Sunday, October 24, 2021

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

"The book you hold in your hands is a very peculiar book. In it I have tried to depict the life of Philip K. Dick from the inside, in other words, with the same freedom and empathy--indeed with the same truth--with which he depicted his own characters."

Emmanuel Carrère's 'biography' of Philip K. Dick came out in French in 1993, thus nine years after Dick's death, and was translated into English by Timothy Bent in 2004. 

Inside the head of Philip K. Dick is a fascinating, but pretty unstable place to be.

It's not a very conventional biography, even though Carrère seems to have done a lot of the work of conventional biography--interviewing friends and lovers, visiting locations, reading letters, reading earlier biographers, and above all, reading the work of Dick himself. But Carrère doesn't footnote or cite, and except for the occasional moment where he mentions talking with one of Dick's friends, it's unclear where he has gotten information. Worse (or different) he's clearly deducing ideas--and says as much--about Dick's life and mental state from the novels. A terrible no-no, of course, but so what? It works.

The facts are there: Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in December of 1928. He had a twin sister who died young--of hunger. It was the Depression, but the boy survives and the girl dies. It's no wonder Dick was tormented by this his whole life. The family moves to California when he's still a child, but his parents divorce and he's raised by his mother. He goes to Berkeley High School, and then to Cal-Berkeley for a year, but drops out. He works in a record store on Telegraph Avenue. He meets Anthony Boucher and starts writing science fiction stories. He marries--and marries--and marries: five times in all. 

Dick had a reputation as a druggy, which was both true and not: he took LSD once, in 1964, was terrified by it and never did it again. He smoked marijuana occasionally, but mostly socially, and not, it seems that much. But he did both Benzedrine and Valium--prescription drugs--to stimulate his writing, and wind down afterwards. A lot. But then so did W. H. Auden.

He was difficult to live with: needy and clinging, but also a know-it-all. (Well, he really did know a lot.) Bad in social situations, but with deep friendships at times. Pretty seriously agoraphobic. He wrote to (barely) pay his bills, too much and too fast, but still some of the books are pretty great. He may have had some religious experiences, or it may have been the drugs. He never said for sure, and may not have fully decided himself. The drugs (probably) did for him in the end. He died in 1984, after a series of strokes, at the age of 53.

But Carrère's handling of the facts, while seemingly fine, is not what makes the book so interesting.
"One day, a new young woman rode into his life, on the back of a Harley-Davidson driven by a guy covered in tattoos. 'Donna,' like almost everyone else who appears in this chapter, has been extrapolated from a character in A Scanner Darkly...The real Donna had another name--as did others I write of here--which she has asked not to be used in print."
"Another time, Phil became convinced that Donna was a narc. He confronted her. She replied that she understood why he would think that. In their world it was the kind of thing that was entirely possible."
"Another time, sitting down to drink a cup of coffee that someone had made for him, Phil couldn't let go of the idea of how easily it could have been laced with a potent strain of acid that would set an unstoppable film rolling in his head, a film that would last his entire life."
"Another time, Phil convinced himself that the house was under twenty-four hour surveillance. He knew the phone was tapped, and even if it wasn't, basic prudence dictated that one act as though it were."

These cuts are from one chapter and is very much the world of A Scanner Darkly. Is it fair to mix the life with the works? Maybe not entirely and maybe you would want--or want also--a different sort of biography. But this was fascinating, and it is a very phildickian thing to do. 

Could you read the book if you didn't already know Philip Dick pretty well? I'm not so sure about that. As a general rule I only read author biographies for authors I've read a substantial amount of the work. That might be an especially good rule here, I suspect.

The books Carrère looks at in depth:

  • Eye in the Sky
  • Time Out Of Joint
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Martian Time-Slip
  • Now Wait For Last Year
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 
  • Ubik
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Valis
  • The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer
  • The Exegesis
Of the novels in the list I've read all but Time Out of Joint, and now I want to read that one. It's a good list, and if one wanted to read that many, I might say just go with that. I haven't read the Exegesis, Dick's millions-of-words meditation on the nature of divine experience, nor am I likely to, but I have the volume of selections, and it sits next to Leopardi's Zibaldone, that shelf of things I dip into once in a while when the mood strikes.

I don't know where I first heard of the book. I got hold of it after I read Deus Irae recently, but the library didn't deliver it fast enough for me to use in writing that post. It wouldn't have mattered. Carrère mentions Deus Irae, but in passing and only slightingly, which is probably about all it deserves.

But Carrère is pretty celebrated these days. There's biographies, novels, memoirs. A few days ago it was announced he won this year's Princess of Asturias award for literature. He's been on the list for the Neustadt prize a couple of times. These things are often considered signposts for a trip to Stockholm. Could the biographer of Philip Dick actually win the Nobel prize?

Who knows? Anyway, it was the first Carrère I've read. It was pretty good. It won't be the last.

Are you a fan of Philip Dick? Or Emmanuel Carrère?



Thursday, October 21, 2021

Osip Mandelstam

 


All I want to do is
escape the madness here.
To rise into the light
where I can disappear.

Where you can be like light--
and happiness is mine!--
and learn from every star
what it means to shine.

All I want to say is,
the whispering you hear--
that's the sound of light
I whisper in your ear.

The thing that makes us light
the thing that makes us shine
is that I whisper words
and that this voice is mine.

-Osip Mandelstam (tr. Paul Schmidt)

I've been reading Mandelstam in W. S. Merwin's translation and I'm afraid that has sent me back to reading those few poems of Mandelstam's that are in Paul Schmidt's collection of 20th century Russian poetry The Stray Dog Cabaret. I don't know, but for me, the best thing that can be said about the W. S. Merwin translations are that there are more of them. (And, yes, that is damning with faint praise.) What was (is?) it about American (and Canadian) poets of a certain era that they were so very afraid of rhyme? Whether it's appropriate or not for one's own poetry, it feels false to translate somebody like Mandelstam without it.

This poem dates from March 23, 1937. Mandelstam had been arrested in 1934 after the Stalin Epigram came to light. He had assumed its discovery would mean a death sentence, but after interrogation and torture he got off lightly (?) with internal exile to the Ural mountains, only to be rearrested in 1938. He died later that year.

Monday, October 18, 2021

#ccspin: And the winner is...

...number 12, which, for me, is The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. I'm definitely looking forward to this one.


Charles thinks the operations of chance have been a success!

Did you get something good? 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Hitching into Frisco (#1976Club, #Poem)

 


Hitching into Frisco

Truck put me off on Fell.
I'll walk to Union Square.
And watch the homeless there
From jailhouse and hotel.

And liable to none.
I've heard the long freight trains,
The cars marked with home names.
Mom wouldn't know her son.

I was a gentle boy.
That dusty Texas town
Was good for settling down.
The girls were clean and coy.

Had everywhere to go,
And thumbed around the nation.
It's like improvisation
Inside a tune you know.

The highways in the bone
Phrase after phrase unwind.
For all I leave behind
There is a new song grown.

And everywhere to go.

Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was a British, then American poet, moving to the US when he was about 30, finally settling in San Franciso. Jack Straw's Castle was his volume of 1976. A few of the poems are set in New York City, but most in California. 'Hitching into Frisco' is one 'Three Songs' from that volume. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Classics Club Spin #28

 


It's time for another Classics Club Spin...you know the rules. Here's my list of twenty books:

Some books that would also work for Karen's Back To The Classics challenge...

1.) George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara
2.) James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
3.) James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son
4.) Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris
5.) Henry James' Wings of the Dove

Some books from my Classics Club list...

6.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
7.) Virginia Woolf's The Waves
8.) Willa Cather's One of Ours
9.) Willa Cather's A Lost Lady
10.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh

Some books I've been meaning to read since I recently read other books... 😉

11.) W.E.B. Du Bois' Autobiography (Wagnerism)
12.) Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark
13.) Eça de Queirós' The Maias (The City and the Mountains)
14.) R. L. Stevenson's An Inland Voyage (Travels With a Donkey)
15.) R. L. Stevenson's Across the Plains
16.) John Ruskin's Stones of Venice (various Richard Howards)
17.) John Ruskin's Unto This Last
18.) Tacitus' The History (Annals)
19.) Henryk Sienkiewicz' With Fire and Sword (Quo Vadis)
20.) Ezra Pound's Literary Essays (Propertius)

Some of these would be rereads. Which would you wish for me?

Charles contemplating the operations of chance...


Monday, October 11, 2021

PKD & Zelazny & Moorcock (#1976Club)

 


It's the start of Kaggsy & Simon's 1976 club! 

Deus Irae

Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny teamed up to write this post-apocalyptic tale of a quest to find (or at least see) god. 

Carleton Lufteufel (air-devil) was the head of a U.S. war agency from 1983; in a conflict with the Chinese he dropped the 'gob', the great objectless bomb, and the atmosphere was destroyed. The Krankheit (sickness) followed, and those few humans who do survive are at higher risk for genetic mutations and can barely scrape up enough food to eat. Intelligent lizards and bugs and leftover robot A.I.s have taken over some of the space once occupied by humans.

And in the process Carleton Lufteufel became a god.

The process to becoming nor the powers Lufteufel has as god are particularly specified, but there is a new religion, the Servants of Wrath, devoted to his worship. Tibor McMasters, born without limbs but still a notable painter, is tasked with painting a church mural (a 'murch') to exalt his worship. McMasters declares he can only paint this mural properly once he's seen his god, but since Lufteufel is still out there somewhere it ought to be possible. He sets out on a 'Pilg', a pilgrimage to see his god, in a cart drawn by a cow, across the ruined and desolate country.

Pete Sands, on the verge of converting to Christianity, which still exists in our post-apocalyptic world, has been taking drugs to see the Christian God, a technique his spiritual adviser disapproves of. Pete Sands follows McMasters on his quest, either to help or hinder or both, since he likes McMasters personally, but doesn't like the new religion.

Do all pilgrimage narratives suggest Pilgrim's Progress? I've been reading Bunyan lately, and it feels like there are similarities, but maybe it's just the similarity between like objects. I couldn't point you to a particular point of reference. (Though maybe the use of allegorical names?)

Lufteufel meets up with the pair by design, under the name of Schuld (guilt), and arranges his own death, and the world feels a certain lightening. 

Hmm. Why someone who blew up the planet might feel guilty I can understand; why this particular death--even though it is the death of the human embodiment of a divinity--should make the world better, I'm not sure I do.

I know PKD pretty well, but Zelazny hardly at all. Wikipedia tells me that man become god and/or god become man is an important Zelazny motif. Drugs to see God and the use of German are definitely PKD contributions. I find PKD a pretty great writer, but too much production and carelessness mar a lot of his work. This one, for whatever reason, didn't entirely convince. Still, it was fun.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

This is the second of the original Elric novels by Michael Moorcock, though two of the (three) stories had appeared before and were then rewritten for the novel. 

I reread the first in the series Elric of Melniboné to get into the proper space. Elric ("It is the colour of bleached skull, his flesh;...") is the albino emperor number four hundred and somety-something of the decadent kingdom of Melniboné. Sickly and doomed. Humanoid, but not human. At the end of the first, he's just recovered after an attempted usurpation by his cousin Yyrkoon and he's acquired his sword Stormbringer. Nevertheless he decides to leave Yyrkoon on the throne as regent, and go off on a wanderjahr.

In the first adventure he sails into the future and is tied into the Moorcock eternal champion mythos, united with Corum, Hawkmoon, and Erekosë to defeat a brother/sister pair of evil sorcerers.  I thought this the weakest of the three.

In the second he comes across a figure from Melnibonéan legend Saxif D'Aan, who, across the centuries, has been pursuing the one girl he loved, the girl he killed in a fit of jealousy. Now in the present Saxif D'Aan has found a lookalike. Is there a way to right this ancient wrong?

In the final tale, Elric with a few companions journeys up a river through a jungle to ruins that may mark the origins of the Melnibonéan race. Seeking his past. Our Elric is a melancholy hero and unhappy with his role as emperor. Are these his roots? If he learns them, what will it do? Is this a journey to the heart of darkness or the heart of light? He does find a Kurtz, but maybe no real answers.

And in this his sentient sword Stormbringer first reveals its treacherous nature.

I knew, but had half-forgotten how good these were. Have I just committed myself to rereading the whole series? Maybe...

"You feign cynicism, yet I think I've rarely met a man so much in need of a little cynicism," Count Smiorgan tells Elric at the end of the third story.

Oh, and drugs. Elric is only kept alive by his sorcerous drugs, at least until he acquires Stormbringer. Well, it is 1976... 😉

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting. (Love the logo!)



Saturday, October 9, 2021

Eça de Queirós' The City and The Mountains

 "So this is Portugal, eh? Hm, it smells good."

Jacinto is born and raised in Paris, the only son of an only son of a wealthy family and Jacinto is fantastically rich. His grandfather, an ardent royalist, left Portugal when Miguel I was exiled in 1834. It's the 1890s when the novel starts and Zé Fernandes is in Paris for his studies. The two become friends, and it's Zé Fernandes who narrates Jacinto's story. "It's for this reason we named him 'the prince of Great Good Fortune.'"

In Paris, Jacinto lives alone but for his servants at No. 202, Avenue des Champs-Élysées. This appears to be an imaginary address, but if it existed, Jacinto would live right next to the Arc de Triomphe. Did I mention wealthy?

Zé Fernandes goes back to Portugal for family duties; when seven years later he returns to Paris, he renews his acquaintance with Jacinto. In the interim Jacinto has used his great wealth to acquire and enjoy all the technological marvels available in Paris in the 1890s.

Or, maybe, not enjoy them.

The Paris part of the novel, the first third or so of its nearly 300 pages, is a wonderful satire of the state of technology in the 1890s. If there's a gadget, Jacinto has to have it. There are those I could name now. This goes well beyond electric light and the telephone. Jacinto has a teletype news service in his home. There's the Théâtrophone, a dedicated phone line that connects the user to the opera or theater. But these gadgets inevitably fail, the electricity just before an entertainment Jacinto had planned. The hot water system breaks, scalds and then floods the household. A prize fish course is stuck between floors when the dumbwaiter fails. And can you imagine listening to even a comic opera singer over a telephone line of the 1890s? ("Nothing but squeaks and buzzes!")

Then even the library,...

"My friend brushed his finger lightly against the wall and a circle of electric lights, which glowed against the carved wooden ceiling, lit up the monumental ebony shelves. These were filled by over thirty thousand books--bound in white, scarlet and red, with just a few touches of gold--as stiff and erect in their pomp and authority as an assembly of learned doctors."

...fails to delight after a while. (Nooooooo!)

When the gadgets fail, Jacinto goes on to obsess over various philosophical fads: Nietzsche, Ruskin, finally pitching on Schopenhauer and pessimism. (Yes, yes, I did just reduce Nietzsche & Ruskin to fads, but that is their function in the novel.)

Something must be missing from Jacinto's life. Just what could it be? 😉

Eventually Jacinto is obliged to go to Portugal, a country he's never been to, but the source of his wealth. He will be present for the rededication of the chapel in his ancestral family home. He owns several other estates, but this one is in the remote northern mountains of Portugal in a town called Tormes. The region is primitive and poor even by the standards of Portugal of the time. 

Jacinto attempts to import all his gadgets to Tormes and when he discovers the real state of the countryside decides to improve the lot of the locals: new housing, modern farming techniques, new industries. (A cheese dairy!) His estate manager Silvério and Zé Fernandes attempt to instil a little realism in him, but...

It's not giving much away to say it's marriage that removes the megrims from Jacinto's life--halfway through I was describing the plot as I'd read it thus far, and the Other Reader said, well, Jacinto is going to get married and that will solve everything. 

And so it was.

I'm not one to necessarily object to predictability, especially in a marriage plot, but the second half of the novel, while still fun, is not the equal of the first. The girl has little character other than her great beauty, and there's no real tension to keep them apart. But happily ever after isn't a bad ending, and suitable enough for our 'prince of Great Good Fortune.'

Though the 'happily ever after' doesn't extend to Zé Fernandes, whose romantic interest moves to Brazil and who makes a last unhappy trip to Paris.

José Maria de Eça de Queirós was the Portuguese consul in Paris when he was writing the novel, though he traveled to Portugal more often than Jacinto. It was his last novel, almost, but not quite, completed, with most of it in proofs, at his death in 1900; the last page or so was written by a friend after his death based on notes.

I read his novella The Yellow Sofa a couple of weeks ago and that seems to have sent me on an Eça de Queirós binge. The library assisted:


with The Maias also on the way. 

Comparisons to Flaubert seem to be de rigeur--three of the six blurbs on the back of The City and The Mountains cite Flaubert and apparently this trend goes back a while: Wikipedia tells me Zola compared Eça de Queirós with Flaubert to Flaubert's disadvantage. I have the suspicion the two I've read so far are unrepresentative, but this seems weird to me. Eça de Queirós is far funnier and much more genial than Flaubert. But if it is true, then this is his Bouvard et Pecuchet: it was unfinished at his death (though much closer to finished than Flaubert's novel) and is built around an encyclopedia of absurdities. I can't imagine Flaubert would have solved Bouvard or Pecuchet's mania by marriage, though...

If you know Eça de Queirós, which should I read next? Which should I have already read?

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Mateiu Caragiale's Rakes of the Old Court (Europe)

"They were talking about you today, before you came, they said you were working on a novel of manners, set in Bucharest, and I could barely keep from laughing...maybe if you wrote about Paşa, me, Panta--with anyone else you won't know what you're doing..." [70]

That's Pirgu talking to the narrator of Rakes of the Old Court. There are four main characters in the novel: Paşadia, Pirgu, Pantazi, and the narrator.

Mateiu Caragiale's novel came out in 1929 and is set around that time in Bucharest, though there are some flashbacks to earlier periods. Our four rakes don't do much: they meet in bars and drink; pursue sex, mostly with women, though there are definite suggestions of homosexual affairs. They're rich, (with the exception of Pirgu) sophisticated, the cream of Romanian society. Or are they? 

This short novel (100 pages) doesn't have a lot of event. The first chapter shows the gathering (in a bar) where the four characters are fully introduced. (They had some awareness of each other in society before that.) Each of the remaining three chapters reveals the backstory of three characters. The narrator himself is never fully explored.

First up is Paşadia.  The name suggests--and according to the introduction it would to a Romanian as well--a Turkish origin, which is the case. Paşadia's great-grandfather escaped Turkey; he was wanted there for a double murder. He comes to Romania-to-be, 'concealed his origins because they were too base', [29] sets up as a strongman and a lord. The women marrying into this line are also all foreigners: a Serbian, a Greek, a Braşovan at a time when Braşov was not yet part of Romania. Paşadia himself is cultivated, sophisticated. Where does that come from?

Pantazi next reveals himself. Though he was born in Bucharest, he declares, "I am Greek...my earliest ancestors, as far back as I know, were seafaring thieves." [42] Though there are also mentioned in that ancestral tree 'Sicilian', 'barbarians', and 'quite possibly Norse, as all until the last two [of us, my father and me] preserved red hair and blue eyes'. Nevertheless when the war to finalize Romanian independence from Turkey breaks out in 1877, Pantazi feels Romanian enough to go fight. Russia aids Romania but then betrays the nascent Romanian state; nevertheless Romania, which had had a sort of de facto independence before the war, becomes an actual nation state under King Carol I.

Pirgu gets the last word. The narrator frequently sneers at Pirgu, and the other two treat him somewhat condescendingly as well. Pirgu had been trying to get the narrator to go to the Arnoteanus', proprietors of a gambling den and whorehouse, and finally he succeeds, and the story ends with our four characters either gambling or whoring or both. We also learn more about Pirgu: he is our one true (?) Romanian; he'd been impoverished through shenanigans, and through shenanigans he regains some of his wealth at the end.

Amusing, but all clear enough in its way. I have to imagine in 1929 there was a considerable amount of discussion about what is Romanian identity, with many, no doubt, praising its great purity and nobility. Romantic nationalism was dangerously on the rise all over Europe. Caragiale demurs, suggesting Romanians are a bunch of mutts (like everyone else) and pretty corrupt bunch at that. The introduction says the novel, while it may not have been the communists' favourite, made it through that era without suppression, and you can see why: it can be read--maybe merely--as a satire on decadent aristocrats.

But the introduction, by Sean Cotter the translator, also says this is a major Romanian novel, quite possibly the greatest Romanian novel of the 20th century. Well. There's something more going on here, and that something is clearly the language. One of Cotter's Romanian friends asked when Cotter said he was translating the novel if he was going to translate it into Romanian first. Ha, ha. The language is apparently difficult, and Cotter reproduces that in the translation. There are subtleties, though, that he can't very well reproduce though he clues us in to their presence. Paşadia's story is full of Romanian words of Turkish origin; Pantazi--whose very name suggests to me a bit his Greekness--uses language full of words of Greek origin. Pirgu is given a fairly coarse demotic--he's the one who swears and uses slang. True Romanian, as it were?

Turkish is the hard one: there just aren't that many words in English of Turkish origin, and Cotter resorts to extravagantly Latinate words to reproduce the feel. Caragiale is one of those writers who has a vocabulary and ain't afraid to use it neither: think, maybe, Mervyn Peake in English. I wouldn't want to be the one to translate Peake into another language. The problem reminded me of Apuleius' The Golden Ass and Jack Lindsay's translation, which I find quite successful. Reading Apuleius in Latin one comes across a bunch of words that don't show up in other authors and seem to be obscure even for the time; Lindsay translates with words equally alien to a normal English vocabulary. But Cotter's problem is even more challenging since he's faced with words of different etymological origins.

Perhaps an example is in order, especially since the bits I've quoted so far are pretty lucid...
"I would have started conversation, if the musicians had not begun precisely that waltz for which Pantazi had a weakness, a slow, dragging waltz, voluptuous and sad, almost funereal. In its mollitious oscillation, it traced a nostalgic and endlessly somber passion,..." [5]
That passage very nearly mollitiously oscillates back into the novel a second time quite near the end. (So the novel begins with a waltz and ends with a waltz.) Anyway there's more of that. You've been warned. 😉

And another warning:
"Nene, when are you going to give this stuff up? When? You'll turn your brains to mush with all this bookwork." [69]

That's Pirgu to the narrator. But since it's Pirgu maybe us bookish types can treat him condescendingly as well... 

All in all, though, I have to say I found it pretty interesting, if not exactly a rollicking read, and even though I'm quite sure a good deal of it went past me and would be pretty hard to reproduce in English in any case. However, this is one of those few books where I could have wished for even more notes.

It came out this year from Northwestern University Press. I came across it here. (Michael Orthofer's Complete Review.) Since I needed to keep up my Romanian streak for: