Islandia

Map of Austin Tappan Wright’s Invented Country

It’s not often that I will undertake to read a thousand plus page novel. Most of the time, it’s just not worth it. There are some rare exceptions: One of them in Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, published in 1942, more than ten years after its author died in a New Mexico auto accident. During the interval, the author’s two thousand pages of text were edited and submitted for publication. Fortunately for us, they were accepted. The result is a one-of-a-kind classic that will probably remain in print as long as there are literate readers.

Mind you, Wright is no master stylist. What makes Islandia such a great novel is the author’s incredible imagination in creating an imaginary country with its own culture, language, and mores. Add to that what I regard as the most acute study of love in the Western World with some of the most brilliantly drawn female characters, particularly Dorna, Nattana, Stellina, and Gladys Hunter.

The 2001 Edition That I Read

The story tells of an American named John Lang who is appointed as consul to the isolated nation of Islandia (which is actually not an island), where no more than 100 non-consular foreigners are allowed to live at one time. He falls in love with two Islandian women, is reluctantly rejected by both of them, and eventually marries a fellow American named Gladys Hunter, whom he brings to Islandia to live on a farm with him.

When John and Gladys come together in Islandia, there is none of that “and they lived happily ever after” claptrap that destroys so many stories: Gladys does not immediately take to her new adopted country, and John must patiently ensure that her needs are being met before she is wholly at ease in her new situation. This type of extended dénouement is rare in fiction, so I was greatly surprised to find it here.

The Author: Austin Tappan Wright (1883-1931)


I loved this book deeply, and I hope to be able to read it again some day. It made me feel good about my fellow humans, an emotion I do not readily feel during this election year of 2020.

A Villa on Capri

Italian Writer Curzio Malaparte’s Villa on Capri

This is the story of a coincidence that I didn’t realize at the time (in the 1960s), but that I learned about much later as I became more well read. I will start with the film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (in French Le Mépris) filmed in 1963. Based on a 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia, known in the English world as either Contempt or A Ghost at Noon, the Godard film tells the tale of a marriage between a writer named Paul Javal (played by Michel Piccoli) whose marriage to his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) falls apart as Camille is used as bait an American film producer named Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The second half of the film was shot at a beautiful villa in Capri (shown above).

In the late 1960s, I thought the film one of the greatest ever made, largely because I was so impressed by the nude body of Brigitte Bardot. Now, I no longer think of it even as Godard’s best film. For that, I would now select either Alphaville or Pierrot le Fou, both made in 1965.

Brigitte Bardot Sunbathing on the Roof of Malaparte’s Villa in Contempt

Only much later did I learn that the villa featured in Contempt was actually the villa of a great—albeit twisted—Italian writer who called himself Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957). Born Curt Erich Suckert of a German father and an Italian mother, he chose the pen name Malaparte because it was the opposite of Napoleon’s family name: Malaparte means “bad side,” whereas Buonaparte means “good side.” And he tried in his works to live up to his pen name. If you are interested in acquainting yourself with his works, I suggest you read Kaputt (1944) about the German Eastern Front and The Skin (1949) about the American invaders of Italy in Naples.

Curzio Malaparte

Oh, and I still think you should see Godard’s Contempt. Even after all these years, Bardot’s derrière is still capable of inspiring lofty thoughts.

 

 

The Great American Novel

It Has Already Been Written—In 1851

All the time I was growing up, I kept hearing of writers wishing to write the Great American Novel—as if it were hovering in our future. It actually became something of an obsession with many. Sorry to disappoint, but I think the Great American Novel was written in 1851 by Herman Melville. It is called Moby-Dick, or The Whale. To date, I have read it three times, and each time was a revelation to me.

Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Proust, and Jane Austen, Melville was a highly inconsistent author. If you read Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (1849) or The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade (1857), you are dealing with a folk philosopher who is interested only in somewhat uninteresting bon mots. He did write some great short fiction, such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853); “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” (1854); “Benito Cereno” (1855); and finally “Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative)” (1892). Of the other works I have read, they run the gamut from interesting to “Why Was This Written?”

His Novel Is Still as Relevant as Tomorrow’s News

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1819, Philip Hoare wrote a fascinating article for The Guardian entitled “Subversive, Queer and Terrifyingly Relevant: Six Reasons Why Moby-Dick Is the Novel for Our Times.” You can find it here.

There have been many other American novelists whose work is near great. I am thinking of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe (though he wrote only one unfinished magnificent novel in The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym), Henry James, and William Faulkner.

I am not trying to discourage my fellow countrymen from trying their own hand at the Great American Novel, but I think that before long the medium of the novel will no longer be as important as it once was. And then, a major consideration, who will still be around to read it?

 

America Subterranean

This Is a Book That Got Me Thinking

I have just finished reading a book recommended to me by my friend Suzanne: Tara Westover’s Educated. Ever since 2016, I have been pondering what it is about the United States of America that gives rise to all these anti-governmental splinter groups that are directly or indirectly associated with Trump’s base.

Tara is an attractive young woman who was raised in a small town in Franklin County, Idaho, of a Mormon survivalist parents. Her father ran a junkyard; and her mother, starting out as a midwife, became a producer of essential oils called Butterfly Express. What the author describes is almost an archetypal experience of a religiously conservative familial craziness:

  • The father is a staunch survivalist who collects guns, including one that could shoot down helicopters such as those involved in Ruby Ridge.
  • Insists that all the children be home-schooled and work in the family junkyard and essential oil business.
  • Doctors and hospitals were to be avoided. Instead, Mrs Westover effected all cures using natural remedies.
  • There was an emphasis on the Old Testament (and, in Tara’s case, The Book of Mormon).
  • Women were expected to dress modestly lest they be considered sluts.
  • There was no involvement with government. Tara did not get her birth certificate until she was nine. (She was born at home.)
  • The males in the family tend to be bullies that enforce compliance with their fringe beliefs.

Tara Was Not Only Smart, But Tough As Nails

Somehow, Tara showed that she had the brains despite her desultory home schooling to get into Brigham Young University, and then Cambridge University in England and Harvard, where she got her PhD.

I don’t normally read best sellers, but Educated was an exception that was definitely worth reading. There was something about her upbringing which was truly horrifying, such as the repeated life-threatening auto and junkyard accidents that had to be dealt with using only the mother’s natural remedies. Today, Tara Westover is no longer in touch with her parents. She, for one, managed to escape.

 

Tiger Hunting

Jim Corbett with Man-Eating Tiger

There are relatively few tigers left in the world today; but, a hundred years ago, there were individual tigers who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of villagers in the northwest Indian region of Kumaon, just west of Nepal. Perhaps the most famous of the “white hunters” of these man-eating tigers was Edward James Corbett, better known as Jim Corbett (1875-1955).

Now what am I doing talking about a killer of endangered tigers? Surprisingly, Corbett himself was a naturalist:

A tiger’s function in the scheme of things is to help maintain the balance in nature and if, on rare occasions, when driven by dire necessity, he kills a human being or when his natural food has been ruthlessly exterminated by man he kills two percent of the cattle he is alleged to have killed, it is not fair that for these acts a whole species should be branded as being cruel or bloodthirsty.

Corbett is as famous for photographing and preserving the tiger population as he is for hunting them. In the introduction to his most famous book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, he writes:

When, therefore, a tiger is suffering from one or more painful wounds, or when its teeth or missing or defective and its claws worn down, and it is unable to catch the animals it has been accustomed to eating, it is driven by necessity to killing human beings.

I was surprised how well-written his book is. He is able to produce an elegant word picture of the circumstances of each hunt. Because of the strength and agility even of man-eating tigers, one rarely has time to reload if one misses. Even if he shoots his prey in the head, the tiger can survive long enough to make a meal of his hunter.

 

 

 

Born in Cleveland

Sci-Fi Writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

The city of my birth—Cleveland, Ohio—has given birth to few celebrities. Among actresses, there were the meltingly lovely Halle Berry and Dorothy Dandridge. Among literary figures, there was only one: Science Fiction author Harlan Ellison. During his career, Ellison has won eight Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards, five Bram Stoker Awards, and two Edgar Awards.

More to the point, he has written some of the most striking and memorable stories in the sci-fi, horror, and mystery genres. These include “’Repent, Harlequin!“ Said the Tick-Tock Man” (1965) and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1968). He edited two famous sci-fi collections of stories in Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). And he wrote what was probably the most remembered episode of the original “Star Trek” series entitled “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967).

Most of his oeuvre consists of short stories which are as eye-popping today as when they first came out. I am slowly working my way through these stories.

This afternoon, I saw a 2007 film by Erik Nelson about the writer entitled Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which includes multiple instances of the author’s abrasive style. During his heyday, that abrasiveness won him many enemies. In the end, however, what will be remembered are his stories.

It’s good to know that at least one great writer came from my home town.

 

 

The Truest Grit

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in the 2010 Version of True Grit

It is generally considered a truism that a film remake is nowhere near as good as the original. Most of the time, that’s true. One case where it is not is the 2010 version of True Grit directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. I liked the John Wayne version with Kim Darby well enough, though I did not like Kim Darby near so much as I liked Hailee Steinfeld as the redoubtable Mattie Ross.

So today I decided to read Charles Portis’s 1968 novel. Earlier this year, I had read Dog of the South and Gringos and found in Portis a novelist very much to my liking. True Grit was even better. So good that I read straight through it, reveling in its language, which reminded me of the best of Mark Twain.

Novelist Charles Portis (1933-2020) with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the Background

One of the things that struck me about Portis was how true he was to the idiom and the culture of his native Arkansas, even when he was setting his fiction in Mexico. Portis was not only authentic, but he was often funny and wildly entertaining. The ides of a 14-year-old-girl hiring a U.S. marshal to go after the killer of her father is by itself promising, but Portis made Mattie Ross into one of the most beloved girl characters in all of American fiction—all just by being fanatically true to her place and time.

 

 

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.