The making of a writer
In the autumn 2014 issue of Granta, Kent Haruf writes a bittersweet essay on his beginnings as a writer. Bittersweet, given that this was probably one of the last things he wrote before his untimely death in November. In writing about his life, Haruf is every bit as self-effacing, reserved and gentle as his fiction.
Fram"But one age cannot be another and you make due with what's available when you come along, as Oscar often reminded himself. He was lucky to be where he was, exploring the Arctic with a pension plus health insurance."
An excerpt from Steve Himmer's new novel, Fram, which I'm really looking forward to reading.
Quote"A blessed companion is a book - a book that, fitly chosen, is a lifelong friend." - Douglas William Jerrold
I can think of three books that fit this lofty description: Knut Hamsun's Hunger, Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm, and Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt.
"...they were yearning, not for salvation, but for grub."I really like this passage from Jack London's The People of the Abyss, in which he describes seeking a meal at a Salvation Army mission...
All told, there must have been nearly seven hundred of us who sat down—not to meat or bread, but to speech, song, and prayer. From all of which I am convinced that Tantalus suffers in many guises this side of the infernal regions. The adjutant made the prayer, but I did not take note of it, being too engrossed with the massed picture of misery before me. But the speech ran something like this: “You will feast in Paradise. No matter how you starve and suffer here, you will feast in Paradise, that is, if you will follow the directions.” And so forth and so forth. A clever bit of propaganda, I took it, but rendered of no avail for two reasons. First, the men who received it were unimaginative and materialistic, unaware of the existence of any Unseen, and too inured to hell on earth to be frightened by hell to come. And second, weary and exhausted from the night’s sleeplessness and hardship, suffering from the long wait upon their feet, and faint from hunger, they were yearning, not for salvation, but for grub. The “soul-snatchers” (as these men call all religious propagandists), should study the physiological basis of psychology a little, if they wish to make their efforts more effective....especially since I hear its echoes in Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make, which was written nearly fifty years later. Here, Algren describes the legendary, corrupt-yet-benevolent Chicago alderman Hinky Dink Kenna:
Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler’s imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman’s Exchange.
He’d paid fifty cents in gold cash for every vote he’d bought, he let the archangels know — but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.
Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs — while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.
Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running that bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody’s evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston’s command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.
Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?
"This street is the very last."In The People of the Abyss, Jack London describes returning to his comparatively comfortable lodgings on one of the last "good" streets of the East End of London, after his first exploration of the squalor of the surrounding neighborhood.
...I could not quite take in all of my own room at once. The immensity of it was awe-inspiring. Could this be the room I had rented for six shillings a week? Impossible! But my landlady, knocking at the door to learn if I were comfortable, dispelled my doubts.It's remarkable how well the sentiments of this passage could also describe urban white flight in America during the fifties and sixties. Though in this case, it's whites fleeing from other whites.
“Oh yes, sir,” she said, in reply to a question. “This street is the very last. All the other streets were like this eight or ten years ago, and all the people were very respectable. But the others have driven our kind out. Those in this street are the only ones left. It’s shocking, sir!”
And then she explained the process of saturation, by which the rental value of a neighbourhood went up, while its tone went down.
“You see, sir, our kind are not used to crowding in the way the others do. We need more room. The others, the foreigners and lower-class people, can get five and six families into this house, where we only get one. So they can pay more rent for the house than we can afford. It is shocking, sir; and just to think, only a few years ago all this neighbourhood was just as nice as it could be.”
I looked at her. Here was a woman, of the finest grade of the English working-class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten tide of humanity which the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town. Bank, factory, hotel, and office building must go up, and the city poor folk are a nomadic breed; so they migrate eastward, wave upon wave, saturating and degrading neighbourhood by neighbourhood, driving the better class of workers before them to pioneer, on the rim of the city, or dragging them down, if not in the first generation, surely in the second and third.
It is only a question of months when Johnny Upright’s street must go. He realises it himself.
“In a couple of years,” he says, “my lease expires. My landlord is one of our kind. He has not put up the rent on any of his houses here, and this has enabled us to stay. But any day he may sell, or any day he may die, which is the same thing so far as we are concerned. The house is bought by a money breeder, who builds a sweat shop on the patch of ground at the rear where my grapevine is, adds to the house, and rents it a room to a family. There you are, and Johnny Upright’s gone!”
And truly I saw Johnny Upright, and his good wife and fair daughters, and frowzy slavey, like so many ghosts flitting eastward through the gloom, the monster city roaring at their heels.
But Johnny Upright is not alone in his flitting. Far, far out, on the fringe of the city, live the small business men, little managers, and successful clerks. They dwell in cottages and semi-detached villas, with bits of flower garden, and elbow room, and breathing space. They inflate themselves with pride, and throw out their chests when they contemplate the Abyss from which they have escaped, and they thank God that they are not as other men. And lo! down upon them comes Johnny Upright and the monster city at his heels. Tenements spring up like magic, gardens are built upon, villas are divided and subdivided into many dwellings, and the black night of London settles down in a greasy pall.
You say you want a resolution...
A few reading resolutions for 2015. I intend to read:
(1) One public domain book per month, on my hand-me-down Kindle. I'm starting with Jack London's The People of the Abyss. But I won't be reading any ebooks by contemporary authors, because it seems like ebooks are increasingly becoming a tool that Amazon and publishers use to screw over writers (falling prices, dwindling royalties); if I'm going to read those current writers, I'll read them in print so they're better compensated.
(2) More books by my pressmates at Kuboa Press, particularly Craig Wallwork and J. Bradley. I've already enjoyed Kuboa books by Mel Bosworth, Eddy Rathke and Nigel Bird, and feel like I need to do more to support the press, which has been very good to me.
(3) Several Dzanc books from the pile that was generously sent to me a few years back by Dan Wickett, including books by Matt Bell, Steven Gillis and Billy Lombardo.
(4) Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, during my annual Summer of Classics. I've always been intrigued by the book, but daunted by its bulk, so if in advance I set aside the entire summer to reading it, maybe I won't be as intimidated. Reading the book is probably just a mental hurdle, and probably won't be any more challenging than getting through the Studs Lonigan trilogy last summer; in fact, I finished that trilogy before the summer ended. If the same happens with Moby-Dick, I'll finish up the summer with shorter Melville works, including the novellas Bartleby the Scrivener (a re-reading; one of my favorites) and Benito Cereno.
(5) Forty books in total.
I also have a few writing resolutions in mind, but like in 2014, I'll just keep those to myself, and let you know at the end of the year how they turned out.
Found poetryMany thanks
for the cigars
Hope to see you
Campfire with dog, August 1908
Good Reading 2014
2014 was an extremely good year of reading for me, one of the best I've ever had. One telling sign of this excellence is how many very good-to-great books were relegated to Honorable Mention, simply due to not being quite as good as the Top Ten. It was also a very productive year of reading, as I finished 43 books. As always, these are books I read in 2014, not necessarily ones that were published this year. Without further ado:
1. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (Review)
2. Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood (Review)
3. Ben Tanzer, Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again (Review)
4. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone (Review)
5. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Review)
6. Kent Haruf, Benediction (Review)
7. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Review)
8. James Fearnley, Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues (Review)
9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (Review)
10. Budd Schulberg, The Harder They Fall (Review)
Honorable Mention: Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece (Review); Dmitry Samarov, Where To? A Hack Memoir (Review); Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (Review); Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills (Review); Leonard Michaels, The Men's Club (Review); William Trevor, The Boarding-House (Review)
Re-Readings: Jan Fridegård, I, Lars Hård; Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians; Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago: Stories; Knut Hamsun, In Wonderland
+ It’s been fascinating to watch my great friend, Ben Tanzer, slowly inching his way up my year-end lists. His first two books came in at #10 in 2007 and Honorable Mention in 2008, and from there he progressed to #8 in 2010, #6 in 2011, #8 in 2012 (the slightest of hiccups), #5 in 2013 and now #3 this year with Lost in Space, his best book yet. This clearly shows how wonderfully he’s developing and maturing as a writer.
+ I absolutely adored Old Mr. Flood, and am eager to read more of Mitchell’s work. But for now I’m holding off on simply buying his compendium Up in the Old Hotel, and instead seeking out the individual volumes, all of which I believe are out of print. I like the hunting aspect of the book-buying process.
+ The passing of Kent Haruf was the most tragic one of the year for me, although it’s fitting that it was quiet and understated. I didn’t even know he had been battling cancer until after he died, which now makes me wonder how much he based the dying protagonist of Benediction, Dad Lewis, on himself. Haruf had been my favorite living writer, and a big influence on my own writing; I’m still collecting my thoughts on his life and work for what will likely be a long tribute essay.
+ James Fearnley’s Pogues memoir might be the best book I’ve ever read by a musician, although that honor may be challenged by John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, which I just got for Christmas and am very eager to read.
+ Although my daughter Maddie is now 14, I continue to read to her every night before bed. I think The Book Thief is probably the first of our bedtime books to reach any of my year-end lists, and certainly the first that is considered “young adult.” Great book, and a great film too.
+ A quick nod to my newfound good friend Joe Peterson, and his debut novel from several years back, Beautiful Piece. I suspect he will make the same steady progress on these lists as Ben Tanzer has; actually, he might make a giant leap, as I will be reading his latest, Gideon’s Confession, early in 2015. I'll undoubtedly be doubling back to read his intervening books later.
Books given, books received
Books given and received this Christmas.
Justin Martin: Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians
Dmitry Samarov: Where To? A Hack Memoir
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Renee Rosen: What the Lady Wants
Daniel Okrent: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
Jane Gardam: Old Filth
Pico Iyer: The Art of Stillness
Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides
Ben Tanzer: Orphans
Vikram Chandra: Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
B.J. Best: But the Princess Is In Another Castle
Tim Federle: Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist
John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van
B.J. Best: But Our Princess Is In Another Castle
(Best's book was my gift to Julie, but also a gift to myself. It's also interesting to note that I've read less than half of the books that I gave. But knowing the receipients, I just had a hunch they would like their books, even though I'm only familiar with the books second-hand.)
"With two bathrooms, Capa is a charming, intelligent, good-tempered companion."
In A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck recounts his 1947 travels through Soviet Russia. Here's a wonderful anecdote of his about his collaborator, the great photojournalist Robert Capa:
It was here that I discovered an unpleasant quality in Capa's nature, and I think it only right to set it down in case some young woman should ever listen to any suggestion of matrimony from him. He is a bathroom hog, and a very curious one. His method is as follows: He rises early from his bed and disappears into the bathroom and draws a tub of water. He then lies in that tub of water and reads until he becomes sleepy, whereupon he goes to sleep. This may go on for two or three hours in the morning, and it can be readily seen that the bathroom is immobilized for any more serious purposes while he is in there. I offer this information about Capa as a public service. With two bathrooms, Capa is a charming, intelligent, good-tempered companion. With one bathroom, he is a-------.
Interesting book, but I've been having trouble getting fully immersed in it - due to external influences, not the book itself. I might have to set it aside and come back to it later.
Lee SandlinLee Sandlin, writer and raconteur, has passed away much too soon, at just 58.
When I got my first iPhone and was still extremely cautious of not overusing my data plan, I would download articles, turn off the 3G network, and read them offline. The one I remember best is Sandlin's "The American Scheme", which seemed rambling and endless but somehow kept me reading. That's a true testament to Sandlin's gift as a writer. I don't remember whether or not I ever finished reading the piece, but I suppose that doesn't matter. It was something I needed at the time, and I thank him for that.
Sandlin's Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild is on my to-read list. I actually gave the book as a Christmas gift to a family member a few years ago, despite not having read it yet. He sounds like he was a fascinating man.
"I can only do what I feel."In his memoir A Daughter of the Middle Border, Hamlin Garland describes a conversation with his friend Henry Blake Fuller, the Chicago novelist.
One day as we were digging potatoes he gave me a lecture on my duty as a Wisconsin novelist. "You should do for this country what Thomas Hardy has done for Wessex," he said. "You have made a good start in Main-Traveled Roads, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, but you should do more with it. It is a noble background."
"Why not doing something with it yourself?" I retorted. "You are almost as much a part of Wisconsin as I am. My keener interests are now in the Mountain West - a larger field. There's no use saying 'Make more of this material!' I can only do what I feel. Just now I am full of Montana."
Fuller was being generous to his friend - even at his artistic peak, Garland never came close to Hardy - and time has not been kind to Garland. If he is remembered today at all, it is for his Wisconsin memoirs and the fiction that Fuller cited, and not for the Western works he thought so highly of. Maybe if he had kept writing about Wisconsin, and hadn't implicitly dismissed the Midwest as a "lesser field", he would be better-read today. I can't help wondering if the fading-away of his Western fiction is due to him writing about a subject and place that he really didn't know that well, from the standpoint of only an enthusiastic tourist and not as a native.
"...they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year..."
In Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, teenaged heroine Ree Dolly imagines her forebears.
With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, coooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can't, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup.
Great book. One of the best I've read this year.
Quote"I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." - Raymond Chandler
Quote“When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.” - Joseph Mitchell
I can relate; I do the same every workday with a forest preserve parking lot, a book and my brown bag lunch. Mitchell is certainly a kindred spirit. His Old Mr. Flood was one of my favorite books read in 2014, in what has been a very good year of reading for me. So good, in fact, that I might delay publishing my annual list until early January, to ensure that I don't snub any worthy book that I might finish this month.
"...reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself..."
In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), oppressed-but-emerging wife Edna Pontellier has just learned to swim, in the Gulf of Mexico in southern Louisiana, during a midnight outing from a resort.
"How easy it is!" she thought. "It is nothing," she said aloud; "why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!" She would not join the groups in their sports and bouts, but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone.
She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.
Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.
A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.
She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, "I thought I should have perished out there alone."
"You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you," he told her.
That exchange at the end is so quietly devastating, especially the husband's relative indifference to his wife's distress. I also find it interesting that the author glosses over Edna's later struggles in the water; given the florid, verbose prose so typical of the 19th Century, I would have expected that passage to go on for several more, overwritten paragraphs. I admire Chopin's restraint.
Quote“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead. It requires a knowledge of self and the cosmos and of self in the cosmos. The evolutionary need is to increase our breadth of consciousness as human beings, to expand our range of choice for the wisest alternatives. The human capacity to anticipate and select will be the means whereby the future of human evolution will be determined.” - Dr. Jonas Salk
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan
"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago
"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)
"...happier, or less unhappy..."
I'm reading Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, and enjoying it more than I expected. It tells the story of newlyweds Florence and Edward, both virgins, on their wedding night. Here, they are lingering over dinner in their hotel rooms, anxious (him) and dreading (her) to finally have sex. As they dawdle, they listen to the faint strains of the BBC broadcast that the hotel's other patrons are listening to in the bar room below.
"We could go downstairs and listen properly."
He hoped he was being humorous, directing his sarcasm against them both, but his words emerged with surprising ferocity, and Florence blushed. She thought he was criticizing her for preferring the wireless to him, and before he could soften or lighten his remark she said hurriedly, "Or we could go and lie on the bed," and nervously swiped an invisible hair from her forehead. To demonstrate how wrong he was, she was proposing what she knew he most wanted and she dreaded. She really would have been happier, or less unhappy, to go down to the lounge and pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on the floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned heavily into the news, into the gale of history. Anything but this.
McEwan really manages well the difficult trick of shifting the narrative perspective back and forth between Florence and Edward, often in the same paragraph, as in the passage above. I love her imagined image of the them being the bar room (I can't help picturing Fawlty Towers), her with the matrons, him with the men, anywhere but alone together.
What I'm reading
I just finished Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy (meh) and only at the last moment settled on my next book: Leonard Michaels' The Men's Club. I've had the book for several years and was mentally saving it for a "Bitter White Guys" segment of my periodic Structured Reading project, along with Richard Yates and John Cheever. But after reading Auslander's novel, I decided that reading Michaels next might be the logical progression. Auslander is a great admirer of Michaels, and from what I've heard about the latter I sense the two are kindred spirits. I just hope The Men's Club is better than Auslander's novel. (That Bitter White Guys segment still might come about eventually, once I find a third writer, preferably someone as Wasp-ish as Yates and Cheever. Maybe Updike?)
After Michaels, I might continue the Jewish writer theme, going back even further to Isaac Bashevis Singer's story collection The Spinoza of Market Street. Or I might change course completely. Who even knows.
"...they were fragments of a colossal dream..."
I’m slowly working my way through Hamlin Garland’s memoir, A Daughter of the Middle Border, reading just five or ten pages each night before bed. Here he describes taking his aged father (a Civil War veteran) to the annual convention of the Grand Army of the Republic, where they watch the veterans’ parade from the grandstand.
We were in our place hours before the start (he was like a boy on Circus Day - afraid of missing something), but that he was enjoying in high degree his comfortable outlook, made me almost equally content.
At last with blare of bugle and throb of drum, that grand and melancholy procession of time-scarred veterans came to view, and their tattered flags and faded guidons brought quick tears to my father’s eyes. Few of them stepped out with a swing, many of them limped pitifully - all were white-haired - an army on its downward slope, marching toward its final, silent bivouac.
None of them were gay yet each took a poignant pleasure in sharing the rhythm of the column, and my father voiced this emotion when he murmured, “I ought to be down there with my company.”
To touch elbows just once more, to be part of the file would have been at once profoundly sad and sadly sweet, and he wiped the tears from his cheeks in a silence which was more expressive than any words could have been.
To me each passing phalanx was composed of piteous old men - to my sire they were fragments of a colossal dream - an epic of song and steel. “In ten years he and they will all be at rest in ‘fame’s eternal camping ground,’” I thought with a benumbing realization of the swift, inexorable rush of time - a tragedy which no fluttering of bright flags, no flare of brave bugles could lighten or conceal. It was not an army in review, it was an epoch passing to its grave.
Garland being Garland, sometimes the prose gets dangerously overwrought, as in that last paragraph. Still, it’s enjoyable in small doses.
Boy's gotta have it.
Jacob's Ladder and Mercy, the last two books in Jan Fridegård's Lars Hård trilogy. I just re-read the first book, I, Lars Hård, and loved it, which was quite a surprise since I don't remember loving it after my first reading, in the Scandinavian fiction class I took in college. (Still, something about the book must have registered with me, since I hung onto the book for all these years.) I found a hardcover copy of the latter book online for only fifteen bucks, and will probably take the plunge soon, even though another book is not exactly one of my critical needs at the moment.
"Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite. There is a very widespread topsyturviness of values whereby the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smoke screen to hide what the text has to say, and, indeed, can say only if left to speak for itself without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text does."
- Italo Calvino
This quote reminded me of Woody Guthrie's House of Earth, a 209-page novel published in an edition that also includes a 44-page introduction by the editors, plus a bibliography, discography, biographical timeline and acknowledgments page.
Laxness: no fan of hipsters"No sane or healthy man had ever grown a beard. There was no conceivable work at which a beard did not get in the way. The only people who grew beards were men with tender skin, and the only cure for that ailment was to seize them by the beard and drag them back and forwards through the whole town."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
Reading the rails
Another forgotten bookmark: an Amtrak ticket stub for the Washington, D.C.-Philadelphia route, from April 2004. $45 seems like a bargain to me, especially after driving expressways to work for three hours a day during the past month.
Found in The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness, which I bought at Mr. K's Used Books in Asheville, North Carolina ($3! another bargain!) several years ago but didn't finally crack open until today. I always love finding used UK editions here in the states - this one is published by Harvill Press.
"Stay in your own country whatever you do."
Hamlin Garland, admonishing a young American (the younger sister of Lorado Taft) who was intent on traveling to Europe to study art:
"You can acquire all the technic you require, right here in Chicago. If you are in earnest, and are really in search of instruction you can certainly get it in Boston or New York. Stay in your own country whatever you do. This sending of students at their most impressionable age to the Old World to absorb Old World conventions and prejudices is all wrong. It makes of them something which is neither American nor European. Suppose France did that? No nation has an art worth speaking of unless is has a national spirit."
"...conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret..."
More thoughts from Dorothy Parker, this time on the myth of the starving artist:
Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats. The people who lived and wrote well in the twenties were comfortable and easy living. They were able to find stories and novels, and good ones, in conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret. As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.
I love her sensibility and, of course, her wit. "Big Blonde" is the only Parker I've read, but now I really want to read much more of her writing.
"...they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves..."
In a 1956 interview with The Paris Review, Dorothy Parker describes her early job at Vogue.
I wrote captions. “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women — the nicest women I ever met — but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers — my old job — they’re recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “—for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.
I enjoyed this interview so much that, this morning, I dug up my old Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and read "Big Blonde" for the first time since college. The story was every bit as wonderful, though overwhelmingly sad, as I remembered it.
Hamlin GarlandI just started reading Hamlin Garland's A Daughter of the Middle Border, the second volume of his memoirs, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922. Though a bestselling author in his day, it seems that Garland is all but forgotten now; on Goodreads his most-read book (Main-Travelled Roads) had only been rated 129 times. Literary fame is truly fleeting. A sobering realization for us scribblers.
Quote"We invent nothing, merely bearing witness
To what each morning brings again to light."
- Richard Wilbur, from "Lying"
(Via Patrick Kurp.)
Summer of Classics 2014
I set a fairly unambitious goal for Summer of Classics this year - nothing but James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy (Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day), which totals just under a thousand pages. Though I liked Lonigan, it fell just short of classic. The first book was promising, the second book weak (it seemed like a third-rate, city-instead-of-small-town, Irish-instead-of-Anglo version of Winesburg, Ohio), and the third book the strongest. Further thoughts of mine on the books are here at Goodreads.
Given my slow reading pace, I figured Studs Lonigan would take me the entire summer to read. But to my surprise, I finished the trilogy in early August, and turned to another Chicago novel to finish up the summer.
Windy McPherson's Son is Sherwood Anderson's first novel, and is very much an apprentice work for the author. The first section, when the teenaged Sam McPherson shows the ambition and drive that will power his later business career, is very well done, with wonderful depictions of small-town Iowa life and Sam's quest to endure and overcome his feckless father. (More than a few echoes of Huckleberry Finn there.) The writing is fresh, the characters and place well-drawn. But when Sam moves on to the big city of Chicago, the narrative becomes more predictable, even approaching soap-operatic melodrama at times. Then, in the third section, Sam abandons his career at its lofty peak and departs for the road, on a vaguely-conceived quest for Truth, and the episodic narrative strains credulity, with Anderson even throwing in an unlikely happy ending to close things out. With this book, Anderson was clearly working toward greater things. Some of the strongest elements of Winesburg are already on display in this debut novel, but unfortunately those elements are only intermittent flashes, especially after Sam leaves Iowa.
So the verdict is: one near-classic, and one non-classic from an author who would later write an undeniable classic.
"...a lot more danger in not leaving it..."
Nice short passage here from Sherwood Anderson’s Windy McPherson’s Son. Sam McPherson, still young but rising rapidly in industry, is the wilds of Michigan, on his honeymoon.
One with whom he talked was a grocer from a town in Ohio, and when Sam asked him if coming to the woods with his family for an eight-weeks stay did not endanger the success of his business he agreed with Sam that it did, nodding his head and laughing.
”But there would be a lot more danger in not leaving it,” he said, “the danger of having my boys grow up to be men without my having any real fun with them.”
I have always agreed with the grocer’s sentiment, especially since becoming a father. The book has lost some momentum since Sam left Caxton, Iowa for big-city Chicago, and particularly since he fell in love, somewhat predictably, with Sue, the daughter of his boss. Since that point, the narrative has read like a 19th century soap opera, with frequent chauvinistic tones. Anderson was clearly still trying to find his way when he wrote this, his first novel.
Summer of Classics update
My review of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy is now up at Goodreads. I've been wanting to read the books for a long time (ever since my mom, a native South Sider, told me of reading Studs Lonigan on the sly as a teenager), and I'm very glad I finally did, though the books were far from perfect.
I'm a notoriously slow reader, and really didn't think I'd finish reading Lonigan before the summer ended, but to my surprise I finished last week. So, to keep the Chicago vibe going, I started Sherwood Anderson's debut novel, Windy McPherson's Son, the majority of which is set in Chicago, around the turn of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, from what I've read so far, Anderson (best known for the seminal Winesburg, Ohio) beautifully depicts Sam McPherson's boyhood in a small Iowa town, and it will be interesting to see how well Anderson delivers the Chicago passages.
This might be the last Summer of Classics book I get to, since my job is shifting to the suburbs next week and I'll be losing my prime reading time on the train. But if I have time, I'll squeeze in George Ade's comic novel Artie (also set in Chicago) before the end of the month.
"...the mechanics, the farmers and the labourers dressed in their Sunday best..."
Here's a wonderful depiction of small town Iowa life around the turn of the 20th Century, from Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son:
Saturday night was the great night in Caxton life. For it the clerkgs in the stores prepared, for it Sam sent forth his peanut and popcorn vendors, for it Art Sherman rolled up his sleeves and put the glasses close by the beer tap under the bar, and for it the mechanics, the farmers and the labourers dressed in their Sunday best and came forth to mingle with their fellows. On Main Street crowds packed the stores, the sidewalks, and drinking places, and men stood about in groups talking while young girls with their lovers walked up and down. In the hall over Geiger's drug store a dance went on and the voice of the caller-off rose above the clatter of voices and the stamping of horses in the street. Now and then a fight broke out among the roisterers in Piety Hollow. Once a young farmhand was killed with a knife.
In and out through the crowed Sam went, pressing his wares.
So many nice touches there: crowds wearing their Sunday best, but on Saturday night; fights in Piety Hollow; the abrupt murder of a farmhand, told in a casual, almost matter-of-fact manner. And throughout, teenager Sam McPherson selling selling selling, working the crowd without ever really being part of it.
"The man who comes to writing late, but is in essence a writer, may sometimes gain as much as he has lost: his experience of life has given him a subject, he is spared the youthful writer's self-torment and soul-searching."
- Wright Morris, in his 1965 introduction to Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son
"...never so deeply that he let go of the pen or the bottle..."
Here’s a belated posting of an excerpt from Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues by James Fearnley, the band’s accordion player, in which he describes the creative fervor of the band, even while on a cramped tour bus, and in particular its iconic frontman Shane MacGowan.
Shane, too, was writing. If I happened to be sitting in one of the backwards-facing seats at the rear of the bus, I could see him in the back lounge hunched over crumpled pieces of paper holding a felt pen in a clenched fist. Despite it being the end of autumn the roof-hatch would be open. The downdraught snapped the curtain in the doorway and lapped at the sheets of paper pinned between his elbow and knee. It flattened his hair onto his forehead. He’d stop for a moment and look out of the window, working his nostrils absent-mindedly as if something in one of them constantly itched. His foot tapped all the while. Then, after cuffing the paper on his knee, he’d wipe his nose with his forearm and set to again. He filled the flapping sheets of paper with large, angular letters and the margin with violent dots. When he’d finished with one of them he brushed it out of the way. The pages lay scattered. The wind pinned one of them on the floor where it shivered under the gusts from the roof-hatch.
I’d look up again and he’d be unconscious, but never so deeply that he let go of the pen or the bottle of wine he was drinking...
That passage perfectly illustrates the enigma of Shane MacGowan: the intense artistry, but also the self-abuse. Here Comes Everybody is simply wonderful. Fearnley writes with lyrical eloquence and brutal honesty. The band and especially its fans are fortunate to have had such a gifted writer in its ranks, and one who was dutifully taking notes during the band’s rise and near-fall.
"...a deuce instead of an ace..."
From James T. Farrell's Judgment Day, the final volume of the Studs Lonigan trilogy:
How often in a fellow's life just one thing goes wrong, and then that guy is through and doesn't come back! One wild, accidental punch below the belt or on the chin. Some little thing, getting too drunk and going to a party and then...If he'd met some girl that night, taken her to a room, slept with her, his life would have been different, and he'd have woke up with her instead of in a hospital. Just such things that gave a guy a deuce instead of an ace. And he'd been chump enough to let those things happen, so here he was. Or was it that he was just the kind of a guy who couldn't take it? He fought the question out of his mind, told himself that the harder the breaks, the more he had to fight, and the sweeter it would be coming through.
Studs often has flashes of insight like this ("he'd been chump enough to let those things happen"), but he just as soon rationalizes away his shortcomings, blaming his travails on anyone or anything other than himself. And despite that last vow to fight through the hard breaks, he is always passive, just letting things happen to him. As he reflects ten pages later:
He was still where he had always been. Just hoping.
He still hasn't learned the lesson that just hoping, without decisively acting, gets you nowhere. And I doubt he ever will. And I suspect that the "judgment" suggested in the title won't be gentle with him.
"There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Writers know that. I have never met a writer who does not crave to be alone. We have to be alone to do what we do."
- Mary Ruefle
"...of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods..."From William Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey":
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
I can totally see that hermit.
Doing the work
This week I found myself inspired by the following quote from Ted Thompson:
I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered.
A few days ago, I woke up an hour before the alarm, but instead of resting awake in bed, I got up, went to the kitchen and did edits on a story draft ("The Golden State") that I wrote earlier this summer but had since ignored. Thompson's comment was running through my head as I got up and did the work, and I'm glad I did. Because I do think this story, and my writing in general, matters.
(Via Matt Bell.)
Quote“The essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play an accordion is to invent not to discover.” - Wallace Stevens
"I want to put out stuff that’ll be around in 500 years."
The self-publishing industry has no incentive to police itself, because people are paying them up front for editing, promotion and other services. And if you’re paid up front, you have no stake in the future success of a book—you want to do as little as you can do to justify the fees you’ve charged. And that’s one thing the traditional publishing industry DID get right—if an agent only gets paid when you get a deal, and they get a percentage of that deal, they want to get you the best deal possible, and they want you to get more deals, because they have a stake in your success.
I like the ethos encapsulated by the quotation in the title line above - putting out great and enduring books, but not necessarily what sells. Jerry sounds like my kind of people, and I strongly suspect he'll be getting a query from me soon.
"...the tang and sorrow and joy of a people..."
From James T. Farrell's Young Lonigan (the first volume of the Studs Lonigan triology):
The July night leaked heat all over Fifty-eighth Steet, and the fitful death of the sun shed softening colors that spread gauze-like and glamorous over the street, stilling those harshnesses and commercial uglinesses that were emphasized by the brighter revelations of day. About the street there seemed to be a supervening beauty of reflected life. The dust, the scraps of paper, the piled-up store windows, the first electric lights sizzling into brightness. Sammie Schmaltz, the paper man, yelling his final box-score editions, a boy's broken hoop left forgotten against the elevated girder, the people hurrying out of the elevated station and others walking lazily about, all bespoke the life of the community, the tang and sorrow and joy of a people that lived, worked, suffered, procreated, aspired, filled out their little days, and died.
And the flower of this community, its young men, were grouped about the pool room, choking the few squares of sidewalk outside it.
The flower of the community...doing nothing more than loitering outside of a pool room. As Algren might have said, some flower.
"...still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism..."
George Bernard Shaw was once invited to pre-order a copy of James Joyce's then-forthcoming novel, Ulysses. He declined, making this marvelous reply.
To you possibly it may appeal as art...but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it...
Praising the author, while damning the subject matter. Well done, GBS.
Atwood on feminism
At Goodreads, Margaret Atwood answers the question, "Do you consider yourself a feminist?"
I never say I'm an "ist" of any kind unless I know how the other person is defining it (Am I against lipstick, etc.) but in general: I believe women are full human beings (radical, I realize). And that laws should reflect this. However, men and women are not "equal" if "equal" means "exactly the same." Our many puzzlements and indeed unhappinesses come from trying to figure out what the differences really mean, or should mean, or should not mean.
Wise response, that.
"And the lull of the Stevenson, beckoning you to stilted dreams at night."
I really like this poem by Susan Hogan, "The Ballroom Artists' Commune", published at Anthology of Chicago. Further digging reveals that this place, the Archer Ballroom, actually exists in the Bridgeport neighborhood, as a residential artists' colony (I resist the loaded term "commune") and performance space. The "Stevenson" referenced above is the expressway that runs directly behind the building, undoubtedly making the building much more affordable for artists and resistant to yuppie gentrification.
I'm intrigued by the concept of a colony like this; just the idea of all of that creative energy bouncing around, along with the colorful but inevitably hardscrabble existence. But I'm fully aware that such a place would never have worked for me, even during my younger days. (I'm a loner, and didn't even have a roommate when I went back to grad school during my mid-twenties.) I would gladly settle for merely writing fiction set in a place like Archer Ballroom, rather than actually living it.
"...the free open ways..."
As I wind down my reading of Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems, here's one last, lovely excerpt.
She sits in the dust at the walls
And makes cigars,
Bending at the bench
With fingers wage-anxious,
Changing her sweat for the day's pay.
Now the noon hour has come,
And she leans with her bare arms
On the window-sill over the river,
Leans and feels at her throat
Cool-moving things out of the free open ways:
At her throat and eyes and nostrils
The touch and the blowing cool
Of great free ways beyond the walls.
Really wonderful poetry. I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, and will be on the lookout for more of his collections, especially Cornhuskers, which includes a poem about Joliet!
"Bring me only beautiful useless things."
Here's another dose of Carl Sandburg, from the "War Poems (1914-1915)" section of Chicago Poems:
MURMURINGS IN A FIELD HOSPITAL
[They picked him up in the grass where he had lain two
days in the rain with a piece of shrapnel in his lungs.]
Come to me only with playthings now...
A picture of a singing woman with blue eyes
Standing at a fence of hollyhocks, poppies and sunflowers...
Or an old man I remember sitting with children telling stories
Of days that never happened anywhere in the world...
No more iron cold and real to handle,
Shaped for a drive straight ahead.
Bring me only beautiful useless things.
Only old home things touched at sunset in the quiet...
And at the window one day in summer
Yellow of the new crock of butter
Stood against the red of new climbing roses...
And the world was all playthings.
"I’m a deeply flawed human who is constantly trying to evolve and make my way through life."My writer friend Ryan Bradley has a thoughtful interview up at Fictonaut.
People wouldn’t still be reading books if they didn’t enjoy them. And like it or not that base enjoyment isn’t a product of some deep analysis or high-minded relationship with humanity and the universe. No, it’s much more primal. Enjoying something that has “artistic merit” doesn’t make it any less a form of entertainment, it just means you’re attracted to different aesthetics than the people you think have “low-brow” tastes. We’re all seeking entertainment.Sounds like he struggles with the same highs and lows about the worth of his writing that I do.
"...throw their laughter into toil."I'm finally diving headlong into Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems (1916), which I've owned for about ten years but have only dabbled in until now. I love his lean but muscular "Subway":
Down between the walls of shadowI can already sense some short fiction (or at least the weekly exercises I've been doing this year) arising from Sandburg's poetry, and from this poem in particular. Terrific stuff.
Where the iron laws insist,
The hunger voices mock.
The worn wayfaring men
With the hunched and humble shoulders,
Throw their laughter into toil.