My college roommate and later housemate Warren Moise has written an extraordinary account of the desegregation of Sumter High School in 1971. He’s given me permission to post here the congratulatory letter I sent him this morning upon finishing the book.
Wow, man. I knew that The Class of ’71 was going to be good, but I had no idea that by the end of the book I would consider it a brilliant tour de force.
The weaving of personal anecdote with impeccably researched history produces a well-paced narrative. What we have here is not only a history of desegregation in Sumter, but also a mini history of the town itself, including a vivid snapshot of the transitional year of ’71. I mean, man, your compression of historical background is beyond remarkable, whether you’re cataloguing with precision the horrors of Abe Stern’s family’s journey from ghetto to concentration camps or the series of civil law cases that ultimately led to desegregation. I loved the mini biographies of historical figures as well. Moreover, you do a masterful job of blending second-sourced details of the segregation with your personal memories of those distant days. You compress a helluva lot in 162 pages.
Furthermore, your account is admirably nuanced. I suspect that most younger folks don’t realize that many Blacks resented integration, hated the idea of losing their traditions, their autonomy. I admire that you don’t whitewash (regrettable verb choice) such paragons as Thurgood Marshall or Judge Waring, but even as you criticize their foibles, you also laud their attributes. In short, The Class of ’71 is fair and well-balanced, non-polemical historical take on a situation fraught with internecine emotion.
Your personal anecdotes humanize events, bring to life that we’re talking about human beings here, not abstractions, and you balance well, I think, stories of both Whites and Blacks. Your friends and peers are brought to life with brisk physical descriptions and dramatizations. Whether you’re talking about athletics, your band, or adolescent love, your humility is ever-present. In addition, the personal reminiscences provide respite from the heavier portions.
I’ll end this paean with a note on style. I’m by training a critical reader when it comes to diction, syntax, and fluidity. I think I can count on one hand stylistic changes I would have made. I mean what’s not to like about sentences like these: “It was as if the 1960s were burning rubber in a Chevelle V-8 Super Sport on Highway 15 leaving town toward Paxville. At the same moment, the 1970s were rollin’ into town on Highway 15 North inside a Volkswagen van painted with slogans of peace, love, and daises.”
Bravo, my friend! It’s truly an honor to know and to have known you, and I hope the book gets the attention it deserves.
Although sometimes mocked, often parodied, Ernest Hemingway’s prose is clean and compact.
Here is prepubescent Nick Adams, who has just witnessed a Caesarian operation and a simultaneous suicide, headed back to camp after an emergency call with his physician father.
They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.
Prolife: sunrise, a bass jumping, warm water.
Here’s Nick a decade or so later after a stint in the trenches:
The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He spilled the coffee out of the pot and shook the grounds loose into the fire. He lit a cigarette and went inside the tent. He took off his shoes and trousers, sitting on the blankets, rolled the shoes up inside the trousers for a pillow and got in between the blankets.
Nick’s practicing the art of un-seeing, concentrating on simple actions to shut down synapses so they won’t flash like artillery fire in the darkness of the night. Eight mechanical declarative sentences without introductory clauses or phrases to describe a series of mechanical, mundane actions. Mindfulness to choke off memories.
I wonder how Nick would get along with Quentin Compson, one of William Faulkner’s offspring?
Here’s Quentin in Absalom, Absalom ruminating about the legend of Thomas Stupen’s arrival in Yoknapatawpha:
Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild [racial epithets] ]like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran. Immobile, bearded, and hand palm-uplifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating Sutpen’s Hundred, the Be Sutpen’s Hundred like the oldentime Be Light.
Like Faulkner’s prose, Quentin is overwrought.
Although we don’t know what eventually happens to Nick Adams in his later life, we do know where Quentin’s going to end up, self-drowned in the Charles River. And, of course, we do know what happens to Nick’s alter ego, Ernesto himself, dispatched in Idaho by a self-inflicted shotgun blast.
We in the West insist on judging. Who is the greater author, Hemingway or Faulkner? I would say Hemingway is the better writer; I find his crisp cinematic prose superior to Faulkner’s adjective-laden forays into over-description. They’re working at cross purposes, though; Hemingway wants you peel back the prose that leaves so much unsaid to explore what’s underneath while Faulkner wants you to see and feel the rush of reality as it sweeps past in torrents.
That said, I believe that Matthew Arnold would agree that Faulkner is the greater author. After all, he created an intricately linked multigenerational population of men and women, flesh and blood, White, Black, and Red, who embody two centuries of history. That’s not to say Hemingway isn’t great. In fact, I can’t think of a more powerful, better crafted story than his “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” – if you want to judge by one piece rather than a body of work.
I happen to admire both immensely and applaud their tragic visions, admire their courage in exploring godless darkness, empathize with their need to self-medicate.
For me, Hemingway is rum, Faulkner whiskey. It’s Hemingway in the summer, and Faulkner in the winter for me.
Bless their moldering corpses, I say. And yours, too, Mr. James Joyce, another booze hound extraordinaire.
 Faulkner, on the other hand, drank on and on until his 64th year.
Over my long reading career, I have come to esteem several fictional literary characters and consider them, if not friends, boon companions, individuals whose company I continue to enjoy. I’m talking about people like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Joseph Conrad’s Charlie Marlow, and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascomb.
When you come to revere such characters, finishing a novel or play becomes somewhat bittersweet because you really hate to see them hit the road.
My favorite, given his high intelligence and depth of feeling, is Hamlet the Dane. I wouldn’t go so far as Harold Bloom and claim that Shakespeare via Falstaff and Hamlet “invented the human” by setting in motion “the spark of human consciousness.” However, to me Hamlet is as real a person as my barstool companions at Chico Feo or my Great Aunt Lou, a formidable woman, but one not nearly as self-aware as the black clad prince.
Come to think of it, Aunt Lou is dead except in the minds of a diminishing number of Social Security recipients, whereas Hamlet has been alive now for over 400 years. The bottom line is that I feel great affection for him, and in an excellent stage performance, his death can still bring me to tears, and I don’t cry easily.
Of course, not everyone likes Hamlet as a person, which makes sense given that he is multifaceted and possesses an abundance of flaws.
Here’s the critic, director, and playwright Charles Marowitz:
I despise Hamlet. He is a slob. A talker, an analyzer, a rationalizer. Like the parlor liberal or paralyzed intellectual, he can describe every facet of a problem, yet never pull his finger out. Is Hamlet a coward, as he himself suggests, or simply a poseur, a frustrated actor who plays the scholar, the courtier, and the soldier as an actor (a very bad actor) assumes a variety of roles to which he is not naturally suited? And why does he keep saying everything twice? And how can someone talk so pretty in such a rotten country given the sort of work he’s got cut out for himself? You may think he’s a sensitive, well-spoken, and erudite fellow, but, frankly, he gives me a pain in the ass.
“Sensitive, well-spoken, and erudite,” but also witty, Churchillian in his ability to instantaneously whip up a bon mot or devastating insult. For example, here’s Polonius confirming to Hamlet that he acted in the university.
I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ the
Capitol. Brutus killed me.
It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. Be the players ready?
Here he is in so many words calling his “uncle-father” a piece of shit:
Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
At supper! where?
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that’s the end.
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
What dost you mean by this?
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.
Where is Polonius?
In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.
Go seek him there.
To some Attendants
He will stay till ye come.
“He will stay till ye come” could have come out of the mouth of James Bond.
To harken back to Bloom, how’s this for a 21st Century diagnostic catalogue of symptoms of depression delivered in the early 17th Century:
I have of late, —but wherefore I know not, —lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.
I could go on and on, but the point is that multifaceted fictional characters and poetic personae can provide for us in times of trouble some solace. One of the great fortunes of my life was stumbling into a teaching job at Porter-Gaud School where by necessity I was forced to reread time and time again great works of literature that provided vicarious lessons in the wisdom of stoicism. As I have said elsewhere:
“What I discovered in Thebes and Elsinore and Yoknapatawpha is that suffering is universal. To quote Rick from Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In other words, suffering doesn’t make you special; it makes you human.”
 Yes, I consider them people, people with complex inner worlds who change as they strut and fret through plot entanglements, finding at last (in most cases ) resolution, whether it be at their wedding or among the carnage of a corpse strewn stage.
As I was destroying my eyesight Wednesday simultaneously watching the Impeachment Hearing /Twitter feeds on the screen of my desktop computer, I ran across a linked tweet concerning a literary brouhaha originating at South Dakota’s Northern State University. A recent graduate named Brooke Nelson has provoked outrage from several Young Adult novelists for suggesting that a novel by best-selling YA author Sarah Dessen was too simplistic to qualify as mandatory reading. As a junior, Ms Nelson had served on a committee to select a book all incoming freshman at Northern State University would be required to read. Several members on the committee, according to the Washington Post, “were pushing for a young adult novel by best-selling author Sarah Dessen.”
A quote in the local paper, the Aberdeen, ignited the ensuing furor: “[Dessen]’s fine for teen girls,” Brooke Nelson said, “ but definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”
Somehow Dessen caught wind of this slight diss. Directly addressing Nelson by name, Dessen tweeted the following to her legion of followers:
Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally [my emphasis] how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.
Let’s just say Nessen’s fans were not happy, including published YA authors Jodi Picoult and Roxane Gay. Jennifer Weiner accused Nelson of being misogynistic:
“It’s hard to know what’s sadder: that Brooke Nelson has internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by “teen girls” but is presumably impressed with the merits of a book centered around video game culture that is beloved by teenage boys; that Nelson joined the committee not to champion a book or a genre but to keep a specific author’s work out of contention; that she bragged about her actions, as if she’s done some great service to literature, or that Nelson graduated with an English degree, is pursuing graduate work in English, and will someday be foisting her sexism and elitism on the next generation of readers.”
However, this comment ignores the question of whether the work possesses the complexity that required reading should possess. Are Nessen’s novels more profound than The Hand Maid’s Tale? Are today’s in-coming freshman incapable of reading adult literature? I was the English Department Chair of an independent school for six years and a teacher there for thirty-four, and I can assure you we never had a YA novel on our required summer reading list for the Upper School.
Here’s last year’s list, the last year I taught there:
9th grade On the Beach by Neville Shute
10th grade: 1984 by George Orwell
11th grade: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
12th grade The Hand Maid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
AP Language and Composition: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
AP Literature and Composition: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The majority of complaints from the YA authors cited in the Post story ignore the quality issue and focus on how Nelson’s quote marginalizes teenaged girls. Here’s Jodi Picoult: “[Nelson’s quote] suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous.”
But Nelson didn’t say that novels about teenaged girls “matter less.” She said that Nessen’s novels essentially didn’t “cut the mustard,” as we Boomers used to say. I suspect that Nelson wouldn’t have any qualms with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Josephine Humphrey’s Rich in Love being required reading.
Well, Nessen should be gratified because Nelson has found it necessary to suspend her social media accounts because of a barrage of incoming hatred. And Northern State University has publicly apologized to Nessen.
It brings to mind Dylan’s line “at pettiness that plays so rough.”
 I consider it a “slight diss” because I believe that it’s not terribly insulting to suggest one’s work doesn’t rise to the level of mandatory reading for all incoming freshmen of a college. In fact, although it’s considered a classic, I don’t think To Kill a Mockingbird rises to that level because of its black and white (no pun intended) portrayal of good and evil. What I would consider a genuine diss is Carrie Courogen’s summation of Dessen’s work as “formulaic patronizing garbage of the lowest hanging fruit variety and deserves every criticism leveraged against her.” Courogen added in a subtweet “sarah dessen books are nicholas sparks but by a woman and even dumber and slightly less christian.” I haven’t read any of Dessen’s books, so all I’ll say is that I can’t imagine they possess the ambiguity, complexity, and depth that would elevate them into the realm of serious art.
And long since ready forth his maske to move . . .
Edmund Spenser, “Epithalamion”
It was Federico Fellini who first turned me on to Petronius the Arbiter, the Oscar Wilde of Nero’s reign, a witty hedonist famed for his exquisite taste. In fact, Petronius’s official function in Nero’s court was to determine what was tasteful (or not), hence his title arbiter elegantiarum, judge of elegance.
Scholars don’t know much about him. Here’s a snippet from Tacitus’s Annals copped from Wikipedia:
He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste in connection with the science of luxurious living.
Unfortunately, however, like so many in Nero’s circle, Petronius was tried and convicted of treason. Rather than waiting for the inevitable sentence, the Arbiter took matters into his own hands.
Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince’s shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others.
At any rate, none of this would be of any interest if Petronius had not written the Satyricon, a fragmentary mishmash of verse and prose that satirizes Roman life in the first century BC. I actually wrote a paper on this picaresque “novel” in the spring semester of my senior year, but alas, like many sections of the Satyricon itself, that work of genius has been lost to the ages [cue sarcastic cough].
Click below, if you dare, to watch the trailer of Fellini’s Satyricon.
Although “Trimalchio’s Dinner” is the most famous section of the Satyricon (Fitzgerald at one point thought about entitling The Great Gatsby as Trimalchio in West Egg), my favorite section is the vignette “The Widow of Ephesus,” an oft-repeated tale that traditionally has been interpreted as an invective against the fickleness of women; however, in Petronius’s version, sophisticated readers might see it, to quote Douglas Galbi, as showing “the imperatives of the living trumping respect for the dead.”
In other words, reading it as “pro life” in the best sense of that phrase,
Amphetaminic Synopsis of Petronius’s “The Widow of Ephesus”
A widow renowned for her chastity goes apeshit after her husband dies, and with over-the-top historonics (exposing her breast and beating it, e.g), she follows his corpse’s funeral parade into an underground crypt.
There, attended by a “most loyal slave-woman,” the widow keens, gouges her face, and yanks out her tresses with the intention to starve herself so she can join her husband in Oblivionville.
Impervious to the pleadings of her parents and her loyal slave, for five days, without food or drink, the widow continues her frenzied mourning, out-Niobe-ing Niobe, “tearing her hair, plac[ing] the tresses on the corpse of her dead husband.”
Meanwhile, a soldier stationed to guard two crucified robbers hears the widow and abandons his post to see what’s going on. Once he’s hip to the scoop, he returns with food, which she refuses, but the slave woman “seduced by the odor of wine,” indulges, and once renourished, starts in on her mistress.
”What good will this do you, if you will have been undone by starvation? — if you will have buried yourself alive? — if you will have poured forth your life’s breath when you have not yet been condemned to die, before the fates demand it?”
As Margaret Atwood once noted, “Hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience,” and the widow gives in. Once she’s sated, the soldier starts cajoling her to ditch her chastity. Though we don’t get to hear his love talk, it must have been Barry-White-like and coming from the mouth of one sexy [insert noun from two-word Prince title that begins with “Sexy.”]
Click arrow below for an example of what I mean by “Barry-White-like”:
So they as my mother would put it, “shack up” in the sepulcher, he sneaking out now and then to procure food and presents.
During his frequent absences from his station, a relative snatches one of the crucified men and buries him. When the soldier notices the missing body, he knows he’s a goner, so he decides to dispatch himself before the judge’s sentence comes crashing down.
He informs the widow and asks “her only allot him a place, since he was doomed to die, and make the fatal tomb common to both her friend and her husband. “
Here’s the key passage:
The woman, who was no less merciful than chaste, [my italics] said, ”May the gods not allow that — that I should at the same time look upon the deaths of the two men most dear to me. I prefer to sacrifice the dead man rather than to kill the one who is alive.” In accordance with this pronouncement, she orders the corpse of her husband to be lifted out of its coffin and affixed to that cross which was empty. The soldier made use of the ingenious scheme of that most judicious woman, and the next day all the townspeople marveled at how the dead man had gone onto the cross.”
Oil paining of crucified slaves in ancient Rome
As Horace Walpole famously said, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy for those who think.” One equipped with a tragic vision might turn this story into a heartbreaker, the widow refusing to the very end, her gaunt body wild-eyed as she hallucinates tender scenes from her married life. However, there’s something deep down in every living thing that prompts it to live. Even if buried beneath the cement of a sidewalk, a weed will attempt to push its way through the cracks towards the sun.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Gerard Manly Hopkins, excerpt from “God’s Grandeur”
Quotes are from John R. Porter’s translation.
He’s guarding them so their relatives won’t remove the bodies to give them proper burial. Some scholars claim this alludes to Jesus’s crucifixion story, but if it does, then it doesn’t jive with Petronius’s dates.
Note how eerily similar this is to Petronius’s eventual fate.
A not-so-quick footnote to yesterday’s post: During the Reagan Administration, Garcia Marquez was labeled a subversive and denied visas to enter the US. After Clinton was elected President, he lifted the travel ban. Here’s a snippet from an article from Salon that is no longer available detailing Garcia Marquez’s first meeting with Clinton at William Styron’s house with the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes also in attendance:
Garcia Marquez with Clinton
Dinner began at 8, with some 14 guests around the table, and lasted until midnight. Bit by bit, the conversation came down to a kind of literary round table involving the president and the three writers. The first topic that came up was the forthcoming Summit of the Americas. Clinton had wanted it held in Miami, where it did take place. Carlos Fuentes considered that New Orleans or Los Angles had stronger historical claims, and he and I argued strongly for them until it became clear that the president had no intention of changing his plans because he was counting on reelection support from Miami.
“Forget the votes, Mr. President,” Carlos said to him. “Lose Florida and make history.” That phrase set the tone. When he spoke of the problem of narco-traffic, the president heard me out generously.
“Thirty million drug addicts in the US go to show that the North American mafia are more powerful than those in Colombia, and the authorities much more corrupt.” When I spoke to him about relations with Cuba, he seemed more receptive. “If Fidel and you could sit and talk face to face, all problems would completely disappear.”
When we talked about Latin America in general, we realized that he was much more interested than we supposed, although he lacked some essential background. When the conversation stiffened a bit, we asked him what his favorite movie was, and he answered “High Noon,” by Fred Zimmerman, whom he had recently honored in London. When we asked him what he was reading, he sighed and mentioned a book on economic wars of the future, author and title unknown to me.
“Better to read ‘Don Quixote,” I said to him. “Everything’s in there.” Now the ‘Quixote’ is a book that is not read nearly as much as is claimed, although very few admit to not having read it. With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it very well indeed. Responding, he asked us what our favorite books were. Styron said his was “Huckleberry Finn.”
I would have said “Oedipus Rex,” which has been my bed table book for the last 20 years, but I named “The Count of Monte Cristo,” mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some trouble explaining.
Clinton said his was the “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius,” and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to “Absalom, Absalom,” Faulkner’s stellar novel, no question, although others would choose “Light in August” for purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji’s monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from “The Sound and the Fury.”
Faulkner got us talking about the affinities between Caribbean writers and the cluster of great Southern novelists of the United States. It made much more sense to us to think of the Caribbean not as a geographical region surrounded by its sea but as a much wider historical and cultural belt stretching from the north of Brazil to the Mississippi Basin.
Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and so many others would then be just as Caribbean as Jorge Amado and Derek Walcott. Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, a Southern state, applauded the notion and professed himself happy to be a Caribbean.
For decades social critics have grown hoarse decrying the indisputable fact that North American culture has declined into a cult of youth. Among other touchstones, they cite sitcoms that almost universally depict adults (especially males) as intellectually inferior to the wisecracking ten-year-old ironists who ultimately rule the ranch(-style) houses of Televisionland. No matter that in real life these child stars possess all of the autonomy of their collie colleague, Lassie, as whip-cracking stage mothers, robbing them of their childhoods, herd them into blinding klieg lights.
Remember Brittany Spears?
I can’t resist. Check out these before and after pix of Brittany:
And, of course, if you buy into perverse premise that aging is horrible, you’re pretty much doomed to a life of diminishing satisfaction as hairlines recede, varicose veins branch out, dogs die, and crowsfeet deepen into talons. What traditionally has offered recompense for this physical decay is an accumulation of remembered experiences that have formed patterns of meaning that ultimately lead to an august understanding that the life cycle is natural and that death is the mother of beauty. [cue: Ecclesiastes, the Byrds]
However, and here’s the rub, many 21st Century citizens mostly experience “life” through the looking glass of mass media. For example, I calculate that my stay-at-home maternal grandmother spent the last forty years of her life in 16-hour stints of non-stop TV. If that’s your lifestyle, the patterns you’re accumulating are illusions concocted to sell products and services, so ultimately, you’re experiencing a wildly disappropriate number of happy endings and a constant barrage of eye-pleasing artifacts and sculpted spokespeople who sell the concept that beauty is skin deep. In the above scenario, the TV saturated senior citizen glued to reruns of Murder She Wrote or, worse, Fox News is less likely than the sober-minded 30-something social worker in providing good advice.
On the other hand, some old soul who has experienced an intense, widely travelled existence, who has weathered childhood, young adulthood, parenthood, widowhood, disease, exaltation, depression, and compassion should be treasured, the way I treasure the planet’s greatest novelist of the last quarter of the previous century. I’m talking about my man, Gabo, i.e., Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And when that old soul transformed his experience into a novel, what we got (and get) is not a concoction, but a revelation, the embodiment of wisdom.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his wide Mercedes, and their two sons in Barcelona, c. 1960
A late novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, offers a case in point. Ostensibly, the narrative explores an incurable romantic’s life. Quixotic Florentino Ariza has had a lifelong fixation on an instantaneous infatuation, which, as far as I can determine, has only resulted in one happy ending (see La Comedia Divina). Love in the Time of Cholera depicts long-lived lives in which wisdom alchemizes from the dross of life, particularly the life of Fermina Daza Urbino, who stands out as one of the greatest female characters of the last fifty years. Here she is via free indirect speech (in Edith Grossman’s translation) thinking of her dead husband:
For now she understood him better than when he was alive, she understood the yearning of his love, the urgent need he felt to find in her security that seemed the mainstay of his public life and that in reality he never possessed. One day, at the height of her desperation, she had shouted at him: “You don’t understand how unhappy I am.” Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.” With the first loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did not conceal the miserable threat that she attributed to it at the time, but was the lodestone that had given them so many happy hours.
Here are Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza finally consummating their love in their seventies, a scene that no doubt would send most of my current students to the medicine cabinet for some Dramamine:
She took him to the bedroom and, with the lights on, began to undress without false modesty. Florentino Ariza was on the bed, lying on his back and trying to gain control, once again not knowing what to do with the skin of the tiger he had slain. She said, “Don’t look.” He asked why without taking his eyes off the ceiling.
“Because you won’t like it,” she said.
Then he looked at her and saw her naked to her waist, just as he had imagined her. Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by flabby skin as pale and cold as a frogs [. . .]
It was the first time she had made love in twenty years, and she had been held back by her curiosity how it would feel after so long a respite, but he had not given her time to find out if her body loved him too. It had been hurried and sad, and she thought: Now we’ve screwed everything up. But she was wrong: despite the disappointment that each of them felt, despite his regret for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed [. . .] They did not try to make love again to much later, when the inspiration came to them without looking for it. They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.
The first lesson I remember teaching in high school was the Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” one of the most idiotic short stories ever written. Not only does plot pull the plug on your “suspension of disbelief,” but also the prose is as bad as grammatical prose can be.
“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh, “and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”
Girls and boys, this is called exposition, background information, and, of course, no one talks like that.
“Hi, Judy, your balding husband of twelve years has arrived home after teaching high school English to a group of high achieving, mostly upper-income adolescents who live in and about the city where the Civil War began! How about rustling me up a Heineken, stay-at-home mom, since it’s 1985 and feminism hasn’t kicked in yet down here?”
Actually, the late Lawrence Perrine put the story first in his text Literature, Sound, and Sense to demonstrate why commercial fiction shouldn’t be taken seriously. Of course, most of the kids liked the story before I began my butchering. You got clearly defined good and evil, not to mention “Malay Mancatchers” and “Burmese Tiger pits.” My method was to mock the story in the mode of stand up comedian, to act out some of the scenes.
The plot goes like this. Sanford Rainsford, an American big game hunter, is talking on a yacht in the Caribbean about how he has no sympathy for the prey he pursues. Happily, in an act of idiocy that could land him a Darwin Award nomination, he falls overboard.
[After hearing gunfire,] Rainsford sprang up and moved quickly to the rail, mystified. He strained his eyes in the direction from which the report had come, but it was like trying to see though a blanket. He leapt upon the rail [as if that would help] and balanced himself there, to get greater elevation; his pipe, striking a rope, was knocked from his mouth. He lunged for it; a short, hoarse cry came from his lips as he realized he had reached too far and had lost his balance. The cry was pinched off short as the blood-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea closed over his head.
As he swims toward Shipwreck Island, he hears more gunplay, and we’re treated to perhaps the most ludicrous dialogue prompt in the history of world literature:
“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on. [Here I pantomime an Australian crawl, and as my head emerges from the water I mutter “pistol shot” and then continue swimming].
As it turns out, Shipwreck Island is the home of proto Bond villain General Zaroff, a Russian aristocrat so cartoonish he makes Boris Badenov from Bullwinkle look like Fyodor Paviovich Karamazov.
Rainsford makes it to the island, manages to sleep on the beach until “late afternoon” and begins to engage in Cartesian interpretations of physical nature:
“Where there are pistol shots, there are men. Where there are men, there is food,” he thought.
He discovers some human footprints that lead to General Zaroff’s compound. Oddly, Rainsford loses confidence in his powers of observation, like maybe he’s flashing back on some windowpane acid he dropped back at Yale after WW1.
“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked gate.
At the door he’s greeted by Ivan, Zaroff’s henchman, “ a gigantic creature, solidly made and black-bearded to the waist.”
ZZ Top meets Andre the Giant.
Rainsford is conducted to a room where “Ivan had laid out an evening suit.” As he puts it on, Rainsford notices “that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.”
Oh, those were the days.
Zaroff serves Rainsford a vague meal consisting of unspecified “cocktails” and “a particularly well cooked fillet mignon.” Was it cooked to perfection or cooked well done? Who knows?
As it turns out, the tables are turned on Rainsford. Zaroff’s hobby is hunting human beings, i.e., “the most dangerous game.”
When Rainsford voices outrage at the concept of hunting humans, Zaroff replies, “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life.”
The game doesn’t seem all that fair to this non-hunter. Ivan supplies Rainsford with hunting clothes, food, and a knife whereas Zaroff gets a pack of hounds, Ivan, and an armory of high-powered weaponry. If Rainsford manages to elude his predator for three days, he’ll be placed “on a the mainland near a town.” Zaroff adds, “I will give you my word of honor as a gentleman and sportsman.”
So now the fun really begins. As Zaroff tracks Rainsford through the jungle, Rainsford engages in the very un-Darwinian habit of talking out loud to himself.
“I will not lose my nerve, I will not.”
Cat and mouse. Rainsford fashions a “Maylay man-catcher” and – the highlight of the story for me — a Burmese Tiger Pit.
Rainsford “stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so, and like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig.”
A Beaver! Why a beaver? Remember studying about pre-historic beavers the size of mastadons? I don’t.
Of course, good triumphs over evil. Trapped at the end of the story, Rainsford jumps off a cliff, presumably to his death.
Here’s how it ends.
When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped. For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.
General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game–so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called, “Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light.
A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.
“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”
“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”
The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”
Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”
The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . .
He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.
So that’s it. Rainsford puts on his pajamas and falls asleep in Zaroff’s bed.
The end, no contemplation of what he’d just experienced. Let’s hope he loots the joint or at least cops that duke grade tuxedo.
This is Coleridge’s term for our willingness to allow magic carpets to defy Newtonian physics for the sake of the story. However, we readers (or movie watchers) will tolerate only so much. Cf. Mystery Science Theater 3000.
One of Matisse’s illustrations for the 1934 edition of Ulysses
Fleeing Folly for Thanksgiving, I spent the four-hour drive to Greensboro, Georgia, listening to Donal Donnelly reading Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that should be heard not read, or at least read aloud.
Joyce possessies the best ear of any prose writer ever.
Dig this, from Episode 1, “Telemachus”:
I AM THE BOY
THAT CAN ENJOY
Phantasmal mirth, folded away: muskperfumed.
AND NO MORE TURN ASIDE AND BROOD.
And now this from Episode 3, “Proteus”:
He lay back at full stretch over the sharp rocks, cramming the scribbled note and pencil into a pocket, his hat tilted down on his eyes. That is Kevin Egan’s movement I made nodding for his nap, sabbath sleep. Et vidit Deus. Et erant valde bona. Alo! Bonjour, welcome as the flowers in May. Under its leaf he watched through peacocktwittering lashes the southing sun. I am caught in this burning scene. Pan’s hour, the faunal noon. Among gumheavy serpentplants, milkoozing fruits, where on the tawny waters leaves lie wide. Pain is far.
And no more turn aside and brood.
His gaze brooded on his broadtoed boots, a buck’s castoffs nebeneinander: He counted the creases of rucked leather wherein another’s foot had nested warm. The foot that beat the ground in tripudium, foot I dislove. But you were delighted when Esther Osvalt’s shoe went on you: girl I knew in Paris. Tiens, quel petit pied! Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde’s love that dare not speak its name. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all.
Yeats’s “Who Goes with Fergus” is stuck in his head like a catchy tune. His mind animates the world around him. You listen and enter that world, a world come alive, a better world.
It’s so addictive I feel like getting in the car and driving around this lovely late-autumn neighborhood to hear the lilt of the words in my failing ears.
He capered before them down towards the forty-foot hole, fluttering his winglike hands, leaping nimbly, Mercury’s hat quivering in the fresh wind that bore back to them his brief birdsweet cries.
I’ve just finished at a former student’s strident insistence the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s last work, Portraits of a Marriage. I don’t know if we lose something in the translation of the title, but the narrative might more accurately be dubbed: Satellites of Love or Chain, Chain, Chain of Partners or A Sociological Study of Class Relationships in Hungary from 1930 – 1950.
The thing is that no title can do justice to the mighty compression of meaning that the novel holds. Divided into four parts, the narrative unfolds in the style of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue, with each section narrated by a different character. We are in a concrete setting, a bar or bed, and along with us there is someone listening to a monologue, but we never hear that person speak. Instead, we get remarks like: “Sorry . . . What did you say? Why I started weeping when I saw him just now?”
This auditory technique may be off-putting in a culture dominated by visual imagery where we expect cinematic quick cutting, and I admit the conceit does add a bit too much ballast to suspension of disbelief; however, the articulation of the perceptions of the first three monologists is at once meaningful and conversational.
It begins in Budapest between the wars. Here is Ilonka, the first wife of Peter, an industrialist, describing to a female companion her reaction to finding a decades-old love token in her husband’s wallet, a token that predates her relationship with him:
And now I knew that whatever wonderful or terrible things were happening in the world, it was pointless to accuse myself of selfishness, lack of faith, lack of humility, pointless comparing my problems to those of the world of nations, the problems of millions suffering their various tragedies, because there was nothing I could do – selfish and petty as I was, obsessed and blind as I was – except to get out on the street and search out the woman I had to confront face-to-face, the woman I had to talk to. I had to see her, to hear her voice, look in her eyes, examine her skin, her brow, her hands.
We can’t blame Peter for fleeing such suffocating obsession, and in the second section he tells a colleague what that first marriage was like and how he fared in his second marriage to a servant girl of his household named Judit, the girl who had given him that token, a peasant who literally grew up in a ditch. In England, after she leaves the household, she transforms herself into a highly credible Pygmalion-like creature who knows which fork to pick up. Upon her return, Peter defies social convention and marries this underclassling.
Here is Peter describing the object of his obsession:
It wasn’t a “lady” or a glittering socialite I yearned for. I hoped for a woman with whom I could share a lonely life. But she was terrifying ambitious [. . .] wanting to conquer and take occupation of the world.
The only things she fears is
[h]er own hypersensitivity to offense, some mortal wound to the pride glowing in the depths of her life, her very being. That was what she was afraid of, and everything she did by word, silence, and deed was a form of defense against it. It was something I could never understand.
So what we have here is the Rashomon effect, contradictory accounts of the same event. In the course of these dialogues a quarter of a century passes; we see the class stratification of Hungary before the war, Budapest’s leveling during the war, and its Soviet occupation after the war. All of our principals but Ilonka become ex-pats.
It’s Judit who devours the narrative scenery, talking to her latest lover, a jazz drummer whose stage name is Ede. They’re in Rome in a hotel bed after one of his gigs. Judit possesses the most experience, having risen from abject poverty to enormous wealth. She’s the least socially conditioned one, and she is able to look upon the events of her life with a sort of anthropological detachment:
High culture, it seems, is not just a matter of museums but something you find in people’s bathrooms and kitchens where others cook for them. Their way of life did not change, not a bit, not even during the siege, would you believe it? While everyone was eating beans or peas, they were still opening tins of delicacies from abroad, goose liver from Strasbourg and such things. There was a woman in the cellar, who spent three weeks there […] on a diet, a diet she maintained even when the bombs were falling. She was looking after her figure, cooking some tasty something on a spirit flame using only olive oil because she feared that the fat in the beans and gristle everyone else stuffed themselves with out of fear and anxiety might lead her to put on weight! Whenever I get to thinking about it, I marvel what a strange thing this thing called culture is.
There is one other character, Lazar, who doesn’t get his own monologue but who appears in every section. He’s a writer, perhaps Márai’s alter ego. Of course, I identify with him because, not only is he bald, but he’s also a pessimist (and who wouldn’t be scrounging around a bombed out city). He has several quotable passages throughout, but I’m going to have Judit describe him instead of having him speak for himself:
What’s that? Was he a snob? Of course, he was, among other things, a snob. He couldn’t stand being helped because he was solitary and a snob. Later I understood that there was something under this snobbish manner of his. He was protecting something, trying to preserve a culture. It’s not funny. I expect you’re thinking of those olives. That’s why you laughing? We proles, we don’t really get the idea of “culture,” sweetheart. We think it’s a matter of being able to quote things, of being fussy, of not spitting on the floor or belching when we’re eating, that kind of thing. But that’s not culture; it’s not a matter of reading and learning facts. It’s not even learning to behave. It’s something else. It was the other idea of culture he was wanting to protect. He didn’t want me to help him because he no longer believed in people.
As I was reading through the individual sections, I found myself put off by these people’s egocentricities, their obsessiveness, but once I got halfway through Judit’s monologue, the cumulative effect suddenly came upon me like revelation. What we have here is a deep meditation on love, loneliness, obsession, culture, family, and perhaps most profoundly, the limitations of personal observation. The gulf between these people’s perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them is an unbridgeable breach.
This might not be a great novel – I won’t judge until a second reading – but if you’ve reached this final sentence, you’re likely to find it worth your while.
 In Spanish the title translates into “The Righteous Woman”
 The 4th narrator Ede, a jazz drummer-cum-bartender, lives in “a pad.”
 Let’s not forget that Hunagry in the early part of the previous century was not L.A. I can’t come up with a good analogy. Prince Phillip marrying Billie Holiday?