Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness

Southern Utah is one of my favorite spots in the world, so it’s a bit surprising that I hadn’t read this before. Perhaps the delay was caused by residue from an earlier attempt at reading Monkey Wrench Gang that left me with an Abbey sexism hangover. Book pressed into hand and duly warned about the eye-rolling terrible bits, I gave Abbey another chance. Parts of the book are pure awfulness – cringe-inducing degradations of women not worth repeating; he also quite fancies himself the erudite philosopher and name-drops throughout to let us know how smart he is. Some parts are weird– he finds a gopher snake and wraps it around his chest inside his shirt. Some parts are hypocritical – professing a love of nature and then killing a rabbit for the hell of it; singing the praises of population control then talking about making babies (also a father many times over himself). Despite these, there are some gold nuggets worth excavating from the pages. His best parts are the anti-tourist rants and descriptions of his adventures in the backcountry as he slurps water from every last murky puddle and flings his body willy-nilly into pools searching for shortcuts. He bemoans the Park Service kowtowing to the Wheelchair Explorers, as he dubs the mechanized tourists that roll up in their cars and expect well-paved roads to lead them within arms’ reach of natural wonders. “What can I tell them? Sealed up in their metallic shells like molluscs on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener.” He goes on rants about industrialization, particularly in relation to solving the Indian problem– why would the Navajo want to become factory workers or office clerks? “The Navajos are people not personnel; nothing in their nature or tradition has prepared them to adapt to the regimentation of application forms and time clock.” (And for that matter, nothing in us non-Navajos as well).
Best yet was the section on going down the Colorado River before the Glen Canyon dam was built. He and a pal load up provisions (tobacco, coffee, raisins, beans, eggs, bacon) into their inflatable boats, lash them together, and whirl away downstream, forgoing life jackets, camping on sandy beaches inside the canyon. They explore side canyons and tributaries (Escalante River), hiking up to see the Rainbow Bridge, accidentally starting a brush fire or two. Lots of drinking river water that they put into cans to let the silt settle to the bottom after several minutes. Another mouth-watering section was about Havasu (Havasupai), a branch of the Grand Canyon he explores for five weeks, living near a waterfall and communing with nature. Overall a worthy read; perhaps an edited version would make it stronger, but it would remove all the (tedious) Abbey-isms that make it his book.

Victorian Lady Travellers

Dorothy Middleton gathers up into her heavy skirts a list of women globetrotters from the Victorian era. Some I’d heard of and had read their accounts in their own words: Isabella Bird’s jaunt around the Western US (Colorado, especially), and Mary Kingsley’s superb and hilarious Travels in West Africa. With those two as a recommendation, I grabbed the book to learn about the other travelers yet unknown to me.
Marianne North roamed the planet first with her father, then solo after his death, painting as she went through the tropics of Jamaica and Brazil, then through the redwoods near San Francsico. North’s journeys are described in her three volume Recollections of a Happy Life, and Further Reflections, but something prevents me from rushing out to read these. Another of the explorers I’m not keen on learning more about is Annie Taylor, missionary in Tibet. Also Kate Marsden, whose missionary work led her to explore vast amounts of Siberia traveling to leper colonies.
Fanny Bullock Workman strikes me as a much more entertaining subject – she lead her husband around Europe and India on bicycle tours, the two of them on bikes laden down with their possessions, including a tea kettle from the handlebars. Fanny’s pictured in the book displaying a Votes for Women placard at the pinnacle of a mountain summit on the Karakoram Range (Central/South Asia). They frequently had to brandish pistols at marauders on the road as they bicycled through Spain, Java, Sumatra.
May French Sheldon was a wealthy American woman who made her first journey around the world at age sixteen. She headed to East Africa in 1891 and captured the journey in Sultan to Sultan, which seems worth a read. Nicknamed Bébé Bwana by the natives (Swahili for “Lady Boss”), she found a way into the crater on the slopes of Kilamanjaro and pontooned around Lake Chala flying the Stars & Stripes.

Faces in the Crowd

It worries me that I like books like this – is my brain becoming so used to six second blasts of attention that books with little gasps of thoughts will become the only thing I can consume eventually? The story is a mixture of a tale told from a narrator who used to live in NYC but now lives with hubby and her two children in Mexico, tales of her life alone in NYC working as a literary translator, pushing her editor to publish her translations of Gilberto Owen, even making up some false connection between a poet the editor loves (Zvorsky) and fabricating documents to back up this claim. As she’s writing the story, she says her husband is reading the pages, demanding to know what’s fact and what’s fiction. She begins to write about his infidelities, his departure for Philadelphia coming on the heels of a postcard from a woman there, despite his claims that as an architect he must live in the city to see his project to completion as it’s being built. The narrator, as a young woman in NYC, wears a red coat and swears to having seen Gilberto Owen at random times in the subway. She begins to include snippets from Owen’s life, including that he’s seen her in the subway, along with Ezra Pound. It’s good writing, leaving you with a wavering sense of reality. There’s a lot of ghosts in this book- the narrator claims she leaves NYC when she becomes a ghost, there’s a ghost in the house in Mexico, Owen frequently calls himself a ghost in his conversations with the blind man (Homer, ha ha). Melancholy, fleeting, bite-sized bits perfect for us inattentive readers.

When a person has lived alone for a long time, the only way to confirm that they still exist is to express activities and things in an easily shared syntax: this face, these bones that walk, this mouth, this hand that writes. (p 2) … I used to write letters… I told them about my life in the metropolis, again and again, as if to make it my own, conscious, maybe, that happiness also depends on syntax: Dear X, I live at 63 Morningside Ave., again and again, to each of my invisible correspondents. (p 90)

When I was young I was weighted down by a constant sense of social inadequacy – I was never the most popular nor the most eloquent at a table; never the best read nor the best writer; not the most successful nor the most talented; definitely not the most handsome nor the one who had most luck with women. At the same time, I harbored the secret hope, or rather, the secret certainty, that one day I would finally turn into myself; into the image of myself I’d been elaborating for years. But when I now reread the notes or poems I wrote then, or when I recall the conversations with other members of my generation, and the ideas we so boldly expounded, I realize that the truth is I’ve been getting more imbecilic by the day. I’ve spent too many years sleeping, dozing. I don’t know at what moment an inversion began to occur in the process that I imagined as linear and ascending, and which, in the end, turned out to be a sort of pitiless boomerang that flies back and knocks out your teeth, your enthusiasm, and your balls.

Rich Hall’s Vanishing America

I have no excuse for suffering my eyes to read this “book” except that I saw it at a local bookstore and it looked like a dumb but refreshing mental mint. Indeed. 1980s comedian Hall hits the road and introduces us to Pandi the Pakistani shopkeeper in Oklahoma who stocks his items upside down (“Spap-oop” instead of “Doo-Dads”, “W&Ws” instead of “M&Ms”), a Poseidon Adventure viewing party in Austin where a construction worker charges people $1 a viewing in order to make payments on his VHS player (watching the scenes upside down, replaying the capsizing scene where passengers float upward and furniture sticks to the floor), “in each forzen frame there is a joyous newfound quirk of gravity.” He meets a guy who builds model ships in cans, not bottles (Emporia, Kansas), a motel in California that mailmen frolic in the pool at 3am because the owner guarantees postage if anyone drops a key in a mailbox, a banana split shop where they cost between $0.05 and $1 depending on which balloon you choose, a man who’s kicked his wife off their tandem bicycle for going too slowly, lady truck drivers in Arizona giving him rides, etc. etc. Like I said, mental break, as is necessary after slogging through a pile of 1930s books trying to find ones worth finishing, and continuing to grapple with Gertrude Stein.

Nobody Starves

Catherine Brody’s 1932 novel starts out with a stunning description of someone (Molly) who doesn’t want to go to work, to enter the daily grind yet again:

After she had shut the front door, the gray drift of the morning encompassed her like still, slow water; as if she were a swimmer, it retarded her arms and legs. They yearned from herself backward, through the closed door, into the warm bed, under the bedclothes, pulled off before she was ready. And it was only Thursday. She drew herself up with an effect of tightening her body and squaring her shoulders and the heels of her old shoes struck glumly on the three shallow steps.

In those early days, she works at the pottery factory, joins a rebellion of quitters when their pay is decreased 10%, to the consternation of her aunt with whom she boards for $8/week. She occasionally goes downtown with one of the other boarders, Elizabeth. During one of those excursions, she meets a friend of Elizabeth’s who says she can get a job at Davey’s. Bonus is that they start at a leisurely 7:30 am at Davey’s… “Mm, then I won’t have to get up so early” opines Molly. But Aunt Frances chimes in quickly that she needs time to catch the public transportation to the factory. Aunt Frances “was impatient with lying in bed. She got up at dawn herself and was seldom off her feet, by her own boast, all day long.”
Molly moves to Detroit, marries Bill and fulfills her life’s desire: to stop working. Only that lasts for only a few months before the necessity of it crowds in on her. She and Bill go through layoffs and job searches and arguments begin, with violence. Bemoaning the lack of work everywhere, Bill says it’s dead everywhere:

And in his words it was as if they walked in a vast corridor, one of those too realistic corridors of dreams in which door after door, as they came up to it, closed without sound in their faces – and the faster they walked the more swiftly the doors shut – until they walked no more but stood still where they were, looking neither to the right nor left but standing, helpless, paralyzed.
Where to go? Where in all the country – where even in all the world – for it was everywhere the same. And then if they spent their hoarded energy – their money – on moving, there would be so much less to wait on.

More layoffs in a suburb of Detroit where they have moved, and a neighbor asks them to care for a rifle her husband has taken to thinking about. This pops up at the end, after Bill leaves (pregnant, natch) Molly, then returns to kill her.

My Own, My Native Land

A weak collection of short stories by the otherwise power-house Thyra Samter Winslow, who recently bowled me over with Picture Frames. The most substantial part of this 1935 book is the thickness of the pages, straining muscles to turn them. The collection starts out deceptively strong, with Little Pitchers, a girl who reads too much (busted!): “Her father thought she read too much. He said that too much book learning was bad for girls – gave them ideas. Besides, it might ruin her eyes, and she’d have to wear glasses – and girls with glasses had few matrimonial opportunities – and you’d pretty nearly be better off dead than an old maid.” Otherwise, the other stories become boring with their continual reliance on the old “I visited my hometown and this is what I noticed” tone.

My Struggle: Book 4

Book four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s unending struggle was a bounce back in the right direction, much better than the stinker of book 3, albeit flawed in its own right. The time period is post-high school, Karl Ove heads to northern Norway to be a teacher at age 18, drinking heavily, attempting to write. Here we have signs of his real struggle, that of becoming a writer. He’s consumed by his problem of premature ejaculation and confesses to never masturbating, which is what he believes is causing this. There’s terrible stuff like: “Quite often I caught myself wishing we were still in the Stone Age, then all I would have needed to do was go out with a club, hit the nearest woman on the head, and drag her home to do whatever I wanted.” But this is balanced out as much as is possible by lyrical descriptions of the village by the sea that does not see sunlight during the winter, only thick snow and darkness:

The days became shorter, and they became shorter quickly, as though they were racing toward the darkness. The first snow arrived in mid-October, went after a few days, but the next time it fell, at the beginning of November, it came with a vengeance, day after day it tumbled down, and soon everything was packed in thick white cushions of snow, apart from the sea, which with its dark, clean surface and terrible depths lay nearby like an alien and menacing presence, like a murderer who has moved into a neighboring house and whose unheeded knife glints on the kitchen table.

He gleefully sinks into life in the village, storing up incidents to share via letter to friends, like the man who pulls a gun on him for spending too much time with his girlfriend, or riding in cars at top speeds and listening to old country and western songs. There’s also sprinklings of memories from high school days, how he got caught up in a drinking spiral and couldn’t shake it, kicked out of the house by his mom during the last few months of school. Mostly, it’s an endless struggle to find and hook up with ladies, which culminates in the final scene at a music festival, losing his virginity at last.

The Time of Man

All the “best of” book lists that don’t include this gem should be incinerated for their lack of substance. This is yet another forgotten classic, and reading it is like unwrapping the golden ticket: you’re excited, eager, can’t believe your luck. Published in 1926, Elizabeth Madox Roberts displays poetic virtuosity and sensibility on every page. On the surface, it’s a tale of Ellen Chesser’s journey from childhood to adulthood in rural Kentucky in the 1920s. The story begins with the family bumping along in a wagon, on the move yet again, Ellen a young girl with her mother and father who then find a sharecrop of tobacco and live on the farm. Trials and tribulations of farm life, fetching water, dealing with lice and chickens and hogs and turkeys and milking cows. Picking rocks out of the soil to be farmed, father Henry states “no plow iron ever cut this-here hill afore, not in the whole time of man.” This phrase, “time of man” echoes in Ellen’s mind, gets her thinking to where rocks come from. She socializes with the other country folk, finds a group of young people to gad about with, goes to a party where she knows only one person and is determined to become liked, so she finds herself volunteering to sing a song, “terrified of what her lips were saying.” Her song’s a hit, the room becomes friendly to her, she’s introduced around. She finds herself with a beau, Jonas, who ends up having to leave to tend a farm miles away but who swears he’ll come back for her, sends her one meager letter while he’s gone. Later, she finds out that he’s back in town, has married another of the girls. She meets another beau, Jasper Kent, who then runs afoul of the law, falsely accused of burning down someone’s barn in retribution for their stealing his pigs. He disappears, swears he’ll come back for her, and he does, they head off into matrimony, moving far away from the scene (but not far enough– rumors haunt Jasper as the Barn-Burner). She has five children, moves about from farm to farm building gardens where she can. Jasper cheats on her with another woman but she does nothing, only smiles at the farmer who’s in love with her, pregnant again (Jasper thinks it’s the farmer’s kid, they fight, the kid is born and dies a few years later). Falsely accused of yet another barn-burning, the family packs up and leaves under the cover of night, headed far away.

“Try on my new hat,” Rosie said, and Ellen went to the larger room and put on the hat before the glass that hung above the chest of drawers. The hat was bright and new, a token of spring in its warmth and brightness. The men about the fire talked with low muttering, complaining at the closing of the road. The hat was fresh and fragrant, a promise of Rosie’s wedding, but the low muttering of the men came into her pleasure in the hat, a faint menace that lay under the air, so that her joy in the hat was magnified as it stood out brightly before their threatenings.

Life began somewhere on the roads, traveling after the wagons where she had claim upon all the land and no claim, all at once, and where what she knew of the world and what she wanted of it sparkled and glittered and ran forward quickly as if it would always find something better.

***
Discovered via Tillie Olson’s Silences, and embellished by lovely engravings by Clare Leighton.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh

A fascinating collection of curated letters from Vincent to brother Theo, who kept him alive by sending money each month to cover all his housing, food, paint expenses. There’s apparently a movie that’s been further distilled from this book, which I have zero interest in seeing. Through the magic of the internet, I was able to look at images of the paintings Vincent describes in his letters, phenomenal. The inclusion of a bold red signature in a particular work because he wanted a tinge of red in the water, the reluctance to sign his work, the reluctance to read what people are saying about his work as it becomes known, like this article by Aurier – for which Vincent thanks the author with a sketch but requests that Aurier doesn’t write about him again.
It’s heartbreaking to read the extreme poverty of Van Gogh living in a world where his paintings are some of the priciest around, where his sunflowers have been printed to death on posters and t-shirts. He starts out begging for money for books, and once he gets painting, is always asking for more for paints, canvas. His greatest wish is that someone give him money to cover the physical costs of the art with just a tad added for his own labor. The “story” unfolds only from Vincent’s side, but you can hear the urgings of his family to give it up and find something respectable to do (engraver, bookkeeper, carpenter’s apprentice, baker, barber, librarian). You see him struggling with confidence (“perhaps you will see some day that I too am an artist, though I do not know beforehand what I can do; I hope I shall be able to make some drawings in which there is something human”).
As he progresses from theologian to artist, he leaves crumbs for us, telling us books he’s reading about color (Delacroix) and perspective (Cassagne), growing close to other artists to share thoughts (Mauve) who then ditch him when he starts living with a pregnant former prostitute whom he takes care of. He talks endlessly of the peasants he sketches, landscapes he captures, his struggle to perfect his drawing, his battle with inferior paint that is yet too expensive. Later Gauguin comes to stay with him (is there for the ear-incident, in fact), they dream of having a collective to share the expenses of the impressionist painters, to have famous ones (Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro) donate funds from the sale of their artwork to nourish those who struggle to be recognized. He talks of becoming a printer in Paris in order to see how they do something technically, waxes rhapsodically over Japanese prints (“extreme clearness”, “simple as breathing”).
The nature of the book itself is a bit puzzling – who did the translation from Dutch/French to English? Brother Theo died only six months after Vincent and his widow Jo found the stash of letters, got them printed in 1927 as three volumes totaling 1670 pages. The manuscripts passed to her son V.W. on Johanna’s death, and V.W. gave Irving Stone his blessing to cull the work down to a manageable 500 pages. I found the work incredibly interesting and dogeared too many pages, but of course I must include these bits.
In the beginning, Vincent struggles to teach and find work as a clergyman (emulating his father), writes about his faith (“I yearn towards the Bible”), gardening, and how he’s taken up drawing again but then stopped. “Perhaps I shall take it up again some day or other.” Working in Ramsgate as a teacher, we get a foreboding of V’s moods:

These are really very happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust. Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.

I have been very busy today with a great many little nothings, but they belong to my duty; if one had no sense of duty, who would be able to collect his thoughts at all? The feeling of duty sanctifies everything and binds things together, making one large duty out of the many little ones.

A Jewish bookseller who procures me the Latin and Greek books I want has a large number of prints which I can choose from very cheaply. I have taken some for my little room to give it the right atmosphere, for that is necessary to get new thoughts and new ideas.

I have such a craving for thousands of things, and if I had money I should perhaps soon spend it on books, and other things, which I can very well do without, and which would divert my attention from the strictly necessary studies. Even now, it is not always easy to fight against distractions, and if I had money it would be worse still. And there may come a time in which we can spend our money better than on the best books – when we shall perhaps have a household of our own.

What moulting time is for the birds – the time when they change their feathers – so adversity or misfortune is the difficult time for human beings. One can stay in it, in that time of moulting, one can also come out of it renewed, but anyhow it must not be done in public, and it is not at all amusing.

… admit also that a love of books is as sacred as the love of Rembrandt, and I think even the two complete each other… My God, how beautiful Shakespeare is! Who is mysterious like him? His language and style can indeed be compared to an artist’s brush, quivering with fever and emotion. But one must learn to read, as well as one must learn to see and learn to live.

I wish all people had what I begin to acquire gradually: the power to read a book without difficulty in a short time, and to keep a strong impression of it. It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitation, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.

Mauve takes offence at my having said, ‘I am an artist’ – which I do not take back, because that word included, of course, the meaning: always seeking without absolutely finding. As far as I now, that word means: ‘I am seeking, I am striving, I am in with all my heart.’ It is just the contrary from saying, ‘I know it, I have found it.’

More and more it seems to me that the most practical and direct way is not to look too far or aspire too high. When I think of London, that is an animating thought, but the question is only: Is it now to be done? Is this the right moment? Is it not better, in fact, to say frankly to myself: You have not matured enough; what you mean is not yet comprehensible enough to others; they are more or less frightened of it. Go on still, work faithfully and firmly after nature; seek it once more on the heath or in the dunes… I do not doubt that my work has its faults, but neither do I doubt that I am not quite wrong, and that I shall succeed, be it only after long seeking. And I do believe that it is dangerous to look for success elsewhere.
I think there is a difference between art appreciation today and that of earlier years. There used to be more passion both in the making and in the judging of works of art. This or that work was chosen deliberately; one side or the other was energetically taken. There was more animation. now I think there is a spirit of capriciousness and satiety; people are in general more lax. Some time ago I wrote that I had noticed there was since Millet a marked decline, as though the summit had been reached and decadence had begun. This has its influence on everybody and everything.

The whole art business is rotten – I doubt if these enormous prices, even for masterpieces, will remain… Is this of great influence on artists? Not at all; for the greatest of them for the most part profited but very little from these excessive prices in their last period when they were already famous.

Hardly a day passes now that I do not produce one thing or another. I cannot but make progress; each drawing one completes, each study one paints, is a step forward.

Today is almost a spring day. I think in the country they will have heard the lark sing for the first time. This morning I took a long walk alone all through the city, in the park, along the boulevards. There was something of resurrection in the atmosphere, yet what depression there is in business and among the people!… it is hard for anybody who must earn his bread by his work, the more so because we can foresee that it will get worse and worse from year to year.

To succeed one must have ambition, and ambition seems absurd. It depresses me to t hink that even when it’s a success, painting never pays back what it costs. What will come of it I don’t know; i should like above all to be less of a burden to you; and that is not impossible in the future, for I hope to make such progress that you will be able to show my stuff boldly without compromising yourself. Then I shall take myself off somewhere down South, to get away from the sight of so many painters that as men disgust me. (LLL- he’s in Paris)

Now, for us who work with our brains, our one and only hope of not being too soon done for is this artificial eking-out by an up-to-date regimen of health rigorously applied; but I for one do not do everything I ought. And a bit of cheerfulness is better than all the other remedies. As for drinking too much – if it is bad, I can’t tell. Look at Bismark, who is in any case very practical and very intelligent: his little doctor told him that he was drinking too much, and that all his life he had overworked his stomach and his brain. Bismarck immediately stopped drinking. After that he got run down and couldn’t pick up.

Since seven o’clock this morning I have been sitting in front of a clipped round bush of cedar growing amid grass. A row of bushes in the background are oleanders raving mad; the blasted things are flowering so riotously they may well get locomotor ataxia. They are loaded with fresh flowers, and heaps of faded flowers as well, and their green is continually renewing itself in fresh, strong jets, apparently inexhaustibly. A funereal cypress stands above them, and some small figures are sauntering along a rose-colored path.

I live soberly because I have a chance to; I drank in the past because I did not know how to do otherwise. Deliberate sobriety leads to a state of being in which thought, if you have any, moves more readily. It is like painting in grey or in colours. I am in fact going to paint more in grey. I have a feeling rather like the one I had when I was younger, when I was very sober – too sober, they used to say, I guess.

Although copying may be the old system, that makes absolutely no difference to me. What I am seeking, and why it seems good to me to make copies, I shall try to tell you: We painters are always asked to compose of ourselves, and not to be compositors only. So be it. But in music it is not like that, and if some person or other plays Beethoven he adds his personal interpretation; in music, and more especially in singing, the interpretation of the performer is something, and it is not a hard and fast rule that only the composer shall play his own composition. I pose the black and white of Delacroix or Millet before me as a subject and improvise colour on it, not, you understand, altogether as myself, but searching for memories of their pictures – the memory, ‘the vague consonance of colours which are at least right in feeling’; that is my own interpretation.

Cecil: or, The adventures of a coxcomb

Only a few weeks after spouting marvelous praise at Catherine Gore’s Mothers and Daughters, which was magnificent, I must pan Gore’s most well-known book, the 1845 Cecil. The whole thing goes off the rails after a few hundred good-ish pages of the trials of a second son, thus not in line for inheritance, whose sole accomplishment is good looks and breeding. He falls for a daughter of a Portuguese merchant who’s been taken in as ward of his father (Lord Ormington)’s business manager while Cecil himself is working for the ambassador. Emily (the Portuguese) leaves the country, and although he’s forbidden to make contact with her, Cecil follows on an errand for the ambassador, falls ill, when recovered finds that Emily has died. At this point, things go absolutely bonkers. He starts hanging out with Lord Byron, of all people. Trips to Italy, falling in love with a German woman whose pet finch he captures then returns to her, who then spits at his feet after he attempts to woo her. Did I mention that he’s also involved in the death of his older brother’s only son, thereby being nicknamed the assassin? Aficionados, readers, skip this one.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

The delightful soap operas of Elena Ferrante continue with this latest installment of the Neapolitan Novels, aka My Brilliant Friend, Volume 3. We pick up where the action stopped in Volume 2, Elena is nervously giving a reading of her first novel in Milan, verbally attacked by a man in the audience and then defended by a voice she recognizes, that of Nino. Elena marries Pietro the professor after a period of independence cresting the wave of her success as author. Lila works at Bruno’s sausage factory, living with Enzo, getting mixed up in radical politics to protest working conditions. She breaks down, exhausted, and Elena is summoned to rescue her. Out of Lila’s notes about the factory, Elena crafts an article in the paper that is much praised, gets Lila’s unpaid wages paid, has inspectors visit the factory. She then helps Lila move back to the old neighborhood with Enzo, and gets Enzo a job working with computers. This turns into Michele Solano renting a computer and giving Lila a high-paying job to manage it. Elena’s sister sets up house with Marcello Solano much to the chagrin of Elena, to the delight of Lila to throw it in her face. Elena has trouble writing a follow up to her novel, weighted down by two pregnancies and the pain of raising children. Nino visits, asks what she’s writing, and this sets her to focus on penning a feminist tract about how men create women. At long last, Nino and Elena begin their affair (of course), and Elena leaves her daughters and husband to join Nino on her first airplane trip.

How I Read Gertrude Stein

An incredibly helpful and thoughtful resource for anyone who’s dipping their toe into Stein’s work and finds themselves drowning. This is a copy of Welch’s 1950 senior thesis for Reed College, focusing on the period of her writing from 1904-1912, but also using some of her 1930s lectures and books to help explain. Lew Welch (I did not know, but now do) was a poet, step-father to musician Huey Lewis (who took his stage name in honor of Lew), who disappeared into the Sierra Nevada in 1971 with gun and left a suicide note (but body never found). In recognition for the service he did the world with this thesis, I’m obligated to dig up his other work to give it a read.
For someone reading How to Write (Stein, 1931) for the first time, I feel lucky to have been able to shout “Help!” and have the first chapter of Welch’s thesis appear within seconds. As I described to a friend at the time, the book (I’m still working through it, savoring the pages) is awful and amazing. By awful, I mean hard. GS doesn’t let you off the hook to float through her words lazily grabbing at meaning. You must work, and come to the understanding that the words are signs pointing to meanings. She doesn’t teach you “how to write,” but forces you to experience language in a way that will allow you to write. Here’s a bit by Stein, followed by Welch’s commentary:

And and they will go.

A is an article.
They are usable. They are found and able and edible. And so they are predetermined and trimmed. (HTW 129)
It is also interesting to notice that although of course articles are not “predetermined and trimmed,” by saying this she turns “predetermined” and “trimmed” into signs and at the same time one is entertained. The entertainment value of such verbal playfulness is extremely important in a work such as this, for unending examples of sentences could easily become terribly tedious. (p 3)

Hell yes! Welch understands that blockheads like myself develop a bit of a headache when faced with the hundreds of pages of not-easy-to-mindlessly-read text. As Welch states, How to Write “forces one into a consciousness of the formal structure of the sentence, by including groups of words which are not sentences among ones that are, and by repeatedly reminding one of sentences by using the word ‘sentence,’ until one feels a conscious relief and sense of solidness when a balanced sentence appears (p 5).” Those entertaining and balanced sentences are life rafts upon which poor swimmers like myself can clamber, wheezing to catch our breath before diving back in. Welch even helpfully ties a buoy around The Waste Land, which I lambasted mercilessly in my blockhead state; simply that the “meaning” of the poem is not where the beauty is, it’s the mechanism, the “manner of the saying” as he also applies to Stein. Stein’s writing insists that you to be conscious of what you’re reading, forcing you away from unconscious reading. This is the biggest gut punch for me, as I tend to read passively, speedily, until tripped up by a delicious morsel of text that I’ll let dissolve on my tongue before continuing.

From reading even a very small amount of her work we learn the importance of relaxing all standards until the experience of the work has been realized. We also learn that this can be done even if we have a large erudition, some very settled habits, and remembered responses. We learn it because we are forced to do it. It has always been true that we derive theories of art from experiences we have had with art. From Stein’s “difficult” writing, and it is difficult to learn to be simple enough to accept the fact that she means what she says, and that she says it as simply as it can be said, from Stein’s difficult writing, then, we can learn to depersonalize ourselves when we look at a work of art, so that the experience is not at once related to or rejected by other experiences, but is an additional experience that realigns, perhaps, our earlier perspective. (p14)

The second chapter gets into Stein’s “Creating Mind,” frequently quoting from the incredibly enjoyable lectures she gave in the 1930s in the US. Welch notes:

The experience while one is reading one of her lectures is therefore unique. It is as if you were Gertrude Stein thinking. If you question her points while you read you have two times going at once and you become confused. But if you let the writing do all of the thinking it is astonishingly clear… she “teaches” you how to think by making you do it, by getting into your consciousness and doing it for you. (p 27)

There’s a very short third chapter, “Composition as Explanation” which quotes the lectures, Picasso, Everybody’s Autobiography, and tackles the idea of continuous present. Chapter four dives into the evolution of her writing, from the story Melanctha through The Making of Americans, to A Long Gay Book. I’ve heard horror stories from people who have read the 1,000 pages of The Making of Americans but am now intrigued about reading it myself, thanks to Welch’s analysis:

These slow unfolding sentences, exactly balanced, with long periods, are the heart of this book. If they seem to be dull there is no way to enjoy this book. To me they are beautiful; they have the effect of building a structure that is monumental. It is slow building, careful building, you must relax and let it impress itself upon you… we must slow down, we must weigh each word, we must concentrate while relaxing standards, as in proofreading. And what is the hurry after all This book is very long and very slow, but after all, one reads the same numbers of hours in a day whether he reads the newspaper or The Making of Americans. The size of the impact of The Making of Americans is directly proportional to its ponderous going. It is a huge book. It has a huge impact. This is because it exactly records the workings of a monumental mind. Monuments are fixed in the earth. They are not brilliant. They are huge. (p 55)

In detailing the transition of Stein’s writing, Welch talks about how she gets deep into an idea and then once its essence is boiled down, becomes bored, lacks enthusiasm, but continues writing and showing us her boredom. Her mind wanders. Welch mentions wanting to go over and shake Gertrude into wakefulness. And she notices this herself, attempts to wake up, but if you can hold out and wait for the times she becomes interested in what she’s doing, it’s worth it. Welch talks about the tediousness of several pages, redeemed when Gertrude resumes her interest in what she’s writing, finally resulting in fantastic passages such as:

Wipe no more and pillow the time to rise, wipe in and have no shutter, weigh and rest more in the middle, protect the top, hold all principally.
Dimmer than a demand of a dance in the surrounding depreciation. And then than whom is the pleasure. A life was sardine to play. A land is thinner. Than which side was tacit. The noise was a pimple. A convex is not hurtled.
A private life is the long thick tree and the private life is the life for me. A tree which is thick is a tree which is thick. A life which is private is not what there is. All the times that come are times I sing, and the singing I sing are the tunes I sing. I sing and I sing and the tunes I sing are what are tunes if they come and I sing. I sing I sing.
A lovely night to stay awake and smell the cake and masticate. A lovely night and no need of surprises, that is what makes it so free of noises. (MPGS 107) (p67-68)

Welch wraps up with an exploration of Portraits and Tender Buttons, making interesting contrasts between Stein’s work and that of seventeenth-century heavyweights Sir Thomas Browne and John Donne. His final chapter puts further emphasis on the value of Stein’s extraordinary writing:

There has been an incredible volume of nonsense written about art, and how it is made, and how one must live while one makes it, written by artists who call upon everything from God to rotten apples on their desks in an attempt to explain their occupation, or make it seem important. If we read most artists on the subject of their art we are only discouraged, confused, enraged or perhaps terribly impressed by something that is beyond us. Gertrude Stein presents art and its creation as if it were just another thing that human beings do, and that is probably what it is. (p84)

She calls herself a genius. Since she is one, why not? And when she talks about it, it is with the same joy of realization that she talks about everything else. She slowly becomes certain that she is a genius and she feels the need to tell us just exactly what being a genius is. She tells us with the same charm, with the same “I am I not any longer when I see” with which she tells us that football games are done with numbers, numbers on the backs of players, numbers chanted while they “dance,” numbers written on the playing field.
Genius is simplicity. One does one thing, in one time, and recognizes nothing else. “It takes a long time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing” (EA 70). (p85)

Picture Frames

Eleven delightful stories originally published in 1923 by Thyra Samter Winslow describing country girls in the city (either Chicago or NYC), the plight of forgotten grandmas, machinations to maneuver men into marriage, the rise of one immigrant family, the staleness of married life. Happiness/success seems to be defined as making it over the finish line into marriage, because what other prospects did these girls have? The first story starts out strong and gives you a taste of the flinty prose to follow:

When little Emma Hooper, from Black Plains, Iowa, came to Chicago to carve out her fortune, she did not leave behind her a sorrowing family who wondered about the fate of their dear child in the city. Neither did she sneak away from a cruel step-mother who had made life hard, unbearable. Emma’s family was quite glad to see her go.

* Little Emma – as referenced in the above quote, heads to Chicago and plans on playing up her “country girl” persona to land a job and then a millionaire husband. An older woman kindly helps her to buy the correct outfits to cultivate this image, and Emma gets a job typing and taking dictation at a bond firm run by two brothers. One of the brothers is married, the other brother single but lives with the married brother. Hilarity (sort of) ensues when Emma thinks she’s being wined & dined by the married brother, only to be proposed to and find out that it’s the other one that’s married.
* Grandma – the first of the two tales about how old women feel when they live with their children’s families and are neglected. This grandma makes the rounds between her three children, living for 4 months at a time with each, and confesses that her favorite days of the year are her 3 travel days on the train. When she’s at Fred’s house, she works too much, cleaning, caring for the baby, cooking, sewing. She’s looking forward to the holiday of living for 4 months with Albert in NYC, a wealthy man but whose house leaves her cold – nothing to do, lots of lonely dinners, Grandma is virtually ignored the whole time she’s there. Living with daughter Mary is no picnic either, always being criticized by them for something and always the last to be served whatever remained of dinner. But traveling, that was the ticket. On the train, she put on her best clothes, ordered up steaks, made friends with the passengers, talked about her lovely family. She was queen of the train for 48 hours, and then slips back into the lonely Grandma reality.
* Mamie Carpenter – Mamie is a beautiful blonde whose family is poor, so she quits school to work at the candy shop and turns her nose up at the “society set” she doesn’t belong to. Marlin Embury comes back to town, son of a rich oil man, and Mamie begins to work her magic on him, convincing him that she’s interested in what he does with his days, demurely rejecting his offers to go for a ride. She nets him, to the consternation of “society” but then ends up being one of them.
* Cycle of Manhattan – Jewish family of recent immigrants to NYC. The family starts out on MacDougal street, the father eventually becomes a partner in his garment factory, they rise, move about to various apartments further up the island, dropping letters from their name until Rosenheimer turns finally into Ross. The “cycle” referred to is that at the end, son turns artist and rents a bohemian studio in the Village– he shows it off to the family and only the mother and father recognize it as their original home in NYC.
* Amy’s Story – Amy lives under the delusion that her life is almost ready to start, that it will be a grand story. In her mid-twenties she panics and marries a man who does not excite her, who dies a decade later leaving her with two children. She moves back in with her parents and runs across Lulu, her old friend whose life really did have a story– living in NYC, traveling to Europe. Amy eventually gives up on the idea that her life “was going to start.”
* City Folks – Joe and Mattie Harper are country folks who’ve lived in NYC for almost a decade, and who get a letter from Joe’s mom asking them to move back to care for their father. At first, they love the idea of having a home and getting out of the rat race. But they meet for dinner later that day and both have changed their minds, having run into celebrities downtown and been given tickets to a theater performance. “Why, we’re, we’re – city folks!”
* Indian Summer – Evelyn is a 35 year old married woman who vacillates in whether she likes her husband or not. They go to a party, Evelyn meets a man who takes her into his apartment for drinks during the party and tells her he loves her, kisses her. They rejoin the party and she gives her number to the man as she’s leaving. The next day she adjusts her dresses to be less matronly, waits for his call. Finally calls him, he’s not available. Calls her friend who had the party, learns that he’s a drunk who makes love to all the ladies. Resigns herself to husband Martin.
* Love Affair – Laura finds out her ex-beau Howard is engaged, so she agrees to marry a man she has no interest in.
* Birthday – the second of the Grandma stories, living with son Herman, tormented by the family and overworked by them. Given the worst piece of fruit, no cream for her coffee, laughed at by the family when she read books. On her birthday, she receives a letter from her grand-daughter Helen with $25. She reads it to the family in order to make them jealous about Helen’s life, gives the $25 to her daughter-in-law. Her present was the joy in making them jealous.
* Corinna and her man – A girl tells her mother that when she grows up she’s not going to slave over her husband. She grows up, finds herself slaving over her husband, hearing her daughter say the same thing to her.
* The End of Anna – a story of Anna Clark’s suicide, reasons for which given by various people arising from their own situations (sister Ruth- she was in love, sister Sophie – husband was a drunk, husband Fred – she felt bad being poor). Then we hear Anna’s side – as she’s buttoning up her spats, she realizes that she’ll have to unbutton them at night, and every morning she has to go through the same process of bathing, dressing, cooking, cleaning, laundry, cooking. “Life stretched out before Anna – a void of little things – punctuated only by dressing and undressing.”

The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People

This collection of six essays came out in 2005, a few years after the combined exhibition in Rome and NYC showing Artemisia Gentileschi’s works alongside her father Orazio’s. My favorite essay of the bunch was the first, where Mary Garrard makes a strong case for identifying Artemisia’s work through her use of hands – strong, capable, full of agency and action. In Artemisia’s world, “female figures hammer and paint, grab and hold, push and shove, with extraordinary ease.” Compare this to the delicate and limp hands on her father’s female figures, showing both their Lute Player paintings side by side exemplifies this vividly. Garrard asserts that it’s unlikely an Artemisia painting if the woman doesn’t display both hands (otherwise she’d be handicapped), as well as any sort of overt eroticism. The other essays include detailed analyses of the Susana and Judith paintings, including a shout out to the work of Kathleen Gilje, who in 1998 created a faux “x-ray” picture of what she thought would be underneath Artemisia’s Susana painting should it be subjected to X-ray analysis.

All My Puny Sorrows

I’ve become convinced that all current genius writing is being done by a group of female Canadians. Miriam Toews is yet another bolster to that argument, penning the lyrical tale of a sister’s suicide with wry humor and tenderness. AMPS comes from a line in Coleridge’s poem To A Friend, With An Unfinished Poem:

I, too, a sister had, an only sister —
She loved me dearly, and I doted on her;
To her I pour’d forth all my puny sorrows;
(As a sick patient in a nurse’s arms,)

The narrator is Yolandi/Yoli, a writer and twice-divorced mother of two living in Toronto and approaching 40 years old. Her sister, Elf/Elfreida is a world-renowned concert pianist who lives with her husband Nic in Winnipeg when she’s not touring the globe and delighting adulating fans. The girls grew up in a Mennonite community, where the sons inherit the wealth of the family from generation to generation and the daughters “get sweet fuck all… but whatever, we descendants of the Girl Line may not have wealth and proper windows on our drafty homes but at least we have rage and we will build empires with that, gentlemen.” Musical instruments were banned by the community but the family didn’t let that stop Elf from practicing, even forcing the church men out of the house as she ravaged them with Rachmaninoff when they came to rebuke her father.
At the beginning, Yoli heads back to Winnipeg to visit Elf in the hospital, recovering from an unsuccessful suicide attempt with pills. Yoli alternates between comforting and raging at her sister, unwinding stories from the old days, telling tales of her current life. Elf fakes recovery and is released, only to be back in intensive care after drinking bleach and slitting her wrists. Now she has trouble speaking (the bleach damaged vocal chords), but scribbles down thoughts and occasionally will speak to Yoli. Meanwhile, their mother arrives back from the cruise they put her on to distract her from these tragedies, and aunt Tina comes to help her, having an accident of her own which leads to open heart surgery from which she dies. When Yoli and her mom travel to aunt Tina’s funeral, she begs the hospital not on any occasion to let Elf out. Despite this, Elf gets a day pass for her birthday, and steps in front of a train while husband is out at the library retrieving books for her. (Their dad also killed himself via train – Yoli stifles an internet search for ‘suicide gene.’)