W. H. Auden’s “Good Angel”

Hannay, Lynton; Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923)

Extending from the reign of Queen Victoria to the aftermath of World War II, Britain produced a bumper crop of great literary scholars and essayists. I have already written about F. L. Lucas (1894-1967). I am currently exploring the work of W. P. Ker, short for William Paton Ker. It was poet W. H. Auden who, in The Dyer’s Hand, penned this tribute to the Scottish scholar:

[w]hat good angel lured me into Blackwell’s [Oxford Bookstore] one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every age and tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.

I have been reading Volume I Ker’s Collected Essays, which one of the literature librarians at the Los Angeles Central Library entrusted me to take out, though it belongs to the Reference Collection. I read with interest until, suddenly, beginning with Page 109, I hate pay dirt. No doubt the name of Horace Walpole probably doesn’t mean much to most people, unless they suffered through the gothic The Castle of Otranto in college English. Instead, Ker concentrates on Walpole’s letters. Here he describes the country around Chamonix in the Alpes in a letter to his friend Paget Toynbee on September 18, 1739:

But the road, West, the road! winding round a prodigious mountain, and surrounded with others, all shagged with hanging woods, obscured with pines, or lost in clouds. Below, a torrent breaking through cliffs, and tumbling through fragments of rocks! Sheets of cascades forcing their silver speed down channeled precipices, and hastening into the roughened river at the bottom. Now and then and old footbridge, with a broken rail, a leaning cross, a cottage or the ruin of an hermitage. This sounds too bombastic and too romantic to one who has not seen it, too cold for one that has. If I could send you my letter post between two lovely tempests that echoed each other’s wrath, you might have some idea of this noble roaring scene, as you were reading it.

There are almost no collections of literary letters being written now, because there are no letters. There are scads of e-mails, tweets, text messages—few of which will be (or deserve to be) saved. Ker himself explains why such letters are valuable:

There is an interest in reading a series of letters like this which is not found even in personal memoirs. It may be a childish idea, but somehow in reading letters one seems to be nearer to the reality than in reading any other history. The phantoms of the past rise there less pale and shadowy than in common history, they come nearer to us, the colours deepen, the voices are more distinct. Letters like those of Cicero are not a record of the time; they are the life itself, the very accents of the time. He does not write any more to Atticus or to his brother: he writes to us: he tells us how Caesar came to stay with him, how they talked at dinner, how they spoke, Caesar spoke.

I wasted no time in buying Volume I of Horace Walpole’s collected letters (only 99 cents on Kindle). And I will, of course, finish reading Ker’s Collected Essays.

Ker’s Excellent The Dark Ages (1904)

This is not the first work of Ker’s that I have read. I own an old Mentor paperback edition of his The Dark Ages, and I have read portions of his Epic and Romance (1908), which is still available through Dover Publications.

Unutterably Alien

Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933-2012) Strugatsky, the World’s Greatest Sci-Fi Writers

There is something about these two Russian brothers: They wrote the simply most incredible science fiction novels. I am thinking particularly of Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине), writen in 1972. At some time in the past, parts of Earth were visited by one or more bands of interstellar travelers. They left their mark on the places they have stayed—in strange, unaccountable ways. Nowhere is there a description of the visitors: no one alive has ever seen them. But the laws of matter and energy don’t seem to work there any more.

The novel was turned into a film by fellow Russian Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. The film was called Stalker, and it was one of the greatest films produced anywhere in that decade. The film so influenced Geoff Dyer that he wrote a book in 2012 called Zona about his memories of the movie.

Scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

This is some powerful stuff. Those two brothers had some freaky visions that could so influence so many follow-on works. I am currently reading one of their earlier works, Space Apprentice (Стажеры) (1962). It’s not quite the level of Roadside Picnic, but it is fascinating.

While we’re on the subject of Eastern European sci-fi writers, I thought I’d put in a word for Poland’s Stanisław Lem , author of Eden (1959). In that novel, the earthling explorers go to a strange new world, where they are ignored. The protagonists can make nothing whatsoever of the local inhabitants.

From Point A to Point B

UPS Freight Jets

There is a growing branch of literature which consists of nonfiction. How is that possible? The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus for her work, which consists primarily of interviews of people affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl or the Soviet War in Afghanistan. As for Americans, we have John McPhee, who has written a series of nonfiction works of high literary quality.

I have just finished reading his Uncommon Carriers, which deals, in turn, with long-haul truckers; a place in France where ships’ pilots are trained; boats that tow barges on American rivers; the parcel sorting services of UPS; and mile-and-a-half-long coal trains. In between, there is a delightful essay by the author about retracing the route of Henry David Thoreau and his brother John described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—which I had read when it was first published in the New Yorker.

McPhee likes to take what looks like a boring subject that nobody would write about and turn it into a gem. For instance, there is that tetralogy he wrote about American geology beginning with Basin and Range and ending with Assembling California. One would think that McPhee’s books might be a tad boring, but they never are.

To date, I have read—in the order of publication—the following ten McPhee titles:

  • The Crofter and the Laird
  • Pieces of the Frame
  • Giving Good Weight
  • Basin and Range
  • In Suspect Terrain
  • La Place de la Concorde Suisse
  • Rising from the Plains
  • The Control of Nature
  • Looking for a Ship
  • Uncommon Carriers

There’s not a single boring read in the bunch. Each McPhee I read whets my appetite for more.

Deep in Cinnabon America

Universal City’s City Walk

Universal City’s City Walk

There are parts of Los Angeles that are no really for Angelenos. They are for the Flyover People who come to see a fake-o version of my city. I paid my 35¢ and took the Metro Rail downtown, transferring to the Red Line subway to get me to Universal City. I used to enjoy going there more when Gladstones 4 Fish was located there, but now there are other glitzy (mostly chain) restaurants that promise more than they deliver.

The whole place was crawling with tourists, including many Chinese and Japanese who were taking cellphone photographs of everything. I had a decent Smokehouse Burger at Johnny Rocket’s, and wandered around seeing the sights. In my hands was a book, Hunter S. Thompson’s Generation of Swine about the craziness of the 1980s. Well, Thompson is gone now, but things are crazier than ever. For one thing, I was probably the only person in the place who was carrying a book. Everybody else was playing with their smart phones, taking pictures of the sights, and of each other, proving conclusively that they were in striking distance of the sights.

I am of an age which confers a certain degree of invisibility. I have no tattoos, no beard, no wrinkled camouflage shorts with dozens of pockets, no smart phone. I felt like some ancient saurian dripping with mud that had just crawled out of a primitive past. But then, did I have anything in common with the scads of tourists? Not really, nor did I have anything against them. We were just inhabiting different planes of existence.

In the end, I felt good about myself. I felt I had nothing to prove. I left my camera at home, and didn’t take any pictures with my flip phone. I did read a few chapters of Hunter Thompson, and I felt that was good.

 

 

The Book Collectors

Antiquarian Book Shows Are Not for Everybody

Antiquarian Book Shows Are Not for Everybody

Today, I went to an antiquarian book show. I used to go to them in years past and succeeded in making a number of finds; but now I find the market has priced itself into the stratosphere. There were beautiful centuries-old leatherbound books, immaculate Faulkners and Steinbecks with perfect dust jackets, and prices ranging into the thousands of dollars.

If I owned a Bugatti or Talbot Lago, I would probably not drive it around town lest some uninsured drunken sot would T-bone it. Likewise, if I spent thousands of dollars for first editions, I would not pull the books off the shelf, read them, and underline the significant passages in ball point ink.

There are half a dozen books I have purchased because they looked really good, usually consisting of titles which I already owned in reading copies. I own a signed G. K. Chesterton, for example, that I would never profane by reading. I have some friends who would never read a paperback book, or who pooh-pooh ever reading an e-book. I am not so fastidious. The only time I would bypass an e-book is if I were reading nonfiction that contained useful maps, illustrations, bibliographies, and indexes. I would probably prefer to read Dickens with the Cruickshank illustrations, or Lewis Carroll with the Tenniel illustrations.

By and large, I am a consumer of books. Many of my best titles are ratty, old, and with damaged spines. Some (shudder!) have been underlined by previous owners. Some are sturdy ex-library editions bound in buckram.

I own a few books that would interest an antiquarian book collector, but generally, they wouldn’t waste their time with me.

 

My Best of 2016

Heavily Weighted Toward 20th Century Fiction

Heavily Weighted Toward 20th Century Fiction

Below is a list of the ten best works of fiction (or near-fiction) that I read in 2016. No re-reads were included, which is probably why the twentieth century is over-represented. Three of the works (the first three listed below) purport to be straight non-fiction, but include fictional elements. They are listed below in alphabetical order by last name of the author:

  • Alexievich, Svetlana. Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War. Powerful stuff. Her concept of literature as interviews works really well because she’s great at getting people to open up.
  • Babitz, Eve. Eve’s Hollywood. Mostly autobiographical essay by the “It Girl” of the 1960s, with some fictional interpolations.
  • Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life. What it really means to lose someone you love.
  • Cohen, Albert. Belle de Seigneur. A thousand-page novel about illicit love in early 20th century France.
  • Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Probably a more realistic re-telling of the whole Bridge on the River Kwai story by a great Australian writer.
  • Modiano, Patrick. In the Café of Lost Youth. I am liking this French novelist more and more all the time.
  • Saer, Juan José. The Clouds. A tale of madness in Argentina in the 1800s.
  • Simenon, George. The Clockmaker. One of the mystery writer’s romans dur, about a father and his delinquent son.
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis and Lloyd Osbourne. The Ebb-Tide. Recommended by Jorge Luis Borges in one of his interviews, one of RLS’s best.
  • Wells, H G. Tono Bungay. A classical 19th century Victorian novel, decidedly not sci-fi.

The funny thing about this list is its variety. Is it because I’ve read most of the classical fiction repertoire already?

In 2017, I’m continuing my long-range project of reading most of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s work along with Joseph Frank’s five volume biography. And, of course, I’m still casting my nets wide to find the best of world literature.

 

 

The Journalist

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

Svetlana Alexievich, Winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature

I have only read two of her books so far, but they were both knockouts. First, there was Zinky Boys (1991), about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Now, added to that is Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997). Both books are descriptions of incredible suffering, and they are both powerful disincentives from enlisting in the Soviet military.

Svetlana Alexievich (b. 1948) is usually described as a Belorussian journalist, though she herself rejects the title: She has been known to edit the first person testimonials from one edition to the next, which is a big no-no for oral historians, but the mark of an imaginative writer. I do not mind, because I will accept 99-44/100% accuracy if it involves stylistic or other improvements.

Both Afghanistan and Chernobyl were unspeakable disasters that seemed to go on forever (the latter is still claiming victims), and you cannot hope for a better introduction to both than read Alexievich’s books.

In Voices from Chernobyl, the wife of one Soviet soldier who was involved in the cleanup says:

They say, “Chernobyl,” and they write, “Chernobyl.” But no one knows what it is. Something frightening opened up before us. Everything is different for us: we aren’t born the same, we don’t die the same. If you ask me, How do people die after Chernobyl? The person I loved more than anything, loved him so much that I couldn’t possibly have loved him more if I’d given birth to him myself—turned—before my eyes—into a monster. They’d taken out his lymph nodes, so they were gone and his circulation was disrupted, and then his nose kind of shifted, it grew three times bigger, and his eyes became different—they sort of drifted away, in different directions, there was a different light in them now, and I saw expressions in them I hadn’t seen, as if he was no longer himself but there was still someone in there looking out. Then one of the eyes closed completely.

I do not recommend reading the book on a full stomach. The same with Zinky Boys:

We were combing through a village. You fling open the door and throw in a grenade in case there’s a machine-gun waiting for you. Why take  a risk if a grenade could sort it out for you? I threw the grenade, went in and saw women, two little boys and a baby in some kind of box making do for a cot.

You have to find some kind of justification to stop yourself going mad. Suppose it’s true that the souls of the dead look down on us from above?

I know that we considered the Soviets to be our enemies, but these books describe scenes that one wouldn’t wish upon one’s worst enemy.