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.

 

 

Serendipity: Henry Clarendon IV

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

It was the last of Raymond Chandler’s seven novels. The fact of the matter is that Playback (1958) is not up to the other six. But that’s all right, because I like the character of Private Detective Philip Marlowe so much that even so-so Chandler makes for fine reading—and this was the third time I read it. In this reading, one thing stood out from the rest, sort of like a sudden Buddhist burst of contemplation. It was an old man named Henry Clarendon IV sitting in a hotel lobby as Marlowe tries frantically to find a man named Larry Mitchell whose whereabouts are important for solving a case.

“Don’t bother with that one [Mitchell],” he said. “He’s a pimp. I have spent many many years in lobbies, in lounges and bars, on porches, terraces and ornate gardens in hotels all over the world. I have outlived everyone in my family. I shall go on being useless and inquisitive until the day comes when the stretcher carries me off to some nice airy corner room in a hospital. The starched white dragons will minister to me. The bed will be wound up, wound down. Trays will come with that awful loveless hospital food. My pulse and temperature will be taken at frequent intervals and invariably when I am dropping off to sleep. I shall lie there and hear the rustle of the starched skirts, the slurring sound of the rubber shoe soles on the aseptic floor, and see the silent horror of the doctor’s smile. After a while they will put the oxygen tent over me and draw the screens around the little white bed and I shall, without even knowing it, do the one thing in the world no man ever has to do twice.”

He turned his head slowly and looked at me. “Obviously, I talk too much. Your name, sir?”

“Philip Marlowe.”

“I am Henry Clarendon IV. I belong to what used to be called the upper classes. Groton, Harvard, Heidelberg, the Sorbonne. I even spent a year at Uppsala. I cannot clearly remember why. To fit me for a life of leisure, no doubt. So you are a private detective. I do eventually get around to speaking of something other than myself, you see.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You should have come to me for information. But of course you couldn’t know that.”

I shook my head. I lit a cigarette, first offering one to Mr. Henry Clarendon IV. He refused it with a vague nod.

“However, Mr. Marlowe, it is something you should have certainly learned. In every luxury hotel in the world there will be half a dozen elderly idlers of both sexes who sit around and stare like owls. They watch, they listen, they compare notes, they learn everything about everyone. They have nothing else to do, because hotel life is the most deadly of all forms of boredom. And no doubt I’m boring you equally.”

 

Gothick

The Four Volumes of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho

I have been spending some time lately reading 18th century English literature. As an English major at Dartmouth College, my favorite course was Chauncey Chester Loomis’s survey of the 18th century English novel. Although he is known primarily for his work on Arctic exploration, I admired his teaching and only now am filling in some of the gaps of what he taught me, which gaps were mostly the result of my own laziness at the time.

Over the last month, I have read Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which I didn’t much like, and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I thought was fantastic (reprising my reaction back in the 1960s). Tonight, I have completed Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which was not on my course syllabus, but which was highly regarded as a work of the gothick sensibility of the times.

The Plot of Udolpho (Much Condensed)

The setting for the middle third of the book is the grim Castle of Udolpho in the Pennine Mountains near Venice, Italy. Emily Saint-Aubert, being a minor,must submit to the will of her cruel, unfeeling aunt, Madame Cheron, who marries a dubious Italian bandit chief known as Count Montini.

The Grim Castle of Udolpho

In many ways, the highly atmospheric castle with all its ruined galleries, secret passages, outlandish tapestries, and the cavorting banditti who make the castle their headquarters is the star of the novel. It is hard for a 21st century male such as myself to admire a frequently fainting heroine such as Mlle. Saint-Aubert. I managed to stick it out for the novel’s full 620 pages because Ann Radcliffe is really a superior writer. The things I didn’t like about it were more the result of the culture of the times than any deficit in the author’s abilities. There are some beautiful passages and not a few negligible verses.
 

Dostoyevsky Describes Trump Voters

The Supporters of Trump: A Great Mystery?

I am re-reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky translation of Fyodor Dostoeyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Suddenly, I saw the following passage, which predicted the emergence of Trump and his supporters:

Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he’s by no means stupid, but he’s so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him. I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: “Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!” That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that’s how man is arranged. And all this for the emptiest of reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one sometimes even positively must (this is my [i.e. Dostoyevsky’s] idea now).

 

Incorrigible Bookworm

Picture of Me at the Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

Sometimes, I just have to sit up and take a good look at myself. Where in Blue Blazes did this Bookworm come from? There was no one like me in the family. I was looked at by my family with a combination of contempt and admiration. When I was doing well in high school (I was the valedictorian of my class), I was referred to as “the walking dictionary.” I was a person of whom prodigies were expected … in the normal course of events. People expected my help with their homework—even if I knew zilch about the subject.

In fact, books were for me an escape. I was a sickly child, stricken by numerous allergies and frequent and debilitating headaches. The latter turned out to be a brain tumor in my pituitary gland. When I came out of surgery in the fall of 1966, I kept asking myself, “Why me?” I went almost overnight from a devout Catholic to a lapsed Catholic. I continued to suffer various physical and mental after-effects because of the lifelong steroid therapy that ensued.

I was never any good at athletics. For exercise, I liked to walk a lot. I couldn’t even drive a car until I reached the age of forty, and I no longer had to take a blood pressure medication (Catapres) that caused me to fall asleep in moving vehicles.

And so, at an early age, I turned to books. Was it because my mother used to tell me fantastic stories about fairy princesses in the dark forest that she told me in Hungarian? I couldn’t really read English with any proficiency until the third or fourth grade.

I started to accumulate books at home, causing some friction with my parents. They didn’t like to see me spending money for books at Scroeder’s Bookstore on Cleveland’s Public Square. Once, when my cousin Emil saw me reading Tom Sawyer in the living room, he grabbed the book out of my hands and hurled it at the floor, causing it to bounce. “This is what I think of books!” he said while I wondered what was coming next.

Of course, I love books. Even though I have donated over a thousand books from my collection to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I still read as much as ever, if not more so.

 

How King Kong Almost Didn’t Get Made

King Kong (1933)

In an essay about Soviet writer Isaac Babel appearing in her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman describes a meeting between the writer and an American prisoner:

A shot-down American pilot, barefoot but elegant, neck like a column, dazzlingly white teeth, his uniform covered with oil and dirt. He asks me worriedly: Did I maybe commit a crime by fighting against Soviet Russia? Our position is strong. O the scent of Europe, coffee, civilization, strength, ancient culture, many thoughts. I watch him, can’t let him go. A letter from Major Fauntleroy: things in Poland are bad, there’s no constitution, the Bolsheviks are strong … An endless conversation with [Frank] Mosher, I sink into the past, they’ll shake you up, Mosher, ekh, Conan Doyle, letters to New York. Is Mosher fooling—he asks frantically what Bolshevism is. A sad, heart-warming impression.

It seems that Frank Mosher was none other than Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, the future producer of King Kong in 1933. Their encounter took place in Galicia in 1920, when Cooper was a member of the Kosciuszko Air Squadron.

Captain Merian C. Cooper (Alias Frank Mosher)

Cooper was captured by horsemen attached to Budyonny’s Cossack Cavalry. He would have been killed on the spot had not an “unnamed English-speaking Bolshevik” saved his life. That Bolshevik was one of the greatest Russian writers of the 20th Century, Isaac Babel, who was served with the Bolshevik cavalry, collecting material for his great book of stories entitled Red Cavalry.

Somehow, Cooper made his way back to the U.S., along with a fellow flyer named Ernest  B. Schoedsack, whom he was to hire in later years to direct King Kong.