Sometimes it is possible to learn from an idiot. I read a library copy of Cioran's Anathemas and Admirations annotated by some young soi-disant deep tSometimes it is possible to learn from an idiot. I read a library copy of Cioran's Anathemas and Admirations annotated by some young soi-disant deep thinker who has taken Philosophy 101 and is ready to take on the world. On the title page, under "Anathemas and Admirations," he has added "and Self-Pity." Throughout the book, his marginalia are critical of E. M. Cioran without the slightest understanding of what he is about, what he has been through, and what is his contribution to Western thinking.
Born in Sibiu, Transylvania, of Hungarian- and Romanian-speaking parents, Cioran began by worshiping false gods (much like our phantom annotator/vandal), including Nazism in the Germany of the 1930s and the Fascistic Iron Guard in Romania. In 1937, he moved to France and lived there until his death in 1995. His writings are marked by a deep pessimism that runs directly counter to the manic optimism of much of American thought. In an appreciation of Guido Ceronetti, he wrote, "Of all creatures, the least intolerable are those who hate human beings. Never run away from a misanthrope."
I am sure that our library book desecrator was so dismayed by aphorisms such as the following that his acne medication failed him:
"Except for music, everything is a lie, even solitude, even ecstasy. Music, in fact, is the one and the other, only better."
"In Vedic mythology, anyone raising himself by knowledge upsets the comfort of Heaven. The gods, ever watchful, live in terror of being outclassed. Did the Boss of Genesis behave any differently? Did he not spy on man because he feared him? Because he saw him as a rival? Under these conditions, one understands the great mystics' desire to flee God, His limits and His woes, in order to seek boundlessness in the Godhead."
"I had gone far in search of the sun, and the sun, found at last, was hostile to me. And if I were to fling myself off a cliff? While I was making such rather grim speculations, considering these pines, these rocks, these waves, I suddenly felt how bound I was to this lovely, accursed universe."
To have seen one's youthful idols crushed by a brutal war followed by a half century of exile, one could expect to be pessimistic, even suicidal. Reading his book, however, I noticed shafts of light breaking through the gloom. Perhaps, being an Eastern European myself, I understand the doom and gloom of my Hungarian forebears who had the misfortune of living smack in the middle of one of the two main invasion paths into Europe (or, conversely, into Russia). Most of the "German" dead at Stalingrad were actually Romanians and Hungarians, who were dragooned into fighting for the Master Race.
Among other things, Cioran's book contains one of the best treatments of Jorge Luis Borges and Honoré de Balzac I have ever seen in any book. As I return the library book, I have already ordered copies of two more of Cioran's books.
Don't read him if you are prey to depression, and, probably, don't read him until you yourself have been "nicked by the scythe" of the Grim Reaper: Cioran is not for the young. But he is a surprisingly insightful thinker who, unlike many current philosophers, does not hide his gems behind an artificial and unapproachable terminology....more
Great literature cuts the ground from under your feet. If you think you understand wholly, you are deluding yourself. As Osip Mandelstam writes in theGreat literature cuts the ground from under your feet. If you think you understand wholly, you are deluding yourself. As Osip Mandelstam writes in the single prose piece in this collection, an essay entitled "Conversations About Dante":
It is only very conditionally possible to speak of poetic speech or thought as sonorous, for we hear in it only the crossing of two lines, and of these one, taken by itself, is absolutely mute, while the other, taken apart from its instrumental metamorphosis, is devoid of all significance and all interest and is subject to paraphrase, which is in my opinion the truest sign of the absence of poetry. For where one finds commensurability with paraphrase, there the sheets have not been rumpled; there poetry has not, so to speak, spent the night.
Repeatedly, as I read the poems in this collection, I had to confess my inadequacy. I would read a stanza, say to myself that it was great, and start wondering wherein that great lay. Some lines hit you like a sledgehammer wielded with immense force, such as in this lines written while the poet was imprisoned in Siberia:
You took alway all the oceans and all the room. You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it. Where did it get you? Nowhere. You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.
Then there are the striking images, as in Poem 129 written in 1922:
The scalp tingles with cold. Nobody speaks out. Time pares me away Like the heel of your shoe.
Life overcomes life. The sound fades out. Something is always missing. There's no time to remember it.
You know, it was better before. But there's no comparing how the blood used to whisper and how it whispers.
It's plain that some purpose is moving these lips. The tree-top laughs and plays into the day of the axes.
What an image! I think I will find myself coming back to these poems because they continue to resonate. As I do not know Russian, I cannot evaluate the translation by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin. To the extent that it repeatedly stops me in my tracks, wondering, it is highly successful.
There are two grand themes in Balzac's oeuvre, one is money -- and most particularly debt -- and the other is food. Of this second theme, Anka MuhlsteThere are two grand themes in Balzac's oeuvre, one is money -- and most particularly debt -- and the other is food. Of this second theme, Anka Muhlstein does full justice with her book Balzac's Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honore'de Balzac. Even though I have read over 95% of Balzac's work in a Yahoo! Group dedicated to him, I am still amazed by Ms. Muhlstein's marshaling of a mass of information into a coherent, and I might even say tasty, whole.
There is, for example, this gen from Cousin Pons, one of my favorite novels by the master:
One of the keenest pleasures of Pons' old life, one of the joys of the dinner-table parasite, was the "surprise," the thrill produced by the extra dainty dish added triumphantly to the bill of fare by the mistress of a bourgeois house, to give a festive air to a dinner. Pons' stomach hankered after that gastronomical satisfaction.... Dinner proceeded without le plat couvert, as our grandsires called it.... Pons had too much delicacy to grumble; but if the case of unappreciated genius is hard, it goes harder still with the stomach whose claims are ignored.
As M. de Mortsauf says in The Lily of the Valley, "all our emotions converge on the gastric centres."
Curiously, despite its highly focused subject, I think Balzac's Omelette is not only an excellent introduction to the work of Balzac in general, but also to Dumas, Zola, Flaubert, de Maupassant, and other French novelists of the 19th century. ...more
Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- ConfessioYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
We are so involved in the particular chowder in which we are dog-paddling that we are unable to provide an accurate critique of what is happening to uWe are so involved in the particular chowder in which we are dog-paddling that we are unable to provide an accurate critique of what is happening to us. I have tried in my blogs to do so, but I must confess that I have my fingers on the scale and cannot always give good weight. That is when I turn to writers from Argentina, Europe, Russia, Asia, and Mexico who are able to see more clearly for the distance that separates us.
Octavio Paz's Itinerary is an intellectual odyssey of sorts, in which the author travels around the world testing the waters, looking for a political philosophy in which to believe, and seeing us, Europe, and the former Soviet Union with great perspicacity:
There's a flaw, a secret fissure in the modern intellectual's awareness. Ripped out of the totality and ancient religious absolutes, we feel a nostalguia for totalities and absolutes. This perhaps explains the impulse that led them to convert to communism and defend it. It was a perverse parody of religious communion.
In his early years, especially in Europe, Paz was drawn to communism, but the Stalinist version of it that he encountered during the Spanish Civil War chilled him. When he learned of the Soviet Gulags some years later, it chilled him to the bone:
Our century -- and with ours all the centuries: our entire history -- has faced us with a question that modern reason, from the eighteenth century on, has futilely tried to evade. That question is central and essential: the presence of evil among human beings. An ubiquitous presence that continues from the beginnings of the beginning and that does not depend on external circumstances but on human intimacy. Apart from the religions, who has said anything worthwhile about evil? For Plato and his disciples -- as well as for Saint Augustine -- evil is Nothingness, the opposite of Being. But our planet is full to the brim with the works and acts of Nothingness!Q In the blinking of an eye Milton's devils built the wonderful edifices of Pandemonium. Can Nothingness create? Can negation make something?
It is not just communism that draws brickbats from Paz: He also lambastes the democracies for depending on "the often whimsical swings of public opinion" and being unable to formulate and execute a successful foreign policy.
There is a wisdom in Paz's political thinking from having made the journey. Unlike Odysseus's ten-year voyage across the Mediterranean, it was a long lifetime looking for a political Ithaka, but always, like all of us, being thrown back on his own resources.
Itinerary is admirably translated, though the introduction and rather fusty footnotes can be skipped without penalty....more
There is a strange combination of exhilaration and disappointment when two of one's heroes conduct a correspondence. Will the veil of the temple be reThere is a strange combination of exhilaration and disappointment when two of one's heroes conduct a correspondence. Will the veil of the temple be rent? Will a breakthrough resulting from the greatness of the individuals involved result in new modes of thought? Well, yes and no. Thomas Merton was a French-born Trappist monk who wrote books of poetry, religion, and assorted other subjects. Czeslaw Milosz, on the other hand, was a Lithuanian-born poet who lived much of his life in Poland before coming to the United States to teach at Berkeley. He is a Nobel Prize winner; in my opinion, Merton should also have been so honored.
Both men were Catholics -- Milosz in an anguished and alienated Eastern European sense, and Merton, having bought the farm, so to speak, on an eternal pendulum between the institution of Catholicism and its occasional banality. Yet, both writers come alive, particularly in the earlier letters. Here is Merton writing some words about his belief in God that would never receive an imprimatur from a Catholic censor:
his is the thing that finally hit me. My darkness was very tolerable when it was only dark night, something spiritually approved. But it is rapidly becoming “exterior” darkness. A nothingness in oneself into which one is pressed down further and further, until one is inferior to the whole human race and hates the inferiority. Yet clings to it as the only thing one has. Then the problem is that perhaps here in this nothingness is infinite preciousness, the presence of the God Who is not an answer, the God of Job, to Whom we must be faithful above all, beyond all. But the terrible thing is that He is not known to others, is incommunicable.
Here in one paragraph is my own religious credo, which I have never seen better expressed. Toward the end of the correspondence, the two drifted further apart, with Merton hectoring Milosz for unpublished poems from Polish poets to appear in one of the many journals with which he was associated.
Milosz writes from a different point a view, as a man who has learned to distrust ideologies because he lived where they were so frequently manipulated. One disagreement between the two was over the issue of peace movements. Merton was very involved, while Milosz hung back:
As to the efficacy of calls for peace, picketing etc., they probably rather increase the danger, as I said, 1) by exasperation and polarization of opinion into two hostile camps, which is a boon for right[wing] radicals; 2) by a possible miscalculation over there, in the Kremlin, a possibility of making one step too far in the blackmail.
The letters span a ten year period during the Cold War between 1958 and 1968, when Thomas Merton died of a heart attack in Bangkok while conferring with Asian religious leaders. Milosz died in 2004.
This collection of letters does touch upon greatness at times, but it also shows how events such as the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and Merton's continuing interest in Catholic liturgy affected their friendship. During that time, they met face to face only twice. Would that I were a fly on the wall for either of these meetings!...more
Loren Eiseley represents a nexus, where the worlds of science and the imagination meet. His poems and essays are meditations about who we are, where wLoren Eiseley represents a nexus, where the worlds of science and the imagination meet. His poems and essays are meditations about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going as a species, in conjunction with all the other species with whom we share this world. Star Thrower is his last book, a selection of essays on nature and science, joined with a handful of early poems that show him to be at ease in both worlds.
It is unfortunate for all of us that Eiseley is not around any more, because no one has, as yet, replaced him. No one asks those deep questions that resonate through our very being. In his essay "The Lethal Factor," he writes:
In one of those profound morality plays which C. S. Lewis is capable of tossing off lightly in the guise of science fiction,one of his characters remarks that in the modern era the good appears to be getting better and the evil more terrifying. It as as though two antipathetic elements in the universe were slowly widening the gap between them. Man, in some manner, stands at the heart of this growing rift. Perhaps he contains it within himself. Perhaps he feels the crack slowly widening in his mind and his institutions. He sees the finest intellects, which in the previous century concerned themselves with electric light and telephonic communication, devote themselves wholeheartedly to missiles and supersonic bombers.
Although he was a noted anthropologist and academic, Eiseley's sympathies were with the downtrodden forms of life. In answer to the Biblical injunction to love not the world neither the things that are in the world, Eiseley responds:
"But I do love the world.... I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again." I choked and said, with the torn eye still upon me, "I love the lost ones, the failures of the world." It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage. The torn eye surveyed me sadly and was gone.
There is a gentility here in Eiseley's writing that seems to have gone out of the world....more
It was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis BorgeIt was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis Borges the man. But not, by any means, of Borges the poet and writer of short stories and essays. I still think he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature on merit alone, but I begin to understand why he cheesed off the liberal-minded Nobel Prize Selection Committee.
Perhaps my favorite translator of Borges is Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whose book Georgie and Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife, The Untold Story has just recently been published. Di Giovanni worked closely with Borges during the 1960s, shortly after he married Elsa Astete Millán, and through the divorce. What Di Giovanni discovered was that Borges was fatally naive when it came to women, politics, and social life. In fact, he was incredibly feckless in many ways. Di Giovanni writes:
[I]n later years, he travelled to Chile to receive a medal from the hands of Augusto Pinochet. This was one of the worst decisions of his life. But, he maintained, in his digging-his-heels-in mode that no one was going to tell him what he could or could not do. I imagine that it would never have occurred to Borges to question and be horrified by Pinochet’s well-oiled programme of eliminating Communists and other left-wingers. Borges was so universally condemned for his action that I think he came to realize his colossal mistake. But to justify it and himself, when I mentioned his folly to him, he said, ‘But I thought the medal was a gift of the Chilean people.’
Equally, if not more disastrous, was Borges’s marriage to Elsa. Years earlier, he had mooned over her; but, typically, someone else married her. (“Georgie” was not prime marriage material, as he lived with his mother well into his old age.) Then, one day, he met her again and—discovering that she was now widowed—took up with her again. By now, Borges was a famous literary figure; and, Elsa, being a social climber, thought that she was now about to enter the high life.
Her behavior during visits to the United States was execrable. She would steal silverware and other “souvenirs” from Borges’s friends and associates. During a visit to the Rockefellers, she insisted in photographing every room and asking about all the furnishings. It got to the point that people stopped inviting Borges lest Elsa come along. When she accidentally left a nutria coat in Cambridge after one trip, she made the return of the coat into an international incident involving U.S. and Argentinian ambassadorial and consular staffs.
Not that Borges was an ideal husband. He was an elderly blind man who happened to be impotent (which Elsa had known earlier) and incredibly old fashioned, a sort of Anglo-Argentinian who was neither all one thing or all the other. Finally, with di Giovanni’s help, Borges divorced her. He later re-married, with Maria Kodama, who now controls his esate.
Di Giovanni’s book is mandatory reading to supplement all the hagiographical biographies of the author who never quite get at the man’s character....more
This is a most surprising book. The only thing I have read by Shirley Hazzard was a book about Graham Greene's last days on Capri. Now this book of ocThis is a most surprising book. The only thing I have read by Shirley Hazzard was a book about Graham Greene's last days on Capri. Now this book of occasional essays, published in various magazines, brings together some excellent essays about Naples, Italy -- that much maligned city known for garbage strikes, rats, and the Camorra. What is more, the book bodily incorporates a delightful essay by Francis Steegmuller, which I had read decades ago in The New Yorker, about a motor-scooter bag-grab that dragged him across a curb and sent him to the hospital.
I have always wanted to visit Naples, even more so than Rome, Venice, Tuscany or other marquee tourist destinations. As Hazzard writes in the chapter entitled "City of Secrets and Surprises," Naples is actually an Ancient Greek city that has been neglected by the world because of the ever-threatening Mount Vesuvius. She quotes a passage from Juvenal which could be applied to Naples today:
Quick of wit and of unbounded impudence, as ready of speech as any orator and more torrential, carrying in themselves any character you please from geometrician to rope dancer.... Experts in flattery -- and yet believed. If you smile, they split with laughter; if you shed tears, they weep.... They always have the best of it, at any moment taking their expression from another's face.... And nothing is sacred to their passions.
This is the second volume of a series of weekly essays that George Mackay Brown wrote for The Orcadian. They are suffused with the austere light and sThis is the second volume of a series of weekly essays that George Mackay Brown wrote for The Orcadian. They are suffused with the austere light and stormy weather of the Orkney Archipelago, most particularly that little corner of it called Stromness. His essays have so influenced me that they are my model for a blog a write at Tarnmoor.Com.
But Brown is far more than a journalist. He is one of Scotland's greatest poets and writers of the twentieth century. Many of his poems furnished lyrics for the music of Peter Maxwell Davies. Although he is not well known in the Americas, I think he should be. Particularly memorable are the short stories in Hawkfall and his novels Magnus, Greenvoe, and Vinland -- all on local themes.
Or you can read these short essays, which leave one with a strong sense of that austere and virtually treeless landscape surrounded by the stormy waters of Pentland Firth.
I have an insatiable appetite for every word that Borges has ever written, be it in the form of one of his short stories, essays, poems, or even interI have an insatiable appetite for every word that Borges has ever written, be it in the form of one of his short stories, essays, poems, or even interviews. For over forty years, I have been in thrall to him: He has been my guide and mentor to the world's great literature, and still continues to be so.
Although this set of interviews has its problems, they are mostly in the form of shoddy proofreading, particularly in the brief but excellent of thirty-four poems that follow the interviews. Among them is this little gem, translated by Willis Brownstone:
THAT NOTHING IS KNOWN
The moon can't know it is serene and clear, Nor can it even know it is the moon; Nor sand that it is sand. No thing may soon Or ever know it has a strange form here. The pieces made of ivory are as far From abstract chess as is the hand, the key, That guides them. Perhaps the human destiny Of brief joy and lingering despair Is the instrument of the Other. We can't know. Giving it the name of god does no good. And fear, doubt, and the midday prayer we could Not finish—all that is futile. What bow Could have released the arrow that I am? What peak can be the target of that hand?
"The human destiny/Of brief joy and lingering despair"—that says it all, doesn't it?
Roberto Alifano is a congenial and exceptionally well-informed interviewer, with the result that Borges opens up to him with an erudition that surprises even me. Discussed are such authors little known to North America and the English-speaking world as Arturo Capdevilla, Ricardo Guiraldes, Evaristo Carriego, Francisco de Quevedo, Pedro Bonifacio Palacios (who called himself Almafuerte), and Leopoldo Lugones.He also continues to add interesting observations on such world literary figures as Virgil, Hawthorne, Cervantes, Dante, Kipling, and Oscar Wilde.
Now I have to return the library book of this edition and go looking for a good copy to add to my own collection of Borges, which continues to grow. ...more
I just had the nasty experience of writing a review of this book which Goodreads lost somewhere between the moons of Uranus and the neighborhood of AlI just had the nasty experience of writing a review of this book which Goodreads lost somewhere between the moons of Uranus and the neighborhood of Alpha Centauri. Phoooey!
To summarize briefly, Italo Calvino chooses six (actually five) traits he would like to see carried forward into a millennium which, alas, he did not live to see.It almost doesn't matter what these traits are: It only matters that Calvino took all of literature and examined it through his jeweler's loupe, showing us new relations, new pathways, that were wrapped in a skein in his prodigious gray matter.
Having just finished this book, I want to go through it slowly, looking for new authors, new works to read. Like his hero Borges (who is also my hero), Calvino functions as a magnificent signpost. I plan on bringing a knapsack, a canteen filled with water, a hiking staff, and a library to follow the many trails marked out by him....more
What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (197What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of their science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer's long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer's life and imagination.
All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.
Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.
Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind -- including a room which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)
These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active "black market" of individuals called stalkers who take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back -- things which are inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film's Stalker's daughter, who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.
Stalker takes two individuals, referred to only as the professor and the Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.
There is no author in the English-speaking world with such a firm grasp on the subject of Icelandic saga and its background than UCLA Professor JesseThere is no author in the English-speaking world with such a firm grasp on the subject of Icelandic saga and its background than UCLA Professor Jesse L. Byock. Feud in the Icelandic Saga is the first volume of his Icelandic "trilogy," the other volumes being Medieval Iceland and Viking Age Iceland. All are authoritative, informative, and well written.
Feud in the Icelandic Saga is perhaps the most academic of the three, but at the same time, it is perhaps the most useful as a guide to analyzing what makes the individual sagas tick. Particularly interesting is that Byock does not stop at the Sagas of Icelanders, but also shows examples from later developments of the genre, namely the Sturlung, Bishop's, and King's sagas as well.
In its essence, the sagas -- according to this book -- are divided into episodes of Conflict, Advocacy, and Resolution. Sometimes, there is a single set of such episodes; more often, there are complex chains of interactions -- sometimes leading to Resolution, sometimes breaking out into further conflict -- such as in Njals Saga, perhaps the greatest of them all. This is a particularly useful structure for analyzing the uniqueness of Icelandic sagas, which are largely stories of feuds in the early days of settlement and how they are resolved, if they are resolved.
Byock shows that some sagas are outside this scheme, either because they are about outlaws (Grettir's Saga and Gisli Sursson's Saga; or they are set outside of Iceland and its particular legal problems (the King's Sagas such as Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla Saga); or they are about poets who are more interested in fame than issues of property (Kormak's Saga or The Saga of Hallfred Troublesome-Poet).
Although I have read many of the sagas, this book is a keeper. My only complaint is that, being published in the 1970s, it uses a somewhat outmoded system of transcription from Icelandic to English, making some saga names hard to recognize. ...more
In one sense, Hunter S. Thompson was a poseur. In another, he was a canny participant over a period of a half century that saw Viet Nam, the Kennedy AIn one sense, Hunter S. Thompson was a poseur. In another, he was a canny participant over a period of a half century that saw Viet Nam, the Kennedy Assassination, Rock and Roll, Nixon and Reagan, the Hell's Angels, Ed Muskie, the Mariel Boat Lift, and a failed attempt to convict him on trumped-up charges.
It's rather odd to be at the same time a participant in all this madness, and also a critical intelligence seeing all the craziness for what it was. There is a certain exhilaration to reading these letters and occasional papers:
You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.... And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave....
Never have I seen such a succinct description of what the Sixties were all about.
Even though many of the pieces in Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream appear to have been cobbled together, it is fascinating to follow the development of Thompson's style of gonzo journalism, with its subtext of fear and loathing. About our times, he says, "The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious or confused, they act like wild animals."
It's a pity that Thompson committed suicide when he did at the age of 67. I think he still had some piss and vinegar in him. ...more
If it involves Jorge Luis Borges, it's pretty much guaranteed to be five stars. Ever since I first heard about him in the late 1960s, the ArgentineanIf it involves Jorge Luis Borges, it's pretty much guaranteed to be five stars. Ever since I first heard about him in the late 1960s, the Argentinean has guided my reading and influenced my beliefs. Much of what I am today, such as I am, anyhow, I owe to Borges. His poems, essays, and stories continue to work through me like yeast in dough.
Believe me: The benefits of blindness have been greatly exaggerated. If I could see, I would never leave the house, I'd stay indoors reading the many books that surround me. Now they're as far away from me as Iceland, although I've been to Iceland twice and I will never reach my books. And yet, at the same time, the fact that I can't read obliges me ... to dream and imagine.
In the last decade or so before his death, there have been few new works from Borges, but there have been numerous published interviews. The three in this book run the gamut from the very simpatico and knowledgeable interview by Richard Burgin, to the rather scattered questions by three young men from Artful Dodge, an Ohio literary magazine, to the very last interview Borges gave, to Gloria Lopez Lecube from Argentina's La Isla Radio.
Because of his blindness, it was difficult for Borges to write anything original of greater than, say, five pages. He had to be able to edit new pieces in his head, from memory. When giving interviews, however, he was able to draw on his professorial persona and his prodigious memory of world literature. It is wonderful listening to him deal with a knowledgeable literary person such as Richard Burgin or Paul Theroux (in The Old Patagonian Express). Other times, there can be a touch of asperity in his responses, such as the one with Artful Dodge.
I am grieved that the voice of Borges has been stilled. I have read everything I could find of his in English, even the many interviews. In Buenos Aires, at a museum exhibition in November 2011, I saw a video of him speaking in English and Spanish: It was just as I had imagined it would be.
I started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by theI started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by the author's South African perspective of both the West and his own native land. Then, too, most of the essays were about writers with whom I wasn't familiar, largely from the Netherlands, Germany, Israel and the Middle East, and finally South Africa.
Years ago, I had read two or three of Coetzee's novels and found them interesting, particularly Waiting for the Barbarians. I am delighted to find a contemporary essayist whose work I can use to send me off in some new directions. I have already purchased Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and am looking for a good edition of Breyten Breytenbach's Dog Heart.
It is too easy for a reader such as myself to get into a rut: I think Coetzee's Stranger Shores may be an antidote.
Although I do not regard Kurt Vonnegut as belonging to the top echelon of American authors, I do regard his work as worth the effort to read, largelyAlthough I do not regard Kurt Vonnegut as belonging to the top echelon of American authors, I do regard his work as worth the effort to read, largely because he is wiser in the ways of life than many more talented authors who get by only with the help of liquor and drugs. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations contains a number of interviews that largely overlap one another in several places, but which redeem themselves by Vonnegut's views on war, peace, and the grinding loneliness of American life.
He never trained as an author. In fact, he was a chemist when he went into World War II as a private. Even though he wrote many books, Vonnegut thought that
it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
Perhaps the only problem with this book is that the interviewers did not ask mthe questions I would like to have seen answered by Vonnegut....more
There are some things that draw me to Chatwin, and others that repel me. On the one hand, he had this mania for travel that has been part of my life after since I broke free of my parents; and, as a former art auction expert for Sotheby's, he has a distrust for people who keep score in life by accumulating "things."
On the other hand, Chatwin's restlessness also pertained his relationships with people. He was bisexual and somewhat treacherous (in effect) with those people who were drawn to him. Even in his best books, The Songlines and In Patagonia, he partook of the same mythomania that he criticizes in others. The story took precedence over the data provided by informants. Many of those who acted in that capacity felt seduced and betrayed by him. Read Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin: A Biography for particular instances of his "treacherous" side.
And yet, the stories he tells are frequently -- but not always -- wonderful. I feel I have the same yearnings toward travel, the same horreur du domicile and distrust of "accumulators" of stuff. I wish I could write like the man, but I will just have to content myself by reading him. Particularly good are the opening essay, "I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia" and the two closing essays, "Among the Ruins" and "The Morality o Things."
The only disappointing part of this collection is Chatwin's failed attempt to provide a philosophical basis for his rootlessness, his so called "Nomadic Alternative." It is always a danger to take one's own psychological traits and write them large as a theory of life.
Chatwin tried to live his "Nomadic Alternative," but sadly died all too young of AIDS in 1989....more
The young novelist to whom Letters to a Young Novelist is addressed is, I believe, Mario Vargas Llosa himself. No one can be so patient and deliberateThe young novelist to whom Letters to a Young Novelist is addressed is, I believe, Mario Vargas Llosa himself. No one can be so patient and deliberate with a real person, especially presumably a stranger. At some point, the patient persona that narrates these "letters" -- essays, really -- would interrupt with abuse that he was being misconstrued.
In response to a fictional letter from the would-be novelist, Vargas Llosa discusses the structure of the novel, in terms of style, the narrator and narrative space, time, levels of reality, and shifts and qualitative leaps -- in addition to which he adds a few special cases.
Probably the best thing about these "Letters" is the way that Vargas Llosa sees the Latin American novel placed within the context of world literature. There are some excellent examples, plus some areas for my own future researches.
Not that I ever want to write a novel. I'm just a meager essayist....more
Philip K. Dick is a mobius artichoke. You peel off the outer layers, and then find inner layers. Peel off enough inner layers, and you come up with --Philip K. Dick is a mobius artichoke. You peel off the outer layers, and then find inner layers. Peel off enough inner layers, and you come up with -- if not the ultimate reality -- more outer layers. That artichoke heart is elusive, and perhaps cannot be found at all.
I have loved reading Dick's work for decades. This is the first time I ever tried to read a book about him. Douglas A Mackey in his survey of the author and his work, suitably entitled Philip K Dick, tries to come to terms with his subject, and does a creditable job at it. At one point, he quotes an unpublished work by the author:
At one time my heme was the search for reality, which I posed as: What is real? What isn't? But I think really my theme, What is human? What isn't? is more vital and was there all the time underlying the other. After all, the subdivision of reality most important to our ability to make something we can treasure out of our life is the reality of other humans. To define what is real is to define what is human, if you care about humans.
That last phrase I find most illuminating. There are people among us so wrapped in their pets, their TV-fed fantasies, and their craziness that they may very well not care about humans. Not when they can pick up a military assault rifle and shoot up a kindergarten.
Fortunately, Dick does care about humans. He does encounter some problems, however, dealing with his female characters. Males care about humans in general in a very different way that males care about women. The result is that it is difficult (but not impossible) for male authors to create convincing women and vice versa. It is a small failing in Dick, who was married five times and couldn't really sort out his problems with women during an incredibly creative lifetime.
Dick in his endless search for reality has produced at least a dozen works that easily cross over from science fiction to literature. It is no accident that three volumes (comprising thirteen novels) of the prestigious Library of America have been devoted to his work....more
Although this is undoubtedly the best book of literary criticism I have read about the work of Jorge Luis Borges, I was disappointed by the last two cAlthough this is undoubtedly the best book of literary criticism I have read about the work of Jorge Luis Borges, I was disappointed by the last two chapters, which leave Borges on the sidelines while discussing the avant-garde Argentinean literary magazines and their manifestos of the 1920s and 1930s.
The first two thirds of Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge, on the other hand, are strictly top-notch. They succeed in placing the author in his milieu of a rapidly growing Buenos Aires that, at the beginning of the 20th century, experienced a massive influx of immigrants from Southern Europe. A member of an old criollo family which included some English ancestors, Borges clung to the culture of the orillas, the picturesque outskirts (hence "The Edge" of the title) that bordered the pampas. About one of his stories, she writes:
This is, of course, an ideological account of Borges's fantastic story, and one with which he would have strongly disagreed. All the same it can be justified in social and historical terms; more important, it tallies with Borges's own preoccupations about national culture in the twenties, with his rereading of the national past and his rewriting of gauchesque literature. Borges, as we have seen, invented an image of Buenos Aires as a city untouched by migration and demographic complexity. The real Buenos Aires where he was living seemed chaotic and its heterogeneity menacing and unaesthetic. Although his main response to this experience was his creation of a Buenos Aires muth based on las orillas, it is by no means absurd to read such fantastic stories as "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" as another strategy for establishing order for a society whose old orders were vanishing.
In the middle, Sarlo analyzes several of Borges' stories with greater penetration than anything else I have ever read.
There is a lot of mediocre criticism of Borges's work, usually by well-intentioned academics who are unfamiliar with the context of Argentina and the River Plate. Beatriz Sarlo has all the credentials to do a creditable job, and that is exactly what she did. ...more
This is a worthwhile study of Orwell that perhaps places too much credence in the ideological battles between totalitarianism, communism, and the righThis is a worthwhile study of Orwell that perhaps places too much credence in the ideological battles between totalitarianism, communism, and the right. On the plus side, it makes me want to read more of Orwell, which is perhaps the best result to be gained from reading Hitchens. One interesting point he makes is that Orwell, though not a great writer, is attractive to readers because of his unflinching honesty irrespective of the intellectual cross-currents that are swirling around him....more
There had (until his death in 1986) been an active cottage industry in Europe and America of trudging out to Buenos AiActually, four and a half stars.
There had (until his death in 1986) been an active cottage industry in Europe and America of trudging out to Buenos Aires and interviewing that Tiresias of world literature, Jorge Luis Borges. I have read so many of them, all the way from Paul Theroux's chapter in The Old Patagonian Express through various American university productions in which the old man said, essentially, what he thought his interviewers wanted him to say. For instance, with Theroux, Borges concentrated on American and English literature.
It is nice, for a change, to see an Argentinian like Fernando Sorrentino -- a man who himself belongs to the rather considerable Argentinian literary tradition -- quiz him primarily on Argentinian matters, secondarily about Spanish literature, and only later about world literature, including that of the English-speaking world. As a result, he was able to get under Borges's thick skin on a number of occasions on issues relating particularly to politics and literary feuds.
Although perhaps no writer has had a greater influence on my own tastes in literature, I found myself encountering in this book, for the first time, the feeling that I probably wouldn't like Borges personally, and he certainly would not like me. He is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud with his pose of a gentleman, one with English antecedents no less -- whereas I am a Hungarian peasant. He is a staunch Conservative ("A gentleman is interested in lost causes only"), whereas I am a disgruntled ex-leftist become an even more disgruntled moderate.
It is disconcerting to see Borges shoot down many of my favorites, such as Benito Perez Galdos, Federico Garcia Lorca, the tango singer Carlos Gardel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Antonio Machado. But then, as much of an influence as he's had on me, he and I are not cut from the same cloth. I will continue to study Borges carefully and to glean from him what I can, though, sadly, my hero worship for the man has faded somewhat.
I rather liked his appraisal of his own work in the 7th interview:
The image that I shall leave when I'm dead -- we've already said this is part of a poet's works -- and maybe the most important -- I don't know exactly what it will be, I don't know if I'll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that's of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I've written but what I am writing and what I'm going to write.... And I could add that I'm like Enrique Banchs; that is to say, I'm afraid that at any moment people may realize that they've devoted an excessive amount of attention to me and then they'll consider me a bungler or a charlatan or, perhaps, both at the same time.
It's always perilous to write about one's literary heroes: We are all, after all, a work in progress. As much as I've changed, however, I still salute Borges because he opened my mind to the world, and, this is no little thing, to Argentina, which is a whole world in itself. ...more
This collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and thThis collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and the pedestrian (some of his political pieces). In general, the period covered is the Clinton Presidency, though there are echoes going all the way back to Herbert Hoover and FDR.
Gore Vidal is a unique figure in our recent history: Because of his family connections, he has met with (and even befriended) many of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. He has no great love for FDR, whom he accuses of orchestrating the whole Pearl Harbor attack, and John F. Kennedy, who -- well we all pretty much know what he did. He has even fewer good things to say about Truman, Nixon, the two Bushes, Carter, and William Jefferson Clinton.
Reading The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 made me feel that I needed to read more of Mr. Vidal, even though his Mephistophelean knowingness is in itself suspicious. But then, I can't really believe what anyone who ever been part of the political scene says. At least, not without a nearby grain of salt....more
It is intriguing to think that Brave New World Revisited was written some twenty-seven years after Brave New World, which in turn was written almost sIt is intriguing to think that Brave New World Revisited was written some twenty-seven years after Brave New World, which in turn was written almost sixty years ago. With BNWR, we are solidly in the 1950s, the world of B. F. Skinner, C. Wright Mills, Vance Packard of The Hidden Persuaders, and -- not least -- the George Orwell of 1984. In fact BNWR comes across at times as an answer to Orwell and Aldous Huxley's reaffirmation that, in 1931's Brave New World, he had it right all along.
At the beginning, Huxley writes:
In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women, and children. Punishment temporarily puts a stop to undesirable behavior, but does not permanently reduce the victim's tendency to indulge in it.
If this is true, and it may very well be, then many organizations such as ISIS (or whatever it is calling itself this week) or Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda have yet to come on board....more
This is the first of five volumes tracing in exhaustive detail the influences working on Fyodor Dostoevsky during his literary career. It was by readiThis is the first of five volumes tracing in exhaustive detail the influences working on Fyodor Dostoevsky during his literary career. It was by reading David Foster Wallace's review of the series reprinted in his collection Consider the Lobster that I decided I would read the series and, along with it, the novels and stories of the great Russian writer as they came up in Joseph Frank's series.
Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 is excellent except for a sag several chapters long dealing with Dostoevsky's attendance at various political/socialist/Fourierist circles after the disappointment's following the publication of Poor Folk. Fortunately, Frank returns after his author's arrest by the Tsarist officials to the minor (but interesting) works he was working on during the period of his socialist venture.
Here, from "An Honest Thief," is a fascinating quote that was later eliminated by Dostoevsky because of one critic's stupidly negative response:
My Emelyan, if he had stayed alive, wouldn't have been a man but some sort of trash to spit on. But here he died from grief and a bad conscience and it's like he showed the world that, whatever he might be, he was a human being all the same; that a man can die from vice as from a deadly poison, and that vice, it must be, is a human thing, something you pick up, it's not born with you -- here today, it could be gone for good tomorrow, otherwise, if we were destined to stay depraved all through the ages because of original sin, Christ would never have come to us.
This is a magnificent book, and I can hardly wait to read the other four volumes in the series. But first, I have promised myself to read (or re-read) The Double, White Nights, The Landlady, and Netochka Nezvanova....more
I return to another of my idols of thirty years ago, only to find that I no longer find the old magic in evidence. Over the years (but not for the lasI return to another of my idols of thirty years ago, only to find that I no longer find the old magic in evidence. Over the years (but not for the last fifteen years), I have read most of Naipaul's fiction and nonfiction. But since I began to travel and see things for myself, I now begin to regard him as one who likes to stir troubled waters. There are three essays in this book, one about certain clueless Black Power advocates in Trinidad, another about Argentina during some of its worst days in the last century (the return of Juan Peron and the military dictatorship that followed), and about Zaire under Mobuto Sese Seko. Finally, there is a curious short piece on Joseph Conrad, whom Naipaul finds somewhat mystifying.
My choice to re-read this book was because of its centerpiece essay, "The Return of Eva Peron," to which I would give four stars. On the plus side, he does an excellent job of describing the poisonous atmosphere of the Peron return, the inept rule of his widow Isabelita, and the dictatorship of the generals and admirals under Videla, who is now serving a life sentence for mass murder. On the minus side, he blames the Argentinian people for their plight, slamming even Jorge Luis Borges for his unrealistic view of the country's history, without thinking that Borges sought a kind of metaphysical escape in his stories such as "The Aleph," "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," and "The Zahir."
But then if Naipaul is mystified by Conrad, he would be even more off the beam with Borges. It seems almost as if Naipaul were living in a kind of bubble caused by his intense background in Trinidad and England. I still think he is an excellent writer, but now I begin to wonder about his perceptions....more
I have always been of two minds about French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. On one hand, he is the author of a number of philosophical works I see as bI have always been of two minds about French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. On one hand, he is the author of a number of philosophical works I see as being essentially unreadable. (That's why I downgraded Conversations with Jean-Paul Sartre to three stars: When the questions turn to philosophy, I sense a growing queasiness.) On the other hand, when he talks about literature or feminism (with no less than his consort Simone de Beauvoir) or politics, his thinking is more directly and cogently expressed.
This book consists of three interviews from the 1960s and 1970s. Subjects included feminism, American imperialism (during the time of the Viet Nam Conflict), Sartre's writing plans, and a large dollop at the beginning of philosophy using philosophical language that vaguely resembles human discourse.
If one skips through the turgidity at th beginning, this book has a lot to offer. I have always thought that Sartre's philosophy is best expressed in his novels such as Nausea and The Age of Reason; his plays, such as No Exit; and his autobiography The Words.
However great a literary figure he was, I could never forgive him for kissing Stalin's arse when he knew damned well what was going on in Russia at the time. I guess that's what philosophy can do to you: Hide the infamy behind a curtain of bland terminology. ...more