In Honor of Hilary Mantel

September 24, 2022

Dame Hilary Mantel, the great historical novelist famous for the “Wolf Hall” books about Thomas Cromwell has died at the age of 70. She will be sorely missed. The following is one her most valuable lessons for all historians:

“Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”


Learning to Appreciate Gertrude Stein

June 23, 2022

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I have been someone who admired the idea of Gertrude Stein from afar; I’m sure I read some Stein decades ago but really was too lazy to work my way through her word soup of a style. However there is an article this month on JSTOR Daily that helps me have a better understanding of this fountainhead of modernism.

“The work of … Gertrude Stein is at times puzzling, but always delightful because language becomes a playground, a landscape populated with metallic swings which sway sideways; monkey bars with labyrinthine constructions; everything necessarily, and properly, out of joint, like Hamlet’s time/sense. Stein warps reality to give us a taste—or perhaps an impression of—beginning and beginning again, but from different points within the Venn diagram of paragraphically rich distortions.”

The author links Stein’s modernism with one of my favourite genres, the detective story. Stein

“believed that detective fiction—in the American tradition of Dashiell Hammett … could lay the groundwork for a new type of fiction. Stein was a modernist in that very modernist way of not being easy to read, or to understand, whose works fractured narrative expectation from word one.”

A good brief history of Stein’s work and its intermingling with the development of noir and early sci-fi makes this a worthwhile read.


Bloomsday 2022

June 16, 2022

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Today we celebrate one of the great works of modern literature — James Joyce’s Ulysses which takes place on 16th June 1904.

I forgot in advance and so did not prepare my grilled kidneys for breakfast — maybe next year I’ll remember.


Jack Kerouac at 100

March 12, 2022

Jack Kerouac, beat extraordinaire, would have been 100 years old today had he not died too early at 47.

Before he died, though, he gave us such triumphs as On The Road, Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Mexico City Blues and so much more. His writing did not appeal to me so much for its literary quality (unlike, say, Ken Kesey or Richard Brautigan) but for its attitude.

It has been a while since I read him; perhaps this year I should go back and revisit my youth.


Remembering Steinbeck

February 27, 2022

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Today would have been the 120th birthday of Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck.

I read Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men when I was a young man. And I adored the comic genius of Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. But it was In Dubious Battle that helped fix my political course.

I believe Steinbeck’s reputation is mixed these days: the right hates him for his pro-union leftist works, and some of the left dislikes him for his Vietnam reporting. Regardless, he was a terrific writer who rarely failed to entertain and educate.

Happy birthday!


Ulysses Comes To Bloom

February 2, 2022

Today is the 140th anniversary of the birth of the almighty James Joyce, and it is also the 100th anniversary of the publication by Sylvia Beach of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Millions upon millions of words have been written about this incredible work and I can add nothing of great value except to declare it, in my opinion, the pinnacle of modern (perhaps all) literature. While I treasure Nabokov and Brautigan and Dylan Thomas (and even enjoy Finnegan’s Wake more), the style(s), the erudition, and the sheer bravado of Ulysses always leaves me breathless.

Time to read it again, I believe.


Richard Brautigan

January 30, 2022

Brautigan_Richard_cropped-compressed_media_cycle

Today would have been the 87th birthday of Richard Brautigan.

There were entire decades during which I read and re-read the complete Brautigan canon every single year. After Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigan was my most important influence.  He was especially valuable to me in giving inspiration and value to my flash fictions and poems.

I read and re-read the koans that are the stories in “Trout Fishing In America“, the utter tripiness of “In Watermelon Sugar,” the essential genre pastiches such as “The Hawkline Monster,” “Sombrero Fallout,” and “Dreaming of Babylon“, the straightforward vulnerability of “The Abortion.”  And the poetry.  Every year I read them, for decades.

I recently read “Trout Fishing” and “In Watermelon Sugar” for the first time in a long time, and I may go back to reading Brautugan every year again.


For Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27, 2022

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“Shema” by Primo Levi, written just one year after his liberation from Auschwitz

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

— from If This Is a Man (tr. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swan)


Shane Koyczan’s “A Tomorrow”

December 31, 2021

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I am so happy to end this year’s posts with a wonderful new poem by our own Shane Koyczan:


In Honour: Dylan Thomas

October 27, 2021

Alfred Janes - Dylan ThomasToday would have been the 107th birthday of Dylan Thomas, one of the finest writers (for me, perhaps, the finest) of the generation before mine.

Thomas was very popular when I was a boy and I was lucky enough to be in two different productions of “Under Milk Wood“, as well as doing a solo turn reciting large sections of “A Child’s Christmas“.  For decades, at least into my 40s, much of my own work was highly derivative of Thomas’ style, with aggregations of melodious adjectives cascading through the sing-song lilt of a Welshman speaking English.

He was a master poet, able to craft the most exquisite sonnets and villanelles, difficult forms to manage, concerning both the ordinary and extraordinary things of life and death.  “The Force That Through The Green Fuse“, “Fern Hill“, and his paean to his father’s death, “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night“, are sublime beyond measure..

His mastery of prose was equally fine, shown best in “A Child’s Christmas In Wales” which needs to be heard as read by the poet himself.

And then there is the extraordinary masterpiece, the radio play “Under Milk Wood“.in which Thomas’ talent, both as a writer and as an observer of rambunctious village life, are shown to the full.  If you can get a chance to listen to the Richard Burton version, then that is an experience not soon forgotten.

Thomas didn’t think much of being Welsh, let’s be frank about it.  And in just a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 68th anniversary of his sorry and inebriated death at the early age of 39. But he was an original, a genius, and I suspect he got more out of his 39 years than most of us do with three-score-and-ten.


The Ormsby Review Again

October 17, 2021

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About a week ago I wrote a post praising the Ormsby Review. It seems I should have waited a week because today is the 5th anniversary of their founding!

Never mind; any excuse to publicize this excellent Review is worth it.


Fran Lebowitz

August 27, 2021

A few weeks ago I caught Fran Lebowitz being interviewed on a late night talk show.  I had heard of her but never read any of her work.  She was quite interesting in the interview and I duly ordered a copy of The Fran Lebowitz Reader from the library. I guess others had seen her interview because I was third in line for the only copy. I finally got it last week and began to read.

The book is a series of short magazine-style pieces, reprints of her books Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, some  of which were first published as magazine articles in Interview, Mademoiselle, and British Vogue.  I enjoyed the first few pieces, and I can see why she was considered a sardonic wit, perhaps a new Dorothy Parker. Unfortunately, I quickly became bored with the style and the viewpoint; after a dozen or so pieces, you knew what was coming in the next chapter, and the writing seemed no longer witty but, rather, repetitious and small minded.

I suspect part of the problem is the fact that these were written in the 1970s and 1980s. Our television schedules these days are full of brash, outspoken commentary by highly intelligent women. Compared to them, Lebowitz in this collection comes across as little more powerful than a pre-sensimilla spliff. And, like a forty-year old roach, her writing hasn’t aged well.

That’s a shame because I was looking forward to it.


The Petticoat Lane Spieler & The Modern Novelist

August 19, 2021

When I was a lad in East London in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of my favourite experiences was to visit Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday. It was — maybe still is — a great open air market specializing in shmutter; thousands of cheap clothes on racks. But there were also stalls selling everything from jellied eels and junk, to carpets and suitcases. It was always packed.

The modern TV infomercial salesmen have nothing on the spielers down the Lane. My favourite was always the china seller; I could listen to his spiel for hours. He would be selling dinner services and tea sets, and he did it by adding each item one by one to a precarious pile on his stall or, most famously, on his arm. “You also get six side plates,” he’d yell, and somehow add them to the pile. “And wait, we’ll also thrown in ‘alf a dozen tea cups, and the saucers wot goes wiv ’em.”  Eventually, he would have dozens of dishes and cups and plates and soup tureens and sauce jugs in a miraculously balanced heap. And he would sell them all for a bargain price.

It was a great show and one of them is featured at the very beginning and very end of this nostalgic short about the Market:

The whole point of the spiel was to sell the dishes of course, but he did it by showing how clever he was piece by piece. Oddly, I was reminded of this as I read Alvaro Enrigue’s 2013 novel “Sudden Death“, which ranges in time between the conquest of Mexico and the Counter-Reformation period of Europe straddling the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I enjoy erudition and learning new stuff but, in this case, at least through the first half of the book, I kept thinking that the author was trying too hard to show how clever and learned he was by piling one exotic fact on top of another, over and over again. The book is certainly more full of facts than it is of plot.

The link through the book is a pallacorda match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball stuffed with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.  Much of the artist’s early career is covered in episodes, as is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Papal politics leading to and from the Council of Trent.  The book swings back and forth in time and location, and the author occasionally breaks through the fourth wall by directly engaging the reader with twenty-first century concerns.

It took me a while to get into this book. The style, while choppy in narrative, is lively and vulgar and delivered in short bursts. Many of the passages are lyrical and, it cannot be denied, an enormous erudition is brought to bear on questions of art especially. What stays with me most is the view of the Conquest from several Mexican points of view.

When I was in my teens, I always finished up my visits to the Lane with a drink at Dirty Dicks pub. It gave me the time to recover from the excitement of the crowds in the Lane and to contemplate what I did and didn’t buy. Similarly, I think it will take me some time to fully appreciate the quality of Enrigue’s work.


A Real Trip Down Memory Lane

August 15, 2021

Neville, Richard, (1968), OZ 11, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 36p.

Neville, Richard, (1970), OZ 31, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 48p.

You may have to be as old as me — and possibly brought up in London — to remember OZ, one of the greatest magazines that, between 1967 and 1973, straddled the period from the summer of love to the much harder seventies.

OZ exemplified that era so perfectly with sex, drugs, politics, progressive art, and rock n’roll oozing between its covers, eager to be free. It was in OZ that I first became acquainted, for example, with Robert Crumb’s subversive drawings, and with so much more.

I lived then in a suburb of west London where it was almost impossible to find copies of OZ, and so it also became a great reason to adventure into downtown to find a store that carried it.

Now, Richard Neville, the original editor, has made all copies of OZ available online. Marvelous memories on every page.  We are really lucky to have this artifact of a very different time.


Don Marquis — Forgotten Genius

August 8, 2021

Sometime in my very early twenties, near the beginning of the 1970s, someone turned me on to Don Marquis and his 1910s/1920s stories about Archy the cockroach, a writer of free verse, and Mehitabel the alley cat who thought she was a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

Archy would supposedly leave poems on Marquis’ desk that the cockroach typed by jumping up and down on the keys. There were never any capital letters or punctuation because he couldn’t use the shift key.  Here is a typical poem “The Wisdom of Archy“:

as a representative
of the insect world
i have often wondered
on what man bases his claims
to superiority
everything he knows he has had
to learn whereas we insects are born
knowing everything we need to know
a louse i
used to know
told me that
millionaires and
bums tasted
about alike
to him

In “Archy Hears from Mars,” extraterrestrials reach out to the roach by radio because humans proved too hard to contact. Upon their request that he tell them about his planet, Archy explains:

[… ] it is
round like an orange
or a ball
and it is all cluttered
up with automobiles
and politicians
it doesn t know where it is
going nor why
but it is in a hurry
it is in charge of a
two legged animal called
man who is genuinely
puzzled as to whether
his grandfather was a god
or a monkey
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I was reminded to re-read these wonderful works by an article in the Poetry Foundation by Kathleen Rooney who tells the story of Marquis far better than I ever could.
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It would be marvelous if another generation of young readers could be captivated  by this brilliant writer.

 

 


Bloomsday 2021

June 16, 2021
Bloomsday 2021! - Wellington - Eventfinda

Today we celebrate one of the great works of modern literature — James Joyce’s Ulysses which takes place on 16th June 1904.

I forgot in advance and so did not prepare my grilled kidneys for breakfast — maybe next year.


The Death of Idols

May 7, 2021

I was born in 1949 and so I came of age in the 1960s, but it was the 1950s that informed and coloured so much of my early life and tastes.  A year ago this week, we lost two of the most influential figures of that time: the Beat poet Michael McClure, and Little Richard, one of the true originators of rock and roll.

McClure was one of the organizers of the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that introduced us to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Kenneth Rexroth, gave us Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and began what is called the San Francisco Renaissance.  In his semi-fictional account of that night published as Scratching the Surface of the Beats in 1982, McClure recalled:

“The world that we tremblingly stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one. But San Francisco was a special place. Rexroth said it was to the arts what Barcelona was to Spanish Anarchism. Still, there was no way, even in San Francisco to escape the pressure of the war culture. we were locked in the pressure of the Cold War and the first Asian debacle — the Korean War.  My self image in those years was of finding myself — young, high, a little crazed, needing a haircut, in an elevator with burly crew-cutted, square jawed eminences, staring at me like I was misplaced cannon fodder. … We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead — killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”

““It was the critical moment for the Beat Generation, the grouping together of five young proto-anarchists and Buddhists,” said McClure of the Six Gallery Reading. “As we spoke, we realized from the results that we were speaking for the people. We were saying what they needed and wanted to hear, and that encouraged us. We drew a line in the sand and decided not to back off that line.”

I only learned of that event many years later when McClure became a key part of the late 60s revolution, reading at events such as the Human Be-In, the Band’s Last Waltz concert, writing Mercedes Benz for Janis Joplin, and his later close association with Ray Manzarek of the Doors.  I wolfed down huge amounts of McClure and it has stayed with me.

He published more than 30 books of poetry and plays. He died at age 87.

And then there was Little Richard.  In just three years, 1956 to 1958, Little Richard created both a sound and a bravura that would mark rock and roll for ever.  His squealing, his heavy gospel-inspired piano pounding, his quasi-erotic lyrics, his pompadour and flashy clothes, and his androgynous sexuality  set the style from which almost all pop and rock has followed to this day.  “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else.”

He had already retired and become a preacher by then time I was really listening to music, but his songs — Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly — were covered by the Beatles and just about everyone else I followed in the early 60s. He and Jerry Lee Lewis gave us excitement.

Little Richard was also 87 when he died.


The Epicurean Life

April 5, 2021

Something I was reading recently reminded me of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.  I think it bears repeating.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.

Epicurus

The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.


On Crime Writing

March 21, 2021

Regular readers will know that I am a voracious reader of crime fiction.  I have written before of my binge reading of Vancouver’s own Laurence Gough, Norway’s Jo Nesbo, P.D. James, Michael Dibdin, Ian Rankin, and many others, including a recent trot through Peter Temple’s excellent four-book Jack Irish series set in Melbourne, Australia.

Back in April 2019 I reported on some discussions on the genre at the 2019 Edgar Awards. Now, at Boucheron, we have a long and often informative debate on the current state of the crime novel as discussed by crime writers themselves.

The second question asked (after the now-obligatory nod to diversity) asked whether crime novels had a responsibility to grapple with real world issues. It received a mixed response. On one side, Alex Segura noted:

“The best crime novels, for my money, also serve as cutting social commentary—they put a mirror up to our world, and show us how we live and are, warts and all. I don’t think crime novels should—or can, really—come up with solutions to all of society’s ills, but they should damn well try to show us a world that is like our own, so readers can at least take their vitamins with their dessert.”

While James Ziskin disagreed:

“Not at all. Sometimes we want to be entertained and other times we want to change the world. There’s room enough under our tent for pure escapist fare, farces, capers, and comedies of manners as well as fiction with social themes or conscience.”

I probably agree with Ziskin although my own reading tends to match Segura’s take.  For example, the Jack Irish books I am currently reading are teaching me a great deal about modern life in suburban Australia, and Jo Nesbo’s pieces did the same for me about Scandinavia.

There is a lot to take in here, not least a long list of writers I have yet to read. One thing to notice, though, throughout this long piece, not one of my favourite crime authors (see first paragraph above) is mentioned.  Hmmm.


Publishing Lolita

March 9, 2021
Photograph by Carl Mydans / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

I have expressed before my deep admiration for Vladimir Nabokov, one of the truly great writers and one of the truly great subjects for literary discussion. I tend to read anything about him that I come across, and so it was no surprise that I was attracted to read Stacy Schiff’s piece in the New Yorker entitled Vera Nabokov was the first and greatest champion of Lolita.

For anyone interested in the literature of the 20th century, this is an essential trip down memory lane, capturing the difficulties of publishing a book such as Lolita in Eisenhower’s America, and the reaction to it once published.

The heroine of Schiff’s article is Nabokov’s wife Vera, who at least once saved the manuscript from the flames and who it was who suggested, finally, publishing the book in Paris.

“It was Véra who thought, days after the fifth rejection, to pursue publication abroad. Might her husband’s longtime French agent, she wondered, be interested in a novel that could not be published in America, for reasons of “straitlaced morality”? The manuscript was of an “extreme originality,” a category that in the Nabokov household tended to overlap with outlandish perversity. Véra begged for a speedy reply.”

After Graham Greene had proclaimed Lolita to be one of the best three books of the year, American publishers crawled over each other to publish in the States. At the event to celebrate its publication by Putnam (and after), it was Vera who stood “as the fire wall between Vladimir Nabokov and Humbert Humbert.”

“The New York Post took pains to observe that the author was accompanied to cocktails by “his wife, Véra, a slender, fair-skinned, white-haired woman in no way reminiscent of Lolita.” At that reception, as elsewhere, admirers told Véra that they had not expected Nabokov to show up with his wife of thirty-three years. “Yes,” she replied, smiling, unflappable. “It’s the main reason why I’m here … Véra’s presence kept the fiction in place, and Humbert’s monstrosity at bay. For the next few years, the words “who looks nothing like Lolita” obligatorily attached themselves to her name. She served as her husband’s badge of honor, his moral camouflage. She provided a comforting bit of misdirection. An accessory to the crime, Véra looked every inch the snowy-haired alibi.”

Schiff writes well about the book’s reception and its place in the canon of modern literature and Vera Nabokov’s role. She concludes:

“The long-suffering wife who stands at her husband’s side, lending moral cover, reliably serves to blot out another woman’s agony. Véra did just the opposite. She alone emphasized Lolita’s plight from the start. In interviews, among her husband’s colleagues, with family members, she stressed Lolita’s “complete loneliness in the whole world.” She had not a single surviving relative! Reviewers searched for morals, justifications, explanations. What they inevitably failed to notice, Véra complained, was “the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous Humbert Humbert, and her heartrending courage all along.” They forgot that “ ‘the horrid little brat’ Lolita was essentially very good indeed.” 

Well worth the read (and so is Lolita if you haven’t done so already).