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.

 

Don Quixote by Kathy Acker

I’ve been a long time coming to Kathy Acker, finally pushed into reading this by Sarah Schulman’s recommendation. Acker re-imagines herself as Don Quixote, the modern version, galloping into the rotting husk of NYC, watching junkies use razors instead of needles, her sidekick St. Simeon turning into a dog, seeing filth everywhere and being kicked pummeled punched flogged.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Dream state stream of consciousness interspersed with clever poems or recreation of the dialog at the end of the perfect film, The Women, zipping to St. Petersburg and back, discussion of politics Regan Nixon, Nazis, Oedipus, Waiting for Godot, sex, madness, drugs, rats, rotting. Surreal.

Selected Stories by Frances Bellerby

A delightful collection of somewhat creepy stories that linger around death, children, etc. The first story is a delicate exploration of how a father breaks the news of his young daughter’s death to his slightly older son. Another has a pair of siblings explore the roof of their new house and leave a surprise at the summit for someone else to discover when they’re gone, which shocks the sister, not able to comprehend where they will have gone, before they slide down to check on their sick mother. A father gives up his young daughter after the death of his wife, tries to forget about her, but Fate drives her to his door, he almost scares her away but realizes who she is, shows her a picture but all she can see is the gigantic spider scurrying away. Great writing, but some of the pieces aren’t as top notch as the others.

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back

Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book is a bit uneven but there are worthwhile bits tucked inside. It shines at the beginning, providing a glance back in time to what healthcare was like in the early 20th century and its evolution since into big business. Things veer off course in a bit of a preachy manner with excoriating screeds against hospitals, doctors, pharma. The book levels back to usefulness when she lays out her suggestions for how to improve things, giving specific advice for individuals. Besides always asking for things to be done “in-network” and asking how much tests/etc. cost, I found her ideas around hospital bills insightful:

  1. Make it clear you didn’t request a private room (they have a glut of these) otherwise you may be hit up with a “private room supplement” charge.
  2. Admitting docs will include a page about willingness to accept financial responsibility. Write “as long as the providers are in my insurance network” before you sign.
  3. Be clear about your status- are you under observation or being admitted? Observation will cost you much much more.
  4. If you’re up for it, ask to know the identity of everyone who appears at your bedside, what they’re doing, who sent them. Or ask a friend who’s with you if you’re too ill. Write it down. Drive-by doctoring will ring up the bills big time, and you can always say no. You might be billed for a physical therapist to help you out of bed when the nurse did it. Dermatologist there to examine a rash that has nothing to do with your illness? “Tell them all to go away. Everything done to you or for you in the hospital will be billed at exorbitant rates.”
  5. Hospital may try to send you home with equipment you don’t need, like slings, knee braces, wheelchair. Decline and buy them much cheaper elsewhere.
  6. When bills arrive, request complete itemization. You should also negotiate. “Prices are so inflated that even low-level clerks are authorized to approve major discounts.” Check the bill against your notes. Protest the bill in writing to create a record. Argue against surprise out of network fees.

Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market:

1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive treatment.
2. A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure.
3. Amenities and marketing matter more than good care.
4. As technologies age, prices go up rather than fall.
5. There is no free choice. Patients are stuck. And they’re stuck buying American.
6. More competition vying for business doesn’t mean better prices. It can drive prices up, not down.
7. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more.
8. There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test. And the uninsured pay the highest prices of all.
9. There are no standards for billing. There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything.
10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.

A Suspension of Mercy

One of Pat’s best books, pub’d in 1965 when she was in her full powers and had yet to slide into decline. It’s a story about a fiction writer (Sydney Bartleby) who hates his wife Alicia and keeps thinking about ways he would murder her. She’s an artist and takes time away from him, ostensibly to paint but in reality it’s just to get away from him. After a few days, she returns, and then after a major fight departs again, this time for a much longer time. Sydney is pleased to not have her around and begins producing great crime plots that he collaborates on with his pal Alex for television treatment. The day after Alicia leaves on her longer stay, Syd thinks he’d like to see what it’s like to raise suspicion that he’s murdered her, so early one morning carries a rolled up carpet that he goes and buries four feet underground. Alicia has actually flown into the arms of another man, Edward Tilbury, and in various disguises she stays away, raising alarm and suspicion when she doesn’t cash her monthly trust fund check. Syd jokes with Alex that he pushed her down the stairs and buried the body in a carpet, and the police come sniffing around. Eventually the carpet gets dug up, no body. Syd thinks, the body is deeper in the hole, keep digging, but there is no body because Alicia is still alive and in hiding. Eventually Syd’s publishing prospects are held up by people suspecting that he did in his wife, so he spies on her, discovers the affair, and telegrams her to return to her parents. Alicia panics, gets drunk, chases after Edward, and falls or is pushed off a cliff. Syd’s off the hook for her murder, but he’s not satisfied, he goes to Tilbury’s flat and forces him to eat sleeping pills which later kill him.

Poetry State Forest

Bernadette Mayer strikes again, playing with words, showing you her old notebooks with lists of words, creating poems out of daily life that reveal bits of herself: her fights with Phil, presents from her son Max, the neighbor who buys the land next door to put up a cabin (“At least it’s not a walmart/a used care lot or a mine”), railing against George Bush (W), going to anti-war demonstrations, talking about the gloomy month of December. My favorite one was “Idyll,” written from the perspective of a know-nothing typical redneck white male who’s vacationing by the lake, dousing his bbq with lighter fluid, fishing, tossing his cigarette butts in the water, then throwing more of his garbage in. Mostly it’s a book of play, words dancing and pirouetting and bowing and scraping across the page.

You & a Bike & a Road

Eleanor Davis sketches a beautiful story of her solo bike touring as she bikes from Tuscon, AZ to Athens, GA. (She ultimately gives up in Mississippi, but the journey to get there takes 57 days). She sings and soaks in the gorgeousness of farmland, icing her swollen knees with frozen green beans at a coffee shop inside a grocery store because she doesn’t like peas. She meets lovely people along the way that provide shelter or guidance or acupuncture or vegetable soup. Through it all we know that she’s struggling with depression, that she’s got to do this trip now or wait 20 years because she and her husband want to have children. She camps along the way when she can, resenting shelling out $60 for motels when conditions require it, and when concerned people ask if she’s doing it alone she assures them her husband is with her, imagining a knife she calls her husband to do the trick if anyone were to try anything funny. The border patrol in AZ, NM, and Texas are all omnipresent, she’s shaken by the image of a man walking slowly in the canal, agents on either side waiting to catch him, but she does score some water from them occasionally as she’s biking. Delicious treat for the eyes and brain.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Exhausting. I’ve been wrestling with this book for a couple of weeks now and would have given up except the subject matter is too compelling. Because I’m high on Highsmith I suffered through the terribly constructed, bloated biography that Schenkar put together. That may be harsh criticism, but surely there was a way to chop the 600 pages into something more manageable. And nothing is more deflating than struggling through hundreds of pages of Pat’s tempestuous affairs with ladies (and a few men), looking up to see that you are in Part 14 of the section, Les Girls. I almost cried when I realized how much she’d packed into those pages. Did every single detail of every single affair she had need to be included? Ye gods. (Pat was a busy woman, frequently sleeping with several women at the same time, preferring love triangles or affairs with married women so there was no possibility of it continuing).

The most interesting intel I got from this was Pat’s secret life as a comic strip writer. During the 1940s she was the “most consistently employed female scriptwriter in the Golden Age of American Comics,” and she continued to write them freelance while in Europe trying to make ends meet. Comics she wrote for include: Black Terror, Pyroman, Fighting Yank, The Destroyer, Sergeant Bill King, Jap Buster Johnson, The Human Torch, Crisco and Jasper, Real Life Comics, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Golden Arrow. She hid this work from everyone, ashamed of it, but admitted later that it helped her tremendously in having to crank out huge quantities of pages around tight plot lines. This is also where she picked up the dual imagery she clung to in her own work, the alter-ego.  The biographer goes on an interesting tangent about that era of comics and includes Gertrude Stein’s impression that Americans “do the best designing and use the best material in the cheapest thing.” Apparently Stein had Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids strips mailed to her in Paris, sharing them with equally obsessed comics fan Picasso.

As a girl, Pat read obsessively and used books as “drugs”—sounds familiar—and later in life read the dictionary for half an hour each night (“As a novelist, I can say the dictionary is the most entertaining book I have ever read”). She kept snails as pets and would unleash them onto the dinner table to freak people out.

An alcoholic, she shunned food and actually marked a line across the bottle for each day’s rations of booze (beer and gin or vodka in the morning, scotch for the remainder of the day). The author, Schenkar, claims: “Coffee, scientists now tell us gravely, helps to protect the livers of heavy drinkers from cirrhosis,” meaning that Pat was preserving herself by being a huge coffee drinker along with consuming astounding amounts of booze. She was also known to be furious if she was at a party that ran out of alcohol.

She was obviously deeply into murder, and her last writer’s diary calculates that “one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. Those over eight would take two blows to kill.” What circumstances would drive her to this frenzy? “One situation—maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.” Amen, sister. Later she says “Families are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live with one.” Pat had a ridiculously complicated and fraught relationship with her mother Mary, having to cut off contact completely in later years after one too many screaming matches.

A misanthrope, she preserved herself by “avoiding meeting people, encountering them on my walks, greeting even the most pleasant acquaintances by crossing the street when I see them far ahead of me on the sidewalk… I feel that I am never quite myself with others.” Another great quote: “I can easily bear cold, loneliness, hunger and toothache, but I cannot bear noise, heat, interruptions, or other people.”

She met Carson McCullers (who told Pat all afternoon that she had a “very good figure”). She also met Shirley Jackson who advised her about the importance of finding a literary agent. Jane Bowles told her “Don’t plan. It always works better to write first, and then rewrite.”

 

The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser makes the case for poetry, the transfer of energy between writer and reader. It’s a book that makes you pause, linger, think, and is unable to be slurped up quickly like so many others I’ve devoured lately. Originally pub’d in 1949, thankfully reissued for a new generation of writers and readers.

I muddled through most of it because she absolutely nails a few things with such clarity that she deserved to be heard in full. The beginning was particularly hard-hitting for me, dealing with the fear of poetry that I think affects most of us. Written almost 70 years ago, her words resonate particularly well in today’s troubled times:

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves. If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun. Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has—the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge—infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

Our resistance is a signifier of how afraid we are of poetry. The post-modern search for uniformity leads to mental disease and a fear of poetry. And yet poetry is everywhere, in songs, theater, books. But put a book of poems in someone’s hand and they freeze up, frightened. It’s the least recognized and rewarded art form. Why?

A Dog’s Ransom

Back on the Highsmith horse with this 1972 story about a crazy NYC neighbor who delights in sending poison pen letters finally kidnapping a dog and sending a $1000 ransom request. The Reynolds are the victims, and they’ve received three other nasty letters before the ransom note. Instead of going to the police, they tie up a bag of $1,000 and hope for the best. The money is taken but no dog, since it was killed the night it was stolen by the limping Rowajinski, disabled from a construction accident that has him on permanent disability. Now the Reynolds head to the police, which is where Clarence, the bright-eyed college educated cop, overhears their story and follows up on it of his own initiative. He tracks Rowajinski down, gets a confession, then oddly leaves him to go confer with the Reynolds about next steps (Rowajinski says the dog is still alive but at his sister’s house and will be killed if anything happens to him). While Clarence is gone, R’s landlady kicks him out and he recedes to a hotel in the Village. He gets another $1000 from the Reynolds and proceeds to burn half of it so he can say that Clarence took it as a bribe. Mixed up in all this is Marylyn, Clarence’s reluctant girlfriend who he’s asked multiple times to marry him. R gets caught by one of the other officers in Clarence’s unit and immediately accuses him of the $500 bribe, but ends up in Bellevue for a few days. After he’s released, he begins to haunt Marylyn, dropping notes and threats to her that make her fed up with Clarence who ultimately chases R down one night and beats him to death with his gun.

He confesses to Marylyn and the Reynolds, who have nothing but sympathy for him, but holds up under intense questioning by the police. In the end, it’s the “wop cop” that was harassing Marylyn who shows up and shoots Clarence after he refused to confess. Bizarre tale.

Lulu in Hollywood

Louise Brooks was an actor who could write, or perhaps a writer who could act. At any rate, she was an artist (also dancer!) and she left behind this collection of memories that is well worth a read. Stories of dancing in New York City in the 1920s, getting lavish presents from rich men (converting real jewels into cash and fake jewels so they were none the wiser, “ours was a heartless racket”), resisting the pull to Hollywood but finally caving and making some pictures under contracts she deemed slavery. Louise was a reader all her life, surrounded by books, reading Schopenhauer on the set, an anomaly in the world of acting.

Wondering to herself why she hadn’t written about her good friend Pepi Lederer, Maron Davies’s niece, she goes to her shelf and pulls out an old dictionary whose flyleaves were covered with pasted quotes from Goethe: “For a man remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.”

Hollywood and celebrity do find her. She spends weeks as a guest of Hearst in San Simeon, ends up divorcing her director husband Eddie Sutherland and fooling around with the Redskins owner George Marshall who likes her for her mind. “He understood my passion for books, which has made me perhaps the best-read idiot in the world.”

There’s a section on Humphrey Bogart, one on W.C. Fields, one with Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo. She dishes on what it was like to work with Wallace Beery (dreamy) and admits to sleeping with her stuntman. She muses on all the horribleness of the studio system, contracts locking you in and forcing you to do bad movies. She ultimately refuses her new contract which had a huge pay cut when talkies were coming into their own, got blacklisted from Hollywood. Later she’s invited to write about films and later still she’s visited by college boys in the 1960s who expect her to be thankful that they’re remembering her and wouldn’t she just write their paper for them for film school.

“As a loner, I count as my two most precious rights those that allow me to choose the periods of my aloneness and allow me to choose the people with whom I will spend the periods of my not-aloneness.”

I wish she’d left us more words.

Scarlet Tanager

After I read Bernadette Mayer’s poem, Politician (“It seems to us you convert your farts into speeches”), I immediately headed to the library to pick up the collection of her poetry that includes that one. Oh wonderful Dewey Decimal system, I parked in the 811.54s and went to town, greedily grabbing all of her work and snooping to see what else looked good.

I have a love/hate relationship with poetry and it’s mostly been hate for some reason (Muriel Rukeyser has some thoughts about that if I ever get around to finishing her book and posting it). But it’s the perfect form for today’s attention deficit. Have 60 seconds? Read a short poem instead of 10 tweets. Such as Grow Up, which has some great advice for poets:

i don’t know what to do next, this/is not how anyone should feel, most/bad poetry is badly thought through, it’s/terrible because it’s chaotic, whenever/you read it you feel full, actually/you should feel hungry when you read poetry, it’s like/an amuse-bouche at best, someday/you will have the main course, but/if the poem’s short & excellent, probably/you won’t need it, this/poem will drag on forever, rendering/you full as a whale’s brain, full/as the stupid future, however/you may take a shortcut, hit/on some beauty, maybe, probably/just homework, drudgery/making you feel the sink is full, you/have nothing to eat, why/don’t you just watch goldfinches?