Serendipity: A Glimpse of Rasputin

 

Gregory Rasputin in Color

Gregory Rasputin in Color

The following beguiling sketch comes from Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya—perhaps better known as Teffi—whose essay on the Siberian “holy man” is reprinted in her Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others and Me: The Best of Teffi, published by New York Review:

I had glimpsed Rasputin once before. In a train. He must have been on his way east, to visit his home village in Siberia. He was in a first-class compartment. With his entourage: a little man ho was something like a secretary to him, a woman of a certain age with her daughter, and Madame V—, a lady-in-waiting to the Tsaritsa.

It was very hot and the compartment doors were wide open. Rasputin was presiding over tea—with a tin teapot, dried bread rings and lumps of sugar on the side. He was wearing a pink calico smock over his trousers, wiping his forehead and neck with an embroidered towel and talking rather peevishly, with a broad Siberian accent.

“Dearie! Go and fetch us some more hot water! Hot water, I said, go and get us some. The tea’s right stewed, but they didn’t even give us any hot water. And where is the strainer? Annushka! The strainer—where is it? Oh, what a muddler you are!”

I love the picture of the demonic starets wearing a pink smock.

The photograph above was published by The Daily Mail, along with other interesting color pictures of Rasputin and the Tsar.

Teffi’s essay on Rasputin made me think, and you shall find out later this week exactly what it made me think about.

Serendipity: The Winds of Change

The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed

The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed

The thing about re-reading books you first encountered decades ago is to feel the winds of change in your life. When I first read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I was a high school student looking forward to leaving Cleveland to go to college. The book was a revelation to me, and re-reading it at this late stage in my life shows me sitting on the porch of our house at 3989 East 176th Street, turning the pages and marveling at a book written for kids like me. It’s a good feeling: I accept that 16-year-old kid. He was all right.

Following is a quote that pretty much describes my feeling at re-reading The Catcher in the Rye:

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.

Well, unlike Holden, I am in fact much older; but that’s okay. Better, in fact, than the alternative.

 

Serendipity: The Rain in Mexico

Thoughts in a Dry Season...

Thoughts in a Dry Season…

I am now reading Eve Babitz’s second book—Slow Days, Fast Company: The World the Flesh, and L.A.—and loving it as much as her first, Eve’s Hollywood. Having been so many moons without rain, I was entranced by the following paragraph:

The rain in Mexico, that humid rain-jungle kind of rain with flashy colors and limes and the idea that if you got jungle rot, the tentacles of the carnivorous vines would cover you up, dead—that Mexican rain, I have to think twice about. I have tried to love all rain, but I don’t know about jungle rain. The tropics are not for me. Birds with flaming plumage and fruits with neon-pink centers in the rain—I bet if I had to have even two unbroken days of that, I’d slip right out of my mind the way that missionary did over Sadie Thompson. I’d rather just be Sadie Thompson and get it over with, but I’m afraid I’d turn into a Calvinist in hot rain, with transparent underlying motives and a worm-eaten, jungle-rotted Bible as my brain’s downfall.

Last year, I saw two incredible jungle storms. The first was while I was waiting to change planes at Sao Paolo, Brazil: I saw this huge front coming fast from the northwest, dumping rain in buckets. By the time my plane arrived, it was all over. The second one was in Puerto Iguazu. I sat under a colonnade by the pool as the storm hit quite suddenly, dumping large amounts of rain and hail. I just sat there sipping a bottle of Quilmes while the hotel staff ran around frantically to bring in the chairs. That, too, lasted about an hour. While it was storming, the air was deliciously cool … but once it stopped, then ….

Serendipity: In Praise of the Short Biography

F. L. Lucas (1894-1967)

F. L. Lucas (1894-1967)

I had forgotten classical scholar F. L. Lucas entirely. In high school, I had read his most famous book, Style (1955), and loved it. Today, I was searching the stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library and ran into his The Search for Good Sense: Four Eighteenth Century Characters—Johnson, Chesterfield, Boswell, Goldsmith (1958). It was there I read the following:

On all these men there already exist many books—many of them big. One feels embarrassed at adding to the number. Nothing can be a substitute for Boswell’s Johnson; or for those works on an American scale of magnificence, the Boswell Papers and the fifty volume edition of Walpole’s letters. But, given the brevity and busyness of life, many have not time time to read these large works, or a series of full-scale biographies; still less, to re-read them. There is a need for both long and short biographies, as for large-scale and small-scale maps. And it is not only a question of time. One reads such things not only for the amusement of reading, but also to remember. For this, I feel, biographies tend to grow too long. Just because one is told far more than one really needs, one remembers far less. The impression is blurred by multitudinousness; just as one could not, says Aristotle (with a flash of imagination rare in his austere pages) grasp as a unity a creature ten thousand furlongs in length.

I love to rediscover authors whose existence I had forgotten. Unfortunately, it seems that Lucas has also been forgotten by others as well. I had a hell of a time finding a decent photograph of him on the Internet.

Well, I for one plan to search out more of his books, and the L.A. Central Library is the perfect place for it.  I love his writing style. After all, he influenced mine when I was a teenager in Cleveland. I can only hope that I’ve lived up to his teachings.

Serendipity: Just Try and Destroy Armenia!

Young Armenian Soldiers

Young Armenian Soldiers

The following is a quote from author William Saroyan, whose novel The Human Comedy I am currently reading. It comes from a short story called “The Armenian and the Armenian.”

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered. Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if the race will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.

Serendipity: The Solitary Traveler

London’s Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th Century

London’s Vauxhall Gardens in the 18th Century

Here, straight from the 17th Century, is what I feel like during my travel. The source is Sir Richard Steele’s essay “A Ramble from Richmond to London”:

It is an inexpressible pleasure to know a little of the world and be of no character or significance in it.

To be ever unconcerned, and ever looking on new objects with an endless curiosity, is a delight known only to those who are turned for speculation: nay, they who enjoy it must value things only as they are the objects of speculation, without drawing any worldly advantage to themselves from them, but just as they are what contribute to their amusement, or the improvement of the mind.

Serendipity: “Drowned Untimely”

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

I am currently reading (among other things) Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. In particular, I was drawn to the essay entitled “Street Haunting,” which contains a sustained reverie about Woolf’s walking the streets of London on a winter evening in search of a lead pencil. Following are a couple of paragraph’s about her visit to a second-hand bookstore, with its prophetic phrase about a poet “drowned untimely,” as the author was herself when, depressed by the onset of the Second World War, she filled her pockets with heavy stones and committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse near her home:

But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.

Thus, glancing round the bookshop, we make other such sudden capricious friendships with the unknown and the vanished whose only record is, for example, this little book of poems, so fairly printed, so finely engraved, too, with a portrait of the author. For he was a poet and drowned untimely, and his verse, mild as it is and formal and sententious, sends forth still a frail fluty sound like that of a piano organ played in some back street resignedly by an old Italian organ-grinder in a corduroy jacket. There are travellers, too, row upon row of them, still testifying, indomitable spinsters that they were, to the discomforts that they endured and the sunsets they admired in Greece when Queen Victoria was a girl. A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor. In these piles of puce-bound volumes with gilt monograms on the back, thoughtful clergymen expound the gospels; scholars are to be heard with their hammers and their chisels chipping clear the ancient texts of Euripides and Aeschylus. Thinking, annotating, expounding goes on at a prodigious rate all around us and over everything, like a punctual, everlasting tide, washes the ancient sea of fiction. Innumerable volumes tell how Arthur loved Laura and they were separated and they were unhappy and then they met and they were happy ever after, as was the way when Victoria ruled these islands.