Thursday, December 31, 2015

Inside the World of Reading

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted TimeThe Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time 
by David L. Ulin

“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Several years ago I read a wonderful book, Distraction, by the philosopher and author Damon Young. His book describes the success of several great thinkers and writers in living a thoughtful life filled with freedom from distraction. One of the hallmarks of the lives he described was reading. It is this act, which David Ulin describes as "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage"(p 150).

This observation is near the end of Ulin's essay on why books matter, The Lost Art of Reading. Some of us have not lost the art, but may need a reminder of its importance. For reading is more than entertainment, although it often is entertaining; it may also be invigorating, meditative, or even a spiritual life enhancing experience. Above all, as Ulin argues, it is a way to get in touch with ourselves in this instant as we connect with the thoughts of authors that may have lived millenniums ago.

The essay focuses on reading a through a variety of metaphors. Reading is "a journey of discovery"(p 13). The journey is different for each individual but one example highlighted by the author resonated with me. It was the immersion of Frank Conroy in books when he was a boy.  His journey began with what seems a chaotic passage through book and authors both great and small, heavy and light, but it was a start and a wonderful way for Conroy to get the lay of the land. To enter into a world that would provide him with a place that was apart from the distraction of society became a foundation on which he could build his own life as a writer.  Ulin's example reminded me of fictional readers who experienced the same thing. Some of my favorites are David Copperfield, Philip Carey, and Edmond Dantes.  And of course the resonance was very personal because, like many readers, I shared in the experience of Frank Conroy and those fictional readers.

David Ulin remembers his own library of books as a " virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell.(p 17). It was this view of books as a city that he translated later into remembering cities by their books and populating his reading life with a vision of the world based on his own tastes and aspirations. This is something that each of us as readers may do in our own life. The essay takes you through encounters with readers like Ulin's own son, who has to read and reluctantly annotate Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, with the encouragement of his father. But he also discusses writers like Anne Fadiman who is among the greatest connoisseurs of reading and writing that I have encountered. And we are regaled with a story about reading David Foster Wallace, a contemporary writer of revolutionary tomes. There is even a discussion about reading on a Kindle which is not necessarily a bad thing except there are a lot of worthwhile books that are not available on a Kindle, so the book is safe for the moment.

As a reader I found this essay encouraging and invigorating. It is a reminder of what I love about reading, what I would love to reread, and where I may go to continue my own reading journey. Just as I enjoy the freedom from distraction that reading can bring, I wonder at the infinite worlds that are opened when we take time to get in touch with ourselves in the pages of a book. I hope for a future that includes many things, but above all includes reading. Listen to the words of Walt Whitman:

"SHUT not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet
needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Legendary Beauty in Verse


So many stones have been thrown at me,
That I'm not frightened of them anymore,
And the pit has become a solid tower,
Tall among tall towers.
I thank the builders,
May care and sadness pass them by.
From here I'll see the sunrise earlier,
Here the sun's last ray rejoices.
And into the windows of my room
The northern breezes often fly.
And from my hand a dove eats grains of wheat...
As for my unfinished page,
The Muse's tawny hand, divinely calm
And delicate, will finish it.

-  by Anna Akhmatova


A legend in her own time both for her brilliant poetry and for her resistance to oppression, Anna Akhmatova—denounced by the Soviet regime for her “eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference”—is one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century. Before the revolution, Akhmatova was a wildly popular young poet who lived a bohemian life. She was one of the leaders of a movement of poets whose ideal was “beautiful clarity”—in her deeply personal work, themes of love and mourning are conveyed with passionate intensity and economy, her voice by turns tender and fierce. A vocal critic of Stalinism, she saw her work banned for many years and was expelled from the Writers’ Union—condemned as “half nun, half harlot.” Despite this censorship, her reputation continued to flourish underground, and she is still among Russia’s most beloved poets.  

Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to intricately structured cycles, such as Requiem (1935–40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her style, characterized by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. The strong and clear leading female voice struck a new chord in Russian poetry.  Here are poems from all her major works and some that have been newly translated for the Everyman edition.

Monday, December 28, 2015


Averroes and the EnlightenmentAverroes and the Enlightenment 
by Mourad Wahba

"After logic we must proceed to philosophy proper. Here too we have to learn from our predecessors, just as in mathematics and law. Thus it is wrong to forbid the study of ancient philosophy. Harm from it is accidental, like harm from taking medicine, drinking water, or studying law."   - Averroes

Abu'l-Walid Ibn Rushd, better known as Averroes (1126-1198), stands out as a towering figure in the history of Arab-Islamic thought, as well as that of West-European philosophy and theology. In the Islamic world, he played a decisive role in the defense of Greek philosophy against the onslaughts of the Ash'arite theologians (Mutakallimun), led by al-Ghazali (d. 1111), and the rehabilitation of Aristotle.

A common theme throughout his writings is that there is no incompatibility between religion and philosophy when both are properly understood. His contributions to philosophy took many forms, ranging from his detailed commentaries on Aristotle, his defense of philosophy against the attacks of those who condemned it as contrary to Islam and his construction of a form of Aristotelianism which cleansed it, as far as was possible at the time, of Neoplatonic influences.

In the Western world, he was recognized, as early as the thirteenth century, as the Commentator of Aristotle, contributing thereby to the rediscovery of the Master, after centuries of near-total oblivion in Western Europe. That discovery was instrumental in launching Latin Scholasticism and, in due course, the European Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Notwithstanding, there has been very little attention to Averroes' work in English, although greater interest has been shown in French, since the publication of Ernest Renan's Averroes et l'averroisme in 1852.
(More to follow.)

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Books I Read In 2015

These are the top books I have read since January 1, 2015.  The listing  includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry and is actually more than ten as I have chosen to group more than one book by three of the authors.  It was a very rich year for reading although the quantity of books I read declined in total from my recent experience.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

The Siege of Krishnapur   by J. G. Farrell.  
Set in India, 1857, during the Great Mutiny, this novel by J. G. Farrell is both a mighty work of historical fiction and a humane study of man. Farrell has the ability to create a world filled with flawed but often sympathetic characters and that sets this novel apart from typical historical fare.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science  by Richard Holmes.  
Described as "a relay race of scientific stories", it is that and more, combining the literary milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the increasingly wonderful scientific discoveries and enterprises from the voyages of Captain James Cook through the crossing of the English Channel by balloon through excursions into the study of gases and electricity, ending with the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

John Donne's Poetry by John Donne, Donald R. Dickson (Editor).  Donne is often considered a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.

Death in Venice and The Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann.  These two novels, one from early in Mann's career and the other his final completed novel are perfect bookends to the prize-winning career of one of my favorite authors.  Last year his seminal work The Magic Mountain was on my annual list.

The Buddha in the Attic  by Julie Otsuka.  
Using simple prose and the first person plural the author created a unique perspective on a very real historical episode in Japanese-American history. 

Paradise Lost  by John Milton.  
In Paradise Lost, Milton produced a poem of epic scale, conjuring up a vast, awe-inspiring cosmos and ranging across huge tracts of space and time. And yet, in putting a charismatic Satan and naked Adam and Eve at the center of this story, he also created an intensely human tragedy on the Fall of Man.

Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.   
These are two of the best novels by one of the greatest American novelists.  Blood Meridian rivals the works of Melville and Faulkner in depth of meaning and style;  while The Road is a searing, post apocalyptic novel.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.  
This was Wolfe's first novel, a unique cornucopia of beautiful prose about a young man's burning desire to leave his small town and tumultuous family in search of a better life.

The Cossacks  and The Death of Ivan Ilych  by Leo Tolstoy.
While Tolstoy is famous for his massive novels, these two short novels are pinnacles of the writer's art.   In The Cossacks one finds a story that mirrors War and Peace in miniature.  The Death of Ivan Ilych explores the life in death and the epitome of its existential meaning.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics  by Daniel James Brown.  
This riveting narrative tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

Some very good books I read this year that came close but did not make the top ten included:  Sirius by Olaf Stapledon,  On Heroes and Hero-worship by Thomas Carlyle, The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, and Hadji Murat by Tolstoy.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Dogs Forget Man

by Clifford D. Simak

"What is Man?" they'll ask.
Or perhaps: "What is a city?"
Or: "What is a war?
There is no positive answer to any of these questions."

The novel describes a legend consisting of eight tales the pastoral and pacifist Dogs recite as they pass down an oral legend of a creature known as Man. Each tale is preceded by doggish notes and learned discussion.

As the tales unfold, they recount a world where humans, having developed superior transportation, have abandoned the cities and moved into the countryside. Hydroponic farming and decentralized power allow small communities to become self-sufficient. In the beginning the driving force for dispersion is the fear of nuclear holocaust, but eventually humans discover they simply prefer the pastoral lifestyle.

The tales primarily focus around the Webster family, and their robot servant, Jenkins. The name Webster gradually becomes "webster", a noun meaning a human. Similar themes recur in these stories, notably the pastoral settings and the faithful dogs.
Each successive tale tells of further breakdown of urban society. As mankind abandons the cities, each family becomes increasingly isolated. Bruce Webster surgically provides dogs with a means of speech and better vision. The breakdown of civilization allows wandering mutant geniuses to grow up unrestrained by conventional mores. A mutant called Joe invents a way for ants to stay active year round in Wisconsin, so that they need not start over every spring. Eventually the ants form an industrial society in their hill. The amoral Joe, tiring of the game, kicks over the anthill. The ants ignore this setback and build bigger and more industrialized colonies.

It is notable that over time the past is forgotten by the dogs. In the penultimate tale entitled, ironically, Aesop the narrative says "there wasn't any past. No past, that was, except the figment of remembrance that flitted like a night-winged thing in the shadow of one's mind. No past that one could reach. No pictures painted on the wall of time." (p 188)  The memory of the past is beyond the stage where it could be reconstituted by the taste of a madeleine. Not even Proust's creation Marcel would be successful here. (In Search of Lost Time: "And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.")

By the end of the last story even the man-made robots begin to wear out. And the word man is reinvented to be defined as "an animal who went on two legs". The story becomes so animal-centric it reminded me of a shorter and different story that shared a similar perspective, Orwell's Animal Farm. Simak's work is another literary masterpiece.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Further Notes on Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

The Judge and the kid 

"They were about in the morning before daybreak and they caught up and saddled their mounts as soon as it was light enough to see.  The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning." (p 86)

The Judge

"He adduced for their consideration references to the children of Ham, the lost tribes of Israelites, certain passages from the Greek poets, anthropological speculations as to the propagation of the races in their dispersion and isolation through the agency of geological cataclysm and an assessment of racial traits with respect to climatic and geographical influences." (pp 84-5)

"The judge like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flames delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element." (p 96)
Holden is a mysterious figure, a cold-blooded killer. Aside from the children he openly kills, he is seen enticing children with sweets, and a child often goes missing when he is in the vicinity.  Further, at one point in the novel he is seen with a naked 12-year-old girl in his room.  Holden displays a preternatural breadth of knowledge and skills—paleontology, archaeology, linguistics, law, technical drawing, geology, chemistry, prestidigitation, and philosophy, to name a few.  At one point "he purported to read news of the earth's origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat."  His "appostate supposings" are contrasted with simple faith of believers who were susceptible to the Judge's speculations.  They "were soon reckoning him correct . . . and this the Judge encouraged until they were right proselytes of the new order whereupon he laughed at them for fools" (p 116)

He is described as seven feet tall and completely bereft of body hair. He is massive in frame, and enormously strong, capable of holding and wielding a howitzer cannon much like a regular gun. His skin is so pale as to have almost no pigment. This strange appearance, as well as his keen, extremely fast reflexes, strength, apparent immunity to sleep and aging, and other abilities point to his being something other than a conventional human being.  He sermonizes at one point, "but it was no such sermon as any man of us had ever heard before." (p 129)  He becomes an entity not unlike Satan leading his fallen army in Book Six of Paradise Lost.
In the final pages of the novel, McCarthy makes more direct reference to the Judge as a supernatural entity, or even as a concept, personified.  He appears in the kid's dreams:  "In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit.  Who would come other?  A great shambling mutant, silent and serene.  Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go." (p 309)

The Judge appears larger than life and McCarthy's prose makes him appear to be a character who has wandered into this story like a character out of Moby-Dick.  Yet in spite of that resonance the Judge stands alone,  a character unique to the world of Blood Meridian. While Harold Bloom compares Judge Holden to the Iago of Shakespeare's Othello,  the combination of his stature and supernatural references lead me to prefer a comparison to the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost.  Either image makes him the most sinister character in American literature.

The kid

"His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world's turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shped to man's will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay." (pp 4-5)

A boy of fourteen at the beginning of the story, "the kid" spends much of the narrative as a sixteen-year-old traveler on a journey with the Glanton Gang through Mexico and Arizona. In this novel that renders morality mute the kid has a special place.   He is pulled out of prison by Glanton and later seems immune to much of the violence that surrounds him. 

While he says little he takes actions that help others, as when he removes an arrow from a man incurring the wrath of Tobin, the expriest.  "Fool, he said.  God will not love ye forever." (p 162) The words of the expriest are, unfortunately, full of portent for the kid.  Even when the kid is present he is described as mute as when the Judge, Glanton, and his gang meet with the Mexican officials to present their booty.  It is an impressive scene that the kid watches in silence.  

But in silence the kid cannot bring himself to kill one of his comrades.   In a touching scene the kid is chosen to handle (kill) a wounded man named Shelby.  They go off and Shelby tells the kid that he would kill him.  
"Why dont you just get on with it?  he said.
The kid looked at him.
If I had a gun I'd shoot you, Shelby said.
The kid didnt answer.
You know that, dont you?
You aint got a gun, the kid said.
He looked to the south again.  Something moving, perhaps the first lines of heat.  No dust in the morning so early.  When he looked at Shelby again Shelby was crying." (p 207)
The kid does not kill Shelby, he cannot.

By the denouement of the story the kid has become the man.  "In the spring of his twenty-eighth year he set out with others".(p 313)  But he is a man of mystery just as he was when a kid in Glanton's gang.  This is symbolized no better than when the narrator describes him thus:  "He traveled about from place to place.  He did not avoid the company of other men.  He was treated with a certain deference as one who had got onto terms with life beyond what his years could account for.   By now  he'd come by a horse and a revolver, the rudiments of an outfit.  He worked at different trades.  He had a bible that he'd found at the mining camps and he carried this book with him no word of which could he read.  In his dark and frugal clothes some took him for a sort of preacher but he was no witness to them, neither of things at hand nor things to come, he the least of any man." (p 312)

A mute witness all along.  The child who was "father of the man".  A young man born to violence from his home through his travels to his end.  His dreams and his destiny become a strange story of blood and violence;  one that swirls around him eventually engulfing his life as it did so many along the trail.  

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Writer's Life in London

by George Gissing

“But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market. I--well, you may say that at present, I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he'll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.”   ― George Gissing, New Grub Street

New Grub Street presents in a realistic narrative, the contemporary working conditions of a new class, the professional author. George Gissing, born the son of a chemist in 1857, was as an author breaking important new ground, as well as responding to significant cultural change in the literary generation after Dickens and Thackeray. His naturalistic style provides an urban alternative to the rural novels of Thomas Hardy.

The eponymous hero of David Copperfield is also a writer, but Dickens focuses primarily, and in some detail, on Copperfield's childhood, not his career as a novelist. He does not delve into the gritty world and threadbare texture of Victorian literary life. This may be partly due to the social and cultural upheavals inspired by changes in the culture of British education in the latter decades of the Victorian era. George Gissing's career as a man of letters was the product of this. For the rest of the century, the lives of writers and readers would undergo a profound transformation which would permanently reshape the British literary landscape. Henceforth, high and low literary culture would increasingly diverge. This is one of the main themes in John Carey's important critical study The Intellectuals and the Masses. It is also the animating idea of New Grub Street.

Gissing was hardly alone in finding the role and conduct of the modern writer an urgent topic in late Victorian literary London. A year before New Grub Street, Henry James also published a novel, The Tragic Muse, about "the conflict between art and 'the world'", though James focused on painting and the stage more than literature. Even in our era with the internet revolution promoting another paradigm shift, Gissing's subject remains as topical as ever, and addresses timeless themes in the everyday life of the full-time, professional writer.

In New Grub Street, the narrative is set in the literary world with which Gissing himself was intimately familiar; the title refers to the London street that, in the eighteenth century world of Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne, was synonymous with hack writing. By the 1890s, Grub Street no longer existed, though hack writing, of course, never goes away, with timeless imperatives. As one character puts it: "Our Grub Street of today is supplied with telegraphic communications, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy." (p 9)

The novel's protagonists are a contrasted pair of writers: thoughtful Edwin Reardon, a shy "literary" novelist with few commercial prospects; and Jasper Milvain, a hard-driving young journalist who treats his writing as the means to an end in a ruthless literary marketplace. "I speak," he says, "only of good, marketable stuff for the world's vulgar." Reardon will face continual difficulties while Milvain will flourish in literary London ("I write for the upper-middle-class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness").

New Grub Street is Victorian in its realist depiction of a society in transition, but modern in the way it harks forward to the imminent new century with its portrait of the artist as an existential character making his solitary way in the world. For example Reardon ponders on memories of moments with his wife Amy on their honeymoon, remembering their voices:
"The voices seemed to be lingering still, in a sad, faint echo, so short a time it was since those words were uttered.
His own fault. A man has no business to fail; least of all can he expect others to have time to look back upon him or pity him if he sink under the stress of conflict. Those behind will trample over his body; they can't help it; they themselves are borne onwards by resistless pressure." (p 212)

The resistless pressure of life is ultimately too much for Gissing's sad protagonist.  He is like the hero of Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy's final novel;  Jude Fawley is a working-class boy who dreams of becoming an Oxford scholar.  Hardy's Jude is Reardon's West Country equivalent. While Gissing's natural world is depressing his literary depiction of it is brilliant - a truly great novel.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Notes on Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West 
by Cormac McCarthy

“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance be populate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. "  -  Cormac McCarthy

I.  The Quest

McCarthy's prose has the character of the landscape it describes: Harsh and pure, as if it had been sculpted by wind and sand, like a naturally occurring phenomenon. In Blood Meridian McCarthy uses it to spin a yarn of gothic violence: In the 1840's a young boy joins a band of cutthroats who hunt Indians on the border between Texas and Mexico, under the leadership of an amoral, albino arch-monster known as the Judge. Rarely has literature presented spectacles of violence more extreme or less gratuitous.  That having been said we find Harold Bloom writing, in his introduction to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary edition, that "Blood Meridian is a canonical imaginative achievement, both an American and a universal tragedy of blood." (p viii, Modern Library edition)  McCarthy's vision of the West summons up shadows of Dante and Melville, and demands of every reader that they reexamine why and how they cling to morality in a fallen world.

The narrative begins by introducing us to a child who "can neither read nor write". He has a "taste for mindless violence" and is described in words recalling the poetry of Wordsworth as having "All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man."( p3)
The novel is in part the story of this child who runs away from home at the age of fourteen, traveling on his own towards the west with "innocent eyes". After a near-death experience he takes a boat to Texas. It is at this point that he is "divested of all he has been".

"His origins are become remote as is his destiny and not again for all the world's turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to men's will of whether his own heart is not another kind of clay. " (p 4-5)

He metaphorically has crossed the river Styx and has begun his journey in hell. It is a journey that will take him through the Southwest United States and into Mexico. He will be jailed and freed from that jail only to join a gang of scalp hunters who troll the desolate prairie among skulls of the dead to add to their number in the search for more scalps. The landscape holds beauty in its sheer desolateness:
"The floor of the playa lay smooth and unbroken by any track and the mountains in their blue islands stood footless in the void like floating temples." (p 108)

The Kid's journey is populated with fascinating characters who sometimes are inarticulate but at other times may share enigmatic observations that may be of value to the Kid, or not.
While stopping at a tavern a Mennonite warns the Kid of the "wrath of God", reiterating the idea that things will only end "In confusion curses and blood." (p 40) The Kid is urged to continue his journey and he does despite these warnings.
Throughout this novel the traditional forms a narrative are subverted. The arc of the narrative is difficult to discern; the story may be picaresque in the Quixotian sense, but there are larger images and deeper meanings that impinge on the Kid's journey.  I will address some of these images and the characters who the Kid meets on his journey in my next post on Blood Meridian.

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Saturday, December 05, 2015

A Swiss Hotel

The Little Hotel 

"If you knew what happens in the hotel every day!  Not a day passes but something happens.  Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law dies.  The woman stayed here twice." (p 7)

Christina Stead was an Australian novelist and short-story writer acclaimed for her satirical wit and penetrating psychological characterizations. She was born in Sydney, Australia, and died in Sydney. However in between she spent the vast majority of her life outside Australia in Europe and, briefly, in America. Having left her homeland in 1928, she subsequently lived in London, Paris, Brussels, New York and Hollywood before returning to her country of origin in 1969. She experienced a nomadic lifestyle, moving restlessly from country to country. Never completely at home in London, her relationship with Australia was decidedly ambivalent. Prior to 1965, none of her novels were published in Australia and she was denied the Britannica Australia Award for Literature in 1967 on the grounds that her years abroad called into question her Australian citizenship. Only later in her career did she receive critical acclaim in her homeland.

Though championed by Saul Bellow, this is a minor novel among the oeuvre of Christina Stead. It is minor in the sense that it is only a third the size of her typical books - and simply because Stead usually excels at what appears to be a Rabelaisian approach to her narrative canvas.  A tale that starts and ends was not one of her enduring interests, and here we have a few amusing vignettes, and a few less amusing ones, all set in the "Swiss-Touring Hotel", a nondescript, probably a touch shabby, little hotel a few years after the end of WWII. 

Most of the occupants are elderly Europeans (the English commonly crop up) who are various shades of desperate or insane (in the humorous sense). The book is narrated by the 26 year-old woman who runs the hotel, and Stead proves to have a terrific ability to reproduce the voice of such a person; she finds a sort of Swiss-German English that's a little halting, a little too precise, and works like a charm. Stead's ability to juggle a number of story-lines at one time (there are dozens of characters in a novel running under 200 pages) is on full display here - as long as things are filtered through the young owner's perception. Past the halfway point in the book she (Stead) makes the strange decision to change to an omniscient narrator, smooth out the language, and to concentrate on one of the hotel's aging English guests and her relationship with a man who refuses to marry her and who may be simply out to procure her large fortune, along with periphery friends and associates of this character. The novel probably could not have been sustained through the original narrator's voice, simply recounting all the amusing incidents, and the choice to eventually bring a few characters up front and center is right; but Stead's way of doing it is jarring and the book never recovers either its momentum or interest. It shows the impact of probably having been two separate books that were put together to make one small novel.

Like Christina Stead's pre-war novels set in Europe, this one suggests the disintegration of European culture. It is a microcosm of Europe in ruins, with its pitiful characters on a lifeboat and not a spot of land or ship around. In a letter Stead once complained that she couldn't write "positive" characters. It was not her talent. Aside from the hotel owner few of the characters appear very pleasant, and even she is less a saint than a practical businesswomen. However, there are memorable characters like the "Mayor of B", a Belgian whose personal idiosyncrasies provide fodder for several scenes as when he gently harangues the staff. And a proper British woman, Mrs Trollope (even the name is quaintly literary) is also the focus of many episodes including a nostalgic moment:
"I invited Mrs Trollope to the movies. The film was Goodbye, Mr Chips and I was longing to see it. Mrs Trollope wanted to see it again. She said:
'It gives you such a feeling of the dear old world still being with us in the new; though the young seem so old nowadays.'" (p 54) Moments like this one make her perhaps the most sympathetic of the hotel's residents.

Stead had a special gift for both proper and reprehensible characters, sick, neurotic, or insane, . The joy of The Little Hotel lies in her little portraits.

"The Princess said: 'Well, South America is good, there are so many skin diseases. But I met a doctor in New York, a very rich man, a friend of mine, who said nine-tenths of the babies in South America should be gassed; he said the bomb wouldn't do them the least harm; they should be exterminated. He toured South America and he was shocked. American science could do nothing for them. He is a splendid husband and father and he has seven children and knows what he is talking about.'
Lilia said: 'I think that is cruel.'
The Princess said: 'Oh, science is cruel; and this is a cruel age.'"

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