I got one! I got one!
The wait has been oh so long, and I was afraid I would explode with impatience, but here it is, all seven hundred and sixty-six pages of it. The first word is The and the last one is wake. Yes, Hensley's History of Victorian Gardening - A Critical Study is finally here!!
I'm just messin' with ya.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix may well be the most eagerly awaited book ever, but I've managed to keep from reading it at least for some time. Tomorrow I have an hour-long train ride, so I'll start then and make other passengers envious.
The book was handed to me at a few minutes past 12:00AM GMT in one of the two English-language bookshops in the city. It feels strange to be in a bookshop in the middle of the night; without the people walking around in it, I'd feel like a burglar.
As I walked home, I passed a line of people stretching out from the door of the other bookstore, winding across the street. I couldn't resist showing my copy to the jealous throngs.
Ralph Ellison - "Invisible Man"
The first amazing thing about "Invisible Man" is that it was written between 1947 and 1952. True, some raw and shocking books were written around that time; the Catcher in the Rye, On the Road and Catch-22 spring to mind. But none of them feature boys forced to fight each other blindfolded, electroshock therapy, a man living in the darkness of an underground hole, or an all-out race riot in Harlem with a leader in tribal dress, spear and shield.
The second amazing thing about "Invisible Man" is that I'd never heard of its existence until it came my way by pure chance. It is a great discredit to my literary education that I was never made aware of this masterpiece.
The novel deals with all aspects of black society, both in the South and in the North; not just black society at the time, but also black society of the future: it's prophetic in its description of an explosively tense community that is both tired of asking for what is long overdue, and profoundly uncertain about its identity and its attitude toward whites and fellow blacks alike.
But a convincing portrait of a society alone does not a great novel make --at least not for me. "Invisible Man", fortunately, reaches far, far beyond that. It is, above all, about the nameless protagonist, hapless victim of circumstance for the first half of the book, striving for a small piece of control in the second. His trials and tribulations are surreal, absurd, violent, sometimes funny, sometimes disgusting.
And finally, Ellison has a great control over language. He manages to switch from dreamlike sequences to straightforward but subtle narrative without missing a beat. No wonder it took him seven years to write it.
This novel, in short, deserves a much better fate than to be forgotten. Read it.
And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
Now when I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover.
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said, "Son,
It's time you stop ramblin', there's work to be done."
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.
And the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"And how well I remember that terrible day,
As the ship pulled away from the quay,
And amidst all the cheers, the flag waving, and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.
How our blood stained the sand and the water;
And of how in that hell that they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk, he was waitin', he primed himself well;
He showered us with bullets, and he rained us with shell --
And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell,
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.
But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"And those that were left, well, we tried to survive
When we stopped to bury our slain,
Well, we buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.
In that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head,
And when I woke up in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, well, I wished I was dead --
Never knew there was worse things than dying.
For I'll go no more "Waltzing Matilda,"So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed,
All around the green bush far and free --
To hump tents and pegs, a man needs both legs,
No more "Waltzing Matilda" for me.
And they shipped us back home to Australia.
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship sailed into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be,
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn and to pity.
But the band played "Waltzing Matilda,"And so now every April, I sit on my porch
As they carried us down the gangway,
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared,
Then they turned all their faces away.
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask meself the same question.
But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all.
Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong,
Who'll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
Richard Flanagan - Gould's Book of Fish
|Good books bring a character to life; great books bring a universe to life. This is a great book. It describes the life of prisoner Billy Gould on a convict island in the year 1825, creating a microcosm of crime, beauty, cruelty, poetry, unmentionable filth, eroticism, kafkaesque bureaucracy, and twelve fish. It's a relentless celebration of life in all of its sickening glory, and it's never as pretentious as that sentence sounds. Like the novel Riddley Walker I praised in an earlier posting, it has the rare quality of enveloping meaningful observations about humans in a down-to-earth package. Read it.|
John Dos Passos - Manhattan Transfer
|It's rare that I find a novel both good and bad at the same time, but this is an example. |
What's brilliant is its manic style, mixing beautiful poetic imagery with a relentless portrayal of New York as a large factory which processes people. Also, the 1925 novel hardly has a story to speak of, which is fine because so does real life.
What's bad is the characters. We follow various people as they bungee-jump from abject poverty to decent living, or vice versa. But their personalities are so nondescript that I sometimes found myself wondering who was who again.
Me-mushiri ko-uchi (Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids)
|Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe's debut initially reminded me of Lord of the Flies, in which a group of pubescent shoolboys degenerate into tribal warfare. Here, however, the Japanese schoolkids, abandoned in a village in the wake of an epidemic, find food, feast, friendship and love where there's blood, shit, vomit, disease, hunger and violent death.|
Full of distusting images, Oe's novel is not only unlike classical Japanese literature but also unlike most modern Western writing. I found it too allegorical to work on a story level for someone unfamiliar with the story of World War II Japan.
Book Review: The Nō Plays of Japan
When confronted with art from a strange culture, the similarities with yours are as interesting as the differences. These one-act Nō plays, written by various authors in Japan's middle ages and translated by one Arthur Waley, feel both familiar and alien.
They're highly ritualized and condensed. Even with a description of the stage setup, the Spartan set decoration and the costumes and masks, much is lost in cultural and linguistic translation.
What's missing is realism; plot is minimal; so is character development. What's left is purer theater than any other. It takes getting used to, as would watching a performance.
Betty Blue (English translation of "37°2 le Matin")
|At age 15, I went to see "37°2 le Matin", expecting something profoundly intellectual (French movies usually are). To my embarrassment, it opened with an explicit sex scene. It's one of the most intense, passionate movies I know.|
This made reading Philippe Djian's eponymous novel difficult. (A director's cut of the movie follows it faithfully.) The fairly plotless story, about a failed writer and his love for the manic-depressive Betty, shows them traversing France as slackers avant la lettre. It's funny, fast, and passionate, even in translation (kudos, Howard Buten); but it lacks the movie's soft colors and Béatrice Dalle.
Robert Louis Stevenson - Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
In Victorian London, where the exposed curve of a table leg was considered indicent, pornography was more popular than ever before. What better metaphor for this utter duality than the story of a doctor, plagued by vices, transforming himself into his 'evil self', a liberated monster who takes over his neutral alter ego?
What’s interesting about Stevenson's novella is the lack of explicit condemnation for Jekyll's experiments; indeed, there's an undisputed claim that evil is inside us all, better acknowledged than suppressed.
But, classic or no classic, I found the narrative lacking and not worthy of the strong underlying idea.
Saturday Special: Krazy Kat
When I walked into my local bookstore the other day, I was stunned to see that some publishing company had apparently taken upon itself the selfless task of trying to issue the complete Krazy Kat. This comic, which appeared in national newspapers all over the US from the 1910s up to the 1930s, was created by one George Herriman, about whom little is known. The fact that his surreal and wildly experimental comic strips reached such a large audience was largely thanks to William Randolph Hearst. This mind-bogglingly rich newspaper publisher was so charmed by Krazy Kat that he would personally call up regional editions of his newspapers to remove some local arts news so as to accommodate space for Krazy. And Krazy keeps appearing in unexpected places: for instance, as a tattoo on the body of Michael Stipe, REM's lead singer; and on a T-shirt worn by Jules, the badass nigger from 'Pulp Fiction'.
So what is Krazy Kat about? The answer is simple. Krazy Kat is in love with Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz hates this and throws bricks at Krazy, who adores Ignatz all the more for it. But Officer Pupp, the pit bull policeman, locks Ignatz up for doing so. Repeat ad infinitum. All of this takes place in Coconino County, Arizona. That's it? Yes, basically, that's it.
But it's a lot. First consider Herriman's style of drawing: crude, jittery, almost like kids' drawings, but subtly expressive in its black and white. Then consider his writing. I quote from a random page I found: 'And with the amazing insipidity that only a mouse can possess, dernd if he didn't mace your cranium with a petrified brick-' No comic before or since has juxtaposed such drawings with such prose.
And what about Krazy? Krazy is in love with Ignatz. Does that mean Krazy is gay? Or is Krazy a woman? In one comic, (s)he answers 'yes?' twice when asked to produce the man, then the lady, of the house. Krazy, incidentally, is a black cat, and Ignatz is a white mouse. This in itself is not very strange, it being a black and white comic, but Krazy's speech is with a heavy accent, calling his true love "li'l ainjil" or "dahlink". What’s more, two comics seem to play with race. In one, Krazy goes into a beauty salon and reappears from it totally white. Suddenly, Ignatz is deeply interested and doesn't recognize him. Conversely, when Ignatz becomes black by accident, Krazy treats him with nothing but disdain.
But sociological analyses aside, it's the character of Krazy that charms me the most. He is in every sense of the word a 'cronopio', a selfless, playful poetic soul without a care in the world, charmed even by the bricks that are flung at him. He is not a possessive lover but a faithful one, sticking with Ignatz through thick and thin, paying the bricklayer for bricks when Ignatz runs out of money to buy them. And speaking of buying, run to the store now and buy anything Krazy Kat-related you can lay your hands on.
Saturday Special: Ring Lardner
In the first and best of all teenage angst epics, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield casually mentions that his favorite author, together with his brother, is Ring Lardner. Because of this passage, I've come to discover Lardner, and I'd like to use this blog to attempt to bring him back to the limelight. He is one of those rare people: a great comic writer. Not pompous, but colloquial; not showing off, but subtle; not thigh-slappingly hilarious, but poignantly, sometimes darkly humorous.
Lardner started out as a sports writer in the early 20th century, and while travelling across the country with baseball teams, he cautiously tried his hand at fiction by inventing the nonexistent Chicago Sox pitcher Jack Keefe. The ballplayer's letters to his friend Al back in Chi are typical of Lardner's style: unpolished language which makes the character's true thoughts utterly transparent to the reader. We learn that Keefe is constantly planning his big break, romance of a lifetime or radical new career move; and time and again, his bold projects go down the drain because there was something he didn't foresee. For example, his plan to dodge the World War I draft because he has to support a family is ruined because his wife opens a beauty salon. Keefe, then, is stupid in an endearing kind of way; and despite his pettiness, tantrums and sky-high esteem of himself, you can't help liking the guy and rooting for him.
As the teens turned into the twenties, Lardner began to grow in popularity and to hang out with the more high-brow writers of his day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. Fitzgerald continuously tried to push him into writing something less trivial than his little stories, obviously not recognizing the quality of prose that doesn't take itself too seriously, neither in style nor in volume. Lardner, luckily, ignored this advice but did expand his topics beyond baseball.
From this time are his best stories, among them 'Haircut', a single monologue by a barber, telling you, the reader sitting in the barber's chair, the story of 'this funny guy who used to live in our town'. The reader soon finds out that the 'funny guy' was actually a bullying brute who met a gruesome fate.
'Bob's Birthday' is a story about the desperate fate of a young man doomed to support his ungrateful, unemployed family, as told by his teenage sister, who perfectly prevents sentimentalism through her clumsy writing style and unaccusing interpretation of the facts.
Lardner's refusal to write about dramatic, 'big' themes or characters is exactly what makes his writing so accessible today. It's sad, then, that almost nobody's heard of him. His work was infrequently and never completely published, and his books are not always easy to track down. He died in 1933; his son, Ring Lardner jr, became a blacklisted movie script writer in the McCarthy era, and went on to write, among others, the script of M*A*S*H.
"Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same." Read my review of the best novel you've never heard of: Russell Hoban's "Riddley Walker", a book that takes linguistics, nuclear war, and Punch and Judy, and mixes it into a masterpiece. After you've read the review, buy the book. I promise you won't regret it.
Jerzy Kosinski - "Being There"
This is a great, seemingly simple but actually carefully constructed novella. Never was biting political satire so mild-mannered and meek as in the role of Chauncey Gardiner. Gardiner is an illiterate without identity, thought or passion, but this doesn’t stop him from being turned into an authoritative presidential aide and, possibly, future president of the USA.
Kosinski gives new meaning to the phrase "empty rhetoric" and attacks both the media and politics in the best way possible: by showing, believably, how they could make a halfwit who only likes gardening and watching TV into the most powerful person on the planet.
100 words - The First
A collection of short text fragments featuring poetry, observations about daily life, and small, personal anecdotes. Sound familiar? Sei Shonagon may not have been a weblogger in the digital sense of the word, seeing as they didn’t have computers in the year 1000, but her “Pillow Book” (which inspired the Peter Greenaway movie of the same name) is structurally the same. Shonagon was a concubine at the court of the Japanese Emperor. Although she sometimes seems chillingly unaware of life outside the gilded cage she inhabits, she definitely enjoys herself. One millennium later, it’s still a good and easy read.