The Januarius Budapest Trifecta

Having finished my jaunt to the decaying Roman Empire during the Visigothic invasions, I decided to read three books in a row written by Hungarian authors:

  • Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir (2008), a first novel about a murder on the streets of Budapest.
  • Magda Szabo’s The Door (1987), a novel about the relationship between two women, a writer and a peasant.
  • Laszló F. Földényi’s Melancholy (1984), a history of melancholy through the ages.

As we begin 2023, I find the farther I get from my own Hungarian roots, the more at loose ends I feel. There is a figure in Greek mythology called Antaeus, about whom Wikipedia writes:

Antaeus would challenge all passers-by to wrestling matches and remained invincible as long as he remained in contact with his mother, the earth. As Greek wrestling, like its modern equivalent, typically attempted to force opponents to the ground, he always won, killing his opponents. He built a temple to his father using their skulls. Antaeus fought Heracles as he was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides as his 11th Labour. Heracles realized that he could not beat Antaeus by throwing or pinning him. Instead, he held him aloft and then crushed him to death in a bear hug.

Returning to my Hungarian roots is like Antaeus renewing himself by touching the earth. (If, however, I run into Heracles, I will pointedly avoid wrestling with him.)

So far, I am on schedule with my Januarius reading program.

Baker’s Dozen

Indian Novelist Anita Desai (Born 1937)

On this last day of November, I am happy to report that my month of reading only books by women authors was both highly successful and satisfying. In a post I made at the beginning of November, I wrote:

For the month of November, I will be reading only women writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the authors will be new to me; some of the books will be re-reads.I began by reading a short story collection entitled Dead-End Memories by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto.When I finish, I will re-read Joan Didion’s Salvador.

From there, a number of possibilities present themselves, including Virginia Woolf, Edwige Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Wisława Szymborska, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Freya Stark, Norah Lange, Dawn Powell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.I’ll just see where the spirit moves me. At the end of the month, I will summarize the discoveries I have made.

In the end, I came pretty close to my aim. Here is the final list:

  • Banana Yoshimoto, Dead-End Memories (short stories)
  • Joan Didion, Salvador (travel/history) – reread
  • Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (fiction)
  • Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (fiction) – reread
  • Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier (history)
  • Anita Desai, Journey to Ithaca (fiction)
  • Mary Austin, One-Smoke Stories (short stories)
  • Patricia Highsmith, Found in the Street (fiction)
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway (short stories)
  • Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (autobiography/fiction)
  • Norah Lange, The People in the Room (fiction) – reread
  • Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (autobiography/essays)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (noir fiction)

That makes a full baker’s dozen of thirteen books.

The best three were Jacob’s Room, Northanger Abbey, and Sleepless Nights. Writers I had never read before included Banana Yoshimoto, Elizabeth Hardwick (a real find!), and Edwidge Danticat.

I may well do this again next year. Too long I have been ignoring the real talent of great women authors.

Life Itself

Billie Holiday in Concert

In this month of reading only works by women authors, I have made an interesting discovery. The only works I have read this month that have the feeling of life itself are Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). 1920s London and Postwar Manhattan come alive in these books in a way that even James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses failed to with all the literary allusions.

Woolf and Hardwick make us feel present in a simple and direct fashion. It is almost as if they were writing their own autobiographies as they lived their lives. Sleepless Nights even reads like an autobiography. For instance, she knew Billie Holiday and writes about her as if she were a close friend:

A genuine nihilism; genuine, look twice. Infatuated glances saying, Beautiful black star, can you love me? The answer: No.

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

She goes on for several pages about the singer, all of them more real and vivid than anything I have read about any performing artist.

In the same way, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) make the reader feel he or she is walking the streets of the London of George V. One does not feel one is in the past: She makes the past feel like the present.

Even Marcel Proust, whose description of the states of mind of his characters is without peer, cannot put the reader on the street running for a trolley and registering the sights and sounds of the city.

I am not sure I have expressed myself properly. I will have to investigate the matter more deeply. Stay tuned.

“Wise and Most Possible”

It was one of the most meaningful Twitter posts ever written when Maya Angelou said, “‎The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.”

For the month of November, I will be reading only women writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the authors will be new to me; some of the books will be re-reads.I began by reading a short story collection entitled Dead-End Memories by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto.When I finish, I will re-read Joan Didion’s Salvador.

From there, a number of possibilities present themselves, including Virginia Woolf, Edwige Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Wisława Szymborska, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Freya Stark, Norah Lange, Dawn Powell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.I’ll just see where the spirit moves me. At the end of the month, I will summarize the discoveries I have made.

And there are sure to be discoveries. Already I love Banana Yoshimoto’s stories, which deal with subjects that men feel uncomfortable with. And that where the Maya Angelou quote comes into play.

Pumpkins and Skeletons

This last Saturday, Martine and I visited the Grier Musser Museum, which had just re-opened to the public after the Covid-19 lockdown. I have always particularly loved their Halloween antiques, art, and other displays, such as the above throw pillow. Martine wore her witch costume (see yesterday’s post: Decidedly a Good Witch). We both resolved to re-visit them just before Christmas, when their displays will be less horrific.

Tonight, I watched four horror films in a row, three of which were the original Universal Frankenstein releases:

  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Plague of Zombies (1966)—a Hammer horror film

I waited by the door just in case some trick-or-treaters would come. As usual none came. I don’t think any have climbed the stairs for upwards of thirty years. I thought this year would be different because my downstairs neighbors are Ukrainian refugees with two young daughters.

Now that Halloween is almost past, I realize we are in the HallowThanksMas Continuum, where three Holidays seem to come one after the other like falling dominoes.

This October, I read four horror-related books in celebration of Halloween:

  • Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine (1817-1834)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the first half of which is set in a spooky abandoned monastery
  • Edith Wharton’s Ghosts (1937), selected by the author
  • Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008), a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley story

In Praise of Minor Talents

The Good Doctor Ruffled a Few Feathers, Including Mine

As part of my annual Halloween reading, I just finished the Oxford World’s Classics Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine. In the early decades of the 19th century, that’s where budding writing talents turned for examples of tales of horror. Among the most devoted readers were Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning, and—most particularly—Edgar Allan Poe.

Of the seventeen stories in the collection, I had only heard of two of them before: Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, a.k.a. the Ettrick Shepherd. The other writers (who were all new to me) were Patrick Fraser-Tytler, John Wilson,Daniel Keyte Sandford, John Galt, John Howison, William Maginn, Henry Thomson, Catherine Sinclair, Michael Scott, William Mudford, William Godwin the Younger, and Samuel Warren. All of their stories were first class.

Now I understand why Poe wrote him famous essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” And why Leigh Hunt wrote in 1819:

A man who does not contribute his quota of grim stories now-a-days seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death’s head, as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten every body, he is nobody.

Well, I could testify that I was frightened by this collection—by a bunch of “minor” writers who knew what they were doing. The credit for this collection goes to the two co-editors, Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick.

I was particularly entranced by the three selections from a long-running serial in Blackwood’s entitled Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (appearing from 832-1837) by Samuel Warren (1807-1877).

Hoke Moseley

Damn! He Looks a Lot Like Me

I have just finished reading all of Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels about a Miami police sergeant investigating homicides. Unfortunately, there are only four novels in the series:

  • Miami Blues (1984)
  • New Hope for the Dead (1985)
  • Sideswipe (1987)
  • The Way We Die Now (1988)

Hoke Moseley is a decidedly soft-edged detective. He soaks his false teeth in a glass, has no ambitions regarding promotion, is helping to take care of his two teenage daughters as well as his pregnant Cuban police partner (he was not the father), and is actually an all-around nice guy. He drinks beer, plays Monopoly, and is, in many ways, quite average. Very refreshing for a change!

If you like the Florida crazies in the novels of John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen, you will love Willeford’s Hokester. It’s too bad that he wrote his best novels at the end of his career (he died in 1988) instead of earlier. That way, he could have written more of the Moseley saga.

I urge you to start with Miami Blues and continue with the other three titles. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better series for summer reading.

Writing on Water

How Many Literary Classics Are About Surfing?

Paul Theroux’s novel Under the Wave at Waimea (2021) looks at life through the eyes of an aging champion surfer whose life takes a turn for the worse after he runs over a drunk, homeless cyclist near his home on the North Shore of O’ahu.

Theroux describes his hero, Joe Sharkey:

Sharkey surfed every day, and every day tried something new—a turn, a cutback, swiveling on the face of a wave as though carving his signature on it, writing on water. It was not practice or preparation; it was a way of spending the day, easing the passage of time; a way of living his life, because he made the moves his own.

With the help of his girlfriend, Olivia, Joe seeks to change his luck by trying to find out more about his victim, whose body is still identified at the morgue in Honolulu. The result is a spiritual journey to understand his life and the life of the people affected by the accident.

I have always thought of surfing as a lightweight activity. In his book, Theroux manages to interweave Joe Sharkey’s life on the waves with an almost metaphysical understanding of what it all means:

Nothing was certain. Every wave had a hidden contour and something like a mystical muscle in it that could trip you: every succeeding wave had the capacity to hold you down and suffocate you to death. The world was a wave, a wave was pitiless.

With Under the Wave at Waimea, Paul Theroux has attained a level of mastery in the art of fiction that I long suspected he had the potential for, but have not hitherto seen in print—though he came close on occasion.

I am happy to give my highest recommendation to his Under the Wave at Waimea, certainly the best current American novel I have read since 2000.

Have You Read These 7 Authors?

Lászlo Krasznahorkai (1954-Present)

Among my friends, I am known for the obscurity of my reading choices. In fact, I even split with one of my old friends because he thought most of my reading was not sufficiently dogmatic in a Marxist sense. Of course, he read about eight books a year, while I typically read somewhere between 150 and 160. Call me ugly, call me fat, call me vicious even—but don’t attack my reading choices.

Here are seven authors whose work I have read this year who are relatively unknown even to more literate readers, but they are all excellent writers. And several of them have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

  • Ivo Andrić (1892-1975). Bosnian Serb.1921-1996) Nobel Prize. Most famous work: The Bridge on the Drina.
  • Nicolas Bouvier (1929-1998). Swiss. Travel writer. Most famous work: The Way of the World.
  • George Mackay Brown (1921-1996). Scottish from the Orkneys. Poet and fiction writer. Most famous work: Collected Poetry.
  • Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995). American. Mysteries. Most famous work: Strangers on a Train.
  • Lászlo Krasznahorkai (1954-Present). Hungarian. Novelist. Most famous work: The Melancholy of Resistance.
  • Patrick Modiano (1945-Present). French. Novelist. Nobel Prize. Most famous work: Pedigree.
  • Derek Walcott (1930-2017). Caribbean. Poet. Nobel Prize. Most famous work: Omeros.

If you recognize two or more of the above writers, you have my congratulations. I have read multiple works of five of the above. I plan to read more by Bouvier and Walcott in the coming six months.

Bibliotherapy

The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles

There is no question in my mind that reading books can be a form of therapy. Not all books, but certainly those that make you think. Some books could be the opposite of therapeutic, like anything by Ayn Rand or Donald J. Trump.

I read incessantly. Only when I am ill do I not pick up a book. Since September 1998, I have read 2,750 books, ranging from literary classics to poetry to philosophy to history to travel.

Beginning in 1975, the year of my first real vacation (in Yucatán, Mexico), I decided to prepare several months in advance by reading books about my destination. They included archaeology, history, fiction, and descriptions of journeys. That way, when I finally reached my destination, I was there as a person who knew all sorts of things about where he was. That made me feel good about traveling. I didn’t feel like an ignorant interloper.

The therapeutic aspect was there, too. I came to the conclusion that the best philosophy books were written by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus had more to say about the human condition than the vast majority of academic philosophers, whose works were by and large unreadable. And it didn’t involve swallowing a whole lot of dogma administered by organized religion.

If you were to read the four dialogues of Plato about the death of Socrates (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo), you will have read the greatest works of Western Philosophy ever written.

Also worth considering are some of the Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist texts, such as The Bhagavad Gita, The Tao Te Ching, and the literature of Zen Buddhism. They taught me that desire is always accompanied by suffering. The less one desires, the happier one is. And happiness is not a lasting thing: It goes into hiding and manifests itself only at irregular intervals.

Now if I can only declare my book purchases as medical expenses….