Tuesday, April 6, 2021

While the Gardener mows

    

    Do you know how to hop
    About with just one leg?
    Harder than you’d think.
    Muscles grab that you didn’t
    Know you had.  Meanwhile
    Josh waits while Jessica     
    Barks her permission
    
    For him to go out back to
    Mow, edge.  Edgy when I read
    Barrie wrote Robert Louis
    In Samoa.  Imagined things
    Which more or less became
    The boy who never grew who
    Instead hit his train head on.
    
    One needs to grow is the lesson
    Here, even if it means growing
    Old. How old can one grow you
    Ask?  He’s mowing now.  Jessica
    Seems to be chewing a wall.    
    Walls surround.  No chewing
    Anyone’s way through any.

    Someone will tell us when
    We’re to be shot.  Someone
    Is always shooting.  Wars
    Are endemic.  Shouting, too
    When regimes change.  Clouds
    Descend bringing rain.
    I hop up on one leg to see.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Hardy compared to Homer as having written a “classic”

Hardy’s The Return of the Native is being advanced as a “classic.”  Most critics I’ve read consider it his best novel.  But how does he stack up against Homer?  Homer writes about heroes at the dawn of civilization.  His heroes deal with gods and goddesses and possess enormous courage and prowess. 

Hardy’s Clym Yeobright was born on Egdon Heath, a spread out primitive farming community.  He left it to become a successful diamond merchant in the city (Paris) and then returned to teach the village children of Egdon Heath.  The confused Eustacia Vye hates living on the heath and wants to move the city.  She hopes Clym will take her there.  Meanwhile Clym’s cousin Thomasin, content to live on the heath but in love with the flashy Wildeve hopes he will stay with her on the heath.  Wildeve however is in love with Eustacia, and is willing to take her to the city but she is by this time in love with Clym.  Clym studies night and day to become a teacher, and nearly blinds himself in the process.  Not being able to see well enough to study, he takes up a job as a furze-cuter.  Eustacia has married Clym hoping to convince him to take her away from Egdon Heath, but not only is he unwilling to leave.  Now he is unable to.  Confusion ensues, Eustacia agrees to run off with Wildeve but can’t go through with it and throws herself in Shadwater Weir.  Wildeve jumps in to save her and they both drown.  Clym settles back into the local community and becomes a lowly preacher.  Thomasin marries a local dairy farmer and is happy with him. He is very happy with her.  Clym has no one. 

It is only because of his publisher’s urging that Hardy allows Thomasin to end up happily married to Diggory Venn.  Hardy wanted her to end up a solitary widow.

Just as Homer wrote about heroes at the dawn of civilization, Hardy wrote about village life perhaps not a the literal dawn of large cities, but something like that.  Clym went off to the city but wished to return to his village.  Eustacia had heard about the city and wants to live there.  Thomasin is happy in her village.  This in effect, according to Hardy is a pitiful situation.  Hardy writes well, but he isn’t interested in warfare or heroes.  He is very much taken with pitiful people, Tess, Jude, the Mayor of Casterbridge.

So can anything of Hardy’s be considered a classic?  Surely not in a Homeric heroic sense, but his novels compare well with some of the tragedies of the citified Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus which were based upon Homeric themes.  The Greek playwrights however are constrained to write on Homeric themes.  Hardy on the other hand has no Homeric thoughts and sees only the pitiful effects of an unjust and uncaring civilization. 

Classics as War Literature

 

Unarguably, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus were the only classics for centuries.  In Western Europe, the Renaissance consisted of rediscovering these classics.  And key to these classics was the Trojan War.  The method for fighting that war changed little in succeeding centuries.  Even by Napoleon's time there was only a marginal difference.  His soldiers had bullets, but tactical attacks were made with bayonets.  In the midst of the American Civil War it was demonstrated that bayonet attacks against entrenched troops using rifles that could be reloaded quickly were destined to have unacceptable casualties.  Though this lesson should have been well understood by the First World War, it was not.  British, French and German soldiers were ordered to fix-bayonets and charge entrenched enemies equipped with machine guns.  Most had learned this lesson by World War Two, but the Japanese were famous for their banzai charges which were successful against poorly equipped Chinese, but suicide against the Marines who island-hopped using machine guns and rapid firing M1's.

Have there been "classics" written about warfare that is radically different from the way the Trojans and Achaeans fought?  What comes to mind?  All Quiet on the Western Front for example?   I see that as an antiwar novel whose author is pessimistic about WW1 tactics.  Improvements in communications let the people back home understand the nature of modern warfare and they were critical of it.  British and French populations were so traumatized by the devastating methods of their generals that they refused to adequately prepare for Hitler's initiation of WW II.  The U.S. had less excuse for being unprepared, but it had a history of isolationism as a result of being located between two oceans.  

One might see modern warfare in a great state of flux and think it impossible to write a classic that will be pertinent for succeeding generations.  How would such a thing be possible when warfare is sure to be different?  I read Nelson DeMille's extremely well-written Up Country.  His protagonist, Paul Brenner thirty years after the Vietnam War in which he was an an accomplished and decorated combat soldier, returns for an Odyssey Up Country.  Rather than a Homeric as-it-happens trek, Brenner recalls significant events as he travels.  Rather than Gods and Goddesses thwarting him, he has a Communist Colonel who dogs him throughout his entire journey.  Odysseus thwarts Penelope's suitors and restores himself on Ithaca.  Paul Brenner thwarts the Communist colonel as well as corrupt American officials in Vietnam and returns safely to America. 

DeMille has the current advantage of writing in a modern language understood by English-speaking people everywhere and potentially translated into any modern language.  Homer has been translated into modern languages, but ancient Greek is translated into modern languages with uneven results.  Scholars of ancient Greek are regularly expressing unhappiness with earlier translations and creating new ones.  So, is there any possibility of a DeMille’s Up Country being thought equal to The Odyssey?   No.  The Odyssey is incomparable.  Even if DeMille is easier to read and understand than Homer, Homer has the prestige. Homer is in a sense the definition of “classic.” 

Imagine a college literature class 500 years from now.  It will still be valuing Homer, but will it value DeMille?  What could they say about him?  He may have had Homer in mind when he wrote Up Country and so isn’t as original.  Also, he wrote about a forgotten war between the U.S. and Vietnam; whereas no generation forgets the Trojan War.  Also, DeMille’s soldiers fight in a fashion that was used for a short time, but Homer’s soldiers fought using a method present at the dawn of history and subsequently used for hundreds of subsequent years.

Will anything being written today be current 500 years from now, be, in other words a “classic” at that time?  I’m reluctant to say “no,” but at the moment I can’t bring anything to mind.

Miscellaneous thoughts about "the classics" part 2

 

For the reasons I mentioned in Part 1, I doubt that Wild Fire will be considered a classic in the future.  On the other hand, the DeMille novel I finished last night, Night Fall (published in 2004) may.  It takes as its starting point the crash of TWA 800.  After an extensive investigation, as one can read in Wikipedia, this crash was considered to be caused by a mechanical failure, but many witnesses said they saw a flash going up toward TWA 800 before it exploded.  Those reports were discounted.  ATTF (Anti-Terrorist Task Force) detective John Corey in Night Fall is warned not to investigate this five-year-old cold case, but he is tenacious and discovers a video of the explosion which proves that a missile caused it.  Agents in the CIA and FBI are attempting to keep him from exposing their cover-up.  As I read I couldn’t see how DeMille was going to manage a suitable ending.  I paused to check and the official cause of the TWA 800 crash is still describe as a mechanical failure.  Several attempts are made to get the evidence and the witness from John Corey; so to play it safe he agrees to meet them in a very public and safe location where he can provide the CIA and FBI with his evidence and ultimatum.  He chooses the Windows on the World for his venue.  It was on the top floors (106th and 107th) of the North Tower (Building One) of the original World Trade Center.  A caravan of cars drives to Building one.  John Corey is in the last car which becomes separated from the cars in front because of traffic.  His wife FBI agent Kate Mayfield decided to wait for John downstairs.  Thus the tape, witness, and those who want to keep the cover-up covered (most of them)  are tidily killed in the September 11, 2001 attack. 

DeMille does a very good job in Night Fall; much better than Ann Patchett does in Bel Canto using a comparable scenario.  She too uses a real event and sticks to the history, but in her case the history doesn’t seem integral to her story.  In DeMille’s Night Fall, it does (in my current opinion.)

Of the five DeMille novels I’ve read thus far, The General’s Daughter might become a classic.  The 850 page Up Country may become a classic as well.  Paul Brenner’s trek up through Vietnam held my interest and I was not in that war.  The downside may be that Paul, like John Corey in Night Fall is being opposed by those who want to keep the Vice President (who is sure to be elected President) from being exposed as a murderer.  CIA operative Susan Weber, converted to Paul’s point of view during their trip up country, claims to have hidden the evidence against the VP.  In actuality, the evidence was taken from them by a Vietnamese Colonel who harassed them during their entire journey.  Paul leaves Vietnam and flies home.  Susan stays behind to presumably enjoy what will happen when they learn that a Vietnamese colonel who hates America has the evidence against the Vice President. 

Night Fall is tidier than Up Country, but perhaps the latter can justify its length by means of Paul Brenner’s quest.  Up Country is based upon DeMille’s knowledge of Vietnam and his experiences in the war.  Night Fall is based upon the published accounts of the TWA explosion and crash.

Just as the Iliad described various battles; so did Up Country.  The Achaeans won their war and took Helen back to Athens.  The Americans lost their war and fled in helicopters. 

John Corey is a more humorous protagonist.  Perhaps John Corey is easier for DeMille to write about.  He has thus far written seven John Corey novels. 

My current plan is to read all of the Paul Brenner and John Corey novels.  I have read a number of detective series in the past.  I had never thought any of them would become classics, but maybe some of them (in addition to some of DeMille's novels) will.  Sherlock Holmes seems light-weight.  Back when it was first published some of his readers seemed more taken with Holmes than his author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  But now Sherlock has achieved one of the requirements of a classic.  He has lived on into several succeeding generations of readers.  Most of us seem to love a good mystery.  Why is that?  Sherlock Holmes is in some of the Franklin lists but not Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot seem destined to live as long as Sherlock.  Why is that? 

Miscellaneous thoughts on the "Classics"

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the earliest Classics.  The Iliad is about a war and the Odyssey is about a veteran of that war during the process of his returning home.  The war was fought with spears, swords and shields.  Virgil’s Aeneid is about another veteran of the Trojan war.  This veteran goes off to found a new nation. 

War in Homer’s and Virgil's days was fought from or against city-states and city-states we learn from archeology were a sociological advance over villages.  Going back further in time we find only hunter-gatherer tribe and those tribe members didn’t know how to write and left us no classics. 

The Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid were valued as epic poems.  Milton didn’t strive to create a classic, he strove to create an epic poem that would stand with the earlier three.  Others have striven to write epics.  Hart Crane’s Bridge is a recent example, but no attempt since Paradise Lost has been considered a success. 

The list of “classics” includes more then these epic poems.  A Classic might be a well-told story about a war, War and Peace, for example.  A Classic might also be a well-told story about an individual, Crime and Punishment for example.  It might also be a story of a great event, Moby Dick and Red Badge of Courage are examples.

A problem for good novelists, novelists seemingly capable of writing classics is that the circumstances of our societies changes rapidly.  I’m currently reading Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire.  In it he has an ATTF (Anti-Terrorist Task Force) agent attempt to infiltrate a home-grown terrorist organization.  The agent is described as taking with him a very expensive 12 MP Nikon camera equipped with a 300 mm lens.  I suspect this is the Nikon D700 camera which was expensive in its day.  It is still an excellent camera, but most would consider it obsolete.  Wild Fire was published in November 2006.  The world of technology has changed dramatically since 2006.  Shall a novelist then play it safe and not mention technology?  Perhaps DeMille thought he was doing that by not mentioning the Nikon model, but his mentioning 12 megapixels gives it away.  Perhaps he thought 12 megapixels was going to be as good as it gets.  I thought that back then.  We were wrong. 

Also, from Wikipedia, “As of 2020, right-wing extremist terrorism accounted for the majority of terrorist attacks and plots in the US and has killed more people in the continental United States since the September 11 attacks than Islamic terrorism.  Thus, DeMille writing about a Right-Wing Terrorist organization attempting to trick the U.S. government into thinking it has been attacked by Islamic terrorists is a much-used plot.  But perhaps it was not over-used when DeMille wrote in 2006.  Nevertheless, while I am only 17% through Wild Fire I am not very excited about reading a novel with a plot that was subsequently over used.  On the other hand this prejudice isn't fair to a novelist who was the first to use this theme.  The Wild Fire American terrorists seem a bit like some of Ian Fleming's evil villains.    

Regarding "Classics" as "novels that matter"

 Without an elaboration I have yet to imagine, I can’t make that definition work, or, can’t make that elaboration work without having such novels preach; which would seem to disqualify a novel from being “great.”  Years ago in my left-wing days I read a lot of Communist-oriented novels.  Jack London wrote some – terrible stuff in my opinion, as were all the others.  I recall reading one by Clara Weatherwax called Marching, Marching.  In a 1936 review, Joseph Vanzier, aka John G. Wright, a Trotskyite, concluded “As for the novel itself, it is a travesty on literature and a libel against the working class. Its style is the dregs of the Joyce tradition, drained off through the worst of Wolfe and Faulkner, combined with school-essay “straightforward” writing. Its characters are wooden monstrosities, conceived with a kind of horrible masochistic delight in repulsive details and an infantile pleasure in trivial nobilities. The book is liberally interlarded with long speeches on war, strikes, trade unions, Fascism, apparently lifted from back copies of the Daily Worker.

“What is tragic is to realize that even in a book so bad as this there are materials, lost in the morass, for genuine and even great literature. Not the least in the charges of the indictment against Stalinism must be the stultification of intelligence and sensibility to which it condemns its adherents.” 
 
I’d be interested in learning what Vanzier thought “genuine and even great literature” would be.  Would giving it a Trotskyist emphasis satisfy him? 

Moving into the present I can imagine Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter mattering to those who disapprove of discrimination against women in the same way that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles mattered to those who disapproved of the sexual mores of Victorian England, and before Tess was the Scarlet Letter which exemplified Hawthorne’s disapproval of the mores of early Massachusetts.  

As to whether The General’s Daughter might one day be included in someone’s list of Classics (It is only in Franklin’s collection of “Signed First Editions”), The Scarlet Letter is included in the Franklin Library’s 100 greatest books of all time, but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is not. 
Franklin also published the 50 volume Oxford Library of the World’s Greatest Books.  Both The Scarlet Letter and Tess of the D’Ubervilles are included in the 50.  I read them years apart, but my recollection is that Hardy is more heavy handed than Hawthorne.  Tess murders her seducer and is to be hanged.  Hester Prynne is merely shunned for refusing to name her seducer.

Put in more personal terms I continue to like The Scarlet Letter whereas while I admit that I was powerfully affected by Tess of the D’Urberilles I no longer like it; however, perhaps in this ongoing search Italo Calvino is useful: “In the 1980s, Italo Calvino said in his essay "Why Read the Classics?" that "a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say" and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says: "Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him." Consideration of what makes a literary work a classic is for Calvino ultimately a personal choice, and, constructing a universal definition of what constitutes a Classic Book seems to him to be an impossibility, since, as Calvino says "There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”   

Alas, even if I agree with Calvino, I won’t be inventing such a library.  I’ve read most of the novels on these various lists over a long period of time, and I am not willing to go back and reread novels I no longer like in order to reevaluate my feelings.       

On the value of reading

 I'm convinced that we retain more from our early formative years than we realize -- or maybe we later realize some of it from the results.  In my own case I was raised by my paternal grandmother until I was ten. She had lost her hearing in her adolescence for a year or two and so never finished high school.  She made up for it by reading and convinced me that reading was the most important thing I could do.  One could read greater teachers than our schools could provide.  My first library card was a very big deal for me.  I describe my feelings after I got back from Korea as not liking the peace-time-Marines and list that as my reason for not shipping over.  And yet I spent my free time at the 29 Palms base library reading "classics," and I supplemented those by subscribing to Black's "Classics Club" which involved receiving a new book every month.  So perhaps I have deceived myself by thinking I might have shipped over if I was promised some agreeable duty.  Perhaps the books I carried about in my sea bag counted more than any Marine Corps' promise could.

And now I am 86 years old, and quite content to be sequestered in my well-furnished house with my well-furnished library, reading one book after another.  I am pragmatist enough to need a purpose, but I recall that my grandmother gave me one years ago: keep reading.  It will equip you to do anything you want to do and make you more than a match for any future that awaits.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Up Country and Night Fall

 

I mentioned reading Nelson Demille's The General's Daughter and starting Up Country.  The former was published in leather by Franklin, but I have the latter only in Kindle.  It might seem as though I've abandoned my plan to read and evaluate non-classic editions published in Franklin,  but I discovered in regard to The Reivers which received the Pulitzer in 1963, that "Faulkner died in 1962 and the decision made by the Pulitzer Advisory Board was as much to honor the whole body of Faulkner's writing as it was to recognize the excellence of The Reivers."  Learning this, I've assumed that the Franklin editions of "non-canonical" fiction are not necessarily an author's best. 

Thus, after reading The General's Daughter, I began Up Country.  DeMille saw a lot of combat during the Vietnam War, and so I have been taking the reminiscences of his protagonist, Paul Brenner, seriously; however the novel's pace is rather slow and knowing the novel is a mystery, I have grown impatient wanting him to get on with it.  I took a break from Paul Brenner, switched over to DeMille's John Corey series and read Plum Island and The Lion's Game.  The latter was published a year before the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers and seems prophetic.  DeMille modestly denies having any special ability  as a prophet, and observed, modestly, that a major terrorist attack on the United States in the near future should have been obvious to most people. 

I then began the third John Corey novel, Night Fall, in which John Corey is taking up the mystery of TWA flight 800.  Literary critic, Elizabeth Scarry at the time of the TWA 800 crash was convinced a rocket, probably fired inadvertently from an American submarine shot the plane down, but the official conclusion was that a frayed wire in the center fuel tank caused an explosion.  But there were many eye witnesses at the time who swear they saw something very like a rocket come out of the sea and strike the Boeing 747.   Scarry's articles were published in the NYROB.  I recall reading them at the time.  DeMille is sticking pretty close to what had been reported or determined by the accident board as far as I read. 

I discovered that I was distracting myself in Night Fall (by speculating about what DeMille might be up to) much as what I did in his Up Country.  So I thought it only fair to return to Paul Brenner's Vietnamese quest.  On page 418 (out of 855 -- it's a very long quest) Paul Brenner on his current mission north, attends a Catholic mass in Hue on the anniversary of the Tet Offensive:  "The entire mass and the hymns were in Vietnamese . . ."  I recalled attending mass on Cheju Island off the southern tip of Korea in 1953.  The priest gave the mass in Korean, but then he repeated it in English.  The Koreans all turned around to look at the handful of Marines in the back row.  We spoke to the priest later.  He was priest at that church during the entire Japanese occupation.  I was surprised to learn that the Japanese had left him alone.


Books that matter

 

I tried to apply this term to the books I read in my recent quest which seems to have begun with four books written by Ann Pachett followed by one by Graham Greene, one by Mickey Spillane, and one by Nelson DeMille.  I read Ann Patchett as part of my half-hearted but on-going quest to question Harold Bloom's Western Classics' choices, and by implication his definitions.  Patchett was being touted by some as being an important novelist, someone who wins prizes, someone who might someday be considered as great.  I read four of her novelsI thought them not bad, but I'm not sure that any of them mattered to me.  Graham Greene's novel may matter to those interested in Cold War literature.  I have enjoyed Nelson DeMille more than any of the others.  His treatment of the murder of a female West Point cadet is an excellent mystery story and at the same time it addresses discrimination against women in the military in the best literary fashion, meaning, without preaching. 

The main character in The General's Daughter is Army Warrant Officer Paul Brenner who even though he solves the General Daughter's murder is chastised for disobeying some direct orders in the process.  He receives a formal reprimand; so, in a huff he retires.  Ten years after The General's Daughter, DeMille wrote Up Country.  Up Country takes place six month after the end of The General's Daughter.  Paul Brenner, still in a huff, is talked into returning to Vietnam to ostensibly solve a murder that occurred during the war.  I am 20% through Up Country and enjoying Brenner's reminiscences as well as life in later-on (Demille wrote this novel in 2002) Vietnam.  This novel matters a little to me because I made a decision, back in 1955, not to stay in the Marine Corps and instead to go to college on the G. I. Bill.  When I enlisted in the Corps in 1952, I thought I might make a career of it.  I was in Korea during the last two battle seasons, but didn't see combat.  I was over there when the truce was signed; so during my remaining enlistment I experienced what it was like to be a peace-time Marine; which wasn't what I signed up for. 

Years later while working on the C-17 Program I represented engineering on a change board where Gene Lindley, a retired Marine Corps Captain represented Product Support.  He was a heavy smoker and though I didn't smoke I would go outside with him when he did and we we would talk about the Corps.  I mentioned that the only enticement they offered me to stay in was an increase in rank to Staff Sergeant.  Gene said that was a very good deal.  Rank became very hard to get at about that time.  If I'd stayed in I would likely have been among the sergeants sent to South Vietnam as advisors in 1962.   In retrospect that doesn't seem like something I would enjoy doing, but back in 1955 a Staff Sergeant tried to talk me into "shipping over" (re-enlisting for six years) and I considered it.  I asked if he could give me embassy duty and he said the list of those trying to get that was prohibitively long, but he could offer me sea duty and the increase in rank.  I was enjoying being a senior rifle instructor at Camp Pendleton and had that been a permanent assignment  (or as permanent as those things go) I might have stayed in, but as soon as we had everyone qualified we would be sent back to our previous assignments and mine was at Twenty-Nine Palms, an extremely miserable place; so I left and four years later had a degree in English qualifying me for 39 years in Douglas which merged with McDonnell which was bought out by Boeing.

I didn't see combat in Korea, but had I shipped over in 1955, I would have seen it in Vietnam; so DeMille's Paul Brenner novel matters to me.  I've described a personal set of considerations.  Whether and in what sense Demille's novel might matter to someone else, I can't say. 

Reading Franklin Library authors

 Since beginning a collection of Franklin Library leather-bound books, I’ve read three novels that are not now and may never in the future be considered “literary classics”: Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Mickey Spillane’s The Killing Man, and Nelson Demille’s The General’s Daughter.  If I manage to read an entire novel, I have probably suspended disbelief for the most part while doing so.  But afterwards I ought to be willing to find words to describe whatever it is I do believe about a novel, taking into consideration that many novels I read long ago have not aged well when I recall them.  For example, I read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, and thought them at the time  his best.  But now in retrospect they seem heavy-handed social criticism.  The Hardy novel chosen as a Franklin Library classic is The Return of the Native, and I do not (now) disagree.  I have reread that one a couple of times and may read it again. 

The three novels first mentioned are Franklin Library “signed first editions.”  Of the three, Spillane’s seems least likely to live long enough to every be considered a classic.  Spillane began his writing career by writing brief stories for comic books, and this novel seems rather like that.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is very well written and as long as Greene was being amusing, the novel was enjoyable, but after revealing that his main character, Castle, is a spy, he becomes less enjoyable.  Castle while stationed in South Africa fell in love with his confidential informant, who is black and not able to get a passport to travel to England.  The only person willing to help him is a Russian diplomat who later asks for seemingly harmless information from time to time.  When it becomes obvious to MI-5 that there is a leak, Castle’s partner who always seems to win at the race track, is thought the spy and poisoned by Castle’s boss.  Castle is outraged and eventually confesses in a round about way to show his boss that he killed the wrong person.  After that Castle is whisked off to Moscow where he is assigned drab living quarters and may not be able to have his wife and child join him for a number of years.  Greene was enjoyable while he was having his characters talk cleverly to each other, but he later became as drab as Castle’s Moscow living quarters.  The novel was written in 1978.  The Cold War ended in 1989.  I doubt that The Human Factor will ever be considered a Classic.

I enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter thoroughly, from beginning to end.  However, this novel is in the “detective-fiction” genre.  Will any novel written in this genre ever in the future be considered a “classic”?  I suppose it’s possible.  Hollywood considered this novel good enough to make a movie from it.  DeMille may have elevated this novel above most detective fiction by taking on the inequity of a woman (the general’s daughter) being gang-raped during West Point training and then having it covered up “for the good of the Army.”  Assuming these inequities will have been significantly reduced in the future, much as those Hardy railed against, will Demille’s novel still seem interesting to a first-time reader?  He, at least has an advantage (to Americans) that Hardy didn’t.  The detective in this genre is cleverly and amusingly sarcastic, and Demille’s Paul Brenner is very good at sarcasm.  Even so, when this genre dies, assuming that it one day will, will The General’s Daughter still be there, standing on its own merits, to be declared a classic?  Maybe. 

Increase Mather and witches

 

The segment from Narratives of the New England Witchcraft Cases wasn't what I expected.  Increase Mather in his essay reminds me a bit of Charles Fort.  I wonder if Fort read him.   I found only one mention in he Mather quote of a witch being executed:

". . . The event was that one of the persons (whose Name was Greensmith) being a lewd and ignorant Woman, and then in Prison on suspicion of Witch-craft, mentioned in the Discourse as active in the mischiefs done and designed, was by the Magistrate sent for; Mr. Whiting and Mr. Hains read what they had written; and the Woman being astonished thereat, confessed those things to be true, and that she and other persons named in this preternatural Discourse, had had familiarity with the Devil: Being asked whether she had made an express Covenant with him, she answered, she had not, only as she promised to go with him when he called, which accordingly she had sundry times done; and that the Devil told her that at Christmass they would have a merry Meeting, and then the Covenant between them should be subscribed. The next day she was more particularly enquired of concerning her Guilt.  respecting the Crime she was accused with.  She then acknowledged, that though when Mr. Hains began to read what he had taken down in Writing, her rage was such that she could have torn him in pieces, and was as resolved as might be to deny her guilt (as she had done before), yet after he had read awhile, she was (to use her own expression) as if her flesh had been pulled from her bones, and so could not deny any longer: She likewise declared, that the Devil first appeared to her in the form of a Deer or Fawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not much affrighted, and that by degrees he became very familiar, and at last would talk with her.  Moreover, she said that the Devil had frequently the carnal knowledge of her Body.  And that the Witches had Meetings at a place not far from her House; and that some appeared in one shape, and others in another; and one came flying amongst them in the shape of a Crow.  Upon this Confession, with other concurrent Evidence, the Woman was Executed; so likewise was her husband, though he did not acknowledge himself guilty.  Other persons accused in the Discourse made their escape. . . ."



Sauerkraut

 

As most people know, General McClellan was early on given charge over the Northern Army by Lincoln.  However, McClellan was extremely cautious and slow; so much so that Lincoln eventually replaced him.  One of the most colorful units in McClellan's army was that led by General Louis Blenker, a soldier of fortune, "and his men were known as Germans, too, this being the current generic term for immigrants of all origins except Ireland.  But the fact was, they were almost everything: Algerians, Cossacks, Sepoys, Turks, Croats, Swiss, French Foreign Legionnaires, and a Garibaldi regiment with a Hungarian colonel, one d'Utassy, who had begun his career as a circus rider and was to end it as an inmate of Sing Sing.  Blenker affected a red-lined cape and a headquarters tent made of 'double folds of bluish material, restful to the eye,' where the shout, "Ordinans numero eins!" was the signal for serving of champagne.  His soldiers got lager beer and there was a prevailing aroma of sauerkraut around the company messes."  [from page 272 of Shelby Foote's The Civil War, Fort Sumter to Perryville]

I had to stop there and wonder about the sauerkraut.  Growing up, I never tasted sauerkraut until my mother married her second husband Welker Williams from Kentucky.  Her first husband, my father, she knew from high school and (I suppose) they liked the same sort of food, but Welk liked sauerkraut.  My brother, sister and I on the other hand, hated it.  I do recall his saying it was a German dish, and since it was assumed we were German with the German-sounding Helm as a last name, he thought we should learn to like German food. 

Unbeknownst to any of us at the time,  I later learned, thanks to Ancestry.com, that we had DNA that was nearly 100% from the Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.  There was a smidgen identified as Northern Europe that could contain some German, but it could as easily have been French or Dutch.  In any case, I have always hated sauerkraut.

I wonder now about the sauerkraut.  Did it come here along with just German immigrants?  Louis Blenker was German, but if there was a "prevailing aroma of sauerkraut around the company messes," others besides Blenker probably liked it . . . shudder . . . hideous stuff.


Monday, January 25, 2021

Patchett's The Magician's Assistant

 

The Magician's Assistant seems the most aesthetically satisfying of the Patchett novels I've read thus far.  It has a solid basis in Germanic mythology that remains consistent throughout, and the ending (unlike the other three novels I read) is clever and satisfying -- aesthetically. It is probably especially important to emphasize aesthetics in this novel because there is quite a lot to object to moralistically.

In Old and Middle English Literature from the Beginnings to 1485, George K. Anderson writes on page 39, "As would be expected of any Germanic literature, we find in Anglo-Saxon writings a remarkable predilection for moralizing.  English literature as a whole has been thoroughly impregnated with teaching and aphorism; indeed, English literary criticism has been prone to base judgments more on the sense of a literary work than on its aesthetics."  Patchett free-wheels in her novels, tip-toeing past a bit of teaching, but stuff that is tame for our times.  She is more comfortable with aesthetics.  In The Magician's Assistant, Parsifal is early in the novel seemingly sent off to a reformatory as a boy to cure him of his homosexuality.  Moralizing regarding that sort of thing would be very safe in these times, but as Sabine makes contact with Parsifal's mother and sisters, she learns that Guy/Parsifal wasn't sent to a reformatory for his homosexuality. He was sent there by his mother to prevent his being sent to prison for killing his father with a baseball bat.  The father was kicking the mother while she was on the floor and pregnant at the time.  Guy hit his father with a baseball bat and killed him.   Were boys really sent to prison for that sort of thing?

Susan was ever inclined to take the poor in spirit under her wing -- under our wings I should say because I went along with her.  One such person was Greg, 27 years old who went from church to church looking for one that truly practiced Christian charity.  Eventually he found Susan and we (not our church) took him in.  One cold night in our apartment after a few months, Greg confessed that when he was 17 he had killed his father for the very same reason that Parsifal killed his.  Greg though didn't get to go to a reformatory.  He was sent to prison for nearly ten years.   His story was a bit off-putting when he confided that he had begun to think of me as his father, but he intended that in a nice way.  Though laws, according to Patchett have softened in regard to a mother or one of her children killing an abusive husband or father, Patchett isn't entering into Thomas Hardy territory with the legal abuse of children who kill a parent in self-defense.  And, Sabine learns, Parsifal's mother and sisters adore him and have, ever since he left, wished he would return to them in Nebraska.  Parsifal because he has grown rich has been sending them money.  He still cares about them, Sabine learns, but his becoming a Californian is so thoroughgoing that he could never return to Nebraska.

After his death, his assistant through dreams and hallucinations is encouraged to go to Nebraska, and when she does she does all the wonderful things that Parsifal ought to have done as a loving son and brother, and perhaps would have if he wasn't rendered psychologically incapable of returning to Nebraska which for him would have been very like the occasion when he was locked by his father in a refrigerator.  Though he became a famous magician, he couldn't do any of Houdini's tricks.  He could not lock himself in an enclosed area and escape -- but his assistant could. 

It is nothing today to defend homosexuality.  So what if Parsifal was homosexual.  It isn't preaching to describe him in favorable terms, nor is it unusual to describe his relationship with Pham in gentler and ethereal terms.  It is perhaps strange to learn of the long term, but unconsummated, relationship between Parsifal and his assistant, Sabine.  She loves him as much as he loves her, but as to sex, he has Pham (who also loves Sabine in the same manner that Parsifal does).  Sabine has had some brief affairs over the years, but nothing very enjoyable or long-lasting.  The only satisfying relationships she has had have been with Parsifal and Pham -- very emotional and strong, but sexless. 

The reader has become used to Sabine's sexlessness, even though she is gorgeous and sought after throughout her life.  Then  back in Nebraska as she she becomes immersed in the lives of Parsifal's mother and sisters, she cares for his mother and becomes as well loved by her as his sisters.   The problem sister, Kitty, Parsifal's favorite, the one who looks like him, the one who was his assistant as he practiced his magic tricks as a child, has been incapable of choosing a decent husband.  The current one whom Sabine fends off is an abusive bully.  Kitty one evening, hiding out with Sabine from the husband, intends to kiss Sabine on the cheek goodnight, but she misses and they kiss on the lips -- an electric moment when they both realize something that doesn't need to be discussed or elaborated upon. 

And so at the end Sabine announces that she is taking Kitty and her two sons with her back to Los Angeles.  She is rich and has a huge house.  The mother and other sister can visit as often as they like.  The assistant as she has done throughout her career, has performed beautifully, perfectly, satisfyingly.  And so was the novel's ending -- aesthetically.

Patchett's The Patron Saint of Liars

 

I saw a similarity in pattern and wondered if she patterned her Bel Canto after Magic Mountain.  Earlier I wondered if she patterned her State of Wonder after Heart of Darkness.  Thus far, as far as I've read in The Patron Saint of Liars I haven't noticed any literary references.

As to Patchett's worth, why would I decide that before I read her?  I might if it were some sort of genre, or what I fancied to be a genre that I didn't like -- but Patchett seems on her own and that is what initially intrigued me. 

In regard to The Patron Saint of Liars.   Rose is describing her husband Thomas, and  probably leading up to explaining why she took the car and drove off to a Catholic convent.  She says "His sadness was a powerful thing then, and he never forgot it, the way my mother never forgot the Depression and so was forever saving little bits of things that might be useful later.  Thomas said he made a promise to God and even though he never said exactly what the promise entailed, I knew it went beyond to love and honor and obey.  This was a promise with desperation in its origin, the kind of deal that Jonah cut in the belly of the whale.  The difference being that I'm sure Thomas kept his promise, in the years I knew him."

I don't relate to Thomas very much.  He was a man of few words and I am not, but I do recall that when Susan first told me she had an incurable disease and gave me the opportunity to  back out of our relationship, I promised that I would always take care of her.  It wasn't a promise like Thomas's -- out of desperation.  I don't know what it was, but I remembered it.  And just a few days before she died she told me, "you said you would always take care of me, and you did"; in which I understood the nuance, "and now you are free to go" even if I didn't want to.  The day she told the doctors she didn't want to try any longer, I was home with severe bronchitis.  I went back to the hospital as soon as I could quit coughing and she told me what she and her sister and brother had decided and asked me, "are you okay with that," and I said, "not really."  At which she said with considerable sympathy, "I'm sorry."

Thomas could have promised something like that; so why did she leave him?  He was a silent type, and that seemed to be part of it.  But he didn't have strength to go along with his silence.  Rose was physically stronger than he was. 

Thus far I relate most to Rose's mother.  I was also raised during the depression and learned to save little bits of things that might be useful later although I've completely given that up in retirement.  It isn't much of a hardship to be 86 and have a crippled leg.  I can get anything I like delivered to my door.  I can get around as much as I need to -- can even cinch up my knee and hike a bit -- I think I have been equipped to live well during the sequestering and feel thankful when I discover someone new to read -- even if I may abandon her later on which will no doubt happen.

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Bel Canto

 

Off and on while reading State of Wonder, I was reminded of William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions.  I probably read that book as a child and not again since and so looked it up on Wikipedia.  The article didn't make it seem like what I remembered, but Hudson was a noted naturalist, especially an ornithologist and so may have described the jungle, the "Green Mansions" in the detail I think I remember. 

Patchett was very clever and perhaps playing with those familiar with Conrad.  When it came time to describe her Kurtz-like character, she gives us Dr. Annick Swenson, a short 73-year old scientist who had experimented on herself with natives fertility drug and was seven months pregnant,  demonstrating to her satisfaction and that of her fellow scientists that the drug would work on non-natives.  Swenson is indeed a powerful personality like Kurtz, but the Charles Marlow equivalent is Marina Singh, a tall powerful woman who quickly loses her fear of Swenson (her former teacher) and becomes quite independent toward the end. 

The end is at first unsatisfying for we aren't explicitly told whether Dr Singh will return to Manaus and the laboratory in the jungle beyond, but Patchett does tell us if we have been reading carefully (or if not then after we have gone back and read the ending again) that Dr. Singh isn't going to remain working at the main offices for the pharmaceutical company Vogel because she has already kept secret the fact that the fertility drug (which will be profitable) is tied closely to a malaria cure (which will not be profitable).  Her boss and lover would (both Swenson and Singh believe) order them to quit working on the malaria cure and work solely on the fertility drug.  The worn-out Swenson needs Singh to become her successor in the jungle and though Patchett leaves Singh enjoying her return home in Minnesota, her real home has become the Amazon rain forest.

In regard to Bel Canto, I am reminded of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.  In Mann's novel, the action such as it is takes place in a sanatorium up the "magic" mountain during World War I.  Seemingly improbably patients, doctors and incidents create a magic for the reader as well as each other.   In Patchett's Bel Canto, a birthday party has been arranged for a Japanese billionaire industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa.  He it turns out has had a life-long love of opera.  A South American nation wanting him to build factories has enticed him to a birthday party they have arranged by means of the appearance of the brilliant soprano, Roxane Coss.  Hosokawa has been known to arrange business meetings in places she has performed in just so he can hear her sing. 

So there they are in the home of vice-president Ruben Iglesias, listening to Roxane Coss sing, when the lights go out and Iglesias home is invaded by local "freedom fighters" who hope to capture the nations president, who was scheduled to attend Hosokawa's birthday party, but backed out in order to see the current episode of a popular soap opera.  The terrorists aren't clear about what to do next.  The nation's police and army aren't willing to storm the house with so many important people inside; so there is a standoff.  Many of the hostages are released, but the most important people are retained.  The resolve of the terrorists becomes less and less clear.  the hostages become more and more comfortable with their situation.  Roxane needs to resume practicing but she needs a new accompanist.

Roxane's previous accompanist concealed the fact that he was a diabetic, and being madly in love with Roxane refused to leave when the women (other than Roxane) and unimportant or ill men were allowed to leave -- and so dies on the floor next to her.  Later on Roxane has the translator question the various people in the room searching for a pianist who can accompany her while she practices.  At first there is no one, "then Tetsuya Kato, a vice president at Nansei whom Gen [the translator] had known for years, smiled and walked to the Steinway without a word.  He was a slightly built man in his early fifties with graying hair who, in Gen's memory, rarely spoke.  He had a reputation for being very good with numbers . . . then without making a request for anyone's attention Tetsuya Kato began to play.  He started with Chopin's Nocturne opus 9 in E Flat major no. 2 . . . from all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. . . There was a delicacy about Tetsuya Kato's hands, as if they were simply resting in one place on the keyboard and then in another.  Then suddenly his right hand spun out notes like water . . . ."

When he finished, they all, hostages and terrorists alike clustered about the piano.  Roxane asked him to play for her while she practiced.  He was willing, but he needed sheet music.  Various avenues were explored, at last the priest, Father Arquedas told them of his friend just two miles away who had the music Roxane and Tetsuya needed.  He calls his friend who sends the box of music over.  The red cross man attempts to deliver it, but a petulant general with a headache declares that no more materials will be accepted that day.  The translator and red cross agent argue with the general but he is inflexible.  The red cross agent "barely started to turn away from the house when Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. . . and in the middle of the vast living room began to sing 'O Mio Babbino Caro' . . There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence . . . their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all.  They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly but also for the failure of their plans.  They were thinking of the last time they had heard her sing . . .  All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of a song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.  When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence.  Messner (the red cross agent) leaned into the wall as if struck.  He had not been invited to the party.  Unlike the others, he had never heard her sing before."

"Roxane took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders.  'Tell him,' she said to Gen [the translator], 'that's it.  Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.'"

"Really?" Gen asked.

"I don't bluff," the soprano said."

So Gen related the message and all eyes turned to General Alfredo.  He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to push down the headache but it didn't work.  The music had confused him to the point of senselessness.  He could not hold onto his convictions. . . With so little sleep he was in no condition to make decisions.  Every possible conclusion seemed like madness.  Alfredo turned and left the room. . ."



Historians, Political Scientists and novelists

 

Maybe true historians are being ignored by people of power.  I've gotten at various times into medieval history, the English, and American Civil Wars for example.  I can't think why any of the powerful people of the last century would be interested in them.  But I've also been interested in Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and Francis Fukuyma's The End of History and the Last Man.  Huntington and Fukuyama are political scientists rather than historians.  Huntington is circular in the sense of seeing the various power centers as being semi-permanent.  The United States is the (I forget his term) leader of the Western Civilization, China of the Sinic, Russia of the Orthodox.  Wars will flare up on the borders and when necessary the leaders will step in and terminate the border clashes in some way.

Fukuyama, a student of Huntington, was more progressive, that is, he followed Hegel in seeing history progressing, but disagreed with Hegel's follower Marx by arguing that the end of history wasn't in Communism but in Liberal Democracy.  Fukuyama's arguments inspired the movement Neo-Conservatism which advocated helping the move toward Liberal Democracy whenever possible, the war against Saddam Hussein was the chief example.  Saddam Hussein was a major holder-back of Liberal Democracy in the Arab world.  Fukuyama, however, was appalled by the Neo-Conservative movement and denounced it in a separate book.  Like modern historians a proper political scientist should should observe what is happening and not become a practical advocate of his beliefs.  He should especially not argue for something like a war.

Fukuyama distanced himself further from Neo-Conservatism by co founding a monthly magazine, The American Interest.  In it a year or so ago he rated his arguments versus Huntington and conceded that history subsequent to the publication of their two books supported Huntington's views more than it did his own. 

Years ago when I was still under the mistaken impression that I would end up in academia, I thought I should choose some novelists to have in mind for future concentration and settled on Hardy, James, and Conrad.   I read all, or almost all of their novels.  I was powerfully affected by such novels as The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D'urbervilles, and The Return of the Native, but Hardy's pessimism weighed on me.  I didn't want to concentrate on a writer who could be startled that a bird could sing of a beauty he had no conception of.

Being self-programed to continue on even though I was slowly deciding to abandon the idea of academia, I continued to read James and Conrad.  I don't recall that I ever decided between them.  But I believe now it is easier for me to return to Conrad than to James.  I wonder if James hasn't, with his archaic-like style, dated himself.  Conrad on the other hand remains accessible.

And his Heart of Darkness has become his most accessible story, perhaps.  I intended to read Maya Jasanoff's recreation of Conrad's voyage and then follow it by rereading Conrad's novel.  But then in a recent issue of the New Yorker, I read a memoir by Ann Patchett of her "three fathers" which impressed me.  I was further impressed by learning that one of her novels, State of Wonder (published in 2011) seemed influenced by Conrad; so I read that -- and was impressed enough to give up my return to Conrad and instead read another of Patchett's novels, the one said by some to be her best, Bel Canto, which I've just started and am already impressed by her immersion in and knowledge of opera.

British Imperialism

In the Nov. 2, 2020 issue of the New Yorker is a review of Time's Monster: How History Makes History (Harvard) by Stanford professor Priya Satia.  The review was written by Maya Jasanoff who early in her review tells us "A March, 2020 poll found that a third of Britons believed that their empire had done more good than harm for colonies -- a higher percentage than in other former imperial powers, including France and Japan.  More than a quarter of Britons want the empire back."


Historians, the good ones, recognize that it is a major historical sin to judge a previous people by the standards of one's own day.  Both Satia and Jasanoff seemed at times to be doing that -- but maybe not.  They don't argue that the British (in the days when there was an empire) knew that having an empire was wrong.  They find evidence of criminal abuse, and beyond that evidence that the abuse was systemically covered up by burning or otherwise destroying imperial records.  India's first day of independence in 1947 was notable in that there was a clear sky in which a rainbow could be seen.  Prior days were marred by the smoke going up from records being burned by the British -- well that does sort of change things if one has been thinking up until then that the British were operating in accordance with the widely held beliefs of the day and were performing their duties in good conscience.

On Franklin Library’s non-classics



Since beginning a collection of Franklin Library leather-bound books, I’ve read three novels that are not now and may never in the future be considered “literary classics”: Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Mickey Spillane’s The Killing Man, and Nelson Demille’s The General’s Daughter.  If I manage to read an entire novel, I have probably suspended disbelief for the most part while doing so.  But afterwards I ought to be willing to find words to describe whatever it is I do believe about a novel, taking into consideration that many novels I read long ago have not aged well when I recall them.  For example, I read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, and thought them at the time  his best.  But now in retrospect they seem heavy-handed social criticism.  The Hardy novel chosen as a Franklin Library classic is The Return of the Native, and I do not (now) disagree.  I have reread that one a couple of times and may read it again.  

The three novels first mentioned are Franklin Library “signed first editions.”  Of the three, Spillane’s seems least likely to live long enough to every be considered a classic.  Spillane began his writing career by writing brief stories for comic books, and this novel seems rather like that.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is very well written and as long as Greene was being amusing, the novel was enjoyable, but after revealing that his main character, Castle, is a spy, he becomes less enjoyable.  Castle while stationed in South Africa fell in love with his confidential informant, who is black and not able to get a passport to travel to England.  The only person willing to help him is a Russian diplomat who later asks for seemingly harmless information from time to time.  When it becomes obvious to MI-5 that there is a leak, Castle’s partner who always seems to win at the race track, is thought the spy and poisoned by Castle’s boss.  Castle is outraged and eventually confesses in a round about way to show his boss that he killed the wrong person.  After that Castle is whisked off to Moscow where he is assigned drab living quarters and may not be able to have his wife and child join him for a number of years.  Greene was enjoyable while he was having his characters talk cleverly to each other, but he later became as drab as Castle’s Moscow living quarters.  The novel was written in 1978.  The Cold War ended in 1989.  I doubt that The Human Factor will ever be considered a Classic.

I enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter thoroughly, from beginning to end.  However, this novel is in the “detective-fiction” genre.  Will any novel written in this genre ever in the future be considered a “classic”?  I suppose it’s possible.  Hollywood considered this novel good enough to make a movie from it.  DeMille may have elevated this novel above most detective fiction by taking on the inequity of a woman (the general’s daughter) being gang-raped during West Point training and then having it covered up “for the good of the Army.”  Assuming these inequities will have been significantly reduced in the future, much as those Hardy railed against, will Demille’s novel still seem interesting to a first-time reader?  He, at least has an advantage (to Americans) that Hardy didn’t.  The detective in this genre is cleverly and amusingly sarcastic, and Demille’s Paul Brenner is very good at sarcasm.  Even so, when this genre dies, assuming that it one day will, will The General’s Daughter still be there, standing on its own merits, to be declared a classic?  Maybe.