On the subject of War: Probably not the best place to begin, even though war has perhaps been the most enduring passion of the human species. Start with the Greek historians, Xenophon and Thucydides. Read the Iliad (and the Odyssey, even though I agree with Sam Butler’s opinion expressed in The Authoress of the Odyssey, one of the more interesting books I ever read)Alexander Kinglake’s History of the Invasion of the Crimea Down to the Death of Lord Raglan (true subject, character in men, which would make it a novel if it weren’t a history; Churchill claimed reading Kinglake taught him to write – and overall I think the best subject for war writing, ultimately, must be character in men); James Jones, The Thin Red Line, and his other two novels – From Here to Eternity and Whistle – and for its brilliant depiction of the “revolutions” of 1968, which may have been the last gasp of anti-fascism in the West, The Merry Month of May, whose back cover has a photo of Jones going up the exterior stairs to his studio on the Isle de la Cite looking exactly like one of the gargoyles on Nôtre Dame de Paris. Hemingway, for Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; Ford Madox Ford’s brilliant trilogy, Some Do Not, A Man Could Stand up, No More Parades. Although they are not exactly “war novels,” Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Gray Falcon was written during the Thirties as an investigation of the possible causes of the First War set against the background of the endless "wars of collision" between Muslim and Christian culture in Yugoslavia, down in the part of European territory where the First World War began; West’s book The New Meaning of Treason looks at the trials of the WWII traitors and the atom spies; and her terrifically brilliant masterpiece spy novel The Birds Fall Down is about a Russian traitor who betrays an English-German family (read everything Rebecca West wrote, basically, including Parthenope – unless you don’t like her, in which case … there’s little hope for your mind. Anyone who loves Jane Austen will also love Rebecca West, and her novel The Fountain Overflows is my favorite novel of childhood). And I like Marguerite Duras’ memoir of the Resistance in France: La Guerre, which I found at the UVA library. And, see below, Tolkiën’s The Fellowship of the Ring; as well as The Silmarillion and Lost Tales. As with all the best war writing, Tolkiën’s true subject is character – and especially valor – in men. But he includes valor in women too – for which you might like to re-read “Elfhelm’s” hopelessly valiant stand defending Théoden King against the Nazgul on the Field of the Pelennor. C.S. Lewis, the Narnia series is also about children caught up in a war – though CSL is a somewhat more overtly (and I think somewhat more sacharinely) Christian writer than Tolkien. And you will want to read all of George Macdonald Frazier’s hilariously satiric Flashman series (including Flashman at the Charge, and Flashman in the Great Game (and anything else the man wrote, including The Nine Lives of Private Nelson, which was privately printed, which I used to own, and which is probably impossible to find.) Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead, though I like his essays from the early period somewhat better than the fiction that came later; I had too much trouble getting through Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost for me to recommend them, but I did like Why Are We in Vietnam? ….
On what some have called the war between the sexes: Marguerite Duras, read all, but especially Blue Eyes, Black Hair, a love story that seems blessed with an oracular quality (almost) as interesting as The Book of Changes. Don’t believe me? Try opening the book to any page, then read a paragraph as if it were your advice for the day. Hemingway, The Garden of Eden (which was finished before Papa died, but which he left unpublished, in part because it showed the extremely destructive bitchiness of his last wife and also some gender confusion, both of which probably helped lead Hem toward his final madness and despair) and Across the River and Into the Trees, which shows a valiant old soldier approaching death inescapably in love with a beautiful woman who is way too young for him. Although she loves him too. D.H. Lawrence, all, but especially his short stories, which are compressed sufficiently and which don’t show the didactic heaviness of working out “plots” such as one finds in Lady Chatterley and Women in Love. John Hawkes, The Blood Oranges; Travesty; and Death, Sleep and the Traveler, which seem a trilogy of experimental novels told in First Person, Second Person and Third Person. John Colleton, The Trembling of a Leaf (Colleton, a pseudonym for Robert Marks, I met down in Charleston while working on the intro for A Southern Celebration: Charleston and Savannah Proclaimed; he was kind enough to give me what little understanding I could hope to acquire of Charleston on very short notice — on the very last morning of my too-short visit to the city.) “Pauline Reage,” The Story of O. Jane Austen, all, but especially Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Northhanger Abbey; she’s really brilliant. “Dinesen” Von Blitzen, all, but especially Out of Africa. Henry Miller, all, but especially The Colossus of Maroussi which is about Greece, Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet; its first volume, Justine was one of the “most erotic” books mentioned in that famous conversation I overheard on the the Bear’s porch – between Ian Ballantine, Tom Dardis, Dick Roberts, the Bear, Susan Bair, Betty Ballantine, Nancy Roberts, Marty Fleer and Jane Dardis. But I have never been totally sure they did not mean the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, which is also an interesting read. Lady Chatterley, The Blood Oranges, Justine, The Alexandria Quartet, Liaisons Dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos, and Tropic of Cancer were among the books mentioned. My teenage ears pricked up so hard that I immediately read them all. And for a while I liked that woman friend of Henry Miller’s – Anaïs Nin, who wrote her famously erotic diaries chronicling her amatory escapades, out of which she left her husband totally. (He was a complaisant banker who financed the whole project; my friends Hope and Ted, who knew her in Paris, never liked her much.
“Many 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.
On the South: Ralph McGill, The South and the Southerner; William Faulkner, ALL, but especially Wild Palms and Pylon and all of the short stories (even though I think F. needed an editor to save him from his own worst excess); Eudora Welty, all. Larry McMurtry, I think, is a Southern writer – not a Western writer, so read … all, but especially his great novel Lonesome Dove, which made a great movie too. Texas is part of the South. Yankees tend to forget that what Americans think of as “The West” was initially created primarily by the unvanquished Southerners dispossessed after the War – especially as to its concepts of gun-toting personal valor, honesty, honor, and rugged individualism (these elements of the American character were not (and never have been) traits much lauded by Yankees).
Shakespeare, all, you should at least be familiar with most of the plays, but especially be sure to read Hamlet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night; and be sure you go see any of the plays performed as often as possible, several nights in a row is good, as many times as you can arrange, whenever they are available, especially in amateur (free) productions like Shakespeare in the Park, which show off the marvelously dramatic structure of the plays better in some ways than professional productions on a proscenium stage.
Other plays: Becket, all, but especialy Godot and Endgame. And also read his novels and stories. Or as much as you can wade through. Becket’s subject, ultimately, I take to be the experience of writing – from the writer’s point of view. Endgame, for example, starts out with a white sheet in which (bloody?) eye holes have been cut draped over the “writer” seated in a dentist chair – whose parents keep popping up from twin trash cans over there against the wall! … So maybe Becket’s subject is “the mind considering itself” … and talking back to itself … “waiting” for something to happen. Or … going somewhere. Ionesco, all. Marlowe, Faust. I have soft spots for GB Shaw. And for Tom Stoppard, too.
And of course, all the Greek plays: they are where Western Civ begins. Well no I suppose it really does begin somewhere back with Homer and the Trojan War. Emil Ludwig’s account of Schliemann digging through the ruins of nine civilizations and breaking pots with great abandon because they weren’t down to the real Troy level yet is most amusing, but his book The Nile is a really fascinating masterpiece.
Though not strictly speaking plays: Mozart, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and his last opera Don Giovanni (which for a moment while I was writing this wanted to remain with the nameless, perhaps because it is about death’s approach toward the unrepentant, which I take to be my current situation on Wednesday, July 29, 2009); for the Flute, you will want to see the Bergman film (though sung in extraordinarily, beautifully lilting Swedish! – at least it is sung very beautifully, and its subtitles are a helpful plus – the boys singing as they go soaring away in the balloon is one of my favorite scenes and favorite melodies. Papageno’s entrance melody is stickier – and thank God, a bit less saccharine! – than many of the equally sticky airs in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik); for Don Giovanni, see Ken Russell’s film. The first act of the Flute and the last act of the Don Giovanni each contain what I take to be examples of supreme melodic invention. These tunes, evidently, came out of the air and landed in Mozart? As did the poem Yeats uses as an example of the phenomenon, which begins: “Locke fell into a swoon and died / God took the spinning jenny out of his side.” Or as Philip K. Dick put it when trying to explain where he got his ideas: “A ray of blue light from outer space filled my brain with intresting thoughts….” See both of these operas performed whenever you have a chance; Mozart’s comic operas also, especially “Everybody Does It” (Cosi Fan Tutti), you should see; because although their plots frothy, the melodies are brilliant.
Other choral music: Handel, The Messiah, and J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor, preferably an Archiv CD re-recorded fromthe old vinyl LP Archiv edition that has Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau singing. The Messiah Sing-In at UVA in Old Cabell Hall around the first week of December is worth a long journey.
Ezra Pound, The Cantos – try to read them entire straight through from start to finish, which … will take you most of a summer … read them through entire, skipping ahead – when you find a passage dull or just incomprehensible! … and then after you have some notion of what “game is afoot” you will want a program to sort out the ideas and the players. To the small extent that I can think of myself as an educated amateur, it is The Cantos – and Pound’s other writings – which guided my attempts at self-education. I very well remember reading The Cantos first at age 18 one summer … with my only guide my mother’s penciled in marginalia. Though long they are not hard to read if you are willing to put in a mental “placeholder” for the many unfamiliar characters and notions. The Cantos end at the twelfth decad with Canto CXX … which in its entirety reads:
I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
That is paradise.
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.
after beginning with a re-translation of Andreas Divus’s Renaissance (1538) translation of the Odyssey into Latin set into an Anglo-Saxon metre, which starts:
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Guy Davenport’s short book Cities on Hills is at I think all the university libraries; it will give you a guide not only to the first 30 Cantos but also to their milieu in a way that will help you understand why Eliot dedicated The Wasteland to Pound as “il miglior fabbro” (the better maker), and why Old Ez set out to write an epic poem (“a poem including history is an epic”) that took in all man’s achievements – kind of a periplum or portolano chart useful for circumnavigating the mare humanorum, which necessarily includes some consideration of history and economic theory. Carroll F. Terrell’s Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound is an invaluable help in sorting out the names and concepts you don’t already know, although that’s way less important on the first read through than just reading the whole damn poem for the many pleasures you can find there. Terrell’s Companion can be searched online in Googlebooks for individual terms. If Pound had been able to include images of paintings and sculptures, I assume he would have probably quoted them with illustrations right there next to the text of The Cantos – but perhaps not. If the three inch tome seems daunting, you can at least read the short Selected Cantos chosen by Pound himself. Pound’s essay “The Serious Artist” (in Literary Essays) will help you understand why thinks art is more important than medicine, and his translations of Chinese poetry, collected up in Cathay I still find just purely beautiful and a great help, with the Analects and the I Ching in understanding the Chinese mind – despite their many confusions and inaccuracies as translations. I actually lived in the cottage Ernest Fenollosa (who wrote The Chinese Written Character) and his wife inhabited in Cismont, Virginia – perhaps Fenollosa even lived there while writing his essay “The Chinese Written Character” … which is now available in its entirety on Google Books. Or you could start on Pound by reading with the Pisan Cantos, which he wrote while cooped up in the cage at Pisa after WWII, and which won the Bollingen Prize in 1948.
Should you ever find time to get around to reading them, Pound’s ABC of Economics, his ABC of Reading and Guide to Kulchur may help guide your subsequent wandering. Perhaps if one hasn’t read Pound one can’t see through the fudge, or – perhaps one sees through it only as through a glass darkly; one can’t quite make sense of it all. For example, when talking about the current situation, one might substitute for the term “capitalism” the perhaps more appropriate “corporatism” – which in itself is only a euphemism for the exact descriptor: “corporate fascism.” In our country, the dictator is re-elected for an eight year term, our legislature has been totally corrupted by the trigger-makers and the court I know I should never write things like that, but — isn’t it more useful to think that Pound’s descent into the fascist abyss prefigures and is emblematic of America’s postwar descent in the same direction?
WB Yeats, all the verse but especially the early poems, and, among those, focus on the most brilliant very short poems like
Wines comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye
That’s all we know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift my glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
I the poet William Yeats
With old mill boards and green sea slates
And smithy work from the Gort forge
Built this tower for my wife George.
And may these pudding stones remain
When all is ruin here again.
Other Poets: Emily Dickinson, read ALL, and e.e. cummings, all; Eliot, the same ALL, with maybe a look at the facsimile manuscript edition of The Wasteland, which will help you understand what Pound did for Eliot, and maybe after Ash Wednesday you can start skipping ahead; as I did, like, like by skipping all Eliot’s plays – and his criticism – and when you come at last to Four Quartets, just line out the dull prosy passages like as if you were Pound himself; then you’ll at least be able to read what’s left as a poem – just line out all the dreck – which amounts to half the poem! – the usual Eliot quotient of dreck to rubies.
Sybille Bedford, all, but esp. A Visit to Don Ottavio, a travel book about a trip to Mexico; and A Compass Error, whose subject seems to be “evil in ordinary life” … e.g., not dressed up with vampyres or devils. A nurse might find The Trial of Dr. Adams interesting. I never heard of Syb until 2006, but I do certainly agree with Bruce Chatwin’s assessment, that Syb is “a dazzling practitioner of the fictive art” ….and I haven’t yet read her trial reporting nor her very thick completely annotated official biography of Aldous Huxley (who should be read not only for Brave New World, but also for Chrome Yellow and his other novels).
Jean Rhys, all, but especially After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie and Wide Sargasso Sea. Patricia Highsmith, all; perhaps especially the Ripley novels. I don’t know why I have lumped these two women together, except they both write very well and their ;ast names both begin with an “H.”
Virginia Woolf, read all, but maybe start with Flush, her great stream of consciousness dog story book about Elizabeth Barett Browning's spaniel’s observations of Robert Browning's very entertaining household; but also .. you must certainly at least try read To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway – though you may have to try hard to get through ‘em. Quentin Bell’s sympathetic biography will help you understand her milieu, her relationship with Leonard Woolf and her suicide; about which I can only opine that “madness takes its slow revenge.” She was molested as a child and perhaps never really recovered. And I miss all the books she didn’t get around to writing. Joyce, start with Dubliners and, if you can assume a drunken Irishman’s persona to read Finnegan’s Wake aloud, that might work for you – certainly the book deserves to be read out loud. I have never yet been able to get through it. Maybe I should try skipping to the middle? Portrait of the Artist is more patchily brilliant and perhaps a bit more puerile – possibly because it seems to have been written with one eye fixed on the censor, which Dubliners evidently was not; which eye Joyce seems to have closed after Pound took him up. Like many another reader, I found Ulysses ‘most ‘scruciatingly’ unreadable – not least because it continuously defeats the reader’s expectation of participating in the “dream of reading.” Though I do like Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end. One of Joyce’s more interesting experiments in Dubliners is “Eveline,” a story that continuously defeats the reader’s expectation of the proper tense for the subsequent sentence – and the “plot” of the story is about going to the boat to emigrate and then not getting on it. I wrote an essay on this topic tracking the variations away from the expected tense for Marguerite Nameless while I was getting my MFA in Fiction Writing at VCU where she and other miscreant dullards decided not to give me a job in academia, but I doubt she’s kept a copy and I have certainly lost mine.
George Polti, The 36 Dramatic Situations will change your notions about "plot and deepen your understanding of "conflict" and “drama.” There is a short article about the 36 situations online in the Wikipedia.
Marguerite Duras, all, but especially Blue Eyes, Black Hair, which seems to me as oracular as the I Ching; I can open it to no matter what page for a commentary on the happening events around me.
Céline, at least Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, which the Bear claims is impossible to translate, so if you din’t learn French over there you might not be able to parse the argot Céline writes in. It has been translated. And Mort à Credit (Death on the Installment Plan, for which the literal but inexact translation would be “Death on Credit”). D’Un Chateau l’Autre is an interesting novel of flight across the blasted heath of Europe right after WWII ends, and Entretien avec Professeur Y gives some insight into Céline’s thoughts about writing – about what he does, and what artists do, as opposed to all the writing in what he calls the “chromosphere” … just another brilliant genius more or less influenced by the fascist milieu of the Thirties, but, in this case -- also a doctor who spent much of his life caring for the poor of Paris.
For the West’s collision with Asia – with Japan and China, but not India – James Clavell: King Rat, a concentration camp novel set in the Philippines, Shogun, Tai-Pan, Noble House, Gai-Jin … and his last book, Whirlwind – which is about the West’s exit from Iran. The movies were not good, though Clavell himself was a pretty good screenwriter who wrote many screenplays including The Great Escape. And I think Clavell may have rushed it into print because he knew deeth was approaching. Or else it could have been one book of a trilogy, like the Japan trilogy and the China trilogy. And he would have gone on to include some consideration of the West’s collision with Islam. The Sakuteki or placement of stones. My own spiritual guiding star has always been – the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the Book of Changes.
And on a completely different note, I like Richard Wilhelm’s Book of the It – this is the same Wilhelm who translated the I Ching, since he was in charge of the Red Cross during the Japanese invasion of Tsingtao, and was an early pioneer of psychiatry in treatment of mental disorders.
Tolkiën, The Essay on Fairy Tales seems extremely important; and The Fellowship of the Ring, properly speaking is one of the great war novels – though it starts off pastoral and small, and perhaps a bit slow, Tolkiën’s subject is character – and especially valor – in men. The Hobbit is, however, mostly junk, as are the Peter Jackson films, so I would say … skip ‘em. Skip the films, especially, because – since Jackson didn’t properly appreciate Tolkiën’s subject, the films will only interfere with your sense of the book and its characters. Tolkiën’s son Christopher edited and finished up the supporting materials like The Lost Tales and, especially The Silmarillion, which weren’t yet in print when I first read the trilogy in its pirated Ace edition for Ian Ballantine, who was kind enough to want a lad’s opinion about whether or not he should publish the book.
The Russians, sooner or later, you must read all. This is a partly Western, partly Eastern civilization that has produced some great novelists — and dramatists Including Pushkin and Chekhov. Ed Sanders’ book Chekhov is very interesting; but you should go straight to the source and read all of Chekhov, including the short stories. And as for Tolstoy’s long novel – you might start with the Constance Garnet translation that Hemingway enjoyed. I liked Anna Karenina, but ... Tolstoy, I dunno; as a friend says, "I can stand my own hypocrisy, but the hypocrisy of others leaves me cold.". I can’t, myself, read much Dostoevsky -- I just don't like all the dostoievschina, and there are plenty of literate Russians who share this view. But D does have his fans. I liked The Gambler better than The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov. D. just isn’t my favorite Russian. I like him less well than Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea; these are wonderful novels about the Don Cossacks and I suppose they should be included with the war novels. Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago, yet another novel of war and revolution, and in this case you can see the movie and like all the characters better. And Goncharov, be sure to read Oblomov, a comic novel is about a man who spends more and more time on the couch. Gogol, Dead Souls. You can find a lot more information about the Russians -- especially modern novels-- at Lizok's Bookshelf ....
French novels: Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, which the Bear translated, and which I find better in every way than Madame Bovary, which begins well but peters out into suicide -- I think in a rather desultory, boring manner. And I like Stendhal's treatise On Love; and also the fragments Lamielle and The Green Huntsman. Red and Black you might skip on the first go ‘round (though parts of it are good) in favor of heading straight for the Chartreuse. Flaubert – “his true Penelope was Flaubert” as Pound says of Mauberly, but since Madame Bovary peters out so dismally, maybe stick with the short stuff: Un Coeur Simple, and the Herodias, which ends with the great line “Comme elle etaient très lourde, ils la portaient alternativement.” Which translates more or less to “Because she was very heavy, they took turns carrying her.” Though ‘they ‘took turns’ is much less elegant than “alternativement” (which gives the phrase in French a slightly risqué connotation. – and for some reason the phrase reminds me of the two guys and a girl in Blier’s film Going Places. The girl can’t reach Niagra! no matter what they try. She never has. One of the guys has been wounded — at the film’s start —: in the left nut by the hairdresser as the escape from robbing him. And when the girl finally makes it with the old whore’s son – she’s so happy, and so proud of herself for making it finally at last! that she runs out to tell the two guys! … , who are fishing! And so they heave her into the canal! A big splash! She climbs out spluttering ... And again! Certainly one of the great picaresque comic films of the 20th century! Before which, of course, there were no films at all! And surely you should read at least two splashy Dumas novels – Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After and The Man in the Iron Mask. Try to find the paperbacks translated by the Bear, my stepfather Lowell Bair, who has told me that Dumas had a team of scribes working for him, then he’d come along and give it all “the Dumas touch.”
Ford Madox Ford, his brilliant historical romance Fifth Queen, about Cat Howard’s arrival at the court of Henry VIII is one of my favorite novels of all time. Writers like Graham Greene endlessly re-read The Good Soldier for its device of the unreliable narrator. Everything Ford wrote was excellent, including his tetralogy about WWI, A Man Could Stand Up, Last Post, Some Do Not, and No More Parades. This is really a trilogy with a following volume, and as a whole it is about no. 60 on everyone’s best books of the 20th century list. Provence, and The Cinque Ports make very interesting reading, and Ring for Nancy will give you some idea of his qualities as a comic novelist, as will When the Wicked Man. And this great writer finished out his life teaching English at Olivet College after being one of the guiding lights of literary London early in the century before the war. His Memoir of Joseph Conrad is a masterpiece; he and Conrad lived within walking distance of each other for a good while, and they used to read back and forth to each other, and though it’s too much to say that Ford taught Conrad to be an English novelist, they each wrote masterpieces while they were friends.
Cookbooks: Marcel Pouget, The Manual of the Professional Chef (almost impossible to find). And probably vanished from the wreck in California along with he only copy of my first novel Upstream to Die and the rest of my library, including a facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer, all jettisoned by X. Robert Courtine, The Hundred Glories of French Cuisine (great essay on cassoulet); the big two volume Gourmet, preferably the old big brown edition; an older Fannie Farmer; Tom Stobart’s Herbs, Spices and Flavorings, my own in progress The Hundred Glories of American Cuisine … Michael Field’s Cooking School and his other cookbooks; M.F.K. Fisher, all; James Beard, all. Completely almost completely skip Craig Claiborne, his recipes are aggravatingly and often don’t work very well. The Artists and Writers Cookbook, that I gave to Kirsten Perry.
Now as to films you must try to see: Lina Wertmuller all, but especially: Love and Anarchy, The Seduction of Mimi, Swept Away, 7 Beauties. Bertolucci all, but especially: The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Stealing Beauty. Fellini, La Strada, 8-1/2. And his film about the circus. And his film about Rome. And Juliette of the Spirits. Godard, all, despite or because of the rouge tint of his politics – because at least Godard keeps pointing out the symptoms of an illness even though his suggestions for a cure might now seem dated – in part due to the collapse of Maoism – and anyway it seems now a well-settled notion that putting the government in charge of anything is a baaaaad idea; but perhaps you should start with Godard’s late films like Prenom: Carmen or Hail Mary or his first film Breathless, which he made from a screnplay Truffaut gave him. You cannot understand films without studying the French films of the Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave). And I like Godard’s very short film Les Derniers Moments, which he made with Anne Marie Miéville, which for a while was available on YouTube. Most of Godard doesn’t get over here (too anti-capitalismo, I guess), so try to see anything that you hear of. FransçoisTruffaut, Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), which shows the early fifties post-war Paris in which I grew up speaking the Parisian guttersnipe argot, — and keep in mind that the phrase “il a fait les quatre cents coups” means (in French) something like “he really screwed himself;” Jules et Jim, The Last Metro. Jean Renoir, The Rules of the Game, which I like better than his war movie Grand Illusion that everyone talks about so much. La Bete Humaine with Jean Gabin. Bertrand Blier, Going Places, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Jacques Tati – all, and the second time you see any of the films you’ll already know when the joke is coming and you’ll start snickering and chuckling before the punch line; all, but especially, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime. Tati, née Tatischeff, the child of Russian emigrés, is Chaplin’s worthy successor; he has what I take to be a Russian understanding of village life; the films all exhibit his complex visual punning style perhaps best shown in Playtime when the chef, peering out from his window, is suddenly revealed by addition of a rosette as …. Napoléon. Kurosawa – all but especially Rashomon. Wim Wenders, all, but especially, The American Friend, which he made before joining Hollywood. Eric Rohmer, all, but especially The Marquise of O, his only film shot in German, which is based on the Heinrich von Kleist short story. (You should read all of Kleist too, especially his interesting drama Penthesilea, about a group of one-breasted women who disturb the progress of the Trojan war by chasing Achilles around insisting he shall impregnate them all.) Benigni’s Life is Beautiful or Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties – the two great concentration camp movies.
For l’érotisme: John Hawkes, The Blood Oranges; Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (of which Clea is my favorite volume); D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Christiane Rochefort, Warrior’s Rest; the Marquis de Sade, Justine; Pauline Réage, The Story of O; Marguerite Duras, Blue Eyes, Black Hair. And the French classic collection Les Chefs d’Oeuvres de l’Erotisme. And I enjoyed very much “John Colleton’s” The Trembling of a Leaf.
For laugh out loud humor: James Thurber, all, William Price Fox, read all, but especially Southern Fried Plus Six and Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright.; Chaplin, Jacques Tati, some of Allen; Alphonse Daude, Tartarin de Tarascon; and above all, Mark Twain, who wrote not only the first Great American Novel but also a brilliant essay on James Fenimore Cooper.
Mysteries: Sherlock Holmes, all; Raymond Chandler, all, but especially The Little Sister; Dashiell Hammet, all, but especially Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, which I find one of the most misogynist novels in the popular canon, and Patricia Highsmith, all. Though I like Ross Macdonald, I prefer John D. McDonald, for the toughness and the principles of Travis McGee.
As for Science Fiction, isn’t it impossible to understand the world we keep on entering without reading SF? R.A. Heinlein – read all, but especially Stranger in a Strange Land and Friday. I started out with Heinlein very early on, reading Between Planets and The Star Beast and The Puppet Masters. Frank Herbert, Dune, Children of Dune, and basically all his other earlier slighter works, but especially The Santaroga Barrier and The Green Brain. Philip K. Dick, read all, but especially my favorite book Galactic Pot Healer, which I like better, perhaps mostly for its humorous approach, than the novels on which the movies Blade Runner (the book was titled, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep); Paycheck, The Minority Report and Total Recall were based. And there have been several others; Dick is very filmable. I liked his book We Can Build You -- which I think is a (partly comic) masterpiece. A.E. van Vogt, Slan, The Worlds of Null-A, and some others: all, maybe. Theodore Sturgeon, all, but especially E Pluribus Unicorn, Venus Plus X, and even his swasbuckling romance about the French Revolution he wrote hoping to break out from SF – I, Libertine. Sturgeon got so bored with the project that Betty Ballantine had to write the last chapter. Sturgeon's son Robin went to school at Onteora while Ted lived in Woodstock; he was a few years behind me in high school. I liked Isaac Asimov somewhat less as I got older, though I did start out fascinated by his Lucky Starr space opera series (like Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids) and both Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and I, Robot now seem inescapable; Asimov, extremely intelligent but empathically so cold one wonders if me may have had Asberger’s Syndrome, wrote a prodigious amount of books (hundreds), many of them just straight up factual treatments of subjects he found interesting. Ray Bradbury, read all, but esp. The Martian Chronicles; Dandelion Wine; and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I saw Bradbury speak – read? – in Richmond, from which talk I took away the primary idea that there is very little point, perhaps absolutely no point in reading books you don’t find fascinating because you won’t remember any of the dull stuff anyway. I’m not sure Thomas Pynchon is an SF writer, but some elements of his work do at least resemble SF, so, especially, read V., which everybody loved for a while, Gravity’s Rainbow (which they liked less, generally) and The Crying of Lot 49; I dunno about Vineland and the books that came after it, they seem like unreadable dreck to me. Do Pynchon’s books fulfill Kernan’s definition of The Plot of Satire? e.g., an innocent wanders around looking at the world? … perhaps they do. John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar is the title I remember. Hal Clement. Fritz Leiber. Murray Leinster. Edgar Rice Burroughs, all, but especially the Mars books and especially Thuvia, Maid of Mars, and at least the first volume of the Tarzan series, which seems an iconic masterpiece, plus Pellucidar and Carson of Venus. Kurt Vonnegut deserves a special mention as a bestselling SF writer, since that’s where he started out, with the Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, and even his crossover best seller about Billy Pilgrim’s adventures in WWII, as an optometrist in upstate New York, and on the planet Tralfamadore with Montana Wildhack – Slaughterhouse Five – has many science fiction elements, though I think above all Vonnegut was a satirist. Perhaps SF divides itself neatly into three categories? Space opera, satire and utopian/dystopian speculation … Stanislaw Lem, All You Can Find; Tarkowsky, every film you can see; Jules Verne, all but especially 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon; Pierre Boulle, all. And Romain Gary, for The Elephant’s Walk which always struck me – improbably, I know – as science fiction. Voltaire, Micromegas and even Candide – for its precursor SF approach to satire. C.S. Lewis, the Perelandra series and Narnia. For films, it’s worth mentioning the first Alien, but even more Blade Runner and all the other films made from PKD novels, Avatar, especially in 3D -- and be sure to see every Tarkowsky film you can find. Sam Butler’s Erewhon for utopian speculation (and also, on another note, Butler’s great book The Authoress of the Odyssey, which speculates that the Odyssey was written by a young girl living on the island of Sicily).
The recipe for Texas Chili: beef, cumin, ancho chilis, salt, water, stew until done. The beef? Bone in chuck blade roast, at least two, maybe three inches thick, stew entire, then pull apart in chunks – you need the cartilage – from fairway beef in Worcester. Or The Belmont Butchery in Richmond, Virginia. Or anyplace they still hang sides. Get good anchos. The mulattos are better than the negros. They should have thick walls with plenty of pulp and should be mild. Roast and grind the cumin seed? Rice and Mexican strawberries – red beans? on the side for the civilians. You wil want to save some of the broth, reduced to a thickness and finished with a bit of butter, for use on steak or on eggs.
The recipe for Cassoulet:: as Robert Courtine writes, “There are many cassoulets.” We might even take Boston baked beans to be a misbegotten bastard offspring of real cassoulet – as may be ordinary American chili, if the beef is good … So, as you like, but maybe start with a fresh fat goose; salt its legs and wings with a few juniper berries until thoroughly preserved, then hang them a few days to dry before you start soaking the beans; meanwhile you will have roasted the rest of the goose and collected its grease, which is lighter than butter. Eat some on black bread with salt and pepper. Use most of the rest for the cassoulet. My problem ingredient has been neither the goose, the pork, the ham, or the trotters, though they’re increasingly hard to find – it has been the sausages, which they don’t make properly around here in America. And who knows if I'll ever get to France again?
Bach, all, but esp. The Mass in B Minor, to which the listening repeatedly until the tunes keep bubbling up in your mind will dispel any case of the mental fog or the emotional blues or blank-mind lack of creativity bubbling up ... the early Archiv recording with Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and others is now available on CD; everything ever played by Glenn Gould, but especially the English Suites, the French Suites, the Goldberg variations, the Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue and the Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord; Agnelle Bundervoët’s 1955 recording of Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne from the Partita D for Solo Violin that won the Grand Prix du Disque – this recording exists now on CD and I actually have a copy! that I got from Tahra.com !!!At last! After 40 years!; the Oistrakh brothers, esp. their recording of the Concerto for Two Violins; Valeri Klimov, the Handel violin sonatas, which I have seen only on vinyl, so it’s probably not yet been reissued or is rare, and anything else Klimov may have recorded in Moscow, and which I have thus far missed; Clara Haskill and Geza Anda, the two pianos concerto. Pablo Casals, the Prades Festival, and also his recording of Bach’s cello sonatas unaccompanied, the first available at present only on disk … Elaine Schaeffer’s Flute Sonatas! alas still only available on the vinyl.
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, but esp. the first act for the pure melodic brilliance of its invention. Mozart died wishing he could hear it again, a pleasure you can now have almost any day of the week. And Don Giovanni for its last act. And the Requiem, which M. wrote after first hearing Bach; and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, whose melodies, are so infectiously contagious. M. wrote almost exclusively within what David del Tredici calls the “money chords” C, F and G … and only found Bach toward the tragically early end of his life. Think of what M. might have written if he'd lived another decade!
For painting – Rembrandt, Monet, Dégas, Van Gog, Picasso, Pollock, all of the Impressionists. Perhaps the light in Holland – and in Paris – on Long Island? ... has some quality ideal for painting. As it does in Woodstock? Would it be the long summer twilight? Would the light not be the same more or less in London? See them on the wall in a museum as often as possible, skip the rest. Pollock’s canvases were not well made and soon will be permanently gone. I have strong attachment to George Bellows and the other Woodstock artists, including Fletcher Martin, Robert Angeloch, Lillian Lent, Eddie Millman, Bud Plate, Bernard Steffen and John Pike. For sculpture, Brancusi, Calder, Giacometti, David Smith. These last two categories, painting and sculpture, I am surely leaving out a lot, painting and sculpture are not my field, and so, as always, ever the amateur, I can only recommend what I have most enjoyed. And go see any show of Russian paintings that appears over here.
What I lack most now for my own education … is a better understanding of the Koinae, so I can read the Gospels in their original Greek, though I do like the brilliant King James version and think Lawrence its main creator perhaps the greatest poet in the English language -- better than Shakespeare? because with just a little more Greek I could start wading through Homer … and also I lack any understanding of the calculus. Which, for a man who rarely feels a need to balance his checkbook is ... hardly surprising.
A few more: Robert Graves, The White Goddess. And his historical novels, including I, Claudius, Claudius the God, Count Belisarius and Sergeant Lamb's America. And Homer’s Daughter. Graves, the foremost Classics scholar of his age, agreed with Samuel Butler’s theory, expressed in The Authoress of the Odyssey, that the Odyssey was written by a young girl living on the island of Sicily. Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and all the rest, he’s my favorite Victorian novelist, as Alexander Kinglake is my favorite Victorian historian. Some prefer Dickens. Henry James; read the short stories, like "The Figure in the Carpet" -- but I also liked The Golden Bowl, though I found it here and there a bit tedious. And The Wings of the Dove is a somewhat too-carefully set up study of evil lurking in the human heart. Washington Square I love because I was born just off that park.