Monday, December 13, 2010

Leo Tolstoy's War & Peace

Currently I am reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In the introduction they write that theirs’ is the most accurate translation to date. Tolstoy would often use the same word over and over in one paragraph. Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky retained all the repetitions, unlike most of their predecessors.

Many years ago I read the Constance Garnett translation. She pretty much set the standard for translating Russian authors into English. Of her translations I read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov. When I heard about this much praised translation I went out and bought a copy. Re-reading Tolstoy after so long is a pleasant surprise. His style is very readable. It can get confusing with all the characters, but there is a glossary of the major players in the front of the book, to which I constantly refer. The best way to keep track of who is who is to remember which family people are in.

The novel has several plot lines, going back and forth between, obviously enough, war and peace. It is the period of the Napoleonic wars, between the years 1806 and 1812. There are lots of epic scenes of battle, but also lovingly described nights at dances and balls with all the beautiful gowns, the glittering lights, the men in uniform, the perfume in the air described to the littlest detail. One of the most evocative scenes for me is a sleigh ride at night through a landscape covered with snow under a full moon. The people are in costumes to entertain the children at another estate. The bells are jingling, the people are laughing and the horses snort thick clouds from their wide nostrils. It was, as they say, magical.

Long books can be intimidating but War and Peace is broken down into small chapters of just a few pages, so there are lots of places to break off reading. I am reading just a few pages a night before going to bed. It’s taking me a long time to get through it but, as John Barrymore once said: It may take longer, but I don’t begrudge the time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Jack London's Credo

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Jack London supposedly wrote these words towards the end of his life. Clarice Stasz has written an intriguing article questioning the veracity of that claim. Many people have seen it as an inspiring credo, one to emulate. It appears to be espousing a vigorous view of living life to the fullest. I see it in a different light.

According to more than one biographer (it has been awhile since I have read a biography of Mr. London, so I am intentionally vague on this point. Not sure where I read it), Jack London wrote this piece towards the end of his life. That was a time when he was a sick man. He was smoking to excess, drinking to excess and eating eight minute cooked duck. His doctor told him eating it was extremely bad for him, given the precarious state of his health. Jack responded by writing an article about his favorite dish (again, I do not remember where I read this). His friends were urging him to take better care of himself as he was working himself to death. It was at this time that the credo was allegedly written. To me the significant line is "I shall not waste my time trying to prolong [my life]." Here he declares he will not change his debilitating lifestyle, but will keep doing what he is doing, no matter how it affects him. Far from trying to prolong his life, he was actively shortening it.

This brings me to the controversy surrounding his death. Irving Stone claimed Jack London deliberately killed himself with a calculated overdose of morphine. It has been written that one cannot calculate an overdose of morphine. Others have said he woke up in the middle of the night in pain and accidentally killed himself with an overdose of morphine. I believe the death certificate says he died of uremic poisoning. How he died is still a hot topic of debate among London scholars.

I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Russ Kingman a few times before he died, as well has having a short correspondence with him. Though Mr. Kingman identified a bit too much with Jack London to be completely objective, he was probably the premier Jack London scholar. I talked to him about Jack London's death and he had his own opinion. When Jack was semi-conscious people tried to get him up by saying to ranch was endangered. According to one witness, Jack lifted his right arm. When Russ Kingman told this to a doctor, the doctor immediately responded that he must have had a stroke, as his left side was possibly paralyzed because he did not lift his left arm. Russ seemed to think this vindicated Jack from the accusation of suicide, but it still points to self-destruction. Jack was deliberately running himself into the ground by being constantly busy and pouring all sorts of toxins into his body. So it might not have been suicide as legally defined, but Jack London definitely killed himself by the omission of taking any measures to keep himself healthy.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Great American Novel?

This is the copy of "Native Son" I got. After some research I found out it is not a true first edition. Though it says FIRST EDITION on the copyright page, the book was published earlier that year with a different book jacket. Still, it's quite a find.

It reminds me that during the middle of the 20th century there was a quest by novelists to write The Great American Novel, the piece of fiction that would define who we are and what we stand for. No one ever wrote it, but it was a tantalizing quest. After the upheaval of the 1960's and the burnout of the 1970's no one talked about it any more. It was only after I read "Native Son" and Ralph Ellison's astonishing and brilliant "Invisible Man" that I realized The Great American Novel could only be written by someone who lived in the United States but was denied access to its mainstream; someone who could see American life but was not fully a part of it. To truly "see" America for what it is, one has to have it dangled before one's face but not be able to grasp it. And that was the reality of African Americans in the 20th century. "Native Son" and "Invisible Man" come closer to realizing the goal of being The Great American Novel than anything else written by any other American writer.

Friday, June 18, 2010

My wife and I went to this used bookstore in Kent Connecticut recently. Everything was half price. They must be going out of business because the prices were low as it is. A few years ago I got an 1854 two volume edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Mosses from an old Manse" for $15.o0! This last time I got a first edition "Native Son" by Richard Wright, with the paper cover, for less than the price of a new paperback. Anyone on the Eastern Seaboard should go there as fast as they can before it closes. It's a great bookstore, it's a tragedy that it's closing, but it is to the buyer's advantage.

Monday, June 7, 2010

More Agnes Owens

The book I read was "The Complete Short Stories of Agnes Owens." At the time I purchased it (from a vendor overseas), the book was not available in the United States. I don't know if it is available now or not. What I do know is that the New York Public Library is circulating only one copy of one of her novels. She is well worth seeking out.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Agnes Owens

A few years ago I briefly subscribed to The Scottish Review of Books. It introduced me to some authors I had never heard of, the most memorable being Agnes Owens. Agnes Owens could be compared to Charles Bukowski; she writes about the indigent, homeless, semi-homeless alcoholics, drug addicts and all around lowlifes. To compare her to someone else, however, cheapens her unique qualities. Her first short story, Arabella, is, by turns, horrifying, repellent and hilarious. She has a memorable view of the human condition.

If I have read correctly, Ms. Owens has been a house cleaner among other low paying jobs. I don't know her state right now, but I get the distinct feeling that she writes from experience in telling tales of dole-cheaters and boozy layabouts. She has had several novels published in the U.S., but I have not read them as yet. She is one of those hidden treasures that people thrill to discover. Truthfully, some people I have urged to read her stories have come back to me puzzled. They recognized her talent but did not appreciate it as much as I. One can only hope her day will come.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I am in the midst of an F. Scott Fitzgerald reading jag. After finishing a forty story collection of his best stuff, I read "The Great Gatsby" and the Pat Hobby stories, some of the last stories he published. "Tender is the Night" left me cold. The first section was disjointed and appeared to reflect the turmoil in Fitzgerald's life at the time. And I can't figure out what triggered Dick Diver's descent into mediocrity. And, by the way, who cares? He was an irritating character as it was. "The Last Tycoon" is an enjoyable read. Too bad Fitzgerald died before finishing it. The romantic elements were slow going, but everything else was riveting. He had Hollywood nailed but good. I'll have to revisit Elia Kazan's film version with Robert DeNiro. It seemed like a failure when I first saw it. Maybe I'll appreciate it more now.

Fitzgerald's prose at times sounds like poetry it is so elegant and beautiful. Time and time again I find myself amazed at his unique turns of phrase. No other writer, before or since, had written such beautiful descriptions.

What I am enjoying is reading the short stories. Presently I am halfway through "The Price Was High," a collection of previously uncollected stories. None are great, not a few are disappointing. But all of them are worth reading. Fitzgerald's worst story is better than some people's best story.

It was a pleasant surprise to find out how funny some of his stories are. His novels are practically without humor, so reading "The Offshore Pirate," about a man and his outlaw jazz band taking control of a yacht with a spoiled rich girl aboard was a delight. "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" had an appropriate revenge at the end after poor Bernice has been tricked into bobbing her hair. The Basil and Josephine Stories, semi-autobiographical in nature, have a nice feeling of melancholy. Fitzgerald wrote them about the time Zelda had her first mental breakdown. They have a flavor of wistfullness tinged with sadness. Fitzgerald is thinking about more innocent days, but with a knowledge that the future is not always as sunny and bright as we hope it will be.

The Pat Hobby stories were written in his last years when he was living in Hollywood. He was considered a washed up has-been by then. Fitzgerald wrote his frustration and anger into a series of stories about an old hack writer hanging on in Hollywood long past his prime. Pat Hobby scrambles and begs for work from his former bosses who give him short assignments purely out of pity. The saddest story has Pat stealing another writer's screenplay and retyping it with his own alterations. When he submits it the producer is more thoughtful of how the botched script reflects Pat Hobby's wounded psyche than angry. The funniest is when Pat Hobby, wearing a false beard, is mistaken for Orson Welles. Seeing Welles as his evil doppleganger, the comparison drives Pat to distraction.

Wuthering Heights

Our perception of classic literature and the reality often times are very far apart. I recently read "Wuthering Heights" and was surprised to find out that Heathcliff is not the brooding, romantic hero that he is commonly thought to be. Rather, he is a psychopath and sadist who does everything he can to keep everyone around him miserable. Ostensibly this is because he yearns for his lost love, Catherine. The reality is that he is unhinged from his obsession with her. And with Catherine dead the only outlet for this obsession is to punish everyone around him for being alive.

As "Wuthering Heights" so little resembles its popular representation, I found it to be a fascinating book. Fascinating by just how terrible Heathcliff is. Fascinated by Catherine's multiple pronouncements that she could never marry Heathcliff as much as she enjoys his company. It is Catherine's perception of and relationship with Heathcliff that motivates all the action.

When first seen Catherine is a spoiled child. When Heathcliff is introduced as the adopted gypsy boy, Catherine enjoys toying with him rather than playing with him. Heathcliff, the poor, confused orphan, is out of his depth and completely captivated by Catherine. When, as a teenager, he overhears Catherine declaring she could never love Heathcliff, he runs away.

When Heathcliff reappears he is a grown man. What he has been doing in the interim is only hinted at, but he has come back a cruel and vengeful person.

Another aspect of the novel I found intriguing was the idea of the supernatural. The supernatural, magic powers, the dead returning as spirits, are all mentioned, setting up the idea that many people believe in these things. This has led to, in my opinion, the mistaken idea that Catherine has come back as a ghost and, when Heathcliff thankfully dies, he joins her.

My belief is that Catherine does not return from the dead. Heathcliff, driven mad by his own obsession, begins hallucinating that he sees her until, in his psychotic state, he starves himself to death. The turning point for Heathcliff is the realization that he cannot keep everyone around him sunk in the same misery he wallows in. Catherine's daughter, forced to live in Heathcliff's home, defies him. She falls in love and declares that no matter what he does he will not prevent her happiness. The moment Heathcliff loses the ability to control those around him, he loses control of himself. It is only after he is defied that his hallucinations begin. And, as unlikely as it seems from all that has come before, "Wuthering Heights" has a happy ending.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why is everyone so surprised when it is cold or snows in the winter? People react like it is the first time they have experienced it.

And Awaaaaaaaaaaaaay We Go!

Here I am, late as usual, jumping on the blogosphere band wagon. Maybe a theme will eventually evolve, but for the time being I will be posting stray thoughts and photographs. They will not necessarily be linked.