A Fragmented Life

Our Lives Are Not Quite an Uninterrupted Triumphal March

I have just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography, which she wrote in 1928. Actually, it is not the biography of a real character, but of a highly fictional one. Not only does Orlando live for upwards of 400 years, but the character physically changes gender at some point in the early 18th century. And he/she manages the change swimmingly.

As Woolf wrote about her Orlando:

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.

Tilda Swinton as the Male Orlando in the 1992 Sally Potter Film

There was an excellent film version of Orlando released in 1992, with Tilda Swinton playing both the male and female lead.

Both the book and the film set me to thinking of my own fragmented life, which included the following scenes:

  • The 5-year-old sent home from kindergarten for not being able to speak in English (my native language is Hungarian).
  • The teenager who has turned sickly with punishing frontal headaches.
  • The high school valedictorian who has won a four-year scholarship to an Ivy League college.
  • The college graduate, within days of leaving for graduate study at UCLA, goes into a coma and subsequent brain surgery. My pituitary gland was destroyed by a tumor that was causing the headaches and making me, at 21, look like an 11-year old.
  • The young man in his 20s who feels as if he were from Mars, looks absurdly young, and can’t get girls interested in him.
  • The same young man in a few years learning that alienation is part of the human condition.
  • In his 40s, he finds love with a cute woman born in France, who doesn’t mind that he can’t father a child.

… and so on.

Tilda Swinton as the Female Orlando from the Film

I guess I managed all those years without once having to change my gender. Of course, there is little chance that I will reach the ripe old age of 400.

The Death of Boris Vian

Writer and Jazz Musician Boris Vian (1920-1959)

This is a reprint of a blog I posted on October 1, 2018—with some minor changes. Vian was not only a member of the Oulipo literary movement, but he was a renowned jazz musician.

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and sci-fi writer A. E. Van Vogt). In addition, he was a friend to the existentialist writers of the 1950s.

I have just finished [in 2018] reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Boris Vian at the Trumpet

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves [not to be confused with the various rape revenge films released under the name of I Spit on Your Grave without the “s”]. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and music.

The Swamp of Evil

Swamps in Our Culture Are Places of Evil

One of the grisliest places I ever visited was the Mexican State of Tabasco, where storms upriver caused floods in Villahermosa. From the banks of the Grijalva, my brother and I saw the carcasses of cows and other livestock come floating past in the fast-flowing muddy waters. The humidity easily stood at 100%, if not more.

We have our swampy regions in the States as well. Take Louisiana, for instance, where the Atchafalaya Basin could become the new course of the Mississippi, if it jumps the Army Corps of Engineers dams to the north.

James Lee Burke, Author of the David Robicheaux Novels

I have just finished reading James Lee Burke’s Sunset Limited, in which David Robicheaux of the New Iberia Police confronts evils that are scarcely to be imagined, let alone experienced.

Years ago, a labor leader named Frank Flynn was murdered by being crucified upside-down with a nail gun on the side of an old barn. His children Cisco and Megan are back in the Bayou Teche area, along with some of the nastiest contract killers ever portrayed in literature. But then, as Dave reminds us, “Evil doesn’t have a zip code.”

The gnarliest of them, one Harpo Scruggs, also has a wicked sense of humor:

“You got a lot of brass,” I said to him.

“Not really. Since I don’t think your bunch [the police] could drink piss out of a boot with the instructions printed on the heel,” [Harpo] replied. He unscrewed the cork in the mescal bottle with a squeak and tipped another shot into his glass.

One thing that characterizes a Dave Robicheaux novel is the tendency of its hero, along with his friend Clete Purcel, a former New Orleans police officer, to confront evil head on, with intensity and frequency.

To date, I have read over ten of Burke’s Robicheaux novels with their brooding atmosphere of Cajun eeriness—and I intend to keep going.

The Philosophers

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Just as the Second World War was ending, there was a philosophical renaissance of sorts that was born in the streets and cafés of Paris. Most associated with it are Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir. Best known for her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir had written a novel about the French existentialists in 1954 called The Mandarins.

It is a classical roman à clef, in which real people appear under fictional names:

  • Jean-Paul Sartre becomes Robert Dubreuilh
  • Simone de Beauvoir becomes Anne Dubreuilh, Robert’s wife (In real life, Sartre and de Beauvoir were an unmarried couple for over fifty years)
  • Albert Camus becomes Henri Perron
  • American novelist Nelson Algren becomes Lewis Brogan

The book’s characters are deeply involved in leftist political issues without subjecting themselves to control by the Russian Politburo. Yet they find that it was easier to blow up trains and otherwise sabotage the Nazi war machine than to find a path through the messy politics of the Fourth Republic in France, particularly during the postwar political rise of Charles De Gaulle.

The Camus/Perron character struck home with me, because he is the most disaffected of the group after the war ends. As he gets pushed more and more by his friends into the messy politics of the French Republic, he becomes increasingly dispirited. This reflects his relationships with his women and his male friends.

Curiously, although Simone de Beauvoir never married and never had children, she is both married and with a troublesome daughter (Nadine) in The Mandarins. Her relationship with Sartre/Debreuilh is an open marriage, and she carries on a long affair with an American novelist, Nelson Algren/Lewis Brogan, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Mandarins is one of the best books I have read all year. I rather suspect that I will revisit the French existentialists in my reading during the months to come. Also, I have concluded that de Beauvoir is a badly underrated author considering her importance in a major twentieth century philosophical movement.

The Halloween 2020 Book List

A Canadian Adaptation of LeFanu’s Carmilla (2017)

Every October, I usually read several novels and short stories in the horror genre. I do not care that much for the current stuff, like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. My preference is for the classics, and those tend to be concentrated in the late 19th century.

The books I read this month were:

  • Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales
  • Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which included the short novels Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant
  • Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, a new collection edited by Aaron Worthy

Shirley Jackson is most famous for her short story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote such novels as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) was an Irish author who wrote some classic tales of horror, especially Carmilla, a tale of a lesbian vampire who predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some twenty years. In 1960, it was made into a film by Roger Vadim entitled Blood and Roses (in France: Et mourir de plaisir). At the time I attended college, it was the most popular film showed by the Dartmouth Film Society.

Welsh Horror Tale Author Arthur Machen

Finally, there was a delightful collection of novellas and tales by Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Most of Machen’s best work was composed up to the late 1920s and included the classic The Great God Pan (1894), which tells of what happened when a young woman who, upon being exposed to the Greek god Pan, created a trail of destruction that spanned several continents.

Women Walking Away

They Walk Away From Me, So To Hell With ’Em

Today I stopped in at Barnes & Noble at The Grove (adjacent to the original L.A. Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax). I never cease to be amazed at the lack of variety in the cover designs of paperbacks meant for the women’s market. Here are the basic elements:

  • Women walking away with their faces infrequently shown
  • Extra points for wearing fashions of bygone days
  • Or: Back mostly bare

The above photograph shows a montage of women’s titles circa 2013. Now, seven years later, it’s still the same.

This monotony does perform a useful function for me: With rare exceptions, I wouldn’t select one of those “women walking away” books. I would expect to find that their contents are mostly what I call excessively “relationshippy,” and mostly from a parochial feminine perspective.

No offense meant, but most fiction targeted primarily at female readers is not my cup of tea.

One exception:

Omigosh! Four Women Walking Away—and One Guy!

Elena Ferranate’s My Brilliant Friend was an excellent novel about a girlhood in Naples, Italy. Eventually, I’ll tackle the sequels in the trilogy.

The God Abandons Antony

Marc Antony on Cleopatra’s Barge

It was in the first century AD that Plutarch first mentioned the tale that, as he was to face ultimate defeat from both Octavian (later Augustus) and his love Cleopatra, that he was visited by a strange vision:

During this night, it is said, about the middle thereof, while the city was quiet and depressed through fear and expectation of the future, all at once certain harmonious sounds from all kinds of instruments were heard, and shouts of a crowd with Evoes and satyric leapings, as if some company of revellers not without noise were going out of the city; and the course of the procession seemed to be through the middle of the city to the gate leading outwards in the direction of the enemy, and at this point the tumult made its way out, being loudest there. And those who reflected on the sign were of opinion that the god to whom Antonius all along most likened himself and most claimed kinship with was deserting him.

In his play Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare makes mention of this vision in Act IV, Scene 3.

But it was the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, a citizen of Alexandria, who wrote one of his greatest poems on the subject:

Constantine P. Cavafy

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

The poem is mentioned in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine and even printed there, but in Durrell’s translation. I have chosen instead to include the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Alexandria on the Pacific

The Port of Alexandria As It Is Today

Every once in a while, I re-read a book that has meant a lot to me in the past, in the hopes of somehow rediscovering myself as I was when I first encountered it. Around 1967-1968, I first delved into Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first volume of his Alexandria Quartet.

I had just reached the age of puberty in my early twenties thanks to regular injections of depo-testosterone. In September 1966, I had a pituitary tumor (chromophobe adenoma) removed by slicing through my forehead and hinging my brain upward. As a result, I was a strange sort of late-blooming virgin who was mightily puzzled by and preoccupied with sex.

The Edition I Read

Imagine me as I lie in the sand on Santa Monica Beach by lifeguard station 12 reading the following:

Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them. The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would never mistake it for a happy place. The symbolic lovers of the free Hellenic world are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body—for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying—I think he was quoting—that Alexandria was the great winepress of love, those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets—I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.

So there I was on the hot sands of Santa Monica, surrounded by women in bikinis, indulged in morose delectation.

Actually, Justine is pretty good, though it is quite arch at times. I am no longer the same unhappy young man on the beach. I read all four volumes of the Alexandria Quartet that one summer, and I loved it—however disturbing I found it.

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.

A Villa on Capri

Italian Writer Curzio Malaparte’s Villa on Capri

This is the story of a coincidence that I didn’t realize at the time (in the 1960s), but that I learned about much later as I became more well read. I will start with the film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (in French Le Mépris) filmed in 1963. Based on a 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia, known in the English world as either Contempt or A Ghost at Noon, the Godard film tells the tale of a marriage between a writer named Paul Javal (played by Michel Piccoli) whose marriage to his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) falls apart as Camille is used as bait an American film producer named Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The second half of the film was shot at a beautiful villa in Capri (shown above).

In the late 1960s, I thought the film one of the greatest ever made, largely because I was so impressed by the nude body of Brigitte Bardot. Now, I no longer think of it even as Godard’s best film. For that, I would now select either Alphaville or Pierrot le Fou, both made in 1965.

Brigitte Bardot Sunbathing on the Roof of Malaparte’s Villa in Contempt

Only much later did I learn that the villa featured in Contempt was actually the villa of a great—albeit twisted—Italian writer who called himself Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957). Born Curt Erich Suckert of a German father and an Italian mother, he chose the pen name Malaparte because it was the opposite of Napoleon’s family name: Malaparte means “bad side,” whereas Buonaparte means “good side.” And he tried in his works to live up to his pen name. If you are interested in acquainting yourself with his works, I suggest you read Kaputt (1944) about the German Eastern Front and The Skin (1949) about the American invaders of Italy in Naples.

Curzio Malaparte

Oh, and I still think you should see Godard’s Contempt. Even after all these years, Bardot’s derrière is still capable of inspiring lofty thoughts.