ArtSunday: LIterature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Jorge Ferretis

“He would never wish to see his son as he himself had been once, living discontentedly amidst men at the beck and call of masters.” – Jorge Ferretis

Jorge Ferretis (image courtesy Enciclopedia de la Literatura en Mexico)

I’ve finally made my way through the lengthy collection of stories A World of Great Stories, I’ve found a number of the selections rather creaky (likely a fault of older translations) or by authors who are obscure outside their own countries. (I see this as a positive since it introduces American readers to talented authors they might not otherwise encounter.) There is a sincere effort by the various region editors to include representative work from most of the world – the U.S., British Isles, eastern and western Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Africa is not represented, an omission one feels more keenly now than might have been felt when the collection first appeared in 1948. Still, it is a collection that has reminded me about – or introduced me to – writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Rudyard KiplingRhian Roberts, Lauro de Bosis, Karel Capek, and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, writers who represent all the previously mentioned geographic regions except Latin America.

This essay on Jorge Ferretis, A Mexican author you may, like me, not be familiar with, completes the full tour of all the geographic regions covered by the story collection I’ve been blathering on about. He’s a good choice because he allows us to talk about Latin American literary history a bit. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Writers of slender acquaintance: Karel Capek

Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like dry leaves. Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds.” – Karel Capek

Karel Capek (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The Czech writer Karel Capek, in terms of being a writer of slender acquaintance, falls somewhere between Rudyard Kipling, a Nobelist remembered now only for children’s stories and Rhian Roberts, a Welsh writer of great promise who published a few short stories and then disappeared. While he is often (erroneously) credited with having coined the word for a creation that may haunt the 21st century,  was nominated for the Nobel Prize numerous times, and even has literary awards named for him, Capek is not widely read now.

He should be. His central themes – the ability of technology to overwhelm and destroy humanity, the dangers of rampant consumerism, corporatism run amok, the evils of authoritarianism of both left and right political persuasions – will resonate powerfully with contemporary readers. Given that Capek died in 1938, his prescience about the power of these forces in our lives makes him a writer who should be widely read and discussed. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Lauro De Bosis

Award-winning Italian writer lost his life protesting the fascism of Benito Mussolini.

Lauro De Bosis (image courtesy Wikimedia)

“Every regime in the world, even the Afghan and Turk, allows its citizens a certain amount of liberty. Fascism alone, in self-defense, is obliged to annihilate thought.” – Lauro De Bosis

This week’s writer of slender acquaintance is less a mysterious one like Rhian Roberts and more a tragic one like – well, like many artists who oppose and are destroyed by repressive regimes. As I mentioned last week, I am meandering through a massive collection of short stories called A World of Great Stories. As I made my way through the Italian section (and came across one of the worst edited “story” selections I have read so far in this volume – and that’s saying something – an excerpt called “The Travelers” from Ignazio Silone’s The Seed Beneath the Snow), I encountered De Bosis and a piece (it’s not really a story, it’s a heartfelt autobiographical essay about and against Mussolini and Italian Fascism) he wrote before his last flight (De Bosis was an amateur aviator). Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Writers of slender acquaintance: Rhian Who…?

“It is therefore only right that we should all turn out to make our farewells.” – Rhian Roberts

A World of Great Stories, eds. Hiram Haydn and John Cournos (image courtesy Goodreads)

I haven’t mentioned my reading in the last couple of essays. That isn’t because I haven’t been reading (don’t be silly), but because I’m dividing my time between a couple of works. One of these is a crime fiction novel by an author I have reviewed before, William Mark (my review of his latest, Crossing the Blue Line, will appear sometime next week.

The other, whose cover is pictured at right, is called A World of Great Stories and contains 115 “stories” (more on why the quotation marks used shortly) by authors from around the world. So far I’ve finished the American/British section (which includes not just the U.S. and England but Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and am into the section on Europe which starts, quite naturally, with the French who are after all right across the Channel.

The Welsh representative is the Rhian of this essay’s title. Her name is Rhian Roberts and if there were ever a writer with whom one’s acquaintance is going to be slender, it would be she.

But more on Ms. Roberts anon. First, a few words about this book. Continue reading

ArtSunday

Writers of slender acquaintance: Rudyard Kipling

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” – Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Another in the series I began last week about writers who have become neglected. This week’s choice is one whose literary reputation has been as high, as low, and as controversial as any writer in the history of literature. Rudyard Kipling has been revered – and reviled – by authors as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, R.K. Narayan, and George Orwell – who noted that Kipling:

…sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.

For those who know Kipling – and that’s almost everyone – only for “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” or The Jungle Book or Kim – Kipling is a dimly remembered writer of exciting stories for young readers. But he was a complicated figure who produced a wide range of work with interesting themes. Continue reading

Dotsun Moon, A Swan's Song

CD review: Dotsun Moon’s “A Swan’s Song” illuminates the soul of a band in transition

Rich Flierl may be at the mercy of circumstances, but new CD makes clear his rage to grow and innovate. Let’s hope A Swan’s Song isn’t.

Dotsun Moon, A Swan's Song

Dotsun Moon, A Swan’s Song

Dotsun Moon was rolling in the wake of 2011’s outstanding 4am, but a couple years later singer Mary Ognibene departed the band, leaving songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rich Flierl wondering what to do next. An extended search for a worthy replacement proved difficult – understandable, given how perfectly Ognibene’s talents meshed with Flierl’s dark, brooding vision. 4am wandered the borderlands between trip-hop, shoegaze and the lush, cinematic alt.Americana we might associate with The Lost Patrol and The Blueflowers. (Flierl describes it as “DreamBeat Noir,” which is as good a tag as anything I can come up with.) It was a seductive amalgam, and it’s hard to imagine easily replacing any element of the collaboration.

Flierl auditioned a number of singers, but no one really panned out.  Continue reading

books narrow 1

Writers of slender acquaintance: Sherwood Anderson

In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were truths and they were all beautiful. – Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This is the beginning of acting upon an idea. Whether it will be a good idea only time will tell, but here is a beginning.

As anyone who reads my essays knows, I read a lot of books. Some of the books are newly issued works of promise, some are long remembered, well known classics, some are oddities that for one reason or another have captured my attention and imagination for a least a brief time.

Because I read many books, I encounter many writers. Some of these writers are famous, known by most of the American public even if only as a name that they know.  Some have had great recognition and renown but are not known to much of the American public at all. A few have had some recognition and appeal but deserve more.

As I have thought about this, especially since reading my most recently completed book, Robert E. Spiller’s overview of American literary history, it has occurred to me that someone ought to write a series of essays that look at one other group: writers whose place in the world of literature might be seen as precarious, writers whose work should be “discovered/re-discovered” by a reading public who may be hungry for something a little deeper and more challenging than the standard fare that gets the most attention these days.

Here I go, violating one of the military’s truisms: Never volunteer. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Robert Spiller’s American Literature for old fogeys…

Robert E, Spiller’s classic of literary history, The Cycle of American Literature, still holds insights for the serious reader even though he occasionally creaks with quaintness…

The Cycle of American Literature by Robert E. Spiller (image courtesy Goodreads)

Pulled this wonderful old critical monograph on the history of American literature off the shelf a bit ago and have just completed a re-read, my first of this text in, oh, I don’t know, about 40 years, I’d say.  First published in 1955, The Cycle of American Literature is Spiller’s personal, sometimes idiosyncratic (as all good scholarly writing should be) critical survey of the emergence and evolution of American literature as we know it.

Readers old enough to remember the training one received in literature prior to the scholarly culture revolutions of the last several decades which have seen cultural shifts such as the removal of one time bastions of literary study from the curriculum as their places are taken by more “relevant and inclusive” author selections will read this lovely chestnut of “old school” critical thinking with a satisfying “hmm, yes, that’s how we were taught to think about literature.” Those trained since the revolution that made criticism more important than the literature it is supposed to be critiquing may find it shocking at first to have a scholar/critic actually write about writers and their work as if those writers and their work actually matter and are not just products of deep psycho-social structures that reduce the literary artist to a cipher, a tool, an outlet for the historical and cultural forces of his/her time will scratch their heads and say, perhaps, “slightly benighted, but certainly some interesting stuff here.”

As Mr. Vonnegut observed, “So it goes.Continue reading

Book-Review

Guy de Maupassant and the pain of brevity…

How strange and changeful is life! How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us! – Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace”

There must have been something in the water.

Guy de Maupassant (image courtesy Wikimedia)

If one considers some of the great short story writers of the late 19th-early 20th century – Chekhov, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, better known by his pen name Saki, and Maupassant, one must note two things: they gave us some of the most remarkable short fiction ever written (Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog“) and they all died in their forties. If one adds in the brilliant American Stephen Crane, who died at 29 and who gave us “The Open Boat,” the average lifespan for a master of short fiction in this era works out to be roughly 40. That’s the lifespan of a medieval knight.

It’s as if short fiction genius comes with the price of a short life. It’s a literary artist’s version of Achilles’ choice: faced with the prospect of a long but uneventful life and dying forgotten or doing work that would bring them immortality but a brief temporal existence, they all chose option B.

I have long been divided about whether I thought Chekhov or Crane the greatest of short fictioneers, to borrow a term from my friend the gifted short fiction writer Teresa Milbrodt. Having recently finished reading The Tales of Guy de Maupassant, I find myself needing to consider adding a third contender to my deliberations. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsWeek

The Butterfly Effect: revisiting an old poem

Image (1) ArtsWeek.jpg for post 12148

Old men are signal. Young men are noise.

Fractal Butterfly 004, by agsandrew at DeviantArt

When I was a young writer I swung for the fence with every syllable. I felt like any word that didn’t crush you with profound implications for eternity was a wasted opportunity. I resented articles. I didn’t understand white space, breathing room, the need for silence between beats, and I had little time for the banal, pedestrian-mongering wanks who did.

I learned more about these things as I grew, and I think becoming a photographer has honed those lessons even more. Noise drowns signal.

Even though I’m no longer a poet, I sometimes read things I wrote in that past life. Continue reading

Praise the lord, pass the steak sauce

It’s Sunday so, you know, nuns…

I was photographing a wedding dinner at Original Joe’s in North Beach. If you go, order the veal piccata. It’s fantastic. Anyway, it was hard not to notice these six nuns as they walked by the table where my wife and I were awaiting our meal. Right after the waiter handed these ladies their menus, I walked up to their table and said “Sisters, I’ve never seen this many nuns seated at a table in a public restaurant. May I take a picture of all of you?”

Continue reading

ArtSunday

Catherine Heath’s Behaving Badly: the novel in its time…

Don’t you think it’s magnificent? A kind of splendid behavior really. A trusting of the future, a daring kind of love. Isn’t it, in a way, splendid? – Catherine Heath

Behaving Badly by Catherine Heath (image courtesy Library Thing)

Catherine Heath is a novelist I stumbled upon through my wife Lea’s interest in and admiration for the actress Judi Dench. In looking around for a present for her (anniversary, Christmas, I forget), I came across a British miniseries called Behaving Badly starring the aformentioned Ms. Dench.

As we watched the miniseries I became interested in finding out more about the author, a British novelist of the 1970’s and 80’s who only developed her career as a novelist in early middle age and who died relatively young (66) of cancer. So I found and bought a copy of the novel Behaving Badly, the work upon which the television show was based.

Having read Heath’s novel, I can offer a couple of observations about which I will elaborate later. The first is that Heath, like most British writers, is deft, witty, and thoughtful. The second is that like any number of fine British writers she may be ignored for long periods. The second of these may actually be a hidden boon to her long term literary reputation. Continue reading