From Point A to Point B

UPS Freight Jets

There is a growing branch of literature which consists of nonfiction. How is that possible? The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus for her work, which consists primarily of interviews of people affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl or the Soviet War in Afghanistan. As for Americans, we have John McPhee, who has written a series of nonfiction works of high literary quality.

I have just finished reading his Uncommon Carriers, which deals, in turn, with long-haul truckers; a place in France where ships’ pilots are trained; boats that tow barges on American rivers; the parcel sorting services of UPS; and mile-and-a-half-long coal trains. In between, there is a delightful essay by the author about retracing the route of Henry David Thoreau and his brother John described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—which I had read when it was first published in the New Yorker.

McPhee likes to take what looks like a boring subject that nobody would write about and turn it into a gem. For instance, there is that tetralogy he wrote about American geology beginning with Basin and Range and ending with Assembling California. One would think that McPhee’s books might be a tad boring, but they never are.

To date, I have read—in the order of publication—the following ten McPhee titles:

  • The Crofter and the Laird
  • Pieces of the Frame
  • Giving Good Weight
  • Basin and Range
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • La Place de la Concorde Suisse
  • Rising from the Plains
  • The Control of Nature
  • Looking for a Ship
  • Uncommon Carriers

There’s not a single boring read in the bunch. Each McPhee I read whets my appetite for more.

L.A. Writers: Raymond Chandler

The Creator of Philip Marlowe

When I started writing this series of posts, I should have started it off with Raymond Chandler. He is, in so many ways, the quintessential L.A. writer. I did not because I mistakenly thought he was British. Look at that picture: Those eyeglasses, that pose—they partake of this prototypical English gentleman. In fact, Chandler was born in Chicago of an American father and an Irish mother. Although he spent many years in Britain, and even at one point became a naturalized British citizen, his writing career was pure Los Angeles.

I have just finished re-reading his fifth novel, The Little Sister (1949), and kept running into passages that screamed L.A. to me. When told he was in love with the beautiful actress Mavis Weld, Chandler replies:

That would be kind of silly. I could sit in the dark with her and hold hands, but for how long? In a little while she will drift off into a haze of glamour and expensive clothes and froth and unreality and muted sex. She won’t be a real person any more. Just a voice from a sound track, a face on a screen. I’d want more than that.

One of Chandler’s LAPD homicide detectives delivers this thoughtful description of the life of a cop in the city:

It’s like this with us, baby. We’re coppers and everybody hates our guts. And as if we didn’t have enough trouble, we have to have you. As if we didn’t get pushed around enough by the guys in the corner offices, the City Hall gang, the day chief, the night chief, the Chamber of Commerce, His Honor the Mayor in his paneled office four times as big as the three lousy rooms the whole homicide staff has to work out of. As if we didn’t have to handle one hundred and fourteen homicides last year out of three rooms that don’t have enough chairs for the whole duty squad to sit down in at once. We spend our lives turning over dirty underwear and sniffing rotten teeth. We go up dark stairways to get a gun punk with a skinful of hop and sometimes we don’t get all the way up, and our wives wait dinner that night and all the other nights. We don’t come home any more. And nights we do come home, we come home so goddam tired we can’t eat or sleep or even read the lies the papers print about us. So we lie awake in the dark in a cheap house on a cheap street and listen to the drunks down the block having fun. And just about the time we drop off the phone rings and we get up and start all over again. Nothing we do is right, not ever. Not once. If we get a confession, we beat it out of the guy, they say, and some shyster calls us Gestapo in court and sneers at us when we muddle our grammar. If we make a mistake they put us back in uniform on Skid Row and we spend the nice cool summer evenings picking drunks out of the gutter and being yelled at by whores and taking knives away from greaseballs in zoot suits. But all that ain’t enough to make us entirely happy. We got to have you.

The “you” of the quote is Philip Marlowe, whom the police accuse of withholding evidence on two icepick murders and waltzing scot-free because of his private investigator’s license.

Chandler’s descriptions of night in L.A. rise almost to the verge of poetry:

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human tonight.

Not human? Hardly: No one is more human than Marlowe. He is like the knight in Albrecht Dürer’s “Knight, Death, and Devil,” as shown below:

Knight, Death, and the Devil

Poor Marlowe, he doesn’t even have the friendship of a dog as shown in the engraving above.

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.