"And to find out what we are, we must enter back into the ideas and the dreams of worlds that bore and dreamt us and there find, waiting within worn m...more"And to find out what we are, we must enter back into the ideas and the dreams of worlds that bore and dreamt us and there find, waiting within worn mouths, the speech that is ours."(less)
“… in this rough-and-tumble corner of creation, such things will happen, and are usually considered no more than too bad.” A man has been shot in cold...more“… in this rough-and-tumble corner of creation, such things will happen, and are usually considered no more than too bad.” A man has been shot in cold-blood by a six-shooter-wielding cowboy. Welcome to the frontier town (“which term I understand is a romantic one to those not there residing”) of Warlock, imagined by Oakley Hall in his novel by the same name, a Western that is also literature. What makes it literature? Well aware of the conventions of the “rough-and-tumble” West (established in Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880s), Hall is able to shrewdly play with the reader’s expectations. He creates stereotypes, such as marshal Blaisdell (modeled after legendary lawman, Wyatt Earp) and green-eyed Abe McQuown–but only to undermine the flatness of these stereotypes, by allowing the characters to outgrow themselves. What happens when the outlaw wants to come clean, when the marshal shoots the wrong person? Warlock paints a devastating picture of American unreality, where people are “obsessed with the pleasure and presumption of dictating Life & Death.” In Thomas Pynchon’s words (who was apparently a great admirer of Hall’s and often found himself talking “in Warlock dialogue”): “Warlock has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity.”
What I find most interesting about Hall’s literary Western is its insight into the idea of hero-worship. Having recently watched the London Olympics, I don’t think much has changed since Frontier Times. As Henry Holmes Goodpasture (one of the narrators of Warlock and member of the self-righteous Citizens’ Committee) remarks:
“We are a race of tradition-lovers in a new land, of king-reverers in a Republic… it is a Country and a Time where any bank clerk or common laborer can become a famous outlaw… [but] we are cynical and envious too. As one half of our nature seeks to create heroes to worship, the other must ceaselessly attempt to cast them down and discover evidence of feet of clay, in order to label them as mere lucky fellows, or as villains-were-the-facts-but-known, and the eminent and great are ground between the millstones of envy, and reduced again to common size.”
It is an all-too-human tendency to raise up certain individuals to dangerous heights; to immortalize mortals, who are bound to stumble and fall. Every age has its Camelot: a never-never land where virtues are embodied in clear-cut heroes. But as Blaisdell comes to realize (after his fall), “he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also… in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist” (quoting Pynchon again). Why do people, nonetheless, create and worship heroes? Goodpasture’s response is that “through [Blaisdell], I can see a bit of myself immortalized, and the others of this town, and even the whole of this western country.” The marshal comes to be a fulcrum for others. From the safety of his general store, Goodpasture can live vicariously through him and his good deeds–project all his hopes and fancies on him. That is the crux of why humans like to hero-worship.(less)
To people of my generation, who did not experience the end of the Cold War, Russia seems to be filled with gruff and vulgar old men and a criminal you...moreTo people of my generation, who did not experience the end of the Cold War, Russia seems to be filled with gruff and vulgar old men and a criminal youth, both with vodka on their breath, and a large corrupt bureaucracy, headed by unpleasantly masculine men. Above all, Russia is a curious and quaint place, which stretches clumsily far to the North East. The news and popular films have given us this impression. It is quite a different country from the one that birthed and raised Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and Chekov. The Russia of my generation is not filled with spirit and patriotism. It is not the fatherland of old, which inspired great writers. Indeed, the two are incompatible. What happened? As we all well know, Lenin and Stalin (and also poor Trotsky).
Between Tolstoy's Napoleonic era and the present day, Russia underwent a revolution (1917) and a civil war between the infamous reds and whites. Millions perished, as famines swept through the land and the NKVD deported and exiled "enemies of the state" (1937). Then, "Operation Barbarossa" brought hundreds of thousands of German soldier unto the frozen Russian soil. The resulting eight-month battle over Stalingrad decided the fate of Europe and the whole world. This event lead to the rise of a new superpower, the mention of which struck terror in the hearts of the West. With time, this power started to crumble and fall.
I know all of this because of history books. But my knowledge is petty, composed of names and dates. What happened to the soul of Russia, once so finely drawn by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, after Tsar Nicholas II was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918? There is no way for me to know, for no great Russian writer has lived and written since then. Some might point to Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn. I do not deny that they were very talented writers, but great? I am thinking of a work like "War and Peace" that stood (and still stands) for an entire age, a people, a religion. Where can I turn to learn about the most intimate thoughts and fears of Old Bolsheviks, kulaks, and bureaucrats, in a Russia that was torn by tyranny and war?
By good fortune, I have finally found the answer to this question: Vasily Grossman and his work "Life and Fate." The title alone is extremely ambitious. Besides containing the words "life" and "fate," which are laden with meaning, it is an obvious reference to "War and Peace." Such a reference could easily be taken as arrogant and self-important, but in the case of Grossman it is quite fitting. Both books are massive, with hundreds of principal characters, both are (more or less) historically accurate and set during a particular war, both are deeply philosophical, political, and religious in nature. Most importantly, however, Tolstoy and Grossman both are interested in the heart of Russia. What makes it beat? They traverse the whole of Russia, through the steppe and boreal forests, past huts, dachas, and trenches, in search of the discontent, sadness, rage, but also the love of freedom and pride that make up the Russian people.
"Life and Fate" is set during the Battle of Stalingrad, which began on 23 August 1942, and takes the reader right through to the end, 2 February 1943. While the "Great Patriotic War" is a prominent theme, and many of the characters are in the Red Army, "Life and Fate" is not a war novel, in the traditional sense. It is about the day-to-day experiences of ordinary human beings, who happen to find themselves in a war-torn country. They worry about trivial matters, such as ration cards and food, reputation, lost and newly-found love, the past and the future. Grossman was a war reporter, one of the first to describe a German extermination camp. He knew what the soldiers were thinking in the crumbling walls of Stalingrad, what the evacuated wives were thinking in the Urals, what the prisoners were thinking in the Gulag. After the events of the October Revolution, and especially since the beginning of the Battle of Stalingrad, one word weighed heavily on everyone's mind: freedom (and, of course, the loss of freedom).
In Grossman's opinion, freedom is what makes humans human, the touchstone of all life. Through "Life and Fate," he attempts to show that a state, even one as powerful as Stalin's or Hitler's, cannot ever take away the freedom of its citizens completely. Even in times of war, in the trenches of Stalingrad, in a cell on Lubyanka Square, humans can make choices and take fate into their own hands. It is because of this assertion that the KGB confiscated his manuscript, upon completion, in 1960. Thankfully for readers everywhere, "Life and Fate" was smuggled to the west twenty years later and published at last.(less)
To be able to adequately review "Look Homeward, Angel," I will have to do extensive quoting, for much of the charm of this work lies in its exquisite...moreTo be able to adequately review "Look Homeward, Angel," I will have to do extensive quoting, for much of the charm of this work lies in its exquisite choice of wording.
"Look Homeward, Angel" is a classic coming-of-age novel about Eugene Gant and his raving mad family, with a heavy emphasis on the family. An early problem that I encountered while reading about this eccentric little boy, who is apparently homologous to the real Thomas Wolfe, was that I disliked him. This was a serious dilemma, seeing that the book was about him. Not only was Eugene weird, in a uncanny way, periodically making strange, guttural, retching noises in his larynx, he also seemed from the get-go to be way beyond his years, aware of his loneliness and genius in the cradle, and quoting Greek mythology at every corner. As he grows older, it only gets worse, college finally turning him into a self-absorbed and prideful prick. "Ah me," he cries, "ah me!"
I was furious with him until I realized that he was merely being honest, painfully honest. Much of the things he says and does, we are taught by society to despise, but we, nonetheless, think them and say them, in private. As Thomas Wolfe tells us in the introduction, he comes before the reader "in innocence and nakedness of spirit." The best example of this is Eugene's fierce loneliness, from the day he is born: "The first move I ever made, after the cradle, was to crawl for the door, and every move I have made since has been an effort to escape." He knows that, "men are forever strangers to one another," and, thus, sees no need to play at being affable, being part of normal and bland society.
Eugene is honest with himself, in touch with his needs, needs peculiar to him. Loneliness is and must remain his natural state. This is an awful burden for him to carry, as evidenced by his desperate outcry, "we've got to have something, you know ... we can't go on always alone–alone." The reason he, nonetheless, continues to exist alone, as his phantasmal brother Ben discloses to him during the last pages, the best last pages of any book, by the way, is because, "you are your world." Everything that Eugene seeks in life is inside him, "in the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul, I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded." So, his brother tells him, "fool, why do you look in the streets?"
While his nakedness or honesty drives Eugene into himself, to the point where his family members hardly know him, it also endows the reality around him with a certain enchantment. Hence, instead of brooding over books all day, Eugene walks the streets of Altamont, a city that seems to be fixed in an eternal state of blooming and flowering Spring, stricken by wonder. To him, all that is described in Greek mythology really exists, somewhere. He believes this even after college. The novel ends as his journeying begins. The result of this constant enchantment is an immense joy and excitement about life, which ululates through himself and even the reader. Life, for Eugene, "the centaur, moon eyed and wild of mane, torn apart with hunger for the golden world," is like a "strange and bitter fruit" waiting to be picked.
His honesty also makes him fearfully vulnerable. All I have said so far is about Eugene's interior life. The novel itself, however, is equally, or more so, about his family members. Around them, Eugene is mostly miserable, with the exception of Ben. "Look Homeward, Angel," apart from being a coming-of-age novel, is also a painful meditation on age and fixedness of character. Eugene's parents are obsessed, absolutely eaten up, by the sentence, "I've paid my own way." To them, everything in reality comes down to independence, not surprisingly so, for this was a widespread aspiration at that time, that time being the early 20th century. Eugene sums it up well when he refers to his childhood as, "all the blind waste." His mother often tells him to, "try to be a little more happy," but Eugene's being fundamentally clashes with her way of life.
"O, the wonder, the magic, and the loss!"
Briefly, to give you a sense of what this book reads like, it reminded me on many occasions of James Joyce's "Ulysses," only that "Look Homeward, Angel," and a qualification is needed, makes a hell a lot more sense and is less detailed, spanning nineteen years instead of one day. Disregarding these two differences for a second, weighty as they may be, both works are frequently inconsistent in style, switching between interior monologues, omnipresent narrators who move between the houses of Dublin, respectively Altamont, and more or less straightforward third-person narrations, the less consisting of random rhymes hanged on to paragraphs or similar gadgetries. More importantly, both works are utterly unique.(less)
What I am about to say about this mammoth of a book is inevitably going to sound like "one prolonged windy bellow, covering the impervious grazing of...moreWhat I am about to say about this mammoth of a book is inevitably going to sound like "one prolonged windy bellow, covering the impervious grazing of a complacent ox!" For such is the nature of this book: unshakably calm, massive, and, may I say, cosmic.
This is an interesting word to use, considering the earthiness, which suffuses most of the book. "Wolf Solent" is a book of endless walks through the pleasant and placid English countryside, with its high hedges and shallow ponds, and of cups of tee. It is a slow-paced melodrama without the drama. What is left then? A fairly simple story of a floundering and blundering 36-year-old returning to the place of his birth, seeking to get back in touch with his long-dead father. This pursuit is postponed most of the book, however, as he swiftly falls in love with not one, but two women, at the same time, one barely a woman. What ensues is a delicate exploration of human relations, both on a sensual and on a spiritual level. John Cowper Powys astonishes with his adroitness in these matters.
So far, I have hardly justified my use of the fanciful analogy above, the one with the cosmic ox. The reason for this is because I have only described the machinations of the novel and not the perspective, the vista but not the onlooker. With this, I have done Powys an injustice, for Wolf Solent, whose deliciously confused consciousness we inhabit as readers, must be one of the most unique protagonists in all of literature (and I have met quite a few, from the puerile Oskar Matzerath to the ribald Leopold Bloom).
Wolf is a strange one. While he indulges, no, luxuriates, in reality, treating the women around him abysmally, he is, at the same time, oddly removed from it. The comings and goings of humans are of no concern of his, being always aware of the airy heights of the sky, which give way to primordial darkness, above his head, and the soil and worms and core of the earth beneath his feet. There is a certain depth behind everything, even behind a pigsty, which is where the novel ends. In observing the infinitesimal in nature, he witnesses the cosmic forces of good and evil in the universe, which constantly struggle for superiority. He calls this sensation his "mythology."
As you can imagine, Wolf's stream of consciousness is interesting, to say the least. But how in the world should this alien mind be able to describe something as ordinary as a tea party? An aborigine might as well attempt to describe a New York skyscraper to his fellow tribespeople. The scene around the fire would be bizarre and confused. So is "Wolf Solent." This, however, is the beauty of the book, what makes it so very captivating; Powys' practical prank of placing someone like Wolf in the serene rolling hills of Somerset, England. Powys was a truly masterful writer to be able to pull this off, not only just, but wholly, brilliantly, believably, rendering "Wolf Solent" one of the best novels I've come upon in a long time.(less)