Friday, August 31, 2018

A Young Man's Hunger for the World

Of Time and the River 

Of Time and the River

“The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know — the greater the number of the books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be…. The thought that other books were waiting for him tore at his heart forever.”   ― Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth

This is the sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe's massive first novel. It is a sequel that almost doubles the first novel's length. In much of Wolfe’s writing, lengthy descriptions of train journeys impart a sense of movement and change. In Of Time and the River: A Legend of Man’s Hunger in His Youth, his hero, Eugene, embarks upon a trip northward. Having left college in his native state, Eugene believes that he has become a witness to a vast and panoramic series of images which, taken together, reveal the many faces of America itself. He feels a sense of escape from the dark and mournful mystery of the South to the freedom and bright promise of the North, with its shining cities and extravagant hopes. The plains, peaks, and valleys that shape the landscape over which he passes, as well as the innumerable towns and cities along the way, suggest to him the limitless diversity of the United States.

Other images, mainly from the past, are called up within Eugene when he stops in Baltimore to visit the hospital where, in his fatal illness, his father is being treated. The old man seems yellow, wan, and exhausted, and only the stonecutter’s hands, of a massive size and grace, seem still to suggest the strength and dignity with which he had once carried out his chosen calling; even appearing to have wasted away, and with only hints of his once vibrant spirit. Somewhat later dies in the midst of numerous relatives and friends who have come by during his last days.

Wolfe’s second novel is divided into parts bearing allegorical allusions; the figure most readily identified with his fictional hero is portrayed in the second section as “young Faustus.” Just as Goethe's Faust is noted for his striving for knowledge that marks him as the first modern man, Eugene Gant is propelled by an immense and boundless striving to read anything and everything he can and to encompass all known learning and literature in a self-imposed regimen that goes well beyond the limits of formal study. At Harvard’s library he prowls about in the stacks, taking down volumes he has not seen before and timing with a watch how many seconds it takes to finish one page and read the next before moving on. Eugene also walks the streets alone, mainly for the sake of gathering in sights and sounds that are still new and not entirely familiar to him. He marvels at the lonely, tragic beauty of New England, which he has come to believe differs from his native South.

Eugene, like Wolfe himself, for a time devotes unstinting energies to writing plays for a workshop which absorbs his energies, but later he turns away from these efforts as constraining and imposing limits upon his creative self. At times he expresses his disdain for productions that he thinks are overly fashionable or artistic. Wolfe often was given to expressing his hero’s observations and aspirations quantitatively, in large numbers, to suggest some great and unrealized vision of the nation and of human culture, in its immeasurable richness: While at Harvard, Eugene yearns to read one million books, to possess ten thousand women, and to know something about fifty million of the American people. Such strivings seem idealistic and elemental yearnings of and young man whose very being seems set upon not the satisfaction but the pursuit of his unending quest.

For a time, however, he must provide for himself by teaching college-level English courses in New York. All the while, the growing discontent fed by this routine breeds in him wants of another sort. Eugene yearns to travel and experience new vistas on several levels. One autumn he sets forth to see the great cities of the Old World.

In England, Eugene feels some affinity with a people who share with him a common language and literature. Though England seems drab and colorless in some ways, and the cuisine for the most part bland and disappointing, he ultimately senses a bond of affection which transcends any outward differences. On the other hand Eugene is moved by the atmosphere and attitudes which contrast with those of his own country. In France he feels overwhelmed by the Faustian urges that had beset him earlier; he wants to learn and read everything about Paris and its people. Not quite attracted or repelled, he becomes fascinated and at times awestruck by his surroundings.

Some episodes having less to do with cultural matters prove diverting and at times distressing. When he encounters a man he had known from his Harvard days and two American women, their brief camaraderie turns to bitterness and recrimination when Eugene, somewhat put out by what he regards as their affected Boston ways, becomes involved in a fight with his erstwhile friends. After some spirited quarrels, he leaves the others. Once out of Paris, he is befriended by some odd older women from noble families; in the end, as he has chronically been on the verge of exhausting his money altogether, his travels on the Continent must be brought to a close. Having traveled about at length, more and more he has become beset with a longing for home, and indeed he is eager for the sight of anything that might hint of America. When the journey of this modern Faust has been completed, he also—in a state of some wonderment—comes upon a woman for whom he has been longing, on the return voyage home.

"Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals therof are coals of fire, which have a most behement flame." (p 922)

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Quote for Today

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written." —Thoreau

Friday, August 17, 2018

Running for Life

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner 

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

"As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner. I suppose they thought I was just the build for it because I was long and skinny for my age (and still am) and in any case I didn't mind it much, to tell you the truth, because running had always been made much of in our family, especially running away from the police."  - Alan Sillitoe

The story of a young "Borstal" boy told almost entirely from the boy's point of view is a riveting novella about overcoming both your heritage and your self through courage and persistence. The long-distance runner - we learn eventually that his name is Smith - is at war with the governor of the Borstal to which he has been sent as a result of the "bakery job". His conflict with the warden is a matter of honesty; that is whether the 'outlaw' brand of it is more valid that the governor's 'in-law' brand.

The Governor, who treats the boy like a prize race horse, is counting on him winning the long-distance 'All England' running cup for his Borstal. The boy seems to go along with this although we are privy to his inner thoughts which contradict his responses to the Governor. " And I swear under my breath: . . . No, I won't get them that cup, even though the stupid tash-twitching bastard has all his hopes on me." He goes out every morning 'frozen stiff with nothing to get me warm except a couple of hours' long-distance running before breakfast' and feels 'like the first bloke in the world . . . fifty times better than when I'm cooped up in the dormitory with three hundred others'. What is more, he has a plan. 'Cunning is what counts in this life,' he tells us at the outset, 'and even that you've got to use in the sliest way you can.'

When the day of the race comes we are there with him on the run, with his thoughts of his plan, his situation, memories of his deceased father (also an outlaw), and hints of his future. It is as if his short life is going on there in his head and before our eyes. The result of the race is not really the important thing in this gripping story. Rather; it is the presence of the mind of a teenage rebel who ruminates on his life and his self. The result is profoundly thought-provoking and utterly readable. Three years after it was published the author penned the screenplay for a film version that won several awards.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Adventures of a Gaviero

The Adventures of Maqroll: Four Novellas : 
Amirbar/the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call/
Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships/
Triptych on Sea and Land 

The Adventures of Maqroll: Four Novellas : Amirbar/the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call/Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships/Triptych on Sea and Land

"the Gaviero was an insatiable reader, a tireless and lifelong consumer of books. This was his only pastime, not for literary reasons but because of a need to stove off somehow the tireless rhythm of his wandering and the unpredictable outcome of his voyages."

The Adventures of Maqroll is difficult to categorize. It’s a collection of novellas that include adventure stories populated by men and women who live where and how they must; these are the people who work near shipyards and the banks of unexplored river tributaries, people who value candor and honesty but for whom strict adherence to the law is often inconvenient. The book is a philosophical rumination on friendship and creation, romance and deception, obstinance and poverty.

The book isn’t a novel, but a collection of four novellas (there are three additional novellas in the collection entitle simply Maqroll) about Maqroll the Gaviero, written by Álvaro Mutis, who is, according to the introduction and the book jacket, one of Latin America’s finest poets and best friend of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A gaviero is the ship’s lookout, the sailor tasked with sitting atop the masts scanning the horizon. His eyes must always be active. He must be alert to the nuances of the sea and the capabilities of his vessel. It was not lost on this reader that Melville's Ishmael, too, was a topman, feeling himself, "a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts," and revolving within himself "the problem of the universe."

Mutis is present in these stories, but in a passive role, as reporter of the Gaviero’s adventures. Narrated in no particular order, selected so as to highlight Maqroll’s insatiable desire for experience, each story alludes to many imagined but unwritten characters, places, and events. We’re left with an incomplete impression of a rogue’s beautiful life—Mutis’s ode to his notion of the romantic seafaring gypsy.

The Gaviero is part of a group of wanderers who fascinate those who task themselves with creating whatever literature might be: the heirs of Odysseus and Jason, spies, pirates, and cowboys who abide the outrageous and rely as much on apathy as on strength in order to avoid the nooses and axes wielded by their enemies.

The Gaviero is not a symbol. He is a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Odysseus, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability. Barkeeps lose a new friend and a good source of business when he leaves town, and one woman always sits in the main room of her home, wondering whether anything she has given will supplement his resolve. He enjoys good food, uncomplicated wine, and the company of interesting friends. The Gaviero is who we all dream of being when we contemplate throwing everything away.

Among the novellas in this collection I particularly enjoyed "the Tramp Steamer's Last Port of Call" and "Abdul Bashar, Dreamer of Ships". Bashar was as interesting a character as Maqroll himself, described as having "strong, bony hands [that] moved with a singular elegance that has nothing to do with affectation, although these movements never corresponded to his words. It was vaguely disconcerting, as if his double, crouching there inside him and obeying an indecipherable code, had decided to express himself on his own. For this reason, Abdul Bashar's presence always aroused disquiet combined with sympathetic feelings for the captive who could make his presence felt only in gestures of a rare distinction, which were not those of the real person talking to us."

The first novella in the collection, "Amirbar", concludes with an appendix: "The Gaviero's Reading". I mentioned in my review of Maqroll that he was a great reader and this appendix provides detail about some of his favorite books. They are all antique, recondite works that I had never heard of (however upon researching the names and authors I found they were real and not fictional creations). They are among the books mentioned in passing in the other novellas, however the appendix provided not only the names but some details about the nature of each book.

This is a delightful book, but not necessarily a happy one. The Gaviero symbolizes the difficulty of attempting to internalize the good while accepting the inevitability of the bad, the chance to create the type of death we envision for ourselves, one with as many or as few regrets as our daily lives will tolerate. He seems to lead a life of adventure that would be possible only for a fantastic twentieth century romantic.

Mutis, himself a thorough Romantic, compels his readers, through the Gaviero, to examine our reasons for despondency, and instructs us to cherish our innate ability to fall in love with the world and with each other. This collection is an exhortation, a reminder that circumstances change but that innocent pleasures are abundant, available, and free.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Adventurer Extraordinaire

Maqroll: Three Novellas  
The Snow of the Admiral/
Ilona Comes With the Rain/Un Bel Morir 

Maqroll: Three Novellas : The Snow of the Admiral/Ilona Comes With the Rain/Un Bel Morir

“Life always holds in store surprises that are more complex and unforeseeable than any dream, and the secret is to let them come and not block them with castles in the air.”  - Alvaro Mutis

If ever there was an original and charismatic hero it's Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). In this book over the course of three novellas he is introduced as an adventurer, sailor, lover, friend, and entrepreneur. Like the famous Odysseus he is a man of many sides and ways. In fact his character seems born of the lineage of Odysseus or Don Quixote or any of the sailors that inhabit the novels of Joseph Conrad. As with many a hero, one of Maqroll's strengths is simple knowledge: he's been everywhere, met everyone, has a memory or story for every occasion. Maqroll seems to be from the mold of characters created by B. Traven; Maqroll takes the world as known and thus no one's, with nothing to offer but memories of what's been lost and anticipations of the losses to come. He's much more Marlow than Indiana Jones, more fatalist than flaneur.

These three novellas describe his ventures that range from smuggling rugs in Alicante, to managing a brothel in Panama, to involvement, unintentional as it may be, with guerillas in South America. What makes these adventures stand out is not only the character and actions of Maqroll but the background of these episodes that benefit from the prose of Alvaro Mutis. He brings the rivers and the jungles to life along with the indigenous characters that inhabit them. The impressions of places including a coastal town and a decaying jungle settlement are inhabited by fascinating characters like the captains of the ships on which Maqroll sails or the beautiful and enigmatic Larissa who provides the intrigue for one of the novellas.

In "The Snow of the Admiral", after a brief introduction by the author, the story is told through entries in Maqroll's diary describing a trip up a river in some unnamed country. Maqroll is unique in the wealth of knowledge and experience he displays, especially the breadth of his reading; he reads every chance he gets, and in his very first entry he makes an offhand reference to Dicken's Little Dorrit. He ends his first diary entry with the following curious remark:
"It's all absurd, and I'll never understand why I set out on this enterprise. It's always the same at the start of a journey. Then comes a soothing indifference that makes everything all right. I can't wait for it to arrive."

Through the diary entries we see more aspects of his character. He attended a Jesuit Academy which tells you a lot about his education and his seemingly unorthodox discipline. In addition to his reading I liked his philosophical or thoughtful side as seen in this example of what he calls a "precept":
"Thinking about time, trying to find out if past and future are valid and, in fact, exist, leads us into a labyrinth that is no less incomprehensible for being familiar."
Moments later, after several more examples, he calls them all "fake pearls born of idleness and the obligatory wait for the current to change its mood". They are all the more fascinating nonetheless.

Weeks into the trip he speaks with a Major who tells him, "There's no mystery in the jungle, regardless of what some people think. That's its greatest danger. It's just what you've seen, no more, no less. Just what you see now. Simple, direct, uniform, malevolent. Intelligence is blunted here and time is confused, laws are forgotten, joy is unknown, and sadness has no place."

Following the diary entries the novella concludes with four appendix-like sections, one of which gives the novella its name, all introduced with the simple line, "Further information concerning Maqroll the Gaviero". In one of these sections he visits the Aracuriare Canyon where he builds a hut and stays for a time. "the Gaviero began an examination of his life, a catalogue of his miseries, his mistakes, his precarious joys and confused passions. He resolved to go deep into this task, and his success was so thorough and devastating that he rid himself completely of the self who had accompanied him all his life, the one who has suffered all the pain and difficulty. . . .
But as he faced that absolute witness of himself, he also felt the serene, ameliorating acceptance he had spent so many years searching for in the fruitless symbols of adventure."

There are two further novellas in this collection, and a second volume by Mutis that contains four additional novellas about Maqroll the Gaviero, an astonishingly unique adventurer.