We always tend to make too much of holidays like New Years. Let’s face it: All it means is a new template overlaid on the same old time period. Although I will probably still be awake at midnight, it is only because I am usually still awake at midnight. I don’t really care about somebody dropping the ball on Times Square, and I certainly will not watch any Year in Review shows or other New Years specials.
When I was a little kid, I marveled that in the year 2000, I would be 55 years old. That seemed so old to me back then. Now that I am twenty years past that milestone, or should I say millstone, I am not so quick to generalize about the passing of time. That what time does. It passes.
As William Butler Yeats wrote in his play The Countess Cathleen:
The years like great black oxen tread the world,
And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
And I am broken by their passing feet.
Despite everything, I wish all of you well. May the New Year bring you peace, health, and prosperity. And if it doesn’t, just soldier on.
The Month of January Is Named After the Two-Faced Roman God Janus
Except for the last two years, when I took January vacations to Guatemala and Yucatán respectively, I used to confine my reading for that month to authors I had not read before. Since my reading during trips is almost entirely on my Amazon Kindle, and I don’t like to experiment so much when I am away from my library, my vacation reading includes many familiar names.
Starting on New Years Day, I will once again return to what I call my Januarius Project, which is to familiarize myself with new authors so that my reading doesn’t become too rooted in the familiar. Among the books I have planned for next month are:
Franz Eemil Sillanpää’s Meek Heritage (Finland)
Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
Trygve Gulbrandsen’s Beyond Sing the Woods (Norway)
Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind (Iceland)
George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (USA)
Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution (France)
Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Bullivant and the Lambs (England)
Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore (Scotland), which was made into one of my favorite comic films
Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey (England)
Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1888-1964)
I don’t know if I’ll complete all those books, but I will try. By the way, if you’ve noticed a preponderance of Scandinavian authors, that’s deliberate. I’ve read a lot of Icelandic literature, but very little from mainland Scandinavia.
We Americans tend, I think, to not stray far from American and English literature. And I have some friends who refuse to read a book that has been translated from another language—whereas roughly half of my reading is in translation.
No doubt you are familiar with the rage of King Lear after two of his daughters ave betrayed him. That is almost nothing compared to the rage of Timon, who has given all his wealth to his friends, but is deserted by them when he himself is broke. These are the opening lines of Act IV:
Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall, That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth, And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent! Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools, Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench, And minister in their steads! to general filths Convert o’ the instant, green virginity, Do ’t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast; Rather than render back, out with your knives, And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal! Large-handed robbers your grave masters are, And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed; Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen, pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire, With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear, Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth, Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood, Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades, Degrees, observances, customs, and laws, Decline to your confounding contraries, And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men, Your potent and infectious fevers heap On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica, Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth, That ’gainst the stream of virtue they may strive, And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains, Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath, at their society, as their friendship, may merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee, But nakedness, thou detestable town! Take thou that too, with multiplying bans! Timon will to the woods; where he shall find The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind. The gods confound—hear me, you good gods all— The Athenians both within and out that wall! And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen.
Even Shakespeare’s minor plays can pack a punch. Timon of Athens is worth a read, especially when you are feeling unkindly toward your fellow man.
To date, I have written four posts about the Maya “month” of Uayeb or Wayeb, which consists of the last five days of the Haab Calendar of 365 days. The Haab calendar has twenty months of eighteen days each, which isn’t quite enough to make up the full complement, so the Maya added a short stub of a month containing the five “nameless days.”
There is also a Maya god named Uayeb, who is the god of misfortune. That sounds about right.
Scott Stantis Has an Intuitive Understanding of Uayeb in His Cartoon Strip
Here is a link to my previous posts on the subject:
French Existentialist Writer/Philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960)
I have been Reading Albert Camus’ Notebooks 1942-1951 from which I have excerpted the following selections from the year 1942. Even a fragmentary work by such a great writer is well worth the effort. I keep thinking of Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées have been a major part of my life since high school.
Secret of my universe: Imagining God without human immortality.
Capital punishment. The criminal is killed because the crime has spent all the capacity for living a man has. He has experienced everything if he has killed. He can die. Murder drains a man.
“What am I thinking that is greater than I and that I experience without being able to define it? A sort of arduous progress toward a theory of negation—a heroism without God—man alone, in short.”
Nostalgia for the life of others. This is because, seen from the outside, another’s life forms a unit. Whereas ours, seen from the inside, seems broken up. We are still chasing after an illusion of unity.
Solitary arrivals at night in strange cities—that sensation of stifling, being transcended by an organism a thousand times more complex. It is enough to locate the main street on the morrow, everything falls into place in relation to it, and we settle in. Collect memories of night arrivals in strange cities, live on the power of those unknown hotel rooms.
Novel. Beside the dying body of the woman he loves: “I can’t, I can’t let you die. For I know that I shall forget you. Hence I’ll lose everything and I want to keep you on this side of the world, the only one where I am capable of embracing you, etc., etc.” She: “Oh, it’s a dreadful thing to die knowing one will be forgotten.” Always see an express at the same time the two aspects.
Sexual life was given to man to distract him perhaps from his true path. It’s his opium. With it everything falls asleep. Outside it, things resume life. At the same time chastity kills the species, which is perhaps the truth.
Wuthering Heights, one of the greatest love novels because it ends in failure and revolt—I mean in death without hope. The main character is the devil. Such a love can be maintained only through the ultimate failure that is death. It can continue only in hell.
Living with one’s passions amounts to living with one’s sufferings, which are the counterpoise, the corrective, the balance, and the price. When a man has learned—and not on paper—how to remain alone with his suffering, how to overcome his longing to flee, the illusion that others may share, then he has little left to learn.
Man and Woman in Same Bed: Verboten After 1934 (Madam Satan)
Hollywood films released after July 1, 1934 were heavily censored by the Breen Office of the MPAA for adherence to community morality standards, especially with regard to S-E-X. That is partly because between the onset of the Great Depression and that date, Hollywood released numerous pictures that violated the prevailing morality.
Pictures like Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) for MGM with its Art Deco orgy aboard a Zeppelin. Or Warner Brothers’ Baby Face (1933) with a social-climbing Barbara Stanwyck intent on avenging past slights on the entire male gender. According to film scholar Eddie Muller, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933), starring Miriam Hopkins based on a lurid William Faulkner novel in which her character murders her rapist.
I recall a scene excised from many prints of Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) of a bare-breasted native girl smiling at the camera as a column of French Foreign Legionnaires marches past. (In all honesty, however, there are numerous glimpses of breast in many of the silent Jesus pix of the period. Thank you, Mr. DeMille.)
This Film Was Dynamite with Its Immoral Heroine
Several weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed a program of four pre-code Warner Brothers films that are a good place to start if you want to see what the era was all about:
Two Seconds (1932) with Edward G. Robinson
Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and a hot Loretta Young
Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy and Mary Brian
Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck
Lee Tracy and Ruth Donnelly in Blessed Event
The prints that TCM showed looked pristine. That is because the originals were stored at the Library of Congress, which took good care of them.
Pre-code stars included, in addition to the above mentioned, actors like Clark Gable, Ruth Chatterton, James Cagney, Mae West, Jean Harlowe, Joan Blondell, Paul Muni, and Mae Clarke.
I regard the Hollywood films of the early 1930s as a happy hunting ground for interesting films that dared to do what no film until the modern day did. In this era of free porn on demand, that might not seem like much, but it does provide a more realistic glimpse of an interesting era in America.
On Dasher, On Lancer, On Thrasher Or Whatever Your Names Are
On this Christmas Eve, I wish all of you as Happy a Holiday as is consonant with both your safety and desires. As you may know, I am no great believer in Christmas or New Years or Arbor Day or Columbus Day. Nonetheless, I hope for the best for all of you and the people in your lives.
I will take tomorrow off from posting here. In all likelihood, I will be watching movies and reading books. You can be fairly certain that I will not be watching any parades (are there still any?) or Xmas specials on TV.
So, as we Hungarians say: Boldog karácsonyt! (Don’t even try to pronounce it!)
Marie NDiaye, Franco-Senegalese Writer and Playwright
In this year of the quarantine, I have found particular solace in reading writers that most people have never heard of before—and some that were new to me as well. The list is alphabetical by author, followed by the name of the book(s) I read in 2020:
Algren, Nelson (1909-1981). The Man with the Golden Arm. This novelist had a years-long relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who is also on this list.
Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. A wonderful nonfiction book primarily about the French and German Existentialist philosophers from Husserl to Sartre.
Beauvoir, Simone de (1908-1986). The Mandarins. A powerful novel about the French postwar existentialists.
Collins, Wilkie (1824-1889). No Name and A Rogue’s Life. Not as well known as Dickens, but I think a better writer. His best novel is The Woman in White.
Dourado, Autran (1926-2012). Pattern for a Tapestry. This Brazilian writer from Minas Gerais is a real find.
Hrabal, Bohumil (1914-1997). I Served the King of England. I wonder why this great Czech novelist never won the Nobel Prize. Consistently great.
Marra, Anthony. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The youngest writer (only 36) on the list, but shows promise of great things to come.
Modiano, Patrick. Dora Bruder. Winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is one of my favorite living novelists.
NDiaye, Marie. The Cheffe and My Heart Hemmed In. Winner of the Prix Goncourt in France. Clearly deserves the Nobel as well.
Neruda, Jan (1834-1891). Prague Tales. The Czech writer whose last name Pablo Neruda hijacked for himself.
Portis, Charles (1933-2020). Gringos. I really admire this Arkansas novelist’s work. Best known for True Grit, which is also worth reading.
Stasiuk, Andrzej. Fado. Hurry up and translate more of this great Polish writer’s work!
Westover, Tara. Educated. A nonfiction autobiographical book about growing up in an Idaho survivalist household.
Wright, Austin Tappan (1883-1931). Islandia. A novel in a genre by itself: A realistic fantasy novel set in a nonexistent Southern Hemisphere country.
As you can see, this list skips around the world and across two centuries.
Kind of Looks Like Mines Intended to Explode on Contact with Ships
Since March 15, I have maintained strict quarantine—with a sole exception. Late in October, I visited my brother in the Coachella Valley. Although I have maintained telephone contact with my friends, I have not seen any of them for many months.
So how does one survive the dreaded ’Rona?
Very simple: Take yourself out of circulation. To the maximum extent possible, restrict your contact with friends and family to the telephone, e-mail, and—if you are so inclined—letters.
Let’s face it: There will be many more deaths and illnesses before this thing mutates or dies off.
This is a great time to see all the great movies you’ve missed (on TV and your computer), and to read great books. It’s also a good time to learn how to cook for yourself. Food that is delivered to your home is usually tepid at best.
Wear a mask when there is any chance of talking to someone in person, whether a neighbor or a grocery cashier. If you feel that the requirement to wear a mask is an infringement on your liberty, be ready to kill off your friends, acquaintances, family, and possibly yourself. Because there is a very real possibility that you might wind up a mass murderer through sheer idiocy.
And, if you see Jacob Marley’s face on your door knocker, run like hell!
Lobby Card for The Big Sleep: Best of the Chandler Adaptations
To date, I have seen most of the Hollywood films based on Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe private investigator novels; and I suspect that these are the best of the bunch. Several of them I have seen multiple times. They are listed below in alphabetical order:
The Big Sleep (1946) from Warner Brothers, starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks based on the novel of the same name. ***
The Brasher Doubloon (1947) from 20th Century Fox, starring George Montgomery as Marlowe. Directed by John Brahm based on The High Window.
Lady in the Lake (1947) from 20th Century Fox, starring Robert Montgomery as Marlowe. Directed by Robert Montgomery (who played Marlowe) based on the novel of the same name. *
The Long Goodbye (1973) from United Artists, starring Elliott Gould as Marlowe. Directed by Robert Altman based on the novel of the same name.
Marlowe (1969) from MGM, starring James Garner as Marlowe. Directed by Paul Bogart based on The Little Sister.
Murder, My Sweet (1944) from RKO, starring Dick Powell as Marlowe. Directed by Edward Dmytryk based on Farewell, My Lovely.
There are several other films, including two starring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe; but they are of more recent vintage and directed by nonentities. I hope to see them anyway.
Lobby Card for Lady in the Lake, with Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter
The asterisks denote my favorites: The Big Sleep; Murder, My Sweet; and Lady in the Lake. I also liked The Brasher Doubloon. Essentially, my favorites were all made in the 1940s. By the 1960s, I think that we were too far away from the atmosphere of the original novels.
Lobby Card for Murder, My Sweet with Former Crooner Dick Powell as a Convincing Marlowe
Who was my favorite Marlowe? I guess I would have to go with Humphrey Bogart. My other favorites—Dick Powell, George Montgomery, and Robert Montgomery—also turned in creditable performances. Lady in the Lake was a particularly bravura performance by Robert Montgomery, who also directed. In fact, the camera was in most scenes shot from the point of view of Marlowe—with the exception of some mirror shots and a brief prologue and epilogue.