An Impassioned Plea for Freedom

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky could hardly believe his eyes. He had spent four years in a Siberian prison camp and six years in the Russian military in Siberia. His first published works after returning to St. Petersburg were comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Now he wrote two short pieces for publication about his experience in the camp. The first was approved by the Tsarist censors; the second, rejected—because it was thought that Dostoyevsky was saying that life in the Gulags was actually quite appealing.

That could not be allowed to stand. Dostoyevsky immediately penned a supplement to that piece, which included the following:

What is bread? They [the convicts] eat bread to live, but they have no life! The genuine, the real, the most important is lacking, and the convict knows he will never have it; or he will have it, if you like, but when? … It’s as if the promise is made only as a joke.

Try an experiment and build a palace. Fit it out with marble, pictures, gold, birds of paradise, hanging gardens, all sorts of things…. And step inside. Well, it may be that you would never wish to leave. Perhaps, in actual fact, you would never leave. Everything is there! “Let well enough alone!” But suddenly—a trifle! Your castle is surrounded by walls, and you are told: “Everything is yours! Enjoy yourself! Only, don’t take a step outside!” And believe me, in that instant you will wish to quit your paradise and step over the wall. Even more! All this luxury, all this plenitude, will only sharpen your suffering. You will even feel insulted as a result of all this luxury…. Yes, only one thing is missing: a bit of liberty! a bit of liberty and a bit of freedom!

This impassioned plea is perhaps the germ of Dostoyevsky’s great works which were to follow: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

The Book Collectors

Antiquarian Book Shows Are Not for Everybody

Antiquarian Book Shows Are Not for Everybody

Today, I went to an antiquarian book show. I used to go to them in years past and succeeded in making a number of finds; but now I find the market has priced itself into the stratosphere. There were beautiful centuries-old leatherbound books, immaculate Faulkners and Steinbecks with perfect dust jackets, and prices ranging into the thousands of dollars.

If I owned a Bugatti or Talbot Lago, I would probably not drive it around town lest some uninsured drunken sot would T-bone it. Likewise, if I spent thousands of dollars for first editions, I would not pull the books off the shelf, read them, and underline the significant passages in ball point ink.

There are half a dozen books I have purchased because they looked really good, usually consisting of titles which I already owned in reading copies. I own a signed G. K. Chesterton, for example, that I would never profane by reading. I have some friends who would never read a paperback book, or who pooh-pooh ever reading an e-book. I am not so fastidious. The only time I would bypass an e-book is if I were reading nonfiction that contained useful maps, illustrations, bibliographies, and indexes. I would probably prefer to read Dickens with the Cruickshank illustrations, or Lewis Carroll with the Tenniel illustrations.

By and large, I am a consumer of books. Many of my best titles are ratty, old, and with damaged spines. Some (shudder!) have been underlined by previous owners. Some are sturdy ex-library editions bound in buckram.

I own a few books that would interest an antiquarian book collector, but generally, they wouldn’t waste their time with me.


The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

Stoner (1965) by John Williams

The title of this post comes from Tim Kreider, who used it in a New Yorker article on October 20, 2013.  The book begins slowly:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library.

On the face of it, the novel, Stoner, by John Williams (1922-1994), does not appear to be promising. And yet, to my mind, it is one of the best American novels written after World War II.

Williams gives us a story of a life in academia, where the politics are particularly awful. I myself had wanted to become a professor of film history and criticism, but was so disgusted by the infighting at the Theater Arts Department of UCLA that I fled to the corporate world and concentrated instead on computers.

William Stoner marries a young woman who catches his attention at a party. It does not take more than a month before he discovers that his marriage is a failure. He and his wife Edith have a daughter named Grace, toward whom Edith acts strangely and inconsistently over the years, leading to Grace getting pregnant and moving away from home.

Author John Williams

Author John Williams

The English department at Stoner’s University of Missouri is headed by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes chairman and begins a career-long feud with Stoner after he flunks one of Lomax’s protegées.

In his forties, Professor Stoner enters an affair with a beautiful young colleague, but is pressured by Lomax to either stop it or resign his post.

In the end, Stoner develops cancer and dies.

So what’s the big deal? Several things. First of all, the book is shockingly true to life. Stoner falls into his profession because, originally enrolled as an agriculture major, he falls in love with English literature. Again and again, he lurches from one decision to the next with a shrug, almost, and finds enjoyment where he can—even when there is no consolation from his work or home life. Even as he dies from a cancer that has metastasized throughout his system, he evinces not a moment of fear, but yields to the necessities of his disintegrating body.

Williams’s style is a thing of beauty. As Krieder wrote in his 2003 article:

[Stoner’s] ambition is evident in the apparent humility of its subject: like Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, it’s to be nothing more or less than the story of a life. And there is something in even those first paragraphs, an un-show-off-y assurance in the prose, like the soft opening notes of a virtuoso or the first casual gestures of a master artist, that tells us we are in the presence not just of a great writer but of something more—someone who knows life, who maybe even understands it. It’s the same thing I sense in reading James Salter: the presence of wisdom. And wisdom is, of course, perennially out of style.

Especially among postwar writers, there is a tendency to tart things up so that the work coruscates with some special grace irrespective of its appropriateness to the subject. Williams comes at you straight and tells you what this man’s life is like.

Williams wrote only three other novels other than Stoner:

  • Nothing But the Night (1948), which is out of print
  • Butcher’s Crossing (1960), a Western, and …
  • Augustus (1972), an epistolary novel about the Roman Emperor Augustus

The latter two are available from New York Review, as is Stoner.

Not So Uncivilized

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Mseum

Carved Door at Reykjavík’s National Museum

“From the fury of the Norsemen, Oh Lord deliver us!” This was the cry of Western European churchmen in the 8th through 10th centuries as the Vikings raided coastal areas throughout Europe, seemingly killing and plundering at will. By the time any effective resistance was formed, the marauders had sailed away in their ships.

What many historians neglect to say is that these same marauders were every bid as advanced culturally as their victims. The main difference was that, until around AD 1000, the Scandinavian peoples were still pagans worshiping Thor, Odin, and Freya. By the time they themselves were Christianized, they left us a literature that was in no way inferior to that of the English and French.

The Icelandic sagas were written down in the 13th century, but they celebrated the deeds of their pagan ancestors (with a few Christian touches). In fact, I believe that no one could understand the period until they read the following five sagas: Njals Saga, Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, and Grettir’s Saga. (The first two sagas listed have entire museums dedicated to them in Hvolsvöllur and Borgarnes respectively.)

If you visit the National Museum or the Culture House in Reykjavík, you will see the work of a people who do not deserve to be thought of as barbarians.


My Best of 2016

Heavily Weighted Toward 20th Century Fiction

Heavily Weighted Toward 20th Century Fiction

Below is a list of the ten best works of fiction (or near-fiction) that I read in 2016. No re-reads were included, which is probably why the twentieth century is over-represented. Three of the works (the first three listed below) purport to be straight non-fiction, but include fictional elements. They are listed below in alphabetical order by last name of the author:

  • Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Powerful stuff. Her concept of literature as interviews works really well because she’s great at getting people to open up.
  • Babitz, Eve. Eve’s Hollywood. Mostly autobiographical essay by the “It Girl” of the 1960s, with some fictional interpolations.
  • Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life. What it really means to lose someone you love.
  • Cohen, Albert. Belle de Seigneur. A thousand-page novel about illicit love in early 20th century France.
  • Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Probably a more realistic re-telling of the whole Bridge on the River Kwai story by a great Australian writer.
  • Modiano, Patrick. In the Café of Lost Youth. I am liking this French novelist more and more all the time.
  • Saer, Juan José. The Clouds. A tale of madness in Argentina in the 1800s.
  • Simenon, George. The Clockmaker. One of the mystery writer’s romans dur, about a father and his delinquent son.
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis and Lloyd Osbourne. The Ebb-Tide. Recommended by Jorge Luis Borges in one of his interviews, one of RLS’s best.
  • Wells, H G. Tono Bungay. A classical 19th century Victorian novel, decidedly not sci-fi.

The funny thing about this list is its variety. Is it because I’ve read most of the classical fiction repertoire already?

In 2017, I’m continuing my long-range project of reading most of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s work along with Joseph Frank’s five volume biography. And, of course, I’m still casting my nets wide to find the best of world literature.



L. A. Writers: Ry Cooder (?!)

Master of the Slide Guitar and ... Writer?

Master of the Slide Guitar and … Noir Writer?

So you think I’m kidding, do you? You think I don’t know that Ry Cooder is a musician? Aha, but in 2011 that same Ry Cooder wrote a book of short stories published by City Lights, entitled Los Angeles Stories. These stories, set between 1940 and the 1950s, are not only great L. A. Noir, but they sing with their own unique brand of chicken skin music. John Lee Hooker puts in an appearance, as does Charlie Parker. And the stories are rife with musical references:

Four Chinese girls were sitting at the corner table laughing and drinking. They were all excited about the dance hall where they’d been and the swing band they saw and the musicians they liked. I knew the place, the Zenda Ballroom, on Seventh and Figueroa. Tetsu Bessho and his Nisei Serenaders played there every Monday night. Jimmy Araki, the sax player, he was sharp. Joe Sakai was cute. The girls spoke English with a lot of hip slang, like musicians use, and as far as I could tell they were no different from any other American girls, except they were Chinese.

In fact, Cooder has a real ear for the race and ethnicity of his characters, from black musicians to Mexican Pachucos to white trailer trash to Chinese cooks.

Born in Santa Monica, he also has a great sense of place. We see Chavez Ravine before Dodger Stadium was built, the old Bunker Hill neighborhood, Playa Del Rey, Venice, and even Santa Monica.

Los Angeles Stories consists of eight tales, one better than the other. Insofar as I know, this is the only fiction he ever wrote; but I hope it is not the last. He has a great turn of phrase, as in “I am happy to have a little luck once and [sic] a while…. Too much, and fate pays a call. La Visita, my grandmother called it.”

There’s even nifty song lyrics:

Too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
Yes, too many Johnnys, ’bout to drive me out of my mind
It have wrecked my life an’ ruint my happy home

When I first got in town, I was walkin’ down Central Avenue
I heard people talkin’ about the Club Rendezvous
I decided to drop in there that night, and when I got there
I said yes, people, man they was really havin’ a ball, yes I know!

I might cut you, I might shoot you, I jus’ don’ know
Yes, Johnny, I might cut you, I might shoot you, but I jus’ don’ know
Gonna break up this signifyin’,
’Cause somebody got to bottle up and go

I know that they gave the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. In my humble opinion, Ry Cooder is even a better writer. Believe it!


Leaving Tabasco

Flooding in the Streets of Villahermosa

Flooding in the Streets of Villahermosa

To begin with, you can forget the vinegary hot sauce from McIlhenny Company. I’m talking about the State of Tabasco in Southeastern Mexico. I have had four encounters with this state, two by visiting its inappropriately named capital of Villahermosa in 1979 and sometime in the 1980s, and two from literature.

Tabasco first entered my thoughts when reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory back in High School, and subsequently reading the same author’s book about his travels there in The Lawless Roads. From around 1920 to 1935, Tomás Garrido Canabal was virtual dictator of the State of Tabasco. A devout anti-Catholic, he persecuted the church and executed many priests and religious. So Greene went there and investigated for himself, writing his two books. (The Power and the Glory was later made into a film called The Fugitive, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda.)

My first visit to Tabasco was in 1979 with my brother. We planned to overnight in Villahermosa before visiting the Mayan reuins at Palenque in nearby Chiapas. We were stunned to find that Pemex, the Mexican petroleum monopoly, was block-booking all the hotels for its employees and suppliers, leaving us nothing but the down-at-heels Casa de Hospedaje Mary (which my brother christened the “Casa de Hopes-You-Die Mary”), where we were awakened every 15 minutes from our damp and fitful sleep by roosters crowing on the roof and church bells tolling the quarter hour. That was after a dreadful meal of shrimp coated with tar and two hours spent looking for a bus terminal that wasn’t where the guidebook said it was.

Olmec Head at Parque La Venta

Olmec Head at Parque La Venta

The second visit was by myself several years later. I visited the giant Olmec heads at the Parque-Museo de la Venta, taking advantage of a long plane delay flying between Mérida, Yucatán, and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. I was smart enough not to try to spend the night in Villahermosa, which struck me as a jungle shit-pit which was at the confluence of Mexico’s two largest (and oft-flooded rivers), the Grijalva and the Usumacinta.

Finally, I just finished reading a novel called Leaving Tabasco by the talented Carmen Boullosa. Here was an authentic voice from rural Tabasco who uses magical realism to signal her disillusionment with her character Delmira Ulloa’s childhood in the village of Agustini.

Carmen Boullosa

Carmen Boullosa

Safely ensconced in Europe, Delmira muses about her origins:

For three decades I didn’t sleep in a hammock, I saw no strange objects floating in water. No albino crocodile popped into my room, no army of Indians came by sucking voluptuously on juicy insects, no legion of toads exploded against my balcony, there were no imposing witches hawking fake merchandise, no rainstorms purchased for cash. I’ve spent six times five years here without hearing once the nightly tale of my grandmother. I came here in search of a world that obeyed the laws of physics; it is now all around me, but I can’t say I’ve come to terms with it.

Leaving Tabasco ends with a lot of questions, but no answers. That’s all right with me, because I don’t believe too much in answers—and I have a lot of questions of my own. One thing for sure: After reading Boullosa, I want to read more by her … and maybe … just maybe … I’d like to give Tabasco another chance.