Thursday, February 16, 2017

Don Marquis--archy and mehitabel (1927-34)

This may be the closest thing to a comic book on the IWE list. archy was a cockroach who in a previous life had been a free verse human poet. He banged out poems, all in lower case letters due to his not being able to reach the shift key, at night on a typewriter in what I took to be a newspaper office in New York City, though evidently it was in an apartment. mehitabel was a street cat of shockingly loose morals by the standard of literary anthropomorphized animals who appeared to live in the apartment in the earlier poems though after the beginning she was out living the hardscrabble city life most of the time. The poems originally appeared in The New York Sun newspaper, often famously accompanied by illustrations by Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman. These stories were immensely popular in their day. The himself once much more famous writer Christopher Morley, as recounted on the dust jacket of my edition, called the stories "the wisest collection of American irreverence written in our time" and that "the grandest of all times to have been young and excitable...about 1916 when Don Marquis invented his Vermin Voltaire, archy the roach". Three books were made out of this material, archy and mehitabel, archy's life of mehitabel, and archy does his part, which in turn were collected into the one volume the lives and times of archy and mehitabel in 1934. This was the book that I read, though looking over the summary in the IWE, it stopped at the first volume, which was by far the best, and in truth, I found the second and third books to be disappointments that added little to the first. It became a little repetitious after a while. The first book, however, I did like. Its charms lie in its mixture of absurdity and matter of fact, even blunt concerns about eating and scrapping and other facets of the life of a small urban animal who possesses the instincts of said animal along with a humanlike consciousness and language. archy offers more direct social commentary in the later poems, some of which hits its mark as far as it goes, but it tends to lack the playful anarchic quality of the earlier stories.


I was very lazy about making notes for this book, so I do not have many examples to comment on.






From "quote and only man is vile quote":


"humanitys culture consists
in sitting down in circles
and passing the word around
about how darned smart humanity is
i wish you would tell
the furnace man at your house
to put out some new brand
of roach paste I do not get
any kick any more out of the brand
he has been using the last year"


An 'archygram' about living in a museum


"but it is dull associating
with mummies no
matter how royal their
blood used to be when
they had blood
it is like living in
philadelphia"


From "archy visits washington"


"it is so hot that you can
fry fish on the
sidewalk in any part of
town and many people
are here with fish to fry"


From "the league"--archy seems to have been in the main a liberal, and supportive of the idea at least of organizations dedicated to the promotion of peace, though he was doubtful about their effectiveness.




"incidentally I wonder why europe of today
is always referred to by highbrow writers
as post war europe
they seem to think that the war
which started in nineteen fourteen
is over with whereas there have been
merely a few brief truces"


From 'statesmanship"


"why in the world
says this
insect do you not
go to the country and become
grasshoppers if
living in town and being
cockroaches is getting
too difficult for you...
how i asked him are
cockroaches to become
grasshoppers
that is a mere
detail he said which i
leave to you for
solution i have outlined
the general scheme for your
salvation so do not ask
me to settle the mere
details i trust to you for
that you must do
something for yourself
we philosophers cannot do it all
for you unaided you
must learn self help
but alas i fear that
your inherent stupidity will
balk all efforts
to improve your condition"




Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing made a recording of the 'archy' material, subtitled "a back-alley opera" in 1954.


From "what the ants are saying"


"what man calls civilization
always results in deserts
man is never on the square
he uses up the fat and greenery of the earth
each generation wastes a little more
of the future with greed and lust for riches"


He was quite prescient as far as anticipating some of the attitudes of modern progressives and other cynics of the American system in particular.


mehitabel the cat was a well-conceived and very lively creation, who plays well off of archy's somewhat more constrained and frustrated persona.






The Challenge


1. Ben-Hur (movie).........................................................................................1,918
2. Emma Cline--The Girls...............................................................................1,466
3. Ben Mezrich--Bringing Down the House.......................................................571
4. Mark Helprin--A Soldier of the Great War.....................................................448
5. Thomas Pynchon--Against the Day................................................................111
6. Ray Bradbury--Golden Apples of the Sun.........................................................47
7. Randy Olson--Houston, We Have a Narrative.................................................46
8. Lake/Simmons--Bazaar Style...........................................................................22
9. Lisa Leavitt-Smith--Paris Interiors...................................................................15
10. Rico Austin--In the Shadow of Elvis...............................................................14
11. Mark Thomas--Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola..7
12. Jen George--The Babysitter at Rest...................................................................7
13. Conan/Sorrell--At Home With Pattern..............................................................3
14. Nathalie Leger--Suite For Barbara Loden........................................................2
15. Annette Messager--Word For Word..................................................................1
16. Raymond Carroll--Only Raising Dust on the Road, Part 1...............................0
17. A Series of Unfortunate Events (TV).................................................................0


Play-In Round


#16 Carroll over #17 Unfortunate Events


This version of the Lemony Snicket stories is a streaming-only TV series.


The Sweet Sixteen


#1 Ben-Hur over #16 Carroll


I break my rule of never allowing a book to beat a film when no library has a copy of the book.


#2 Cline over #15 Messager


Cline is shorter and more readily available, and looks as if it might be a real book.


#3 Mezrich over #14 Leger
#4 Helprin over #13 Conan/Sorrell


These two are walkovers.


#5 Pynchon over #12 George


I'm not really ready at this time to read a 1,085 page Pynchon novel (though I know I should be), however I have to retain some integrity for the Challenge and I can't let him be beaten by a babysitter book.








#6 Bradbury over #11 Thomas


I was actually interested in the Coca-Cola book, but it drew a tough matchup here.


#7 Olson over #10 Austin


Despite a combined 60 Amazon reviews for their books, neither author has had a work make its way into a library in the state of New Hampshire.


#8 Lake/Simmons over #9 Leavitt-Smith


Same story here. I believe this is the first time we have ever had chalk in the round of 16.


Elite Eight


#1 Ben-Hur over #8 Lake/Simmons


Ben-Hur will fall when he runs up against a vetted book.


#2 Cline over #7 Olson
#6 Bradbury over #3 Mezrich


Finally, the first lower seed to win.


#4 Helprin over #5 Pynchon


Titanic matchup, obviously. Helprin's book, at 792 pages, is the short one by far here.


Final Four


#6 Bradbury over #1 Ben-Hur
#2 Cline over #4 Helprin


The Cline book is not obviously unserious enough to lose here.


Championship


#6 Bradbury over #2 Cline


Bradbury, along with Thomas, his first opponent, were designated for upsets, but Bradbury never really needed to rely on one as he cruised to the title.



















Thursday, February 9, 2017

Rome

I couldn't find any map or description of neighborhoods with boundaries definitively delineated enough for my purpose, so I have classed my sites here by the Metro station they are nearest to. The reason for the high number of "unknowns" is of course all of the ancient figures on these lists who were native to the city but cannot be identified with any more specific location.






Unknown...............10
Spagna.....................6
Colosseo..................5
Barberini.................2
Lepanto....................2
Garbatella................1
Ottoviano.................1
Republicca...............1
San Giovanni...........1

Monday, February 6, 2017

February Update

A List: H. L. Mencken--The American Language......................................62/697


B List: Don Marquis--The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel.......396/477


C List: Karl Ove Knausgaard--My Struggle: Volume 2..............................55/592


I suspect that what is considered valuable in the Mencken book could be acceptably covered by the modern reader through pertinent excerpts. Many of the controversies and premises it addresses have been long superseded, or are long lost causes, such as the contention among the British educated classes and their American admirers that American speech was even in its highest forms a brutal degradation of the mother tongue, and the alarm in England in the 1930s when the book was written that the introduction of talking Hollywood movies would sow and spread the linguistic rot among the population there. I was also reminded of the obsession that raged among American educators throughout the first half of the last century with eradicating the word "ain't" and the abominable habits of dropping one's g's from the national vernacular. He has referred in recent pages to a study of local accents in New England that I am hoping he will go back to, as I might find that personally interesting. New England had at this time apparently the greatest diversity of local speech patterns in the United States. I am guessing this is not the case anymore. Even twenty years ago there were still a decent number of older people around with very distinct and unusual, archaic accents, as well as a surprising number of people who spoke (Canadian) French as their first language. But I guess those people must all have died off, since I don't remember encountering anyone fitting these descriptions for some years now.


Having fallen behind on my "C" List, I arranged for a string of very short titles to win my legendary Challenges, and having finished all of them in relatively short order, I decided to take up the second volume (and the longest, seemingly) of Knausgaard. So far Knausgaard has been at the same pre-school birthday party for the entire book. I do like him, and I do look forward to reading my little segment of him each day, but that is because he is like the literary-minded friend of my own generation, which I do not actually have, who is smart but not forbiddingly or inaccessibly so--in the birthday party scene he is a little befuddled by the kinds of parents who have the kinds of awesome 21st century careers that require them to go to Malaysia for conferences on a regular basis. This is about what I get from him.


Before Knausgaard, I read Jesus's Son, the Carveresque short story collection by Denis Johnson that is much praised. It was published in 1992, though most of the stories seem to be set in the 70s. The stories are set primarily in the great expanse between Chicago and Seattle, and feature characters who have a lot of problems with things like drugs, violence, employment, health, the inability to form stable or even functioning relationships with other people. You know, I was going to say something how the country has changed, that people like this used to be seen as having a kind of rawness or authenticity about them, whereas now they seem kind of pathetic. You would have to be a very strong writer to write as if you identified with them without coming off as more than a bit of a fool. I didn't think the author accomplished that here, though that is just my impression as someone who reads a fair amount of books. I would like to think that someone out there trusted my opinion, but I can't expect it. I could go more into this book if anyone was interested, but I need to get my post up for tonight.












Saturday, January 14, 2017

John O'Hara--Appointment in Samarra (1934)


This book is about, roughly, eastern Pennsylvania, drinking, country clubs, roadhouses, railroads, cars, state highways, social class, lust/sloppy encounters, fading college memories, and the 1930s. That is, much of what I know, or knew, and think of as normal life. It is one of those snappy books of that era, and it also happened to be set on Christmas Day and the 3 or 4 days afterwards (in 1930), which dates coincided with the time when I was reading it (in 2016), in my old house with my icy windows and crusty snow in the yard. So I got a good deal of pleasure out of it, though how much anyone without as much personal identification with the material would, especially nowadays, I can't say. 

This is the only O'Hara book to make the IWE list, even though he was still highly regarded, as well as alive, at the time it was published. The blurb for Appointment in Samarra begins "John O'Hara's qualifications as a novelist are rated higher and higher as the years pass but as to one of them there has never been any doubt". It goes on to praise his ear for American conversation and Appointment's readability and character portrayals, "especially that of Caroline English". It also makes that claim that the town of Gibbsville, where this and many of O'Hara's stories are set, is modeled on Harrisburg, which is a pretty major error, I am almost certain that O'Hara's hometown of Pottsville is what was meant. Characters in the book talk about going to Harrisburg, and especially Reading, which is a dump now, but was evidently prosperous and lively ninety years ago.   


In spite of his comparatively high level of success as a writer, which he had already attained by the age of thirty, O'Hara was notorious even in his own lifetime for being cloyingly open about his various social and professional insecurities, such as not having been able to attend Yale (or any other college, for that matter), not being awarded literary prizes, not being considered on the level of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the other major writers of that generation that preceded him by ten to fifteen years. The preface that he wrote for the Modern Library edition, which came out in the early 1950s, is full of name-dropping as well being surprisingly candid and unironic about his influences, most of whom (Lewis, Galsworthy, Tarkington) were not much in vogue among the edgier writers even then. The whole thing would get anyone who submitted it laughed out of any respectable literary magazine today.

All of the characters in the country club set are introduced with the names of their colleges. Lafayette and Lehigh are as well represented as the Ivy League. There was even a writer for the local newspaper who had graduated from the University of Missouri.

Now it is time for everybody's favorite section of these reports, when I copy my favorite quotations from the books:

p. 17 "She was known on the stag line as a girl who would give you a dance; she was at Smith, and was a good student. She had a lovely figure, especially her breasts, and she was a passionate little thing who wasn't homely but plain and, if she only knew it, didn't look well without her glasses. She was so eager to please that when a young man would cut in on her, he got the full benefit of her breasts and the rest of her body." Oh yes, it's that kind of book. Where were all the eager to please girls (for me) when I was young? Of course, I know where they were, they were elsewhere, eager to please other people. It's a let off steam kind of question. It's still a few a few years before I'll have time or extra money to try to hash this out with a psychiatric professional.

p.50 "She felt sorry for prostitutes on all occasions; she thought milk for babies ought to be pure; she thought Germany was not altogether responsible for the World War; she did not believe in Prohibition (It does not prohibit," she often said). She smoked cigarettes one right after the other, and did not care who knew it..." Defining characteristics of people in other ages. 



p. 125 "That was in the summer of 1926, one of the most unimportant years in the history of the United States..." Is this true? Maybe it was, though I don't think of it as an especially bad or boring year.

Chapter 6 is a very good rendering of a very inebriated but nominally functioning man's thought process, conversation, behavior, etc. Or at least it is very similar to what I have experienced in the same state.

p. 187, English remembering his childhood. "There was a game called Run, Sharpie, Run, and sometimes the gang would play Ku-Klux Klan, after having seen "The Birth of a Nation." I feel like I have some duty to acknowledge this stuff when it turns up in these books, though as with Tarkington the casualness of the references to these things and obliviousness to any sense of moral culpability do give the books an air of authenticity. I understood by this that they played this game among themselves at least and did not go around tormenting actual black people, though perhaps they did. There is quite a bit of very casual anti-Semitism in the book as well, of the sort that could not be unironically published today by any reputable outfit. I don't know that I would call O'Hara an aggressive Jew-hater (doubtless others will have no problem doing so, but I am of a mild disposition, and feel no need to castigate people unless they avow extreme positions) --even in the 30s, 40s and 50s I have to think that would have been an issue in both the New York publishing world and in Hollywood, which frequently adapted his novels at that time--but he certainly seems to regard the Jewish community as a distinct entity that has some characteristics that he finds distasteful and that is also set to some extent in implacable, if not mortal, opposition to his own,     

I went to Pottsville, the nominal setting of this story, one day back in September or October of 1989. This was on a hitchhiking trip/adventure I undertook to see America following a trail marked by the birth-cities of the writers on the IWE list. Since I started out from Philadelphia, I made to Pottsville within the first four or five days of the trip (after, if I remember correctly, Philadelphia, Germantown (in Philadelphia), Burlington, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware). I did not even have the wherewithal to seek out monuments or sites related to the authors themselves, but figured the cities had spawned important literary figures, and something in the location must have something stimulating for me to contemplate. Pottsville is about 2 hours northwest of Philadelphia, in mountainous coal country. It was foggy and wet the day I was there, leaves all along the roads leading into town, upon which I walked much of the way from the highway (I-78 I think) near the exit off which I had spent the previous night in a cornfield. These roads, most of the time, ran along the bases of very steep, wet, tree-covered hills with the occasional dilapidated old house clinging to the edge of them. Not much was happening in Pottsville, though the main street was still there at least, had not been converted into strip malls and such, and I hung out at the library for a while, and got something to eat at a diner that was still open. But the population of the town was mostly old people and the single mother/unsocialized young men types that you can probably imagine, and the atmosphere was gloomy, so I decided not to stick around for the night and started on the way to Scranton, which was the next stop on the list. I didn't make it (this was the night some people found a $20 a night motel for me, which I once wrote about on my other blog), but I did get to Scranton the next day, and I enjoyed it there (nice old public buildings to idle in) and I stayed ovenight there in a sheltered basement stairwell of a church. (It's a good thing I am not doing this now though, since Scranton apparently arrests more people per capita for nonsense than anywhere else in the country now).

Within a span of about ten pages O'Hara, through his characters, manages to pay homage/suck up to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who were the rock stars of American literature and about 10 years older (or less) than him when he was a young man breaking in to the business. Hemingway did throw him a bone by praising Appointment when it came out, which O'Hara did not neglect to mention in the preface (and elsewhere, one suspects).     



p.158 I was shaken by Al Grecco's fucking of Franny Snyder. "...she wanted a cigarette and accepted a drink and was easily persuaded to go for a short ride. The short ride was short enough: half a mile off the main road between Gibbsville and Collieryville to a boathouse on the Colliery Dam...she must have felt the same way, because if there was ever an easy lay she was it--that day. But she said on the way home: 'If you ever tell anybody this I'll kill you.'" I get shaken by these things of course because nothing of this sort ever happened with me, and I know that other people, the people I have nothing to do in life but dream about being, or having been now...You see, I need to record this and tell it to the psychiatrist when I go. You go there and you can't say exactly what is giving you so much pain and discontent. Of course they can't do anything for you, or make you feel that it should have happened to you, and that you deserved it, and were robbed of experiences that you should have had, or make you feel that you don't need to have them, but I would still feel better if I could talk to someone about the jealousy and rage that has, I won't say ruined my life, but hindered my development.

During the Christmas season I happened to go to my local independent bookstore, which is really pretty good, and on a lark I took a look to see if they had any O'Hara books in stock, which I wasn't expecting they would, because I think of him as being very out of fashion, but actually they had 5 titles by him. There was a special Penguin edition of Appointment in Samarra (as noted above, I read the Modern Library edition, which I already had, as I have collected that series for many years), and three other Penguin paperbacks, for Butterfield 8, Ten North Frederick (National Book Award winner for 1955), and an edition of New York Stories, with a stylish cover illustration featuring a tumbler of whiskey on a windowsill with a nighttime view of the Manhattan skyline, somewhat reminiscent of The Lost Weekend. They also had the Library of America volume of his stories, these being considered it seems the most valuable part of his oeuvre now.

    
Even among the country club set, the aggressive assertions of manliness and especially the amount of physical fighting among the men is shocking to read about in these wussified times of ours. 

p.241 "...he did not like to see men driving hatless in closed cars; it was too much like the Jews in New York who ride in their town cars with the dome lights lit." Both of these abominations were lost on me, I am sad to say.

p. 240 In a rundown of one of the characters' humdrum everyday sights, he notes "the trees with the bark knawed away by horses." This is a lost thing now, though apparently it was still a familiar sight in 1930. 

p.287 The main character's father was a doctor, and one of those eminently respectable but shallow and emotionally cold pillar of the community types who loomed so large over the literary small towns in 1880-1940 America. He has a professional adversary in town who is Jewish, referred to by Dr English in his own mind (though I don't think publicly) as "the little kike quack". There is tension between them because "Dr English had given a dinner to the County Medical Society and failed to invite Moskowitz. Dr English thought he had good reason: the dinner was at the country club, and Jews were not admitted to the club, so Dr English could not see why he should violate the spirit of the club rule by having a Jew there as his guest." The tension between Wasps (especially--I suppose there must be Catholic country clubs,* but they don't seem to get a lot of attention) and Jews over not allowing the latter into country clubs is famously well documented. I don't know whether this is still an issue or not. My sense is that country clubs in general are in decline anyway because few younger people (younger being under age 55 or so) can afford them, and those who can are not willing or able to devote as much time to golf and drinking as past generations were. I remember in my youth some arguments put forth in, if not defense, justification of these discriminatory policies, not by anyone who actually belonged to such a club (one guy might have been the bartender at one), the main one being that members joined the club to have a place to go and relax, and in those days at least, the presence of Jews apparently made this sought after relaxation more elusive than the members cared for. And yes, I know that by relax is meant, be able to get comfortably drunk and feel at ease to speak the terrible thoughts one has about all of the out-groups of the club. I knew it then, really.

As noted above, this is widely considered O'Hara's best novel now, with his stories still being held in some regard as well. This is a good first novel by a twenty-nine year old, with a lot that is interesting in it, but it is hardly a masterpiece, and if he never improved upon it--and he had a long career--I would have to consider his development to have been a disappointment.        

*The club in the book actually has a strong Catholic contingent (O'Hara himself was a Catholic, by origin), which is the source of much of the tension in the book's plot.



The Challenge

1. Dan Brown--Angels and Demons................................................................3,452
2. Stephen King--The Gunslinger....................................................................1,975
3. Raging Bull (movie).......................................................................................494
4. The Red Shoes (movie)...................................................................................252
5. Annie Proulx--Close Range............................................................................226
6. Denis Johnson--Jesus's Son............................................................................221
7. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (movie).......................................204
8. Bob Dylan--The Times They Are A-Changin' (music)....................................151
9. R.K. Lilley--Breaking Her..............................................................................146
10. John Marsden--A Killing Frost.......................................................................75
11. George Weigel--The Cube and the Cathedral................................................55
12. Caro Diario (movie).......................................................................................42
13. California Solo (movie)..................................................................................37
14. Amelia Gray--Gutshot....................................................................................28
15. Krys Lee--Drifting House...............................................................................22
16. John O'Hara--Gibbsville, Pa: The Classic Stories..........................................17

A much better challenge this time, I think, though the numbers of movies is a little higher than I would like, three being my preferred maximum. But I take what I get.

The Sweet Sixteen

#16 O'Hara over #1 Brown

A no-brainer, especially with O'Hara not slated to appear again on the set list.

#15 Lee over #2 King

Besides being shorter, the Lee looks as though it may be a literary book.

#14 Gray ovr #3 Raging Bull

#4 The Red Shoes over #13 California Solo

An easy call for the Powell/Pressburger classic.

#5 Proulx over #12 Caro Diario

#6 Johnson over #11 Weigel

Both are short, both look somewhat interesting, neither is available at my library. Weigel is another book about God/religion (albeit the absence of it in this instance), and having read two of those recently I am weary of the subject.

#10 Marsden over #7 Fantastic Beasts, etc

#8 Dylan over #9 Lilley

Normally a book would win over a record, but who is the Nobel Prize winner in this tournament anyway? Not O'Hara, (ironically, given that he openly coveted it despite never being considered a legitimate contender). And against a genre novel?

Elite Eight

#16 O'Hara over #4 Red Shoes

O'Hara marches on

#15 Lee over #5 Proulx

I was sorely tempted to take Proulx, who even graduated from the same high school as I did, and has the stronger reputation as an author, I think. It was very close, and I decided it based on the slightly shorter length of the Lee book. I hope this person is a good writer!

#6 Johnson over #14 Gray

These are both short story books. I am sticking with the Johnson.

#8 Dylan over #10 Marsden

I'll give Dylan another win over a genre book.

Final Four

#6 Johnson over #16 O'Hara

O'Hara goes down in the semis because this collection is a whopping 864 pages.

#15 Lee over #8 Dylan

I believe in Lee. 



Championship

#6 Johnson over #15 Lee

In the end I went with Johnson because he is supposed to be a good writer, and ultimately his book is the shortest of the group (133 pages! Hey, he did study under Raymond Carver), and I had no upsets to consider.




Friday, January 6, 2017

January Update

Another new year. Hopefully one that will involve more posting than last year, though I had better not promise anything. Even this update I am scrambling to throw together at 1:30 in the morning:

"A" List: William Congreve--Love For Love....................................82/88


"B" List: Between books. Currently working on report.


"C" List: Tom Holland--Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic...365/378

Congreve is the most modern in style (or maybe just the least silly) of the comic dramatists of the Restoration period, relying more on psychological sophistication and relatively understated wit than the bombast that was more typical in this era, though I am fond of many of these goofier works as well. And in truth, even Congreve's plot in this is rather far-fetched and madcap, albeit cleverly constructed. Also I have grown to have a certain fondness for this time period, especially the later part of it which this comes from (1695). This play especially seems to me to be good-humored, none of the characters are evil, though a few aspire at least to be mildly naughty, and most of them possess some humor. So I am enjoying it.

Tom Holland is a contemporary English writer, two years older than I am, who seems to have gotten a pretty good, and by the standards of our time outstanding classical and literary education at fine schools, going on after that to a highly successful and prolific career as an author of both fiction and popular non-fiction reminiscent to me of A.N. Wilson, among other British writers who do similar kinds of things, a niche which doesn't seem to exist to the same extent in this country. He has also worked some in television, mostly on documentaries. The book isn't bad, though it is a popular history, so anybody who has read and retained some of Plutarch and Cicero and other classical authors, and even Shakespeare, will not come across a lot that he won't have encountered before, though I welcomed the refresher on the period of Sulla and Lucullus and Marius and Mithridates, etc, a generation or so prior to Caesar. Holland does tend to write in that supremely confident, cheeky, Economist magazine style that is the mark of the modern well-educated Englishman, which I don't like all that much, because I don't trust its authority. Being cleverer and more successful than someone like me is great, and this glib style at least conveys that, but it is not the same thing as having important insight or understanding with regard to the Romans or even one's self. He does emphasize how many people were actually slaughtered in the period's wars of conquest, and how cheap human life was held, especially if you weren't a person of the very highest rank, but as with so many modern books, this is all informed by our conception of these things, which just isn't helpful, because obviously these people didn't have our conception of these things at all, and we cannot begin to try to understand them through that lens. But that's just my impression, obviously the guy is very brilliant. I followed him on Twitter, where he has already dropped more than 109,000 tweets (I'm around 210, I think). He seems to be pretty liberal, anti-Brexit, pro-immigrants, quick to jump on stupid things reactionary types say or do. But why wouldn't he be, the modern world works well for him, his children are going to be great, probably, and you know what, probably so are most of mine, and I hope they will be confident and open liberals, and thrive in the global community. I really do. I think that is where happiness lies for people like us, if we can get there, and I haven't been able to get there. But anyway, I got to go to bed. I'll leave you with Tom Holland giving a short interview about the origins of Islam:

     

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sholem Asch--The Apostle (1943)



The Jewish authors who made the pre-1960 IWE reading list are in many instances not those who would seem obvious today. There is no Bellow, no Mailer, no Malamud, no Singer (Roth was obviously too young to have his early works considered), no Kafka, no Dorothy Parker, no Salinger even. Marx and Freud did make it, as did Proust. Kafka's Prague contemporary Franz Werfel, like Asch famous for novels about Biblical and Christian themes (a genre that is itself well-represented on this list) made it, as did Herman Wouk and some of the American playwrights of the 30s such as Kaufman and Hart. Anne Frank is on as well. I suspect that a few of the other late 19th and early 20th century French, German, Austrian or Russian authors on the list who are not as well known today might turn out to be Jewish, but I have not done the research on all of these yet. What immediately strikes one about those included on the list is that they tend more towards the sober and scholarly end of the distribution, whereas the more comic and bombastic/fantastical authors are held in higher regard today. It is a very old WASPy, and more specifically old Yankee list for sure, which however, despite its shortcomings and oddities, such as it fondness for doorstop historical fiction about early American history, I think is a good one. Old Yankees, though they continue to loom somewhat sinisterly in the national imagination, are getting ever harder to find in actual life even on their native ground, and their presence in and influence on American literary culture withers more and more every year. When I was younger I used to frequent numerous antiquated libraries in New England which partook of this old time atmosphere, even the books on the shelves in many instances not having been replenished in decades. These reminiscences date back 30 years now however, and even most of these places have been remodeled and brightened up and made more accommodating to technology, many of the books which formerly furnished the rooms on shelves reaching from floor to ceiling having evidently been discarded or relegated to the off-limits storage area in the basement. But I am getting far off of the subject of The Apostle now.

Sholem Asch was born in 1880 in Kutno, Poland, which was at that time part of the Russian Empire. He lived in Warsaw for a few years as a young man and got married there, then went abroad, eventually making his way in 1910 to the United States, where he remained for the duration of the first World War and beyond, becoming a citizen in 1920. He went back to the newly independent Poland after the war, and then lived in France for a while. returning to the United States in 1938. He seems to have stayed in the U.S. until some time in the 50s, after which he spent two years in Israel, where his house is preserved as a museum, towards the end of his life. He died in London in 1957. I note all of this because the biographies of people impacted by tumultuous historical upheavals are of interest to me. He wrote in Yiddish and was a prolific author no matter where he happened to be living, writing in the neighborhood of thirty books, the majority of which look to be weighty in length, tone, and subject matter. The Apostle, which depicts the life of St Paul, is actually the middle volume of a trilogy of novels about the lives of major early Christian figures, the other two being The Nazarene, about Christ himself, and Mary. The Apostle however is the only one of these, or any other of Asch's books to make the IWE list.





I liked this quite a bit, even if it is perhaps a little overlong. It is distinguished by an earnest seriousness that seems strange to us ("us" referring to that imaginary segment of the contemporary intellectual world that is super smart and well-informed whose sensibilities are remarkably in "sync" with mine) because earnest has become to my thinking something of a derogatory word that implies futility and a certain limitiation of ability when applied to intellectual pursuits. He was thoroughly Jewish, and led a thoroughly Jewish life, socially, culturally, and so on, so I doubt it would have been possible for him to adopt any of the more drastic Christian beliefs under any circumstances, but he was able to grasp the possibility of others' doing so. To be sure there is much more emphasis on Paul's Jewishness, and the Jewish origins of the entire Christian movement, than is usually found in Christian origin literature. There is always a fashion, maybe more prominent nowadays than ever, to be skeptical that the stories and major figures of the New Testament, including Peter, Paul, and Christ himself, have any basis in reality whatever, in some instances to the point of arguing that every aspect of them is entirely fictitious. What Asch believed as far as this goes I suppose I don't know, but he treated the stories and ideas of the gospels and epistles, whoever wrote them and who and whatever they are supposed to be referring to, very seriously, which is an approach most modern Christian debunkers don't see themselves as having to do. He knows that the power of the story is important in any case.



As with other long books I have had for this list recently, I neglected to take any notes until I was about 300 pages in, when I thought I had better jot some things down for the report. And as usual, once I began I ended up with quite a lot.

What prompted me to begin writing notes was a debate between Paul and his faction of Messianists and an opposing one led by some older school Jews regarding the necessity or not of circumcision for initiation into the new covenant ("circumcision a big deal" reads my note).

"He who cannot summon up enough courage to submit to circumcision for the sake of the God of Israel, is not worthy of admission into the congregation of the Messiah. He is a coward who cannot fight the battle of the Lord. For the Messiah is the battle of the Lord. And only those shall be admitted to the ranks who have the strength to give their blood to the covenant: even as it is written: `And in thy blood shalt thou live!'"--p.336

I took a moment to note the general awesomeness of the Jews across history, though perhaps there is some playing up in this author of their centrality and dynamism in the life of the Roman Empire.



The more the book went on and Paul began his travels throughout the Empire, Asch began to emphasize the myriad abusing and tormenting of human beings that underlay its entire operation. The first instance that pushed me to feel the necessity of making some record of my impression was the section on the bronze-working slaves of Corinth who passed away their entire lives in caverns feeding the smelting ovens and never seeing the light of day. I can't quote the whole section, but I will lift some especially pertinent sentences: "The life of these cave-workers was a short one." Regarding the mixers, whose work required a higher degree of skill which afforded them somewhat better treatment than the oven slaves: "Their beds were comfortable, but they were chained to them. For them as for the others, the cavern was a living tomb." "Most of the children taken into this work were such as had some physical defect, or some sickness, for which reason they could not be sold as house servants or prostitutes. These unfortunate discards of humanity were the dregs of the slave markets...When night came their bodies collapsed about the blocks and stalls at which they had worked all day. In the morning the overseers woke them with the lash..." (pps. 429-431) And on and on. I remarked at the time that this part was good, but Asch was just getting started with the depiction of atrocities. They seemingly kept getting worse with each change of scene.

After that I didn't make any more notes until page 654, at which time Asch dropped Sabina Poppea, the ultra-cultured wife of the manchild emperor Nero and diva superbabe of her generation, on my head. "Sabina had dreams of becoming the `Helen of Rome', with a temple of her own, in which worshipers would offer sacrifice after her death." She kept five hundred asses which accompanied her on all of her travels, as she maintained her glorious complexion by bathing regularly in their milk. On being introduced to the concept of resurrection, "Poppea was deeply interested; the possibility that she could arrange to be resurrected in all the beauty and charm which she alone possessed was something to be looked into."--p.656. However, "Any hint that worship of the Jewish God was bound up with duties, penalties, obligations, self-denials, discipline of any sort, she rejected. This was not in her style."--p.657. She capriciously punishes one of her attendants by pinching her breast with a pair of tweezers as hard as she can until the slave collapses.

     
The catalog of atrocities indulged in by the Romans never fails to fascinate. There is a section devoted to the epidemic of dumping bastards and other unwanted babies alive into the Cloaca Maxima, which is depicted here as a stream into which all of the sewage and other refuse of the capital was dumped and sent on its way out to see, Then there was one of Nero's parties, which took place on barges in a lake full of alligators:

"...in any case he (Nero) would enjoy the spectacle of the terrified slaves who, from their small boats, had to bring the dishes to the barges. The reptiles, their appetites awakened by the odor of food, swam after the boats and set them rocking. The girl dancers who had to perform on narrow ledges running round the barges were pale with terror; and the guests, reclining on couches at their tables, laughed drunkenly at the antics of slaves and dancers. The laughter rose into a shout of excited merriment when an unhappy youth or girl, unable to endure the test, fell with a scream into the water. A huge pair of reptilian jaws closed on the white body, and the water was stained red."--p.680

There is no reason not to believe I guess that the Romans really enjoyed watching people get eaten by alligators. Middle American types have always hard time understanding this as a major strain in the human character that their society has largely been able to suppress, at least in this kind of raw form. 

PP 700-701 brings the graphic torture of the character Antonius. It occurred to me rather belatedly, that he must have been supposed to be St Anthony, though I cannot find a St Anthony who dates and mode of life corresponds with this guy's. Nonetheless, several of the minor characters sneaked up on me as being major biblical personages, Lukas, Marcus, etc, which I did not pick up on until they began to do fairly obvious things that signified who they were. Oh yes, about that torture:



"The bones of his hands and arms and legs had been cracked one by one between the claws of iron pincers. The skin had been torn, strip by strip, from his quivering flesh. One by one the nails of his fingers had been pulled out by the roots. His flayed feet had been held over a slow fire. He lost his human aspect and was reduced to a bundle of raw, blistered flesh."

It is remarkable what these early Christians had (and were willing) to suffer to be near God while Jimmy Swaggert and his ilk (or me, though officially I claim not to really believe in any kind of divinity or afterlife) don't have to suffer anything. It is true, Paul and his early followers were often buoyed by visions of and meetings with Jesus himself. Of course Jimmy Swaggert probably claims that he has talked to Jesus too, so it's really a puzzle why American Christians get to have the easiest of earthly passages.

After Nero had most of Rome burnt down, he famously (assuming the story has not been debunked) and absurdly pinned the blame on the Jews and their Christian adjuncts and held a giant entertainment in which members of these unfortunate groups were to be killed en masse for the delight of the Roman crowds. The show was boring, however: "...the Christians did not fight (in the gladiatorial arena); they only prayed and let themselves be eaten...here and there even the dulled, brutish heart of the Romans were touched by the spectacle of so many women and children fed to the wild beasts." 

Last note, on the conditions at the Tullianum prison, the last destination of saints Peter and Paul prior to their respective executions: 

"They were not starved to death so much as eaten to death. Food of some kind was given them, but they in turn, while still alive, were eaten by monstrous rats and crawling things which bred in countless numbers in the foulness of the cells and corridors. The prisoners were chained, either to rings in the walls or to great, immovable blocks of wood. The floors of the prison were littered with human offal, with moldering bodies and bones gnawed clean, and the poisonous air ate into the lungs and skin. A thick ooze dripped from the walls..." I think you get the picture. At the time I guess I thought this was the worst of all the executions and tortures, but probably the endless parade of them over the last half of the book had softened me up, and when they brought the rats in, I was finished, you know.



The Bourgeois Surrender Challenge

The major words used to produce this Challenge were obviously heavily Rome or Jewish-specific, which could have produced great results, but in this case produced a list of contestants I have no interest in reading. However, I have to try one of them, so I am going to go straight with the shortest of these that I can check out of the library  

1. Acharya S--The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold......................373
2. Peter Heather--The Fall of the Roman Empire......................................................167
3. Elaine Pagels--The Origin of Satan.......................................................................166
4. John MacArthur--One Perfect Life........................................................................148
5. John L Allen, Jr--The Global War on Christians..................................................101
6. Dietrich Bonhoffer--Letters and Papers From Prison............................................85
7. Simon Schama--Landscape and Memory................................................................42
8. Saul: The Journey to Damascus (movie).................................................................33
9. Mark A Gabriel--Journey Into the Mind of an Islamic Terrorist............................19
10. James Wasserman--The Temple of Solomon.........................................................12
11. Copan and Litwak--The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas................................12
12. The Real Jesus: A Defense of the Historicity and Divinity of Christ (movie).......11
13. Makers of Ancient Strategy (ed. Hanson)..............................................................11
14. Robert Silverberg--Needle in a Timestack.............................................................10
15. Stuart Munro-Hay--The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant....................................5
16. Mark Gibbs--The Virgin and the Priest...................................................................4

Round of 16

#1 S over #16 Gibbs
#15 Munro-Hay over #2 Heather
#3 Pagels over #14 Silverberg
#4 MacArthur over #13 Makers, etc
#5 Allen over #12 The Real Jesus
#6 Bonhoffer over #11 Copan and Litwak
#10 Wasserman over #7 Schama
#9 Gabriel over #8 Saul....

Elite 8

#15 Munro-Hay over #1 S
#3 Pagels over #10 Wasserman
#4 MacArthur over #9 Gabriel
#5 Allen over #6 Bonhoffer

Final Four

#3 Pagels over #15 Munro-Hay
#4 MacArthur over #5 Allen

Championship

#3 Pagels over #4 MacArthur



Nothing much to be said about these. Pagel's book is 214 pages. She is a professor at Princeton, so the odds that she is a total crackpot are reduced somewhat, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

December Update

No, I haven't given up *blogging* altogether. I have gotten bogged down trying to write something on the other site about the election which is not close to being finished. It is superfluous to keep complaining about how I need a computer that I can use at home, but--I need one. I should just get something and put it on a credit card, but every time I am about to do that, something else comes up that I need to put on a credit card. Still, this is killing my career right now.


A List: Arthur Miller--All My Sons.....................xxiii/85


B List: Asch--The Apostle................................721/754


C List: Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes....49/79


I'm still in the introduction on the Miller play, which having been written in 2000 for a Penguin edition is longer and more pointless than it needs to be. This is the fourth of a set of American postwar plays we are going through, including another one by Arthur (why didn't he go by Art?) Miller,  Incident at Vichy, about a group of (mostly) Jews who have been rounded up during World War II and are sitting together in the waiting area of the police station, which I thought was a good piece of drama. The other two were also interesting. The first was Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson, produced in the early 50s and set at a New England prep school. It centers around a boy whom everybody suspects to be gay to the point that he is hounded from the school, though he is afforded the chance to demonstrate that he may not be fully of that persuasion at the end, while his main tormentor among the faculty leaves little doubt that his true nature in this matter is not what everybody would have it to be. There is a whole gamut of 50s psychological dysfunction and pathology on pretty raw display. There was a film version that came out in 1956 that was directed by Vincente Minelli (no comment with regard to this particular story--great director) and starred the suddenly ubiquitous (in my life) Deborah Kerr. The other play was Tennessee Williams's  The Rose Tattoo. This play is about love, not repressed, bourgeois love, but the kind that is intense, untamed, that gives everything it has freely, and is therefore somewhat terrifying to middle class people whose incomes are dependent on not indulging in these kinds of passions. Williams has aged quite well--his mentality fits well with the proclivities of our time. Besides being a uniquely talented writer, unabashedly gay at a time when that was not all that common, and a very publicly unhappy and troubled person, he had a great gift as a writer for relating to all kinds of different people on an elemental level as individual personalities, which is a trait that a lot of people writing very desperately would like to have, but their self-consciousness hampers them in this. I would assume Williams was afflicted with no small degree of self-consciousness, but it is not something that impairs him in writing about people.


The Heaney is a version, in very stripped down and basic modern English, of Antigone that was written on commission for the 100th anniversary of the Abbey Theatre. The simplicity and directness of the language is a surprise to me. My image of Heaney was of one of those quasi-mystical, gilt-tongued but at the same time cryptic Irish bards, really inscrutable to Americans, or least ones like me, because the gulf between the quality of the respective spiritual, cultural and intellectual backgrounds was too vast. Perhaps he is more like that in his other poems.


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