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