Category Archives: Memoirs and Histories

Rimbaud and His Many Lives

Edmund White has written a probing and admiring elegy to Rimbaud in his book, Rimbaud, the Double Life of a Rebel (published in 2008). Based on my reading of this book, Rimbaud had a multiple layering of lives, not just a double life but a twisting and rolling of layers of himself, the genius and the seeker, into a myriad of lives.  All the lives came together in the end, to a solitary point of misery.  For Rimbaud was miserable for much of his life, miserable or bored, and that is the wonder of his work; his poems are neither miserable nor boring nor languid nor pessimistic.  At the core, his work was what he was: seeking and pursuing and capturing in a wholly new manner, change.  Change of emotion, of life, of love, of a future in exchange for a past.

My favorite work of Rimbaud is “The Drunken Boat”, the way it literally navigates the reader through a journey of unknown destination.  It is not the point of arrival that matters, it is the journey.

Rimbaud’s first life was that of exceptional and brilliant and obedient student; this was followed by life as rebel poet who sought to destroy all learned reactions through drink and excess, forbidden love and imposed poverty, traveling far and wide but then always returning home to his strict and domineering mother.  His passionate and manipulative affair with Verlaine, his scouring of self to achieve a new poetry, his use of new forms and new meters and really the first free form of western poetry was fantastic and to be admired and applauded and shared.  But Rimbaud alienated everyone around him; anyone who could help, was turned off; anyone who tried to help, could not do enough, while Rimbaud was alive.

White moves beyond the biographical milestones and lurid details to search the poetry of Rimbaud, and of his lover Verlaine, for what Rimbaud was after.  Rimbaud worked so hard, sought for so long amidst doubts within himself and without, withstood the feverish toll of love with another man (frowned upon inside and outside society) and he achieved so much.  His poems show influential and revolting genius; the poems of Verlaine are lyrical and lovely, and yet are witness to Rimbaud’s new way of writing poetry.  It is unbelievable that Rimbaud wrote seriously for only four fevered and crazed years; the discipline, the rewrites, the beauty.  To have achieved all that all within such a short span of time could only have happened because he did (he was able to) live many lives at once: the dissolute, the obsessive, the rogue, the manipulator.  But always he cycled back to the poet, to his production of poems and prose.  Until he stopped the writing altogether.

And then began the next life of Rimbaud, at age twenty-one.  He took himself outside of literature, he no longer even read prose or poetry.  He went to Africa and became a (frustrated) man of trade.  He sent for books still but the books gave him facts only, the practical facts of how to get things done, build things and trade things.  The work he had done to move poetry to a new plane, a new place, a new sensation of reading and feeling, he left behind.  He left abruptly and absolutely. Why?  White cannot answer that question.  Had all those lives Rimbaud lived taken their toll?  Somehow he was let down, he was left cold.  In Africa, importing and exporting goods, running guns and counting coffee beans, he was as miserable and complaining as ever, but now he complained of harsh weather and cheating Africans and annoying disease.

The last years of his life in Africa he remained largely solitary and cranky, without a remnant of the extreme living he’d pursued for his art.  All the drinking, the physical loving (I’m not sure he was capable of emotional loving and attachment)  the reading and the writing and the late hours and little food and the walking for miles and miles just to get somewhere away from where he was, none of that persisted in Africa.

What I found so sad is that Rimbaud was never happy, not in any of the lives he created.  Suffering for the sake of his art?  His driving genius never let him rest?  Maybe it was too much to ask for happiness in the anxious times he lived in, what with the end of French power with Napoleon’s demise at the hands of the Prussians, and then the Paris Commune and its brutal suppression.  Yet these years were also the start of La Belle Epoque, he should have been giddy at least once in awhile.

Happiness is a fleeting state, perhaps, and he chased it away for the sake of the scourge, and the scourging was for the sake of the art.  But do artists have to scourge themselves to create a new canon? Now, in our more permissive and flamboyant (egotistical parading) times, the artist may want to take the opposite course, the quietest route away from burning flame, to find something new all over again.

White’s translations of Rimbaud’s poems are very good.  I’ll end with a lovely and wrenching piece from “The Drunken Boat”:

“But it’s true I’ve wept too long! Dawns are
Every moon is ghastly and every sun bitter;
Acrid love has pumped me full of intoxicating
O may my keel explode! O let me sink at sea!”

Ernest Hemingway: Famous Last Words

Aphorisms from Hemingway: that is the gist of A.E. Hotchner’s new book about his friend Ernest Hemingway (he has two previous books, Papa Hemingway, and Dear Papa, Dear Hotch).  Hotchner says in the foreword to The Good Life According to Hemingway (published 2008) that this book contains all the remaining quotations and untold anecdotes and what he calls  “ruminations” of Hemingway.  Everything Hotchner couldn’t use in his previous works, he has gathered up and placed into categories for easy perusal.

Complementing the words with photographs, many of which I’d never seen before, this book is fun and light.  Unfortunately, it is not really worthy of the writer who was Hemingway.  Hemingway was a man who took his words very seriously; he demanded the most of his writing, making each word count and cutting out all excess, any froth.  For a writer who rewrote and perfected his stories and novels and reportage, the throw-away lines and silly anecdotes in this volume seem half-assed.  And Hemingway was never half-anything about anything.

And yet there are certainly gems here, both in fabulous photographs (there is an especially hysterical one of Hemingway standing naked in shallow water, with only some kind of shell fastened around his manhood) and in words.  For aspiring writers, Hemingway’s lines offer good advice:   “You invent a novel from what you know, from all the things you’ve ever learned — and then you write it down, as if you’re telling the story to yourself or to your kids” and “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Two more favorites of mine (can you tell I am an aspiring writer?): “You have to repeat yourself again and again as a man but you should not do so as a writer” and “The writer must have a devotion to his work that a priest of God has for his.

And as for summing up the point of a novel, Hemingway does a good job: “The themes have always been love, lack of it, death, and its occasional temporary avoidance which we described as life, the immortality or lack of immortality of the soul, money, honor, and politics.

The worst of the lines in this book come, as to be expected, under the heading “Women”:  “What makes a women good in bed makes it impossible for her to live alone” and “When women have any guilt, they tend to get rid of it by slapping it onto you.

His advice for remembering a woman is actually pretty good and generous guidance for remembering anyone who has been important in your life:  “no matter how they turned out, you should remember them only as they were on the best day they ever had.”  We would all carry fewer angry memories around and greater happier ones, if we followed such a maxim.

The very, very best of Hemingway’s words, qualifying as wisdom and as most required reading for all world leaders, come under the heading “War”:  “Never think that war, nor matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”  And:

“I believe that all people who stand to profit by a war and who help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts by accredited representatives of the loyal citizens of their country who will fight it.”


Ronald Reagan: A Graphic History

I was in college when Ronald Reagan was elected president.  I was a freshman who voted in her first election and saw her chosen candidate lose, but I quickly got over it. I was excited to be where I was and I hunkered down to the studying as well as the partying.  When I looked up again, Reagan had changed America.  The first change I noticed was that from one year to the next, many of my friends did not return to college: financial aid had been cut and they could no longer afford the high tuition.  Students stopped dressing in sweatpants, and started wearing clothes more appropriate to the boardroom; law school and med school lost popularity to business school.

Other changes and events I read about and simmered over as the Reagan years marched on.  AIDs ravaged communities, crack became an epidemic,  Grenada was invaded, the military budget ballooned (with billions spent on the ridiculed Strategic Defense Initiative, i.e.,  Star Wars),  Iran-Contra was exposed, along with the shadowy outlines of Reagan’s role in selling arms to terrorists to fund the actions of more terrorists as well as right-wing death squads ,and a million people (Americans included) were killed in Middle East showdowns and blow ups, and in the Iran -Iraq war (the U.S.armed Iran and normalized relations with Iraq, selling weapons to both sides of the conflict). And through it all, the truth was not spun so much as hidden under layers and layers of tinseled and glossy lies.

When Reagan died in  2004 the nation went into a paroxysm of mourning. He was deemed hero,  honest cowboy, the common soul on the side of the powerless. The facts of the Reagan years were forgotten in the flurry of photogenic images of the strong, broad- shouldered man who brought down the Berlin Wall and Communism and got rid of those welfare mothers too.

The graphic novel Ronald Reagan (published in 2007) written by Andrew Helfer and illustrated by a team including Steve Buccelato and Joe Staton does an extraordinary job of telling the full story of Ronald Reagan, from birth to death. Relying on the extensive research and publications of historians Gary Wills, Lou Gannon, and Edmund Morris, as well as Reagan’s own autobiographies,  Heller and his illustrators show us the Reagan who from very early on was a master of presentation.  He gave his audiences in performance after performance, and speech after speech (THE speech that he used for years, altered slightly for the circumstances) a surface of trustworthy competence and honest goodness.  Reagan’s personage could shine so brilliantly it blinded.

Ronald Reagan gets underneath the surface of the man and shows us Reagan’s habits of altering the truth and forgetting it altogether when that was convenient,  and of switching loyalties and making hidden agreements.  I never thought I’d feel sorry for McFarlane when his role in the Iran-Contra affair came out, but I did: when Reagan took no responsibility for the activities, selling McFarlane down the river. McFarlane attempted suicide as a result of the betrayal by one whom he thought was “the Administration’s last honest man, a hero, and patriot.

Reagan relied on superstition and hoodoo rather than knowledge to make decisions, having no deep knowledge of presidential issues but relying instead on cue cards and sidekicks.  Sidekicks like David Stockman who made up Reaganomics and later stated that “supply-side economics was an effort to reduce taxes for the rich.” He’d cooked the numbers to “make them look rosy for the rest of those country.

Everyone from middle-school age on up  should and can read this book.  It is extremely engaging and readable, and well-illustrated.  And after reading the book, everyone should consider what it is we need from our political leaders.  Do we need a good act?  Or should we demand substance of our politicians?  Do we accept that the ends justify the means; that weakening communism or preventing a terrorist attack warrant whatever measures necessary, legal or not?  Let’s debate these questions now, and support leaders who will participate in the discussion, who are willing  to stand up and take open responsibility for their words and actions, leaders who do not act covertly, and leaders who understand that lying means the truth has not been told — and it is the truth we demand.

Julia Blackburn: Forgiveness Through Memoir

The Three of Us, a memoir by Julia Blackburn (published in 2008) refers to the three members of a very dysfunctional family  — harrowingly so — but in fact it is the chilling story of three families and three childhoods.  The bloodlines of the dysfunction are traced back to the tortured childhoods of themother, Rosalie de Meric, an artist, and of the father, Thomas Blackburn, renowned poet, (and even further back to the grandparents’ childhoods for a bit) and are horribly manifested in the childhood of the author, Julia Blackburn.

Julia is never physically abused, although her too early introduction to the world of sex is a form of second-hand physical abuse (what she sees and knows about is too much).  She is  mentally abused, used as a buffer between the parents and occasionally as a battering ram, and too often used as confidant to adult issues no child should be exposed to.

That Julia managed to make it to adulthood in relatively one piece and with only one person dead as a result is a testament to the illogical logic of survival only, not to the underlying love of her parents — who are both disgustingly selfish but understandably so given their own tortured childhoods — nor to the supposed help of various psychiatrists, who only seem to push the father deeper into hell, the mother deeper into self-absorption, and to offer nothing at all to the daughter.  One doctor whom Julia begins to visit in adolescence due to her screaming fits, can do nothing but say: “As far as I can tell, you are sane and intelligent, but really your situation is impossible.”  And so it is.  Julia tries to find adult guidance wherever she can; too often (always) the adults fail her.

The book begins with Julia’s mother coming to Julia’s house to spend her last month of life.  Julia tends to her and spends quiet time with her.  When the past is raised, her mother is happy to say it is all “water under the bridge now”; her mother expects the love to be there and Julia offers it to her.  But can forgiveness for Julia really be that easy?  As the book unfolds the history of the family of three and of the families that led to this family, we realize that Julia is trying to piece together for us and for herself the horrors that made her parents into such awful people as well as to find the bits and pieces that make them human again, and lovable, even if only to her.

But the question of forgiveness and “water under the bridge” remains.  I have never had any transgression against me so horrible that I could not forgive the transgressor.  But imagining myself in a scenario of childhood like Julia’s, I am not so sure it would be so easy to forgive.  Julia ends up forgiving — understanding — her parents in part because of the physical abuse and abandonment they suffered themselves.  Is forgiveness just a form of understanding?  I understand you were jealous of me and so you hurt me; I understand you needed money and so you stole from me; I understand you were drunk and so you slept with my best friend (and what is her excuse?).  But if the victim is to understand — and forgive — the perpetrator should also understand and take responsibility: I hit you because my father hit me when I behaved badly: I know now that is wrong and I will try to stop.  I drink because I am stressed out and I understand I have to stop drinking.  Of course, understanding and forgiving cannot continue ad infinitum.  At some point the forgiveness cannot be granted.

What about when the harming party does not ask for forgiveness, does not take responsibility for pain inflicted?  Julia’s parents never admit to their rotten parenting and yet Julia finds some sort of peace with each of them.  Is it a question of generosity of spirit?  I think so.  Some people will never forgive their parents or a friend or a brother for something done wrong, never ever forgive them, grudge held for years.  Others, like Julia, see that moving on with their own life means letting the resentment go, being the bigger person.  Dare I say the better person?  Julia is, because of her attempts to understand and forgive.

The point is that in forgiving a person, you are not saying that what that person did was okay; all you are saying is that it is forgiven.  Perhaps the slate can never be wiped clean again; I can envisions situations in which I would not personally grant forgiveness or a second chance or understanding.  And there are cases when the forgiveness may only come after a period of punishment, either required and warranted (incarceration), or just necessary (time spent apart, far apart).  There are  situations where forgiveness is just a fading away of resentment.   Enough time passes and it all doesn’t seem so important now.

In Julia’s case her parents were terrible but she came out okay, even thrived eventually into a writer and parent and wife.  Given the sadness of her parent’s own lives and the viciousness of their own demons, Julia forgives them.  It is not just “water under the bridge” as her mother claims; it is instead the cleansing generosity of her daughter that grants the mother and daughter finally some gentle moments together, at the end.   Of course, there is also this written memoir, Julia’s testament to her parents; maybe forgiveness also comes with a bit of payback.

The book flows beautifully, albeit painfully; there is nothing false about the story of the three even if it is often shocking or terribly sad. Julia seems to have a talent for both the truth and for forgiveness, and that is what makes the story so engaging, a page turner to the end.  We are desperate to be assured of her survival, body and soul, and we are.

Newtonian Universe

Peter Ackroyd’s Newton (published in 2006) is a somewhat boring rendition of the really amazing life of Isaac Newton.  With such a character as Newton, a truly quirky and eccentric genius, the story of his life  — especially told briefly as Ackroyd hawks his biographies as “Ackroyd’s Brief Lives” — should have been fast-paced and absolutely awe-inspiring, with no yawns induced at all.  Let me try:

Newton was born on Christmas Morning 1642 into the yeoman class: his family  owned a manor house, some land, and had tenants working on the land.  He was so sickly and weak that it was doubted he would last the night but he did. His father had died months before and so the baby was given his name: Isaac.  Ackroyd writes:  “It is the usual familial chemistry of male children who go on to distinguish themselves” that the mother is from more genteel background than the father.  I am not disputing this, but really Mr. Ackroyd?  Anyone else you’d care to mention?

Anyway, back to Sir Isaac.  His mother remarried and the new husband insisted that Isaac be left behind in the manor house with his grandmother.  Living a solitary life alone there with granny he began his lifelong talent of observation.  Observing and learning, he walked through the countryside and sat beneath the trees, looking up at the sky, wondering and thinking.  Eventually he sat until an apple fell and sparked in him the genius notion of universal gravity.  By this time he was at Trinity College, Cambridge University, and his great mind was being recognized by all who came to teach him and work with him.  He was touchy about any criticism and he could hold a grudge; he would rather keep his experiments and observations and genius deductions to himself rather than expose them to a world that would steal and criticize and not appreciate just how damn smart he was. Newton built whatever equipment he needed to prove his propositions and he was meticulous and dogged and demanding. He did not believe himself to be wrong often and he wasn’t; even if his calculations were off, his propositions were correct.  His observations on universal gravitation and the three laws of motion were brilliant and began the scientific revolution that we are still living today, with our knowledge of space and time expanding out from his observations and deductions.

Newton studied alchemy, biblical texts, light and planets and comets, and he used the method of “observe, record and deduce”, using mathematical equations to prove what needed proving.  Ackroyd gets it right when he states: “Newton created a system of the universe – of force and inertia and mass, of action and reaction – that remains unsurpassed in its reliability and efficiency” and his methods of observation, deduction and calculation are still used today.

What Newton always had and never lost was a strong curiosity that raised questions about things he observed and the discipline to answer those questions through hard work.  His curiosity was of the natural and mystical world; his questions were practical as well as spiritual.  His curiosity never waned, his observations never stopped, he went on seeing and thinking and wondering his whole life.  Curiosity plus a rigorous mind: that is what we should want for ourselves, for our political leaders, for our children, for writers and film makers and artists and banker, lawyers, librarians, teachers.  For everyone.

Newton is known for his “reason” but in fact his wondrous mind went way beyond what was reasonable;  he sought the answers to the universe while always remaining in awe of the universe.  He never sought to master the universe but rather to revere it by seeking to understand the amazing way it all works.  Ackroyd ends with lines by Alexander Pope and they are good ones for me to end with also:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be!  And All was Light.

The Beauty of The Yellow Leaves

Yesterday I read The Yellow Leaves, a collection of memoir pieces, essays and poems, by Frederick Buechner.  I have never read any of his work before but I loved the title The Yellow Leaves and so I dove in.

The title comes from a sonnet of Shakespeare:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

These words reflect where Buechner finds himself now, in the latter years of life but still with yellow leaves of beauty to offer to his readers. His writing is fine, clear and simple; it is also somewhat preachy (he is an ordained Presbyterian minister) in that every story has its moral, sometimes baldly stated so that we do not miss the point of the sermon. I believe every story does have a moral, so I have no problem with Buechner’s style.  I don’t know what his fiction is like but I don’t mind his straightforwardness here, in non-fiction.  There is no doubt his words are genuine and his intent is clear: to share what he has seen along the way and pass on the knowledge gained. When that knowledge is the beauty that exists in small moments of life, his writing is especially sharp and true.   His writing is prosaic and fair, even quite sweet at times.  The poems that conclude the volume are family histories, to be cherished by his family but less moving for me.

The loveliest pieces tie together memories from all over his childhood and youth, unifying them in themes of connection and understanding and choices made and lived with.  I especially liked “Presidents I have Known” which tells of his chance meetings with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, interwoven in with the suicide of his father: “What I learned for the first time from that glimpse I had of him [FDR] in the elevator is that even the mightiest among us can’t stand on our own.  Unless we have someone to hold us, our flimsy legs buckle.  My father made his way down the two flights of stairs as quietly as he could, then sat on the running board and waited.  When he was discovered an hour or so later that morning, he was crumpled over like Sleepy Sam.”

I also liked the essay “Fathers and Teachers”.  Buechner presents the various father figures he had in his life after his father died, when he was trying to find someone of authority and integrity for inspiration or solace or friendship (all those things we do get from our fathers).  He was certainly lucky to have known so many good people, from his years at boarding school through college and then as a teacher and professor himself.  Judging by these essays and memoirs, he was certainly a figure to inspire others, maybe even someone else who had lost too soon their own father.

How Literature Can Save Your Life: Mister Pip

I just finished Mister Pip (published in 2006)by Lloyd Jones.  What a beautiful book, and what tears I am shedding now.  The tears threatened throughout the first pages, but those were tears of wonder; what an amazing gift Mr. Watts brought to these children, stuck on an island in the midst of a war that the world ignored.  He brought to them Great Expectations and Pip and the hope that the world could change.  Any day, everything could change.

Now I am crying for the change that did come and what it did to the teacher and the students, and in particular to the narrator, Matilda, and her mother.   Horror and yet survival, inspired by love between two people who could not understand each other, mother to daughter, and literature shared between two parties that could never really know each other, the students and Mr. Watts.

This novel tells of the possibility of literature to change a person, and to help and to comfort and to inspire and to sometimes simply act as mirror to an experience that you feared was yours alone.

This novel presents so much: the struggle between imagination and reality, and the usefulness of one or the other (“She was liable to say, “That won’t hook a fish or peel a banana.’ And she was right.  But we weren’t after fish or bananas.  We were after something bigger.  We were trying to get ourselves another life.”); the nature of family and love; the relationship between teacher and student; the terrible pattern of war, rebels and counter rebels and the fighting that will not end; the hope of escape or transformation, of going back in time or of being transported far away to another country and another century; the nature of the savior (even if it’s only a log) and the saved, and the future of saved one and the one who saved.  And it quite squarely states that it is the duty of every human being to be moral and “you cannot have a day off when it suits.”  So what can we do to prevent civilians being killed in murderous wars and the poverty and sadness?  What is our moral duty every day to alleviate these sufferings?  I don’t know.

I do know that every great story (book or story or tale or song) tells a moral lesson.  Whether it is just the gossip we share with another person, which not only makes us feel better (rightly or wrongly) about ourselves but which also solidifies the prevailing code of what is acceptable, what can be reached for, and what is beyond the pale, or if it’s a novel that relates a story that compels us to think and determine and decide, all stories tell us about responsibility, which is after all morality, the moral duty of every human being.

Death is the threat that looms over all of us and it is morality that makes our span of living worthwhile: at least, I argue, that is what makes great storytelling.  All great stories have a threat looming (usually death or something like it, the end of one kind of life to be exchanged for the unknown) and a hero who dares to challenge the expected response to the threat and move beyond to something more beautiful, more significant, more powerful.  In this book, Matilda and Mr. Watts are both reaching for more, reaching for transformation (saving), and in the end it is Matilda’s mother who takes the truly heroic, transforming action.

All stories, little and big ones, show us that there is no insignificant life, no tale not worth telling.  But a story must be told well, and one indication of a tale well told is that there is a lesson on living.  The lesson might be hidden or up-front, ugly or dressed up, but it is there, and we cannot help but absorb it, again, if the tale is well told.  And it is so beautifully and magnificently told here, in Mr. Pip.

The Splendid Charles Dickens

Yesterday I read Charles Dickens, one in a series of “Brief Lives” biographies.  This is not to say that Dickens’ life was brief, because it was not, but this biography is.  Nevertheless, the two authors, Melisa Limaszewski and Melissa Gregory (both academics and it shows in the somewhat dry writing) are successful in portraying the amazing person that was Charles Dickens.  He was amazing in his rise from genteel poverty (his own words) to becoming perhaps the best known author in the world; as well as in his productivity, his energy, his vision for the world and of the world, and his management of a very complex and large family network, as well as his maintenance of true and long friendships, working relationships, and reform projects.

Dickens wrote a lot (he wrote books, letters, articles, plays, and notes for periodicals, working on many pieces all at the same time) and he wrote well.  He walked up to twenty miles a day and he was big on socializing and theater-going, as well as writing for the theater and performing on stage in plays and reading his own works out loud to enthralled audiences. He had one wife, two devoted sisters-in-law, one lover, many children, and many friends.  How did he do it all?

Dickens was truly a superhero, a super being I’d like to see when I look in the mirror.  But I don’t.  It’s enough for me to read my beloved book-a-day, scribble out these few sentences, and burn another dinner.  I admire Dickens and I love his writing.  He makes me laugh so hard and he reaches deep inside me to get at what I care about and dream of and wish for, for myself and my family and the world.  And I would love to throw just one party as good as the Christmas party thrown by Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol.

Some of Dickens’ best books were written as serials, with new installments coming out every month and sometimes even weekly.  The fast pace of his writing did nothing to dilute the richness and depth of his characters, the fascination of his plots, and the strength of his philosophical and moral themes.  Those themes were so strongly conveyed within a context that was so recognizable and genuine, that they are still persuasive and moving and applicable to us today, reading Dickens almost two centuries after his birth.

Many of Dickens’ contemporaries are writers that we know (Thackeray, my favorite Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and don’t forget Mark Twain) and yet I argue that it is only Dickens who still reads as fresh and vital as new fiction.  Often in the novels of the other authors, the problems faced by the characters are borne out of societal conventions and proprieties, as well as legal and political constrictions, of that era and that now seem silly or old fashioned or strange.  Dickens employs many of the same threats against his characters but also portrays the underlying problems that are still with us today: poverty, abuse of the poor and disenfranchised, corruption of power, duplicity, and pretension in all its worst and most damaging forms.

For this same reason, Dickens’ characters are still so alive, and so funny (when meant to be) or horrible; we recognize the vices of hypocrisy and greed, avarice and affectation.  Even his stock characters are deeper than their defining traits; they are drawn as real human beings, good and bad within.

And no author ever has been such a master of the name:  the evil teacher called M’Choakkumchild in Hard Times, the sniveling backstabber Uriah Heep inDavid Copperfield, the conniving and twisting Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop, the hypocrite Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit (Martin Chuzzlewit for heaven’s sake!), the very good Cheeryble brothers of Nicholas Nickleby, John Peerybingle in The Cricket on the Hearth to name just a very few of the fantastic names Dickens came up with.

The underlying theme of Dickens’ books is the rarity and value of the genuine: that which is truly felt and presented and persevered with, is what ultimately prevails.  Truth, in other words, will out.  In the case of Dickens, he wrote very genuinely of the times he had lived in and was living in, and matched that truth with absolute genius at conveying plot and character. What results are simply perfect books that are a joy to read, funny and tear- jerking and inspiring.  Rather than read the biography of his life, read again his very own writings: Great ExpectationsDavid CopperfieldBleak HouseThe Old Curiosity Shop,Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas NicklebyA Christmas CarolA Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend.

I plan on reading more of his Christmas Tales (“A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire”, “The Seven Poor Travellers”, “The Holly-tree Inn”, “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”, “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners”, and “A House to Let”) as we approach December 25th: look here for my reviews!

Julian Barnes on Life and Death

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of (published in 2008), Julian Barnes grapples with death: the death of his parents and his own death, sure to come.  In death no one is alone, we are all going to get there, sooner or later, and Barnes is erudite and quietly funny in getting us there well-prepared.  Using conversational and circular prose, he brings us back again and again to the big questions:  Is there an afterlife or not? Is it better to be lucid in your last moments or completely out of it?  What is worse, the act of dying or the permanent state of death?  Is there such a thing as a “good” death?  What do we get from those who went before and what do we owe to those who come after?  And can we accept that all of us will enter obscurity (the last visitor to the grave, the last reader of the prose)?  Death is obscurity, either within a generation or within millennia, what does it matter?  Obscurity is what beckons. That is the “nothing” to be frightened of.

Despite the fact that we are moving towards death from the moment we are born, Barnes recognizes the beauty of that in-between period, life. He writes,

“I am not so convinced of life’s nullity that the promise of a new novel or a new friend (or an old novel or an old friend), or a football match on television (or even the repeat of an old match) will not excite my interest all over again.”

Barnes shares generously with us his thoughts on the subject of death, including his memories of his parents and grandparents, and also conversations with brother and friends, and the words of authors and musicians, including his favorite death-writer Jules Renard, his favorite (and deservedly so) death poet Phillip Larkin, as well as Zola, Montaigne, Shostakovich, Stendhal, and Rachmaninoff.

Barnes tells a very funny, and possibly instructive, story about Rachmaninoff.  The great composer had a deep and obsessive fear of death, talking about it often with anyone who would listen.  On a visit once to acquaintances, he began to talk about his fear and at the same time began eating from a nearby plate of salted pistachios.  After munching on them for awhile he suddenly broke off speaking and began to laugh: “The pistachio nuts have made my fear go away.  Do you know where to?” he asked.  They did not know but gave him a full bag of pistachio nuts for his trip back to Moscow.  Lesson: eat more pistachios, especially before bed if you are, like me, prone to thinking about death and worrying its consequences late into the darkest night.  Although I am not scared of dying, I am fearful of what my death will bring to those who care and will be upset by it, and I worry about how to make it easier for everyone.  As Larkin wrote in his poem “Aubade” and as quoted by Barnes, “Courage means not scaring others.”  But how to leave them without pain?  I wish Barnes would have reflected on that question, how to ease the sorrows of those left alive, thinking and feeling and remembering those who have died.

The one point that Barnes makes again and again and yet I found it very weakly argued was his insistence that not one of us truly believe that we will die.  I think many of us do know we will die, enter nothingness, and be no more.  Although it may not please us, we accept mortality as unassailable. I just hope that it happens later and not sooner.

Barnes spends quite a bit of time debating the promises of various religions and the possibility of life everlasting through faith.  Once a “happy atheist”, Barnes is now a troubled agnostic: he is not buying the religious promise of a hereafter but wonders “what if”?  He tells the story of an atheist getting to the gates of heaven and being pretty pissed off about it all.  Just when you think it’s all over, it’s not.

Using an oft-used maxim of his own when referring to the novel, “[the novel]  tells beautiful shapely lies which enclose hard, exact truths”,  Barnes says that “religions were the first great inventions of fiction writers.  A convincing representation and a plausible explanation of the world for understandably confused minds.  A beautiful, shapely story containing hard, exact lies.” Well put, I’d say.

Some great death bed lines, quoted by Barnes:  Rabelais said, “I’m going to seek a Great Perhaps” countered by Larkin’s “I am going to the Inevitable.”  I’ve always liked the supposedly final words of Oscar Wilde, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.”

The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

Yesterday I read The Emigrants (published in 1996) by W.G. Sebald.   Sebald tells us the stories of four men, all emigrants from Germany, two from Germany to England (one first from Lithuania to Germany and then  on to England), one went to France, and one came all the way to America.

Using artifacts such as photographs, journals, letters, and notes of his own imagined visits with the men, and embedding the facts within fiction, Sebald presents compelling stories and histories (how much is true, how much is not, we don’t know) of alienation and survival.

Through Sebald’s descriptions of devasted places and people, I felt overwhelmed by human history, by the realization – a profound and scary realization — of how many millions of people have lived and experienced daily adventures and trivial happenings, and misery.  We all experience misery.  We see the evidence of misery in in Sebald’s abandoned factories and warehouses and fields, in boarded up homes and decrepit hotels, and in long canals built for huge ships where no ships venture any more.  At one time in history, there was life, abundant and hopeful, in these now abandoned places; Sebald tells us the story of both the then and the now, of the beauty and of the misery.  Both exist, at different points in time, and humans and the landscape reflect the existence of both states of being.

Sebald writes of visits throughout the world, as he imagines tracking down the lives of the four emigrants.  Each man is very different but they share the same alienation: three of the men lost their sense of identity as a German, either through force or choice,  through the horrors of World War Two, and one lost his identity through sublimating his will to that of his employer.  All struggle to forge a new existence and identity in their new land; two finally choose suicide, another chooses to annihiliate himself through electroshock therapy, and a third is saved only by painting in an abandoned warehouse, the dust of which will eventually kill him through its toxicity.

This is not a happy book with its landscapes of abandonment and the personal histories of loss and alienation and a kind of dismemberment (torn from their country of identification). And yet the book is not miserable or pessimistic.  Ultimately, it is a portrayal of what humans do: they survive.  They are not happy all day long, ever, but they can and they do survive.  It is a characteristic of Americans to think that happiness is a birthright; perhaps Sebald is more realistic in his belief that this is not true.  The gift of life is existence itself; you get to be alive, for a brief time in history, and you do what you can to find what you can in your alloted time.  Connections are made and art is created and adventures are pursued, and all this to prove to ourselves that we are alive.

Sebald writes in long sentences, longer than any I have ever written, and sometimes they are hard to follow.  But this just plunged me deeper into the mind of Sebald; I was thinking along with him, observing along with him, and experiencing dreams of his (although I hate dream sequences in books unless summed up in five lines or less; this goes for dreams in books as well as those related to me by friends or family. And strangers for that matter).  I became as enthralled as Sebald was with the portrayed emigrants, caught by his brutally truthful and yet largely imagined portrayals of their lives far away from Germany.

The Emigrants was translated by Michael Hulse.