Bounced Czech

Czech Writer Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997)

Typically, it takes me a while to really get warmed up to what I consider a great author. For Bohumil Hrabal, I read a couple of short story collections (Mr Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age) before I read two novels that blew me away: I Served the King of England and now The Little Town Where Time Stood Still.

Now I myself am ¼ Czech, though I never met my Czech grandfather; so I am very comfortable with the world portrayed by Eastern European fiction. In The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, there is a long scene about butchering pork that recalls my childhood in a Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland. The scene is almost a threnody to the rich Czech and Hungarian pork-based cuisines.

In fact, the book is a lament for Eastern European small-town life which was largely destroyed by Communism. For this, Hrabal suffered years of censorship. It was only with the Velvet Revolution that brought Jaroslav Hašek into power that he really came into his own.

I cannot read his books without emotion: As a cultural Hungarian, I find tears forming in my eyes when Hrabal reminds me of my own origins or such things as the worship of Emperor Franz Joseph I (or Ferenc Jozsef, as we called him in Magyar).

In the months to come, I plan to read as much of Hrabal as I can find in English translation. Although I am part Czech, I cannot speak the language.

Neolithic Orkney

The Standing Stones of Stenness

If you are interested in the ancient Britons, I suppose you can go to Stonehenge and sidle up to the fence which keeps you from going anywhere near the ruins, in addition to putting the kibosh on your travel photography. But there are parts of Britain where you can go right up to the stones and even hug them without drawing the ire of the local sheriffs. I am thinking specifically of the Orkney Mainland (actually an island) off the northern tip of Scotland.

Above is a view of the Standing Stones of Stenness, which is within walking distance of the Ring of Brodgar, another stone circle. And not a fence in sight! And no ticket-takers either (at least when I was there).

There are two major points of interest in the chambered cairn at Maes Howe. It was constructed in 2500 BC. About 3,600 years later, Vikings broke in and covered the walls with graffiti in the form of Futharc runes. The graffiti was like today’s graffiti: If you want to be amused, click on this website.

The Passage into the Tomb

I haven’t even mentioned a whole neolithic village uncovered when the sands which protected Skara Brae blew away in a major windstorm, exposing houses, streets, even stone furniture. Check out some of these images.

These are just some of the reasons why the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet it gets relatively few visitors. One could fly to Kirkwall from Aberdeen, with a short stopover in Wick. Or one could take the train (if it still runs) to Thurso, taxi to Scrabster, and take the St. Ola ferry to Stromness.

I don’t guarantee the weather will be terrific: It rarely is in these parts. But I do guarantee you will be amazed at the sights. Also, the capital of Kirkwall has a 12th century Viking Cathedral, St. Magnus, whose first bishops were canonized as saints. In fact, the Orkneys were Viking before they became part of Scotland in 1472, and the culture is a Scottish/Scandinavian mix.

The islands even have a great poet: George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), whom I met in 1976. Read up on him if you’re interested in visiting this fascinating part of Scotland.

Jökulsárlón

A Hypnotic Glacial Lagoon in Southeast Iceland

On both of my trips to Iceland (in 2001 and 2013), I stopped by the glacial lagoon at Jökulárlón to see the strangely-shaped and colored little icebergs. The second time, I even took a boat ride around the lagoon.

The lagoon is a must-see on the road between Höfn and Kirkjubæjarklaustur, neither of which could be correctly pronounced by visiting tourists. It is an outlet to the biggest glacier in Europe, Vatnajókull, which occupies approximately 8% of the total land area of Iceland.

Fanciful Shapes Abound, Like This Duck

Never mind that the sun doesn’t seem to shine much at Jökulárlón, the sight of all those odd ice shapes tinted electric blue catches and holds your attention. All the buses in South Iceland make a point of stopping there for a half hour on their way either east or west.

I even had a taste of glacial ice from our guide, who fractured a pane of ice and passed it around among the tourists. It was delicious, having been frozen for millennia.

Although the Vatnajókull glacier is, like most glaciers, receding, it still occupies a large chunk of real estate. While I was staying at Hófn, I even played around on the glacier’s surface on a Ski-Doo snowmobile.

Atop the Glacier

I have been atop two glaciers in my lifetime, Vatnajókull and the Athabasca Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park. Something tells me that this is an activity that future generations will not be able to enjoy.

The California Recall

The Leading Republican Contender in the Attempt to Unseat Governor Newsom

Tomorrow, we will discover whether our mostly popular governor will be unseated by a Republican shock jock, or manage to hold his seat. If he is unseated, he will be replaced by someone who does not have his vote-drawing ability.

It is not a good sign that Larry Elder is complaining that he will lose as a result of an unfair election … before the votes are even tabulated! I don’t see where that makes any sense; but then, very little that the Republican Party makes any sense at all, unless one obtains power by any means necessary—fair or foul.

Recall elections are one aspect of California politics that I would like to see amended. In the race to unseat Gavin Newsom, there were a total of 46 candidates, none of whom are qualified to govern the most populous state in the Union. The field is in fact so lackluster that it must require very few signatures to qualify.

One candidate, Holly L. Baade (D) describes her contribution as “Leadership for a brighter tomorrow.” Then there is Angelyne (No Party), the Billboard Queen, famous only for advertising herself on billboards for several decades. A Green Party candidate, Dan Kapelovitz, only says, “Can you dig it?” (Answer: No.) Another, Adam Papagan (No Party) says only, “Love U.” (Love not returned.)

No Way, Angelyne!

The politicians we elect to power are by no means perfect. And yes, Gavin Newsom has made some horrible mistakes. Does that mean we have to replace him with someone who is even less qualified, less perfect for the role?

I can only hope that none of the 46 even comes close to unseating Governor Newsom when the ballots are counted.

Cherrapunji

Photo by Manish Jaishree of the Wettest Place on Earth

Here I am, reading about massive rainstorms in India circa 1990 while living iat the edge of a desert—and one in an increasing cycle of drought. I imagine, someone in Cherrapunji, India, might have dreams of living in a dry country in which, for all intents and purposes, there is no rainfall for six months of the year.

For your information, Cherrapunji is considered the wettest place on earth. It holds the record for the most rainfall in a calendar month and in a year: it received 9,300 millimeters (370 inches; 30.5 feet) in July 1861 and 26,461 millimeters (1,041.8 inches; 86.814 feet) between 1 August 1860 and 31 July 1861. in Alexander Frater’s book Chasing the Monsoon, the author talks of a friend of his father experiencing rainfall for several consecutive days in which between 30 and 40 inches of precipitation fell.

I miss rain. In Los Angeles, we only had one day of persistent rain in the last twelve months. There have been numerous instances of what I call a dirty drizzle, in which the windshield of my car is muddy as the result of an insufficient drizzle. To form a raindrop, there must be a bit of dust in every drop. But when not enough rain falls to operate the windshield wiper, then the dust predominates.

California and the American Southwest looks to be one of the big losers in climate change. The Colorado River is drying up, the Sierra snowpack is insufficient to fill the reservoirs the state needs, and horrible wildfires are destroying our forests.

There is not too much one can do about it except wait it out. Climate change has happened before. Up until the 13th century, Greenland was actually a fairly prosperous place, but then a little ice age set in and the colonists appear to have vanished from the pages of history. The town of Garðar was actually a bishopric, but nothing remains of its past glory.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind another “little ice age,” but who knows what will happen in the years to come?

Cholula

It’s Not a Hill: It’s the World’s Largest Pyramid

Where is the world’s largest pyramid located? You’re looking at it, in this photograph of the pyramid at Cholula near Puebla, Mexico. You can walk up to the pyramid, and it just looks like a hill, on top of which the Spanish built the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The base is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Cholula is just a few minutes west of Puebla and is famous for the number of churches in a city of its size. The legend is that there are 365 churches in the city of approximately 100,000, one for each day of the year. Actually, there are about 37, which is quite enough.

As I recall, there are some very claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that cut through the pyramid, which I decided to skip. They were used by archeologists to determine how many layers of pyramid there were on the inside.

The Death of a Bookstore

Sam Johnson’s Bookstore in Mar Vista in Happier Times

This is the story of a bookstore which I frequented for more than forty years before it went belly up two and a half years ago. I started spending time and money there back in the 1970s, when it was located on Santa Monica Boulevard between Colby and Federal. At that point, I was working at Santa Monica and Barry, and the bookstore was on my way to the post office, where I did a daily noontime mail pickup.

Later, the two partners, Bob and Larry, purchased a building on Venice Boulevard near Centinela (see above photo)—and I continued to patronize the store.

But there is something inherently problematical about partnerships. Sooner or later, one of the partners goes off the rails, and their business venture goes to the demnition bow-wows. That’s what happened to Sam Johnson’s. Larry Klein published three books, all of which were excellent, but as he aged, his life took a darker turn. He complained about his health; and he no longer went on strenuous weekend hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains. His worsening health also had an effect on his mind.

The upshot was that his partner Larry Myers somehow received the short end of the stick. And suddenly his milk also soured. When Bob suddenly died, it seems the bookstore was to be put up for sale, with Bob’s estate getting the store. The bookstore had good friends, chief among them David Benesty, who manned the desk when Bob was gone and Larry was beginning to fade away.

Well, Sam Johnson’s is no more, leaving me with nowhere to turn for top condition used books but the Internet. Don’t feel sorry for me: I have some 6,000 books. But the West Los Angeles area is now poorer. And the bookstore is shuttered, with no one taking over the premises. I saw it just the day before yesterday, when I went to Santouka at the Mitsuwa Marketplace for some Japanese ramen soup.

Sam Johnson’s had a formative part to play in my literary tastes. That’s where I became a die-hard fan of the works of G. K. Chesterton,

The Dreamer

Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003)

Here are sixteen poems from Roberto Bolaño’s collection entitled Tres. The poetic fragments have no titles, but they are striking in their variety and suggestiveness.

31. I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only 
human being to contemplate the end was Franz 
Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the 
death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park, 
Kafka was watching the world burn.

32. I dreamt I was dreaming and I came home 
too late. In my bed I found Mário de Sá-Carneiro 
sleeping with my first love. When I uncovered them 
I found they were dead and, biting my lips till they 
bled, I went back to the streets.

33. I dreamt that Anacreon was building his castle 
on the top of a barren hill and then destroying it. 
 
34. I dreamt I was a really old Latin American 
detective. I lived in New York and Mark Twain 
was hiring me to save the life of someone without 
a face. “It’s going to be a damn tough case, Mr. 
Twain,” I told him.

35. I dreamt I was falling in love with Alice Sheldon. 
She didn’t want me. So I tried getting myself killed 
on three continents. Years passed. Finally, when I 
was really old, she appeared on the other end of the 
promenade in New York and with signals (like the 
ones they use on aircraft carriers to help the pilots 
land) she told me she’d always loved me.

36. I dreamt I was 69ing with Anaïs Nin on an 
enormous basaltic flagstone.

37. I dreamt I was fucking Carson McCullers in a 
dim-lit room in the spring of 1981. And we both felt 
irrationally happy.

38. I dreamt I was back at my old high school 
and Alphonse Daudet was my French teacher. 
Something imperceptible made us realize we were 
dreaming. Daudet kept looking out the window 
and smoking Tartarin’s pipe

39. I dreamt I kept sleeping while my classmates 
tried to liberate Robert Desnos from the Terezín 
concentration camp. When I woke a voice was 
telling me to get moving. “Quick, Bolaño, quick, 
there’s no time to lose.” When I got there, all I 
found was an old detective picking through the 
smoking ruins of the attack.

40. I dreamt that a storm of phantom numbers was 
the only thing left of human beings three billion 
years after Earth ceased to exist.

41. I dreamt I was dreaming and in the dream 
tunnels I found Roque Dalton’s dream: the dream 
of the brave ones who died for a fucking chimera.

42. I dreamt I was 18 and saw my best friend at 
the time, who was also 18, making love to Walt 
Whitman. They did it in an armchair, contemplating 
the stormy Civitavecchia sunset.

43. I dreamt I was a prisoner and Boethius was 
my cellmate. “look, Bolaño,” he said, extending 
his hand and his pen in the shadows: 
“they’re not trembling! they’re not 
trembling!” (after a while, 
he added in a calm voice: “but they’ll tremble when 
they recognize that bastard Theodoric.”)

44. I dreamt I was translating the Marquis de Sade 
with axe blows. I’d gone crazy and was living in the 
woods.

45. I dreamt that Pascal was talking about fear with 
crystal clear words at a tavern in Civitavecchia: 
Miracles don’t convert, they condemn, he said.

46. I dreamt I was an old Latin American detective 
and a mysterious Foundation hired me to find the 
death certificates of the Flying Spics. I was traveling 
all around the world: hospitals, battlefields, pulque 
bars, abandoned schools.

Twelve Silents

Scene from Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters

As promised, here are an even dozen great American silent films. Left out are the great comedians—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—mostly because people are pretty familiar with them. Below are films that are mostly dramatic, including one drama that Chaplin directed, but did not star in. The films are arranged by year of release:

  • D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919), probably my favorite among his films
  • Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino
  • Maurice Tourneur’s Lorna Doone (1922), a real diamond in the rough
  • Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), his tribute to the lovely Edna Purviance
  • Victor Sjöström’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chaney Senior, based on a Leonid Andreyev play
  • Josef Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925), the director’s first American film
  • Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), based on the Oscar Wilde play
  • Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), with profanity for proficient lip-readers
  • F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a real masterpiece
  • Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on a Victor Hugo novel
  • Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), with Lillian Gish going mad on the prairies of 19th century America
  • Erich Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928), produced by Joseph P. Kennedy and starring Gloria Swanson

Rudolph Valentino Dancing the Tango in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I think it is worth the effort to see these films if you’re interested in silent films of the period. If you’re not, they very well might make you interested.

NOTE: The 1920s were pretty racist, so I would advise you to remember that our great-grandparents did not hold the same political views that we do.

We Had Faces

Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928)

The title comes from a quote by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), after viewing a silent film that starred her:

Still wonderful, isn’t it? And no dialogue. We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren’t any faces like that anymore. Maybe one—Garbo. Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles. Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? I’ll show them! I’ll be up there again, so help me!

Over the last four days, I have been watching a whole slew of silent films, including both shorts and features, aired by Cinecon from their website at Cinecon.Org.

Originally, I didn’t much care for silent films. They didn’t look sharp on the screen; they were too sentimental; they were too slow; and there were all kinds of problems with the nitrate stock on which they were printed. But I changed my mind, owing primarily to two reasons. First was my friendship with the late John Dorr, who convinced me to give them a second chance. Second was a phenomenal book that came out while I was at UCLA Graduate School, Kevin Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By.

Also, I had the opportunity to see many silent films that were simply phenomenal, and not just fractured flickers. One of them, I just saw a couple of hours ago from Cinecon’s website, Penrod and Sam (1923), directed by William Beaudine for First National Pictures (which morphed into Warner Brothers). It was a gorgeous print, filmed by a director whom I regarded as a nonentity, with no recognizable stars, but so funny withal that my guffaws disturbed Martine, who was napping in the bedroom.

Poster Announcing a Screening of Penrod and Sam

I cannot help but think this film was a major influence on the Our Gang Comedies of the 1930s, which were a major influence on my youth.

Looking back, I think my original feelings about silent films had mostly to do with the hundred or so years that separated me from them. The 1910s and 1920s were a far different time. The population of the country was overwhelmingly white and Protestant. It was, for all intents and purposes, a different America. Now, it no longer bothers me so much viewing these films of a bygone era, one with which I was not altogether in sympathy.

Within a few days, I intend to present a list of the greatest silent films made in the United States, and perhaps follow it up with a similar European list.