not the fucking and the flowers woven into pubic hair and the phallos. Lawrence wants an antidote for the poisons of the modern age. Lawrence was a romantic. I almost called this post What is to be Done?

photos: Mighty Reader

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

D.H. Lawrence looks for love in the broken world of Lady Chatterley's Lover

photo credit: Mighty Reader

What it's not is a book about sex, not really. There is sex, there is explicit writing about sex and sexual anatomy, but not a great deal of it because Lady Chatterley's Lover is not a book about sex; it's a book about people, a book about striving toward love and truth and beauty and meaning in a world that seems to contain none of those things, a world in which love and truth and beauty and meaning have been trampled into mud and had factories built over them. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a book that searches for life among the ruins of culture. Where it finds life is in a strange and idiosyncratic sensuality that Lawrence attempts to describe, which is where the sex comes into the novel. A strange and idiosyncratic sex.

A lot of the writing about sex is awkward, it's true. Lawrence had no model, and so he was making it up as he went along, writing explicitly and seriously about sex and genitalia and trying not to embarrass himself. Some of it is painful but much of it seems honest and compassionate, as Lawrence has great compassion for humanity even while he runs amok scourging humanity for it's vanity and selfishness. Lawrence writes about sex the same way he writes about motor cars, the same fascinated way he writes about flowers or the moon, taking it all earnestly and layering it with emotion. The second act, the long midsection of the novel that tells the story of Lady Chatterley's affair with her husband's gamekeeper Mellors, has an internal structure of increasingly intensified writing about sex (interpolated with a great deal of social commentary), of gradual coarsening of language, of Lawrence's battle to strip shame away from sex and sensuality. He's not successful in the battle, but he fights it bravely. For the characters, at least, the battle is won, and that's good enough. Idiosyncratic phallocentric sexuality carries the day and Connie--Lady Chatterley--is delivered into freedom. After that, the novel sort of unravels and becomes far less interesting.

The third act of the novel is, regrettably, pretty conventional stuff. It ties up plot threads and solves the logistical problems of the action and contains a good number of commonplace and talky scenes, sometimes swerving drunkenly into Jane Austen denouement territory. The groundskeeper, the man with whom Lady Chatterley has her affair, turns out to be less of an outsider than a misunderstood solid chap who is really a straight shooter with management potential. Even Lawrence could not bring his socialite heroine to lower herself to the level of the working class, a powerful irony the author was no doubt unaware of:
"...his name is Oliver Mellors."

"And how would you like to be Mrs Oliver Mellors, instead of Lady Chatterley?"

"I'd love it."

There was nothing to be done with Connie. And anyhow, if the man had been a lieutenant in the army in India for four or five years, he must be more or less presentable. Apparently he had character. Hilda began to relent a little.

"But you'll be through with him in awhile," she said, "and then you'll be ashamed of having been connected with him. One CAN'T mix up with the working people."

"But you are such a socialist! you're always on the side of the working classes."

"I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one's life with theirs. Not out of snobbery, but just because the whole rhythm is different."

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.
Lawrence, too, is on their side in a political crisis, but he has no wish to be a collier like his father, or to accept that a collier has the same ultimate worth as an artist. That's an argument for another day, though. In Lady Chatterley, Lawrence is singing the praises of common humanity:
The nondescript evening in the hotel dragged out, and at last they had a nondescript dinner. Then Connie slipped a few things into a little silk bag, and combed her hair once more.

"After all, Hilda," she said, "love can be wonderful: when you feel you LIVE, and are in the very middle of creation." It was almost like bragging on her part.

"I suppose every mosquito feels the same," said Hilda.

"Do you think it does? How nice for it!"
In praise of mosquitoes, then. Maybe tomorrow I'll get around to talking about the mosquitoes, the machines, the mine-owning dukes and the bolshevists.

photo: Mighty Reader

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"jigging English sisters" DH Lawrence in Paris with Lady Chatterley

In Paris at any rate she felt a bit of sensuality still. But what a weary, tired, worn-out sensuality. Worn-out for lack of tenderness. Oh! Paris was sad. One of the saddest towns: weary of its now-mechanical sensuality, weary of the tension of money, money, money, weary even of resentment and conceit, just weary to death, and still not sufficiently Americanized or Londonized to hide the weariness under a mechanical jig-jig-jig! Ah, these manly he-men, these FLANEURS, the oglers, these eaters of good dinners! How weary they were! weary, worn-out for lack of a little tenderness, given and taken. The efficient, sometimes charming women knew a thing or two about the sensual realities: they had that pull over their jigging English sisters. But they knew even less of tenderness. Dry, with the endless dry tension of will, they too were wearing out. The human world was just getting worn out. Perhaps it would turn fiercely destructive. A sort of anarchy! Clifford and his conservative anarchy! Perhaps it wouldn't be conservative much longer. Perhaps it would develop into a very radical anarchy.

Connie found herself shrinking and afraid of the world. Sometimes she was happy for a little while in the Boulevards or in the Bois or the Luxembourg Gardens. But already Paris was full of Americans and English, strange Americans in the oddest uniforms, and the usual dreary English that are so hopeless abroad.

She was glad to drive on.
I, on the other hand, was quite happy to find myself in Paris. But I'm not making the argument that Lawrence is making in Lady Chatterley's Lover, the argument based upon false nostalgia, that mankind should return to some primitive, pre-industrial state, that the straining after money has emasculated men which has in turn unsexed women and there is nothing left of real humanity except walking corpses modeled psychically upon machines, machines that have no purpose and will eventually--even hopefully (says one of Lawrence's characters in a nod to Nietzsche)--destroy themselves and leave nothing left except a space for the next species to come along and inhabit the earth as masters. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a political novel, a social novel, a big Dickensian argument against the status quo and the grinding down of the working classes. Dickens' solutions were always social, a diverting of money and an awareness of the dignity of the poor. Lawrence's solutions are quite different, and alien, and it might surprise Lawrence to see how they are also patronizing and don't actually solve the problems of real life. Yet he makes them, because he has conflated the economic problems of England with the psychological problem of true love. To solve the one, Lawrence argues, is to solve the other.

It also occurred to me on the walk from the bus to my front door this evening that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is a weak version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, a version that takes the phallos (as DHL would say) seriously but has none of the bravery, humanity, or originality of Lawrence's narrative. Chatterley is a risky novel, in a number of ways.

photo credits: Mighty Reader

Monday, September 28, 2015

especially popular novels

Connie heard long conversations going on between the two. Or rather, it was mostly Mrs Bolton talking. She had unloosed to him the stream of gossip about Tevershall village. It was more than gossip. It was Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot and Miss Mitford all rolled in one, with a great deal more, that these women left out.' Once started, Mrs Bolton was better than any book, about the lives of the people. She knew them all so intimately, and had such a peculiar, flamey zest in all their affairs, it was wonderful, if just a trifle humiliating to listen to her. At first she had not ventured to 'talk Tevershall', as she called it, to Clifford. But once started, it went on. Clifford was listening for 'material', and he found it in plenty. Connie realized that his so-called genius was just this: a perspicuous talent for personal gossip, clever and apparently detached. Mrs Bolton, of course, was very warm when she 'talked Tevershall'. Carried away, in fact. And it was marvellous, the things that happened and that she knew about. She would have run to dozens of volumes.

Connie was fascinated, listening to her. But afterwards always a little ashamed. She ought not to listen with this queer rabid curiosity. After all, one may hear the most private affairs of other people, but only in a spirit of respect for the struggling, battered thing which any human soul is, and in a spirit of fine, discriminative sympathy. For even satire is a form of sympathy. It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead. Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.

But the novel, like gossip, can also excite spurious sympathies and recoils, mechanical and deadening to the psyche. The novel can glorify the most corrupt feelings, so long as they are conventionally 'pure'. Then the novel, like gossip, becomes at last vicious, and, like gossip, all the more vicious because it is always ostensibly on the side of the angels. Mrs Bolton's gossip was always on the side of the angels. 'And he was such a bad fellow, and she was such a nice woman.' Whereas, as Connie could see even from Mrs Bolton's gossip, the woman had been merely a mealy-mouthed sort, and the man angrily honest. But angry honesty made a 'bad man' of him, and mealy-mouthedness made a 'nice woman' of her, in the vicious, conventional channelling of sympathy by Mrs Bolton.

For this reason, the gossip was humiliating. And for the same reason, most novels, especially popular ones, are humiliating too. The public responds now only to an appeal to its vices.
from Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence I will have stuff to say about this novel in the coming days, I think. Meanwhile, I remain jet lagged from our flight back from Paris.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

first world problems

I have not been here, as is clear to my hypothetical dedicated readers, nor have I been elsewhere on the interwebs. I've been hard at work in an office and in a house, preparing for a vacation. I will continue to not be here once the vacation actually begins, because I am leaving the interwebs behind. At odd moments I think about the stack of revisions to my novel Mona in the Desert that will be waiting for me at the close of our vacation; I feel a neutral sort of headache about all the work I'll need to do in the way of typing up changes, but at least all of the revisions are made to the MS and all the new material is written. I feel decidedly not neutral regarding all the work that will be waiting for me at the office, but that's the price we pay for taking time for ourselves, I suppose. "First world problems," as meine Frau would say.

I also, in odd corners of free time, torture myself with the question of what book I'll take on the plane. Possibly The New York Stories of Henry James. Possibly The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. Possibly a Chekhov collection, for comfort. I don't know. I will know when I pack the book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

when the dog bites

There is no way Mother Superior would've advised Maria to "climb every mountain."

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Evil has changed sides; he who was erst a mighty king is now turning his life backward into the road to Hades." Euripides drives Heracles mad.

All hail the marriage! wherein two bridegrooms shared; the one, a mortal; the other, Zeus, who came to wed the maiden sprung from Perseus; for that marriage of thine, O Zeus, in days gone by has been proved to me a true story beyond all expectation; and time hath shown the lustre of Heracles' prowess, who emerged from caverns 'neath the earth after leaving Pluto's halls below. To me art thou a worthier lord than that base-born king, who now lets it be plainly seen in this struggle 'twixt armed warriors, whether justice still finds favour in heaven.

The spectres of MADNESS and IRIS appear from above. The CHORUS sees them.

Ha! see there, my old comrades! is the same wild panic fallen on us all; what phantom is this I see hovering o'er the house? Fly, fly, bestir thy tardy steps! begone! away! away! O saviour prince, avert calamity from me!
"Heracles" splits wide open in the middle of the play: the returned hero is driven mad by a goddess sent from Hera, right at the moment of Heracles' triumphant reunion with his family. A minute later, the bodies of the wife and sons whom Heracles has just saved from assassination are dragged onstage, the mad Heracles having killed them himself. Just like that, with a snap of Euripides' fingers, the hero's fortune is reversed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad, you know.

An interesting detail is that the goddess Madness acts under Hera's orders, but only grudgingly. Still, a craftsman takes pride in her work:
I call the sun-god to witness that herein I am acting against my will; but if indeed I must forthwith serve thee and Hera and follow you in full cry as hounds follow the huntsman, why go I will; nor shall ocean with its moaning waves, nor the earthquake, nor the thunderbolt with blast of agony be half so furious as the headlong rush I will make into the breast of Heracles; through his roof will I burst my way and swoop upon his house, after first slaying his children; nor shall their murderer know that he is killing his own-begotten babes, till he is released from my madness. Behold him! see how even now he is wildly tossing his head at the outset, and rolling his eyes fiercely from side to side without word; nor can he control his panting breath; but like a bull in act to charge, he bellows fearfully, calling on the goddesses of nether hell. Soon will I rouse thee to yet wilder dancing and sound a note of terror in thine ear.
Madness takes to the task once started; you see her getting carried along by her own enthusiasm. The first audience for this play had no idea what was coming. The appearance of Madness and Iris atop Heracles' palace the moment the chorus of old men is celebrating the hero's return must've been quite a jolt. I imagine it was something like the storm in "King Lear."
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
Heracles gets nothing so fine as that speech from Shakespeare's king. The best Euripides gives him comes when he awakens from his madness, to find himself lying bound, a captive:
Aha! my breath returns; I am alive; and my eyes see, opening on the sky and earth and yon sun's darting beam; but how my senses reel! in what strange turmoil am I plunged! my fevered breath in quick spasmodic gasps escapes my lungs. How now? why am I lying here, made fast with cables like a ship, my brawny chest and arms tied to a shattered piece of masonry, with corpses for my neighbours; while o'er the floor my bow and arrows are scattered, that erst like trusty squires to my arm both kept me safe and were kept safe of me?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

Her headlong haste

Descriptive of the miseries of War; from a Poem called "The Emigrants," printed in 1793.

TO a wild mountain, whose bare summit hides
Its broken eminence in clouds; whose steeps
Are dark with woods: where the receding rocks
Are worn with torrents of dissolving snow;
A wretched woman, pale and breathless, flies,
And, gazing round her, listens to the sound
Of hostile footsteps:--No! they die away--
Nor noise remains, but of the cataract,
Or surly breeze of night, that mutters low
Among the thickets, where she trembling seeks
A temporary shelter--Clasping close
To her quick throbbing heart her sleeping child,
All she could rescue of the innocent group
That yesterday surrounded her--Escaped
Almost by miracle!--Fear, frantic Fear,
Wing'd her weak feet; yet, half repenting now
Her headlong haste, she wishes she had staid
To die with those affrighted Fancy paints
The lawless soldiers' victims--Hark! again
The driving tempest bears the cry of Death;
And with deep, sudden thunder, the dread sound
Of cannon vibrates on the tremulous earth;
While, bursting in the air, the murderous bomb
Glares o'er her mansion--Where the splinters fall
Like scatter'd comets, its destructive path
Is mark'd by wreaths of flame!--Then, overwhelm'd
Beneath accumulated horror, sinks
The desolate mourner!
The feudal chief, whose gothic battlements
Frown on the plain beneath, returning home
From distant lands, alone, and in disguise,
Gains at the fall of night his castle walls,
But, at the silent gate no porter sits
To wait his lord's admittance!--In the courts
All is drear stillness!--Guessing but too well
The fatal truth, he shudders as he goes
Through the mute hall; where, by the blunted light
That the dim moon through painted casement lends,
He sees that devastation has been there;
Then, while each hideous image to his mind
Rises terrific, o'er a bleeding corse
Stumbling he falls; another intercepts
His staggering feet--All, all who used to
With joy to meet him, all his family
Lie murder'd in his way!--And the day dawns
On a wild raving maniac, whom a fate
So sudden and calamitous has robb'd
Of reason; and who round his vacant walls
Screams unregarded, and reproaches Heaven!
"blunted light" is very good. This is from the collected works of Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806), courtesy of Umbagollah, to whom I say thanks. Great stuff from Smith, of whom I had never heard until this Wednesday. The prefaces Smith wrote to the various editions of her collected works are all worth reading, too.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The 82 best books

Everyone keeps posting these "best books" lists and I feel--and have felt for some time--awfully left out, not having a list of my own. So here is a list, cobbled together hastily this morning, of the 82 Best Books I Have Read In The Last Couple of Years. The arbitrariness and incompleteness and utter uselessness of this list appeal to me greatly. The list has been sorted, mostly, into alphabetical order by author's first name, because that seems as good as anything else.

1. Aeschylus, The Oresteia (R. Lattimore, trans)
2. Albert Camus, The Plague
3. Albert Camus, The Stranger
4. Alfred Jarry, The Ubu Plays
5. American Colonial Prose, Mary Ann Radzinowicz (ed.)
6. Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
7. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
8. Anton Chekhov, A Life In Letters
9. Anton Chekhov, The Seagull
10. Anton Chekhov, Tales of Chekhov, Volumes 1-13
11. Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters
12. Apuleius, The Golden Ass
13. Blaise Pascal, Pensées
14. Cesar Aira, Ghosts
15. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
16. Charles Portis, True Grit
17. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
18. D.H. Lawrence, Women In Love
19. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
20. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
21. Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
22. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
23. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
24. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
25. Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
26. Henri Troyat, Daily Life in Russia Under the Last Tsar
27. Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per
28. Henry James, The Ambassadors
29. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
30. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea
31. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
32. Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
33. James Joyce, Dubliners
34. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
35. John Cowper Powys, Weymouth Sands
36. John Milton, Paradise Lost
37. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
38. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (abr.)
39. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
40. Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros, The Illustrious House of Ramires
41. Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions
42. Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World
43. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
44. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
45. Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad
46. Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings
47. Marly Youmans, Thaliad
48. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
49. Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
50. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
51. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
52. Mikhail Bulgakov, White Guard
53. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
54. Nadine Gordimer, Get A Life
55. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What is to be Done?
56. Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
57. Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
58. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier
59. Richard Rive (Ed.), Modern African Prose
60. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book
61. Robert Browning, The Shorter Poems
62. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
63. Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King
64. Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
65. Samuel Beckett, Molloy
66. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
67. St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
68. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
69. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
70. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley trans.)
71. Virgil, The Aeneid (Fitzgerald, trans.)
72. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
73. Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
74. Vladimir Nabokov, Mary
75. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
76. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin
77. Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense
78. Voltaire, Candide
79. Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
80. Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain
81. Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow
82. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

Exactly half of these books first appeared in English. One of the items on this list made it in by mistake, but it's a good book so I'm leaving it. I somehow managed not to include the Norton Anthology of English Poetry or the collection of Yeats or A Practical Course in Wooden Boat and Ship Building by Richard Van Gaasbeek. Nor have I included any Shakespeare.

Friday, August 14, 2015


I have several short stories and several novels out on submission right now. I am hopeful about one novel, cannot remember where another novel has even gone, and hopeful about all of the short stories. At this point I'm not querying anything with agents. Meanwhile, I'm revising a novel called Mona in the Desert that I may end up sending to a few agents, though I am not convinced that the book will have a wide appeal, as the kids say. It contains fairly straightforward writing, but the structure, I am sure, will confuse the average literary agent. A few years ago I expressed interest in writing a novel "in the shape of a cloud of leaves blown off a tree." This is that novel, I've realized. The material is not presented chronologically, or even in a linear manner, but the wind of narrative force blows most of the elements in the same general direction. If you see what I mean and even if you don't. I still have a lot of work to do with the narrative, adding and expanding episodes, inserting references to this and that, assembling the narrator's essay about how Shakespeare's plays are all about the mothers and sons in the ancient Greek tragedies, etc. A lot of work. My personal reading of fiction has slowed to a snail's pace, and I assume that will continue to be the case until the holidays, which will make Six Words for a Hat a dull place indeed. So no change there.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The gods know who began this tragedy: "The Medea" of Euripides

One of Euripides' great strengths as a playwright is his way of showing the normal humanness--the non-mythic proportions--of his mythological/historical subjects. Euripides brings the heroes down to earth and so Jason of golden fleece fame was just another self-serving schmuck, and no mistaking. Medea the sorceress, however much she loved Jason, was a scheming murderess with a temper and King Creon of Corinth was justifiably afraid of her; Medea had by now made it clear that she was not a woman to be trusted and so Creon banished her after convincing Jason to put her aside to marry Creon's daughter. Neither of those was exactly a safe move on Creon's part. Was he not familiar with the story of the Argo, Medea's magic potions, etc? Well, the Corinthians were not highly thought of by the Athenians in Euripides' audience. Maybe they could accept Creon as just another not-so-bright Corinthian. But I push too hard on the Creon subplot; Creon's mistakes in dealing with Medea are not the point of the play. Creon and his order of banishment are merely plot devices to force Medea into action. She suddenly remembers that she is a sorceress, and an angry one at that. All the magic she has used to benefit her husband will now be turned against him. Hell hath no fury, etc. Everybody step back, please.

"The Medea" also contains what may be the best stage direction in Greek theater: Medea appears above the palace in a chariot pulled by dragons, the corpses of her children in her arms.

Wait: Medea could summon a chariot pulled by dragons? This is all going to be ammunition for Aristophanes, Euripides. You have no one but yourself to blame. But "The Medea" showcases another one of Euripides' strong points, sharp and realistic dialogue:
You will suffer too and share in this tragedy.
You can be certain of that. But the pain is pleasure if you do not laugh.
Oh children, what a terrible mother you had.
Oh children, how you were destroyed by your father's disease.
My right hand did not strike them.
But your abuse and your new marriage.
You thought the marriage bed was worth your children's lives?
Do you think this a trivial wrong for a woman?
If she is a good woman. But to you nothing is good.
The children are dead. This will sting you.
They are a pollution to you.
The gods know who began this tragedy.
Then they know the vileness of your heart.
Hate me. I, too, hate your irritating voice.
And I yours. The separation is easy.
This is true-to-life breakup speech, parents arguing about whose fault the misery of their children is. One of Euripides' other strengths is to get your sympathy for characters you would not normally sympathize with. By the end of "The Medea," you feel for the title character despite her intention to murder an innocent young woman as well as the children Medea has borne Jason. The whole play is possibly a response to Pericles' public comments about the proper role of a woman in Athens, to be neither seen nor heard, to accept her fate and her man's rule, etc. "If she is a good woman," indeed. Euripides was the Kurt Vonnegut of ancient Athens, sort of.

Medea may have been mad (who am I kidding with that may have been?), but she did her best by Jason, who abandoned her when she was no longer young and convenient. Jason gets what's coming to him (and how many divorced parents have not used their children as a battlefield upon which to attack their ex-spouse?) though it will cause Medea to also suffer. Though she will not suffer as much as Creon, his daughter Glauce, or her own children. How much Jason actually suffers is hard to say; he does not strike one as the owner of much depth of feeling. The description of Glauce and Creon's death is especially vivid, by which I mean violent and gory.

Monday, August 3, 2015

installation of the bee house

photo by Mighty Reader

We tried this with mason bees a couple of years ago but had no luck. This time we've got 150 leafcutter bees who may or may not have been imprinted with the location of the bee house by hatching out of it. It's hard to say with bees; they are generally taciturn.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

2 August, 2012: a woman in a shimmering dress

August 2nd, 2012 is the day upon which I wrote the first page of the first draft of the novel I call Mona in the Desert. Three years later, I am working on the fourth (I think) revision of that book. If things go well in the coming months, a couple of very nice people will have a draft of the book to read around Christmas. We'll see. There is a lot of work to be done before anyone can see it. I'm surprised that it was three years ago that I began writing this one, but then again I do like to let drafts sit around while I think about other things. Anyway, I'll be reading a lot less for a while, giving over all of that reading time to revisions of my novel.

I admit that I've been putting off these revisions for about two months, I think. I have been afraid to look at the MS for fear that the book is idiotic (part of a growing tendency to think that all human utterances are merely shouting about the shadows in Plato's cave, and mostly meaningless), and also for fear that if it's anything like a good book, I might screw it up by fussing with it. The usual fears, that is.

But who cares about my mood swings? I'm going to get cracking on the novel anyway, with my fist full of notes and ideas and my red and black pens and my private jokes to wedge into the narrative. I was poking around at random through the MS last week, and some of it looks pretty good, so why not why not why not?