The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Matsuo Bashō by Hokusai

Several times over the last thirty years, I have returned to the 17th century haiku and commentaries by Matsuo Bashō on the subject of travel:

Amid mountains of high summer,
I bowed respectfully before
The tall clogs of a statue,
Asking a blessing on my journey.

There is a quality to Bashō’s writing that makes me want to hit the road. As he wends his way through Shogunate Japan, stopping at temples along the way, I see him as the ideal traveling companion.

This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain.

I think of his poem about a ruined castle:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

Bashō’s prose, too, has a certain quality that is worth remembering:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one—when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural—if the object and yourself are separate—then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

How marvelous! This is what I seek from my travels—not that I write poetry—a “hidden glimmering” that makes itself manifest when I confront it with my entire being.

The name of this post, and of Bashō’s poetic journal, was also used by Australian novelist Thomas Kavanagh in his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which tells of its physician hero’s imprisonment in World War Two Burma building the bridge on the River Kwai made famous by David Lean’s movie.

 

Filling In the Gaps

No One Considers This To Be One of Faulkner’s Best

If one has read a whole lot of books, as I have, one eventually gets to the point of filling in the minor works that are not highly regarded by the critics. In William Faulkner’s case, that includes his first two novels, Soldiers’ Pay (1926) and Mosquitoes (1927). It was only when he began setting his stories in his mythical Yoknapatawpha County that Faulkner’s reputation began its steady ascent. And even then, he was not frequently read until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 that Americans decided to start reading his work. Since that point, his work has remained in print.

What is to be gained from reading an author’s minor works, especially at the beginning of his career? I enjoyed Soldiers’ Pay only because I love Faulkner. I better understand the steps he took to be able to write The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), Absalom! Absalom! (1936), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down Moses (1942).

I will continue to “fill in the gaps” in my reading of Faulkner’s work. In the next year or so, I plan to read Mosquitoes, Pylon (1935), and A Fable (1954). At the same time, I’ll re-read one of the great novels just to remind myself what I am trying to do.

William Faulkner

I am doing the same thing with the opus of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but in a slightly different way. I am midway through Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of the writer and am reading or re-reading his work in tandem with the biography. I am about to re-read Notes from the Underground (1864).

 

So You Want To Be a Princess

Maybe It’s Not Such a Good Idea

I could not think of this last weekend’s Royal Wedding without thinking of Princess Diana. Although I do believe that she was not cut out for the Royal Family. To be a real princess, especially when married to someone like Prince Charles, one would have to be willing to forego most of one’s dreams and be impervious to all slights, of which there are many.

The image I have of that doomed wedding is of Princess Di, four months pregnant with Prince William, throwing herself down a flight of stairs to bring about a miscarriage. The source? Princess Di herself: It appears in her book Diana: Her True Story—In Her Own Words (1992). I sometimes wonder what Prince William thinks of his near escape.

Little girls everywhere dream of being Walt Disney princesses. That’s all well and good, if we lived in a cartoon universe. But if we do, it is one created by S. Clay Wilson, the underground cartoonist, and not Walt Disney.

S. Clay Wilson Cartoon Featuring the Checkered Demon


Apparently, Princess Di wanted the whole princess package. What she got was a somewhat ghastly domestic tragedy, partly of her making, partly of Princes Charles’s making, and partly of the Queen’s making.
 

The Seven Cities of Cibola

Some Kids Preferred Superheroes … But Not Me

When I look back at what I loved most as a kid, I would have to say that superheroes never made the list. Yes, yes, I know that a complete run of Marvel Comics from the 1950s would have made me wealthy. But not nearly as wealthy as my real hero—Scrooge McDuck. The reclusive millionaire of Duckburg was my Numero Uno comic book hero. Teamed up with his nephew Donald, and Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, they had great comic book adventures.

You could talk about great comic book artists, but I would have to name Carl Barks (1901-2000), inventor of Uncle Scrooge. I still remember with great fondness two of his feature comic stories, “The Seven Cities of Cibola“ and “The Land Beneath the Ground.”

From “The Land Beneath the Ground”

The first is about finding El Dorado, the legendary city of gold which drew the Spanish conquistadores into the American Southwest, only to return with nothing but cactus spines. In Barks’s comic, the gang finds the city—but alas it’s all booby-trapped and they end up doing no better than Coronado.

The other one presents an alternative theory of earthquakes. Deep in the earth, there are two species known as “terries” and “fermies,” whose activities underground lead to earth tremors. When Uncle Scrooge finds that his money could disappear into a hole in the ground, he gets serious about investigating this phenomenon.

 

Just Across the River Plate

Street Sign in Colonia del Sacramento

Buenos Aires is one of the most exciting cities in the world. What makes it more bearable is that, if you need to relax a bit, you’re just a short hop across the River Plate to Colonia del Sacramento in adjacent Uruguay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Colonia, as it is known to Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires), is a small city of some 27,000 souls and 17th century walls to protect the inhabitants from incursions by the Argentinians or the Brazilians. Until 1828, Uruguay was a football kicked around between Spain and Portugal.

In our 2006 trip to Colonia via a Colonia Express ferry, Martine found the place to be one of the highlights of our vacation. The town is eminently walkable, with old cobblestones being the rule rather than the exception. The town has a handful of small museums that are fun to visit in the Barrio Historico. M favorite was the tile museum with its small collection of ceramic tiles.

The Lighhouse Is a Museum Which One Can Explore

Now that I have seen Colonia and read W. H Hudson’s idyllic The Purple Land (1885), I would like to spend some more time in Uruguay. In Colonia, we met a British couple that traveled to Fray Bentos because of memories of the canned meat that originated there and was exported to Europe. Also, I would very much like to see the capital, Montevideo.

 

Greene with Envy

Front Entrance to the Gamble House

Yesterday, Martine and I drove to Pasadena to visit the Gamble House. No, it’s not a casino. It was the home of the Gambles of the Procter & Gamble fame. Situated on Orange Grove near where the Tournament of Roses Parade makes the turn onto Colorado, the area is a turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is) millionaires’ row. We had visited the house before, years ago, but it’s a good thing to renew one’s acquaintance with great works of art from time to time.

the house is the work of the architectural firm of Greene & Greene. While their works are usually characterized as “arts and crafts bungalows,” what we have here is a sizeable mansion.

Gamble House Exterior

There is something infinitely pleasing and subtle about the works of Greene & Greene when they are at the top of their game, and the Gamble house was definitely at the top of their game. The architects decided not only the exterior feature of the building, the room layouts, and the grounds—but even the furniture in many cases. In one room, everything is made to resemble a vase on the dresser.

Although the architects had never been to the Orient, they did stop at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on their way to California, where they saw a number of examples of Japanese architecture. That glimpse was sufficient to get them thinking about how to use wood not only for weight-bearing, but also for decorative purposes.

Gamble House Sample Interior

Note the way all the features in the above room blend in with one another. The pottery, the lighting fixture, the table and chairs seem all of a piece. At one point where the servants would injure their hip by banging into a sharp counter corner, the architects made the counter trapezoidal, eliminating the sharp corner. At another point, the very short Aunt Julia Gamble had a special chair made for her to work with the fastenings on her high-button shoes. (Also note Aunt Julia’s little step stool in the above photo for her comfort.) In the boys’ bedroom, there is a low, wide drawer for storing their shoes. In the kitchen, there is a super-wide drawer for storing tablecloths without wrinkling them along the folds.

Everything is on a human scale. And strikingly beautiful.

 

Ten Classic British Film Comedies

George Cole as “Flash Harry” and Alastair Sim as Headmistress Millicent Fritton in The Belles of St. Trinian’s

In honour of the Royal Wedding—wait, belay that!—I would like to honour the British for what they made me do in my formative years, namely, to laugh my head off. I just watched one of Martine’s favorite films at her side, The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954). It starred the great Alastair Sim in two roles, as the Headmistress of St. Trinian’s School for Girls Millicent Fritton and as her scapegrace horse racing tout brother Clarence. You may recall Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in the best version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1951).

It suddenly hit me that I have never written about the British film comedies that help sustain me through high school and college, while I was suffering from a pituitary tumor that almost killed me in 1966. Consequently, I have put together a list of ten films that I loved and that made me laugh:

  • Passport to Pimlico (1949), directed by Henry Cornelius.
  • Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer. With Alec Guinness playing seven parts.
  • Whisky Galore! (1949), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. One of the very best.
  • The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), directed by Charles Crichton. Guinness again.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), directed by Anthony Asquith. On the importance of Bunburying.
  • The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954), directed by Frank Launder. Alastair Sim x 2.
  • Father Brown (1954), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Guinness as Chesterton’s priest/detective.
  • Hobson’s Choice (1954), directed by David Lean. Charles Laughton and John Mills.
  • The Ladykillers (1955), directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Peter Sellers’s first film.
  • School for Scoundrels (1960), directed by Robert Hamer. Based on Stephen Potter’s books.

So you can wake up in the middle of the night at watch the pre-game show for the Royal Wedding, or you can laugh your ass off. Guess what I would recommend!