South for the Summer

Southern Plantation

For someone who is basically unsympathetic to Trump and his followers, I spend a lot of time reading Southern literature, particularly during the summer. Now that the days are getting warmer, I look forward to reading some more William Faulkner, who is by far my favorite 20th century American author. Joining him will be novels by John D. MacDonald (particularly the Travis McGee series), James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels set in Louisiana, Tennessee Williams, and Charles Portis—to name but a few. To that will be added one or more histories of the Civil War.

That also goes for Southern cooking. I love grits and sausage, and tomorrow I will prepare some jambalaya for Martine and me. (It won’t be authentic, as I do not use roux as a base, but it will be recognizable.) In fact, I may share the recipe in a future post.

Tomorrow, I begin reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for perhaps the third or fourth time. I will have at my side several reference books that will help me track down some of the author’s more obscure references. Difficult as the book is, I will enjoy it immensely, just as I did before.

Some day, when travel once again becomes possible, I would love to visit New Orleans—preferably for the two or three days of the year when the weather verges on the tolerable. It would be fun visiting some of the better Cajun restaurants and the sights of a city that has flown so many flags during its history.

 

 

 

A Tribute, Sort Of

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

Sometimes I think that David Foster Wallace was the type of writer I should have decided to dislike. Even though I have not ventured into his fiction masterpiece, Infinite Jest, I find myself so liking his essays and speeches that I am consciously rationing his work as if it were a delicacy that was doomed to disappear. Doomed like its author, who after years of depression and unhappiness hanged himself from one of the rafters of his house at the age of 46.

Just because much of his life was a horror story does not invalidated his brilliance or his humor, even though it could not save him.

I have just finished reading his book of essays entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The title essay runs for about a hundred pages and contains some 137 footnotes which are priceless about 7NC (7 Night Caribbean) passenger cruises and the people who taken them, as well as the people who conduct them. Many of DFW’s pieces are footnoted, though I suspect the magazines in which the essays originally appeared probably excised them with editorial exasperation.

My favorites of the seven essays were about tennis, the films of David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and, of course, the Caribbean cruises. I have also read his later collection, Consider the Lobster, which I also loved.

Over the next several months, god willing, I will tackle his fiction.

 

 

A Christian Sugar Coating

Landscape from Medieval Illuminated Manuscript

This is my first post since I promised to read several Arthurian manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. and report on my conclusions. The main conclusion is that we have been conditioned by later re-tellings of the legend to regard the tales as primarily Christian. That’s because the whole Matter of Britain including Arthur, the Holy Grail, Lancelot, and Camelot have been hijacked—first by Christian monks and then by Victorians such as Howard Pyle.

I am currently reading a work by the 12th century poet and troubadour Chrétien de Troyes entitled Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charette). It contains what might be the earliest mention of Lancelot of the Lake, whose name is not even mentioned until halfway through the work. (Since there are so many unnamed knights in the work, it is difficult at times to follow the action.)

Lancelot Having Sex with Guinevere or Some Unnamed Damsel

In no other early Christian work does one find such unabashed indulgence in sex as one does in some of the earlier Arthurian romances. This seems to me somewhat contrary to Christian mores of the time, though probably not in actual practice. In Chrétien’s telling, several damsels want to give themselves to Lancelot, but he holds back because of his desire to rescue Guinevere from King Bademagu and his nasty son Meleagant, who kidnapped her. After Lancelot’s fight with Maleagant, the married Guinevere readily gives herself to the French knight:

Now Lancelot possesses all he wants, when the Queen voluntarily seeks his company and love, and when he holds her in his arms, and she holds him in hers. Their sport is so agreeable and sweet, as they kiss and fondle each other, that in truth such a marvellous joy comes over them as was never heard or known. But their joy will not be revealed by me, for in a story it has no place.

Lancelot Slaying Enemy Knights

The adulterous love is only one element borrowed from earlier pagan myths. There is something rather suspicious about medieval knighthood. It seems to derive from Celtic and Germanic sources of powerful warriors, but glazed over with a Christian sugar-coating.

 

Arthurian Spring

Perceval Arrives at the Castle of the Fisher King

Although I have always liked the philosophical and historical insights of Joseph Campbell, I have suddenly struck a particularly rich vein while reading his Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth. It is not unusual for me to suddenly change directions based on my reading. In this case, I foresee an Arthurian Spring.

By that I mean not just the Christian interpretation of the so-called “Matter of Britain,” but the nexus between that and a semi-Druidical interpretation allied to primitive, Islamic, and East Asian influences. In my book collection are a number of volumes of the originals in translation which I have either never read or read strictly through the eyes of later monastic sources.

The stories of the Holy Grail, the Knights of the Round Table, the Fisher King, and the Waste Land (including T. S. Eliot’s interpretation as influenced by Jesse L. Weston‘s From Ritual to Romance) are a rich treasure trove with interesting links to global sources. Most of the original works were written during a hundred-year period comprising parts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D.

The Holy Grail of Indiana Jones

When most of us think of Camelot and the Arthurian legends, we think of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur or—worse yet—Howard Pyle’s 1903 re-telling in The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, which was my first introduction. Both are thoroughly influenced by the monastic hijacking of the legend that took place beginning late in the twelfth century.

So I am on my way to an absorbing world that should see me through much of the remaining quarantine and the transition to the worldwide economic depression that will inevitably follow.

Letters: In Search of a Bolt-Hole

Bruce Chatwin Writing

This is the first in a series of posts on literary letters. I have just finished reading Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, edited by Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.

When I started reading Bruce’s work, he was a hero to me. One of the mixed blessings of biography is that you are likely to find out some uncomplimentary facts about your heroes. This is definitely the case with Bruce, who lived an oddly compartmentalized kind of life. He was married, yet carried on numerous affairs with men and women, some of which were predatory. Although I still love his writing, I would feel uncomfortable with the man himself. (For more on this subject, I would refer to two postings by his late friend, Patrick Leigh-Fermor entitled Bruce Chatwin: Letters from a Fallen Angel (or, A Woman Scorned and Bruce Chatwin’s Journey to Mount Athos.

Reading his letters, I find almost half of them deal with Chatwin’s search for a comfortable place to live, where he can read and write—separately from his semi-estranged wife Elizabeth—and carry on affairs. There was no love lost between him and the land of his birth, England. In a letter to Patrick Leigh-Fermor, he writes:

At least I thought that going to England in August might lessen the shock, climatically. But no! Nothing but rain. Freezing cold. I went wind-surfing on a scummy little reservoir near Oxford, and my hands were white and numb after ten minutes. But what I miss the most are the mountains! The country round here is tolerably attractive, immaculately kept: but then you keep running up against the cooling towers of the Didcot [nuclear] power-station; the antennae of Greenham Common; the nuclear installations at Harwell—all of which give me the feelings of claustrophobia.

But then there doesn’t seem to be anyplace that suits. It’s either too hot or too noisy or too crowded with tourists or yadda-yadda-yadda. To his in-laws, he complains:

But I’m afraid this gypsyish life cannot go on. I shall have, whether I like it or not, to get a proper bolt-hole to work in. Otherwise I find I can fritter away six months at a time without achieving anything, and that only makes me very bad-tempered. In a way, I like being in Italy, but the climate’s quite tough in winter, and the villages (because I’m sure it must be in a village) are usually quite depressing. Our old stamping ground in the Basses-Alpes is not half bad. Uzès is another possibility. What it’ll mean, I’m afraid, is that the London flat will have to go. I’m after 3 rooms: one to sleep and work in; one to live in, and a spare room. It’ll have to have a terrace, somewhere to sit out at least; and walks in neighborhood.

Alas, Bruce died without finding his perfect bolt-hole in a land with perfect climate. Every place has its disadvantages, even Los Angeles. Last night, I was jolted awake at 12:03 am by a Richter 3.7 earthquake whose epicenter was only a few miles south of me. And so it goes!

 

 

 

 

Letters

Say Goodbye to One of My Favorite Literary Forms

When was the last time you actually took pen in hand and wrote a letter to someone? I don’t mean an e-mail or a “text.” I rather think that most of the electronic communications will all disappear into some digital hell, and no one will actually write letters. As the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami wrote, “How wonderful it is to be able to write someone a letter! To feel like conveying your thoughts to a person, to sit at your desk and pick up a pen, to put your thoughts into words like this is truly marvelous.”

As I continue to read the collected letters of Bruce Chatwin, I foresee that within a very short time (if not now), no one will write letters. The thought saddens me, as I think back on great letters of the past from such writers as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert, Sir Walter Scott, and countless others. Already in Chatwin, many of the letters are scribbles on postcards, interspersed with a few lengthy think pieces.

Now there are so many more ways to communicate, including telephone, text messaging, e-mail, and more ad infinitum. I can’t for the life of me think of an e-mail I’ve written that was worth saving for any reason except for passing convenience.

People used to save letters because of their sentimental or literary value. Long-distance relationships were conducted in the mails, resulting in bundles of letters that were saved for decades, letters that warmed the soul as the cold of age started to set in. Do I save my text messages? Not for more than a week or two. As for e-mails, I do large-scale erasures every six months or so.

I think I will highlight in future posts some of my favorite letters from authors and poets.

Perpetuum Mobile

Author and World Traveler Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

I have several things in common with the late British writer Bruce Chatwin. He was not in love with the land of his birth: In one letter, he writes, “England is gradually closing in on me again, and the moments of euphoria become rarer and rarer as one gets paler and paler and fatter and fatter and the backbiting conversations grow bitchier and bitchier, and everyone thinks and talks of selling something to somebody else.” To his friend Ivry Freyberg, he writes,“My life at present is the way I like it. Perpetuum mobile.”

In like manner, although I had a happy childhood in Cleveland, I desperately wanted to get away from the place and see the world—this at a time when the family’s finances were unencouraging. I got my four-year scholarship to Dartmouth College and went off to graduate school in California, but it was to be another nine years after graduation in 1966 that I went beyond the borders of the U.S.

Reading the letters of Chatwin (published as Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin), I feel some of the same excitement as when I read his two masterpieces, In Patagonia and The Songlines. I loved reading about Bruce’s travels when he was at his best. At the same time, I am well aware of the flip side of his way of life. As his friend John Kasmin wrote, “Bruce’s biggest problem was where to be. He never knew where to be. It was always somewhere else.”

Even more damning was his wife Elizabeth’s judgment on his travels:

He would wear out people in certain places and then have to move on. Everything was absolute paradise etc for about a month and then things were not quite what he wanted them to be. I discovered after years of this nonsense that the sure-fire way of making Bruce not buy a house was for me to agree.

Part of Chatwin’s wanderlust was his own dual life as a bisexual. The letters show him to be seemingly happily married, yet spending most of his time on the road, enthusing about various places and people.

I, too, would like to be a traveler; but I am content to use Southern California as my base. And I hope not to be tempted by a double life.

 

 

RLS on Vailima

Epitaph of Robert Louis Stevenson at Vailima on Samoa

He wrote his own epitaph for his grave atop a mountain in Samoa, and it is one of the great epitaphs:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

I have become obsessed by the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Pacific, where he busily spent his last days in a frenzy of writing, local politics, and building. I had always liked the work of RLS, but I think in the South Seas he came into his own.

One of the best books I have read over the last twelve months are the Vailima Letters:  Being Correspondence addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin (1895) of the author, named after the estate he built in Samoa, just south of the capital at Apia.

Stevenson’s Estate at Vailima: Early Stages

About a year ago, a friend in Australia recommended two books about Stevenson’s final days in Samoa: Joseph Farrell’s Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa and Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room. I immediately downloaded both books from Amazon Kindle. The Farrell I read last May, and I am now halfway through the Michael Fitzgerald. Both have been excellent reads. Now I will try to read more of RLS’s last novels that he wrote from Vailima.

As I grow older, I find myself drawn more and more to Stevenson. His style is so limpid, and yet his thoughts can be so profound.

 

Reconnecting

French Novelist Marie NDiaye

For one month out of every year, I attempt to read only authors I have not previously read. One of the biggest surprises this month as been French novelist Marie NDiaye, whose novel My Heart Hemmed In [Mon coeur à l’étroit] I have just finished reading. Unlike many postmodern writers, who do not shy away from boring their readers to tears, NDiaye carries out a relentless examination of the life of her heroine, a teacher who, along with her husband, suddenly finds herself roundly hated by most of her acquaintances. Nadia has distanced herself from her ex-husband, her son, and her parents. She has gained weight, and several of the people she meets assume that she is pregnant.

The story begins when her husband Ange returns from the class he has been teaching with a serious stomach wound. A neighbor shows up who is known to everyone she meets as an educator and television personality, but whom she does not know as both she and Ange do not even own a TV, being disconnected from their popular culture. NDiaye follows Nadia closely as she begins to try to reconnect with her past and try to come to terms with the pain she feels. The process is a wonderfully told voyage of self-discovery that transforms her.

I have always felt that the best novels involve a radical transformation of the main character. What NDiaye has done is make this voyage exciting rather than the usual banal. I can see myself reading more of her works in the months to come, most recent of which is La Cheffe, which is on my TBR pile.

 

 

Plague Diary 3: Making Adjustments

Small World Books in Better Days

No one knows how long the current plague restrictions will be in place. I have to assume it will be for several weeks. During that time, I cannot go to the movies or dine at a restaurant or visit a museum. For lunch, I visited Bay Cities Imports, Santa Monica’s primo Italian import grocery, and bought one of their Spaniard sandwiches. Based on a review at the Food GPS site:

The Spaniard isn’t made to order; you’ll find them wrapped in white butcher paper on the deli counter, along with other grab-and-go sandwiches, meaning they may sit for awhile. Still, my experience with The Spaniard still worked out well. The small-ish sandwich was stacked with jamon serrano, coppa seca, honey ham, Pamplona chorizo, Gruyere cheese, oregano, parsley, roasted tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, and rosemary on a chewy baguette. Next time, I’ll probably beg to go back to The Godmother like some kind of guilt-ridden sandwich adulterer, but I enjoyed my brief fling with The Spaniard.

Since I could not eat lunch at the store, I took my lunch with me and drove to Venice, stopping at a parking meter and munching away while a parking enforcement officer kept circling my car seeing if she could ticket me. I waved my sandwich at her by way of greeting.

After I finished, I popped some quarters in the meter and walked to Small World Books. As you can see in the above photo, the bookstore is in the same building as the Sidewalk Cafe. As the bookstore is run by the wife of the cafe owner, it was not altogether surprising that it, too, is closed for the duration.

So I headed home and watched a DVD version of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993), which I loved. I plan to see the other two films in the trilogy—White and Red (both 1994)—within the next few months. After dinner, I read another hundred pages of Jan Neruda’s Prague Tales.