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.

Plague Diary 24: Zoom, Babies, and Barkies

Boredom Times Infinity

There are a number of stereotypes emerging from our months’ long quarantine: Zoom images of not altogether with it participants, small children, and pets—just to name a few. Being retired and not involved in alcoholism or recreational drugs, I am not into Zoom. There are zero circumstances which would call for a number of my friends and acquaintances being dragooned into meeting with me. Besides, I don’t have a camera on my PC at present. If I decide to get Skype or some other video telephony application, I might change my mind. Otherwise, nyet.

Pets and Babies Do Nothing for Me

It seems that most quarantiners have an irresistible urge to feature their pets and small children. That would have meant something to me decades ago, when I wanted to join that particular club. But having my pituitary gland and the chromophobe adenoma that devoured it removed at the age of twenty-one, I became ineligible to have a baby that looked anything like me. Nowadays, when I think of babies, I think of overfilled diapers. And I become comically allergic when I spend more than a couple hours with a dog or cat.

I would very much like to see my friends, but fortunately I am not going crazy from isolation. It seems that I am well-prepared for quarantining:

  • I have a library of several thousand books
  • I own hundreds of DVDs of classic movies, foreign and domestic
  • My cable TV gives me access to hundreds of free movies each week
  • I like to cook
  • I have a telephone

So I don’t have to shove pets and poopy diapers in your face, and I don’t need to appear on Zoom wearing nothing below my navel. You might call it the joys of sublimation.

Plague Diary 20: More Books and Films

Christopher Plummer in Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades

It was yet another day in quarantine (I am not keeping count). I started by making hot chocolate with the premium chocolate I had purchased in Mexico during my vacation. When produced in a double boiler the chocolate comes out perfect every time.

Then I decided to take a walk to the mailbox on Barry, about a mile east of here, to return a Netflix DVD of two Japanese samurai films I had seen over the previous two days. (I will write more about them in a future post.) I also wanted to stop in at the local Target store, but I had forgotten to bring my face mask with me—something I do about half the time. I notice a lot of people wear face masks all the time. They remind me of people who sleep alone with condoms draped over their jewels.

I returned to eat lunch with Martine. Mine was a couple of Chinese beef buns accompanied by frozen peach slices. While Martine went for her afternoon walk, I watched Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) starring Burl Ives and Christopher Plummer. There were some beautiful shots of the Everglades and its bird life, and some highly dubious plotting, even if Budd Schulberg wrote the script.

Martine had wanted us to order Japanese from the Aki Restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd, so I phoned in an order and picked it up. It was a tasty reminder of when we used to eat our weekend meals in restaurants.

After dinner, I began reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013), set during the Chechen wars. It looked like a good read.

Which brings me near to the end of another day. I will watch another episode of “Deep Space 9” and hit the sack.

 

 

Plague Diary 19: A Busy Day

Masks … Masks … Masks

This is a short post because the Internet has slowed to the speed of a rheumatic snail with bunions. This morning, I had to take my car in for repairs related to A/C and ventilation—especially as it’s about to get hot soon. Then I had to drive Martine for an EKG in preparation for a colonoscopy scheduled for next month. I finished one book (Terry Pratchett’s Jingo) and read most of a second (Tony Hillerman’s The Shape Shifter). Within a few minutes, I will watch on old Deep Space 9 re-run hoping for a glimpse of Jadzia Dax or Major Kira Nerys. Then, bed.

 

RLS on Vailima

Epitaph of Robert Louis Stevenson at Vailima on Samoa

He wrote his own epitaph for his grave atop a mountain in Samoa, and it is one of the great epitaphs:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

I have become obsessed by the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Pacific, where he busily spent his last days in a frenzy of writing, local politics, and building. I had always liked the work of RLS, but I think in the South Seas he came into his own.

One of the best books I have read over the last twelve months are the Vailima Letters:  Being Correspondence addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin (1895) of the author, named after the estate he built in Samoa, just south of the capital at Apia.

Stevenson’s Estate at Vailima: Early Stages

About a year ago, a friend in Australia recommended two books about Stevenson’s final days in Samoa: Joseph Farrell’s Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa and Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room. I immediately downloaded both books from Amazon Kindle. The Farrell I read last May, and I am now halfway through the Michael Fitzgerald. Both have been excellent reads. Now I will try to read more of RLS’s last novels that he wrote from Vailima.

As I grow older, I find myself drawn more and more to Stevenson. His style is so limpid, and yet his thoughts can be so profound.

 

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.