CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Peter Handke: the truth about sorrow…

What makes Handke exceptional is his willingness to engage us as well as himself in the difficulty of telling our truths, sharing our sorrows, interpreting our dreams….

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke (image courtesy Goodreads)

For the last (well, perhaps next to last) work from the “world literature” segment of the 2015 reading list, I return to an author who has decidedly influenced me in the way I write, in the way I think about writing, in the way I assess writing, particularly the writing of literature. I have written before about the great Peter Handke, the brilliant and controversial Austrian novelist, playwright, and filmmaker and about the power of his work to force the reader to reexamine his/her ways of looking at literature and at life.  No author of our time has been more relentless in his search for truth, nor has any author been able to say more with fewer words than Handke. For those few of you who know my work, a light bulb has probably just come on. For those of you not familiar with my work, please go buy it so that I can become a rich, vapid celebrity and lose all this delicious artistic integrity I’m always on about.

Handke is relentlessly brave, sometimes foolishly so, in his pursuit of what it means to be alive and writing about being so, so it should come as no surprise that he is equally as brave and equally as relentless in his examination of death and what it means to be so. His brilliant short meditation A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, written in the weeks after his mother’s suicide in early 1972, is vintage Handke: his search for the meaning of, in this case not simply the death of his mother but her death by suicide and the reasons behind her decision to end her life, as well as his search for what her death means to him, is a tour de force: terse, sometimes curt as a news item, sometimes poetic as a Heine lyric. The result is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius that actually is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Continue reading

CATEGORY: CATEGORY: ArtSunday

James Street’s The Gauntlet: that old time religion…

James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….

The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)

From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.

Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading

Book-Review

Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps: the singer not the song…?

Steps is a National Book Award winner, a glowingly reviewed best seller – and a completely forgettable book by an author who may or may not be one of literary fiction’s greatest charlatans…

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (image courtesy Goodreads)

The name Jerzy Kosinski conjures varying reactions among readers and critics and writers of serious fiction. An infamous 1982 exposé in the Village Voice accused him of – well, faking his literary career and may have, at least in part, contributed to his suicide at 57.

The Kosinski literary reputation was/is based primarily on his first three novels: The Painted Bird, a harrowing depiction of childhood (Kosinski claimed it was his, though there are doubts) during the Holocaust, Being There, a novel about the confusing and vulgarizing influences of media on even the most serious minds, and Steps,  a rambling, episodic depiction of bad romances, life under totalitarian rule, and sexual and other forms of depravity that won the National Book Award in 1969.

Steps is, then, a fair book by which to evaluate Kosinski and determine whether his meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall as a major literary  figure of the later 20th century is justified. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road: maybe Southerners aren’t merely caricatures…

Reading Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is reminiscent of watching an episode of Dukes of Hazzard and reading Flannery O’Connor at the same time… 

First, an anecdote:

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).

Another anecdote:

I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.

It also allowed me access to secret, forbidden worlds. Like the world of Erskine Caldwell. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Yukio Mishima and the struggle to be free…

“…I must point out that a memory which is suddenly revived carries a great power of resuscitation. The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sometimes one reads an author who makes one wonder what the hell the Nobel committee thinks about when it selects prize winners for literature. I had read some Yukio Mishima many years ago, during my undergraduate days, actually (Nixon was POTUS which should give you some idea of how long ago that was). Mishima’s strange death sparked my interest (I remember reading an article about him and his bizarre ending from, of all places, Life magazine at my parents’ home), so I had been on the lookout for one of his works. I ran into a used copy of his story collection Death in Midsummer and Other Stories  and remember thinking, in my idiosyncratic way, that the title story reminded me of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In fact, the collection resonates with the same sort of angst, alienation, and anger at the world/life/what ya got that pervades Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.

That same angst, alienation, and anger pervades The Temple of the Golden Pavilionone of the richest, finest novels a reader will find anywhere in literature. Reading such a powerful work makes one wonder how the Nobel committee ignored Mishima even as they rewarded his friend and mentor Yasunari Kawabata.  The answer to that question is like the answer to another question about the non-rewarding of literature’s most well-known prize that I asked last year: likely political in nature. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Jean Genet’s Treasures of the Night: once an outlaw…

The poems in the Genet collection Treasures of the Night will shock and offend those unprepared to accept love’s alternative practitioners. Genet would like that….

Treasures of the Night by Jean Genet (image courtesy Gay Sunshine Press)

The next work from the world literature section of the 2015 reading list is an early (and problematic) translation of the collected poems of French playwright, novelist, poet, vagabond, and professional ne’er-do-well Jean Genet called Treasures of the Night. Genet is one of literature’s most celebrated “bad boys,” having been sent to a reformatory as incorrigible when he was 15 and to the French Foreign Legion, an organization with a long history of making bad boys shape up, at 18.

They failed with Genet. If anything, he became even more of a bad boy. According to conflicting accounts Genet either deserted or was kicked out of the Legion for “indecency.” The indecency involved Genet and another Legionnaire. Over the two decades following his separation from the Legion, Genet would be arrested and jailed on numerous occasions for vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. Finally, perhaps out of sheer desperation, he began to write and became a cause célèbre among France’s most distinguished literati and artists including Cocteau, Sartre, Gide, and Picasso. As his career progressed he enjoyed considerable success as a novelist, even greater success as a playwright. Perhaps his least known works are his poems. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Ellen Foster: Kaye Gibbons’ dark victory…

In Ellen Foster Kaye Gibbons offers a flawed if compelling coming-of-age tale with a narrator who is by turns a believable rural North Carolina 11 year-old and – on occasion – an author remembering her 14 year-old self upon whom her character is based.

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (image courtesy Goodreads)

A book like Ellen Foster can be described in multiple ways which all mean the same thing: semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age, bildungsroman. This, Kaye Gibbons first novel, published during the wave of “women’s fiction” promulgated by the publishing industry in the 1980’s (others in this wave included Lee Smith, about whose work I’ll write later this year, and Ellen Gilchrist, about whom I won’t) is a quirky little book and has a great deal of charm. It certainly deserves much of the praise it has received. The story, told by the remarkably matter-of-fact narrator, “Ellen Foster,” (the first name is real; the last Ellen’s own construct based on her experiences), is a model of economy, covering as it does the deaths of Ellen’s mother, father, and maternal grandmother, as well as Ellen’s time living with first her parents, then one of her teachers, then her grandmother, then an aunt.

There are two matters to discuss about Ellen Foster. The first is the remarkable quality of the narration. It is really quite good: engaging, touching, occasionally laugh out loud funny. The second is the content of this story. How much is novel, how much is memoir? That question is the more intriguing, as it raises interesting questions about the wall between fiction and nonfiction. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Strange Fruit: Lillian Smith deconstructs the South’s peculiar institutions…

“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)

Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, Strange Fruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegant A Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.

This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatmentContinue reading

Harry Crews’s A Feast of Snakes: as dirty as realism gets…

When a writer combines washed up All-American football players, sexually frustrated former majorettes, a rattlesnake roundup, a racist, rapist sheriff, and dog fighting and sets it all in the rural South, one expects pretty much what Harry Crews gives us – a darkly tragicomic tale that delights even as it gives one the willies.

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews (image courtesy Goodreads)

Another entry from the 2015 reading list’s Southern section is the subject of this essay. Like Richard Ford, about whom I have written, Harry Crews is another practitioner, whether he’d admit to it or not, of the literary style called dirty realism. He certainly provides a powerful example of SouthernGothic entertainment, too, as A Feast of Snakes, his eight novel, shows.

And perhaps that’s an important point to make about this novel. What makes A Feast of Snakes a powerful read is that for both those who like their Southern lit on the Gothic side, there’s plenty of the grotesque, eccentric, and sinister. For those who, like me, appreciate the economy of style and and cold-blooded examination of those in the lower ranks of the 99%, Harry Crews offers a novel that both delivers plenty of weirdness and plenty of honest examination of the wretched. From snake handling preachers to body building lawyers, this is a book with a little something for everyone. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes: life – and sometimes literature – is an illusion…

“Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring. If he were to melt into a life of simple repetition, there might possibly come a time when they could be quite unconscious of him” – Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (image courtesy Goodreads)

Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of those books that leaves one feeling as if one has read a textbook on how to combine schools of literary fiction of the 20th century into an amalgam – a brilliantly executed amalgam, but an amalgam nonetheless. One has the sense of oppression and confusion of a Kafka work like The Trial; the sense of determination to hold onto sanity in the face of absurdity like Camus’s The Plague; and the sense of existentialist grimness in a Sartre work like No Exit. (For good measure feel free to consider works by your favorite existentialist or absurdist author – Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter. et. al.)

This is not to say that the work is not engrossing (in a relentlessly depressing way) or that Abe is not a fine writer (he is). For me, however, this selection  from the 2015 reading list does not have the resonance of the earlier selection I read, The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari  Kawabata. That book engages us deeply in Japanese life as actually lived, especially in the years after WWII even as it engages profound questions of national and cultural guilt; Abe’s book is a nightmarish fairy tale set in a bizarre dystopia (yes, I know, dystopias are sooo cool – but I’ve made myself clear on my lack of enthusiasm for such settings as the stuff of serious literature) that posits its hero, the only named character in the book, as a victim of – name your 20th century angst and anxiety inducing trend in human behavior.

In other words, The Woman in the Dunes is a beautifully, complexly written put up job. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

A Summons to Memphis: Peter Taylor and the cost of being Southern

Like other Southern writers of his generation (Walker Percy and Shelby Foote come immediately to mind), Peter Taylor explores the lives of upper class Southerners searching for some clue to unlock the terrible allegiances Southerners of a certain background feel to family, home, and tradition – and for what it costs to free oneself of those allegiances.

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (image courtesy Goodreads)

After the sort of manic energy I encountered in Daniel Forbes’s Derail This Train Wreck, I decided that I wanted something more – at least seemingly – sedate. I found it in the first of my Southern authors from the 2015 reading list, Peter Taylor. Best known for his short fiction (every short story writer should study The Old Forest and Other Stories for examples of how the short story is done well), Taylor is a Tennessean from exactly that sort of upper class background I mention above – and he explores the pain associated with breaking free of such a background with all its attendant traditions and constraints – as brilliantly as do those contemporaries, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. A Summons to Memphis is in a very real way the story of a trial: the trial of being a scion of privilege in a place where such a plummy birth carries within it the seeds of destruction for all lucky enough to be such fruit. Continue reading

Memorial Day, 2015

If heaven is woven from strands of poetry, Norman Schwarzkopf frequently asks Betsy Ross to sew him up battle fatigues made of her American flags, and she tells him each time to fuck off.

Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Book Review: Derail this Train Wreck by Daniel Forbes

What Forbes is after is not easily achieved: he seeks to portray both a society in crisis and the life of a person who, in crisis himself, still strives to draw public attention to the social crisis in hopes of saving, if not himself, at least that society. Derail This Train Wreck is a ray of light in a world going dark.

Derail This Train Wreck by Daniel Forbes (image courtesy derailthistrainwreck.com)

Derail This Train Wreck is a book of our times. It has elements of the near future dystopian tale so popular in our times. Its political satire veers between the somberly apocalyptic vision of a Truthout piece and the tongue in cheek irony dripping humor of an article from The Onion. And its domestic/romantic plot line (a failed relationship and the struggle of the parties to reorient their lives) is the stuff of which our lives and those of many we know is made. That Daniel Forbes has been able to weave these disparate elements into a narrative that is not simply cohesive but compelling is to his great credit – and the reader’s delight. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Good Enough…

Catherine Morland is like most adolescents: too certain about what (she thinks) she knows, too uncertain about what she knows (she thinks) she doesn’t. Her negotiation of coming of age is about learning to manage both what she knows and what she doesn’t know – as well as learning how to recognize when she knows and when she doesn’t….

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

My life as a famous and beloved book essayist has its twists and turns. This week’s particular turn took me north to Maryland where I served in the graduation festivities at the university where I teach. As a result (and because I’m currently working my way through Daniel Forbes’ dystopian satire  Derail this Train Wreck), I’m doing what I warned you I might a week or so ago: writing about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is probably my least favorite of all great Jane’s works. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you may as well know them. First, it was published posthumously (as was my favorite of Austen’s works, the marvelous and prescient Persuasion about which I will write near the end of this year) although it was the first novel she ever completed. The story behind that is well documented: Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication, but the publisher later decided not to issue the book. Over a decade later – near the too early end of Austen’s life – her brother Henry bought the book back from that same publisher for the same price for which it had originally been purchased. Evidently, that publisher, Crosby and Co., was not known for either editorial or business acumen: in the time between their purchase of the manuscript in 1803 and Henry Austen’s repurchase of the manuscript in 1816 (a mere year before Jane’s death), Miss Austen had published four other novels of which a good publisher ought to have heard: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Though published initially by “A Lady,” anyone with an interest in literature or reading knew who the author was – except the fine folks at Crosby and Co. it seems. To get to the point, reason #1 why Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work is that it’s a first novel with a first novel’s foibles: too much self-satisfied obvious authorial voice, too little attention to smoothing out the rough patches, which are numerous. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Jose Saramago: Baltasar, Blimunda, and The Flight to Happiness

“…the longer you live the more you will realize that the world is like a great shadow pervading our hearts. That is why the world seems so empty and eventually becomes unbearable.” – José Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago (image courtesy Goodreads)

After taking longer than I should have (and mewling and puking about it in the process) I have finished Portuguese Nobelist José  Saramago’s masterful Baltasar and Blimunda from the 2015 reading list. It’s a powerful novel as both a tale of the mystery of love and as a novel of ideas. Saramago’s genius is his ability to wed these very disparate sorts of stories (romance, political statement). Saramago’s gift to readers is that he does both of these in a subtle, even elliptical way, introducing themes, spinning them out, spinning away from them, then gradually winding us back to them when we have all but forgotten them. Like a Scarlatti sonata, Baltasar and Blimunda is part entertainment, part education, and part expression of the artist’s view of the world.

More about the power of the imagination to do both good and evil than any other theme, Baltasar and Blimunda asks us to consider why we allow others’ ideas to control our destinies…. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The reading and writing doldrums…

Even the most avid reader, and the most dedicated writer, and I think I qualify as both, occasionally hits the doldrums – whether from a slow book, personal distractions, or the impositions of silly stuff like work…

EPSON MFP image

The author, much younger,  engrossed in a favorite pastime.

I am still making my way through Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, a book I began about a week ago and which I’m only two-thirds through. Saramago is a Nobelist and a brilliant writer,but reading him is a slow business. Whether that is due to his leisurely pacing or to the density of his writing (Baltasar and Blimunda is a novel of ideas as well as a historical work), I’ve found myself slogging through a very fine and engrossing novel.

So maybe it’s not my fault that I’m not writing a book essay yet again. Maybe I’ve just run into one of those writers whose work one simply can’t race through.

Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Rediscovered Twain Stories and the real Mr. Darcy: Scholarship and Smoke and Mirrors

Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium  yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite. 

Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory (image courtesy Wikimedia)

That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone. Continue reading