Snorri

Icelandic Writer of Sagas Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)

One of the least-known great writers of the Middle Ages was an Icelander, Snorri Sturluson. When I was in Iceland in 2013, I visited Reykholt, where he was assassinated by thugs hired by Haakon IV, King of Norway. There is a museum on the site dedicated to his life and work.

He is known for having authored the Prose Edda, the Heimskringla (a history of Norwegian kings), and possibly Egils Saga, one of the greatest of the Icelandic family sagas. There are other great Icelandic sagas, but Snorri is the only writer of sagas whose name has come down to us.

There wasn’t much competition in the literature of the time. The Arthurian legends were just getting started with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (ca 1136). Around the same time, little Iceland had a fully developed literature which told the stories of actual families who settled there and how they resolved disputes. Geoffrey’s book about Arthur, on the other hand, was mostly made out of whole cloth and is considered unreliable as history. The Icelandic sagas are mostly about real people.

Below is the pool at Snorri’s house in Reykholt where he was murdered on September 22, 1241:

Life Itself

Billie Holiday in Concert

In this month of reading only works by women authors, I have made an interesting discovery. The only works I have read this month that have the feeling of life itself are Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). 1920s London and Postwar Manhattan come alive in these books in a way that even James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses failed to with all the literary allusions.

Woolf and Hardwick make us feel present in a simple and direct fashion. It is almost as if they were writing their own autobiographies as they lived their lives. Sleepless Nights even reads like an autobiography. For instance, she knew Billie Holiday and writes about her as if she were a close friend:

A genuine nihilism; genuine, look twice. Infatuated glances saying, Beautiful black star, can you love me? The answer: No.

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

She goes on for several pages about the singer, all of them more real and vivid than anything I have read about any performing artist.

In the same way, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) make the reader feel he or she is walking the streets of the London of George V. One does not feel one is in the past: She makes the past feel like the present.

Even Marcel Proust, whose description of the states of mind of his characters is without peer, cannot put the reader on the street running for a trolley and registering the sights and sounds of the city.

I am not sure I have expressed myself properly. I will have to investigate the matter more deeply. Stay tuned.

Glacier Tourism

Spegazzini Glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park (2011)

As the Earth continues to heat up, I can foresee that more and more tourists will try to see fewer and fewer glaciers. Martine and I have been atop Canada’s Athabasca Glacier in Alberta and in Southern Argentina we have visited the Perito Moreno, Spegazzini, and Upsala Glaciers. By myself, I have ridden a Ski-Doo on Iceland’s giant Vatnajökull Glacier. I hope I can rustle up enough cash to go with Martine to visit the most spectacular glaciers in the U.S., all of which are in Alaska.

It is amazing to think that, at one time, glaciers covered much of the lower forty-eight states and most of Canada, as shown in the following map:

It is possible that in the lives of your children, or of your children’s children, the glaciers will no longer be around. Not only that, but parts of the U.S. coast will be under water, particularly Florida. And as the ocean levels continue to rise, I would not be surprised that some of the most beautiful beaches in the world will disappear under water.

I remember my visit to Iceland in 2001. I stayed at a hotel on the edges of Skaftafell National Park. I walked on a trail as close as I could get to Skaftafell Glacier. As I neared the front edge of the glacier, I saw numerous pools of water and heard a groaning sound as the glacier pushed forward millimeter by millimeter. It was an awe-inspiring experience.

See it while you can.

Really Big Bears

The Brown Grizzly Bears at Katmai National Park Dining on Salmon

If you want to see really big bears, probably the best place to see them is at Katmai National Park in Alaska. You’d have to fly in from such bush plane fields as King Salmon and view them at such locations as Brooks Camp, Hallo Bay, Geographic Harbor, Swikshak Lagoon, or Moraine Creek/Funnel Creek.

At a recent “beauty contest” at Katmai, the winner of Fat Bear Week was a 1,400 pound (635 kg) brown bear named (appropriately) 747, after the jumbo jet.

What makes the bears of Katmai particularly large is the ready availability of lots of salmon, which the bears use to bulk up just before going into hibernation.In other parts of Alaska, an adult male typically weighs between 300 to 900 pounds (136-405 kg) , and females weigh between 205 and 455 pounds (93-206 kg).

It’s not cheap to see the big bears of Katmai: There are no regularly scheduled flights. You’d have to fly charter and either camp or stay at an expensive lodge.

I would dearly love to see them. It’s just a question of money—and lots of it!

Mar-a-Lardo in 2024?

The Neverending Election: So Boring Your Ears Will Bleed!

It is now official. Donald J. Trump will run for president in 2024. He plans to bore us into submission with his endless rambling disconnected speeches, complete with antediluvian dance moves and fist pumps. When his announcement to run was made at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, his mostly sympathetic audience was so fatigued that they tried to leave the room—but Trump had ordered the doors to be locked to prevent that from happening.

Isn’t that against the law? What if there were a fire? I would have called the local fire department from the floor of the auditorium. But then I am no friend of the Trumpster Dumpster.

Missing from the audience were Don Junior, who “missed his flight” and Ivanka, who has decided to remove herself from politics and Papa’s bedroom eyes

Compared to his announcement in 2015, when he came down the escalator like a god descending from Heaven, this was a low-energy event. The 2022 midterm elections have hurt the Trump brand, but he refuses to give it credence. Is he going to claim the 2024 election was stolen if he gets only a tiny percent of the vote?

You know, Americans are mighty fickle, and could it be that all the stuff Trump stands for is fast becoming passé? Maybe democracy will ultimately be saved because the 45th President is yesterday’s news.

North to Alaska

Misty Fjords National Monument in Southeast Alaska

On my kitchen table, there is a pile of Lonely Planet guidebooks to various places. Many times, I will page through the books carefully reading about the places to visit, the best places to sleep, and even the best restaurants.

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time daydreaming about Alaska. I have planned several possible itineraries:

  • Southeast Alaska: Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau, Haines, and Skagway.
  • Central Alaska: Anchorage, Mount McKinley (Denali), Fairbanks.
  • Southwest Alaska: Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Kodiak, Katmai National Park and possibly Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.
  • “Bush” Alaska:Nome, Fairbanks, Deadhorse, and Barrow.

All four itineraries would cost much more than my usual vacations, especially as many involve charter flights on float planes, rental cars, and trips using the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. I can probably fly the 6,100 miles (9,900 km) to Argentina for half of what any of the above would cost me.

Why don’t I take a cruise? The thought of being with the same group of strangers for a week or more, leaving the ship only to take “baby steps” trips ashore would drive me off my rocker. I have always entertained some contempt for cruise passengers, referring to them as “boat people” and insisting on communicating with them only in Hungarian. (I have a thing about strangers: I can put up with them on a day trip, but only in small doses.)

If I had the money, I would start by going to the Alaska panhandle first. There would be a lot of rain, but it would be beautiful—and there is all that great fish to eat!

Marlowe Times Three

Raymond Chandler had the good fortune to have three excellent movies adapted from his books. There have been others, too, but they are either rarely seen or not quite up to snuff.

  • The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers 1946), directed by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe
  • Lady in the Lake (MGM 1947), directed by Robert Montgomery and starring the director as Marlowe
  • Murder, My Sweet (RKO 1944), directed by Edward Dmytryk with Dick Powell as Marlowe

The films are listed in order from my most favorite to my least favorite—though I like all three very much and have seen all of them multiple times.I consider The Big Sleep as one of the 10 best American films ever made.

Lady in the Lake was a tour de force all filmed by Robert Montgomery from the point of view of Philip Marlowe. The only times we see Marlowe are at the beginning and end of the film and when Marlowe looks in the mirror. It was a chancy experiment, but it succeeded largely because of the great acting job put in by Audrey Totter.

I just saw Murder, My Sweet again for the nth time this afternoon on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The film was based on Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. It came at a key point in Dick Powell’s acting career: Hitherto, he had been a singer and dancer. With this film, he showed he could be as hard-boiled as anyone in Hollywood.

Raymond Chandler’s novels and stories are among my favorite works of mystery fiction. I have read them all, several of them multiple times. And I will continue to re-view these three films again and again.

The Medicine of Bow-Returning

An Excerpt from a Short Story by Mary Austin

Some of the best books about the American West were written by Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934). In the last year of her life, she published a collection of short stories entitled One-Smoke Stories, in which the following appears:

So Taku-Wakin, who was afterward called Bow-Returning, went toward the mountain called Going-to-the-Sun for his fast, and as he went he felt the thoughts of his mother push him. He went far, climbed the high mountains and bathed in the sacred lakes, keeping holy science. On the mountain, when by fasting he was removed from himself, his eyes were opened. He saw all the earth and the sky as One Thing, even as the bow is one thing and the cord of the bow which draws it. Even so he saw the thoughts of men pulling at the corners of the world as the cord pulls at the bow, and the bow bending and returning. In the silence he heard in his heart the One-Who-Walks-in-the-Sky talking.

‘This is true medicine, Taku-Wakin. All things are one, man and the mire, the small grass and the mountain, the deer and the hunter pursuing, the thing that is made and the maker, even as the bow and the cord are one thing. As the bow bends to the cord, so all things bend and return, and are opposed and together. The meaning of the medicine is that man can hurt nothing without also hurting himself.’ Thus said the One-Who-Walks-in-the-Sky to Taku-Wakin….

After long seeking he heard the voice of the Sky-Walker. Then said Bow-Returning: ‘This is my medicine, that everything is One Thing, and in this fashion I have kept it. Meat I have taken for my needs according to the law of food-taking, but I have hurt no man. Neither the flower in the field have I crushed, nor trodden on the ant in my pathway. How is it, then, that my wife is dead, my son given to another, and my medicine is gone from me?’

Then said the One-Who-Walks-in-the-Sky to Bow-Returning, ‘Did I not also make woman?’

Journey to the East

Indian Holy Man

In many ways, most of my life has been a “Journey to the East.” I was raised as a Roman Catholic, going to Catholic schools from the 2nd through the 12th grades. Even at Dartmouth College, I was a worshiper at the Newman Club. In fact, when I fell into a coma in September 1966, it was Father William Nolan, the Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth, who urged the school’s medical insurance program to keep covering me, even though my coverage had officially lapsed at the beginning of the month. So my family and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church.

One does not undergo a massive physical trauma without affecting the way one thinks and believes. That September, I was getting ready to take the train to Los Angeles to start graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. I had to delay my film classes until the winter quarter to allow me to recuperate.

What was the first book I read when I arrived in Los Angeles? It was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, closely followed by Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh Zen Bones. I had begun my own Journey to the East, mostly in my reading.

Why did I never fly to Asia to experience Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism directly? Strangely—especially for someone who was visited so much of Latin America—I was afraid that I wouldn’t survive the experience. Among my fellow Clevelanders who attended Dartmouth College was a student by the name of Noel Yurch. I was shocked to find out from the alumni magazine after I had graduated from college that he had gone to India and died of some gastrointestinal disease.

Curiously, my niece Hilary went to India and studied Yoga at an ashram without suffering any major adverse effects. Today, she is a yoga instructor in the Seattle area. But I was convinced it would be fatal for me. Was it nothing but funk? Perhaps.

Today, I still read many books about the Eastern religions. I consider myself to be a strange combination of Catholic, Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist. Although I do not go to church on Sundays, I do not consider myself to be an Atheist or even an Agnostic. And when I visit Mexico or South America, I spend hours visiting Catholic churches and even attending Mass. But I no longer buy the whole package.

So in my so-called Journey to the East, I still have one foot in the Catholic Church, or at least one or two toes.

“Wind, Water, Stone”

Mexican Poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

As I grow older, I am drawn more and more toward poetry as the most profound literary medium. There is something utterly simple about “Wind, Water, Stone” by Mexican Nobel-Prize winning poet Octavio Paz, yet that simplicity is merely a pathway to wide vistas that keep drawing one in.

Wind, Water, Stone

For Roger Caillois

Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,
stone's a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.