Some months ago, I made a stab at re-reading Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield but gave up. Somehow, I was just not in the mood. (That happens, but fairly rarely.) Today, I made another attempt, with vastly improved results.
What got to me before was the character of Edward Murdstone and his sister Jane. Murdstone marries David’s mother, Clara, but begins raising David in an abusive even sadistic manner. But before the grim scenes of marriage, with Clara being forced to suppress her love for Davy, there intervenes the magical Chapter III, “I Have a Change.”
Magic is rare in fiction, but not with Dickens at his best. Davy goes with his mother’s maid Clara Peggotty to visit her family in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. There, he stays in an odd beach house built from an old boat, with Peggotty’s brother Daniel as head of household. In the boat house live Ham Peggotty, an orphaned nephew; Little Em’ly, an orphaned niece; and the morose Mrs Gummidge, widow of a fishing partner of Daniel’s. It is an odd mixed-up family that somehow seems to work.
It all starts with the first view of the boat house on the sands:
Ham carrying me on his back and a small box of ours under his arm, and Peggotty carrying another small box of ours, we turned down lanes bestrewn with bits of chips and little hillocks of sand and went past gas-works, rope-walks, boat-builders’ yards, shipwrights’ yards, caulkers’ yards, riggers’ lofts, smiths’ forges, and a great litter of such places, until we came out upon the dull waste I had already seen at a distance; when Ham said,
‘Yon’s our house, Mas’r Davy!’
I looked in all directions, as far as I could stare over the wilderness, and away at the sea, and away at the river, but no house could I make out. There was a black barge, or some other kind of superannuated boat, not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel sticking out of it for a chimney and smoking very cosily; but nothing else in the way of a habitation that was visible to me.
‘That’s not it?’ said I. ‘That ship-looking thing?’
‘That’s it, Mas’r Davy,’ returned Ham.
If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it; but the wonderful charm of it was, that it was a real boat which had no doubt been upon the water hundreds of times, and which had never been intended to be lived in, on dry land. That was the captivation of it to me. If it had ever been meant to be lived in, I might have thought it small, or inconvenient, or lonely; but never having been designed for any such use, it became a perfect abode.
Davy stays in the boat house for a couple of weeks, allowing his mother to be married to the grim Murdstone and provide an unhappy surprise when Davy returns to The Rookery at Blunderstone, only to find Murdstone in charge as paterfamilias.
Until then, there are a couple of weeks of grace, during which little Davy falls in love with Little Em’ly, and is showered with kindnesses he was no longer able to receive at home.
I remember the chapter vividly from my own childhood, when I read an abridged edition of David Copperfield. Even in its mutilated form, it was magical then; and now, it’s still magical.
I am alternately in love with and terrified by Joan Didion. Behind that seeming fragility is a mountain of strength and eyes that cut through the obscuring fog. On one hand, the young Joan Didion was beautiful; but her marriage to John Gregory Dunne was a stormy one, and her relationship with him and her adopted daughter Quintana Roo was interrupted by their early deaths. I keep thinking of her heroine Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays:
She took his hand and held it. “Why are you here?”
“Because you and I, we know something. Because we’ve been out there where nothing is. Because I wanted—you know why.”
Joan was never a safe, sensible woman. She saw clearly to the heart of things, yet dulled herself with large amounts of alcohol and was rarely photographed without a cigarette in her hands. The daughter of a rancher, she was raised in Sacramento, a fifth-generation Californian, whose ancestors just escaped being part of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-1847. There is in her eyes both wildness and clarity. She, too, has been out there where nothing is.
Though in one sense she terrifies me, I love her work. When she died last December, I felt that California had lost its muse.
I have spent half of the last week recovering from Covid-19, and half reading a superb novel about Bosnia in the early 19th century written by a Bosnian Serb named Ivo Andrić. Bosnian Chronicle describes life in the North Bosnian backwater town of Travnik when France opens a consulate there, and Austria follows suit, around 1807.
Described in loving detail by Andrić are the staffs of the two consulates and their families and aides; the three Ottoman Pashas in charge during the period covered and their aides; the local begs (first families) of the town; the religious leaders of the Islamic, Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian factions; the local doctors; and various peasants. The net result is a layered picture of Bosnian society and various French and Austrian “interlopers” during the height of the Napoleonic Era.
The book ends with Napoleon’s capture and exile on Elba, necessitating the closing of the French consulate, followed in short order by the closing of the Austrian consulate.
My Hungarian upbringing tends to make me more interested in Central and Eastern Europe than most other Americans. Fortunately, there is no lack of great literature east of Vienna: Ivo Andrić, for instance, a native of Travnik and a Bosniak himself, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 for The Bridge of the Drina. I have also read his Omar Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan, which is available in a New York Review edition.
I turn to the East to look for literary treasures, and I have not been disappointed.
No work of literature is so closely tied in with painting than Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, Charles Swann finds himself in an obsessive relationship with Odette de Crécy. At one point, he compares his inamorata with Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, in Sandro Botticelli’s “Life of Moses.”
On his way to the house, as always when he knew that they were to meet, he formed a picture of her in his mind; and the necessity, if he was to find any beauty in her face, of fixing his eyes on the fresh and rosy protuberance of her cheekbones, and of shutting out all the rest of those cheeks which were so often languorous and sallow, except when they were punctuated with little fiery spots, plunged him in acute depression, as proving that one’s ideal is always unattainable, and one’s actual happiness mediocre. He was taking her an engraving which she had asked to see. She was not very well; she received him, wearing a wrapper of mauve crêpe de Chine, which draped her bosom, like a mantle, with a richly embroidered web. As she stood there beside him, brushing his cheek with the loosened tresses of her hair, bending one knee in what was almost a dancer’s pose, so that she could lean without tiring herself over the picture, at which she was gazing, with bended head, out of those great eyes, which seemed so weary and so sullen when there was nothing to animate her, Swann was struck by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s Daughter, which is to be seen in one of the Sistine frescoes. He had always found a peculiar fascination in tracing in the paintings of the Old Masters, not merely the general characteristics of the people whom he encountered in his daily life, but rather what seems least susceptible of generalisation, the individual features of men and women whom he knew, as, for instance, in a bust of the Doge Loredan by Antonio Rizzo, the prominent cheekbones, the slanting eyebrows, in short, a speaking likeness to his own coachman Rémi; in the colouring of a Ghirlandaio, the nose of M. de Palancy; in a portrait by Tintoretto, the invasion of the plumpness of the cheek by an outcrop of whisker, the broken nose, the penetrating stare, the swollen eyelids of Dr. du Boulbon. Perhaps because he had always regretted, in his heart, that he had confined his attention to the social side of life, had talked, always, rather than acted, he felt that he might find a sort of indulgence bestowed upon him by those great artists, in his perception of the fact that they also had regarded with pleasure and had admitted into the canon of their works such types of physiognomy as give those works the strongest possible certificate of reality and trueness to life; a modern, almost a topical savour; perhaps, also, he had so far succumbed to the prevailing frivolity of the world of fashion that he felt the necessity of finding in an old masterpiece some such obvious and refreshing allusion to a person about whom jokes could be made and repeated and enjoyed to-day. Perhaps, on the other hand, he had retained enough of the artistic temperament to be able to find a genuine satisfaction in watching these individual features take on a more general significance when he saw them, uprooted and disembodied, in the abstract idea of similarity between an historic portrait and a modern original, whom it was not intended to represent. However that might be, and perhaps because the abundance of impressions which he, for some time past, had been receiving—though, indeed, they had come to him rather through the channel of his appreciation of music—had enriched his appetite for painting as well, it was with an unusual intensity of pleasure, a pleasure destined to have a lasting effect upon his character and conduct, that Swann remarked Odette’s resemblance to the Zipporah of that Alessandro de Mariano, to whom one shrinks from giving his more popular surname, now that ‘Botticelli’ suggests not so much the actual work of the Master as that false and banal conception of it which has of late obtained common currency. He no longer based his estimate of the merit of Odette’s face on the more or less good quality of her cheeks, and the softness and sweetness—as of carnation-petals—which, he supposed, would greet his lips there, should he ever hazard an embrace, but regarded it rather as a skein of subtle and lovely silken threads, which his gazing eyes collected and wound together, following the curving line from the skein to the ball, where he mingled the cadence of her neck with the spring of her hair and the droop of her eyelids, as though from a portrait of herself, in which her type was made clearly intelligible.
He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and limbs, and these he tried incessantly, afterwards, to recapture, both when he was with Odette, and when he was only thinking of her in her absence; and, albeit his admiration for the Florentine masterpiece was probably based upon his discovery that it had been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and rendered her more precious in his sight. Swann reproached himself with his failure, hitherto, to estimate at her true worth a creature whom the great Sandro would have adored, and counted himself fortunate that his pleasure in the contemplation of Odette found a justification in his own system of aesthetic. He told himself that, in choosing the thought of Odette as the inspiration of his dreams of ideal happiness, he was not, as he had until then supposed, falling back, merely, upon an expedient of doubtful and certainly inadequate value, since she contained in herself what satisfied the utmost refinement of his taste in art. He failed to observe that this quality would not naturally avail to bring Odette into the category of women whom he found desirable, simply because his desires had always run counter to his aesthetic taste. The words ‘Florentine painting’ were invaluable to Swann. They enabled him (gave him, as it were, a legal title) to introduce the image of Odette into a world of dreams and fancies which, until then, she had been debarred from entering, and where she assumed a new and nobler form. And whereas the mere sight of her in the flesh, by perpetually reviving his misgivings as to the quality of her face, her figure, the whole of her beauty, used to cool the ardour of his love, those misgivings were swept away and that love confirmed now that he could re-erect his estimate of her on the sure foundations of his aesthetic principles; while the kiss, the bodily surrender which would have seemed natural and but moderately attractive, had they been granted him by a creature of somewhat withered flesh and sluggish blood, coming, as now they came, to crown his adoration of a masterpiece in a gallery, must, it seemed, prove as exquisite as they would be supernatural.
I have just finished a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) entitled The Wife and Other Stories which has been, by far, the best book I have read so far this year. Even though her translations are being increasingly considered as clunky and slightly archaic, I really enjoyed Constance Garnett. The following discussion on happiness vs. unhappiness is from a story entitled “Gooseberries.”
I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself. There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying…. Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes…. Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition…. And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree—and all goes well.
I am currently reading Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion entitled The Last Love Song. Halfway through the book, I feel as if I had relived the 1960s and the 1970s. I had never realized what a key literary figure that Joan Didion (as well as her friend Eve Babitz) were in my life. While Eve represented to me the world of L.A. celebrities, Joan’s wide screen writings took in the whole local and even international picture.
If one lives in the West L.A. area over a number of years, one finds oneself on the fringes of history. On June 5, 2004, for instance, Martine and I were turned away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley because the ex-president had just died. The funeral home that handled his body was within walking distance of my apartment, at 26th Street and Arizona in Santa Monica.
The scene of the crime when O. J. Simpson killed his wife and Ron Goldman was only five blocks north of me on Bundy Drive. (It building got so many visitors that they demolished the building.)
On June 25, 2009, I had difficulty getting home from work because thousands of people had showed up at the UCLA Hospital when they heard that Michael Jackson had died.
One of our clients at the accounting firm where I worked was the actor Richard Anderson, who lived at 10130 Cielo Drive, right next door to the house in which Sharon Tate and her friends were slaughtered by the Manson Family.
While I never met Joan Didion, I always felt a curious parallelism between her works and my life. Not because I was a successful writer or filmmaker, but because she tracked life in Southern California the way I did. For the most part, what interested her interested me. I suspect that if I had met her, she and I would not have seen eye to eye: I am not interested in the kind of active social life she lived, or in heavy drinking, or raising a child (at which she self-admittedly failed).
The fact remains that, in following her works, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, I feel as if I am reliving my life during the formative years of my early adulthood. So much so that it is almost eerie at times.
One of my favorite travel books is Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel. When my favorite travel writer writes on the subject of travel literature, the result is nothing less than armchair satori. Take the following quote from his The Old Patagonia Express (1979), my first introduction to South America:
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered. Other people can mislead you: they crowd your meandering impressions with their own; if they are companionable they obstruct your view, and if they are boring they corrupt the silence with non sequiturs, shattering your concentration with, “Oh, look, it’s raining” and “You see a lot of trees here.
It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people. What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Theroux’s book is full of such gems, such as this one from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869):
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Here is a poetic contribution from Rudyard Kipling (“The Winners”:
Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.
In Virginibus Puerisque, Robert Louis Stevenson imparts this wisdom:
Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.
As I return to this book, which I do often, I just want to set out for somewhere, anywhere. Well, maybe not Cleveland. Been there, done that!
I have completed my Januarius Project for January 2022. Just to remind you, I typically reserve an entire month at or near the beginning of the year to introduce myself to authors whose work I have not hitherto read. Below is the summary, beginning with the best books and ending with the one stinko book.
Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another. She might be Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife, and she may well be as good if not better than her former hubby.
M F K Fischer, Two Towns in Provence. Consists of two parts, a great book on Aix-en-Provence, and a merely very very good book on Marseilles.
Saint Augustine, Confessions. I’d put this one off for decades, but it is really great, especially the chapter about time.
Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter. A Nobel Prizewinner I will have to read more of.
Ben Loory, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day. A great original short story collection of fantasy and horror.
Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void. A solo journey across the width of the Sahara that didn’t pan out, though this book about it certainly did.
Derek Walcott, Midsummer. A Nobel Prizewinning poet from the Caribbean. Super stuff.
Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. What the Marquis and Pornhub have in common.
Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston. A promising neo-noir author.
Edward Whittemore, Quin’s Shanghai Circus. Wild, exotic, and interesting.
Eric Jager, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat. The 2021 Ridley Scott movie was based on this medieval thriller.
Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: Origins of the Avante-Garde in France 1885 to World War I. How four French artists (a painter, a composer, a poet, and a playwright) influenced modern art.
Pete Beatty, Cuyahoga. A weird fantasy on the early history of Cleveland, the city of my birth.
Meghan Abbott, Die a Little. Vaguely promising, but typical of a New Yorker who knows very little about L.A.
Peter Theroux, Translating LA: A Tour of the Rainbow City. Better than most, but nearly so good as his brother Paul’s work.
William Beckford, Vathek. This 1786 oriental fantasy is still studied in college. Why?
All in all, this year’s Januarius project was a rousing success. Twelve out of the sixteen authors I read for the first time are worth following up on in the months and years to come.
I usually write favorable reviews of most of the books I read, but this will be an exception. My review won’t hurt the author, as he died in 1844, unloved and unlamented. William Beckford’s Vathek was originally written in French by this British writer and translated into English by another.
It is an oriental fantasy, which means it is lush with weird details and productive of much wretched excess. One reads along this piece of overripe Turkish delight and comes across a sentence like this:
In the morning, which was lowering and rainy, the dwarfs mounted high poles like minarets, and called them to prayers. The whole congregation, which consisted of Sutlememe, Shaban, the four eunuchs, and some storks, were already assembled.
What in coruscating blue blazes were those storks doing there? There is no reason for their existence except to add some local color. And what about Sutlememe, Shaban, and the four eunuchs? Details without a reason for their existence is nothing less than a form of literary cancer. Instead of being organic to the story, the whole thing comes across as a massive inorganic blob.
Characters come on the scene and subplots are born without any reason for their existence:
Dread lady, you shall be obeyed; but I will not drown Nouronihar; she is sweeter to me than a Myrabolan comfit, and is enamoured of carbuncles, especially that of Giamschid, which hath also been promised to be conferred upon her; she therefore shall go along with us, for I intend to repose with her beneath the canopies of Soliman; I can sleep no more without her.
In the end, one feels as if one has swallowed whole a Myrabolan comfit and choked on it.
Read it if you dare, but be prepared to shove the Carbuncle of Giamschid where the sun doesn’t shine. God knows, I did!
One thing about Los Angeles is its distinctive geography, much celebrated in literature and film. You can always tell when some New Yorker just deplaned at LAX and started spouting inanities that displayed an ignorance of this geography. That’s what happened when I read Megan Abbott’s neo-noir thriller Die a Little. There were a few names like “Pico Boulevard” (which everyone here just calls Pico), the giant doughnut at Randy’s in Inglewood, even several restaurant names like the Apple Pan and Ciro’s—but they just didn’t hold together. It’s as if she was using a map and a guidebook and just pasting the places together.
Take Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) with its tone-deaf attacks on L.A.
After all, it’s been more than 35 years since Alvy Singer hilariously dissed the city in “Annie Hall,” saying that people here “don’t throw their garbage away, they make it into television shows” and that “the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.”
I can only hope he enjoyed the mashed yeast he ordered on the Sunset Strip.
When you read Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, you get a feeling for the crumbling sandstone of the coastal mountains, the transverse mountain ranges running west to east, the vast distances going from one point to another, as well as the odd architectural vibe of the place. When I first came out here in 1966, I was confused by all the stucco and chicken wire architecture, until I experienced my first real earthquake in 1971.
You can always tell when an east coast writer is slumming in Southern California. It doesn’t come across as real.