2018 marks 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking horror novel:
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
This strange little book with the excellent title is a collection of short stories, each with an underlying layer of psychological creepiness. Here is a diagnosis of three:
In the Pupil begins with a man and woman in a newly formed relationship. But something odd happens: he sees his reflection in her eye: ‘It was then that I saw him, a tiny little man staring at me from out of her pupil, my Lilliputian likeness: He had already slipped in there. I smiled and nodded to him. He nodded politely back.’
Nothing unusual about this except that the little man is real: ‘One day , as I was nearing my lips to hers, I looked into her eyes and I saw the little man look out from under her lashes and wave to me, then he turned on his heel and trotted away into her pupil.’
What follows is a strange telling of the room in his lover’s eye where her lovers are trapped, not as reflections, but as miniature representations of each.
In The Land of Nots, the narrator travels from his land where the ‘Ises’ live into where the ‘Nots’ live. It is a macabre negative reality as the narrator describes the social system, beliefs, and mythos of the Nots: ‘The succession of events in the head of a Not is as follows: first the soul, then a piece of dead flesh, then decaying detritus, and then, if one peers through the skull’s blind sockets, the Not reduced to naught.’
It becomes an existential question: ‘Imagine the Not’s surprise when out of the window he saw no world at all, as if the whole world, lambent with stars and sun, clad in green and azure, had fallen away, had come unstuck from the panes like a cheap paste-on picture washed off by the rain. Still clutching the cord, the scholar stared into the yawning darkness. There was absolutely no doubt: This was nothing, the most ordinary nothing.’
The Runaway Fingers, a strange little story about a concert pianist’s rebellious appendages, are eager for adventure. But first they need to break free:
‘With a desperate tug the fingers suddenly wrenched themselves free, hand and all, from the pianist’s cuff and jumped – diamond ring on the little finger glinting – down onto the floor. The parquet’s waxed wood struck their joints a painful blow, but the fingers, without missing a beat, picked themselves up and – mincing along on their pink shields of nails, vaulting high into the air with great arpeggio-like leaps – hared toward the hall’s exit.’
Because Krzhizhanovsky just didn’t fit the mold, his work was censored in Soviet Russia. His work was finally published in 1989.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This is a real meat and potatoes kind of book, and centers on one Korean family spanning the 20th century. Prejudice and racism, obstinance and perseverance, food culture and family life, and sacrifice, they all play a part here. Lee’s characters are torn between the logic of self-preservation and the beauty of an ideal. The conflict between these two themes is salt and peppered throughout the book.
During the first part of the 20th century, government corruption and mismanagement drove many Korean citizens out of their country. Many settled in Japan as strangers in a strange land and settled into a second-class tier. Japan became rife with racism and it became nearly impossible for a Korean to make any gains. The poverty is tangible:
‘At the crowded bar, men were drinking and making jokes, but there hadn’t been a soul in that squalid room — smelling of burnt dried squid and alcohol — who wasn’t worried about money and facing the terror of how he was supposed to take care of his family in this strange and difficult land.’
Japan was no Shangri-La for the Koreans. It is the real world, in all its hardship. ‘Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.’ More like survival of the fittest on steroids. But even the thought of fitting in was repellent to some Koreans: ’You think I’m an animal, Moazsu thought: Then I can be an animal and hurt you.’
A decent job or education are things that every person should have a right to. With resolve, and a striving for beauty in life, (‘Once tender-hearted people seemed wary and tough’) Lee’s characters make a concerted effort to break the chain.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans
“…this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats…”
Thus, James Agee presents his theme for this masterpiece of Southern non-fiction. During the 1930s, documentary literature was a popular avenue for a writer to take. Writing of sorrows makes for a better read than happier fare, and there was plenty of sorrow to write about during the decade of the Great Depression.
Agee and photograph Walker Evans stayed a summer with three tenant families in Alabama, and found them hard-working but weighted down with day-to-day endurance, pushed down to Job-like living:
“Why is it things always seem to go against us? Why is it there can’t ever be any pleasure in living? I’m so tired it don’t seem like I ever could get rest enough. I’m as tired when I get up in the morning as I am when I lay down at night. Sometimes it seems like there wouldn’t never be no end to it, nor even a let-up. One year it’ll look like things was going to be pretty good; but you get a little bit of money saved, something always happens.”
The book reads poetically; Agee breaks into verse at times. He was influenced by the modernist lit movement, and particularly Joyce and Faulkner, memorable for that long, drawn-out written thought. At times, I felt I was reading Faulkner; I was just waiting on the word apotheosis to appear:
“and when the women are through, they may or may not come out too, with their dresses wet in front with the dishwashing and their hard hands softened and seamed as if withered with water, and sit a little while with the man or the men: and if they do, it is not for long, for everyone is much too tired, and has been awake and at work since daylight whitened a little behind the trees on the hill, and it is now very close to dark, with daylight scarcely more than a sort of tincture on the air, and this diminishing, and the loudening frogs, and the locusts, the crickets, and the birds of night, tentative, tuning, in that great realm of hazy and drowned dew, who shall so royally embroider the giant night’s fragrant cloud of earthshade…”
The writing continues uninterrupted from paragraph to paragraph. Almost, I wanted to add the second stress and read it as ‘drown-ed’ because the writing reads so much like poetry.
James Agee was tentative of writing of the sharecropper life and its hardships. He was convinced that Walker’s photographs should tell the story:
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”
The photographs that Walker Evans recorded for this book are available at the Library of Congress here:
Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
This book is a complete study of Leonardo’s life. Isaacson examines Leonardo’s anatomy and engineering studies to his observations on architectural principles to his artistic greatness. Like Shakespeare as center of the canon, Leonardo was the archetype of artists. Each chapter is an in-depth examination and there are many. It’s an art history course rolled into one book.
The most wonderful thing about Da Vinci was his desire to always learn and to improve on what he did and could accomplish. He became the first artist to successfully use shadowing and chiaroscuro to create depth and fullness, essentially mimicking 3-dimensional objects. One of Da Vinci’s biographers noted:
‘The glory of being an artist, [Da Vinci] realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain.’
A major Da Vinci achievement was Vitruvian Man. Named for the Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an engineer in Caesar’s army around 50 B.C.E., Vitruvius speculated that the perfect architectural building, or temple, could and should be the dimensions of a human male.
‘In a temple there ought to be harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the whole. In the human body, the central point is the navel. If a man is placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a compass centered at his navel, his fingers and toes will touch the circumference of a circle thereby described, And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of a perfect square.’
Leonardo and his architect friends thought and worked together to come up with their own solutions to how this could be artistically and mathematically represented. And also how to combine the circles and planes into a geometrical perfection. Only Leonardo came up with the symmetry of a perfect representation, the Vitruvian Man, who, it is speculated, is a self-portrait of Leonardo himself. And Leonardo improved on Vitruvius’s calculations, and made his drawing scientifically accurate; thus, perfect.
Isaacson writes of this perfection:
‘…He used delicate lines and careful shading to create a body of remarkable and unnecessary beauty. With its intense but intimate stare and the curls of hair that Leonardo loved to draw, his masterpiece weaves together the human and the divine.
The book is filled with these insights into Da Vinci’s artistry and his search for mathematic and architectural precision. You will be the better for it after reading it. Ready for my Da Vinci final now.
A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill
Hamill grows up in a New York Irish ghetto in the middle part of the 20th century, surrounded by poverty and alcohol. His father is disabled, and soothes his depression with alcohol, which lends to hardships at home. Hamill learns early in his life about the bar scene, where his father his king:
‘One Sunday when I was almost eight, he said to me, Come on, McGee. I walked with him up to the corner and for the first time entered the tight, dark, amber-colored, wool-smelling world of a saloon. This one was called Gallagher’s … In that room, the men were jammed together at a high three-sided bar, talking, smoking, singing, laughing, and drinking. They drank beer. They drank whiskey. There was no television then, so they made their own entertainments … Hey Billy, give us a song! someone yelled. And then he started.’
Fortunately for Hamill, he relied on and learned from the wisdom of his mother. But the influence of his father and his environment overwhelmed him:
‘And so the pattern had begun, the template was cut. There was a celebration when you got drunk. There was a victory and you got drunk. It didn’t matter if other people saw you; they were doing the same thing. So if you were a man, there was nothing to hide. Part of being a man was to drink.’
Parts of the book are funny, funny in that characters revolve in a state of drunkenness; so, inevitably, sad. Hamill has a run-in with the law in Mexico:
‘And how did I get here? In the black closet, as I gazed at that sliver of light, the night played out in my mind. If I hadn’t gone to the party, or if nobody had cut in when I danced with Yolanda, or if I’d said no to Manny, said, Manny, I don’t want to go anywhere, if I’d gone home and read a book or made some pictures; if I’d had some money to bribe the cops; if. If, I said. If. I wondered what time it was too. What day. Wondered what my mother would think if she heard I was spending my life in a Mexican prison.’
Hamill eventually gave up drinking. His work as a New York city editor must have demanded it. His family was suffering from it. And the body will demand that costs be paid.
‘Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness. I never thought of myself as a drunk; I was, I thought, like many others — a drinker.’
The lines between alcoholism and social drinking and drinking for pleasure can be blurred as well.
Fools Crow by James Welch
White Man’s Dog looked up at this hands. His grandfather had said those many winters ago that if you went to sleep with your palms out, the stars would come down to rest in them and you would be a powerful man. Many summer nights White Man’s Dog had tried to go to sleep this way, but his arms grew tired before the stars would come. He lowered his arms and rolled over. The fire was down to embers, glowing softly in the moonless night.
Fools Crow follows the path of a Blackfoot Indian, caught in the time between American Indian dominance of northern America, and the subsequent encroachment of whites.
White Man’s Dog (later Fools Crow) grows from an unremarkable boy of the Pikunis to become one of the tribe’s most successful warriors. But unlike his friends, he keeps things balanced between physical and spiritual, and recognizes the importance of the tribe’s medicine man, Mik-api. Good medicine can mean the difference between a successful or disastrous raid, and White Man’s Dog learns all he can from the Man-of-Many-Faces.
White Man’s Dog had given five of his best horse to Mik-api upon returning from the Crow raid. They had sweated together and prayed together, thanking the Above Ones for the young man’s return. White Man’s Dog thanked Mik-api and gave him a horsehair bridle he had made the previous winter. He left the old man’s lodge feeling pure and strong.
Besides hunting and living off the land, the Blackfeet know the importance of horse raiding, and counting coup against rival gangs by stealing their horses, which was a tribe’s wealth. They also battled to right wrongs. The Pikunis prepare for battle:
Eight sleeps later the men dismounted in a coulee not far from the camp of the Lone Eaters on the Two Medicine River. They put on their paints, their war medicine; then they painted the horses they chose to ride. White Man’s Dog drew yellow jagged stripes down his gray horse’s forelegs and yellow circles on each side of the horse’s rump. he had been thinking about these signs; from now on they would be part of his medicine.
Mysticism, almost a magic realism, is an important part of White Man’s Dog’s growth. He can contact spirit animals in his dream world. They teach him and bestow good medicine upon him. But it seems that no medicine will heal the rift between Anglos and Blackfeet. White Man’s Dog constantly puzzles over the fact that the Above Ones have left them. Should the Pikunis accept the inevitability of Anglo takeover? One of the book’s central questions: When is it right to fight for one’s land and way of life?
The men debate this question in the head chief’s lodge: One of the chiefs of the Lone Eaters band says this of the Anglos:
How long before they turn on the Lone Eaters and decide that we too are insects to be stepped on? Are we to go quietly to the Sand Hills, to tell our long-ago people that we welcomed death like cowards? That is not the way of the Pikunis. If we must go to the Shadowland, we will go with our heads high, our spirits content that we have fought the Napikwans [Anglos] to death.
And another chief laments their lack of action:
We would burn up their square houses and cause all trace of Napikwan to disappear. Our long-ago people would once again recognize this land. It shames me that they grow restless in the Sand Hills because their children do nothing … We have become a nothing-people.
James Welch wrote this as tribute to his Blackfeet ancestors. As part of the growing quilt of literature that makes this nation what it is, it should be on the short list for Great American Novel.
Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard
There are times when I can’t help thinking about the past. I know the present is the place to be. It’s always been the place to be. I know I’ve been recommended by very wise people to stay in the present as much as possible, but the past sometimes presents itself. The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always come in part.
This little book is classified as fiction, but it has a taste of autobiography about it. Sam Shepard wrote it, later dictated it to family members, as the disease that eventually took his life, took over.
One of the book’s central characters, an old man on a porch, is weakened and ill, but alert. He could be taken as a reflection of Sam himself. And this character takes on shades of another of the book’s characters, so much so that it’s difficult to ascertain who’s who. But maybe that’s the point. At times it seems like the old man is being observed by himself; sort of an out of body experience by himself.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know where he came from. I discovered him quite by accident. Bent backwards, gasping for air. One day I was sitting here much the same way as he’s sitting now, twiddling my thumbs, and I was looking out across the road and I saw this chair rocking back and forth and then I saw that somebody was in it. And there he was. He just appeared. I don’t know whether he rented or bought the house and then invited his people there or whether they were already there and he came to visit them or whether he’s on a short-term lease. I don’t know exactly. Sometimes people appear like that out of nowhere. They just appear and then they disappear. Very fast. Just like a photograph that emerges form a chemical bath.
The structure of the sentences have a hint of Gertrude Stein, short and repetitive. And it’s all in Sam’s slow, easy voice. A reconciling of becoming older and remembering the past.
I remember sometimes you would start whole stories. Sometimes paragraphs. Sometimes sentences with the word ‘sometimes.’ In other words not always but sometimes. In other words sometimes, not always. Sometimes this or that. Sometimes birds. Why birds, you would say. Why birds? Sometimes. Why color? Sometimes. Why … wind? Dogs? Sometimes it made complete sense to me. It made complete sense.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have been 91 today. Here’s a link to Open Culture‘s site that offers 10 free short stories online by GGM.