The Way of All Flesh

Is there a better delight than unearthing a book that you’d never heard of but that is considered “one of the summits of human achievement” by Shaw, “one of the time bombs of literature” by V.S. Pritchett, better than “some of the masterpieces of English fiction” by Woolf? (Woolf’s 1916 review of his biography notes that Samuel Butler “is one of those rare spirits among the dead whom we like… as we do the living, so strong is their individuality and so clearly can we make up our minds about their manners and opinions.”) I stumbled onto this book by way of the 1924 Who Would Be Free, where the book made a huge impact on the main character. And lo, it appears to be on a list of the best 100 novels of all time!

Published posthumously in 1903 so as not to offend his family, it’s semi-autobiographical, a tale of a promising young boy thrust into the clergy and eventually estranged from his domineering pastor father. Unbeknownst to him, his aunt has left him a fortune to come to him upon his 28th birthday, and his godfather Overton (the book’s narrator) oversees the funds until then. The writing is a delight, so fresh and modern for having been written in the 1870s. His passage on marriage can’t be left without note:

A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage—but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends.  The rift in friendship which invariably makes its appearance on the marriage of either of the parties to it was fast widening, as it no less invariably does, into the great gulf which is fixed between the married and the unmarried, and I was beginning to leave my protégé to a fate with which I had neither right nor power to meddle.  In fact I had begun to feel him rather a burden; I did not so much mind this when I could be of use, but I grudged it when I could be of none.  He had made his bed and he must lie upon it.  Ernest had felt all this and had seldom come near me till now, one evening late in 1860, he called on me, and with a very woebegone face told me his troubles.

As soon as I found that he no longer liked his wife I forgave him at once, and was as much interested in him as ever.  There is nothing an old bachelor likes better than to find a young married man who wishes he had not got married—especially when the case is such an extreme one that he need not pretend to hope that matters will come all right again, or encourage his young friend to make the best of it.

 

Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

This isn’t the best written biography you’ll ever read, which is why it seems I keep taking it up and discarding it. But I always return because Cynthia Carr’s Wojnarowicz is the most deeply researched by way of interviews with his friends and cohorts.

Of most interest to me in this go-round was the detail surrounding the Rimbaud mask photos. He was visiting JP in Paris in the summer of 1979, a time when French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest had attached Rimbaud’s photo to a photo of a leather-jacketed young man, lifesize photos plastered on walls, phone booths, billboarrds. “Surely David had seen the cheap newsprint Rimbaud posters plastered everywhere in Paris in 1978-79,” Carr conjectures.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s Rimbaud posters in Paris, 1978-79

David had a short-lived minimum wage job in the summer of 1979 for an ad agency that trained him to print photographs and run a photostat machine. This is where he photostated the cover of Illuminations to create the Rimbaud mask, life-sized. From there he put Brian Butterick, John Hall, and JP into the mask and into various NYC-based location shoots. When he got $150 from Soho News to print four of his Rimbaud photos, it was the first payment he got for his art.

Other random factoids: living with Brian Butterick in DUMBO at 59 Hudson Ave., they kept a 3-ring binder that they’d each add an artwork to every day—a poem, drawing, found object, collage.

Who Would Be Free

Marian Spitzer’s 1924 book about a young semi-talented artistic Jewish woman who resolutely rejects marriage in order to live by herself, free, was a joy to inhale this morning. She’s beset by traps on all sides. Her mother schemes to get her to marry an acceptable Jewish man, Chester Adelstein, while Eleanor prefers the more bohemian (and unacceptable Jewish) man, Ted Levine (Jew-on-Jew hatred apparently a thing, German Jews looking down on those from Russia?), who encouraged her to go to art school instead of become a teacher. But she knows she wants to escape her parents, the regimented life, and she fights hard to do so. Although in love with Ted, he goes off to war (WW1) and she knows she’ll never see him again. Sure enough, news of his death comes on Armistice Day. She throws herself back into life again and manages to move out of her parents’ apartment, earn a small living as a graphic designer for the theater, and when she turns 21, comes into money from her Grandmother that allows her to get her own attic studio apartment for $60 a month. Another man enters the fray as soon as she becomes successful, and she nearly becomes trapped by him, too. An ultimatum to marry him right before he sails for Europe that she accepts, then spends a sleepless night worrying about. I cheered as I sat alone in my room of my own, as she comes to the decision to back out of the marriage.

The room became suddenly invested with a new value—the room that summed up, really, all that she had fought and worked for, ever. It was there, alone, that she had come into possession of her soul. And now she was giving it up—leaving it behind—sailing for Europe, marrying. It was funny, now that Steve was gone, Europe didn’t seem quite so alluring. After all, just more places, other cities, with different streets and buildings. That was one of the things about belonging just to yourself. You didn’t have to go anywhere. Or do anything. You had wonderful moments, unspoiled by anything. It occurred to her that whatever moments of absolutely unalloyed beauty and happiness she had ever known, had been in solitude—solitude of body and spirit… The peace that had once been so palpably a part of the room slowly gathered again and eveloped her. She and peace were in that room, and the rest of the world was shut outside.    THE END

Our Rimbaud Mask

Anna Vitale’s essay about David Wojnarowicz’s “Arthur Rimbaud in New York” photographic series. She questions identity, suicide, solitude, psychosis.  “The Rimbaud mask, different from the image of Rimbaud, invites us to become compassionate witnesses to those whose lives feel unsurvivable without assuming the experience can be shared.” Surrogate self-portraits.

The reliance on Cynthia Carr’s biography for background info on the masks means I need to dip back into that again. Apparently it was 3 different friends in the mask: Brian Butterick, John Hall, and Jean Pierre. (Most of the other research I’ve read just references Butterick.)

Olive Kitteridge

I’m not a fan of reading books after having seen the screen adaptation, but somehow having Frances McDormand’s face loom up from the pages wasn’t all bad, as long as the writing moved along creamily and pulled me under. Plus there are many more stories and layers in the written work than what could be depicted even in an extended miniseries. Sturdy Olive Kitteridge, retired math teacher with a saint for a husband, speaks her mind and has no love lost from the small Maine town’s citizens. Henry has a stroke, hangs on for years in a nursing home. Her son Christopher leaves town with wife #1 for California, only to get divorced and remarry a woman with a few kids of her own before settling in NYC as a podiatrist. Elizabeth Strout has the gift of weaving a tale out of nothing, making you invested in the characters in this small community, eager for more.

Essays One

Volume one of Lydia Davis’s essays is brimming with thoughts on writers and visual artists (Joan Mitchell, John Ashberry’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations [which I read], Joseph Cornell, Hölderlin, Flaubert, Barthes, Stendhal, Jane Bowles), dissections of plots and writing and style, and writing advice. My favorite piece was the Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits, a clickbait headline befitting the 2013 essay. The first 10 recommendations she recaps here, with major emphasis on taking notes, noting your own activity and feelings along with others’ behavior. I like the push to work from your own interest, which is what I do, pursuing odd investigations into the most random of topics. I definitely agree with being mostly self-taught, reading a lot. She recommends keeping books of writing exercises on hand to do something even when you’re not inspired. Take time in between stopping writing and picking up your next task to let your brain continue to feed you ideas. #17 says to learn as much as you can about the origin of words you’re using, #18 listen to the sound of the words, and #19 read poetry regularly. #20 be curious about as much as possible and #21 let your mind wonder about things without looking them up immediately.

#22 in full:

The Waterfront Journals

David Wojnarowicz wrote these “monologues” as he called them, and sent them to Amy Scholder to get published in 1989 along with a letter saying “I wrote this book over the last thirteen or fourteen years. It’s all true.” The monologues are stories from the perspective of the many people he encountered hitching or driving across the country (SF, Washington State, Albuquerque are all represented), or on the streets of the Lower East Side or 42nd Street at 3AM or in a coffee shop or diner. True tales of love and lust and dreams for what was or what could have been. His own stories seem peppered in with other tales, and you can tell which those are by the rich depth of description of interior thought. The final story is taken “From the Diaries of a Wolf Boy”, from David’s notebooks, so much more clearly his story and perspective. It’s a way of sinking conversations with strangers into amber, preserved for eternity.

Persuasion

Re-reading Jane Austen is always a treat, but I can’t add much to my review from a few years ago. The only thing that stuck in my craw this time was how it seemed to hurry and wrap up, loose ends wrenched into submission by pushing Mrs. Clay (ne’er do well friend of older sister Elizabeth) into Mr. Elliot’s arms (the cousin who stands to inherit the baronetcy). Their plot (witnessed by sisters Anne and Mary from a window in Bath who see Mrs. Clay shake hands with Mr. Elliot when he is supposed to be out of town already) isn’t fully explained, they’re just shoved off the page when Anne and Wentworth’s engagement becomes known.

Also this time I’m more attuned to the horrors of Sir Walter’s possible remarriage with all the nightmares of wicked stepmothers dancing in my own head. And the too-quick remarriage of a widowed friend of Wentworth who goes a’courting mere months after his wife’s death. When these things happen in real life, it’s soothing to have fictional characters to fall back on and see how their friends and family rant against these actions.

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Recommended by the Yale class on The Science of Well-Being, Lyubomirsky helps us hack our way into adjusting the factors we control that influence 40% of what determines happiness (circumstances = 10%, genetic set point = 50%). She starts with a  epigraph from William James: “To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” (Sadly I can’t find a definitive citation, so I think it’s only rumored to be James.)

After leading you through some diagnostic tests to figure out which activity best fits your personality, she explores 12 happiness activities:

  • Express gratitude
  • Cultivate optimism
  • Avoid overthinking & social comparison
  • Practice acts of kindness
  • Nurture social relationships
  • Develop coping strategies
  • Learn to forgive
  • Increase flow experiences
  • Savor life’s joys
  • Commit to your goals
  • Practice religion/spirituality
  • Take care of your body through meditation/exercise/acting happy

For cultivating optimism, she suggests writing about your best possible self; think about your best possible self now and during the next few weeks—imagine yourself in the future after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You’ve worked hard and accomplished all your goals. This is the realization of your life dreams and your best potentials. Write for 20 minutes daily about what this is like, or think about this for 20 minutes then write your conclusions about what you imagine. Why does writing work? “Because writing is highly structured, systematic, and rule-bound, it prompts you to organize, integrate, and analyze your thoughts in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, to do if you were just fantasizing.”

The Voyage Out

I begin the year with the taste of literary champagne on my tongue, re-reading Woolf’s first novel which came out in 1915. Swept away in her brilliant words, like listening to the notes from the choir echoing in a cathedral. The bar is set high for the year, I hope not to dip too low or chase too many scattered ideas.

Rachel dies in the end, but life goes on. Life continues for her fiancee Terence, who has only been engaged to her for a few weeks before a tropical illness overtakes her and pushes her through the veil of the living. Great strange descriptions of Rachel’s fever in the end chapters, and Terence’s own grappling with what matters. But at the finale, St. John stumbles back to the hotel and finds groups of people chatting, playing chess, knitting; in short, life continues even in the shadow of Rachel’s death in the villa on the hill.

Helen and Ridley kick off the book, leaving their children behind in London and joining Helen’s brother-in-law on his ship to Brazil, taking her 24-year-old niece Rachel under her wing on the long voyage. The Dalloways (Richard and Clarissa) are picked up at one port then deposited at another, but not before Richard kisses Rachel and awakens her realization that she knows nothing of life. The rest of the book takes place in a small fictional town near the Amazon, with a hotel full of Englishmen to add zest to the parade of characters and mirrored love stories/engagements.

“The vision of her own personality, of herself as a real everlasting thing, different from anything else, unmergeable, like the sea or the wind, flashed into Rachel’s mind, and she became profoundly excited at the thought of living.” (p 75)

“I don’t think you altogether as foolish as I used to… You don’t know what you mean but you try to say it.” (p 98)

The importance of a room: “Among the promises which Mrs. Ambrose had made her niece should she stay was a room cut off from the rest of the house, large, private—a room in which she could play, read, think, defy the world, a fortress as well as a sanctuary. Rooms, she knew, became more like worlds than rooms at the age of twenty-four. ” (p 112)

Terence, on what he wants to write: “‘I want to write a novel about Silence,’ he said; ‘the things people don’t say. But the difficulty is immense.'”

Lush descriptions of reading

“As he read he knocked the ash automatically, now and again, from his cigarette and turned the page, while a whole procession of splendid sentences entered his capacious brow and went marching through his brain in order. It seemed likely that this process might continue for an hour or more, until the entire regiment had shifted its quarters, had not the door opened…” (p 95)

“Far from looking bored or absent-minded, her eyes were concentrated almost sternly upon the page, and from her breathing, which was slow but repressed, it could be seen that her whole body was constrained by the working of her mind. At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world. ” (p 112)

“Terence, meanwhile, read a novel which some one else had written, a process which he found essential to the composition of his own.” (p 278)

“‘God, Rachel, you do read trash!’ he exclaimed. ‘And you’re behind the times too, my dear. No one dreams of reading this kind of thing now—antiquated problem plays, harrowing descriptions of life in the east end—oh, no, we’ve exploded all that. Read poetry, Rachel, poetry, poetry, poetry!'” (p 276)

On the river, Terence quotes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a snippet added in 1860: “Whoever you are holding me now in your hand, Without one thing all will be useless.”

Rachel doesn’t like Gibbon’s history:

No, I don’t like it,” she replied. She had indeed been trying all the afternoon to read it, and for some reason the glory which she had perceived at first had faded, and, read as she would, she could not grasp the meaning with her mind.

“It goes round, round, round, like a roll of oil-cloth,” she hazarded. Evidently she meant Hewet alone to hear her words, but Hirst demanded, “What d’you mean?”

She was instantly ashamed of her figure of speech, for she could not explain it in words of sober criticism.

At a church service in the hotel basement, Hirst reads Sappho in Greek:

Early in the service Mrs. Flushing had discovered that she had taken up a Bible instead of a prayer-book, and, as she was sitting next to Hirst, she stole a glance over his shoulder. He was reading steadily in the thin pale-blue volume. Unable to understand, she peered closer, upon which Hirst politely laid the book before her, pointing to the first line of a Greek poem and then to the translation opposite.

“What’s that?” she whispered inquisitively.

“Sappho,” he replied. “The one Swinburne did—the best thing that’s ever been written.”

Mrs. Flushing could not resist such an opportunity. She gulped down the Ode to Aphrodite during the Litany, keeping herself with difficulty from asking when Sappho lived, and what else she wrote worth reading, and contriving to come in punctually at the end with “the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlastin’. Amen.”

Top Picks of 2019

There were plenty of duds I read this year but I’m getting better about ejecting from books I’m not enjoying. The list below contains only the highlights though it might appear to be a comprehensive list of books read. But first, some stats:

Non-fiction

Fiction

On Writing

Memoir/Essays

Poetry/Plays

Art

Classics

Read Walt Whitman (1855 Leaves of Grass edition), Rimbaud’s Illuminations, the first volume of Coleridge’s letters, De Salvo’s Virginia Woolf book and the final collection of diaries VW read, Anthony Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie, Guy de Maupassant’s travel diary Afloat.

New Grub Street

George Gissing’s classic work exposing the brutal reality of difficulty making a living as a writer in 1880s London, laying out all the facts, the pittance offered for a work that cost the author a year of his life or more. One writer, Reardon, ends up sick and dies nearly penniless, despite his wife having come into an inheritance. Another writer, Biffen, kills himself, although for flimsier reasons—not caring particularly that his book wasn’t a success but more because he can’t marry someone? Then there’s Jasper, the frivolous man who understands how to write the blather that the public wants, and not to burden himself with a wife unless she’s rich. The story of the two cousins, Amy and Marian Yule, comes into this, Jasper first promising to marry Marian but when her inheritance disappears he pulls away, eventually marrying Amy after Reardon dies.

Marian helps her father write his articles, and she sits in the Reading Room musing one foggy day: “A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself, to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.”

Goal for the new year: deeper, “vertical” reading

This great article from The Paris Review about reading in the age of constant distraction has me committing even more strongly to the idea of abandoning the skimming, attention-lite, “horizontal” reading of online bits in favor of immersion into a longer and deeper focus. Mairead Small Staid takes a look at how well Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age holds up 25 years after it was published, and no surprise he sounds like a soothsayer: “Ten, fifteen years from now the world will be nothing like what we remember, nothing much like what we experience now,” Birkerts wrote in 1994. “We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.”

Staid writes: When a work compels immersion, if often also has the power to haunt from a distance,” Birkerts says, and how I wish this haunting were the sole province of great work. It isn’t: ghosts seep through the words on the screen, ghosts of screeds and inanities, of hate and idiocy, of so much—so much!—bad writing.”

And the final word from Birkerts: “The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment.”

As someone inordinately proud of her own reclaimed Borders’ bookshelf, I also loved this great detail: The shelves of the original Borders had been bought and repurposed by Literati’s owners to hold the new store’s fiction section.

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

This is not the type of book you breeze through in an afternoon. Recommended by a meditation class I took a few years ago, I finally got around to reading it in tiny bites each morning, a great way to start the day. Now that I’m through with one pass of the book, I’m going to keep it on my table and start again, a morning burst of wisdom to set the tone for the day.

While I suppose structure is a necessary component of explaining the Buddha’s teachings, I admit that it makes my head spin to try and keep track of all the things: the 7 factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the 5 techniques for getting rid of distracting thoughts, 5 themes of reflection, and on and on. Will I be quizzed on this? Instead, I tried to focus on the underlying concepts and let the numbers float away.

The personal stories inside are the ones that have the most staying power to stick in your brain, like his tales from meditation retreats or other monks’ experiences.

In a Lonely Place

Terrific Los Angeles noir from Dorothy Hughes, a mystery writer my sister recommended. Dix is a grifter, an ex-pilot unleashed from WW2 onto the Santa Monica streets where he inhales the fog while looking around for women to strangle. He calls up an old military buddy who happens to be an LA cop, and ratchets up his own pleasure in committing the crimes that his friend is investigating. The writing is beyond great, “He put out his hand to the mossy fog as if he would capture it, but his hand went through the gauze and he smiled.” Ms. Hughes is now on my must read list whenever I get a hankering for fiction.