Thursday, January 28, 2010

Greene Gems

Is it possible to write two people better -- or more succinctly -- than this?

“Jules,” she said. “Jules, can’t you wait?” but she had no wish to wait, she welcomed him; she only regretted the promptitude of the embrace when it was so quickly finished that it might have been no more than the gesture he had made her in the park, a salutation across the street. He was with her, he was in her, he was away from her, brushing his hair before the glass, whistling a tune.

“Oh stop it,” she said. He glared at her; he had an idea that he had not satisfied, and he was irritated. He would have been humiliated but for the thought that there were months and years ahead; they were going to marry; he would do better next time. The window was open and he could smell bacon frying in the kitchen below. “Eggs and bacon,” he said. “I’m hungry.” He forgot for a moment what they had just been doing; there was so little to remind him of it, now that his body was quiet again.

She said: “I’m not hungry,” sullenly.
From It's a Battlefield, by Graham Greene
(New York: The Viking Press, 1934)
And in fact the whole novel is a masterpiece of Greene's pointilist style.

Now Snow Again

Now snow again
“Snow everywhere.
A cold house.
The bright colors of the women.”
And my mother
As if peacefully
at Ten Brook; I
Can’t cry about that much
Nor about being here
In Yankeeland
Not just so close to homeless, but
So far from home

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

B. Traven

A kindly reader pointed out that though I had mentioned B. Traven several times, I had not included him in the list of books you should read, so I added the following entry:

B. Traven, all. You are probably familiar with at least one of B. Traven's novels, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, through seeing John Huston's film version, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. This is a wonderful novel that is not taught in schools because of the author's politics. The movie tracks the novel almost scene for scene. My favorite among B. Traven's books, however, is The Rebellion of the Hanged, about mahogany loggers in Chiapas.

B. Traven was an anarchist writer who suddenly appeared in Mexico City during the Thirties -- about twenty years after Jack London's "death" in 1916. But The Death Ship was published in 1926. London died leaving his last novel, The Assassination Bureau, unfinished. Its plot turns on an "organization" that will kill anyone for a price. Then someone takes out a contract on its founder, who has to disappear. I'm not alone in thinking that B. Traven might have been Jack London; the best argument against this theory is that B. Traven writes so much better.

Most Americans have managed to overlook the notion that Jack London was a Socialist -- a Red! -- which is why he was so popular in Soviet Russia. but often that can be the first step toward the core belief of anarchism: that the government is your enemy. Theoretically the "free press" will protect us from the worst crimes of out government. And that may have been true while the oress was still reporting on the government and its wars, back in the good old days before the newspaper corporations began deriving most of their income from the television stations they own. TV broadcasters don't enjoy freedom of the press -- they have what is called the fairness doctrine instead -- and their license to broadcast anything at all is periodically reviewed (and thus is threatened) by the government. So it's really no surprise that what we still call the "news" now focuses more attention on the current Britney than it does to who benefits from the Obaminable folly of fighting a war at the crossroads of nowhere in Central Asia.

What I Miss Most About Charlottesville

10. Alderman Library, and especially: being able to lay hands on a copy of Wool, Cloth and Gold, or any of B. Traven's novels, or a copy of Alexander Kinglake's History of the Crimean War (Down to the Death of Lord Raglan), or all the back issues of Paideuma -- whenever I want to read them again.  And being able to get a library card there just because I was a citizen of the Commonwealth -- my thanks to Thomas J. 

9. The Riverside.

8. All my friends, but especially Amy and Susan and David.

7. The South.

6. Seven Day.

6. The C & O.

4. The Blue Ridge, and the way you glimpse the Ragged Mountains for a moment going south on the bypass, and riding miles of hunt trails in the Southwestern Mountains around Cismont, where I was a country mailman.

3. Teaching myself to ride down at Round Top, using an old cavalry manual I found buried in the stacks at Alderman.

2. Looking for my basset hounds: Isabel, Sam, Oliver, Alexander, Lem and Yummie. Winding my big horn made from an old Victrola while I looked for them at night on627 between Carter's Bridge and Keelona, though sometimes they would get as far as Roy and Alice Howard's place at Red Brook.

1. My daughter Jessie Jane.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Writers Need - A Room With A Door

Virginia Woolf had it almost right when she opined: "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

I might update and amend that sentiment to read:

"A writer must have a chunk of money (or an income), a room with a door (and perhaps a good view), and time to write.

So there is usually a balancing act: "time to write" is very, very expensive; shall we say that food and a room with a door and health insurance will cost in the neighborhood of $10,000 per annum? That is two hundred dollars a week. I mean -- if you don't own and drive a car.

The time to write -- and I mean the time to have nothing to do but write for a while, at your own speed, without going to work at the dreary dull job or the fascinating job or the just barely pays the rent job -- costs not only the income you forego by not working -- shall we say, $45,000 a year? which is what my last job as a night word processor paid when the miscreant lawyers sacked me in the fall of 2006 -- but also it costs the retirement benefits that you will not accrue. An actuary could tell you what a pension is worth -- say a half pay pension. But a portfolio of ock solid bonds with no risk attached that will pay $10,00 a year tax free or after taxes -- at 3% per annum -- will cost you $300,000.

Most writers don't have that kind of money when they start out. And writing is not a good way to get it, except for the few very lucky ones.

So ... they work a day job or a night job, as I did, with little thought of a career. Or they attend an MFA program in graduate school -- as I did -- because then theoretically your "job" will be to "study" writing and prepare a "creative thesis."

(In neither of the two MFA programs that I attended -- the famous Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth University that couldn't hire me to teach writing because I didn't have college degree) -- in NEITHER of these graduate programs did I meet any students who -- on the poetry side -- had read any Ezra Pound beyond what might appear in an anthology (Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, perhaps a Canto or two, and the haiku about the "faces in the metro"); and on the fiction side I never met any fellow students who had even heard of Stendhal, let alone any who had managed to read anything he wrote. None of them had read Flaubert, either, though some had heard his name. Goncharov? Tolstoy? Chekhov? Sholokhov?

Well. They were young sprouts, fresh out of some college that had slaughtered their education. They didn't have the same advantages that I did: they didn't grow up in a literary, nor even in most cases a literate environment. Not that this produces great writers. We don't really know what produces great writers. Just reading a lot, evidently, is not enough -- it's not even a prerequisite. Though often writers do read quite a lot.)

So most people get a day job. And write at the edges. Or around the edges. With a tired mind. Instead of going for a walk. Some fire keeps them going. They might take long periods of time off. Some do manage to publish despite the obstacles.

I did. Michael Crichton would be a better example. I think he must have been smarter than me. About something. Plot, I guess -- mainly. And of course he wrote mostly trash. Highly polished, facile trash.

I've read all of Michael Crichton's books. He was very successful, made a lot of money. Gave up doctoring. Preferred writing. Perhaps the pleasure of the text is the same whether you are writing kitsch or art? Do the creators of kitsch sometimes believe in themselves as artists? I don't know.

William Carlos Williams -- one of the more important (and most American) writers of the 20th century -- never made much more than fifteen dollars a year on his poetry. Of course, one expects poets to make any money. Getting published is enough for a poet.

But fiction writers -- one expects a fiction writer to get published. And make some money. Or give up. Isn't that the whole point of the exercise? Most people -- most non-writers -- probably think so.

But I am not so sure that it is. Roland Barthes writes about "the pleasure of the text," which I take to be the joy of reading, the delightful dreamlike state from which one "returns" to consciousness.

How much more intense the pleasure of the text must be for writers -- is something we can gauge only by the privations they are willing to endure ... the privileges they might be willing to give up -- in order to keep on writing.

It might be important to remember that writing is an "interaction" that happens at "the reading distance." Desmond Morris, in his interesting book The Naked Ape, points out that the reading distance -- 18 inches? from the eye to the crook of the elbow? -- is also the species-specific bonding and imprinting distance for human beings.

Thus -- is it possible that the pleasure of the text -- an interaction that is at its most intense for writers as they are writing -- takes on the importance of an interaction without which human life would end?

Maybe in a writer's mind?

Can it really be true, as Ezra Pound opined -- that "Art is more important than medicine because only Art reveals the soul of Man" ... ?

If the writers stopped writing, where would that leave us? Shadowing shamans? Kowtowing to captains? Wondering about everything?

As E.M. Forster wrote, "How can I know what I think until I see what I write." Are writers the only people who think? ... really?

Or are we just leaving thought to all the politicians?

Virginia Woolf's Great Dog Story -- FLUSH

Virginia Woolf is one of the truly great modern writers, best remembered for classic novels like The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, and To the Lighthouse. But I always loved her great dog story Flush, which is told from the point of view of Elizabeth Barret Browning's spaniel. I am sure you will find it extremely amusing, not just for her use of the flawlessly literary stream of consciousness style but also for its insight into Robert Browning's household.

Casanova, William Bolitho, Geoff Bocca

Yesterday it occurred to me that I had left Casanova's Memoirs out of the Books You Should Read post, so I have added it as follows:

William Bolitho's essay on Casanova, in his wonderful book Twelve Against the Gods, will help you understand why I believe Casanova's Memoirs should be considered essential reading for all teenagers:
“His love making had nothing more esoteric in it than what every woman who respects herself must demand; all that he had, all that he was, with (to set off the lack of legality) the dazzling attraction of the lump sum over what is more regularly doled out in a lifetime of installments."

“Most children will form an attachment to reading more easily if you encourage them or at least permit them to start by rreading (a) comic books, (b) soft semi-pornographic romances like Love in the Sun or Warrior’s Rest and (c) science fiction.” I used to like Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories, too -- because they helped me understand courage. In dogs. and men.

William Bolitho and Alexander Kinglake, I first ran across while I was living in Richmond, Virginia. The Richmond Public Library had a copy of a book of literary "my life and times" memoirs by the English writer Geoff Bocca, who my father used to know back in the fifties.

In addition to recommending Bolitho's book, Bocca noted his opinion that Kinglake's History of the Crimean War -- to use its short title -- was a book by which "no intelligent man could fail to be fascinated, no matter to which page he might open it."

I thought that an extravagant claim, and all the more so since I had NO interest in the Crimean War. I believed that "Into the Valley of Death rode the 600" from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade was as close as I needed to come to that dreary subject. Nine volumes!

But they had the book down in the stacks at the Richmond Library. I asked the librarians to bring them all up. I spread all nine volumes out on the reference counter, and asked the librarians to shuffle them around while my back was turned. Then, with my eyes closed, I turned around, selected one of the volumes -- they were all about the size of one of Anthony Trollope's longer novels -- opened it at random, and began reading.

I immediately became fascinated.

Well, that's just an accident, I thought, so I asked the librarians to try one more time again.

Same result. I immediately became fascinated. So I took all nine volumes -- or is it 8 volumes? Depends on the edition, I think -- and read them in a state of happy fascination.

Bocca claims that Winston Churchill said Kinglake had taught him to write. I believe it.

And Bocca told a funny story about a Fleet Street dinner at Lord Beaverbrook's, to which he had been invited as a very promising young writer. Churchill and other luminaries and writers were at the dinner. Lord Beaverbrook was an important Press Lord in London. He occupied somewhat the same position in those days that Rupert Murdoch does today. At some point after dinner, the conversation turned toward the Middle East. Israel didn't exist yet, so it was still possible to have opinions about the Middle East and the "Arab Question."

Geoff Bocca ventured an opinion. Probably a brash opinion. At any rate, conversation stopped. All eyes turned toward the youngster. Churchill, removing the cigar from his mouth, asked "Have you read Kinglake?"

"Why no," Geoff Bocca said. "Kinglake? Who's he?"

No one talked to him again for the rest of the evening.

Back in those days, intelligent men believed that it was probably impossible to understand what we now call The Middle East -- without having read Kinglake.

And even today, Kinglake's History is a good place to begin.

It is a book that has been in print continuously since it was first published. Kinglake's subject, I believe, is "character in men." He was Lord Raglan's aide de camp in the Crimea, and the book breaks off with Raglan's death in front of Sebastopol.

This link will take you to Kinglake's shorter book, Eothen, begins with a marvelous description of crossing out of Christian lands in Yugoslavia into the country of the Turk -- and knowing you could not come back without spending a month in the quarantine house for fear of the plague.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

If you want to read books?

If you want to read any of my unpublished novels, please supply an email address I can reply to in a comment, as well as some short description of who you aree, and which of the novels might interest you: Daughters or Why I Love Brunettes, which is too frankly erotic for children; I wrote it with the express aim of encouraging men to question their response to stories that link sex and violence. Women seem to have liked it. Daughters is a modern novel write too whirly for the mainstream. Vampires of Woodstock is not quite done. An essay I wrote in graduate school, "Attribution and the Metaleptic Shift: the Role of the Writer in Slaughterhouse-5," is also available, as is a short essay "On Falling Out of Love," which provides an antithesis to Stendhal's book De L'Amour.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Striebel Road

From Shady to Bearsville

Striebel Road runs parallel, more or less to the the Sawkill and Rt. 212 from Shady to Bearsville. There is a steep hill at each end of the road. The Bearsville is busier than the Shady End, but there are several parking lots in Barsville near the Bear Cafe and the Bearsville Theater. In Shady, you can park in the vacant area at the intersection of the Sawkill and Glasco Turnpike, or at the top of the hill where Striebel Road meets Glasco Turnpile. I like walking up the hill. Although it’s rare tfor more than one or two cars to pass during the few minutes spent walking up the hill, they do come zooming along in both directions. Once you start on Striebel Road, however, it will be rare to see more than one or two cars in half an hour.

As you start down Striebel Road, the Sawkill runs parallel at the bottom of what was once probably a very steep hemlock gorge that has now opened out a bit to include other types of trees. There are some magnificent old hemlocks quie near the road. A bit farther along, the Bearsville Valley opens out on the right, and you can see all the way to the steep flanks of the Wittenberg.

Dawn breaks very beautifully across the wide meadow where Striebel Road intersects with Glasco Turnpike. This meadow has been clear, with no houses on it, for a long time – at least sine the sixties, when I used to visit my first girlfriend Aly Lent at her mother’s house, the last on the left before Striebel Road drops down the last very steep hill into Bearsville. Lillian Lent was the head of the printmaking workshop at the Woodstock Artists Association in those days, and Aly was an usher at the Turnau Opera in Byrdcliffe. Al Grossman, for a time Bob Dylan’s manager, lived one house up the hill, and some of our friends claimed to have heard rumors that the Beatles had been seen there during their first visit to America.

Striebel Road is an especially lovely walk at sunset because the Wittenberg and other high peaks are directly to the West, which makes for a long and very tranquil twilight. There are no houses on the west side of Striebel Road because the drop is too steep/ and starts right at the guard rail.

Walking from Shady to the last steep hill above Bearsville and back to Shady takes about an hour at an easy pace. Or starting from Bearsville, you can make the return trip to work up an appetite for eating lunch or dinner at the Bear. The first hill, though very steep, is short.

During winter, a west wind can be very sharp on Striebel Road.