“A Kind of Solution”

Invading Vandal Horseman

I have just finished reading Volume II of Thomas Hodgkin’s monumental Italy and Her Invaders, which tells of the Hun and Vandal invasions and the Herulian Mutiny that unseated the last of the Western Roman Emperors in CE 476. In essence, it tells of the painful last twenty-five years of the Empire, during which most of the emperors were murdered in a year or two.

There was no benefit to wearing the imperial purple in those last few years. A couple of days ago, I posted a blog in which Apollinaris Sidonius explained why it was no fun in being chosen as emperor.

Those last years of the empire were no fun. Not only were the invading Huns and Vandals brutal, but the empire itself was brutal to its own citizens, taxing them to death to pay for the huge military required to protect the borders.

It makes me think about our own situation. Our problem is not barbarian invasions (unless you don’t particularly like Canadians or Latin Americans), but our seemingly unbridgeable political divisions. The insurrection of January 6, 2021, was, to me, very like Gaiseric and the Vandals’ sack of Rome in CE 455. They may have been barbarians in the end, but they were our very own native-born barbarians. The result, in the end, is no better than the sad end of Rome.

I keep thinking of a poem by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy entitled:

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Two Spongers

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

In my reading, I have come across two cases of great writers being taken in by freeloaders with pretensions to gentility. Most recently, I have read D. H. Lawrence’s Memoir of Maurice Magnus, which appears in its entirety in the New York Review of Books Collection of Lawrence’s essays entitled The Bad Side of Books, edited by Geoff Dyer. The sponger in question—Maurice Magnus—was getting into serious financial problems when he hooked up with the British writer. He claimed to be Isadora Duncan’s manager (he wasn’t) and to be a writer of some note (he was, but of very little note). Attaching himself to the young Lawrence and his wife like a barnacle, Magnus was forever showing up and asking for “one last favor.” Only when Lawrence left him behind in Malta did he finally shake himself of the infestation. And that was only because Magnus, fearing to be deported to Italy for check kiting and other financial crimes, committed suicide by poisoning.

The experience led Lawrence to conclude:

It is the humble, the wistful, the would-be-loving souls today who bully us with their charity-demanding insolence. They just make up their minds, these needful sympathetic souls, that one is there to do their will.

Henry Miller (1891-1980)

The second sponger fastened himself to Henry Miller, who wrote about the experience in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. The whole episode is summed up by the Wikipedia entry for the Miller Book:

The third part tells the story of when Miller was visited by an old friend from Paris, the French astrologer Conrad Moricand, in 1947. Moricand had written Miller that he was penniless. Miller invited Moricand to live with him in Big Sur for the rest of his life. Moricand arrived at the end of the year. The arrangement quickly turned into a disaster. Although Miller had told Moricand about the isolated and rugged life of Big Sur, Moricand was unprepared and complained often about the weather, food, and his own poor health, among other things. Miller put Moricand in a hotel in Monterey, and arranged for him to return to France. Moricand did not immediately return to Europe, however, instead writing Miller angry letters about his perceived mistreatment. Miller wrote about this episode, which would be published in 1956 as A Devil in Paradise, and a year later as the third part of Big Sur, called “Paradise Lost.”

It is interesting to know that one can always be taken in by sharpers who prey on artists with generous impulses. Sometimes, indeed, no good deed goes unpunished.

The News from Ankh-Morpork

Sir Terry Pratchett, the Creator of Discworld (Image: Penguin Books)

I made a major discovery in 1998 when I read Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay, about a golem who joins the police force of Ankh-Morpork, a large, ancient, and very disreputable city on the Discworld. According to the Wikipedia entry for Discworld:

The Discworld is the fictional setting for all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy novels. It consists of a large disc (complete with edge-of-the-world drop-off and consequent waterfall) resting on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle, named Great A’Tuin (similar to Chukwa or Akupara from Hindu mythology) as it slowly swims through space. The Disc has been shown to be heavily influenced by magic and, while Pratchett gave it certain similarities to planet Earth, he also created his own system of physics for it.

Sir Terry wrote some 41 novels set in his fictional Discworld, until Alzheimer’s caught up with him and carried him off at the age of 66 in 2015. Although the last novels in the series are not his best work, he wrote a number of novels that brought cheer and guffaws into my life, specifically:

  • Mort (1987), featuring Death, who speaks in all caps
  • Pyramids (1989), set in Djelibeybi (the Discworld equivalent of ancient Egypt)
  • Guards! Guards! (1989), the first of the novels about the Watch (A-M’s police force)
  • Small Gods (1992), in which Sir Terry takes on organized religions
  • Feet of Clay (1996), another novel about the Watch

I would not recommend any of the Discworld novels written after 2000. But before then, I have read most of the works and enjoyed most of them, particularly the titles listed above.

“Only a Mean Person Won’t Enjoy It”

Novelist Charles Portis (1933-2020)

Now that I have read four of his five novels and will in all likelihood have read most of his work before the end of the year, I can say that Charles Portis is one of my favorite American novelists of the Twentieth Century. He is perhaps the best thing to ever come out of Arkansas, the state where he was born, lived most of his life, and died.

First of all, here are his five novels:

  • Norwood (1966)
  • True Grit (1968)
  • The Dog of the South (1979)
  • Masters of Atlantis (1980)
  • Gringos (1991)

Undoubtedly, you have heard of True Grit. Hollywood turned it into two enjoyable movies, one starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, and the other (produced by the Coen Brothers) starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin.

The only Portis novel I have not read so far is Masters of Atlantis. He also produced a collection of essays in 2012 called Escape Velocity. The name comes from a quote from one of his novels: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”

Like J. D. Salinger, Charles Portis was a man who avoided the limelight. He would point out, however, that his phone number was in the Little Rock phonebook.

Everything I have read by Portis can best be described as gentle humor. As one reviewer said of True Grit, “Only a mean person won’t enjoy it.” Too true!

A Home for American Literature

Selected Library of America Volumes

Some forty years ago, I visited my friend Mike Prendergast and saw some intriguing books on his shelf. They were early volumes published by the Library of America. They were slipcased hardbound volumes averaging 800-1000 pages each with authoritative editions of American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Benjamin Franklin, and Herman Melville. The attempt was to do for the United States what the Pléiade editions did for France.

I wasted no time in contacting the L of A, and in no time at all I started receiving all the volumes they published. As the publisher branched out more, I had to cut back considerably. Today, I have more than 200 volumes containing the works of William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Henry James, and scores of other authors.

For a while, I started to look down on American literature and concentrate my reading efforts on European authors. I now realize that was short-sighted, so I started to dig into some of the volumes on my shelves. Among the works I discovered were:

  • Dawn Powell (The Locusts Have No King and Turn, Magic Wheel)
  • Kenneth Fearing (The Big Clock)
  • William Lindsay Gresham (Nightmare Alley)
  • Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle)
  • Jack Kerouac (The Subterraneans)
  • Henry David Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and The Maine Woods)
  • William Faulkner (Soldier’s Pay, Mosquitoes, and A Fable)
  • Mark Twain (Following the Equator)

One of my long-term projects is reading all the published works of Joan Didion in order, which was made easier by the L of A publishing her novels and essays in two volumes (The 1960s & 1970s and The 1980s & 1990s). I have no doubt that her later works will appear in a volume to be published.

I am also thinking of reading all of Henry James’s shorter works, including some of the novels I have not yet read, such as The Awkward Age and Wings of the Dove.

There are hundreds of treasures to be found in the Library of America. I can only hope to live long enough to do them justice.

Fate Wields a Lead Pipe

A Random Sample of P. G. Wodehouse Novels

If you are ever feeling blue, the thing to do is pick up a P. G. Wodehouse novel. Within minutes, you will be in the hands of a master who can turn your frown upside down. I am currently most of the way through his The Girl in Blue. As I found myself laughing at Wodehouse’s mastery of the language, I thought I would share some of the funniest passages from his novels with you in this post.

Looking for a good place to start with Wodehouse’s books? I would recommend any of the Jeeves novels (particularly The Code of the Woosters) or the ones featuring Blandings Castle (such as Full Moon). You can find an extensive bibliography here.

In the meantime, here’s a sample of some of Wodehouse’s most penetrating observations:

A certain critic—for such men, I regret to say, do exist—made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained ‘all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.’ He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.

He had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.

“What ho!” I said.
“What ho!” said Motty.
“What ho! What ho!”
“What ho! What ho! What ho!”
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.

I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it‘s Shakespeare who says that it‘s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.

A melancholy-looking man, he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

“Oh, Jeeves,” I said; “about that check suit.”
“Yes, sir?”
“Is it really a frost?”
“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.”
“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”
“Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.”
“He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.”
“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”

She looked away. Her attitude seemed to suggest that she had finished with him, and would be obliged if somebody would come and sweep him up.

Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.

Chumps always make the best husbands. When you marry, Sally, grab a chump. Tap his head first, and if it rings solid, don’t hesitate. All the unhappy marriages come from husbands having brains. What good are brains to a man? They only unsettle him.


George Jetson’s Neighborhood

If any writer alive today has a handle on the future—what it is likely to be—that writer is William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and the inventor of the term cyberspace. I have just finished reading his book of essays, entitled Distrust That Particular Flavor. In a talk delivered o the Book Expo America in 2010, he wrote:

But I really think [that pundits are] talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that, If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on a hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidia.

I think of Gibson’s capital-F Future as being more along the line of the old The Jetsons animated television program or the novels of H. G. Wells or Isaac Asimov. The future presented in those works is more a reflection of their creators’ times, and not our own.

William Gibson

I think that, because of his belief regarding the future, Gibson’s more recent novels have been less science fiction-y. Books such as Zero History are set in what appears, on one hand, to be the present—but instead are set in some not-too-distant future with multiple hooks to our present.

In a number of essays, Gibson examines our strange atemporal present, with fascinating essays on Tokyo (“My Own Private Tokyo”) and Singapore (“Disneyland with the Death Penalty”).


Twee Shoppes on Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue

Today was a brief respite from a week of heavy rain, so I decided to take a walk. I had read an article in last week’s Los Angeles Times about a new bookstore in Santa Monica. Now typically, my walks involve stopping at a bookstore en route and usually buying one or more books.

Not today, however. The City of Santa Monica used to have some good bookstores, such as Martindale’s and A Change of Hobbit (dedicated to sci-fi). Now it has what could only be described as a froufrou book shoppe featuring current works of interest to a young upper middle class demographic which is interested only in perpetrating a shallow somewhat feminized lifestyle.

Not My Cup of Tea

Virtually everything on the shelves was published within the last five years. Absent were almost anything that could be described as a classic.

I guess that’s what you get when an influencer opens a bookstore. I myself have never been influenced by a so-called influencer, and I rather doubt that my blog has seriously influenced anyone. My posts are as much of a compulsion as anything else. There isn’t any money being made here, and there are no thousands of readers extracting their credit cards the moment I open my lips.

My short walk on Montana Avenue dissatisfied me so much that I drove down to Marina Del Rey to the nearest Barnes & Noble. There were a lot of the same recently published bumph, but I found a John Le Carré that I didn’t have. As long as there are a sufficient number of kernels of grain among the chaff, I am satisfied.


Poet and Novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

I was looking for information on the Internet about Thomas Hardy when I came upon an interesting article on the Paris Review website. The opening paragraphs captured my attention:

Are you enjoying yourself at the moment? Please stop. It’s Thomas Hardy’s birthday, and he will wipe the smile right off your smug, contented, life-affirming face. You’re dealing with a man who knew how to deploy the word Niflheim, defined by the OED as “the region of eternal darkness, mist, and cold inhabited by those who died from old age or illness.” Hardy uses it to dispirited perfection in The Woodlanders, relating a kind of failure to connect: “But he continued motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him, and she proceeded on her way.” Actually, The Woodlanders is full of an evocative, despondent murkiness. It extends even to the tiny twigs on the ground, which Hardy takes care to describe as they’re destroyed by a passing carriage: “they drove on out of the grove, their wheels silently crushing delicate-patterned mosses, hyacinths, primroses, lords-and-ladies, and other strange and common plants, and cracking up little sticks that lay across the track.”

Hardy wrote with a special zeal for death, and his sense of the morbid often lapsed into tone deafness. He witnessed two executions when he was a boy—maybe that had something to do with it. One of them was the hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown, who was convicted of murdering her husband. By his own account, Hardy, then only sixteen, stood close enough to the gallows to hear her gown rustling; the hanging left an indelible mark on him such that seventy years later, in 1926, he could render it vividly in a letter to Lady Pinney, casting Brown’s final seconds in an unmistakably erotic light:

I am ashamed to say I saw her hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons … I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.

He added later:

The hanging itself did not move me at all. But I sat on after the others went away, not thinking, but looking at the figure … turning slowly round on the rope. And then it began to rain, and then I saw—they had put a cloth over the face—how as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary. A boy had climbed up into a tree nearby, and when she dropped he came down in a faint like an apple dropping from a tree. It was curious the two dropping together.

Short Story

Although I still read more novels by far, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the medium of the short story. This evening, I decided to take a quick look at my reading long during the past twelve years. As the period progressed, I noticed myself reading more and more short story collections.

I was surprised to find that there were relatively few women writers whom I thought had mastered the genre. In fact, the only ones who impressed me were Virginia Woolf (no surprise there!), the Argentinian Silvina Ocampo, and—closer to home—Joyce Carol Oates and Shirley Jackson. Why this is I do not know. It could be that they are out there, but to date I am not familiar with their work.

Another surprise was that the United States was well represented, what with writers like Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Stephen Crane, Henry James, J. D. Salinger, Barry Gifford, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury.

Latin America has some outstanding representatives. Topping the list are Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and Mexico’s Juan Rulfo. Not far behind are Roberto Bolaño and Francisco Coloane from Chile, Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (who were married to each other) from Argentina.

Britain gave us Somerset Maugham, George Mackay Brown, G. K. Chesterton, and Graham Greene. In France, there was Guy de Maupassant. From Central Europe there was Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal (Czechoslovakia) and Bruno Schulz (Poland).

The greatest Russian short story writer was Anton Chekhov, but there was also Leo Tolstoy, Varlam Shalamov, and Andrei Platanov.

I have just finished Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club: Stories, and I find several other story collections in my TBR (To Be Read) pile. I guess I’m hooked.