The End of Tusitala

RLS (Seated Center, Rear) and His Household in Samoa

His nickname in Samoa was Tusitala, “The Teller of Tales.” He had gone to Oceania for his health. It is not known what the exact nature of his illness was, but it seemed to be hereditary. His mother died of an apparent stroke at the age of 38. When he died on on December 3, 1894, Robert Louis Stevenson was only 44.

I have just finished reading the letters that RLS wrote to his friend and sometime editor Sidney Colvin between November 1890 and October 1894. They have been published as The Vailima Letters, named after the author’s estate in Samoa. In them, he writes about his frequent illnesses, his involvement in island politics, and his intense efforts to make money by writing novels and stories. In those last four years, he wrote:

  • Catriona (1893), aka David Balfour, a sequel to Kidnapped
  • Island Night’s Entertainments (1893), aka South Sea Tales
  • The Ebb-Tide (1894), co-author Lloyd Osbourne
  • Weir of Hermiston (1896), left unfinished at the author’s death
  • St. Ives: Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England (1897)

At times, Stevenson’s letters rise to the level of poetry. In March 1891, he writes:

I said I was tired; it is a mild phrase; my back aches like toothache; when I shut my eyes to sleep, I know I shall see before them—a phenomenon to which both Fanny and I are quite accustomed—endless vivid deeps of grass and weed, each plant particular and distinct, so that I shall lie inert in body, and transact for hours the mental part of my day business, choosing the noxious from the useful. And in my dreams I shall be hauling on recalcitrants, and suffering stings from nettles, stabs from citron thorns, fiery bites from ants, sickening resistances of mud and slime, evasions of slimy roots, dead weight of heat, sudden puffs of air, sudden starts from bird-calls in the contiguous forest—some mimicking my name, some laughter, some the signal of a whistle, and living over again at large the business of my day.

In May1892, this description of clouds appears in the letters:

As I rode down last night about six, I saw a sight I must try to tell you of.  In front of me, right over the top of the forest into which I was descending was a vast cloud.  The front of it accurately represented the somewhat rugged, long-nosed, and beetle-browed profile of a man, crowned by a huge Kalmuck cap; the flesh part was of a heavenly pink, the cap, the moustache, the eyebrows were of a bluish gray; to see this with its childish exactitude of design and colour, and hugeness of scale—it covered at least 25°—held me spellbound.  As I continued to gaze, the expression began to change; he had the exact air of closing one eye, dropping his jaw, and drawing down his nose; had the thing not been so imposing, I could have smiled; and then almost in a moment, a shoulder of leaden-coloured bank drove in front and blotted it.  My attention spread to the rest of the cloud, and it was a thing to worship.  It rose from the horizon, and its top was within thirty degrees of the zenith; the lower parts were like a glacier in shadow, varying from dark indigo to a clouded white in exquisite gradations.  The sky behind, so far as I could see, was all of a blue already enriched and darkened by the night, for the hill had what lingered of the sunset.  But the top of my Titanic cloud flamed in broad sunlight, with the most excellent softness and brightness of fire and jewels, enlightening all the world.  It must have been far higher than Mount Everest, and its glory, as I gazed up at it out of the night, was beyond wonder.  Close by rode the little crescent moon; and right over its western horn, a great planet of about equal lustre with itself.  The dark woods below were shrill with that noisy business of the birds’ evening worship.  When I returned, after eight, the moon was near down; she seemed little brighter than before, but now that the cloud no longer played its part of a nocturnal sun, we could see that sight, so rare with us at home that it was counted a portent, so customary in the tropics, of the dark sphere with its little gilt band upon the belly.  The planet had been setting faster, and was now below the crescent.  They were still of an equal brightness.

I could not resist trying to reproduce this in words, as a specimen of these incredibly beautiful and imposing meteors of the tropic sky that make so much of my pleasure here; though a ship’s deck is the place to enjoy them.  O what awful scenery, from a ship’s deck, in the tropics!  People talk about the Alps, but the clouds of the trade wind are alone for sublimity.

I could easily come up with another half dozen passages that impressed me. And I am all the more impressed becau8se today is my father’s birthday. Were he still alive, he would be 108 years old. But, alas, he died at the age of 74—which, to be precise, is my present age—a fact which makes me ever more conscious of my own mortality.

Drugstore Book Rack Literature

Archetypal American Noir Novel by a Noir Writer

Everybody by now knows about film noir. Where that comes from is a genre of drug store paperbacks focusing on tough guys, bad girls, and thugs. There are great mystery writers of the first rank such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald. But beyond them is a whole pantheon of second-rank writers who have contributed to American literature (and to subjects for American films). Here is a list of some of my favorites, listed in alphabetical order followed by the name of one of their representative works:

  • Robert Edmond Alter: Swamp Sister
  • Barry Gifford: Perdita Durango
  • David Goodis: Shoot the Piano Player
  • Chester Himes: The Real Cool Killers
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place
  • Elmore Leonard: Get Shorty
  • Mickey Spillane: I, the Jury
  • Jim Thompson: Pop. 1280
  • Charles Willeford: Pick-Up
  • Cornell Woolrich: I Married a Dead Man

My Favorite Jim Thompson Novel

This list does not attempt to be definitive, as I am still making discoveries in this genre all the time. Fortunately, many of the novels are being regularly re-issued.

Interestingly, there are also several excellent European noir novelists, such as Britain’s James Hadley Chase, whose No Orchids for Miss Blandish is a classic. In France, there are Jean-Patrick Manchette (Fatale) and Boris Vian (I Spit on Your Grave).

 

Desert Dreamers: Cabot Yerxa 1

Scene from the Southern California Desert with Joshua Tree (L)

The deserts of Southern California are beautiful, but can be forbidding. I spent the weekend visiting my brother in Palm Desert. On Friday, I took a ride out to Desert Hot Springs to revisit Cabot Yerxa’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum. Simultaneously, I have been reading Yerxa’s collection of newspaper columns for The Desert Sentinel, written, with a few interruptions, between July 1951 and December 1957. They have been published in a book entitled On the Desert Since 1913 by Cabot’s Museum Foundation.

There, I find such gems as the following from December 11, 1952:

The cabin was swept and dusted, beds made up fresh, dishes put through a bath of soap and water. Then holes in the roof were repaired and firewood gathered. Boxes of groceries were opened, and it gave us a great sense of security to see packages of food on the shelf. We, very few of us, would see a store again for seven months, but we cared not. There was flower and yeast to make bread, sugar, salt, dry beans, cornmeal, canned milk, molasses, and a few other items to make many meals. But the greatest overall joy, with a thankful feeling of independence and satisfaction, was the fact that the land under our feet was ours! To no man must we pay rent or tribute for water, gas, electricity, phone, newspapers, or streetcar rides. We were free men in a new, clean, fascinating world.

Back in 1914, he had written:

Yesterday it rained for the first time in nine or ten months, and the desert was drenche. Just a steady, slow rain without any blustering wind. The sandy soil absorbed the welcome moisture completely and none ran off. The greasewood bushes opened their leaves, which are folded close together for protection during dry weather, and the damp air was full of their clean, haunting fragrance. All the sparse desert growh of bunch grass and small plants, usually quite brittle, were as limp and soft as though made of pretty colored rubber.

This post is the first in a series to be called Desert Dreamers. Tomorrow, I will write about his Pueblo Museum and what is to be found there. In future posts, I will write about other California Desert authors, most particularly Mary Austin.

 

 

Geographies: Real

A More Recent Edition of This Invaluable City Atlas Than Mine

This is one of two posts by an inveterate map freak. I will start with real geographies that inspired some of my more fantastic fictional ones. I have read two novels this month which inspired me to dig up my copy of Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement Édition 2005. The first was Cara Black’s Murder in Clichy; and the second, Georges Simenon’s masterful Maigret and the Bum.

Ever since I was a grade school boy, I loved maps and atlases. It became even more pronounced when, at the same time, I collected stamps from such strange corners of the world as Tannu Touva, Bechuanaland, Liechtenstein, and Nejd. Naturally, I had to know where these geographic entities were, their principal cities, and some knowledge of their economies (if any).

No, I Don’t Wear Nail Polish

The best city street atlas I have ever seen is the abovementioned Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement. Each of the twenty arrondissements (districts) of the city gets either two facing pages, or, if required, two sets of two facing pages. In addition, there are maps of the metro, the RER (suburban rail routes), major bus lines, the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, and La Défense. Throughout, it is organized so logically that I cannot imagine using any other map to follow the action in novels set in the City of Lights.

Absent from this handy atlas are the suburban banlieus which tourists are not likely to visit unless they are in the market for recreational drugs or a bit of the old ultra-violence. Unlike American cities, which tend to be hollowed-out at their core and liveable only in the outlying suburbs, Paris reserves the center for historical buildings and the wealthy, while the areas beyond the peripheral highway are strictly for slumming.

 

 

GRUBERG: The Papa Bach Story 2

Bookmarks from the Reincarnation of Papa Bach

When Ted and Eva Riedel left Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, the bookstore was taken over by a “poet” named John Harris. I use the quotes around the word poet because I have found nothing on the Internet either by or about him that was not written by his friend, fellow poet William Mohr. It was around this time that I stopped hanging out at Papa Bach’s Bookstore. I missed Ted and Eva, and I had my doubts about the new management. This was mostly because I noticed that the stock on sale started to thin out: I no longer found it a good source for the material I was seeking.

Still, in its second incarnation, Papa Bach had some influence. In his book Literary L.A., Lionel Rolfe writes:

Papa Bach was significant, I think, because it was the closest thing Los Angeles ever had to a City Lights bookstore and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’m not sure that Harris himself would have thought he was on that level, for the synergy of Ferlinghetti and San Francisco are a peculiar and special chemistry. But John Harris was a good if not great poet, and his Papa Bach was a bookstore, a cultural center, a publisher and an important link between many things. Harris made no bones about it; he had burned out.

Papa Bach was to limp along for another ten years or so, but the heart of it as a bookstore was no longer there. I was not and still am not interested in Harris’s poetry events or publications: It was the merchandise that had drawn me. Once the bookshelves started showing lots of blank space between isolated books, I knew that the end was in sight.

For a while, the building occupied by Papa Bach’s became “The Writer’s Computer Store,” which I assumed was a shill for Apple software products. Then the building was torn down and replaced by an Enterprise Rent-a-Car agency.

 

 

The Happiness Trap

Ernest Hemingway Poses with a Water Buffalo in Africa, 1953-1954

Having just read Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, I begin to understand why he shot himself in 1961. I had not read any Hemingway for over thirty years, and I realize now there was a reason for this. There was Papa H in Africa, frequently asserting how he loved the place and the people. Yet he is envious of another member of his hunting party, Karl, who is more successful in grabbing the big trophies. Even when he kills a kudu, which he has been trying to do for the whole length of the book, he has this dialog with Pop, the leader of the group, conscious that Karl has bagged a bigger kudu:

“We have very primitive emotions,” [Pop] said. “It’s impossible not to be competitive. Spoils everything, though.”

“I’m all through with that,” said. “I’m all right again. I had quite a trip, you know.”

The only problem is that I didn’t believe him. Again and again, Hemingway is hyper-conscious of competing, of looking good in the eyes of his fellow hunters and his native assistants. He talks about Droopy, a native tracker:

M’Cola [another tracker] was not jealous of Droopy. He simply knew that Droop was a better man than he was. more of a hunter, a faster and cleaner tracker, and a great stylist in everything he did.

At another point, Papa talks of his “wanting to make a shot to impress Droopy.”

Hemingway, too, was a great stylist—in his own way. The prose of The Green Hills of Africa at times rises to the level of poetry. In this, he falls victim to the happiness trap, of always wanting to be happy, of always overcoming hurdles and progressing from one triumph to another. But life is not like that. One must appreciate the little things, to behave prayerfully and thankfully when he has taken the life of some splendid game, to grab at the moments of happiness that are fleeting and resolve to slog manfully through all the merde with which a life is interlarded.

 

 

Henry Miller in My Life

American Writer Henry Miller (1891-1980)

I started out with Henry Miller the (forbidden) writer of erotica. There were the Tropics, Black Spring, Sous Les Toits de Paris, and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Then I started reading his nonfiction, and I began to think more of him, especially with The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), his travel classic about Greece; The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), on his pessimism about America after the War; The Time of the Assassins (1946), an essay on Arthur Rimbaud;  and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957), about his life in Big Sur. I have just finished reading Remember to Remember (1947), a sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which is mostly about artists he has met.

Henry Miller is very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of author. He can run off at the mouth for dozens of pages—but then he can zero in a key point in some Buddhist burst of contemplation. And, what I like about him, his instincts are right. His pacifist essay in this book, “Murder the Murderer,” spends some ninety pages telling us that he is against war and killing. All well and good. No burst of contemplation there, though it took balls to be a pacifist in the final days of the Second World War. But then he impales Hollywood poseurs in a brilliant spoof entitled “Astrological Fricasse,” which may be the best short work of fiction he ever wrote.

The artists Miller recommends—painters Beauford DeLaney and Abe Rattner and sculptor Beniamino Bufano—are worth closer study. It seems that public opinion has caught up with them, though they were controversial when Miller wrote his book.

I will continue to mine Miller for the occasional rich vein that one comes across with no advance warning, particularly in his nonfiction.