English Lit—East

Many people are unaware of the fact that some of the best English literature of the last hundred years or so comes from India. The subcontinent has some 22 officially recognized languages and dialects spoken within its borders. Most people know about Hindi, but what about Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Meitel, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu? Actually, what binds all the various peoples of India together is, believe it or not, the English language, a holdover from British colonial days.

In this post, I will mention two writers whom I have read over the years with great pleasure. First, there is Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, better known as R K Narayan (1906-2001).

Narayan was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by none other than Graham Greene. Like William Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County, Narayan created a fictional town in Tamil Nadhu called Malgudi and wrote numerous novels and short stories about the people who live there. My favorites among his novels are Swami and Friends (1935), The Financial Expert (1952), The Guide (1958), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), and The Vendor of Sweets (1967).

Another excellent Indian writer writing in English is Anita Desai (born 1937), who currently teaches at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Several times, Desai has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Among my favorites of her novels are Clear Light of Day (1980), Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988), Fasting Feasting (1999), and The Artist of Disappearance (2011).

There are others I can name, but I have not read as many works by them as I have from Narayan and Desai. If you are interested in the many worlds of India, I heartily recommend that you give them a try.

A Warning to Urbanites

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

Writing in 1959, the Old Junkie had a vision of Trump’s America. The following passages are from William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch:

The Old Court House is located in the town of Pigeon Hole outside the urban zone. The inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area of swamps and heavy timber are people of such great stupidity and such barbarous practices that the Administration has seen fit to quarantine them in a reservation surrounded by a radioactive wall of iron bricks. In retaliation the citizens of Pigeon Hole plaster their town with signs: “Urbanite Don’t Let The Sun Set On You Here,” an unnecessary injunction, since nothing but urgent business would take any urbanite to Pigeon Hole.

Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down in their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out.

Bounced Czech

Czech Writer Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997)

Typically, it takes me a while to really get warmed up to what I consider a great author. For Bohumil Hrabal, I read a couple of short story collections (Mr Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult and Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age) before I read two novels that blew me away: I Served the King of England and now The Little Town Where Time Stood Still.

Now I myself am ¼ Czech, though I never met my Czech grandfather; so I am very comfortable with the world portrayed by Eastern European fiction. In The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, there is a long scene about butchering pork that recalls my childhood in a Hungarian neighborhood in Cleveland. The scene is almost a threnody to the rich Czech and Hungarian pork-based cuisines.

In fact, the book is a lament for Eastern European small-town life which was largely destroyed by Communism. For this, Hrabal suffered years of censorship. It was only with the Velvet Revolution that brought Jaroslav Hašek into power that he really came into his own.

I cannot read his books without emotion: As a cultural Hungarian, I find tears forming in my eyes when Hrabal reminds me of my own origins or such things as the worship of Emperor Franz Joseph I (or Ferenc Jozsef, as we called him in Magyar).

In the months to come, I plan to read as much of Hrabal as I can find in English translation. Although I am part Czech, I cannot speak the language.

Space Aliens

Space Aliens at the Roswell, NM, UFO Museum

Let’s face it: Real space aliens—if they exist and they probably do—are probably nothing like this. We have gotten used to these skinny attenuated bipedal creatures who look vaguely humanoid. Life can take many possible forms, especially on planets that are significantly different from Earth.

I have just finished reading a book by Stanisław Lem called The Invincible. I have long thought that the best sci-fi comes from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Russia. In the West, we tend to think too much along the same lines; but novels from writers like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers give us a whiff of the alien that is not necessarily tied down to traditional forms.

My Edition of Lem’s The Invincible

For another look at what might be out there, I strongly recommend you read Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and see the great film that was based on it: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1982).

Sci-fi that tries to imagine the really alien can be a little frightening, but it can be great!

Vikings

Vikings: They Did a Lot More Than Loot and Pillage

They were the bad boys of early Medieval Europe. From the pulpits of all of Europe and even farther came the prayer “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”—“From the fury of the Norsemen, O Lord deliver us.” Sailing out of Scandinavia, they occupied large parts of Britain, Ireland, France (surely you’ve heard of Normandy), Ukraine, Russia, and Italy. They formed an elite regiment in Constantinople, where they were called the Varangian Guard.

They just happened to be the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas some half a millennium before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. They had a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which they abandoned only after constant warfare with the Skrælings (Indians).

We call them Vikings, but for them the word was a verb, not a noun. Most of the dread Norsemen raiders were farmers who would “go viking” when their short growing season was over. They were, in effect, part time terrorists.

Also, they just happened to create a great literature in the sagas, particularly those created in Iceland in the 13th century. They included such works as:

  • Njúls Saga,, the greatest of them all, about revenge that gets out of hand
  • Egils Saga, about the bard Egil Skallagrímsson
  • Laxdæla Saga, with its female heroine Guðrun
  • Eyrbiggja Saga, with its berserkers (yes, they actually existed)
  • Grettirs Saga, about a famous outlaw warrior

These were probably the best works of literature to come out of Europe in the period in which they were written. They are all available in excellent translations from Penguin Books.

Incidentally, as a French woman of Norman heritage, my Martine is herself a Viking.

Two Englishmen in 1930s Mexico

Mexican Family ca 1930

Two writers who influenced my travels in Mexico are Aldous Huxley, who wrote Beyond the Mexique Bay in 1934, and Graham Greene, who wrote The Lawless Roads in 1939. Both writers were there during a rough time. The Mexican Revolution was theoretically over in 1920, but there were not only widespread disturbances, but there were not, as there are today, a safe system of intercity roads. Plus Huxley spent most of his book on his travels in Guatemala and Honduras.

Greene’s book was my guide to a trip my brother and I took to Mexico in 1979. We flew to Mexico City and transferred to a flight to Villahermosa, which at the time impressed me as the armpit of the republic. Greene then then made his way to the Maya ruins at Palenque. From there to San Cristóbal de las Casas was lengthy journey over the Sierra Madre on muleback. For Dan and me, it was an all-day journey by second class bus during which we passed a bus from the same company (Lacandonia) that had run off the road and encountered an army inspection just outside of Ocosingo. From there we visited Oaxaca and rode an all-night bus back to the Mexico City airport.

Old Penguin Cover for The Lawless Roads

Greene had considerably worse experiences during his trip over forty years earlier. In the middle of his journey, he broke his glasses:

Just short of our destination a sudden blast of wind caught my helmet and the noise of cracking cardboard as I saved it scared the mule. It took fright and in the short furious gallop which followed I lost my only glasses. I mention this because strained eyes may have been one cause for my growing depression, the almost pathological hatred I began to feel for Mexico. Indeed, when I try to think back to those days, they lie under the entrancing light of chance encounters, small endurances, unfamiliarity, and I cannot remember why at the time they seemed so grim and hopeless.

Why the author went to Mexico with a single pair of glasses is a mystery to me. Fortunately, I never felt any pathological hatred for Mexico, based on the many subsequent journeys I took there.

The Edition of Huxley’s Book That I Own

I have also been to most of the places that Aldous Huxley described in Beyond the Mexique Bay during my trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Unlike Greene who saw only the Maya ruins at Palenque, Huxley traveled to Copán in Honduras and Quirigua in Guatemala.

Like Greene, Huxley also had a problem with the people of Central America. At one point, he lets it all hang out: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’” The French expression could be translated thus: Stupidity isn’t my strong point.

These two civilized and (perhaps) sticky Englishmen did manage to write interesting books which engaged my interest through multiple readings over a period of more than four decades.

Now why would you want to read books written almost a century ago when there are more current books on the subject? My answer is a simple one: The best recent books were written with a knowledge of what went before. And when it comes to Mexico, one could easily go back to the books of John Lloyd Stephens written in the 1840s. (In fact, I will do just that in a follow-up post.)

The Author Foresees His Death

The Car Crash That Killed Albert Camus on January 4, 1960

Months before his death in an auto accident, Albert Camus wrote in his notebook words that prefigured how he was to end his life:

I don’t sleep all night, fall asleep at 3 AM, wake up at 5 AM, eat a lot, and, beneath the rain, take to the road. I don’t leave the steering wheel for eleven hours—nibbling a biscuit from time to time—and the rain doesn’t leave me either until I reach the Drôme where it lets up a bit over the heights of Nyons so that the scent of lavender comes to me, awakens me, and enlivens my heart.

Ryan Bloom, the editor of the last volume of his Notebooks, sets up the scene:

Struggling with his writing, Camus sent a letter to Catherine Sellers in which he wrote: “To work, one must deprive oneself, and die without aid. So let’s die, because I don’t want to live without working….” On December 30 he wrote a line to Maria Casarès regarding his return to Paris, which, had the line been written in one of his novels, would certainly have seemed to stretch believability: “Let’s say [Tuesday] in principle, taking into account surprises on the road….”

And it was on the road, five days after these words were written—January 4, 1960—that the dashboard clock of Michel Gallimard’s 1959 Facel Vega HK 500 stopped ticking at 1:55 PM. The clock lay in a nearby field. Fragments of the wreckage spread almost 500 feet. A tire sat alone on the scarred cement. Drizzle dotted the road. A black leather valise lay in the mud, tossed next to the tree around which the car was wrapped.

And so died one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century.

On Reading Philosophy

French Existentialist Writer Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Generally speaking, I have the devil’s own time trying to understand what philosophers write. The absolute worst are the German philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant. I have difficulty even reading excerpted quotations from these writers—let alone whole paragraphs or chapters!

I have come to the conclusion that to enjoy reading most philosophers one has to be a gamer where language is concerned.

Fortunately, there are exceptions, particularly among the so-called Existentialist philosophers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Camus and (on occasion) Sartre. I am currently reading Camus’s Notebooks 1951-1959 where I find surprising, gemlike ideas expressed such as the following:

The history of mankind is the history of the myths with which it covers up reality. For two centuries, the disappearance of traditional myths has shook history as death has become without hope. And yet there is no human reality if in the end there is no acceptance of death without hope. It is the acceptance of this limit, without blind resignation, in the tension of all one’s being that coincides with balance.

I await with patience a catastrophe that is slow in coming.

According to Melville, the remora, a fish of the South Seas, swims poorly. That is why their only chance to move forward consists of attaching themselves to the back of a big fish. Then they plunge a kind of tube into the stomach of a shark, where they suck up their nourishment, and propagate without doing anything, living off the hunting and efforts of the beast. These are the Parisian mores.

Give money, or lose it. Never make it fructify, nor seek it, nor crave it.

In love, hold on to what is.

Lope de Vega, five or six times a widower. Today people die less often. The result is that we no longer need to preserve in ourselves a force of rejuvenating love, but, on the contrary, we need to extinguish it in order to elicit another force of infinite adaptation.

Criticism is to the creator what the merchant is to the producer. Thus, the commercial age sees an asphyxiating multiplication of commentators, intermediaries, between the producer and the public. Thus, it is not that we are backing creators today, it is that there are too many commentators who drown the exquisite and elusive fish in their muddy waters.

Ooh, that last one, I think, is aimed at me.

Shortly after great historical crises, one finds oneself as dissatisfied and sick as on the morning following a night of excess. But there is no aspirin for the historical hangover.

Do not curse the West. For me, I cursed it at the time of its splendor. But today, while it succumbs under the weight of its faults and its long past glory, I will not add to its weight…. Do not envy those of the East, the sacrifice of intelligence and of heart to the gods of history. History has no gods, and intelligence, enlightened b7y the heart, is the only god, under a thousand forms, who has ever been saluted in this world.

I think what makes Camus a philosopher for our time is twofold:

  • He was born and raised in Algeria.
  • His experience with the French Resistance during World War Two made him avoid the obscurantism of more supine intellectuals.

Summer Reading

During the Heat of Summer, My Mind Turns to India

Most people’s idea of summer reading is of some cheap paperback to be consumed on a beach towel or on a long plane, train, or bus ride. There are a large number of trashy novels written each year to satisfy this undemanding audience. My taste in reading material, however, is more of what you would describe as deep-dish.

When the temperature rises into the 80s F (30s Celsius), there are certain books that appeal to me. Looking back over July and August in the last several years, here is what appeals most to me during temperature spikes:

  • Books about India, such as those written by William Dalrymple, author of City of Djinns
  • The novels of William Faulkner set in Mississippi
  • The novels of Brazilian author Jorge Amado set in his native State of Bahia
  • The novels and short stories of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño
  • American and French noir novels
  • The Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald set in South Florida
  • Travel books such as those written by Freya Stark, who traveled extensively by herself in the Middle East

Sometimes, I go in the opposite direction: I recently read Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, about a failed trip to discover the North Pole.

I am currently rereading William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and have Jorge Amado’s Home Is the Sailor in my TBR pile.

“A World Construed Out of Blood”

The Best American Novel I Have Read in Years

I have seldom been so impressed by an American novel—especially a recent one—as I was by Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The young hero, Billy Parham, crosses back and forth three times between New Mexico and Old Mexico. Finding his parents killed and robbed of their livestock, he is not at home either in the United States or the mountains of Mexico.

McCarthy writes with an Old Testament intensity of the kindness and evil that Billy finds across the Rio Grande. At one point, he writes:

When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alcahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to destroy it.

After finding his family slain and dispersed, Billy manages to locate his younger brother, Boyd, and returns with him to Mexico looking for the horses stolen from his father. Boyd manages to impress the campesinos they meet, wins the nickname El Guërito, and is described by the author:

He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy of the way the world was.

Author Cormac McCarthy

I have been impressed by McCarthy’s work before, when I read Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) and All the Pretty Horses (1992). So far, I have read the first two novels of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which consists of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). After reading the next novel in the trilogy, I will backtrack and read his first four novels, which are set in the South. Then I will move on to No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006).

One little note: I would not recommend that you read The Crossing unless you know some Spanish. Much of the dialog set in Mexico is in untranslated Spanish. I was able to get by pretty well, though I had my Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary at my side. But if you can tolerate the language factor, I think you will be mightily impressed by McCarthy’s work.