Sunday, April 23, 2017

Brave New World, finally

            I finally read Brave New World after resisting it for many years. I found a good deal of it dated, not surprisingly, but also jejune, although the latter reaction might have had something to do with Michael York’s reading with its audible chewing of the scenery. There’s too much whining and not enough of the humor I found in Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counterpoint, all books that I loved and have reread.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Didion on the South

            A very quirky little book by Joan Didion, called South and West: From a Notebook (2017), is mostly about the South. Her “Notes on the South,” taken during a 1970 visit, reveal some strange impressions about the region, which she formed during a road trip starting in New Orleans, continuing along the Gulf Coast as far as Biloxi, up to Hattiesburg and Meridian, on to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, back to Oxford, and then down the delta and back to New Orleans. “The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan,” she writes about the trip she took with her husband John Gregory Dunne. Her general impression of the South might be summed up in her peculiar, repeated reaction to the light there: New Orleans “is dark…the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects it but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” And on the Gulf Coast “the light is odd…light entirely absorbed by what it strikes.”

            New Orleans is preoccupied “with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.” She does nail that feature the deep South shares with fundamentalists everywhere: “the solidarity engendered by outside disapproval.” And yet, she believes that the South, not California, is for America “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

            But her method is to present in detail her observations of the backwardness, prejudice, ignorance, and squalor of each tiny gas station-cum-eating joint in rural Mississippi and Alabama where they stopped—and then to record interviews with the country-club set, which in this case includes Hodding Carter III. The method leaves out the whole huge middle, and she acknowledges it.

            In the very short “California Notes,” Didion uses an informal commission to observe and write about the 1976 Patty Hearst trial to ignore the trial and look at some of her own misapprehensions about her class and its tastes, which she absorbed growing up in California. Though she does not say it expressly, she must have realized that she could not look at Patty Hearst and her background with the objectivity she had once imagined she possessed. Her account of the trial was never written.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dead Friends

Sitting on the terrace of the Monterey Court on a recent mild February evening in Tucson and listening to my neighbor John Coinman finish a song about the loss of an old friend, my attention turned inward. When you lose a friend who was the companion of your youth, your blood brother with whom you shared all the hope and determination of conquering the world with your art—when this happens to you and you are my friend John, you sing a song about it.
            My friendship with Pat Kent, dead these twenty-five years now, was like John’s with his friend: hitchhiking together through the Southwest, dropping out of college together, getting as far from home as we could, dreaming of being writers. What happens when you lose a friend so close you finish each other’s sentences? You finish your own sentences, I guess.
            It’s an old, old story, older even than the Greek epics. Gilgamesh’s friendship with Enkidu, the tamed wild man of the forest, begins with a fight that ends in their sworn fellowship. Together they kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the vengeful goddess Ishtar. Together they tackle the most fearsome creature imaginable, the Humbaba. Gilgamesh strikes the first blow, Enkidu the second. We are not told who strikes the third blow that fells the monster; thus does the poet indicate the closeness of their cooperation. To find the creature, Gilgamesh and Enkidu have braved the fearsome wood that stretches ten thousand leagues in every direction. But Enkidu has a dream: the gods have decided that one of them must die. Enkidu knows that Gilgamesh is the hero of this poem, so it is Enkidu who sickens and dies. The author of the Gilgamesh epic, writing at the end of the third millennium before Christ, knows the varied feelings the death of a friend engenders and how these are mixed.
            When my friend Pat died he and I were in our late forties. The bloom of youth was off, but there was plenty of world left to conquer. Pat had increased the number of languages for which he did technical translations to twenty-two—he was a remarkable linguist. I had published my fourth book and was a couple of years from being named chair of my college department. His cancer had already metastasized when he was diagnosed and took only about a year to kill him. This death brought me stinging grief followed by the emptiness of loss. But other feelings forced themselves into the grief. The bloom of youth was off for sure with the realization of my own mortality. Pat’s death was the closest that had yet touched me. A kind of futility replaced my anticipation of the future.
            Montaigne’s great friend Étienne de La Boétie was only thirty-two when he died, and Montaigne was thirty. He celebrates their comradeship in one of his first essays, “On Friendship.” Astute readers, including Virginia Woolf and Montaigne’s translator Donald Frame, have written about his need to write to preserve his mental health, and the fact that the first series of essays was written in the half dozen years after the death of his friend. He tells us himself that his first idea about the form his writing should take was letters written to La Boétie. But he happily settled on a form which, if he didn’t invent it, certainly traces its modern origin to him. For Adam Gopnik, the form of the essay itself reproduces the wish to communicate in this personal fashion: it says to the reader, “You’re my best friend.”
            Gilgamesh experiences a profound fear of his own death following that of his friend. He goes on a quest for eternal life. After a number of adventures, the futility of the quest finally gets through to him, and he returns to the city of Uruk, whose walls he built himself, and, in the words of one of his translators, Nancy Sandars, he “engraved on a stone the whole story.”
            Grief, thoughts of one’s own mortality, and a stab at immortality for ourselves, our dead friends, and our friendship. Sing the song, build the city and preserve the story in stone, write the essay.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Election 2016

I am renaming Orozco's print, "Election 2016."
Like all right-thinking people, I conclude, when an election goes my way, that a good system is working as it should. When it doesn’t go my way, I bemoan a deranged system where the δημος, the mob, can be unduly influenced by a δημηγορος, a demagogue. In the case of the election of 2016, it was hardly any skill of a demagogue that did the trick. Anybody can see through that guy—unless you’re in love. Proust says more than once in In Search of Lost Time that the beloved is never a real person but always the imaginary creation of the lover. The electorate fell in love with a figure of their own imagining, a combination of wealth, celebrity, and take-me-back nostalgia, who was going to restore a past that meant different things to everyone who imagined that the promiser could bring it back. For one guy it meant a time when you didn’t have to have a college degree to get a good job. For another guy it was a time when everyone “knew his place.” For one woman it was a time when the faces all looked like hers. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Suite Française

The last couple of years have begun for me with reading about the beginning of WWII. At the beginning of 2016 I read A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris about the fall of Paris (Liebling was there until a day or two before the Germans marched in) and the beginning of the war before the U. S. entered the European theater and the Germans began to be pushed back in North Africa.  At the beginning of this year I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, about Parisians fleeing the city just before the Germans marched in, and the people in provincial France coping with the occupation. These were two completed novels of a projected five that Némirovsky wrote in 1942, just before she was sent to Auschwitz, and which weren’t published until 2004. In the first novel, Storm in June, Némirovsky follows four groups of people as they attempt to get out of Paris and to what they hope is the safety of Nîmes, Tours, or Vichy. In the second novel, Dolce, she shows us the people in and around the village of Bussy: the local aristocracy, the families of the village, and the farmers, as they cope with German officers living in their houses. Némirovsky skewers the provincials and their stinginess, one farmer’s truculent, jealous and resentful nature, the haughtiness of the local aristocracy, and the minute hierarchical gradations among the bourgeoisie. She strikes me as owing more to Flaubert than to any Russian novelist. She delights in careful description, often, as in Flaubert, choosing the physical details that give insight into a venal, selfish, or weak character. Clarity and precise word choice, lyrical passages, but mostly lucid and simple storytelling characterize her writing. By 1942 Némirovsky had been a successful novelist for thirteen years and though writing in a tense and deteriorating situation, she got her adopted countrymen down on the page with grace and precision.