Reconnecting

French Novelist Marie NDiaye

For one month out of every year, I attempt to read only authors I have not previously read. One of the biggest surprises this month as been French novelist Marie NDiaye, whose novel My Heart Hemmed In [Mon coeur à l’étroit] I have just finished reading. Unlike many postmodern writers, who do not shy away from boring their readers to tears, NDiaye carries out a relentless examination of the life of her heroine, a teacher who, along with her husband, suddenly finds herself roundly hated by most of her acquaintances. Nadia has distanced herself from her ex-husband, her son, and her parents. She has gained weight, and several of the people she meets assume that she is pregnant.

The story begins when her husband Ange returns from the class he has been teaching with a serious stomach wound. A neighbor shows up who is known to everyone she meets as an educator and television personality, but whom she does not know as both she and Ange do not even own a TV, being disconnected from their popular culture. NDiaye follows Nadia closely as she begins to try to reconnect with her past and try to come to terms with the pain she feels. The process is a wonderfully told voyage of self-discovery that transforms her.

I have always felt that the best novels involve a radical transformation of the main character. What NDiaye has done is make this voyage exciting rather than the usual banal. I can see myself reading more of her works in the months to come, most recent of which is La Cheffe, which is on my TBR pile.

 

 

Plague Diary 5: Social Distancing

The Intersection of the 101 and 110 Freeways in Downtown L.A.

The above picture from the Los Angeles Times says it all: Even at 4 am, it is not otherwise so uncrowded. Of course, I haven’t been using the freeways lately, as there is quite literally nowhere to go. No restaurants, no parks, no museums—and no sun either. Ever since the “Stay in Place” order went out, Southern California has been assailed by an untypical chain of rainy weather for this time of year, what we call the Pineapple Express.

My main forays from my apartment have been unsatisfying trips to food markets to pick over the bare bones of what the hoarders have left in their wake. And just to make things worse, I popped another crown on Saturday and have to make an appointment with my dentist to see whether it could be glued back in. Now I have partly or wholly missing teeth on both sets of my uppers. The wholly missing one will, with luck, be replaced by an implant … sometime in July.

Right now, the rain is falling steadily; and Martine is coming down with a sore throat. For now, I am watching old movies (Robert Aldrich’s 4 for Texas and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, neither of which I particularly liked) and reading books by authors with home I am unfamiliar (currently R. A. Lafferty). Also I am doing all the cooking. I have managed to scrounge up the ingredients to make a potato and cauliflower curry that should last us for a while.

It was nice talking to my brother this morning. I should call up more of my old friends. The problem is that I get too busy with cooking, reading, and TV film viewing to take the time out.

 

Plague Diary 2: Empty Shelves

It’s Bad All Over: The Above Picture Is From the UK

Last night I called my friend Bill Korn, who warned me that the supermarket shelves are likely to be all picked over by hoarders. As I do my main food shopping on Monday, I started the day with apprehension. I woke at 7 am to get to Ralphs Supermarket (owned by Kroger) by the 9 am opening time. When I arrived, I had trouble finding parking, could not get my hands on a shopping cart (except the one they always have on hand with square wheels), and found very little of what I was looking for.

Fortunately, I was able to find some ground turkey—seconds before the hoarders descended on it. Then I joined the checkout line that wound up and down the store aisles.

Later, I stopped at Trader Joe’s on Olympic Boulevard and found a similar situation, though the well paid staff was much better at restocking the shelves.

The dish I prepared was a non-spicy keema consisting of the ground turkey, various Indian spices, and a selection of frozen vegetables from my freezer. If this situation prevails over however many weeks the plague restrictions are in effect, I will have to be highly creative in my cooking. It’s already difficult to cook for Martine and myself because there are relatively few dishes we can agree on. It’s like the Mother Goose nursery rhyme:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
But, together both,
They licked the platter clean.

Rather than fight with Martine about what I cook, I will gladly arrange for her to have any take-out meals she desires. She is considerate enough not to over-abuse this privilege.

Other than food shopping, I viewed a classic psychological horror film from 1943, Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. And I read about a third of Jan Neruda’s excellent 19th century Prague Tales. Jan is not to be confused with Pablo Neruda, who hi-jacked the Czech writer’s last name as his nom de plume.

Incorrigible Bookworm

Picture of Me at the Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

Sometimes, I just have to sit up and take a good look at myself. Where in Blue Blazes did this Bookworm come from? There was no one like me in the family. I was looked at by my family with a combination of contempt and admiration. When I was doing well in high school (I was the valedictorian of my class), I was referred to as “the walking dictionary.” I was a person of whom prodigies were expected … in the normal course of events. People expected my help with their homework—even if I knew zilch about the subject.

In fact, books were for me an escape. I was a sickly child, stricken by numerous allergies and frequent and debilitating headaches. The latter turned out to be a brain tumor in my pituitary gland. When I came out of surgery in the fall of 1966, I kept asking myself, “Why me?” I went almost overnight from a devout Catholic to a lapsed Catholic. I continued to suffer various physical and mental after-effects because of the lifelong steroid therapy that ensued.

I was never any good at athletics. For exercise, I liked to walk a lot. I couldn’t even drive a car until I reached the age of forty, and I no longer had to take a blood pressure medication (Catapres) that caused me to fall asleep in moving vehicles.

And so, at an early age, I turned to books. Was it because my mother used to tell me fantastic stories about fairy princesses in the dark forest that she told me in Hungarian? I couldn’t really read English with any proficiency until the third or fourth grade.

I started to accumulate books at home, causing some friction with my parents. They didn’t like to see me spending money for books at Scroeder’s Bookstore on Cleveland’s Public Square. Once, when my cousin Emil saw me reading Tom Sawyer in the living room, he grabbed the book out of my hands and hurled it at the floor, causing it to bounce. “This is what I think of books!” he said while I wondered what was coming next.

Of course, I love books. Even though I have donated over a thousand books from my collection to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I still read as much as ever, if not more so.

 

Sherlock Holmes et al

A Book That Introduced Me to Some Great Writers

Sherlock Holmes was never the only game in town. Granted, he was easily the best of the Victorian and Edwardian detectives; but there were a number of others worth reading. When I came upon the above book years ago, I was introduced to a whole constellation of British crime-fighters. The book was edited by Sir Hugh Greene (1910-1987), brother of novelist Graham Greene and director-general of the BBC during the 1960s. In all, he produced four books honoring lesser-known British and American detectives:

  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  • Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971)
  • The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973)
  • The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1979)

The original volume was by far the best of the series. The only author I followed from the three later volumes was Jacques Futrelle, creator of the Thinking Machine detective stories, who drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912.

For a number of years, I sought collections of several authors recommended in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The ones who interested me the most were:

  • Arthur Morrison, who, in addition to his Martin Hewitt stories wrote the very Dickensian The Hole in the Wall and the excellent Dorrington Deed Box
  • Clifford Ashdown, author of the Romney Pringle stories
  • Baroness Orczy, the Hungarian woman author who gave us The Scarlet Pimpernel also wrote a series about a lady journalist in London named Polly Burton (The Old Man in the Corner stories)
  • R. Austin Freeman’s Edwardian Doctor Thorndyke forensic investigation stories appeared in several volumes
  • William Hope Hodgson wrote a series of stories about a ghost investigator named Carnacki
  • Ernest Bramah, a tea merchant, gave us a blind detective named Max Carrados, who was actually able to read newspapers by feeling the ink on the newsprint

My favorites from the above list are Bramah and Morrison, with Orczy and Freeman not far behind. Unfortunately, most of their books are devilishly hard to find.

 

Repeat Performances

I Frequently Re-Read Books That Have Impressed Me

This year I have re-read ten books since the start of 2019, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It has been eleven years since I have read any Conrad, back when I had finally finished Under Western Eyes, which I had started back in college. The main reason I ever re-read a book is to see whether I have somehow changed in the intervening years. Very occasionally, I forget that I have read a particular work in the past and go through it a second time, not realizing my mistake until I check my reading log. Below is a list of 2019 re-reads:

  • Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
  • Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • Sean O’Casey: Juno and the Paycock
  • Virginia Woolf: Monday or Tuesday, Eight Stories. I re-read this one by accident.
  • John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. I will probably re-read a number of other books about Mexico in the next few months, most of which I have not touched for over 30 years.
  • William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Multiple re-reads.
  • G. K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson and The Poet and the Lunatics. I frequently re-read Chesterton for sheer enjoyment.
  • J. E. Neale: Queen Elizabeth I

A Joy to Read Any Number of Times

As my Yucatán vacation draws close, I will probably re-read Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico; Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico!; and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and a few other books.

 

Cogitus Interruptus

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Laurence Sterne

He was a Yorkshire Anglican clergyman who just happened to write one of the five greatest novels ever written, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) gave us The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1761), a book that can be read and re-read with pleasure over an entire lifetime. It was in the mid 1960s that I first encountered it in Chauncey C. Loomis’s class on “The Eighteenth Century English Novel.” Loomis was my favorite professor of English, which happened to be my major at Dartmouth. I am still re-living that class and re-reading the books that he assigned. That makes his class one of the best I ever took.

Tristram Shandy revolves around four plot points that would seem to be pretty thin. All the plot points involve either interruptions or “abridgments” of various sorts:

  1. Just as Mr Shandy and his wife are approaching orgasm, the latter asks her husband if he has rewound their clock.
  2. When Tristram is being born, the forceps of Dr Slop, who presides at the birth, crush the little lad’s nose.
  3. As a result of a miscommunication with one of the servants, the new baby is christened Tristram instead of Trismegistus.
  4. Tristram is accidentally circumcised when a window crashes down upon his foreskin.

How these four main plot points are stretched out over some five hundred pages of warmth and hilarity is a major miracle. The plot is positively Ptolemaic, with little epicycles and interruptions that create hilarious interludes.

It has always amazed me that it is the young Tristram Shandy who is narrating the novel. Yet he is not born until midway through the book, after we have been exposed to numerous incidents which the young Shandy could not have experienced as he was still in utero.

I can see myself coming back to Tristram Shandy again and again, paging at random to the beginning of a sequence, and reveling in it again … and again.