Friday, July 12, 2013

Books Recently Read

One of the pleasures of being retired (sort of--I'm actually a "full-time" antiquarian bookseller, though I can organize my own time now in a way I never could have back in the day when I worked for wages) is that I can take leisurely lunches, either with other people, or alone. When lunching out alone, I always take a book, as I find this is the one time in the day that I can have an undivided hour or two to devote to a single task (between bites--I'm a multi-tasker). I don't see people do this much in this part of the country, though in Europe it's much more common to see people eating or drinking alone over a book. Perhaps Americans are too busy, or embarrassed to be thought idle in the afternoon.  

I missed the boat with Christopher Hitchens, a lapsed British socialist who morphed into a naturalized American hawk, but retained many of his liberal biases, becoming in the process a notorious American media wonk, with regular appearances on TV political discussion venues, live debates, and panels, finding time between regular journalistic assignments to lecture and write books as well. A firmly entrenched agnostic, he liked nothing better than to puncture pieties and bland presumptions with a lively wit and a determined conviction. I became aware of him just at the point that he was beginning treatment for a terminal cancer that would shorten his life by a couple of decades. 

I picked up his autobiography, Hitch 22, A Memoir, just to see what all the excitement was (or had been), and was pleasantly surprised at the honesty and analytical acumen he showed, obviously under the mood of the hour. The book is interesting for the minute detail furnished of the British Left political scene of the 1960's, when Hitchens, a budding labor activist, was beginning to find his political sea-legs. The book exudes multiple ironies, since the older man is judging the credulous younger self from a vantage distinctly more shrewd and seasoned. Anyone wanting to understand the conflicted position of the British intellectual against the backdrop of Cuba, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11--could learn a great deal from this book. I certainly did.       

Christopher Hitchens in his youth

My interest in Gertrude Stein dates all the way back to my 3rd year in graduate school, when I was casting about for a probable candidate for a thesis subject. That became moot when I decided not to pursue my Ph.D. in English. In those days, circa 1975, people in the academy didn't take Stein seriously. I stopped in one afternoon to talk briefly with Richard Bridgman, who was then teaching at UC Berkeley, and had written a long study, Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970). Bridgman actually discouraged me from studying Stein, whom he said was a complex person but a thin writer whose work wouldn't repay my interest. Whatever my proclivities, it was obvious I wouldn't find a very welcoming audience for an extended investigation of the spurned lesbian Modernist at Cal. At least in the mid-70's.

All that has changed in the intervening decades, of course. Many of the Modernist heroes of the immediate post-War period have been demoted, and Stein is now one of the still-standing ikons of the Modernist avant-garde. This sophisticated collection of essays and accounts is another indication of the respectful, almost shamelessly worshipful regard with which she and her work and interests are now viewed.  

I've often wondered what I would have thought of Stein, had I been able to know her in her youth, before she had seen the path she would pursue as an adult. She seems to have known clearly, early on, that there would be no men (in the romantic sense) in her life. And she was serious about her studies, actively pursuing course-work with William James at Harvard (Radcliffe), focusing on motor automatism, an interest that leads directly into her later prose experiments in stream of consciousness, free association, and cubism in language. Possessed of an indomitable self-confidence and determination, she was able to insulate herself from the neglect and contempt that her early publications evoked, especially in America. She lived her life as if it were a work of art, and seems never to have had any serious doubts about what she should be doing.   

It's a very short walk from Gertrude Stein to Stanley Karnow's memoir of Paris in the 1950's. Karnow, a journalist throughout that decade, later went on to write serious popular histories of Vietnam, the Philippines (Pulitzer Prize), and China. Rather than a cheap series of romanticized personal anecdotes, the book delves deeply into French history and culture, with sharp immediate bits of encounters Karnow remembered from those days. It was probably cheap, and relatively easy to live the bohemian existence in France during this period, but Karnow was a working journalist, who was obliged to dig for material that might interest an American audience. He covered a wide variety of material, which is what makes his account as eclectic and diverting as it is.

When you live to a great age, like Karnow (aged 87), you acquire a perspective on events that authenticates the old adage about respecting your elders. In our fast-paced world, it's hard to see how people can become wise, since the terms we might use to measure our knowledge are changing as fast as events do. But people like journalists are in a crucial position to witness such transformations. Karnow saw WWII, Korea, the A Bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to the French adventures in Algeria (and its own Vietnam). The last of the generation of the 1920's is now passing into history. The "lessons" of the Cold War are rapidly being forgotten, as our own "wisdom" is thrown up like detritus onto the ruined beach of our desires. 

There have been many biographies of writers and artists of the 20th Century, but studies of Gay writers and artists had to wait until society was "ready" to know the truth of their private lives. Because E.M. ("Morgan") Forster's writing career had ended prematurely (he stopped publishing novels after A Passage to India in 1924 when he was 45, though he lived another 45 years), the meaning of his work and life tended to focus on issues and conflicts that he'd addressed in the distant past, when homosexuality was still literally a crime in England and in much of the rest of the civilized world. Wendy's Moffat's coolly impartial account addresses Forster's sexuality from a sympathetic vantage, and looks unflinchingly at his cautious, tentative gestures towards intimacy and sexual bonding, which now seem touchingly pathetic and even a bit naive. Having grown up a Victorian, he wasn't the sort to test boundaries casually, and having written a frankly homosexual narrative (Maurice, written in 1913-14, but not released until the year after his death), he decided not to publish it, postponing its publication until such time that society might be ready for it. That event clarified and altered not only the literary world's sense of Forster, but of the world in which he had lived. 

I have always been an admirer of Forster's novels, but like a lot of his readers, I suspect, always was mystified by the long "silence" of his later years. A career like Forster's, in which a serious, committed writer abandons his craft after a string of competent triumphs, is rather more English than American. In America, we tend to view the writer's art as a continuous pursuit, as an enterprise that is never complete. That a writer might decide, with perfect justice, that he had said his piece, without further elaboration, seems alien to our native optimism and drive. But Forster's duty lay in the public realm, as he saw it. If he could neither live nor write with honesty about what most moved him emotionally, without hedging, there were other, more demanding tasks at hand, and he went about working on those instead, using his pen and his intelligence to campaign for openness and justice in public issues.              

Homosexuality is also an issue for Evelyn Waugh, the British comic-satiric, and eventually Catholic, novelist, author of Brideshead Revisited. I took an interest in Waugh back in the 1970's, and systematically read all his earlier novels (Scoop, A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, Vile Bodies, The Loved One), but I didn't read Brideshead until some years later, savoring it slowly like fine wine.

Though its ostensible subject is Waugh, Humphrey Carpenter's The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his Friends (1990), covers a great deal of ground, delving into the lives of dozens of Waugh's social connections, and documenting the world of undergraduate Oxford, London in the Twenties, British publishing, Catholic circles, foreign situations (Absynnia) etc. It's a wide-ranging account, and cannot be easily summarized.        

What I found most intriguing, and useful, was the material on Waugh's failed marriage, his economic difficulties, and his spiritual journey towards Catholicism, involving a kind of rejection of the life he had led up to his mid-thirties, though by no means vacating his penetrating wit, jovial (and cutting) humor, or his mischievous sense of fun. As anyone who has looked into his life knows, Waugh became a kind of tyrant and foul-tempered old drunk in his later years, but when he wrote Brideshead, he was still capable of tenderness and a lilting nostalgia, which is what gives the book its lyrical and even romantic air. Though it is not a tragedy, it is like a long act of mourning, for a spent youth, a lost love (or two), and a world of upper class privilege ruined by the Depression years. It's the only work I can think of which compares favorably in style and substance to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Both books deal in fading glory, and what takes place is as if seen through rose-colored glass. I have no doubt that Waugh would have been at least difficult at any age. The close-knit little world he made for himself didn't admit of many intimacies, and most of his charm and intelligence seems to have been captured in his writing--luckily for us. If you want a snapshot of the grouchy old novelist, read the Paris Review Interview in The Art of Fiction No. 30 (1962) here online. Interviewed on the BBC at the nadir of his career in the early 1950's, it was remarked that it was like "the goading of a bull by matadors." At least he still had his horns.    

In summary, I would recommend all these books as summer reading. As I get older, I find I like reading biographies and histories, which used to put me to sleep. One of my college professors believed that biography, and autobiography, were the greatest of literary forms. I would not have been inclined to agree with him then, and I wouldn't now. But I would now feel confident in saying that biography is the most accessible kind of analytic for character and conduct. Even when, as is often the case, it involves a manipulation of events and attitudes that conceals the real truth of what happened, and how one really felt, when one was young, uncertain, struggling, and concerned with how one would be perceived in an unfriendly world. 


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I fear the art of reading may be dying. Reading for the sake of itself seems in the view of many today (thanks to Google analytics)almost an abominable waste of leisure time. I believe there's a real literacy-divide: with only the over-45 set (like us) interested in such things as biographies, histories and poetry. You must look as out of place with your book and coffee, surrounded by the iPhone crowd, as I do pacing the school hallways getting in my obligatory hour of reading before class. At 58 I've been relegated to something of an amusing 'walking' reliquary of 'old school' ways. And I couldn't be happier.

I appreciate the comment about the importance of reading history, too: I have tried to read as much of it as possible but have lately been distracted by other things. I haven't yet acquired a taste for biography: like George Carlin I can take people and their lives for about 6 minutes! I find it very difficult to separate personality from what's supposed to be dispassionate biographical narrative. And given my own misanthropic bent, that can be a problem. Waugh, Forster yes but a definite no to Hitchens, who was something of a ninny in my estimation; and I'd probably get annoyed at even the great Gertrude Stein. The woman was just too self-absorbed for my liking.

My own view lately is that everything is worth reading: and it's why I'm presently perusing a book on Astrology written in 1928, in which the most painstakingly minute calculations of planetary degrees and 'aspects' are offered as irrefutable evidence of the existence of celestial spirits who govern our lives from cradle to grave. What I've learned from this--and made the whole thing worthwhile--is that real human ingenuity can be sadly misspent.

Happy summer reading, friend!

Curtis Faville said...

Probably just as many people are reading books today as did, for example, in 1920, though as a percentage of the population, there are certainly fewer.

I prefer to think of the evolution of reading as a step in progression of media. But the problem with the new hand-held devices is that they shorten and shrink the the field to such a degree that people are forced to speak in smaller and smaller bits of language--almost a kind of code.

People's attention spans are being abbreviated. Watching TV with a clicker in your hand, or surfing the web dropping off Twitter and Facebook tidbits is no replacement for careful, close reading, for considerations of complex issues. It all tends to trivialize how people think, and think about the world. It may literally be making people stupid, as the less they read, the less they are able to converse intelligently, or even think with any penetration.

Ah, we're just old farts bitching about change!

Ed Baker said...

Gertrude Stein and I have something in common:

we both went to Hopkins.

As I recall (from Elliott Coleman's talking of her
and giving me my first Stein book -- A PRIMER FOR THE GRADUAL

as I recall, she was one course shy of graduating Johns Hopkins as America's very first woman medical doctor.

( her opening 'salvo' re: "My Debt to Books"):

" You only add books you never subtract or divide them and any book that is printed is a book. It is nice that nobody writes as they talk and that the printed language is different from the spoken otherwise you could not lose yourself in books and of course do, you completely do. I always remember all the details in the book no matter what the book is and therefore it is necessary to begin it at the beginning to lose yourself in it when I read it again just as i had to when I read it first. "

( & ? of course an argument will ensue I am sure from this brief passage I just typed out from a book that I have saved & ? of what I am also sure of is that I am sure some 'smarty-pants' out there will also be as
sure about this as I am.... ?).

Curtis Faville said...


Not sure what you're getting at here.

What always impresses me about Stein was her total confidence in the face of obstacles and doubt. Aesthetically, she could be completely opaque and without a clue but she just barges on without hesitation.

She could easily have been swept up by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, but she apparently believed that her contacts among collaborators would protect her from harm.

Recordings of her voice -- she sounds utterly confident and convincing.

Ed Baker said...

wasn't "getting at" anything per specificity....

seems to me artists/writers of her ilk are functi-
oning on a level.... a creative level.... that supersedes
and leaps us
far beyond the hum-of-drum that critics and post-doctorates try their best to best as if they
with their piss-ant credentials as if ?

Evelyn Waugh.... and his friends.... might as well embrace Bunny Lang and her horny friend Frank O'Hara !

you got good "stuff' their to re-read.... while here ?
I just plod on;

Craig said...

Remember those speed reading machines that were used to measure reading comprehension? The idea was to train the eye to read each line in a glance, instead of word by word, to eliminate subvocalization. Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose for people to whom prose has a melodic quality integral to the reading experience and essential to the meaning of the text? My sister in her junior year in high school was given a list of three hundred books to read over the course of the school year and was told there would be a test at the end of the year on the content of the works. None of these books were light reading. She was taught to read each page in about three or four glances in five seconds or less with the aim of boosting her reading speed to something like ten thousand words a minute.

Craig said...

I remember participating in a Finnegan's Wake reading group over thirty years ago, an experimental college course that didn't count for real credit, though it was run by an assistant professor who specialized in Joyce and Blake. I took a similar course for actual credit when it became part of the university curriculum. Mostly we took turns reading passages aloud and speculating on the meaning between passages. One of the students in that class was an engineering student. I read a half page paragraph aloud and he was flabbergasted to realize that the book is indeed readable and you're missing 90 percent of the content if you aren't using your ears.