Sunday, July 8, 2018

Quoth The Book

"Every age but ours has had its model, its ideal. All of these have been given up by our culture; the saint, the hero, the gentleman, the knight, the mystic. About all we have left is the well-adjusted man without problems, a very pale and doubtful substitute." from Abraham Maslow's Toward A Psychology Of Being, 3rd Edition. (1968)

I like to collect quotes; well, I'm not alone in this. If they're here in the blog I can find them easier, and so can you...I'll probably mostly give quotes from what I'm currently reading, and in particular books for which I'm unlikely to attempt a full post. But some might come from my pre-existing collection.

Maybe I'll hunt up a graphic, but for now nothing but text.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Clea

"What is the writer's struggle except a struggle to use a medium as precisely as possible, but knowing fully its basic imprecision? A hopeless task but none the less rewarding for being hopeless."
So says one of the many writers in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. A message for us all, bloggers included? Or just more writerly talk, undercut by the situational irony of the series? The speaker (John Keats, well not that John Keats) is unloved in the earlier volumes; Darley, the most obvious stand-in for Durrell, is trying desperately to get him to not write a tell-all biography about Pursewarden, another writer; and now, Keats tells us this, as he prepares to write his masterpiece, only to die with it entirely unwritten and even unstarted, fighting the Afrika Korps in the Egyptian desert.

Ah, well, whatever it is: a message of wisdom or the ironic imitation thereof. You can decide. I've been struggling to write this post, as precisely as possible, but it has seemed hopeless. I'm just going to have to deal with the imprecision of my thoughts and get it done.

A few things have occurred to me, though, in rereading the series, and at the same time reading MacNiven's biography of Lawrence Durrell:

1.) The important one. Durrell's name is to be pronounced as if it rhymes with squirrel. Who knew? Also he was Larry to everyone who knew him, and MacNiven's biography constantly refers to him as Larry. Larry Durl is definitely not the same person as Lawrence DurRELL. But now you know: he's a Larry.

2.) The series was often read as a roman à clef; it seems Larry resisted that. After the biography, I can both see why, and see why he resisted. Larry, who was--ahem!--a bit of a horndog, lost one wife in Alexandria when she left him, met a second one there whom he was losing as he started the quartet, and then acquired a third who saw him through the quartet. That third wife also had connections to Alexandria: her father was French, but her mother was from a wealthy Alexandrian banking family. In the novels, Darley starts with Melissa, a not very good cabaret dancer, moves on to Justine, an Alexandrian Jew with a complicated sexual history; and ends up with Clea, an artist in her own right. Eve Cohen, the second wife, was an Alexandrian Jew with a possibly complicated sexual history, and Claude-Marie Vincendon, the third wife, was a novelist in her own right. (Nancy Durrell, née Myers, the first wife, was, from the photograph in the MacNiven biography, an attractive, though perhaps prim, Englishwoman. She apparently had painterly aspirations. Her transmutation into a Greek exotic dancer seems the biggest stretch.)

3.) That explains a bit why it was thought of as a roman à clef; here's why it was not: Larry was in Alexandria only during World War II. He escaped to there when the Nazis took Greece; the main events of the quartet take place in the thirties, and only Clea, the last novel, takes place during the war. But the whole psychology of the novel is not wartime, nor is it really Alexandria. It exists in a world where people spend all of their time talking about art; it also exists in a world of sexual license. MacNiven the biographer suggests that the sexual license reflects the war years, when Larry was actually in Alexandria, rather than the 30s, when he sets the novels; rather I would suggest the novels suggest the 30s, when Larry and his wife, Nancy Durrell, were in Paris, hanging out with Henry Miller and Anais Nin and no doubt drinking heavily and talking about art and Freud and D. H. Lawrence. With that crowd, there was probably some sexual license, too. It's only the trappings that are Alexandrian.

4.) But that does a disservice to those trappings; they're half the charm of the quartet; Larry was also a very good travel writer, and the description of place is a good part of why we turn to the Alexandria Quartet. According to MacNiven, Larry thought about setting his quartet idea in Athens before deciding to set it in Alexandria. But it could only be in Alexandria, or a place like Alexandria, steeped in history, and with a meeting of cultures and religions. Larry was born in India, and lived there the first fifteen years of his life. His family, for Anglo-Indians, were apparently unusually comfortable in associating with Indians. I think there was something in India, its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that stuck with Larry, that seemed to him to simply right. It's like that in his Alexandria: main characters are heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual; they're Christian, Protestant and Coptic, Muslim, Jewish (many with a persistent interest in Gnosticism); they're Arab, Greek, English, French, probably some others I'm not thinking about at the moment. Alexandria isn't like that anymore, even if it was, really, then. That doesn't matter. Larry needed a place like that, and wanted a place like that, created a place like that, and I at least think it's admirable he did.

I had some other quotes I'd copied out, but this post is probably long enough. There are things to dislike about the quartet: the prose, you either like it or you don't, and if you don't,  I can't really defend it; his attitude towards women and sexuality: Justine had been raped as a child, it's a major plot point, and at one point Pursewarden tells her to get over it, and she does. I wish I could say I thought Larry meant that ironically, but I doubt he did.

But mostly, I think, there are things to like about the quartet. This is my second time through it, and I liked it as much the second time as the first.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Haunted Husband

"There's nothing the matter with you that four good cocktails won't cure."
That's Della's advice to Paul Drake. It might be a bit much for me, though. I probably wouldn't get past the second.

Until the very end I thought Haunted Husband was one of the best Perry Mason outings. It's from 1941, in the middle of a good period for Gardner's Perry Mason novels, and was free of the sloppiness he's capable of. The blonde client ends up in Mason's office at first for vehicular manslaughter; she was supposedly drunk and behind the wheel in a four car pile up outside Bakersfield. But she's innocent of that, of course.

The blonde has an uncle and a fiancée of sorts--she hitchhiking to get away from him--and they're both quite amusing; the fiancée a wimp and the uncle a busybody. There's an amusing satire of a Hollywood artiste as he writes the script for his next blockbuster. And it includes Perry's usual shenanigans in finding a body.

Up until the very end, though, as I said. I read the last twenty pages three times and I still can't tell you exactly what happened. Perry explains it to Lt. Tragg but that's because he wants Tragg to act in one way and when Della asks Perry if his explanation to Tragg was accurate, he says mostly, but then changes a few things. Who was married to whom and who wanted to be married to whom is still up in the air for me. It may be OK to wonder who it was that really shot the chauffeur if you're Raymond Chandler; I expect Gardner to be a little less impressionistic.

Oh, well. Still a strong entry.
"'But,' Tragg pointed out, 'he's done more to solve murders than any man on the force...but...well, damn him!'"
Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold. What. Alliterative title.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

David Shields' Reality Hunger

"Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art."
That's the first sentence of the first numbered section of David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). It was making the rounds on the blogs I was reading at the time. I got it from the library and read it at the time and disagreed with it mostly, but enjoyed arguing with it. I'm not entirely now sure what made me want to read it again, but something did.

It's a defense of memoir, collage, and the blending of fiction and non-fiction. It was read as a manifesto for what was increasingly becoming called autofiction. It's a blend of quotation and argument in 618 numbered sections, grouped by twenty-six categories.

#347, e.g., with my interlinear comments:
I love literature, but not because I love stories per se--this is where we begin to differ--, and I find all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters' names--for me I remember characters' names much better than acquaintances, though I sometimes wish it weren't true--, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting--and to all of that I can only say, I'm sorry for you, David Shields--. I'm drawn to literature as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking.--I'm reminding of Peter Beagle's introduction to the edition of The Lord Of The Rings I grew up with: "escape stopped being comically obscene." But escape as a reason to read is clearly not on David Shields' list--I like work that's focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative which is the way to experience most stories and novels.--It is precisely those novels where the writer tells you line by line what's most on her (or more likely his) mind that are most likely to bore me. Wisdom is only dug out of the cracks.-- 
To Shields' credit, he'd probably appreciate being argued with interlinearly, and it's to the book's credit that I continue to want to do so.

Here's what I wrote about it in my books journal the first time I read it:

Shields strikes me as fundamentally uninterested in what novels can do. 'A deeper journey into the self.' Ick. In any case what he's looking for is an enchiridion, a philosophy of how to live life. That's all well and good, I suppose, but not the sum total of the novel. The novel does not do a very good job of being Epicurus. It doesn't teach you how to live. It's very much more useless than that.

I was originally not going to count library books for my rereading challenge, but now I think why not? Though I do feel a need to give some renewed love to the many and various books already around the house. This is likely to be the only one in any case.

Happy Canada Day! It's hot here and a good day sit in an air-conditioned room and bang out one of the posts I've been needing to do...

Monday, June 25, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Mountolive

And it's on to Mountolive, the conventional one.

This, the third novel of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, came out in 1958, and was the second of the quartet to come out that year. According to Ian MacNiven's biography of Durrell, he'd been meditating the subject of the quartet for almost two decades when he began to write it in earnest. It was going to be set in Athens for a while rather than Alexandria, though that's hard to imagine--it seems so tied to its place. But when he started to write in earnest, he didn't slack off: he wrote four volumes, totalling a bit over 1100 pages in my edition, in something like two years. Zoom, zoom.

Mountolive is the conventional one in two senses: it is written in a more staid (as staid as Durrell ever gets I suspect) third person which mostly moves forward in time instead of bopping around. But also because David Mountolive, later Sir David, is a conventional man, especially by the standards of the Alexandria Quartet circle. He's a professional diplomat who eventually becomes the British ambassador to Egypt. He has his love affair, too--love is the avowed theme of the quartet--with the mother of the rich Coptic banker Nessim Hosnani, but in the end turns away from it. And, as fits a story about a diplomat, this novel reveals a political dimensions to events of the first two novels--the death of Capodistria, the flight of Justine, the death of Narouz Hosnani--that first seemed motivated by amorous passions. It adds another layer of complexity to the characters and to the story, something all to the good.

But while Durrell in his real life worked in minor diplomatic roles, he's not at heart a diplomat. He hangs out with demimonde artists and prostitutes, the lost and the damned. Staid conventionality doesn't come naturally to him. Agents and spies in minor European capitols or colonial outposts suggest Eric Ambler or Alan Furst and Durrell just doesn't do it as well. There were moments in this one when I wasn't really convinced.

Of Sir David:
He could not even feel happy without feeling guilty.
Now Durrell was not a stupid man, and to simplify is to falsify, but that's the problem as he sees it in a nutshell: one should be in love, be honest about sex, and be happy without letting guilt get in the way. But I think Brave New World is more like the world today: we feel guilty when we're unhappy, not when we're happy. Here: why don't you just have some soma?

Ah, well, I wasn't reading it for the philosophy, but for the talk and the scenery and the prose.

I've finished Clea, with more thoughts to go. I need to get posting!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case

"I suppose everybody has at least heard of Trent's Last Case."
Dorothy Sayers wrote that in an undated talk she was going to give on radio but didn't. It may once have been true, but I doubt it is anymore, even among serious readers of mysteries. Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley came out in 1913, it was the first Trent case Bentley wrote, and Bentley wrote only two more. There aren't a lot of them and it's a long time ago. Its fame has long since yielded to obscurity.

Which is kind of a pity.

Part of its importance is just because it came early, it's true. Trent, a painter and a newspaper reporter, is supposed to be a genius detective and we're told of other difficult cases he solved for which he revealed his solution in the Record, a London newspaper. He may be a genius detective, but in this one he's wrong not once, but twice a trick picked up by Ellery Queen on more than one occasion. And Trent falls in love with a suspect, which definitely was an influence on Dorothy Sayers herself, cf. Strong Poison, and it was a motif that went on to have a long history, going from the innocent and hardly suspected Mrs. Manderson in this one to the accused Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, to Sam Spade's actually guilty of something love Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Maltese Falcon, to the even guiltier love object of Kinsey Millhone in Sue Grafton's 'A' Is For Alibi.

The setup is this:  the first chapter tells us Sigsbee Manderson is a big man in finance; the second that he's dead, shot through the eye. Who did it? He was estranged from his wife and he was ferociously jealous of John Marlowe his personal secretary. He'd also created enemies among the American labor movement; they had a long reach; was it some American anarchist who killed him? This came out a year before Arthur Conan Doyle's Valley of Fear, another novel where the long arm of American labor was featured, and I wondered if it was an influence there as well, though it may be that Pinkerton's and Haymarket rioters were simply in the air.

Or was it somebody else entirely? I suspect you know the answer to that question, even if you haven't read it.

Anyway, it was pretty good, I thought. A little overwritten at the start, but then it settled down. There was some rom, but it was a little lacking in com, which is a pity and a surprise since the C in E. C. Bentley stands for Clerihew, also the name of a comic verse form he invented:
George The Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold.  Why. Best Of List.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Balthazar

"I love the French edition with its uncut pages. I would not want a reader too lazy to use a knife on me."

A bit of bravado on Lawrence Durrell's part? It's ostensibly an obiter dicta of Pursewarden, but Pursewarden is one of two novelist characters in the series, both of whom are, in different ways, stand-ins for Durrell.

In any case, I'm not inclined to take up the challenge; I like the series and it's more commented upon (both good and bad) than read I'm sure; and no doubt more neglected than either of those choices. So, no knife.

Balthazar (1958) is the second of the novels of the Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and it operates as a corrective to the first; without the corrective it would be all too easy to take Justine as just the romantic blatherskite of some not very successful decadent writer. It's not, but it does impersonate such a thing pretty well.

Darley, the other novelist character in the series, with the same initials as Lawrence G. Durrell, has written a first volume Justine and sent it off to friends for comment. Mostly they neglect it, but one, Balthazar, a homosexual Greek doctor of their circle in Alexandria, drops in on him with the text marked up as the "Great Interlinear," and Darley learns a lot of what he wrote in the first volume was untrue. So he writes a new book covering the same period of time with this new information.

The most important corrective is that Darley, who was in love with Justine in the first volume, assumed Justine was in turn in love with him. But Balthazar says she loved Pursewarden and Darley himself was just a decoy or a substitute. He needs to rethink everything that happened.

Durrell writes in a brief headnote:
The characters and situations in this novel, the second of a group--a sibling, not a sequel to Justine--are entirely imaginary, as is the personality of the narrator. Nor could the city be less unreal. 
Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition. 
Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern. 
The three first parts, however, are to be deployed spatially (hence the use of "sibling" not "sequel") and are not linked in a serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.
That makes it sound more precious than it is; perhaps the use of 'soup-mix' will give us the right sense of Durrell's attitude to his plan. In any case there's a quote (Auden, I think?) about an author's theory of his own work: that it is merely so much scaffolding towards the construction, and it should be kicked away at the end to allow the building to appreciated on its own.

The Other Reader asked if this going-over made it dull and my answer was no. (I am unable to say how anyone might react to Durrell's hothouse prose style, though; it is an exotic taste.) Durrell likes big events; the first novel ends with a hunt scene in which Darley is worried an accident is being arranged for him--Justine's husband suspects. And in fact another character is killed (or murdered or something) during the hunt. Balthazar also ends with a grand set piece, at Carnival, and again one of the characters is murdered, with a subsequent investigation. Though the two novels cover the same period of time there is more than enough difference in the events to keep it interesting; Durrell manages his structure quite well. The third, Mountolive, begins a little before the events of the first two but then covers the same time period; it, too, has a big set piece and it, too, gives a number of picturesque travel details about Alexandria and Egypt. So, yes, it's a pretty good read.

Another of Pursewarden's so-called Obiter Dicta:
"I have always believed in letting my reader sink or skim."
Go ahead and read it fast, perhaps, but there's no need to skim.