Thursday, January 31, 2013

Eudora Welty: Songwriter

Paul Simon scored a worldwide hit with his 1986 album Graceland , winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1987. The title track from that album, and the song that Simon has called the best he’s ever written, also won Best Record of the Year in 1988. He did it by collaborating with musicians and songwriters from all over the place: African musicians like the Boyoyo Boys, Juluka and Ladysmith Black Mombazo, as well as the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and Los Lobos closer to home.

And while the music on the album is a mash-up of different styles (World-beat, Zydeco, rock, a cappella, etc.) the lyrics are generally Simon’s own- with one exception I uncovered recently. Here’s how Simon begins the title track, “Graceland:”
 “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar”
Great imagery, right? Now here is a passage describing a train ride through the Mississippi Delta from Eudora Welty’s 1946 novel Delta Wedding :
“The land was perfectly flat and level but it shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragon fly. It seemed strummed, as though it were an instrument and something had touched it.”
Ms. Welty is not credited on the album, but we were  able to dig up the intriguing jam-session photograph you see above. It’s interesting that she was not asked to add her own vocal skills to the final cut of the record.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Bugs Me Wednesday: The War on Style

Elmore Leonard: "My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."
Jonathan Franzen: "Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting."
Esther Freud: "Cut out the metaphors and similes."
David Hare: "Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it."
Stephen King: "The road to hell is paved with adjectives"
You know what really bugs me? The War on Style.

Look, I get these arguments. I really do. Yesterday’s post was all about simplicity. I get as bothered as the next guy by purple, florid prose (see the Henry James passage in this post for an example. Shudder.) But when was it decided that every great piece of fiction has to read like a USA Today article? I mean, come on, if the whole point of great writing is for the writer to take themselves out of the final product, then why am I reading these authors in the first place? Why not spend my time reading the hundreds of thousands of computer-generated books out there instead? I guess I’m in the camp that says the author should bring more to the table than a compelling plot line.

Let’s look at the world of painting for an example. Can you imagine if visual artists followed an Elmore Leonard-like rule that “if it looks like painting, I repaint it?” Every art museum on earth would be chock-full of realistic, tromp l’oeil paintings that look little different from photographs. That’s cool, I guess… for a while anyway. 

But sometimes you get tired of admiring technical skill. Sometimes you want to see the artist’s imagination at work, you want to see their innermost feelings splayed across the canvas. You want to see things in a way you never could have imagined them yourself. In short, you want to see some style.

Here are some visuals to help you see what I'm talking about. What if I mentioned the names Picasso, Dali, Monet, Matisse and Van Gogh, and the only styles of painting that came to mind were the ones on the left below?

Picasso, before and after:

Dali, before and after:

Monet, before and after:

Matisse, before and after:

Van Gogh, before and after:

I won’t call any of those early, left-side paintings bad or boring. I'd give my proverbial left-nut to be able to paint like that. But isn’t the world a little richer because those same artists moved on from the technical proficiency displayed on the left to blaze the new schools of painting displayed on the right? Isn't it great that they made it okay for others like Chagall or Lichtenstein or Warhol to bypass a realistic, technically proficient phase, and head straight for their own revolution of artistic styles?

Cubism, Surrealism, and Impressionism may not be your cup of tea, but there's no denying they exhibit an entirely different pull on the human spirit than paintings done in a photographic mimicry of real-world images can. Style matters. And the fact that styles differ, matters.

So back to literature. You want to pass out writing advice? Great. The more the merrier. But let's not pretend we're not losing something significant when the drumbeat to eliminate all adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, similes and complex verbs crowds out those who were born to take a slightly (or vastly) different path. Those parts of speech may just be the otherworldly color and heavy brushstrokes that will define a new kind of literature.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Le Mot Juste- Without a Thesaurus

In A Moveable Feast  Hemingway calls Ezra Pound:
“the man I liked and trusted the most as a critic then, the man who believed in the mot juste- the one and only correct word to use…” 
Like Flaubert, Hemingway was known to be  a believer in the ‘exact, right word’ and is widely admired for his ability to cut to the chase and deliver a punch in just a few, well-chosen words.

Yesterday’spost mentioning In Our Time  jogged my memory about one of my formative “mot juste” reading experiences. It happened while I was reading  the short story “Big Two-Hearted River” in that early collection of Hemingway’s, and it consisted of one simple sentence.

If you’ve read that two-part short story, you know it’s light on plot, but heavy on description. In minute detail, we follow the character of Nick Adams heading out, alone, on a fishing trip. Though it’s not explicitly stated, the story’s got a lot to do with coming home from war and the regenerative powers of nature. But in the midst of his lengthy descriptions of the trout visible in the clear water of the river, Hemingway delivers this short paragraph:
“His heart tightened as the trout moved. He felt all the old feeling.
For whatever reason, that last line absolutely knocked me on my tookus. To the point that I still remember it ten years later. Hemingway didn’t even have to tell us what the feeling was  (Did Nick feel jittery? Serene? Ecstatic? Sentimental? Enthralled? In his element? Happy? What?!) He didn’t have to scour the thesaurus for just the right phrasing or color. What was it Nick felt? The old feeling! All of it. Nothing more.

How incredibly plain and simple that is, but how effective it is in showing us that this renewed connection with nature is rejuvenating and invigorating and relaxing and a hundred other things, too. It doesn’t matter what the feeling was, what matters is the effect it had on the character. And that’s what makes it exactly the right word to use. I'm in awe of that kind of finesse.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hemingwood Anderson

In this post we mentioned Sherwood Anderson’s influence on the generation of writers that followed him and that came to dominate the 20th century literary landscape. But it’s one thing to talk about influence, and another thing altogether to see it plain on the page. Take a look at this passage from Winesburg, Ohio , and tell me you don’t see the pared down language and short-sentence-style that is so commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway.
"The story of Doctor Reefy and his courtship of the tall girl who became his wife and left her money to him is a very curious story. It is delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg. In the fall one walks in the orchards and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. The apples have been taken from the trees by the pickers. They have been put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples."
It’s amazing, isn’t it? I mean, that paragraph could be something right out of In Our Time.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Writer's Voice: Bill "Pappy" Faulkner

Few literary voices are as hard for me to reconcile with the author’s actual speaking voice as William Faulkner’s. 

How could the man who penned lines like these, sound like a character right out of the Andy Griffith show? His readers may call him William, and his friends may have called him Bill, but after listening to that folksy, high-pitched twang,  I feel like we should all just call him “Pappy.”

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mini Reviews: Pressfield, Barthes and Boyle

Here are some more quick-hit reviews to bring me up to date on my recent reading:

The War of Art , by Steven Pressfield

This is a book for anyone who wants to create something great, or accomplish some secret dream, and has had trouble getting started. “There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't and the secret is this: it's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.” He does a great job of naming the condition, and of helping you identify it in your life. And while I really liked this book as I read it, as I look back after a month or two, I’m hardpressed to remember what it was exactly that I’m supposed to do about it. This could just be a fault of mine, but maybe the solutions he provides aren’t as earth-shattering as the first read led me to believe. I guess I’ll have to take a second pass through it to make sure I didn’t just fall asleep at the wheel. But the good news is that it’s a book that would only take a couple hours to read in the first place. I liked it as a breazy, but well-written, get-your-butt-in-gear book, but it has yet to change my life so I’m going to withhold judgement.

Mythologies , by Roland Barthes

This one was at times fascinating, but at other times bordered on boring and arcane. Barthes is on a mission to uncover the real meanings behind various pop culture phenomena that interested him in the France of the mid 1950s. He might deconstruct the Tour de France, analyze a Marlon Brando movie, pick apart a French governmental policy, explain a recent court case or take a deep look at celebrity marriages. In some sections I found myself saying, “Yes, exactly! Why haven’t I ever seen it that way before.” Take this post I wrote after reading his thoughts on professional wrestling, for example. But on other topics, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and wondering, “Who really cares?” I imagine I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if Barthes and I shared the same cultural milieu, or if he was still around to  turn his attention towards the American culture of our day. But even so, when he wanders into semiology in the second part of the book (in essence, the explanation of his explanations) I quickly lost interest. It’s a pretty interesting literary touchpoint to have, though, so I’m glad that I read it. And I’ll admit that some parts were laugh-out-loud funny.

When the Killing’s Done ,  by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Before picking up this book, I had only read two stories by Boyle, “The Lie” and “ Rapture of the Deep,” both of which were excellent, and neither of which I can find for free online. So no links, sorry. I was excited to see what Boyle can do in long form. And while I can’t say the subject matter of this book was especially gripping (a battle over eradicating invasive species on the channel islands of California) it really is masterfully written and it will transport you into the clashing worlds of both environmental activists and government-employed ecologists. In doing so, Boyle does something pretty amazing: he makes you care almost equally about the protagonist and the antagonist, as he unveils the background experiences and rationale that drives each of them toward collision. I think the narrow focus of the themes keeps it from being a great, universally appealing book, but it’s certainly a good one.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Real Winesburg, Ohio

Immediately upon opening the book, readers of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio  are greeted by a hand-drawn map of the fictional town that is the novel’s setting:

Turns out Winesburg was a thinly veiled representation of Anderson’s own hometown of Clyde, Ohio which, like its fictional counterpart, has a Main Street that crosses Buckeye Street and some railroad tracks a little further north. If you’ve read this post or this post, you know where I’m going with this. Here is what Clyde, OH looks like today:

The distances in the map of Winesburg are deceptively short (a half dozen structures fill the stretch between Buckeye and the Train tracks, a span that reaches a 1000 feet in the real world) and there’s not much in terms of landmarks that would jump out and link the two maps. Not even the train station or fairgrounds remain. But you can zoom all the way in and use Google’s Street View to at least stroll along Main and see some of the older buildings that might  have stood in Anderson’s time (Not likely, since he lived there from 1884-1896, but still worth a glance.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Title Chase: Catch-22

We’ve all come across certain frustrating situations where you’re “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” Those of us born after the sixties probably came to know the term “catch-22” long before we were introduced to the book that gave its own name to these classic no-win situations. Here’s how Joseph Heller described the self-contradictory bureaucratic blooper that condemned Yossarian to an endless string of combat missions:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
But did you know that this circular puzzle was originally known as Catch-18? Here’s what wikipedia has to say about why it was so hard to land on just the right title:
“The opening chapter of the novel was originally published in New World Writing as “Catch-18” in 1955, but Heller's agent, Candida Donadio, requested that he change the title of the novel, so it would not be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Leon Uris's Mila 18 . The number 18 has special meaning in Judaism (it means Alive in Gematria) and was relevant to early drafts of the novel which had a somewhat greater Jewish emphasis.
“The title Catch-11  was suggested, with the duplicated 1 paralleling the repetition found in a number of character exchanges in the novel, but because of the release of the 1960 movie Ocean's Eleven, this was also rejected. Catch-17  was rejected so as not to be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17, as was Catch-14 , apparently because the publisher did not feel that 14 was a "funny number." Eventually the title came to be Catch-22 , which, like 11, has a duplicated digit, with the 2 also referring to a number of déjà vu-like events common in the novel.”
I think Catch-22 has a nice ring to it, but come on, calling the number 14 unfunny? 14 is a hilarious number: the glottal stop right there in the middle? The only “teen” without an e or an i sound?… Catch-14  would have been comedy gold.

Monday, January 21, 2013

In the nose with CaptainYossarian

I’m making my way back through Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and wanted to get a better handle on the layout of the B-25 bomber that Captain Yossarian and his squadron fly on an ever-increasing number of combat missions.

Several times we get references to how Yossarian, as the bombadier in the nose of the plane, shouts instructions to the pilot and navigator in the cockpit in order to avoid incoming flack from the anti-aircraft guns below. I couldn’t quite grasp why the pilot would be blind to this danger, but this picture clarifies it a bit:

It also helps you understand why Yossarian wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the tiny passageway into the nose while wearing a parachute (and why he would be so angry with Aarfy after the latter sneaks into the nose behind him to calmly smoke his pipe.) Here are another couple diagrams showing where the rest of the crew would be stationed, and where poor Snowden would have been, alone, in the back of the plane.

Friday, January 18, 2013

First Line Friday: Stage Directions

Here’s another way to open your novel: Just start throwing stage directions around. Don’t worry about giving us a verb- just start naming stuff. Describe things. Give us a flavor for the stage set.

Take the opening of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy . I read the first three or four “sentences” of this book and couldn’t find a verb that addresses any of the subjects anywhere .
“Dusk- of a summer night.
“And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants- such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.
“And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,-a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a awoman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid….”
It’s kind of a strange effect. You feel less like a reader than you feel like a studio executive getting pitched a new movie concept. But it doesn’t have to describe setting, this kind of opening can just as easily show you what’s inside the narrator’s brain, like this classic first line from Nabokov’s Lolita :
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Nabokov’s done this elsewhere, of course. Here is the opener from Bend Sinister :
“An oblong puddle inset in the coarse asphalt; like a fancy footprint filled to the brim with quicksilver; like a spatulate hole through which you can see the nether sky. Surrounded, I note, by a diffuse tentacled black dampness where some dull dun dead leaves have stuck. Drowned, I should say, before the puddle had shrunk to its present size.”
What do you think? Do stage directions work for you? Or do you just want the author to get on with the story?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Author Look-Alikes: Vol. 10

The narrow-set eyes under a straight, low brow hovering over a long nose and pursed lips… I’d say O Henry bears an undeniable resemblance to that dude from Parenthood (Sam Jaeger):

And while we’re on the subject of hit tv shows, can anyone tell me that Mary Shelley doesn’t have a little Lady Edith Crawley in her? Eyes, nose, lips- it’s almost spooky:

And here’s Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared mysteriously during the Mexican American War. Perhaps he found the Fountain of Youth that Ponce de Leon never could, and resurfaced some years later as actor Tom Skerritt:

Joseph Heller’s wooly coiffure and playfully squinting eyes conjure up images of a pudgy Art Garfunkel. Like a bridge over troubled water, he will lay him down:

And doesn’t off-beat children’s author Roald Dahl remind you just a little bit of that quirky speech pathologist of the late king of England (Geoffrey Rush)?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Slovene Literature, Geopolitics and Video Games, oh my!

I’ve been on a Slovene literature kick lately, so it seems like as good a time as any for a fun fact on the subject:

Did you know, for example, that Assassin’s Creed, one of the most popular video game franchises in the world, was based on Vladmir Bartol’s novel Alamut ? No? You didn’t? Well, neither did I. But here’s why you should care. The book just happens to be the most widely translated work of Slovenian literature out there, so it’s one of the rare ones you can pull up online, order quickly and read in English. It’s also  a chillingly prescient story that predicted the Al Quaeda terrorist training camps that changed the world on 9/11 (and made games like Assassin's Creed "all the rage"), even though it was written clear back in 1938. Here’s the description from Amazon: 
Alamut takes place in 11th Century Persia, in the fortress of Alamut, where self-proclaimed prophet Hasan ibn Sabbah is setting up his mad but brilliant plan to rule the region with a handful elite fighters who are to become his "living daggers." By creating a virtual paradise at Alamut, filled with beautiful women, lush gardens, wine and hashish, Sabbah is able to convince his young fighters that they can reach paradise if they follow his commands. With parallels to Osama bin Laden, Alamut tells the story of how Sabbah was able to instill fear into the ruling class by creating a small army of devotees who were willing to kill, and be killed, in order to achieve paradise. Believing in the supreme Ismaili motto “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” Sabbah wanted to “experiment” with how far he could manipulate religious devotion for his own political gain through appealing to what he called the stupidity and gullibility of people and their passion for pleasure and selfish desires.
 I’ve got a copy sitting on my shelf, and this is probably the year that I tackle it. You should do the same. Check it out:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

From the pen of Isak Denisen

I’ve just about got this beautiful book out of my system, but here are a few lines I highlighted along the way. All emphasis is mine: 

"Still, we often talked on the farm of the Safaris that we had been on. Camping places fix themselves in your mind as if you had spent long periods of your life in them. You will remember a curve of your wagon track in the grass on the plain, like the features of a friend.
"Out on the Safaris, I had seen a herd of Buffalo, one hundred and twenty-nine of them, come out of the morning mist under a copper sky, one by one, as if the dark and massive, iron-like animals with the mighty horizontally swung horns were not approaching, but were being created before my eyes and sent out as they were finished. I had seen a herd of Elephant travelling through dense Native forest, where the sunlight is strewn down between the thick creepers in small spots and patches, pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world. It was, in giant size, the border of a very old, infinitely precious Persian carpet, in the dyes of green, yellow and black-brown. I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers slowly advancing. I had followed the Rhinos on the morning promenade, when they were sniffing and snorting in the air of the dawn,-which is so cold that it hurts in the nose,- and looked like two very big angular stones rollicking in the long valley and enjoying life together. I had seen the royal lion, before sunrise, below a waning moon, crossing the grey plain on his way home for the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears, or during the midday-siesta, when he reposed contentedly in the midst of his family on the short grass and in the delicate, spring-like shade of the broad Acacia trees of his park of Africa."
"A fantastic figure he always was, half of fun and half of diabolism; with a very slight alteration, he might have sat and stared down, on the top of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. He had in him something bright and live; in a painting he would have made a spot of unusually intense colouring; with this he gave a stroke of picturesqueness to my household."
"Here, high above the ground, lived a garrulous restless nation, the little grey monkeys. Where a pack of monkeys had traveled over the road, the smell of them lingered for a long time in the air, a dry and stale, mousy smell." 
-from Isak Denisen’s Out of Africa 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Mini Reviews: Morrison, Buck and Dinesen

I have this compulsive need to make sure I review everything I read last year, but little desire to sit down and bang out in-depth thoughts of each unreviewed book. So here are a few quick hits:

Home , by Toni Morrison

This was a pretty decent read. Not quite Beloved  or Song of Solomon , but much more engaging than her last book, A Mercy , which I finished, but never could quite settle into for some reason. This one explores a lot of the prejudice against, and exploitation of, southern blacks in the Jim Crow era, but does so without any of the surreal elements of her other novels. She also manages to avoid casting her characters as simple victims. In particular, there’s a nice twist to the main character’s recollection of a Korean War episode that haunts him and that gives the story some depth. I’d recommend it.

Sidenote: This one was an audio book, read by the author- and while I think I’m generally in favor of authors reading their own work, this one may have pushed me more solidly into the “there’s definitely a place for professional voice talent” camp. Ms. Morrison’s got a somewhat raspy voice that I find soothing, but at 81 years of age, she lacks the breath capacity to read more than 4 or 5 words at a clip half the time. The result is a Garrison Keillor-esque halt-and-continue performance that kind of took me out of the book.

The Good Earth , by Pearl Buck

I had read this one before, years and years ago, and wanted to see if it would hold up under the scrutiny of 35-year-old me. It certainly did. I absolutely love the cyclical nature of the story, of one “great house” replacing another out of the humblest beginnings, only to be poised at the end of the book to repeat the mistakes of the past. Some critics claim the novel spreads a litany of stereotypes about the rural Chinese poor, but the woman spent over 30 years as a missionary in rural China, I think I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt here. If anything, she takes up some pretty universal themes, which is why people are still reading it 80 years later. It’s a classic. And it made my top 10 for the year as a re-read. I only wish I could give it more than a paragraph. I guess there’s this, this and this.

Out of Africa , by Isak Denisen (Karen Blixen)

Another of my top 10 reads for the year. I grew up in the 80s, so for me, Out of Africa  will always be associated with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and Academy Awards. I never had an interest in reading the book until I came across some praise for it in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast , where he lauds it as the best book on Africa he’d ever read. That’s some high praise, indeed. But it’s also highly deserved. It’s a breathtaking read. If you can get by some of the colonialist views on race (“All Natives have in them a strong strain of malice, a shrill delight in things going wrong.” –or- “Until you knew a Native well, it was almost impossible to get a straight answer from him.”) you will be blown away by the beautiful prose, all the more impressive because it was written by a native speaker of Danish. The main thread connecting her fascinating vignettes is an exploration of African culture and a business story more than anything else- certainly not the grand love story Hollywood made it out to be. But even if I didn’t find her story worth my time (I definitely did), this is one of the few books I would read again simply for the verbal imagery. There’s a reason we included it in this post. See also this and this.

That’s enough for today.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Another Month in the Can

Tomorrow we close out another glorious month. Above are the authors we’ve talked about during that time, and here are the past month’s 5 most popular posts:

And, of course, the screwy search terms that lead people here:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

H.L. Mencken Steps In It

In 1917, H.L.  Mencken published an essay about what he saw as the abject, cultural wasteland of the American South, titled “The Sahara of the Bozart-” Bozart being a low-brow play on the term ‘beaux-arts.’ You can read the whole thing here. Now, there are a whole host of things one could say about his wacky racial theories (Anglo-Saxon blood is apparently best, Celtic blood the worst, with Blacks and Frenchmen somewhere in the middle), but I’ll just pick out a few choice lines from the essay to give you the gist of his argument:
“Down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-point etcher or a metaphysician. It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity.”
“There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac;”
“Once you have counted James Branch Cabell (a lingering survivor of the ancient regime: a scarlet dragon-fly imbedded in opaque amber) you will not find a single Southern prose writer who can actually write.”
“There is a state (Georgia) with more than half the area of Italy and more population than either Denmark or Norway, and yet in thirty years it has not produced a single idea.”
He sure doesn’t pull any punches. But one of the chief risks of being an arrogant, condescending blowhard, is the possibility that the object of your scorn might just turn around and prove you to be an idiot.

As it turned out, the timing of Mencken’s essay coincided with a Southern literary renaissance that would make any region of the world envious. Writers like William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, and Kathryn Anne Porter were already hard at work and would come to share 6 Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize between them. The “Fugitive” poets at Vanderbilt University were emerging at the same time. And this early group would inspire a follow-on generation of southern writers like Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, William Styron, Harper Lee, Truman Capote and John Kennedy Toole. (Not too shabby, South!)

But speaking of tools, Mencken was no dummy. Rather than claiming he had been wrong when reprinting his famous essay, he simply prefaced it with this audacious claim: “there is reason to believe that my attack had something to do with that revival of Southern letters which followed in the middle 1920 's.”

I’m  not buying it, but well-played Mr. Mencken. Well-played.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reading "the baseball"

I took six years of German growing up- even passing the AP test in high school. Unfortunately that didn’t fulfill the language requirement for my BA, so I took two years of French in college. Then, for other reasons, I ended up spending a couple years overseas in Slovenia learning that language. And after loving the one college linguistics course I took (and with Germanic, Romantic and Slavic languages “under my belt” in varying degrees) I seriously considered studying linguistics when it came time to choose a major.

Alas, I didn’t. I was already much further along on a History track, and had pantloads of science classes I was trying to complete as a pre-med student on top of my regular major. So linguistics fell by the wayside. Perhaps someday, when I retire, I’ll go back and bone up on the study of languages through continuing education courses. After my architecture degree, that is. Or maybe before it. Who knows.

Anyway, why do I bring all of this up? Because there’s a part of me that still gets a strange thrill when I come across other languages in my reading. No, I don’t mean actually reading in a foreign language, although I’ve dabbled in that,too. No, I’m talking about dialogue written in English that captures the feel  of another language, and transports you out of your own culture for a time, by way of an implied direct translation, rather than a transparent translation. Take this exchange in The Old Man and the Sea :
“I'll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the doorway?”
“Yes. I have yesterday's paper and I will read the baseball...”
“The Yankees cannot lose.”
“But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.”
“Have faith in the Yankees, my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.”

‘Read the baseball,’ ‘the Indians of Cleveland,’ ‘the great DiMaggio’…  all of these phrases will clang around clumsily in a native English-speaker’s ear, but that’s precisely what makes them work for me. They reinforce the authenticity of the dialogue as it was imagined to have occurred- in Spanish - with Spanish phrasings, Spanish word order and Spanish color. Hemingway had already done this elsewhere, of course. Take this exchange from For Whom the Bell Tolls :

“You have a curious idea to sleep in the open, don Roberto,” he said standing over there in the dark, muffled in his blanket cape, his carbine slung over his shoulder.
“I am accustomed to it.”
“When are you relieved?”
“At four.”
“There is much cold between now and then.”
“I am accustomed to it,” Fernando said.
“Since, then, you are accustomed to it-“ Robert Jordan said politely.

‘A curious idea to…’ and ‘much cold’ are both charming Spanishisms, but I really love that last sentence, where the unfinished thought, the trailing off into silence, is itself an implied idiom. And even if you’ve never heard the specific phrase or idiom that’s implied, the point is that your recognize that there is one. The author knows it, because the characters spoke it. It transports you across cultures and into their heads. Pearl Buck is another author who does this. Here are a few random lines from The Good Earth :

“It is an anger to me.”
“Well, and he may even be killed.”
“Well, and it is like the old days.”
“Well, and if it must be so, let it be so.”

I swear, for a solid week after I read that book, I had to consciously avoid beginning my own real-world dialogue with the ‘Well, and…’ affectation. (“Well, and if the car needs an oil change, I’ll take it in for an oil change.”) But this same sense of foreignness can be conveyed in other ways, too. Just listen to the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station  as he relays his poorly understood Spanish conversations to the reader:

“The father had been either a famous painter or collector of paintings and she had either become a painter to impress him or quit painting because she couldn’t deal with the pressure of his example or because he was such an asshole, although here I was basically guessing; all I knew was painting was mentioned with some bitterness or regret. Then without a transition or with a transition I missed she was talking about her travels in Europe and then I heard her say New York and college and she paused and as she paused my breath caught because I realized what was coming.”

The guesswork, and the multiple potential truths make for a  humorous situation. But it’s another effective way of illustrating that gulf between the reader’s culture, and that of the book’s characters. And I love it when I come across this stuff.

Another post for another day: how should such passages be translated back into the characters’ original language? Should they retain the intended idiom? Or should they retain the feeling of foreignness? I could be convinced of either, but I’d probably say the former. I'll have to noodle on that one a bit.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"A Profound Experience of Art"

"From my apartment I would walk down the Calle de las Huertas, nodding to the street cleaners in their lime-green jumpsuits, cross El Paseo del Prado, enter the museum, which was only a couple of euros with my international student ID, and proceed directly to room 58, where I positioned myself in front of Roger Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross . 

"I was usually standing before the painting within forty-five minutes of waking and so the hash and caffeine and sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium. Mary is forever falling to the ground in a faint; the blues of her robes unsurpassed in Flemish painting. Her posture is almost an exact echo of Jesus’s; Nicodemus and a helper hold his apparently weightless body in the air. C. 1435; 220 X 262 cm. Oil on oak paneling.

"A turning point in my project: I arrived one morning at the Van der Weyden to find someone had taken my place. He was standing exactly where I normally stood and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent  and if he was now standing before it in the hope of seeing whatever it was I must have seen. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but was too accustomed to the painting’s dimensions and blues to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art ?

"I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music "changed their life," especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. Although I claimed to be a poet, although my supposed talent as a writer had earned me my fellowship in Spain, I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility. Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I'd come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.

"Once the man calmed down, which took at least two minutes, he wiped his face and blew his nose with a handkerchief he then returned to his pocket. On entering room 57, which was empty except for a lanky and sleepy guard, the man walked immediately up to the small votive image of Christ attributed to San Leocadio: green tunic, red robes, expression of deep sorrow.

"I pretended to take in other paintings while looking sidelong at the man as he considered the little canvas. For a long minute he was quiet and then he again released a sob. This startled the guard into alertness and our eyes met, mine saying that this had happened in the other gallery, the guard's communicating his struggle to determine whether the man was crazy—perhaps the kind of man who would damage a painting, spit on it or tear it from the wall or scratch it with a key—or if the man was having a profound experience of art. Out came the handkerchief and the man walked calmly into 56, stood before The Garden of Earthly Delights , considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit.

 Now there were three guards in the room—the lanky guard from 57, the short woman who always guarded 56, and an older guard with improbably long silver hair who must have heard the most recent outburst from the hall. The one or two other museum-goers in 56 were deep in their audio tours and oblivious to the scene unfolding before the Bosch.

"What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard? On the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears. There was a certain pathos in the indecision of the guards, guards who spend much of their lives in front of timeless paintings but are only ever asked what time is it, when does the museum close, dónde esta el baño. I could not share the man's rapture, if that's what it was, but I found myself moved by the dilemma of the guards: should they ask the man to step into the hall and attempt to ascertain his mental state, no doubt ruining his profound experience, or should they risk letting this potential lunatic loose among the treasures of their culture, no doubt risking, among other things, their jobs? I found their mute performance of these tensions more moving than any Pietá, Deposition, or Annunciation, and I felt like one of their company as we trailed the man from gallery to gallery. Maybe this man is an artist, I thought; what if he doesn't feel the transports he performs, what if the scenes he produces are intended to force the institution to face its contradiction in the person of these guards. I was thinking something like this as the man concluded another fit of weeping and headed calmly for the museum's main exit. The guards disbanded with, it seemed to me, less relief than sadness, and I found myself following this man, this great artist, out of the museum and into the preternaturally bright day."
-From Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station