Islandia

Map of Austin Tappan Wright’s Invented Country

It’s not often that I will undertake to read a thousand plus page novel. Most of the time, it’s just not worth it. There are some rare exceptions: One of them in Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, published in 1942, more than ten years after its author died in a New Mexico auto accident. During the interval, the author’s two thousand pages of text were edited and submitted for publication. Fortunately for us, they were accepted. The result is a one-of-a-kind classic that will probably remain in print as long as there are literate readers.

Mind you, Wright is no master stylist. What makes Islandia such a great novel is the author’s incredible imagination in creating an imaginary country with its own culture, language, and mores. Add to that what I regard as the most acute study of love in the Western World with some of the most brilliantly drawn female characters, particularly Dorna, Nattana, Stellina, and Gladys Hunter.

The 2001 Edition That I Read

The story tells of an American named John Lang who is appointed as consul to the isolated nation of Islandia (which is actually not an island), where no more than 100 non-consular foreigners are allowed to live at one time. He falls in love with two Islandian women, is reluctantly rejected by both of them, and eventually marries a fellow American named Gladys Hunter, whom he brings to Islandia to live on a farm with him.

When John and Gladys come together in Islandia, there is none of that “and they lived happily ever after” claptrap that destroys so many stories: Gladys does not immediately take to her new adopted country, and John must patiently ensure that her needs are being met before she is wholly at ease in her new situation. This type of extended dénouement is rare in fiction, so I was greatly surprised to find it here.

The Author: Austin Tappan Wright (1883-1931)


I loved this book deeply, and I hope to be able to read it again some day. It made me feel good about my fellow humans, an emotion I do not readily feel during this election year of 2020.

Cleveland 28, Ohio

The ’Burbs 1951-1962 (The Red Arrow Was Our Home)

In 1951, we moved to the Harvard-Lee area of Cleveland, the extreme southeast corner of the city. Buckeye Road was only a few miles north and west of us and easily reachable by way of the Shaker Rapid light rail line. The next stage of my life was to consist of seven years attending Saint Henry School (which is no more) and the next four attending Chanel High School (which was just demolished this summer).

Several things were different in the suburbs. For one thing, there were a lot of bullies around, including our neighbors Jimmy and Joey Fordosi and Jack Rulison, three doors south of us. I guess that was because I reached the age when bullies magically appear; and it didn’t help that I was very young-looking for my age. Could it be that my pituitary tumor had already begun, stunting my growth? Throughout my years at Saint Henry, I was either the shortest or second shortest kid in class, including both boys and girls.

Chanel High School as It Was 1958-1962

When I “graduated” from eighth grade (there was no real ceremony), I was surprised to find that I had won a scholarship to Chanel High School in nearby Bedford, Ohio. In fact, my parents never had to pay a penny for tuition, because in each of my four years at Chanel, I received the highest grades in the elite, or “A” section. I had outgrown my slowness in the English language and in fact proceeded to make the language my own.

I was helped in this by four successive English teachers who were so good that I decided, when I graduated, to work at becoming an English professor. There was Father Gerard Hageman SM (Society of Mary “Marist”) in 9th grade; Father Raymond Healey SM in 10th grade; Father William Parker SM in 11th grade; and Father James Murray SM in 12th grade. These four priests provided an incredible education in literature and language—one for which I will be eternally grateful.

My graduation from Chanel was a much more formal event. Not only was I the class valedictorian, but I had won the Mr. Chanel award for all-around academic and extracurricular achievement. And I was going to an Ivy League college with a full scholarship. Those were my glory days.

 

 

Buckeye Road

Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, Once the Tallest Building West of NYC

In my youth, there were two Clevelands. First there was Buckeye Road, which was my world between the ages of one and six. (There had been a brief interlude in Florida, which I will describe in a later post.) Then, when I was sent home from kindergarten with a note from my teacher pinned to my shirt asking what language I was speaking (it was, of course, Hungarian), my parents planned for a move to the suburbs. That happened in 1951, shortly after my brother Dan was born. I will describe the Harvard-Lee Area tomorrow.

Buckeye Road was after World War Two the most vital Hungarian neighborhood in the United States. I have never been able to figure out why, unless my people had an affinity for hot, humid summers and dark, icy winters.

An Exhibit About Buckeye Road at Cleveland’s Hungarian Heritage Museum

We lived at 2814 East 120th Street, a short block from the main drag and only a short walk from ritzy Shaker Square—not for us penny-pinching Hunkies. There were two movie theaters within walking distance: the Moreland and the Regent. On nearby East 116th Street were Harvey Rice School, where I was to be a problem to the non-Hungarian teachers; the local library, the College Inn, whose French Fries I adored; the Boulevard Lanes where my Dad bowled (he was pretty good); and a very tasty doughnut shop not far from St. Luke’s Hospital. The residential streets were filled with two-story duplexes, on the second floor of one of which we lived.

Just before we moved out to the ’burbs, the city built a nice playground on nearby Williams Avenue, which I had just begun to enjoy.

There was a Hungarian Reformed Church on Buckeye, where the Reverend Alex Csutoros preached. His services were broadcast—in Hungarian—each Sunday on a local radio station to which my Mom listened. Dad didn’t, because he was a Catholic, like his two sons. The deal was that any girls born into the family would be Protestant; the boys, Roman Catholic.

My earliest memory was listen to my parents argue about money, while I lay anxiously in my crib. Both Dad and Mom worked, and my great grandmother Lidia Toth took care of us during the day. She spoke not a word of English her whole life long.

Still, my memories of Buckeye Road are probably seen mostly through rose-tinted glasses. There were hard times, but they didn’t leave me with many bad memories.

 

Where English Fails

A Word With Too Many Meanings

It is said that the Inuits have some fifty different words for snow, covering snowflakes, frost, fine snow particles, drifting particles, clinging particles, fallen snow, deep snow, and so on almost ad infinitum. And yet, the English language has this one word—love—which covers a whole host of emotions, from liking an inanimate thing, to strong affection for a person, to to attachment to one’s children, to copulation, to a score of zero in tennis, and so on.

When one tells a woman one loves her, it could mean any of a number of things, ranging from a momentary feeling of affection to a lifetime of devotion.

I became more conscious of this lack while reading a fascinating book published in 1942 by Austin Tappan Wright called Islandia. In it, there are four terms for love, with the Greek equivalents in Italics:

  • Apia, sexual attraction (eros)
  • Ania, desire for marriage and commitment (storge)
  • Amia, love of friends (philia)
  • Alia, love of place, family lineage, and the land (heimat)

It is a wonderful book about a nonexistent country called Islandia in the Southern Hemisphere on the remote Karain continent. In it, the hero, an American called John Lang, keeps falling in love with beautiful young Islandian women with numerous misunderstandings due to differences in culture. It is a thousand-page novel of which I have read only some 600 pages thus far,

 

 

Worse Than Al-Qaida

Morgue Overflow Into Hospital Corridor

Today we commemorate the nineteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, in which some 3,000 Americans lost their lives in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC.

We are fighting another enemy now that has killed 200,000 Americans this year to date, and infected 6.5 million of our countrymen with a virulent disease which we are just beginning to understand. Many thousands of those dead from coronavirus died needlessly, and millions of those afflicted with the virus need not have suffered from it.

Solidly to blame is our leadership in the White House. President Trump persistently downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak (though now he claims he knew back then the danger). Millions of Americans did not know what to think. Many Trump voters now claim there was no pandemic, and that all this is false news. They refuse to wear face masks—largely because their President has sent mixed messages, frequently at variance with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Even people think less of Trump than I do (there must be some, somewhere) are confused as to what to do in the face of the outbreak.

I hold Trump responsible for thousands of deaths and millions of sickened Americans. One of the responsibilities of those in power is to make sure the right information gets to the people. It didn’t, with horrendous results.

Very few other countries had an experience as bad as ours, with so many needless casualties due to misinformation. To cover his ass, Trump lied that we had done better than any other country.

Why do people still believe his lies? I guess it’s a case of misplaced faith, as Mr. Spock explains below:

I’ll Go Along With That

 

It Goes Way Back…

The Roman Senate in Session

Lest you think that what is befalling the United States at present is of recent vintage, I urge you to consider the two great parties of the Roman Republic around 130 BC. There were two main political parties, the optimates (“the best ones”) and the populares (“favoring the people”). The former—consisting of members of the senatorial class and large landowners—were united in opposition to the tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his younger brother Caius Sempronius Gracchus. According to Wikipedia:

For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies advocated by the Populares.

How familiar it all seems today! The Republicans, whose entire political platform could be expressed in the phrase “I got mine,” are fearful and apprehensive that the unwashed Democrats and their immigrant allies want a share of their wealth. Like the Optimates, the Republicans are “the best ones,” so whatever they do to hold on to power is quite all right with them.

Yesterday, I ran into an elderly woman at the Farmers Market on Fairfax who was a virulent Trump supporter. She thought that the black and other unwashed Barbarian hordes were after her money. I didn’t bother to try reasoning with her, because she was beyond reason. So I merely insulted her, as did the Afro-American gentleman who was in line with me.

I always thought that the nice thing about having money is being able to spend it in interesting ways. Not necessarily so! At some point, this woman inherited some money, problem from her late husband and decided to build an impregnable fortress around the proceeds against me and my kind.

 

 

My Tragic First Love

Traduced by My First Love

My first love—really, a schoolboy crush—was with Laura Sowinski in the Third Grade at Saint Henry School in Cleveland. She was a pretty little girl with some artistic talent. For some reason, I thought she was Swiss, because Sowinski sort of sounded like “Swiss.” Hey, I was only eight years old. What did I know? Now I would think she was Polish, which was more likely for the neighborhood in which I had lived.

Of course, I had hoped that my feelings for her were reciprocated, though I don’t know how she knew what I felt for her, because I never communicated it.

The rupture—and yes, there was a rupture—came when I was sick at home for a few days. In the Catholic school system of Cleveland in those days, there were often days off with little advance notice. When I got better from my cold or whatever it was, I dutifully walked to school the next day. (In those days, we walked to and from school.) To my surprise, the school building was all locked up. I turned around and returned home.

My unexpected free day came to an end the next day, so I trudged to school the next day. Being the age I was, I told everyone I showed up to school on a free day. In a week or two, when the next dittoed edition of the St. Henry Golden Knights news sheet came out, the whole last page was a drawing by none other than Laura Sowinski of me walking up to the school when it was closed. The caption read “James Paris Going to School on a Free Day.”

I thereupon turned several shades of vermilion and thought of my great love as wrecked on the rocks. I don’t think I ever spoke to Laura again. Not that I had ever spoken to her before.

On the Day the World Ends

“On the Day the World Ends/A Bee Circles a Clover”

One of my favorite Eastern European poets of the 20th Century is Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). A winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, Milosz lived for many years in California; consequently, he poems have a special meaning for me. Here is one of my favorites:

A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

 

Serendipity: Flowers and Bugs

In Order for Flowers to Exist …

Lately, I hav been reading two old books by naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch: The Forgotten Peninsula, about Baja California, and The Voice of the Desert. I found this interesting paragraph in the latter. I sure do like his writings!

Gardeners usually hate “bugs,” but if the evolutionists are reight, there never would have been any flowers if it had not been for those same bugs. The flowers never waste their sweetness on the desert air, or for that matter, on the jungle air. In fact, they waste it only when no one except a human being is here to smell it. It is for the bugs and for a few birds, not for men, that they dye their petals or waft their scents. And it is lucky for us that we either happen to like or have become “conditioned” to liking the colors and the odors which most insects and some birds like also. What a calamity for us if insects had been color blind, as all mammals below the primates are! Or if, worse yet, we had our present taste in smells while all the insects preferred, as a few of them do, that odor of rotten meat which certain flowers dependent on them abundantly provide. Would we ever have been able to discover thoughts too deep for tears in a gray flower which exhaled a terrific stench? Or would we have learned by now to consider it exquisite?

 

 

Cineconline

A Precursor of King Kong?

Over the last ten years, I have spent much of the Labor Day Weekend in Hollywood watching movies at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater as part of the annual Cinecon festival. This year, because of the coronavirus quarantine, the management of Cinecon decided to make the show available online at no charge—except for several please to donate (which I did).

A Well-Crafted Silent Film

The films typically screened for Cinecon are rarities. One doesn’t encounter the classics with which everyone if familiar. In fact, most of the titles are fairly obscure. The four features that were screened online this year are:

  • The Fourth Commandment (Universal 1926), directed by Emory Johnson
  • Without Pity (Italy 1948), directed by Alberto Lattuada and co-written by Federico Fellini
  • Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (England 1931), directed by Leslie S. Hiscock
  • Lorraine of the Lions (Universal 1925), directed by Edward Sedgwick

A Decade before Basil Rathbone’s Sleuth

I particularly liked Without Pity, an Italian Neo-Realist film with a very advanced subject: The love between a black G.I. and a blonde Italian woman who has lost everything in the war. It was made in 1948 at a time when no American film would be so daring on the subject of interracial love.

Also shown was a two-hour program of rare kinescopes (“Kinecon on Cinecon”) from the earliest days of television including Jan Murray, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Milton Berle.

A 1948 Italian Film About Interracial Love

In addition, there were the usual silent and early sound shorts with such capable but relatively unknown stars as Billy Bevan, Al Jennings (a train robber become Western star), Edward Everett Horton, Lige Connelly, and Andy Clyde.

I did not see all the short films. After all, life must go on. But what I saw only whetted my appetite to see what they have scheduled for next year.