Unfinished Business

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

Accordion Player in Downtown Buenos Aires

I always say I have unfinished business with the people, places, and things that I love. Take Argentina, for instance. I have been there in 2006, 2011, and 2015. The first time, I broke my shoulder by slipping on the ice in Tierra Del Fuego; the second time (the best), I went with Martine and saw a good chunk of the Patagonia; the third time was mostly just fill-in, with visits to Iguazu Falls and Sar Carlos Bariloche. But I am by no means finished with Argentina, nor Argentina with me.

There is a broad stretch of the South Atlantic I’d love to see between Rio Gallegos and Carmen de Patagones. I would not mind taking long bus rides to God-forsaken ports like Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, Caleta Olivia, Comodoro Rivadavia, and Bahia Blanca. I don’t even care if there aren’t that many notable tourist sights. I could easily put up with some slow time, especially as I would have two Kindle readers with me, and some 3,000 different titles to read. At my side will be my pocket digital rangefinder camera to catch people and places in the process of being something special.

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Guanaco in the Buenos Aires Zoo

Argentina isn’t the only place I’d like to see again. I wouldn’t mind spending more time at the English Bookshop in Quito, Ecuador. And Iceland will continue to be a lifelong love of mine. I only wish I could get Martine to come with me. She has some idea that she would have to dress like an Eskimo amid huge snowdrifts. Far from it! Iceland will be one of the few countries to benefit from global warming. My favorite destinations in Europe are on hold for now, because I suspect that mass immigration will change that continent forever. I also want to see more of the American Southwest, and Martine and I are planning one such trip right now that will take up large swaths of New Mexico, Colorado, and possibly Utah.

As Lao Tzu wrote, “From wonder, into wonder, existence opens.”


The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

The title of this post comes from Tim Kreider, who used it in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2013.  The book begins slowly:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

On the face of it, the novel, Stoner, by John Williams (1922-1994), does not appear to be promising. And yet, to my mind, it is one of the best American novels written after World War II.

Williams gives us a story of a life in academia, where the politics are particularly awful. I myself had wanted to become a professor of film history and criticism, but was so disgusted by the infighting at the Theater Arts Department of UCLA that I fled to the corporate world and concentrated instead on computers.

William Stoner marries a young woman who catches his attention at a party. It does not take more than a month before he discovers that his marriage is a failure. He and his wife Edith have a daughter named Grace, toward whom Edith acts strangely and inconsistently over the years, leading to Grace getting pregnant and moving away from home.

Author John Williams

Author John Williams

The English department at Stoner’s University of Missouri is headed by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes chairman and begins a career-long feud with Stoner after he flunks one of Lomax’s protegées.

In his forties, Professor Stoner enters an affair with a beautiful young colleague, but is pressured by Lomax to either stop it or resign his post.

In the end, Stoner develops cancer and dies.

So what’s the big deal? Several things. First of all, the book is shockingly true to life. Stoner falls into his profession because, originally enrolled as an agriculture major, he falls in love with English literature. Again and again, he lurches from one decision to the next with a shrug, almost, and finds enjoyment where he can—even when there is no consolation from his work or home life. Even as he dies from a cancer that has metastasized throughout his system, he evinces not a moment of fear, but yields to the necessities of his disintegrating body.

Williams’s style is a thing of beauty. As Krieder wrote in his 2003 article:

[Stoner’s] ambition is evident in the apparent humility of its subject: like Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, it’s to be nothing more or less than the story of a life. And there is something in even those first paragraphs, an un-show-off-y assurance in the prose, like the soft opening notes of a virtuoso or the first casual gestures of a master artist, that tells us we are in the presence not just of a great writer but of something more—someone who knows life, who maybe even understands it. It’s the same thing I sense in reading James Salter: the presence of wisdom. And wisdom is, of course, perennially out of style.

Especially among postwar writers, there is a tendency to tart things up so that the work coruscates with some special grace irrespective of its appropriateness to the subject. Williams comes at you straight and tells you what this man’s life is like.

Williams wrote only three other novels other than Stoner:

  • Nothing But the Night (1948), which is out of print
  • Butcher’s Crossing (1960), a Western, and …
  • Augustus (1972), an epistolary novel about the Roman Emperor Augustus

The latter two are available from New York Review, as is Stoner.

“Lot’s Wife”

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Every once in a while, the Nobel Prize Committee makes a correct choice, and Polish poet Wisława Szymborska is certainly one—one of the few in recent years who is deserving of the honor. Here is a poem entitled “Lot’s Wife,” about a woman who, while fleeing with her husband Lot from the destruction soon to overcome Sodom, was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back:

They say I looked back from curiosity.
But I could have had reasons other than curiosity.
I looked back from regret for a silver bowl.
From distraction while fastening the latchet of my sandal.
To avoid looking longer at the righteous neck
of Lot my husband.
From sudden certainty that had I died
he would not even have slowed his step.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Alert to the pursuit.
Suddenly serene, hopeful that God had changed His mind.
Our two daughters were almost over the hilltop.
I felt old age within me. Remoteness.
The futility of our wandering. Sleepiness.
I looked back while laying my bundle on the ground.
I looked back from fear of where next to set my foot.
On my path appeared serpents,
spiders, field mice, and fledgling vultures.
By now it was neither the righteous nor the wicked—simply all living creatures
crept and leapt in common panic.
I looked back from loneliness.
From shame that I was stealing away.
From a desire to shout, to return.
Or just when a sudden gust of wind
undid my hair and lifted up my garment.
I had the impression they watched it all from the walls of Sodom
and burst out in loud laughter time and time again.
I looked back from anger.
To relish their great ruin.
I looked back for all the reasons I have mentioned.
I looked back despite myself.
It was only a rock that turned back, growling under foot.
A sudden crevice that cut my path.
On the edge a hamster scampered up on his two hind feet.
It was then that we both glanced back.
No. No. I ran on.
I crept and clambered up,
until the darkness crashed down from heaven,
and with it, burning gravel and dead birds.
For lack of breath I spun about repeatedly.
If anyone had seen me, he might have thought me dancing.
It was not ruled out that my eyes were open.
It could be that I fell, my face turned toward the city.

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Perhaps Szymborska’s beloved and much beleaguered Poland was that Sodom, unjustly punished by history for being positioned between two ogres that alternately and in combination devoured it for no good reason.


Lost Worlds

Seljuk Bowl

Seljuk Serving Tray

Even when we don’t know we are, we are wearing blinders. There was recently a show entitled “Court and Cosmos: The Great Age of the Seljuqs” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. What most people do not realize is that the Seljuks were a different people than the Ottomans who followed in the 14th century. From roughly 1071 to 1307, there was a Seljuk Empire that stretched, at times, from Samarkand to Anatolia. The “Turks” the West was fighting during most of the Crusades were the Seljuks. To the permanent settlers of the lands taken over by the Crusaders, both the Christians and the Turks were barbarians.

Too many cultures of whose existence we are either totally unaware or in other ways woefully ignorant have passed through the lands we have studied over the last two millennia. And our focus has typically been only on Western Europe and the lands of the Mediterranean. Asia and especially Africa are tierra incognita to us still. As an Eastern European, I am dismayed that Americans know so little about the peoples who were merely regarded as Soviet Satellites since World War Two. I doubt whether as many as 0.1% of students could name the countries bordering on Hungary, for example.

An Item from the Metropolitan Art Museum of New York Exhibition

An Item from the Metropolitan Museum Art of New York Exhibition

According to a review of the exhibition by Peter Brown entitled “Splendors of the Seljuqs in New York” for the The New York Review of Books for August 18, 2016:

But the meaning and uses of many of these objects are hard to grasp. Faced by so much beauty, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are not walking through a splendid jeweler’s store. These objects once lived. They had a part in solemn ceremonies. They conjured up images of the good life. Many are covered in inscriptions in Arabic and Persian that only few of us can decipher. Even their geographic placing is puzzling to us.

We Americans have to realize that we live in the world, and that we form an ever decreasing share of the world’s wealth and culture. Why are our students not being taught a global perspective on history and culture? Not only are we not a “City on a Hill,” but we are more Podunk-ized as time goes on. Thank you Mister Trump for making us all wear the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Favorite Films: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Les dames du bois de boulogne 1945 real : Robert Bresson Paul Bernard Maria Casares Elina Labourdette COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL

Poster for Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I’ve come down with my second cold of the winter season, so I decided to stay home and watch some DVDs. The last of them I purchased at Cinecon, not even knowing whether it had English subtitles. Fortunately, I did not have to watch it with Korean titles.

For over half a century, I have loved the films of Robert Bresson, beginning with Diary of a Country Priest (1951), in which a sickly young parish priest tries to minister to an uncaring, even malicious congregation. Over the years, I have seen most of his films—all of which I deemed to be masterpieces or better. Pickpocket (1959) I would easily put on a list of the best ten films ever made.

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne came out in the year of my birth. It is a very French film based on a very French source, Denis Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste, an 18th century picaresque novel. Bresson takes one of the stories in the novel and sets it in present day Paris.

Think of it as a tale of revenge. Hélène (played by a gorgeous Maria Casarès) breaks up with her boyfriend Jean (Paul Bernard). While they both pretend to be very civilized about the relationship, there are those two telltale tears below Hélène’s eyes that tell a different story. By accident, Hélène and Jean meat up with a beautiful young dancer, Agnès (Elina Labourdette) and her mother. Jean falls hard for Agnès, which gives Hélène her chance. She sets up the dancer and her mother in an apartment and stage manages Jean’s increasing infatuation. What Jean does not know is that Agnès was also something of a prostitute, though she seems intent on leaving the profession. Jean and Agnès marry, and Hélène casually tells Jean at the reception that most of the men at the wedding have enjoyed the favors of the bride.

Maria Casarès

Maria Casarès

I had seen the film many years ago and didn’t like it. This is a relatively rare case of me going from zero to sixty in half a century. (It could be that the print I saw was a bad 16mm print: I think it was.) Now I love the film so much that I will also undertake soon to readt he Diderot novel on which it is based. I was supposed to have read it in French at Dartmouth for a class in 18th century French literature, but I punted it.

By the way, don’t ever skip a chance to see one of Bresson’s films.

It Doesn’t Even Require Impeachment

It’s All There in the 25th Amendment

It’s All There in the 25th Amendment

Read the following four sections of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and consider the possibility that Donald J. Trump is mad:

Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.

Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

From Chile Peppers to High Mountain Passes

A Stretch of the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

A Stretch of the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

Is it too early to start planning my next vacation? Not at all—especially since Martine agreed to come with me this time, but only if I limited it to two weeks. “I could do this,” I thought. Some years ago, we traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, and bits of Utah and Colorado. I thought we could take a shorter version, timewise, at least.

I thought we could fly into El Paso, rent a car, and drive north to Alamogordo with its space museum and Capitan, a village dedicated to its most famous resident, Smokey Bear. There we will stay at the Smoky Bear Motel, dine at the Smokey Bear Restaurant, and certainly visit the Smokey Bear Museum. (Martine loves Smokey Bear.)

Then it’s north to Albuquerque, where we’ll stay for several days and maybe take side trips to Acoma, one of the two oldest continuously inhabited places in North America (the other is Old Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona) and El Morro National Monument. Perhaps we will also re-visit the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in nearby Ramah. And while in Albuquerque, I will drink deep of the smoldering juices of red and green chiles—the best in the world.

From Albuquerque, we head north to Chimayo to visit its famous Sanctuary and on to Chama. Thereupon, we will take a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which runs between Chama, NM and Antonito, CO. Next on the roster will be a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Yes, I am a railroad fanatic

From Silverton we drive north on one of the most dangerous stretches of roadway in the United States, the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, CO.

Finally, we’ll make our way to Denver, from where we fly back to Los Angeles.

One of the nice things about so-called “open jaws” flights is that you do not have to spend any time backtracking. Originally, I thought of flying to and from Albuquerque, a city I dearly love; but half the time we would be backtracking from side trips. This way, it’s all on a more or less straight line from El Paso to Denver.

“What about White Sands, Santa Fe, Chaco Canyon, Taos, and Mesa Verde?” you might ask. Martine and I have been there, and we are concentrating on places we haven’t visited.

Art and Inequality

Glass Hood Ornament on 1930s Automobile

Glass Hood Ornament on 1930s Automobile

Why is it that the most beautifully designed automobiles ever made came from the 1930s, a decade that was very good for the very rich, but not so good for everyone else?

On Saturday, Martine and I decided to risk going to visit the Nethercutt Collection despite the threat of an approaching rainstorm. We had a great afternoon looking at classic automobiles and got onto the freeway for the homeward trip just when the raindrops started to fall.

This particular visit raised that question about 1930s auto design. It appears that, sometimes, the greatest art comes during bad times. Going back as far as Ancient Greece, the Age of Pericles with its great tragedians was also the time of the horrible Peloponnesian War. John Milton did his best work under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Marcel Proust wrote just as France was sliding toward the Great War of 1914-1918.

Does this mean that America may produce great art during the dictatorship of Donald J. Trump? Maybe not: There was little of note produced during the Bubonic Plague.

Prize-Winning 1932 Bugatti

Prize-Winning 1932 Bugatti

I guess it takes more than widespread misery to create a period of great art. We’ll just have to see what emerges in the years to come.

A Poem for Our Times

Poet Jane Hirshfield

Poet Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953)

You may have seen this poem with reference to the non-events of last Friday. It is called “Let Them Not Say”:

Let them not say:   we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say:     they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.

Let them not say:     they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

Let them say, as they must say something:

A kerosene beauty.
It burned.

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.

No Beach Paradises for Me

Actually, Not My Idea of a Fun Trip

Actually, Not My Idea of a Fun Trip

Once again, I find myself in he minority. I live two and a half miles from Santa Monica Beach and about four miles from Venice Beach. If I wanted to go to the beach, I could walk there. The fact of the matter, however, is that beaches are not my idea of fun. The water is full of garbage and strange parasitic bacteria, the sun is usually too hot, and it’s virtually impossible to read there.

Back in the 1980s, I visited a number of beaches in Mexico at Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta, and Cozumel; and I went with Martine to Cabo San Lucas two years ago this month. I thought they were very nice, but I don’t do the usual things that people do at the beach. If I go into the water at all, it’s to slosh around as I take a short walk. I’m not into swimming, I don’t snorkel or water surf. At Cabo, my sole water activity was a boat ride to see the arch pictured below.

Harbor Cruise to See the Arch at Cabo

Harbor Cruise to See the Arch at Cabo

When I Travel, I’m usually not interested in staying in one place: I like to move around and look around. Instead of brightly colored tropical drinks, I’ll settle for an ice cold beer after a hard day’s touring. The next trip I am planning—to New Mexico with Martin—is far from any beach. But there’s a lot to see, and some good food to be had seasoned with the local hot chiles.