Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Year In Review - Movies

Favorites are indicated with bold/underline font. Also note, these are all movies I watched for the first time in 2008, and does not include movies I have (1) seen before or (2) have only watched PART of a series (such as Dance to the Music of Time)

  1. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007 – USA)
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea (1993 – Australia)
  3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007 – USA)
  4. Funny Face (1957 – USA)
  5. Jesus Camp (2006 - USA) one of the most blatant depictions of child abuse I have ever witnessed
  6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 - USA) GESSNER!
  7. Eyes Without a Face (1960 - France)
  8. Night and Fog (1955 - France)
  9. Michael Clayton (2007 – USA)
  10. Becoming Jane (2007 – UK)
  11. Battle of Algiers (1966 – Italy)
  12. American Psycho (2000 – USA)
  13. Passion of Joan of Arc (1928 - France)
  14. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004 - USA) The more I think about it, the more I like it
  15. Possession (2002 – USA)
  16. Fight Club (1999 – USA)
  17. Song of Bernadette (1943 – USA)
  18. Freaks (1932 – USA)
  19. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966 - USA) Elizabeth Taylor is AMAZING
  20. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958 – USA)
  21. Solaris (2002 - USA)
  22. Baby Face (1933 – USA)
  23. Sunset Boulevard (1950 – USA)
  24. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968 – USA)
  25. There Will Be Blood (2007 – USA)
  26. This Island Earth (1955 – USA)
  27. V for Vendetta (2005 – USA)
  28. Lost in Translation (2003 - USA) Like Eternal Sunshine... I like it more now than I did when I first watched it.
  29. Out of the Past (1947 – USA)
  30. Sin City (2005 – USA)
  31. In A Lonely Place (1950 – USA)
  32. Judgment Day – Intelligent Design on Trial (2007 – USA)
  33. Manhattan (1979 – USA)
  34. Viridiana (1961 - Spain) Can I possibly tell you how much I disliked this film? How much I dislike ALL Bunuel films I've seen?
  35. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962 – USA)
  36. Rebel without a Cause (1955 - USA)
  37. Sophie’s Choice (1982 – USA)
  38. What’s Up Doc (1972 – USA)
  39. Don’t Look Now (1973 - UK) Even though I knew what was going to happen, it still scared the shit out of me.
  40. Bringing Up Baby (1938 - USA) Hillarious!
  41. Breathless (1960 – France)
  42. Closely Watched Trains (1966 – Czechoslovakia)
  43. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919 - Germany) Absolutely the freakiest, most terrifying movie I have ever seen
  44. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978 – USA)
  45. Nosferatu (1929 - Germany) After The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this was really disappointing.
  46. L’Inferno (1911 – Italy)
  47. Carnival of Souls (1962 – USA)
  48. Dracula (1931 – USA) Did people really think this was scary? Did people really think Bela Legosi was hot in this? I don't get it...
  49. All Things Fair (1995 – Sweden)
  50. 9 ½ Weeks (1986 – USA)
  51. Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935 - USA)
  52. La Dolce Vita (1960 – Italy)
  53. Une Femme est Une Femme (1961 - France)
  54. The Pink Panther (1963 - USA)
  55. To Have and Have Not (1944 - USA)
  56. Night of the Hunter (1955 - USA) The more I see of Mitchum, the more impressed I am of him.
  57. Bigfoot: The Legend of Sasquatch (1977 - USA)
  58. Celebrity (1998 - USA)
  59. Man With the Movie Camera (1929 - USSR)
  60. Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland, aka March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934 - USA)
  61. Duck Soup (1933 - USA)
  62. Noises Off (1992 - USA)
  63. The Ice Harvest (2005 - USA)
  64. The Bishop's Wife (1947 - USA)
  65. Barton Fink (1991 - USA)
  66. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990 - USA) Have I ever told you how much I LOVE Gremlins? Every time the Gremlin Daffy came on the screen, I could not stop laughing.
  67. Burn After Reading

2008 Year in Review - Books

This was a good reading year. Sometimes I get to this point and think, man I read some stinkers! But this year – I had some stellar new discoveries…authors I look forward to coming back to and getting to know better: Cormac McCarthy, John Dos Passos, William Styron, Don Delillo, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Jonathan Lethem in particular. All men! There were stinkers this year as well – I wasn’t exempt. Wings of the Dove, Bonjour Tristesse, and Water for Elephants (which I believe was plagarized) belong in that pile, but the stinker of all stinkers was Eat, Pray, Love. God I hated that book. A fellow-blogger once asked me if I would rather read James’s The Ambassadors or Ulysses (the answer is Ulysses). I think the tougher questions is would I rather read The Ambassadors or Eat, Pray, Love. Now THAT would be a devil of a choice. I have often pondered what kind of hell God might invent for me, you know, if that’s how things work. I think a hell surrounded by people like Elizabeth Gilbert might be one option. But the stinkers have not dominated the landscape this year. If I can discover this many exciting “new” (for me) authors in 2009, I will consider it a success.
  1. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  2. The Sea – John Banville
  3. Emma – Jane Austen
  4. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  5. Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser
  6. The End of Alice – A.M. Homes
  7. Dance to the Music of Time (1st Movement) – Anthony Powell
  8. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  9. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  10. Out of Their Minds – Clifford Simak
  11. Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan
  12. Wings of the Dove – Henry James
  13. Rabbit, Run – John Updike
  14. If This is a Man (aka Survival at Auschwitz) – Primo Levi
  15. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
  16. Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
  17. A Passage to India – E.M. Forster
  18. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Böll
  19. Female Chauvinist Pigs – Ariel Levy
  20. Water for Elephants – Sarah Gruen
  21. The Violent Bear It Away – Flannery O’Connor
  22. Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd
  23. Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
  24. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
  25. Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
  26. Falling Man – Don Delillo
  27. Barabbas – Par Lagerkvist
  28. The Odyssey - Homer
  29. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
  30. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
  31. Dance to the Music of Time (2nd Movement) – Anthony Powell
  32. The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway
  33. The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood
  34. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  35. Loving – Henry Green
  36. Never Let Me Go – Kauzo Ishiguro
  37. The Zookeeper’s Wife – Diane Ackerman
  38. The Story of the Eye – Georges Bataille
  39. A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
  40. Ulysses – James Joyce
  41. The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allen Poe
  42. Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
  43. Main Street – Sinclair Lewis
  44. Sophie’s Choice – William Styron
  45. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination – Elizabeth McCracken
  46. Carmilla – Sheridan LeFanu
  47. House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
  48. Visions of Gerard – Jack Kerouac
  49. Bless Me Ultima – Rudolfo Araya
  50. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
  51. Call of the Wild – Jack London
  52. The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham
  53. 42nd Parallel – John Dos Passos
  54. The Nose - Nikolai Gogol
  55. Candide - Voltaire
  56. Billy Budd - Herman Melville
  57. The Wapshot Chronicle - John Cheever
  58. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino
  59. L'Enfer - Henri Barbusse
  60. Dance to the Music of Time (3rd Movement) – Anthony Powell


L'enfer

Henri Barbusse's 1908 L'enfer (aka Hell or The Inferno) gives us an unnamed narrator living in a boarding house in Paris. He discovers that through a hole in the wall, he can see into the room next door, where he spies on his fellow boarders. There's a lot of pseudo-philosophizing (or, more precisely, sentimental bullshit) about love and death. When I read stuff like this...also the works of Georges Bataille and others...it amazes me - the French capacity for this stuff. It comes out again in some of the French new wave films of the 1960s that I've seen...I'm thinking specifically of Breathless (though certainly not to this extent).

She interrupted him with a gesture of infinite weariness.

"I know what you are going to say. You are going to talk to me about the beauty of suffering. I know your noble ideas. I love them, my love, your beautiful theories, but I do not believe in them. I would believe them if they consoled me and effaced death."

With a manifest effort, as uncertain of himself as she was of herself, feeling his way, he replied:

"They would efface it, perhaps, if you believed in them."

She turned toward him and took one of his hands in both of hers. She questioned him with inexorable patience, then she slipped to her knees before him, like a lifeless body, humbled herself in the dust, wrecked in the depths of despair, and implored him:

"Oh, answer me! I should be so happy if you could answer me. I feel as though
you really could!"

He bent over her, as if on the edge of an abyss of questioning: "Do you know what we are?" he murmured. "Everything we say, everything we think, everything we believe, is fictitious. We know nothing. Nothing is sure or solid."

"You are wrong," she cried. "There is something absolute, our sorrow, our need, our
misery. We can see and touch it. Deny everything else, but our beggary, who can deny that?"

"You are right," he said, "it is the only absolute thing in the world."


There's a lot of that in this book.

I don't really have anything additional to say about this book. It wasn't very exciting, the writing was fairly mediocre, the story didn't grab me. Overall: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Monday, December 29, 2008

If On A Winter's Night a Traveler

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch you legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.

Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best."


Ah...


I immediately recognized that If On A Winter's Night a Traveler is a book best read alone, in a room with the door shut. Perhaps it would best be read alone in a cabin with a fire, snow outside. But I don't have a cabin with a fireplace, so my bedroom will have to do. I usually read over my lunch at work, and once I pulled out Calvino's book and thought better of it. It's better suited for a quiet evening where there will be no interuptions. After a while I even stopped carrying it around - there was no reason to do so, as I knew I wouldn't pick it up while stopped for a train, or waiting for the dentist or whatever. It's one of those books that requires a particular reading experience...a particular setting, and without that setting there really is no point in reading it.

That opening is so powerful, so wonderfully written. It reminds me of the opening of Delillo’s Falling Man which was also amazing… “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” I still think about those opening lines.

Calvino doesn’t tell one story in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: he tells eleven. It’s the story of “The Reader,” addressed in the second person. He (it becomes clear later on that "The Reader" is either a man or a lesbian, with evidence pointing towards the former) starts to read Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” but after a few pages discovers that the rest of the book is missing. The Reader goes back to the bookstore to return the novel, but all the copies are like that. They got mixed up with another book, “Outside the town of Malbork” by Tazio Bazakbal, at the printers. So, “you”, the reader, buy that one, thinking it might continue the Calvino novel. It turns out it’s an entirely different book. So begins the quest to find a complete novel…all the books keep getting interrupted. By about half-way through, I did start to get disoriented…I got lost trying to remember what fragment of a book I was in, and how the reader, and therefore I suppose I, came into possession of it, and how it related to the other fragmentary stories. But no matter, really. Should it be any wonder that it’s disorienting? It’s eleven stories in one.

What makes this book is the writing. It’s FABULOUS. There are so many passages…beautiful passages that I underlined about the nature of reading. “One reads alone, even in another’s presence.” “I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read…but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware?...Every time I seek to relive the emotion of a previous reading, I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before.”

I’ve been wanting to read this novel for so long…years I think. And while it was a little different than I really expected, the writing did not disappoint. Like with many other books, such as Sophie’s Choice, I wish it wouldn’t have taken me so long to read…it would be much more powerful (and easier to understand) to read it in a short amount of time. But something has come up again that’s interrupting my reading...not that I’m complaining, but I’m trying to muscle through, though it makes it difficult. I am anxious to read more from Calvino. And why are you still reading this post? Why haven’t you, Reader, gone and picked up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler? Do yourself a favor for the new year and read the book!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Wapshot Chronicle

I came to this book without any expectations. As much as it shows ignorance, I had never heard of this book or its author (John Cheevers) before the Modern Library list.

From the outset, the book was mildly humorous and quirky. It’s the story of the Wapshot family: Leander and Sarah, their two sons Coverly and Moses, and the aunt with the purse strings, Honora. It’s mildly humous and quirky, however, until the second part, when I encountered this: “Writer’s epistolary style (Leander wrote) formed in tradition of Lord Timothy Dexter, who put all punctuation marks, prepositions, adverts, articles, etc., at the end of communication and urged reader to distribute same as he saw fit. West Farm. Autumn day. 3 p.m. Nice sailing breeze from NW quarter. Golden light. Glittering riffle on water. Hornets on ceiling. An old house. Roofs of St. Botolphs in the distance. Old river-bottom burg today. Family prominent there once. Name memorialized in many things in vicinity; lakes, roads, hills even. Wapshot Avenue now back street in honkytonk beach resort further south. Smell of hot dogs, popcorn, also salt air and grinding music from old merry-go-round calliope. Matchwood cottages for rent by day, week or season…” Fortunately, that doesn’t last for the rest of the book.

More than anything, it’s the story of three emasculated men. First, Honora accidently sees Moses having some fun with a female house guest while she’s hiding in a closet. Don’t ask. Then she turns into the mean old aunt with the money. She tells Leander that the boys need to get out on their own and she puts Leander’s boat (which she owns) up for sale. Honora actually owns pretty much all of the Wapshot stuff, including their farm. The sale of the boat falls through, but Leander wrecks it, and his wife turns it into a gift shop. Both of the boys eventually get married, but of course they both have issues with their wives, which leaves them further emasculated. Leander pretends to shoot himself; Leander sends fake letters to his sons saying that he’s dying. Coverly’s dumb wife leaves him (briefly), and Moses’s wife is (for a time) under the thumb of rich old Justina, who gives the couple two twin beds for their wedding present. And then we “come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale.” Yes, Cheever actually wrote that. In the end, Coverly’s wife comes back, Justina’s house burns down, and Leander dies.

When you come to a book without expectations, it's hard to be disappointed. And I was not disappointed by The Wapshot Chronicle. But I wasn't wowed and/or awed either. Funny, but not too funny. A little strange, but maybe not strange enough. All in all, not bad...not great, but not bad.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Billy Budd

Oh, Billy Budd. What to say about you?

A few years ago, I read Moby Dick and LOVED it. There are so many levels to it, it’s so rich, so perfectly written. Definitely one of the top three American novels of the 19th century, and definitely one of the top ten American novels ever.

Then…I think it was earlier this year…I read "Bartleby the Scrivener." WTF is that all about? "I'd perfer not." Melville is clearly a very talented writer, but, what? You lost me there, Herman.
And now Billy Budd. I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know that I have anything to say. It’s Billy Budd – he’s a 21 year old popular strapping sailor who is drafted (essentially) into the British Navy in 1797. Claggart, the ship’s Master-at-Arms has it out for him, and eventually turns him into the Captain for trying to start a mutiny. When Billy Budd is told of the charges, he hits Claggart so hard he kills him. Billy is tried, convicted, and hung. There’s a lot of pontificating and waxing poetic in between.

I know, I know…Abraham and Isaac, Jesus metaphors, etc. The Publishing Triangle put it at #13 on their list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels. But it’s not really a gay novel, is it? There are sort-of gay overtones, or undertones, to the story. Claggart’s hatred of Billy Budd clearly springs from some kind of attraction or jealousy towards Budd. But really. That list is crazy anyway…To Kill A Mockingbird, Death Comes for the Archbishop AND Little Women are on there.

I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. It was certainly well written, I just wasn't pulled into the story. Oh Herman, where did our relationship go wrong? But I'm willing to work on it. I am committed to my relationship with Melville. In the future: Typee, Pierre, Confidence Man, and probably others. Hopefully, these issues with the intimate relationship between writer and reader will resolve themsevles.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Candide

I’m embarrassed that I’m only now reading Candide. Especially considering that I spent 1998-2000 completely engrossed by Enlightenment thinkers – specifically the Deists, of whom Voltaire was one. I spent my freshman year of college reading the collected religious writings of Thomas Paine, and books such as Deism in 18th Century America and Religion During the American Enlightenment. You know, normal pursuits for an 18 year old. I remember at one point in there picking up Candide, and maybe reading the first page and then putting it down. I don’t know what my problem was.

So, finally, after 10 years, I came around to Candide. And damn – this book is hilarious! For those of you who don’t know, Candide is a boy who grows up in a Westphalian castle. One day, the Baron catches him kissing his daughter and sends him away, thus starting the chain of adventures that follows. Candide’s teacher, Dr. Pangloss, espouses Leibnizian optimism, stating that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But Candide quickly realizes “if this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” Explaining Pangloss’s theory later, Candide says, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.” The point of the book is to satirize this idea. Shortly after its publication it was banned for blasphemy and political sedition and it was added to the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books in 1762. Regardless it was a HUGE bestseller at the time. Voltaire didn’t admit to writing it until almost a decade later…though everyone suspected it was him. In 1929, the book was barred from entering the U.S. by a Boston customs official because it was obscene. [This is a great quote.] “For years we’ve been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it.” Ah, Mrs. Winterson (Jeanette’s mother) would have known better! What is it she always said – the trouble with books is that you don’t know what’s in them until it’s too late?

Beyond the basic plot and the humorousness of it all, there is a serious side to it as well. The central issue of the novel is the problem of evil – how can an omnipotent and benevolent God allow suffering? This issue came up for Voltaire in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake and the subsequent fire and tsunamis that completely devastated the city in 1755. Prior to that, both Leibniz and Voltaire’s friend Alexander Pope had proclaimed the optimistic doctrine. Voltaire composed a poem entitled “On the Disaster at Lisbon or an Examination of the Axiom ‘All is well’” to directly address the optimist claims in light of the earthquake:

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

When earth its
horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"Tis pride," ye say— "the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house, of grief,
Whether ‘tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All’s well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?

… But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favors on the sons he loves
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!

…‘Tis mockery to tell me all is well.

Voltaire expanded upon this theme in Candide. In Pangloss (the meaning of his name, “all tongues” is obviously getting at him being “all talk”), Voltaire created this ridiculous spokesman for the optimist, who always responds that all is for the best, regardless of what suffering he is confronted with…even his own. As the book goes on, the sufferings become more and more intense, and it seeks to illustrate that in the midst of such terrible circumstances that the characters encounter, it is really absurd to believe that this is the best of all worlds. But Pangloss never waivers. “I am still of my first opinion…for I am a philosopher and cannot retract, especially as Leibniz could never be wrong.” Later, “Pangloss owned that he had always suffered horribly, but as he had once asserted that everything went wonderfully well, he asserted it still, though he no longer believed it.”

Candide, on the other hand, is more wishy-washy about the subject. When things are going well, he asserts this must be the best of all possible worlds; when things are going badly for him, he asserts the opposite. In the end, Candide is married to Cunegonde (though he admits he was never really interested in doing so) and is living on a farm with Pangloss, Martin, Cacambo, and the old woman (are we ever told her name? If we are, I completely forget what it is!) and they are bored and unhappy:

‘"I want to know which is worse, to be ravished a hundred times by negro pirates, to have a buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in the galleys—in short, to go through all the miseries we have undergone, or to stay here and have nothing to do?"

"It is a great question," said Candide.’

So, they go to see a Dervish and ask him what he thinks about things.

"Master," said he, "we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made."

"With what meddlest thou?" said the Dervish; "is it thy business?"

"But, reverend father," said Candide, "there is horrible evil in this world."

"What signifies it," said the Dervish, "whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?"

"What, then, must we do?" said Pangloss.

"Hold your tongue," answered the Dervish.

"I was in hopes," said Pangloss, "that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony."

At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.
It is eventually decided by all that they work without arguing with each other – it’s the only way to be content. But Pangloss, being old and set in his ways, keeps trying to explain to Candide why this really is the best of all possible worlds: "There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts." But Candide has finally come to the conclusion that it’s best just to work in the garden, not waste time on discussions about the garden’s design.

The question remains as to whether Voltaire slightly misrepresented the optimist viewpoint. To see that this really is the best possible world, they claim, you must be able to look at events in their totality – as in from an omniscient or divine point of view. One of the central concepts of optimism is that human understanding is too limited to see the reasoning behind human suffering, and it cannot be applied to individual circumstances. That is why Candide continually oscillates – because when good things happen to him, he thinks, yes – all really is for the best; when bad things happen, he thinks, how could this world possibly be the best there is, or as I already quoted him above, if this is the best of all worlds, I’d hate to see what the others look like. Voltaire may be suggesting that optimism isn’t necessarily false, just irrelevant. Until we can see from the omniscient point of view, asserting (like Pangloss) that this is the best of all possible worlds won’t really help us in the midst of tragedy. Kind of like the lame comfort, “it happened for a reason.” Unless you know the reason why bad things happen to you, the fact that there is a reason beyond your understanding isn’t really comforting.

Some have theorized that Candide can be seen as a sequel to the Adam and Eve story. In the beginning, Candide is cast out of the “terrestrial paradise” and begins to wander aimlessly. The Garden of Eden, of course, really was the best of all possible worlds (or at least that’s how it is set up to be…) and Pangloss plays the serpent, whose dalliance with Paquette gave Cunegonde and Candide the idea to try their hand at it, which is what ends up getting Candide expelled from the Castle. The theme of the Garden of Eden is revisited at the conclusion to Candide as well. It’s a totally plausible theory, in my humble opinion, and one that made me completely rethink the novel.

Popular legend has it that Candide was written in three days (though of course it really took much longer); it didn’t take me half as long to read it. It’s short and moves along quickly. I found it hard to put down…wondering what quip Voltaire was going to put in there next. Such as:

“After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

"In consequence hereof, they had seized on a Biscayner, convicted of having married his godmother, and on two Portuguese, for rejecting the bacon which larded a chicken they were eating; after dinner, they came and secured Dr. Pangloss, and his disciple Candide, the one for speaking his mind, the other for having listened with an air of approbation…They marched in procession thus habited and heard a very pathetic sermon, followed by fine church music. Candide was whipped in cadence while they were singing; the Biscayner, and the two men who had refused to eat bacon, were burnt; and Pangloss was hanged, though that was not the custom.”

This novella’s most obvious comparison is Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels, but I found Candide much more enjoyable. I had problems with Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because it is so interlaced with 18th century English politics that I just didn’t get it (though I did like when he wee'd on the castle). Candide’s satire is aimed at much more obvious targets…or at least targets I am more informed about than English politics. It also reminded me of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, which I sort of read for a German cultures class in college.

I definitely enjoyed Candide, but I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get to it. I know I would have thought it was awesome when I was 18, and I'm sure I would have tortured my roommate even more than I already did by reading it out loud. Oh well, better late than never.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

42nd Parallel

First, as an introduction to Dos Passos, who – if you are anything like I was until recently (and only because of my book list obsession) – you have never heard of, some quotes:

“[He’s] the greatest living writer of our time.” -Jean Paul Sartre, 1938

“Dos Passos came nearer than any of us to writing the Great American Novel, and it’s entirely possible he succeeded. I can only say, from my own point of view, that no novel I read while in college stimulated me more, astounded me more and showed me what a thrilling inner life was there for anyone gifted enough to be a major American novelist.” – Norman Mailer on Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy

Dos Passos created a “whole new school of writing.” - Sinclair Lewis, on Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer

One of the greatest pleasures of being a reader is not only discovering a hidden gem in a book, but finding a hidden gem in a new author…especially one that made you leery at first. I was not overly excited about John Dos Passos or his U.S.A. Trilogy. Even though basic research would/should have made me anticipate it with joy. A forgotten member of the Lost Generation? Contemporary and friend (sort of ) of Fitzgerald and Hemingway? This should have tipped me off. but instead, I was apprehensive about my ability to like Dos Passos. Somewhere along the line, he had become lumped in with Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. Not that I don’t sometimes enjoy Lewis and Dreiser (Main Street was one of my favorite books I read this year). They can just be a little daunting sometimes.

And then, lo and behold, I very quickly learned that I was oh so wrong in my apprehension. 42nd Parallel, the first volume of the trilogy, turned out to be FABULOUS!

42nd Parallel, published in 1930, tells the story of five characters: Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward, and Charley, following them from all childhood until the beginning of America’s direct involvement in WWI. They’re all from different backgrounds, different places. Eventually they converge and begin to play parts in each others lives. They’re all trying to figure out where they fit in – where they fit in society, in the country, the new century, the political world - what their role could or should be. But it’s not a character study – Dos Passos isn’t trying to be Henry James and describe every minute detail…every motivation. It just goes – it moves…somewhere I saw Dos Passos’s writing described as “rapid-transit pace,” and that is an apt description.

Dos Passos calls his style "contemporary chronicle." The novel isn’t just these characters, and it’s not traditional narrative. The story of each is told intermittently from that characters point-of-view (but in the third person). This is interspersed with news headlines, song lyrics, biographies of famous or important people of the time, and what Dos Passos calls the “camera eye,” which I will post about later. And when I say biographies, I don’t mean, “so-and-so was born at this place, on this date, and here’s what he did.” Here’s two examples:

(From "The Electrical Wizard")

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in eighteen fortyseven;
Milan was a little town on the Huron River that for a while was the wheatshipping port for the whole Western Reserve; the railroads took away the carrying trade, the Edison family went up to Port Huron in Michigan to grow up with the country;
his father was a shinglemaker who puttered round with various small speculations; he dealt in grain and feed and lumber and built a wooden tower a hundred feet high; tourists and excursionists paid a quarter each to go up the tower and look at the view over Lake Huron and the St. Clair River and Sam Edison became a solid and respected citizen of Port Huron.

Thomas Edison only went to school for three months because the teacher thought he wasn't right bright. His mother taught him what she knew at home and read eighteenth century writers with him, Gibbon and Hume and Newton, and let him rig up a laboratory in the cellar.

Whenever he read about anything he went down cellar and tried it out.
When he was twelve he needed money to buy books and chemicals; he got a concession as a newsbutcher on the daily train from Detroit to Port Huron. In Detroit there as a public library and he read it...

He worked all day and all night tinkering with cogwheels and bits of copperwire and chemicals in bottles, whenever he thought of a device he tried it out. He made things work. He wasn't a mathematician. I can hire mathematicians but mathematicians can't hire me, he said.
In eighteen seventysix he moved to Menlo Park where he invented the carbon transmitter and made the telephone a commercial proposition, that made the microphone possible
he worked all day and all night and produced
the phonograph
the incandescent electric lamp

and systems of generation, distribution, regulation and measurement of electric current, sockets, switches, insulators, manholes. Edison worked out the first systems of electric light using a direct current and small unit lamps and the multiple arc that were installed in London Paris New York and Sunbury Pa., [YEAH SUNBURY!]
the threewire system
the magnetic ore separator,
an electric railway.


(I just had to make sure I included the part about Sunbury! It's friggin' awesome when you come from a small town without any nationally known import and then you come across it in a book of such importance.)

and from "Proteus"

In eighteen ninetytwo when Eichemeyer sold out the corporation that was to form General Electric, Steinmetz was entered in the contract along with other valuable apparatus. All his life Steinmetz was a piece of apparatus belonging to General Electric...
General Electric humored him, let him be a socialist, let him keep a greenhouseul of cactuses lit up by mercury lights, let him have alligators, talking crows and a gila monster for pets and the publicity department talked up the wizard, the medicine man who knew the symbols that opened all the doors of Ali Baba's cave...
Steinmetz was a famous magician and he talked to Edison tapping with the Morse code on Edison's knee
because Edison was so very deaf
and he went out West
to make speeches that nobody understood
and he talked to Bryan about God on a railroad train
and all the reporters stood round while he and Einstein
met face to face;
and but they couldn't catch what they said.

And Steinmetz was the most valuable piece of apparatus General Electric had
Until he wore out and died.

His narrative has a similar pace and rhythm as the biographies.

42nd Parallel is experimental and modern. You can see the coming generation of writers, and I was struck by the similartiy of cadence in Dos Passos as in Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I don't know if Ginsberg read or was influenced by Dos Passos, but I can't imagine he wasn't. I know Kerouac was. He quotes U.S.A. Trilogy in his letters, and was reading Dos Passos (aloong with Dreiser, Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis) during the time he was outlining Dr. Sax. What I don’t understand is why, apart from my book lists, have I not heard of Dos Passos? Why isn’t he mentioned in school, in literary resources, along with Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Hemingway? Where did his reputation sour such that, while he was just as popular and important in the early 20th century as those others were, somehow he is now pretty much forgotten?

On average, I finish almost one book per week. Over the last 10 years, that means almost 500 books. Probably more than half of those are just ok. So far this year, I’ve read 53 books and looking at my list, less than 15 really stand out. So, to find a new author that really excites me…that’s what reading is all about. Jeanette Winterson, in one of her essays, says, “knowing that there are favorite books still to come is a continuing happiness.” That’s why I bother with book lists…for an increased chance to find those great authors. The chance that I would have picked up Dos Passos without his appearance on The Lists is probably relatively small. But I loved 42nd Parallel…I’m so glad I found it. I cannot wait to read the next two books in the trilogy, and his other work. A+ for this leading contender for the Great American Novel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Painted Veil

In 2007, I saw the movie The Painted Veil, based on the novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. I also read Of Human Bondage, which is Maugham’s most famous book. I LOVED both of them. Then I read The Painted Veil, which was nothing like Of Human Bondage, and was very different from the movie.

I say different from the film, but it isn’t really. The plot is still mostly the same. Kitty is a twit. She’s a twit who lives in England, and likes to have a good time. But then along comes Walter Fane. She doesn’t like Walter – he bores her tremendously. But when he proposes, she accepts, mostly because she has already passed on a lot of better prospects. So, they get married and move to Hong Kong, where Walter is a bacteriologist. It doesn’t take Kitty long to find a boyfriend there – Charles Townsend. When Walter finds out, he gives Kitty a choice: accompany him to a cholera epidemic or get Charles to divorce his wife and marry her. Walter knows Charles is a cad and would never divorce his wife. So, Kitty has to go to the epidemic. While there, Kitty comes to see herself in a different light, mostly through her work at an orphanage with nuns. She realizes what a twit she is.

And this is where the book and the movie diverge. The movie is a sweeping love story: in the midst of the epidemic, Kitty finally falls in love with Walter. Kitty learns she is pregnant…it’s probably not Walter’s, but it doesn’t matter anymore. When he finally gets sick with cholera, she is there to help him, but he dies. A few years later, we see Kitty in England, where she runs into Charles. She has her little boy with her, whom she has named Charles. He hints at picking up their affair again, but she declines.

The book is very different on these points. She does learn that she is pregnant, and it’s still probably not Walter’s, but it does matter. Maugham makes it clear that it would have been easy to lie to Walter and say “of course it’s yours.” But she can’t do that anymore. In Maugham’s version, Kitty never comes to love Walter. Their hatred of each other does cool slightly, and Kitty comes to respect Walter, but she never loves him. Walter dies in the novel also, but Kitty isn’t there. She’s only told he’s been sick when he’s moments from dying, and though she begs him to forgive her for what she did, he only mutters gibberish about a dog. She returns to Hong Kong, where Charles Townsend and wife graciously offer to house and take care of her. How sweet. Mrs. Townsend has no idea her husband and Kitty had anything going, of course. Eventually, Charles gets Kitty alone, and she yields again to his advances. She feels so despicable at herself afterwards that she leaves in a few days to return to England. When she gets there she learns that her father (her mother has just died) is going to the Caribbean and she convinces him to take her along. She is determined to raise her child (she assumes it’s a girl) so that she doesn’t become a twit like Kitty was.

In the end of both, Kitty is a changed person, though how and why she changed is different. In the film, Kitty is changed mostly through Walter, through his forgiveness and love. You know – Titanic in China or something like that. In the book, Kitty is changed on her own – by her work in the orphanage and by realizing how stupid she was to fall for Townsend. She changes by seeing how utterly useless she has been in her life. I’m not sure which one I prefer.

As I mentioned before, this book was very different from Of Human Bondage, which was really long and very good. Not that The Painted Veil wasn’t good. It felt very modern…I think one could easily be convinced it was written by someone in 2008 – that it was a new book – rather than one that was written in 1925. Not that Of Human Bondage (published in 1915) felt dated – it’s just not a book stylistically or topically that I could be convinced had been written recently.

Overall, I’m still not sure how much I liked The Painted Veil. I definitely liked Of Human Bondage more, and I wasn’t as moved by the book as I was by the movie. It was a fair book of its own right, but comparatively I didn’t particularly care for it.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Music of 42nd Parallel

Just finishing up Volume 1 of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy: 42nd Parallel. Throughout the novel, there are two different interuptions in the story: Newsreels and Camera Eyes. In a future post I'll deal with the Camera Eye sections. The Newsreels are populated with actual newspaper headlines and stories along with lyrics from popular songs. Here are the songs from 42nd Parellel:
  • Newsreel I - "There's Many a Man Been Murdered in Luzon"
  • Newsreel II - "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
  • Newsreel III - "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away"
  • Newsreel IV - "My Alamo Love" (from The Tenderfoot)
  • Newsreel VI - “Moonlight Bay” written by Edward Madden & Percy Wenrich (who I am related to)
  • Newsreel VII - "Cheyenne," 1906, written by Harry Williams & Egbert Van Alstyne
  • Newsreel VIII - "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie"
  • Newsreel X - "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," 1911, written by Seymour Brown & Nat D. Ayer
  • Newsreel XI - “I’m Going to Maxim’s” (From Frank Lehár’s The Merry Widow)
  • Newsreel XII - “On the Banks of the Saskatchewan” written by C.M.S. McLellan & Ivan Caryll from The Pink Lady
  • Newsreel XIII - "I've Got Rings On My Fingers," 1909, written by Weston and Barnes & Maurice Scott; and "La Cucaracha"
  • Newsreel XIV - "Waiting For The Robert E. Lee," 1912
  • Newsreel XV - "There's A Girl in the Heart of Maryland," 1913, written by MacDonald & Carroll
  • Newsreel XVI - I couldn't find the song(s) mentioned in this newsreel. The lyrics are "I want to go to Mexico/Under the stars and stripes to fight the foe” and "And the ladies of the haren/Knew exactly how to wear ‘em/In oriental Bagdhad long ago.” This might be two songs, or it might be one.
  • Newsreel XVII - "The Curse of an Aching Heart"
  • Newsreel XVIII - "Its A Long Long Way To Tipperary," 1912, written by Jack Judge & Harry Williams
  • Newsreel XIX - "Over There," 1917, written by George M. Cohan

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Call of the Wild

I’ll be honest: I have never been interested in the writings of Jack London. It’s probably because I have always viewed him as a boys writer. A boys writer of dog stories. And I don't like dogs. I know that’s unfair to London, as he did not exclusively write dog stories. But we all have our misconceptions about certain authors.

Anyhoo, Call of the Wild – it’s about a dog in the Klondike. And pretty much reinforces my thoughts about Jack London…and doesn’t leave with the desire to seek out more of his work. I don’t say that because I thought the story was bad, or because I thought the writing was bad. But it’s essentially an adventure story that is most suited to pre-teen boys.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death in Venice

Death in Venice starts out slow. I was thinking – oh, it’s one of those art books. Nothing against art books, but I really wasn’t looking forward to spending 70 or so pages on aesthetics. Aschenbach is wandering around a cemetery and sees this guy in a straw hat and that makes him decide to take a trip to Venice. Whatever dude. But it is at his Venice hotel that he comes across Tadzio…a young Polish boy of 14 with whom he is instantly smitten. At first Aschenbach, a mid-50s-ish writer of some fame, tries to explain to himself that the attraction is merely because he is an artist, and the boy is beautiful. It’s obvious, however, that the attraction is more than to the boy’s aesthetics, though. Especially when he sits all day at the beach watching Tadzio play with the other kids and following him and his sisters through the streets of Venice. Aschenbach learns of that there is a cholera epidemic, the news of which is being suppressed by the police and the press, and decides to stay on in the city anyway in order to be near Tadzio.

The narrative captures that feeling of hypersensitivity at the beginning of attraction. When the boy enters the room, there’s the immediate electrical shock that runs through your body. There is the constant sensing of where the object is in relation to yourself, and even if you are not looking at them, you feel them there. Only issue is, of course, that this is about the attraction of a man in his 50s to a teenage boy.

Though they never speak to each other or have any contact, Aschenbach feels that Tadzio sanctions (I suppose is the word) the attraction. He knows he is being followed…he looks back and sees Aschenbach all the time. But Aschenbach sees Tadzio smile at him in those moments…which of course the older man interprets as if there were a secret between the two of them…that Tadzio is in on it to some extent.

"It was with a thrill of joy the older man perceived that the lad was not entirely unresponsive to all the tender notice lavished on him. For instance, what should move the lovely youth, nowadays when he descended to the beach, always to avoid the board walk behind the bathing-huts and saunter along the sand, passing Aschenbach's tent in front, sometimes so unnecessarily close as almost to grave his table or chair? Could the power of an emotion so beyond his own so draw, so fascinate its innocent object? Daily Aschenbach would wait for Tadzio. Then sometimes on his approach, he would pretend to be preoccupied and let the charmer pass unregarded by. But sometimes he looked up, and their glances met; when that happened both were profoundly serious. The elder's dignified and cultured mien let nothing appear of his inward state; but in Tadzio's eyes a question lay - he faltered in his step, gazed on the ground, then up again with that ineffably sweet look he had; and when he was past, something in his bearing seemed to say that only good breeding hindered him from turning round."

and...

"Tadzio walked behind the others, he let them pass ahead in the narrow alleys, and as he sauntered slowly after, he would turn his head and assure himself with a glance of his strange, twilit grey eyes that his lover was still following. He saw him--and he did not betray him. The knowledge enraptured Aschenbach. Lured by those eyes, led on the leading-string of his own passion and folly, utterly lovesick, he stole upon the footsteps of his unseemly hope--and at the end found himself cheated."

The whole thing gave me the creepy feeling that Lolita gives me…it’s beautifully written, and you want to fall into the love story, but there is something very not right about it.

In the end, Aschenbach isn’t feeling well…obviously he has caught the cholera. He notices that bags are packed, and is told by the hotel staff that Tadzio’s family is leaving that day. Aschenbach goes out to the beach to watch him again. He believes that Tadzio is beckoning to him, inviting him outward into “the promising immensity of it all.” And then suddenly, Aschenbach dies.

Death in Venice has been voted by the folks at Triangle Publishing as THE greatest gay novel, beating out such heavy hitters as Baldwin, Proust, Genet, Woolf, Wilde, and Stein just to name a few others on the list. In the past, there has been a movement to ignore the gayness of the book, but in recent years that has changed, especially as certain biographical details about Thomas Mann and the inspiration for the novel have come to light. In Mann’s letters and diaries, it has become clear that he struggled with his own sexuality, and the story about an older man in Venice lusting after a young boy actually happened…Mann, his wife and his brother were staying in Venice in 1911 (the year before the novella was published) at the same hotel Aschenbach stayed at. It was there that Mann, age 36, became infatuated with Władysław Moes, an 11 year old Pole. I don’t know if he followed him around town, but he was definitely very attracted to the boy.

But Death in Venice – like most good literature – isn’t just about one thing. To see it purely as a gay novel, or as a “paradigmatic mast-text of homosexual eroticism” as author/critic Gilbert Adair called it, is to miss something greater in it…liked, as this salon.com articles says, seeing The Old Man and the Sea as just a novel about fishing.

I tried to find out whether there was controversy over this novella, but didn’t find any information to suggest that there was. Comparing this to Lolita, published 40 years or so later, I’m surprised there wasn’t outrage. But sometimes I think that we look back at the past with our puritanical American glasses and expect there to be outrage when there wasn’t.

This was my first encounter with Thomas Mann, though I’ve been meaning to read The Magic Mountain for years. I am very interested in author’s biographies, and Mann seems exceptionally interesting. He was known as a cold, calculating, self-absorbed man. He married his wife for her social status and is described as “oblivious” to his own children…two of them eventually committed suicide. Sounds like an crazy character, but one I’m glad I don’t know personally.

All in all, Death in Venice isn’t a bad little book. I don’t know that I would have felt that way if it had been longer. I wouldn’t say that I’m really looking forward to reading more of Mann’s works, but I’m dreading it either…I guess the jury’s still out.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

House of Mirth

I don’t really know what to say about House of Mirth. I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t dislike it either. The plot was good, the writing was good (not at all “Henry Jamesey” - see below), but I guess I’m not just into “manners novels” right now.

House of Mirth is the story of Lily Bart’s fall. She starts from pretty much the top, and ends up on the bottom. Lily Bart is 29 and unmarried. In 1905, that was a big deal. She grew up in a New York society family in which her mother and she had everything they wanted, and her father worked like a dog “down town” (I assume Wall Street) to get it.

“Lily could not recall the time when there had been money enough, and in some vague way her father seemed always to blame for the deficiency. It could certainly not be the fault of Mrs. Bart… she had been brought up in the faith that, whatever it cost, one must have a good cook, and be what Mrs. Bart called ‘decently dressed.’ Mrs. Bart's worst reproach to her husband was to ask him if he expected her to ‘live like a pig’; and his replying in the negative was always regarded as a justification for cabling to Paris for an extra dress or two, and telephoning to the jeweller that he might, after all, send home the turquoise bracelet which Mrs. Bart had looked at that morning…Lily knew people who ‘lived like pigs’…The disgusting part of it was that many of these cousins were rich, so that Lily imbibed the idea that if people lived like pigs it was from choice, and through the lack of any proper standard of conduct. This gave her a sense of reflected superiority, and she did not need Mrs. Bart's comments on the family frumps and misers to foster her naturally lively taste for splendour.

You can totally see the set-up for this story in Lily’s beginnings. Lily was brought up watching this family interplay, in which whatever her mother wanted, she got, at the expense of her husband. Her father refused her and her mother nothing. That is, until when Lily was 19 and her father lost most of their money. Shortly thereafter Mr. Bart died. After his death, Lily and her mother went from place to place – staying for extended periods of time with relatives, and then in “cheap, continental refuges.” Her mother kept away from society and her friends because, “To be poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace.”

Their last asset was Lily’s beauty. Her mother instilled in her the need to use her looks to marry for money, and that love-matches would be of no use. Lily, however, really didn’t care about marrying for money…she dreamed instead to marry an English nobleman or an Italian prince. And then her mother died and her aunt Mrs. Peniston took her in. Though Mrs. Peniston gave her money, Lily realized that she needed more than she had…she didn’t have enough money to pay her dress-makers’ bills and her gambling debts. And most of that need came from having to keep up with her friends…“keeping up with the Joneses” (see below). So, Lily saw what she needed to do: find a man with money.

Now, Lily isn’t stupid, she’s not a dingbat. She’s charming, intelligent, and knows what’s up. Today, she would probably have had some plush job and made her money herself. But in 1905, women couldn’t get jobs without admitting that they needed money, and to do so was shameful in Lily’s society. There also weren’t any plush jobs for women. If a woman in high-society wanted money, and it wasn’t inherited, she had to marry it.

First, she goes after Percy Gryce, a rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much of a clue. Then, Bertha Dorset, who is mad at Lily for spending time with her former-love-on-the-side, Seldon, tells goody-goody Percy about Lily’s gambling problem. He runs for the hills. With that prospect destroyed, Lily does what women of her position really shouldn’t do: she asks Gus Trenor, a rich married man, to help her out financially. He is more than willing to help out a woman as beautiful as she is. Of course, this is the beginning of her downfall. Gus starts to want to take advantage of the situation…he wants his thanks. Other people start to get wind of what’s going on. Seldon sees Lily leave the Trenor’s really late at night when everyone knows his wife wasn’t in town. Lily has no choice but to repay Trenor. But she doesn’t have the money. She approaches her aunt, who thinks the whole thing is a scandal. Then this snively weasel Simon Rosedale proposes to her…he knows about the situation with Trenor. Rosedale has money, but he’s an up-and-comer and has no social grace. She almost has to accept.

And then her “friend” Bertha Dorset invites her on a cruise with herself, her husband, and this other guy Ned. Lily accepts. The problem is that Bertha only invited Lily to occupy Mr. Dorset while Bertha and Ned go off and dilly-dally by themselves. Thanks in part to Bertha’s scheming, Lily comes out of the whole thing with a tarnished reputation, as people think she was dilly-dallying herself with Mr. Dorset.

She comes back to find that her aunt has died, and instead of leaving her a large sum of money, she only gets enough to cover her debt with Trenor. She decides to take Rosedale up on his proposal. But guess what – now he’s not interested…he knows he can do better than Lily. Bertha is running around spreading gossip about Lily, and now most of her former friends want nothing to do with her. Lily gets a job with a disreputable woman, but resigns to save her dignity. She gets a job in a millinery but gets fired. In the end, her inheritance comes through, she writes out the check to Trenor, and dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Lily, all the while, had the means to disgrace Bertha, but doesn’t. While Lily was living with aunt, before everything really went horribly wrong, Lily is approached by a maid has a collection of correspondence between Seldon and Bertha which Lily buys. She is encouraged by Rosedale to use it to her advantage, but she won’t. Lily is in love with Seldon, and Seldon is in love with her, but Lily doesn’t entertain the thought of ever marrying Seldon because he couldn’t provide her with the money she requires to maintain her position. Shortly before her death, she goes to Seldon. He used to believe in her, and she tells him that his belief in her was all that was keeping her going. She burns the letters in his fireplace…he never knew she had them. That evening after Lily leaves, Seldon has a change of heart and finally decides to propose to Lily. He arrives at her apartment to find her dead.

The end of House of Mirth is ambiguous. Did Lily kill herself or die of an accidental overdose? A letter recently discovered blatantly shows that Wharton wanted – at least when the letter was written – to kill herself. The letter, from Wharton to a doctor who was treating her husband, dated December 26, 1904, a month before HoM began its serialized run in Scribner’s magazine, says, “A friend of mine has made up her mind to commit suicide, & has asked me to find out…the most painless & least unpleasant method of effacing herself…I have heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her…What soporific, or nerve-calming drug, would a nervous and worried young lady in the smart set be likely to take to, & what would be its effects if deliberately taken with the intent to kill herself? I mean, how would she feel and look toward the end?” Wharton biographer, Hermione Lee thinks that Wharton might have changed her mind about having Lily bump herself off. It is probable that Wharton first intended to have her kill herself, but that by the time she came to writing the ending, she changed her mind. Another Wharton biographer, Louis Auchincloss states in response to the letter, “I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s perfectly clear what happens. Lily doesn’t mean to kill herself but risks death in a desparate bid for rest. Edith Wharton wrote to [the doctor] because she needed to find a drug that wouldn’t disfigure Lily’s beautiful body. She didn’t want that dreadful Mme Bovary thing, with the arsenic. I mean, how can you have Lily Bart die a messy death?”

The ambiguity of it is the power of the ending. There could be no other way for the book to end. The tragedy of the accidental overdose that is not present in a suicide is that Lily’s great flaw was that she was careless. Though she wasn’t stupid, she didn’t always think things through very well. Her greatest strength, however, is to be able to bounce back. In the end, the only way she really could have bounced back to get married, and had she lived through the night, she probably would have married Seldon, reclaimed her position in society, and lived happily ever after. But her flaw got in the way. When I was reading it, I didn’t get the sense that Lily was deliberately trying to kill herself. She was just so exhausted, so downtrodden, that she just wanted to sleep…she just wanted to be able to get away from her fate for just a little while. The rest that was promised by taking those few extra drops…sometimes you do that stuff instinctively. I completely know where Lily is coming from with that…I’ve been there before.

The title is confusing as well. One might come to The House of Mirth expecting a comedy. The title actually comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4 “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.” That makes a lot more sense.

While reading House of Mirth, it reminded me of two other books: Sister Carrie and Madame Bovary. Sister Carrie, I think, is the same story but in reverse. While Lily starts out on top and ends up on the bottom, Carrie starts out on the bottom and ends up on the top, mostly through taking advantage of opportunities to get money. I suppose it reminded me of Madame Bovary only because of the money issue and the death at the end. Oh and thinking about it now, the scene at the end where Lily’s friend Gerty tells Seldon to go through her things, because that’s what she would have wanted reminds of me that horrendously tender scene in Of Human Bondage when Philip receives a letter from that girl he knew from art school…was it Nancy?...she had killed herself before he got there and had left some sort of message that he was the only person she wanted to touch her.

Edith Wharton is an interesting literary figure that I wish I knew more about. She was a New York upper crust society girl herself. Her maiden name was Jones, and yes, the phrase Keeping up with the Joneses refers specifically to her family. She married Teddy Wharton. In 1913 at the age of 51, after 28 years of marriage, she divorced Teddy. Henry James had called him “cerebrally compromised,” but that might have been the pot calling the kettle black! (I cannot resist a stab at ol’ Henry whenever I get a chance.) She was an extremely prolific writer, and published at least one book per year between 1897 and 1937. House of Mirth was her first important novel….it was a sensation. It sold 30,000 copies in the first three weeks after its publication, and 140,000 copies in the first year. It was HUGE! It also caused a fury of reader’s comments in the New York Times. The publication of a review in early November 1905 lead to a reader from Newport, NY to write in:

“I have just finished The House of Mirth and hope soon to forget it. I had read the most extravagant praise of it by reviewers, but it seems to me a detestable story, detailing with microscopic minuteness the downfall and death of a beautiful and virtuous girl. Although it is claimed that many of the characters are drawn from life, I never met the prototypes of Mrs. Wharton’s motley crew in “society,” and can recall a pretty wide experience. Society ladies may resort to little female devices to outshine their rivals, but they don’t deliberately drag them down to ruin. Bertha Dorset is an imaginary murderess, as false to life as she is repugnant to good taste. Her husband is a weak fool. Seldon is a flabby sentimentalist. One is not introduced to one charming, pleasant, attractive person in over 400 pages, crowded to confusion with characters. Mrs. Wharton and her men and women are always talking to the gallery. They are always straining to say bright things, and the stilted, rapierlike Henry Jamesey style becomes wearisome. The motive of the book is low. Instead of a portrayal of society, it is an inaccurate caricature, with the most loathsome qualities always in evidence. I fail to see that the book serves any purpose except to mislead those who are outsiders. One naturally does not look for much moral tone in a novel, but The House of Mirth lacks it so completely that it is not pleasant to regard it as the product of a woman’s pen…I think the whole story produces a bad taste in the mouth, points to no moral, and as to the title, it should be changed to “The House of Lies.”

[Kristin’s editorial comment… “Society ladies may resort to little female devices to outshine their rivals, but they don’t deliberately drag them down to ruin.” HAHAHA! Now granted I don’t know many society ladies, but this really is the way the world works. But then again, I have been known to agree with Thackeray on humanity, and have often said that the world is completely comprised of Becky Sharps.] After that comment was published, people were writing in every week, responding to Newport, Newport responding back, etc. It was ridiculous. This went on until March…five months of reader responses to one book. And it wasn’t even really about the scandal of it…not like The Awakening, in which adultery was portrayed so nonchalantly. It was back and forth about its literary merit, whether the characters were true to life, why weren’t there any honorable characters, etc. Could you imagine that kind of reaction today to a book? The only books that cause sensation are The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass…and The Golden Compass controversy more surrounded the movie than the book. I have often lamented that our literary scandals now are confined to Dan Brown and James Frey. It makes me really sad.

Overall, House of Mirth certainly wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best thing I ever read. I just don’t think that I’m particularly interested by so-called Novels of Manners…from Wharton back to Austen. I give them their props, and it’s nothing against the writing, it just isn’t really for me. But I can see why House of Mirth is deserving of being on a Top 100 of the 20th century. Now Wharton’s friend Henry James?...not so much!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Visions of Gerard

Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? - Jack Kerouac

Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard who died at the age of 9 (Jack was 4 at the time) of rheumatic fever. Out of all the Kerouac novels that I’ve read, my favorites are those that deal with his life in Lowell: Maggie Cassidy, Dr. Sax, and Visions of Gerard. Kerouac loved his hometown, and his love for it comes across very clearly in his novels. You can tell that this was what Kerouac loved…this was where his heart was. There has been a lot written about Kerouac, and most biographers agree that though he left Lowell after high school, he never left Lowell emotionally. In 1963 he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to turn every known and fabled corner. A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.” Jack belonged in Lowell…that was where his happiness would be. But he never was able to find it.

Some background: Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road, in Centralville, one of the Lowell, MA neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River. Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th-early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills. By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining, as the mills began to close.

Jack was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, NH. Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher” and Gabrielle, aka Mémêre (everyone called her that), conducted the household in French (actually it was a Quebecquois patois known as joual). For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century (like it or not, he was), Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school. Even as a teenager he had difficulty understanding spoken English.

Jack was baptized Jean Louis Lebris de Kerouac, supposedly in honor of his French baron ancestor. (Jack made many claims about his ancestry, most interestingly that his mother was descended from Napoleon. When asked about the truth of it, he claimed it was “mostly” true, so take it with a grain of salt…more on some of that in subsequent posts) His father also claimed that the family had an ancestral shield, “blue with gold stripes accompanied by three silver nails” with the motto “Aimer, Travailler et Souffrir,” meaning Love, Work and Suffer. I’m not sure if Kerouac took that motto to heart, or if it served as some kind of oracle, but I have never found anything that better describes Jack’s short life.

Jack’s mother played an important – some say an unhealthily, Oedipus-ly important – role in Jack’s life. (He once said his mother was the only woman he ever loved.) She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip. After Gerard’s death she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known…that and Ti Pousse – little thumb; sometimes also le gros Pipi meaning little fatty), and that continued throughout his life. While his father Leo seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in Gerard and Jack (and his sister Caroline as well, I’m sure) a religious sensibility that I find apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings. Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview. (The French Canadians in New England at the time were called “les blanc negres." Translate yourself.) Of course he went on to study Buddhism and do a lot of things that really were viewed as the antithesis of those influences, but at least in his writing, it’s clear that they are always there.

The central theme of the novel is why suffering exists. Not that the question is ever answered, but that’s the meditation. Kerouac also claimed to biographer Ann Charters that Visions of Gerard was influenced by Shakespeare’s Henry V. Not being overly familiar with the play, I can’t comment about how much those influences shine through, but later biographer Gerald Nicosia agreed that you could see some similarities, mostly in characterization.

Anyway, on to the book. This is Kerouac’s novel that most seamlessly blends dream and reality. He melds his recollections, his dreams, his visions, his mother’s anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother. As I said earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, and was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life. The story, obviously told from Jack’s point of view (though with imagined scenes of his father at work, playing poker, drinking with the guys) and so is filled with the things that a four-year-old would remember, or think was important. To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.

One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap (it wasn’t dead). He was horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures. He brought the mouse home, bandaged it up, fed it and took care of it. Soon, the cat ate it, leaving the tale behind. Gerard scolded the cat. Not in the mean way that you would expect a child to scold an animal that just ate something it shouldn’t…instead he gives the cat a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others. Gerard and Jack’s father tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat stuff smaller than us. But Gerard wants none of it. “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! –without thinking, without knowing!” There is the “heroic” tale of sickly Gerard walking to the store in the freezing cold to get aspirin for Mémêre who is laid up on the couch with a debilitating headache.

Gerard was in terrible pain from the rheumatism and Jack glosses over most of that, though it’s there…it’s just not in the forefront. This is the story of a 4-year-old and his brother, and a 4-year-old would not really notice that stuff. But Gerard – and this is part of the saintliness – suffers quietly, without complaint; despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed. “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”

Gerard oversees Jack in a way, wanting him to be good. There is the story of when Jack, sitting on the floor, stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper. Gerard scolds him, like he had scolded the cat who ate the mouse, and together they go and patch the newspaper back together, so the picture is as good as new. Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when he slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is some competition. He wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “And there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”

And then there is Gerard’s otherworldliness. He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to get him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs. He tells his little brother about the color of God. He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy who he pushed when the boy accidently knocked over something he was making. The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.” Near his death he tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven—those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven –See?” The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child…a child who understands something about the world and about heaven that those around him don’t. He tries to explain that “We’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.” Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here. All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to see it. When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard's school come as well, knealing by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boys answers.

Then Gerard dies. Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort!’ as tho it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know” I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, Our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved Ignorance of mortal brains.” After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone, and they did not return. “‘They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”

Nicosia includes some interesting stuff about Visions of Gerard in the biography. Apparently John Kingsland, whose name I never heard before, but who apparently read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s first published novel, The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of The Town and the City are included in Visions of Gerard. Nicosia also notes Kerouac’s “use of Middle English alliterative stresses” and that some of the lines read like haiku. But I don’t tend to notice that type of stuff when reading.

In 1955, shortly after the famed 6 Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson. Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but it didn’t work. The next day she jumped from the window to her death. Jack was very disturbed by this, and he returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas. Of course his mother was there too. The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future book, Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time. All of this happened before On the Road was published…remember, Kerouac wrote ELVEN books before OtR broke in September ’57.

In January 1956, Mémêre returned to New York to a funeral. It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Jack sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard. “My sister and her husband weren’t interested. They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine. It was written by hand on the kitchen table. My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light. You got to live with your family, you know. Mémêre wasn’t there. She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn. If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it. We’d have talked all night. But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…” He stated that had Mémêre been there, the book wouldn’t have been written because they just would have talked about it.

At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was synthesizing his two religions…Catholicism and Buddhism. To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not. But he continued throughout his life to maintain his belief in Catholicism, devotion to saints, etc. He was Catholic in his heart, and Jack was devout in his own way. His beliefs at the time can probably be summed up in the words he says Gerard’s "sad eyes first foretold": All is Well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.

How long it took Keroauc to write Visions of Gerard is debatable. Some books say 10 days, some 12, some say it was a lie when he said it took such a short amount of time. He wrote a letter to Gary Snyder on 1/15/56 (or thereabouts) telling him he had finished, and chronologically it appears that Mémêre had left for the funeral in January (not December), so it really couldn’t have been that long. But then again, there are two different dates to be considered: the date he finished the writing process, and the date the actual book was finished, after edits, etc. Jack talked a good game about how long it actually took him to write his novels and about how he would never alter his writing after its initial outflow, but from what I’ve read and heard, I think to some extent that was a load of crap…building up the image of himself that he wanted the world to believe.

Whatever the truth, shortly after he was apparently finished, Jack wrote a letter to his friend calling it his “best most serious sad and true book yet,” and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961 (still two years before it would be published.) By late ’56, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing. In response to requests to revise the novel, Jack told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” But by ’58, Kerouac was telling Viking that he would revise and substitute the Buddhist overtones with Catholic references if they would buy the book. He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion. He wrote, Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”

The book (along with Big Sur) was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance. When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but I don’t know if any changes were made between its original writing (which was done in pencil) and its final version. In December of that year, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen. “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…” Well, Jack cared. For all the nonchalantness of that statement, Jack couldn’t stand negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person as well. He also told Whalen that the publication of Visions of Gerard meant one less reason for him to stay alive, but he was hanging on for his mother’s sake. His drinking wasn’t just alcoholism. It was his own form of suicide, and he intended it for that purpose.

Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were bad. The New York Herald Tribune stated it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often so pridefully “sincere” that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…in someone else’s hands, it could have been moving. Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself. As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.” Sure, it’s sentimental, maybe overly so (biographer Nicosia did admit it was overwritten), but gosh, I don’t even know what to say about questioning Kerouac’s sincerity over the death of his brother. Seriously.

In a letter to fellow writer and friend John Clellon Holmes, Jack said “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it. So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.” It made me sad when I read that. Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he wanted was to be taken seriously. He was physically declining since On the Road came out, specifically because of the notoriety it brought him. He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything that he wasn’t.

By 1964, Kerouac began to TRY to separate himself from his friends, specifically Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. He no longer wanted to be associated with the things that were being laid at his feet. “…I am sick of them and all their beatnik friends. I want you to know that Visions of Gerard published last year is the beginning of my new feelings about life, strictly back to my original feelings in Lowell, of a New England French Canadian Catholic & solitary nature. What these bozos and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly “beat” credo. They have used “beat” for their own ends...” I will write more in the future about the evolution of beat to beatnik, and its commoditization, etc. He wanted to get out from under this mantel they put on him, and he just couldn’t.

Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint. But while this novel does have an overarching religious theme to it, it is a very sad tale. Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother…he worshipped and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother. "For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Duluoz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness." It appears to have been very traumatic for Jack losing Gerard, his casket in the front room. He grew frightened of the dark and of shadows and often wondered how he could get to heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother. For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”

One of Gerard’s playmates when the family lived on Beaulieu Street (where Gerard died) told an interviewer that Jack largely embellished the story of Gerard’s saintliness – he thought Gerard was a normal kid, just sickly. The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged by Mémêre…though Jack’s memories of his brother probably reinforced it. What Jack remembers is his brother’s piety, his kindness. At his death bed, Gerard was surrounded by the nuns from his parochial school, who recorded the boy’s words. Gerard had explained the crucifixion to Jack while walking around the Grotto in Lowell…a replica of the one at Lourdes.

Jack said once, “I have followed [Gerard] ever since, because I know he’s up there guiding my every step.” Jack idolized Gerard, and used his piety as a standard against which he measured his own life…and he knew he failed miserably against that standard.

I feel that I have to say this as a post-script: Kerouac is not for everyone. I know that some people just absolutely can’t stand him, and that’s fine. His first few novels are probably his most accessible because as time went on he began to experiment with spontaneous writing, which is a more stream of consciousness style. And it didn’t help that his alcoholism just got worse and worse as his infamousness and notoriety increased and as negative reviews and personal attacks increased. Some of his work is embarrassing. Some of it is genius. Most is somewhere in between. What is more important for me, to some extent, is to get what he was trying to do. In some ways, he was trying to be another James Joyce…not an imitation of Joyce but to push the boundaries of “the novel” forward, to explore new territory with it. He considered himself a jazz poet, or jazz writer, meaning he was taking cues from what was going on in jazz at the time (mainly Charlie Parker) and applying the improvisational style of bop to writing. Kerouac took his writing and himself as a writer very seriously. His work has been hugely influential – on the writing, art, music, movies, our language, etc. On the Road ushered in all of that. Kerouac did not see that as a positive, nor did most of the mainstream “squares” at the time. But the ripples are still being felt, still showing themselves in new ways. Despite this, despite how he did help usher in the hippie/1960s movement to some extent (no matter how much he HATED being “accused” of that, it’s true), which most people today probably see as having a generally positive cultural influence overall, he still isn’t really taken seriously. I’ve been reading a book called Empty Phantoms, which is interviews, magazine articles, tv appearance transcripts, etc. of Kerouac and about Kerouac, and it’s making me very angry and sad. He was DERIDED in the press…absolutely raked over the coals, both as a writer and as a person. It’s really depressing to read this stuff, knowing how it hurt him, how it lead him to drink himself to death. All he wanted to be seen as was a writer – not a cultural icon, not a voice of a generation – just a writer. But they wouldn’t let him be just a writer. More on this will come as we get further into Jack’s life, but I felt I needed to start out saying that.

"The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen of ink...because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero - Écrivez pour l'amour de son mort."