A Legacy

Sybille Bedford’s novel is another enjoyable example of her luxurious prose, droll wit, perfectly timed dialogue (see also her travel book to Mexico), always a treat to sink into after a few hours of battling with the gloom of the real world. It’s couched as fiction, but the bones of the story seem to closely follow her own life, born to an elderly German baron who lived in France and Spain and a distracted, rich, beautiful English woman (possibly not even the baron’s, having an affair with someone else at the time). It’s rich with descriptions of growing up in the polished wood mansion of her grandparents’ Berlin home, only they weren’t her grandparents—it’s complicated. Her father’s first marriage was to a wealthy young Berliner, Melanie, who died a year after giving birth to the narrator’s half-sister, Henrietta. The in-laws, the Mertz, insisted on his living with them and raising Henrietta, and soon he got a large allowance and was kept on in style. When he married a second time, he has the audacity to ask for a larger allowance from his previous in-laws! The first section is an exploration of her father’s childhood, carefree for the most part, until rumblings in the German state caused chaos and sent his younger brother Jean to military school where he went insane. They lived in the country, ate well, no money problems but no real money either. The grandfather insisted that they dine an hour after sunset, as was the custom of the Romans.

Beautiful and well worth your time to take a trip back to pre-war Europe if you can stand the mutterings and peccadilloes of the upper class.

Janesville: An American Story

Perhaps it’s a result of overdosing on books about the failing/flailing middle class (e.g. 1, 2, or 3 which was also about Wisconsin), but I was reluctant to read this all the way to the end. Amy Goldstein takes us on an in-depth tour of Janesville, Wisconsin, home of Paul Ryan, and a town where GM shut down one of its oldest factories in 2008. Other industry in the town left as well, Parker Pen having been sold to investors and eventually to Gillette, jobs marching out of town in the thousands. She shows you what life looks like as a family slides from middle class into needing help from the local food pantry, and poor families slipping into poverty sometimes abandoning their kids into homelessness. The impact of job loss ripples outward as people who made the seats that went into the cars also get shut down (and other ancillary services like day care, etc. that are now no longer affordable).

One man opts to become a “gypsy” commuting to a GM factory in Indiana and sharing an apartment with another Janesville gypsy during the week, then driving 5 hours back each weekend. Others go back to technical school to pick up skills and hope to find work. Some are successful, like Barb who helps developmentally disabled adults. Some fail, like Barb’s best friend Kristi who kills herself after getting a job at the jail and falling in love with a prisoner. Suicide rates double in the town after the factory closes.

Mostly you see the splintering of a town, with rich optimists on one side (aka Paul Ryan supporters) who give lip service about jobs and things turning around, and those thousands who are actually impacted, who learn to do without, to eat a lot of pasta, to give up their dreams.

Iron & Silk

Nowhere nearly as good as the other book about China I recently read, but at least not painful to read. Perhaps the only painful part was the author photo in the back, showcasing the young author in a sleeveless t-shirt to show off his bulging martial arts muscles while eating Chinese takeout with a plastic fork. Yikes.

This came out in 1986, a record of Salzman’s two years teaching English and studying gong fu with a seemingly endless stream of willing teachers. (And yet, he protects his own time from frequent requests to give private language lessons by saying no). He also picks up a calligraphy teacher or two, and practices his sketching along the foggy river befriending fishermen who are dazzled by seeing a white man who speaks Chinese. A true Renaissance man, Salzman fixes an old lady’s piano and brings his cello to the fisherman’s home to give a concert (they’re dazzled most by the red velvet lining the case).

Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company

I will never understand the impulse to write a biography about someone you don’t like. James Mellow has little respect for Stein’s genius and his disdain comes through in sneers throughout. Maybe his purpose was to sneak an encomium to Leo Stein into a book that people would be tricked into reading, much more interested about his stunningly talented sister instead. Snide comments about Gertrude’s girth start in the first paragraph and pepper the remainder of the text. The only reason I picked this up was because it was the source of a reference in Pat Highsmith’s bio about how much Stein and Picasso adored the Katzenjammer Kids comics. I’m taking a hard pass on the remaining hundreds of pages of this travesty of a biography.

The Sisters Chase

Sarah Healy has written a gorgeous novel about two sisters left alone after their mother dies in a car accident, without money because the hotel she owned was in the red. Mary, aged 18 at the time, whisks Hannah, aged 4, into their car and heads south to her mother’s cousin Gail in Florida, where she seduces Gail’s husband and photographs it for $10k blackmail. This gives Mary and Hannah enough to get on their feet, travel a bit and then settle into a town and get Hannah schooled. Only Mary chooses the town that her love, Stefan, grew up in, and concocts a flat tire in front of his house before Christmas when he’s visiting, causing them to reunite after 6 years. Naturally, Mary is really Hannah’s mom, and Stefan is her father, but all of this doesn’t come out concretely until the end. It’s beautifully written, well-paced, a delightful treat for the otherwise harried mind.

The Gift

You’re not smart or cool or hip enough for this book, but it doesn’t care—it will lead you by the hand anyway through the nooks and crannies of NYC’s art world, intellectual circles, performance pieces, poetry readings. It grants you access, a gift, a glimpse inside a world you’re not enough for. From Barbara Browning’s own words, it’s a book about technique, art, love, surrogacy, gift economies, feminism, communism, and the erotics of collaboration. It’s non-fiction disguised as fiction, or at least sliding to that end of the spectrum.

The book is a gift, as intended. A mediation on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which deals with artistic talent needing to be given away and not just bottled up and sold. Browning’s work is another in a long line of dreamy, smart, creative books by intellectual women I’ve been digging lately—Maggie Nelson, Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus—all of whom have mentions in the book. It’s the chin nod to one’s peers or influencers. Other name drops: Sophie Calle, Valerie Solanas (wherein I learn that she scrawled edits to the NYPL copy of SCUM Manifesto complaining about the publisher’s changes), Lauren Berlant (repeatedly referred to by Browning as “the smartest woman in the US”), Andre Breton, Gertrude Stein.

She begins by talking about the ukulele covers she’s been making for friends and how she responded to a spam message by making a cover for the sender. This leads into a discussion about a reclusive musical genius with Asperger in Germany she befriends (and later has a disastrous attempt to visit in Köln where she learns that he’s given a fake address), Sami, who makes his own musical videos posted online. Browning also makes various naked dance videos of herself or her hands, set either to music or to the voice messages that Sami leaves her. The German term for Asperger is Inselbegabung, meaning “insular talent.”

The book meanders, dipping into performance art of her transgender friend Tye, bragging about how smart her NYU doctoral students are, giving lectures at the post-Occupy Free University, pop-up lectures on Pussy Riot, New Museum patronage of Karen Finley’s sexting piece, discussing appropriation in the digital world (centos are poems constructed of lines from other poets, the form originated in 3rd century AD). It’s delightful, uncategorizable, intellectual, dreamy, thought-provoking stuff.

Strangers on a Train

Pat’s first book, pub’d 1950 when she was 29 and obviously made famous by Hitchcock’s picking it up for a film (Raymond Chandler worked on the adaptation before he got fired and said the plot drove him “crazy”). The film streamlines and simplifies, as it always does. In the book, Guy breaks down and commits the murder of Bruno’s dad after months of torment and letters and harassment by Bruno after he offs Miriam. Bruno still can’t let well enough alone and insinuates himself into Guy and Anne’s life, eventually ending up on a boat with them that he drunkenly falls from, drowning. Guy is wracked with guilt, tracks down Miriam’s old boyfriend and confesses, of course to find Bruno’s private detective outside the door having heard it all. Most interesting to know about Pat’s alcoholism while reading this, as Bruno is constantly sloshed, saying things like the best way to experience the world is while drunk.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

German forester Peter Wohlleben puts on his writing cap (with the help of English translator Jane Billinghurst) to share the secret life of trees. This book had the potential to be amazing, but the writing bogged it down, laborious and heavy where it could have danced in the wind among the treetops.

So many crazy facts!  Trees can accurately identify the insect attacking them by their saliva and release a specific pheromone to attract a “beneficial predator” to get rid of the attacker.

Trees talk to each other by electrical pulses in interconnected root systems carried by fungal networks. WHAT?! This has been deemed the “wood wide web.” Cultivated plants, however, lose their ability to communicate above or below ground, and as isolated beings are easy prey for insects. Trees also help each other out, funneling nutrients to their sick or dying friends.

This is simply insane: “When you measure water pressure in trees, you find it is highest shortly before the leaves open up in the spring. At this time of year, water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.”

This also mind boggling: “To protect its needles from freezing, a conifer fills them with antifreeze. To ensure it doesn’t lose water to transpiration over the winter, it covers the exterior of its needles with a thick layer of wax.”

Trees act as disinfectants, killing germs by releasing phytoncide from their needles. Walnut trees have compounds in their leaves that are insect repellent (gardeners are advised to put their benches under walnuts to avoid mosquitoes).

One group of researchers registered roots crackling at a frequency of 220 hertz. “Whenever the seedling’s roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction.”

Man’s Search for Himself

Rollo May’s book from 1953 is oddly appropriate many decades later, mentioning the “semi-psychotic state, Third World War and catastrophe hovering around the corner.” The first half of the book was devoured greedily, but then I got somewhat bored by the last parts. He quotes T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men a lot, along with Kafka, Goethe, Freud (who always gets some adjective like “venerable” before his name).

May says, “The chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness.” People don’t know what they want or even what they feel.  Another common characteristic is loneliness: “when a person does not know with any inner conviction what he wants or what he feels… he senses danger and his natural reaction is to look around for other people who will give him some sense of direction or comfort that he is not alone in his fright.” He mentions the anxiety that swept over the world “like a tidal wave when the first atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima,” causing interior panic since no one knew which way the world would turn.

To combat this aloneness, we gather in useless groups. May dips into a typical cocktail hour where people meet the same people every night and have the same conversations. “What is important is not what is said, but that some talk be continually going on.”

Another scary parallel to today’s hyper-connected world of false sentiment expressed in Likes, Claps, or various other virtual reality praise:

Since the dominant values for most people in our society are being liked, accepted and approved of, much anxiety in our day comes from the threat of not being liked, being isolated, lonely or cast off.

May points out the oddity that radio programs frequently signed off with “Thanks for listening.”…

Why should the person who is doing the entertaining thank the receiver for taking it? To acknowledge applause is one thing, but thanking the recipient for deigning to listen and be amused is quite a different thing. It betokens that the action is given its value by the whim of the consumer.

Hate yourself? Probably part of the reason you hate other people:

The self-condemning substitute provides the individual with a rationalization for his self-hate, and thus reinforces the tendencies toward hating himself. And, inasmuch as one’s attitudes toward other selves generally parallel one’s attitude toward one’s self, one’s covert tendency to hate others is also rationalized and reinforced. The steps are not big from the feeling of worthlessness of one’s self to self-hatred to hatred for others.

Melville: His World and Work

Who cares if Melville was gay? I certainly don’t give a fig (one of his favorite snacks) about his or any other genius’s sexuality. Yet that’s a bugaboo that must be faced in every single biography about the man. To be fair, his circle jerking in the “A Squeeze of the Hand” chapter of MD is over-the-top madness and hilarious, but must we dissect him to this degree?

Delbanco takes on the thankless task of creating a vivid biography of someone who left mostly traces of himself only in his written work, scattered letters, a thin journal here and there. This book is expansive in its exploration of Melville’s oeuvre, panning for nuggets of his life in the gold streams of prose. The best part was a re-ignition of my desire to read MD again.

Other bits:

  • I appreciated learning about Melville’s habit of buying a book for his library only after he’d read a copy borrowed from a friend or the library. Hey-yo, fellow traveler!
  • After the thudding failure of MD, Melville actually proposed publishing his next book under a pseudonym!

Georgia: A Guide to its Towns and Countryside

As expected, this WPA guidebook written about Georgia in 1940 sucks. Anything written by Southerners about the South before the Civil Rights Movement must be approached with caution. Nothing in here worth taking away. Provides the usual details about towns, only helpfully denotes that of the 6 movie theaters, 2 are for blacks, er, Negroes.

This topic even merits its own section. Which one of these chapters is not like the others?

Gross.

 

The Two Faces of January

I promise, I’m getting close to the end of my Pat Highsmith list. This one was from her peak period of writing in the 1960s (1964) and a treat for the eyes, although sloppy in a couple of places. Colette and Chester are an American couple in Greece fleeing Chester’s bad business deals back in the States by heading to Europe in the winter. They come across Rydal, another American, who has been struck by Chester’s similarity to his dead father. Rydal helps Chester dispose of the body of a Greek policeman who’s come sniffing around about the fraud, accidentally killed. Then Rydal helps him get fake passports, and decides to travel with them to Crete where he falls in love with Colette and she with him. Chester tries to kill Rydal at Knossos, but ends up dropping a heavy stone on his wife instead, crushing her. Then the inevitable fleeing the country, attempting to pin the blame on Rydal, etc. etc.

The Blunderer

More murder from Pat Highsmith, this one an early gem from 1954. She begins with a gruesome killing, a man sets his alibi by going to a movie and making sure to say hello to someone, then exiting the theater to follow the bus his wife is on, viciously killing her at the rest stop. A blurb about the murder comes out in the paper and is collected by Walter, a lawyer who writes essays about human relationships for fun. Later, he thinks about doing just that (killing his wife at a rest stop) but she ends up suiciding from a cliff at the rest stop instead, casting suspicion onto him. The original murderer starts to face intense scrutiny, ends up killing Walter and being taken into custody for the two murders. Not great, but not terrible.

Ottoline: The life of Lady Ottoline Morrell

A tremendously boring biography about a tremendously interesting woman, Ottoline. Her life intersected with so many of the greats we revere today, and yet the story of her life as told by Darroch falls flat on its face. Friends with Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Bertrand Russell (lovers, actually), Katherine Mansfield, Murray-Middleton, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, the Asquiths, Henry Lamb (another lover), etc. etc. etc. She met Gertrude Stein in Paris, and was immortalized in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a “marvellous female version of Disraeli.”

Probably the most interesting bits gleaned from this dull tome were two pieces of unusual language: the idea that someone can be melancholy (and not melancholic), and the concept of someone getting their portrait painted as “sitting to” a painter, not “sitting for.”

I’m always hungry for gossip that denigrates Middleton-Murry, Katherine Mansfield’s unworthy husband, and this letter from Bertrand Russell to Ottoline does nicely: “I thought Murry beastly and the whole atmosphere dead and putrefying.” Also a comment dropped by Ott in her memoirs about KM calling him “a little mole hung out on a string to dry.”

Ottoline’s first impression of Katherine Mansfield wasn’t the best, KM having been embarrassed into silence by DH Lawrence’s violent political speech, she “sat very silent and Buddha-like on the big sofa—she might almost have held in her hand a lotus-flower.”

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveler’s Tale from Mexico

A delightful travel book about Mexico by Sybille Bedford, soaking up as much of the New World post WWII before heading back to Europe. (At one point she considers sailing on a boat from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux that would allow her to take two small donkeys back to Normandy.)  Descriptions waft out of her book with the scent of freshly made tortillas, tinkling with the clink of ice in a glass of rum or tequila, sparkling with the frank heat of a noontime sun.

I sipped from this book carefully, not gobbling at the usual speed and keeping a separate tally of all the intriguing words she packed in. This week I’ve become a bit of a word connoisseur, sampling the sound of each as I strain toward writing my own. These are not words you find in today’s sparse and modern tomes:

expostulate excrement sybaritic admixture rend desolation volcanic haphazard proportion graft expulsion promulgation appurtenance charlatan ossify miasma exegesis exorbitant inviolate somnolent torpor quiescence dour chafe sempiternal empyrean satraps gauleiters inured

Sybille and her friend “E.” (Esther Murphy Arthur) leave New York’s Grand Central and head south by train. I knew I was in for a treat early on when I encountered her acerbic retelling of the various availability of alcohol per state.

E. was told to wait until we have crossed the state line.  It is all very confusion. Oklahoma and Kansas are bone dry, that is everybody drinks like fishes. In Vermont you are rationed to two bottles of hard liquor a month. In Pennsylvania you cannot get a drink on Sunday; in Texas you may only drink at home, in Georgia only beer and light wines, in Ohio what and as much as you like but you have to buy it at the Post Office. Arizona and Nevada are wet but it is a criminal offence to give a drink to a Red Indian. In New York you cannot publicly consume anything on a Sunday morning but may have it sent up to an hotel bedroom. And nowhere, anywhere, in the Union can you buy, coax or order a drop on Election Day.

Her descriptions of the country are pure poetry, lyrical, flowing. Laziness overcomes me and instead of transcribing, I take the easy way out by screengrabbing Amazon’s copy (“Creole ladies went to Mass covered in diamonds leading pet leopards” and “women in crinolines sat at banquet among the flies at Vera Cruz” are you kidding me, perfect!):

The pair spend weeks in Mexico City, (just “Mexico” to locals), exploring the streets and jumping on buses for gut-wrenching lurching toward other towns up and down mountains. Drinking is somewhat of a problem as bars aren’t open to women except certain hotel bars. But this isn’t so terrible, “this is not a good country to drink in: in daytime one does not want it at all, and at night one wants it too much.” The wines are horrible, but Sybille learns to swallow it “with a liberal admixture of water, like a man.”

Of the sights, there is much to see. “Everywhere. No need, no point, to plan and rush, only to stand, to stroll and stare; to connect. Not great beauty, not the perfect proportions, the slow-grown, well-grown balance, not the long-tended masterpiece of thought and form, the tight French gem, but the haphazard, the absurd, the overblown, the savage, the gruesome. The fantastic detail and the frightening vista; the exotically elegant; the vast, the far, the legendarily ancient.”

She buys a manual of conversation for Indian phrases. In a section headed Useful Words and Phrases, page one has:
‘Are you interested in death, Count?’
‘Yes, very much, your Excellency.’

E.’s cousin Anthony joins them midway through the trip, making friends with all the Mexican gentlemen and paving the way for an easier journey. Anthony is on vacation from his job in Baltimore and after a few weeks of fun, lolling about Don Otavio’s well-managed house reading and drinking and talking and exploring, Sybille broaches the fact that he must return in three weeks. “How can you bear it? Cellophane, television, the deep-freeze unit, getting and spending. The whole old bag of nothing.”

A book like this makes me want to travel again. Maybe.