Serendipity: “A Mighty, Harmonious Beauty”

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962) in Her Youth

The following is from a chapter entitled “On Mottoes in My Life” from her book Daguerrotypes and Other Essays. I decided to find a picture of Danish Baroness Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) when she was young and beautiful. It is sad that so many great authors are only photographed when they are old, which presents us with an odd and somewhat misleading view of their life. Anyhow, here goes:

An old Chinese mandarin, during the minority of the young Emperor, had been governing the country for him. When the Emperor came of age the old man gave him back the ring which had served as an emblem of his vicariate, and said to his young sovereign:

“In this ring I have had set  an inscription which your dear Majesty may found useful. It is to be read in times of danger, doubt and defeat. It is to be read, as well, in times of conquest, triumph and glory.”

The inscription in the ring read: “This, too, will pass.”

The sentence is not to be taken to mean that, in their passing, tears and laughter, hopes and disappointments disappear into a void. But it tells you that all will be absorbed into a unity. Soon we shall see them as integral parts of the full picture of the man or woman.

Upon the lips of the great poet the passing takes the form of a mighty, harmonious beauty:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer sea-change
into something rich and strange.

We may make use of the words—even when we are speaking about ourselves—without vainglory. Each one among us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.

 

W. H. Auden’s “Good Angel”

Hannay, Lynton; Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923)

Extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the aftermath of World War II, Britain produced a bumper crop of great literary scholars and essayists. I have already written about F. L. Lucas (1894-1967). I am currently exploring the work of W. P. Ker, short for William Paton Ker. It was poet W. H. Auden who, in The Dyer’s Hand, penned this tribute to the Scottish scholar:

[w]hat good angel lured me into Blackwell’s [Oxford Bookstore] one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every age and tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.

I have been reading Volume I Ker’s Collected Essays, which one of the literature librarians at the Los Angeles Central Library entrusted me to take out, though it belongs to the Reference Collection. I read with interest until, suddenly, beginning with Page 109, I hate pay dirt. No doubt the name of Horace Walpole probably doesn’t mean much to most people, unless they suffered through the gothic The Castle of Otranto in college English. Instead, Ker concentrates on Walpole’s letters. Here he describes the country around Chamonix in the Alpes in a letter to his friend Paget Toynbee on September 18, 1739:

But the road, West, the road! winding round a prodigious mountain, and surrounded with others, all shagged with hanging woods, obscured with pines, or lost in clouds. Below, a torrent breaking through cliffs, and tumbling through fragments of rocks! Sheets of cascades forcing their silver speed down channeled precipices, and hastening into the roughened river at the bottom. Now and then and old footbridge, with a broken rail, a leaning cross, a cottage or the ruin of an hermitage. This sounds too bombastic and too romantic to one who has not seen it, too cold for one that has. If I could send you my letter post between two lovely tempests that echoed each other’s wrath, you might have some idea of this noble roaring scene, as you were reading it.

There are almost no collections of literary letters being written now, because there are no letters. There are scads of e-mails, tweets, text messages—few of which will be (or deserve to be) saved. Ker himself explains why such letters are valuable:

There is an interest in reading a series of letters like this which is not found even in personal memoirs. It may be a childish idea, but somehow in reading letters one seems to be nearer to the reality than in reading any other history. The phantoms of the past rise there less pale and shadowy than in common history, they come nearer to us, the colours deepen, the voices are more distinct. Letters like those of Cicero are not a record of the time; they are the life itself, the very accents of the time. He does not write any more to Atticus or to his brother: he writes to us: he tells us how Caesar came to stay with him, how they talked at dinner, how they spoke, Caesar spoke.

I wasted no time in buying Volume I of Horace Walpole’s collected letters (only 99 cents on Kindle). And I will, of course, finish reading Ker’s Collected Essays.

Ker’s Excellent The Dark Ages (1904)

This is not the first work of Ker’s that I have read. I own an old Mentor paperback edition of his The Dark Ages, and I have read portions of his Epic and Romance (1908), which is still available through Dover Publications.

Its Own Culture

The Zia, Symbol of New Mexico

Not too many states can be said to have their own culture. I, for one, couldn’t say anything about the state in which I was born—Ohio—except that it’s mostly featureless with some rolling hills. And as for distinguishing it from Michigan, Indiana, or Pennsylvania, forget about it! Even California doesn’t quite have its own culture: It has several of them coexisting within its 164,000 square miles. But New Mexico is a different story altogether. Its capital, Santa Fe, was settled in 1610 and is the highest state capital in the U.S.

When I used to visit New Mexico in the 1980s (with Chaco Canyon my main destination), I was told by residents never to refer to the Hispanic people as Mexicans, but as Spanish. They claim descent not from the people south of the Rio Grande so much as from the conquistadores who quelled them. Their cuisine resembles Mexican food only in certain dishes, most of their cuisine being unique to the region.

Now, as I prepare for my trip there next month, I am beginning to discover it has its own literature. Both Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima and John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War (and no, I never saw the movie) are set in the northeastern part of the state among the rural Spanish population. I am reading the latter book now, and find it marvelously entertaining, as in this passage about the local sheriff and his wife:

The one real fight Bernabé and Carolina had had in their life together occurred because of the saints. It had been an abnormally dry year (every other year in Milagro was an abnormally dry year, alternating with all those abnormally wet years), and so one day, during the Death of the Fruit ree blossoms time, Carolina carried their San Isidro out into the back field asking it to rain on their cucumbers. Well, sure enough, it raines all right, then the rain turned to snow, and the snow turned into a blizzard, so Carolina ran outside with their Santo Niño de Atocha, begging him to queer the blizzard before the cucumbers and the fruit trees were destroyed, and so the blizzard stopped and it began to rain again and the rain froze and tree branches fell down onto everything, and some cows Bernabé had up in the canyon froze to death. Whereupon suddenly, gnashing his teeth so hard little pieces of porcelain literally spewed from his mouth, the sheriff jumped up and grabbed an armload of her saints and threw them into the holocaust. Carolina shrieked, plunged into the storm, retrieved her precious little statues, and cried for three days.

I have been laughing since I started reading The Milagro Beanfield War and look forward to four more days of guffawing.

My Periodicals

The New York Review of Books (Semi-Monthly)

There are four periodicals to which I subscribe which I actually read. They are, in descending order of importance to me:

  • The New York Review of Books, a semimonthly on politics with book and art reviews.
  • The New Yorker, a weekly that has seen better days, but still publishes at least one or two great essays a month.
  • Gilbert, the monthly publication of the American Chesterton Society.
  • Chess Life, a monthly which I scan and about which I entertain a pipe dream of being able to read with the attention it deserves.

The one that is probably least familiar to most readers is Gilbert. Each issue has a couple of rare essays by G. K. Chesterton and other articles on Catholicism and distributism, Chesterton’s pet economic policy that is described at length in several of his books.

A Recent Issue of Chess Life Featuring U.S. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura

I’ve always had this dream of being able to take the time to analyze grandmaster-level chess games intelligently. It takes intense work, and if in public, one is likely to be interrupted by someone who wants to play chess with you. (I would prefer to avoid playing chess with strangers—too much ego involved!)  I don’t actually want to be able to play chess well as much as I want to develop better analytical skills. At my age, I don’t think I can become a much better chess player than I already am, but it is fun to see the decision-making skills of people like Hikaru Nakamura. It’s actually more of an aesthetic impulse on my part.

I also have a library of books with annotated chess games by the great masters. Whether I will ever be able to spend any time doing this remains to be seen. Some people go for golf or fishing. Fior me, it’s chess.

Unutterably Alien

Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933-2012) Strugatsky, the World’s Greatest Sci-Fi Writers

There is something about these two Russian brothers: They wrote the simply most incredible science fiction novels. I am thinking particularly of Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине), writen in 1972. At some time in the past, parts of Earth were visited by one or more bands of interstellar travelers. They left their mark on the places they have stayed—in strange, unaccountable ways. Nowhere is there a description of the visitors: no one alive has ever seen them. But the laws of matter and energy don’t seem to work there any more.

The novel was turned into a film by fellow Russian Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. The film was called Stalker, and it was one of the greatest films produced anywhere in that decade. The film so influenced Geoff Dyer that he wrote a book in 2012 called Zona about his memories of the movie.

Scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

This is some powerful stuff. Those two brothers had some freaky visions that could so influence so many follow-on works. I am currently reading one of their earlier works, Space Apprentice (Стажеры) (1962). It’s not quite the level of Roadside Picnic, but it is fascinating.

While we’re on the subject of Eastern European sci-fi writers, I thought I’d put in a word for Poland’s Stanisław Lem , author of Eden (1959). In that novel, the earthling explorers go to a strange new world, where they are ignored. The protagonists can make nothing whatsoever of the local inhabitants.

The L.A. Times Book Festival

Hitting the Books on Earth Day

I used to go every year to the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, back when it was held on the nearby UCLA Campus. Then I went to the first festival at USC and decided that they didn’t know how to handle it right. For one thing, they haven’t yet realized that the temperature that far inland is generally ten degrees warmer; and the need for shade correspondingly greater. This year, things were better—but I still wish it moved back to UCLA.

I picked up five books at the festival:

  • Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Reputations, by an up and coming Colombian novelist
  • Joan Didion, South and West: From a Notebook
  • Yukio Mishima, Five Modern Nō Plays
  • Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française
  • Dashiell Hammett, The Big Knockover

Some of the prices were great, others were at the publisher’s suggested price. No matter: I plan to read them all, and will probably enjoy them all.

Fortunately the temperature wasn’t too hot today, and we didn’t make the mistake of driving. It cost us only 35¢ each to take the Expo Line train, which let us off right at the back gate of the festival. Else, I would have had to pay $15.00 and walk several blocks each way.

 

L. A. Writers: Michael Connelly

Why Is It That So Many L. A. Writers Are Mystery Writers?

I read five of his novels before deciding that, yes, Michael Connelly is indeed an L. A. writer. It bothers me that so many of the writers I see as L. A. writers are into the mystery genre. That was true of Raymond Chandler, certainly, and also James Ellroy and Tyler Dilts. If I wanted to, and I may in the future, I could add Joseph Wambaugh and a handful of others.

Perhaps there’s something about Los Angeles itself that brings forth so many fictional investigations into the dark heart of the place. When one things of the noir genre, one could just as easily think of New York or Chicago or Miami or—for heaven’s sake—even my own home town, Cleveland, Ohio. But there is something about Los Angeles that is different. I think I put my finger on it when writing about the film version of The Big Sleep in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style: “Los Angeles adds a horizontal dimension to film noir. In place of the looming monoliths and endless urban alleyways of the Eastern cityscape, there is a physical and moral sprawl, a chain of suburbs full of legal and illegal activities linked by wide boulevards and expressways.”

The Concrete Blonde, which I have just finished reading, is about one (or possibly two?) murderers who prey on porno stars and prostitutes. Connelly’s homicide detective Harry (short for Heironymus) Bosch shoots one killer at the start of the novel, and winds up in a long civil suit for having killed an “innocent man” according to the widow and her attorney. And, when the killings continue, it looks as if Bosch could be in the wrong. While attempting to defend himself, the homicide detective concludes that there is a second killer, whom the LAPD christens “The Follower,” who is responsible for these other killings. Bosch frantically attempts to pin the tail on the right perpetrator.

Unlike Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Tyler Dilts’s Danny Beckett, Harry Bosch comes from a troubled background. In Viet Nam, he blew up Viet Cong tunnels. While he was still young, his mother was murdered. He has had difficulty hanging on to girlfriends, because at a certain point they become frightened of  the “black heart” of Los Angeles that he must fight on a regular basis.

To date, I have read the following Connelly titles, all of which I recommend:

  • The Black Echo (1992)
  • The Black Ice (1993)
  • The Concrete Blonde (1994)
  • Trunk Music (1997)
  • The Lincoln Lawyer (2005)