This is an odd, half-hearted sort of book which purports to be one thing and shades into another. At first, we are presented with Guy de Maupassant asThis is an odd, half-hearted sort of book which purports to be one thing and shades into another. At first, we are presented with Guy de Maupassant as amateur captain of a sailboat named the Bel-Ami, after his most popular novel. He complains about being forced to be a sociable human being, yet for all his pretensions, he is sailing only a few nautical miles between St Tropez and Antibes with frequent overnight stops at inns along the way.
Afloat has one little authorial tic that is almost unique: Virtually every series ends in an anticlimax. It is as if Maupassant was eager to embark on a line of thought but, somewhere along the way, loses steam.
Still, there are some nice essayistic passages, such as his condemnation of war and of "table-chat" (to which he is nonetheless addicted). There are spurious paragraphs such as this one:
Oh, how I sometimes wish not to be able to think or feel, to live like an animal in some light, sunny country, a yellow country where there's no coarse, grass greenery, in one of those Oriental countries where you drop off peacefully to sleep and wake up cheerfully, go about your business without worry, where you can love without feeling distress, where you're barely aware of existing.
Is there such a place? I think not. If it speaks of anything, it speaks of Maupassant's overweening restlessness.
Still, Afloat is not a bad read, and it tells us a lot more about its author than of the places along the Riviera he visits....more
The great mystery about Rameau's Nephew is: What was its author, Denis Diderot, thinking? The work is in the format of a philosophical dialogue betweeThe great mystery about Rameau's Nephew is: What was its author, Denis Diderot, thinking? The work is in the format of a philosophical dialogue between "I" (presumably Diderot) and "He" (Jean-Francois Rameau, nephew of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau). This nephew is a ne'er-do-well, an unabashed lounge-lizard who tries to make do by toadying up to people who will feed him so that he doesn't have to make a living based on more respectable talents. At one point, he tells Diderot:
In your eyes I am an abject, despicable creature, and sometimes I am in my own eyes too, but only occasionally. I congratulate myself on my failings more often than I deplore them. You are more consistent in your scorn.
Not entirely. At times Diderot, while on one hand deploring the young Rameau's behavior, appears to be bemused, and perhaps wondering if it was perhaps he himself who had taken the wrong path.
I believe that it is this ambiguity which makes Rameau's Nephew interesting. ...more
Although I firmly believe that Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, he was perhaps only an indifferent professoAlthough I firmly believe that Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, he was perhaps only an indifferent professor. His An Introduction to American Literature is essentially an outline of writers which the professor deemed important enough to highlight.
In the process, he downgrades William Faulkner for being too complicated and spends more space on such writers as Edna Ferber, Gertrude Stein, Louis Bromfield, S.S. Van Dine, and Robert Heinlein.
I get the feeling that Borges did not read most of the authors he describes, as his blindness set in during the 1950s. ...more
I can identify the exact moment I fell in love with G.K. Chesterton. Many years ago, as I read The Man Who Was Thursday for the first time, I came acrI can identify the exact moment I fell in love with G.K. Chesterton. Many years ago, as I read The Man Who Was Thursday for the first time, I came across this line by Gilbert Syme, the narrator: "Just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree." It hit me like a bolt of lightning that here was a man that all was one, and that everything affected everything else. Indeed, why not the light of the tree?
Decades later, I finally read Garry Wills's first book, Chesterton. It is not only the best work about the author I have ever read, but it made me realize that: (1) Chesterton was not a sort of Jolly Green Giant, and that what peace he finally attained was hard won; (2) As the First World War and the books he wrote at that time showed, he was a very indifferent propagandist (see The Appetite of Tyranny and The Utopia of Usurers); (3) When Chesterton finally converted to Catholicism in 1922, he became another type of propagandist -- one for his faith -- but more effectively than in his political work; and (4) Perhaps Chesterton's most interesting work was before the Great War.
The best thing about Chesterton is Wills's detailed analysis of the early work, including the poems "The Wild Knight" and "The Ballad of the White Horse" and most particularly, my favorite GKC book, The Man Who Was Thursday.
In an essay on dreams in The Coloured Lands, Chesterton wrote one of the most cogent expressions of the complexity of his dance with joy and nightmare:
In this subconscious world, in short, existence betrays itself; it shows that it is full of spiritual forces which disguise themselves as lions and lamp-posts, which can as easily disguise themselves as butterflies and Babylonian temples.... Life dwells alone in our very heart of hearts, life is one and virgin and unconjured, and sometimes in the watches of the night speaks in its own terrible harmony.
I have only one minor quibble, and that is that Wills ignored much of Chesterton's fiction, which was almost always good, from his Father Brown stories (which he covers) to such titles as The Club of Queer Trades, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, The Return of Don Quixote, and The Poet and the Lunatics. At the same time, what Wills does accomplish is to excellent that I cannot but see myself re-reading this excellent book, and maybe even searching for a hardbound copy for my burgeoning GKC collection.
This short study of Montaigne by Peter Burke excels in placing the French essayist in his milieu. He does not jump to conclusions, emphasizing "He wasThis short study of Montaigne by Peter Burke excels in placing the French essayist in his milieu. He does not jump to conclusions, emphasizing "He was not a systematic thinker, but a man full of insights, some of which are not consistent with others." After all, the essays are "attempts" or "tries" in which Montaigne puts on various thoughts to see how they look in the mirror. In the process, he can be brilliant, tempting one to ascribe to him conclusions which we as the readers draw, but which to Montaigne are primarily an exercise.
Montaigne is a good general introduction to the French essayist. I continue to find certain of his essays, such as "Of Experience," among the greatest works of man....more
This Getty Museum publication showcasing the two letters that Pliny the Younger wrote about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The first letter tellsThis Getty Museum publication showcasing the two letters that Pliny the Younger wrote about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. The first letter tells how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was in command of the Roman fleet at Misenum tried to stage a rescue, but found himself one of the victims. The second letter is from the younger Pliny's own experiences among the mob of people who were frightened by the dark skies during the daytime and the receding of the sea away from the volcano, stranding thousands of sea creatures.
As a Hungarian-American, I have always thought the the American/Western European notion of literature, art, and history to be culturally biased. InsteAs a Hungarian-American, I have always thought the the American/Western European notion of literature, art, and history to be culturally biased. Instead, I seek out essays by people like Csezlaw Milosz, Vaclav Havel, Slavenka Drakulic, and Milan Kundera for a reasonable alternative. Encounter: Essays is a brief collection by Kundera, mostly about music and literature. As usually happens when I read a book like this, I shall be looking for new music to hear (Leos Janacek), poems to read (Aime Cesaire), and novels (Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt).
Collections such as this one have their weak essays, and Encounter is no exception, but there is enough here to send me off in new directions for the next few years. ...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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.