“Reckless audacity came to be understood as the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice. In this contest the blunter wits were most successful."
"The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." - H.L. Mencken
As I've mentioned here previously, I share a birthday and many attitudes (the better ones, of course) with Mencken. (I would have loved to hear his thoughts on our incoming president. I imagine he would have been particularly horrified by Trump's diction.) I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the Mencken I've read - the strength of his prose and boldness of his personality more than offsets the dated and now-obscure subject matter - and hope to read his "Days Trilogy" next.
"...not good and not bad, but both at once..."
After World War II, Knut Hamsun was put on trial for treason, due to his strong connections to the Nazis and Hitler. During his lengthy examination by the state for mental competence (it was surely hoped that, as a beloved but elderly national hero, his dealings with Nazis were nothing more than senility), Hamsun expounded on literature and its parallel to his own personality.
The so-called 'Naturalists', Zola and his period, wrote about people with dominant characteristics. They had no use for the more subtle psychology, people all had this 'dominant characteristic' which ordained their actions.
Dostoevsky and others taught us all something different about human beings.
From the time I began I do not think that in my entire output you will find a character with a single dominant characteristic. They are all without so-called 'character'. They are split and fragmented, not good and not bad, but both at once, subtle, and changeable in their attitudes and in their deeds.
No doubt I am also like this myself.
It is very possible that I am aggressive, that I have in me something of all of the characteristics which the professor mentions. I am sensitive, suspicious, selfish, generous, jealous, righteous, logical, emotional, controlled. But I don't know that I could say that any one of them was more pronounced than the others in me. In addition I am filled by a grace which has permitted me to write my books. But I cannot 'analyse' that.
Brandes has called it the 'divine madness'.
The contradictory polarity that Hamsun described is the only possible way to reconcile the warm humanity of Hamsun the writer with the cold inhumanity of Hamsun the Nazi. (He was undeniably a Nazi. The medical examiners found him mentally competent, a conclusion that was supported by the fact that the old man wrote one final, rational book, On Overgrown Paths, about his post-war experience.) Hamsun had his demons, and a stubborn resolve that made him refuse to ever reconsider any of his strongly-held beliefs. He was yet another example of a great artist who was an often deplorable human being.
(Quotation from Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, by Robert Ferguson, 1987.)
"Hamsun isn’t the father of the modern novel, but rather its difficult, lonely uncle."
In The Guardian, Jonathan McAloon pays his respects to Knut Hamsun's groundbreaking novel, Mysteries. It's been years since I read the novel, which is overdue for a rereading.
Incidentally, I just finished the Hamsun biography Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, by Robert Ferguson (who considers Mysteries to be Hamsun's greatest book). The bio was fascinating: what a perplexing, contradictory individual Hamsun was. If you're wondering: yes, Hamsun was undoubtedly a Nazi - not quite a genocidist, but one who truly believed in racial purity (he thought the Jews should be segregated, not exterminated) and the greatness of the German people.
Joliet police blotter
Joliet police: Handyman attacked with skillet
Felix Sarver, Joliet Herald-News
January 6, 2017
JOLIET – Joliet police say a handyman was hit in the head with a cast-iron skillet by a Joliet man apparently upset about the victim’s past work.
Charles E. Allen, 50, of the 1300 block of Arthur Avenue in Joliet, has been charged with aggravated battery in the incident, which occurred about 2:48 p.m. Thursday.
Joliet Police Department Capt. Jeff Allbert said the victim, a man in his 50s, went over to the residence – where Allen’s parents also live – to do repair work on a furnace for them. Allbert said the victim is not a regular repairman.
Allen came to the residence and argued with the victim over past electrical work and the argument became heated enough that Allen hit the victim over the head with a cast-iron skillet – once in the front and once in the back.
After police were called, both men were sent to Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox for treatment, as Allen also sustained an injury on his hand. The victim did not have life-threatening injuries, Allbert said.
Once Allen was released from the hospital, he was taken into police custody, Allbert said.
"Don‘t deliberate too long before you begin to write a sketch. All kinds of nice ideas can disappear, never to be seen again. On the other hand, I advise you not to tremble in the face of months, years even, of procrastination, since there’s something quite formative and educational in waiting." - Robert Walser
Writerly words to live by - don't delay, but don't rush!
“Why is it that knowing how to remain alone in Paris for a year in a miserable room teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’?” - Albert Camus
Because, Albert, struggle always creates greater art than does comfort. One of my reading goals for this year is to finally read The Stranger. (Yes, yes, I know. One of the many glaring gaps in my literary experience.)
Good Reading 2016
1. Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (review)
2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (review)
3. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (review)
4. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (review)
5. Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase (review)
6. Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers (review)
7. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (review)
8. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (review)
9. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter (review)
10.Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (review)
Honorable Mention: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal; Harry Lewis Golden, Carl Sandburg; Steve Delahoyde (editor), Field-Tested Books; John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven; Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
Two things are probably obvious about this list. First, the number of woman authors: six of the top ten. This was a conscious decision on my part. I am seriously under-read in terms of books written by women, something I really want to rectify. I made a vow to read ten books of fiction this year by woman authors, and I met my goal - besides the authors listed above, I also read Margaret Atwood, Katherine Anne Porter, Anne Enright and Marilynne Robinson. Two of the ten really stood out: Pride and Prejudice which, while densely written (or denser than I typically prefer), was a fairly easy read, very enjoyable and often (and unexpectedly) very funny. And Up the Down Staircase was one of the funniest books I've read in years. I was very surprised to see that the book is currently out of print - it would certainly be a great candidate for a New York Review Books reissue.
The second obvious thing is Steinbeck: two of the top four, plus two of the honorable mentions. I now believe he is one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, as I mentioned in my Summer of Steinbeck recap.
Our Souls at Night was simply lovely, and a fitting end to Kent Haruf's career. The book encapsulates the warmth, dignity and optimism with which Haruf treated all of his subjects. I was almost hesitant to finally read the book, knowing that once I finished I would never make another new visit to Holt, Colorado. I will certainly miss that, but I also look forward to re-reading Haruf's novels for the rest of my life.
My Christmas book-giving is usually a good snapshot of what I've read during the year. This year, of the books I read in 2016, I gave a copy of Our Souls at Night (six copies in all) to each household of my immediate family, several of whom I've already introduced to Haruf. I also gifted Cannery Row, Up the Down Staircase, Wild Decembers and The Lathe of Heaven - plus John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, which didn't make my list but I thought was perfect for my engineer brother-in-law.
My reading goals for 2017 are still somewhat vague, though I will definitely keep focusing on woman authors - I still have a lot of catching up to do there, and really want to read more from Le Guin, Welty and O'Brien, and also resume Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy. I'm still mulling over what to read for Summer of Classics. Right now I'm thinking it might be H.G. Wells. Stay tuned.
"...we ought to have meaning as human beings..."
Knut Hamsun, writing to a fellow author, around 1918:
You and I, we shouldn't live from scribbling and emptiness, we ought to have meaning as human beings, marry and have children, make a home and live close to the earth. Think about it. I am old and I know it. I've written maybe thirty books, I don't remember exactly; but I have five children, and that is my real blessing. What do people want with all those books? If it weren't for my children I wouldn't even have the right to a grave.
Like so much of Hamsun's life, this statement is full of contradictions. He said this after the publication of The Growth of the Soil, his wildly best-selling novel that also won him the Nobel Prize. His writing up to that time had made him wealthy, critically praised, and one of the most beloved public figures in Norway - but here he says writing isn't important, and that family is everything. This comes from a man who could never write in his family's home, nor even in the writing hut he built on his property - instead he would go off alone to some far-flung locale, leaving his wife and four children at home. As for living "close to the earth", while he had previously done just that, carving out a farmstead from rocky and wooded land in the far north of Norway, by this time he had sold the farm and moved to a provincial city closer to Oslo, specifically to focus on writing The Growth of the Soil. We should go back to the land, he says, even though he had just left the land behind, to return to a more urban and sophisticated life.
The quotation is from Robert Ferguson's biography, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun - a comprehensive (sometimes exhaustingly so) and insightful profile of the perplexing Hamsun's life and work.
What I'm writing
Yes, I realize it's been a very, very long time since I've been able to do a blog post with that heading. But I've reached a semi-milestone, so I thought I'd share. I'm fifty handwritten pages (no idea of the word count) into a new novel, with the working title of Good Advices. I've just started to transcribe what I've written so far into my laptop, instead of waiting until the full draft is finished before typing it all up at once. The latter is how I've always done it in the past, but the new method should make the typing less overwhelming, and also give me a chance to reflect on what I've written as I go.
For the moment, here's the opening paragraph:
He climbed the ladder slowly, intent on his task yet cautious, but after a few moments at the top he found that the screws had rusted and would not budge. Hardly surprising, he thought - the sign had hung there for nearly forty years, exposed to the weather, and now the screws that secured it to the planks of the old barn refused to give. He regretted his choice of screwdriver - its teeth worn and unable to hold - and wished he had first gone for power drill. He sighed, slipped the screwdriver into his back pocket and eased his way back down the ladder.
The writing has been slow but steady, and I like how the story is progressing. I hope I learned enough from Wheatyard to make the editing and crafting of this book much smoother.