Luke's Books

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Janet Malcolm. The Journalist and the Murderer

"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.  Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns -- when the article or book appears -- his hard lesson.  Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments.  The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living" (Journalist, p. 3)

"The fatal attraction of a lawsuit -- as Dickens showed us in Bleak House, with the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce -- is the infinite scope it offers for escape from the real world of ambiguity, obscurity, doubt, disappointment, compromise, and accommodation.  The world of the lawsuit is the world of the Platonic ideal, where all is clear, etched, one thing or the other.  It is a world -- as Dickens showed with his allegory of obsession -- that we enter at our peril, since it is also the world of madness" (Journalist, pp. 148-49).

"The phenomenon of transference -- how we all invent each other according to early blueprints -- was Freud's most original and radical discovery.  The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipus complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanamity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of entities -- personal relations -- is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems.  Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality.  The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic:  we cannot know each other.  We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others.  We cannot see each other plain" (Psychoanalysis:  The Impossible Profession, p. 6).

"(Freud himself preferred to align the psychoanalytic revolution with the revolution of Copernicus and then the revolution of Darwin, saying that the first showed that the earth was not the center of the universe, the second that man was not a unique creation, and the third that man was not even master of his own house.)  It was as if a lonely terrorist working in his cellar on a modest explosive device to blow up the local brewery had unaccountably found his way to the hydrogen bomb and blown up half the world.  The fallout from this bomb has yet to settle" (Psychoanalysis, pp. 22-23).

"The most dedicated of Freudians do daily battle with the disinclination of the mind to accept the chastening evidence of the fossils of the unconscious (dreams, slips of the tongue, forgettings, accidents) in favor of the more acceptable testimony of the ordinary senses.  The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life is impossible to live for more than a few moments at a time.  To fully accept the idea of unconscious motivation is to cease to be human.  The greatest analyst in the world can live his own life only like an ordinary blind and driven human being" (In the Freud Archives, p. 25).

"Far from presenting the patient with a well-made story, analysis seeks to destroy the story that the patient has for a long time believed to be the story of his life.  Like a police investigator bent on breaking down the alibi of a stubborn suspect, the analyst doggedly whittles away at the patient's story through evidence that the patient unwittingly provides.  Nor does analysis replace the old story with a new one.  It emboldens the patient to live without a story.  It permits him to see that his life is at once more disorderly and risky and interesting and free than he had dared to imagine.  Our lives are not like novels"  (The Purloined Clinic, pp. 45-46)

"Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.  The biography at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.  The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity.  The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor.  He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses.  There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people's mail....  The reader's amazing tolerance ... makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole"  (The Silent Woman:  Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, pp. 8-9).

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in the middle of an article on fashion designer Eileen Fisher, Janet Malcolm unexpectedly finds herself "babbling about the ethical dilemmas of journalism, about the risk subjects take when they let journalists into their houses and the pangs journalists feel when they write their betraying narratives"  (Sept. 23, 2013, p. 58).  None of this makes a whole lot of sense, particularly -- it just seems to come flying in from out of the blue sky, like an engine falling from an unseen airplane, but it's quite clear, since the publication of Malcolm's fascinating account of The Journalist and the Murderer, that the impossible relationship of journalists to their subjects and to the truth has been her life-long preoccupation.  One of Modern Library's top 100 non-fiction works of the 20th century, The Journalist is Joe McGinness, author of Fatal Vision, who and which betrayed The Murderer Jeffrey McDonald, resulting in a libel lawsuit against the author.  Its opening lines and its premise -- the instability of truth; its larger argument that journalists, lawyers, and biographers alike are obliged to wrest from out of the contradictory bits and pieces of human experience a narrative line, a convincing story; the inevitable impossiblity and thus duplicity of the journalistic enterprise  itself-- stung journalists across the country.  All of which resonates all the more, when one learns that Malcolm, herself, was sued for libel for her portrait of Jeffrey Masson In the Freud Archives -- a decade-long string of hearings and appeals from out of Dickens that ended in a stalemate.  (For a fascinating account of the conflict between the so-called New Journalists or Literary Journalism and "real" journalists, see Kathy Forde's fascinating account of Masson v. Malcolm in Literary Journalism on Trial.)  At any rate, whether exploring photography, psychoanalysis, or literary biography -- Two Lives on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; The Silent Woman, on Sylvia Plath; her richly rewarding Reading Chekhov -- the Prague-born Janet Malcolm has continued to explore, in a kind of post-modern vein, our longing for stories that either fail to find the truth or persist in distorting it.  Written in The New Yorker tradition of Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, her investigations are endlessly fascinating, richly detailed, moving accounts of the impossibility of truly knowing one another.  Or even ourselves.  In the Journalist and the Murderer, there is a fragment of court transcript, in which Bostwick, the prosecuting attorney, grills McGinness, which may seem as pointless a quibble as Malcolm's apology to Eileen Fisher for invading her house.  But taking the long view, it's about as effective and memorable a summary of Malcolm's baffled, bemused, intricate, and eloquent pieces of journalism as I know of, so here goes:

Bostwick Q:  You don't really know he killed his wife and children, do you?
McGinness A:  Well, I know that he's been convicted, and the conviction has been confirmed by every appeals court that's considered it.
Q: That's not what it says in here, though, Mr. McGinniss.  That's why I asked you the question in your own words.  You don't really know, do you?
A: I know to my own satisfaction, yes, after the four years of intensive investigation I did.
Q: Did you ever talk to anyone who you believe knows that Dr. MacDonald committed the crimes?
A:  Well, the victims are dead.  Can't talk to them.  And I came to believe that MacDonald simply didn't tell the truth.
Q:  Have you ever talked to anyone who knows that Dr. MacDonald committed the crimes?
A: Well, I think you're getting into an area of epistemology here, Mr. Bostwick.
Q:  That's right.  I agree with you.
A: Yes.
Q:  Did you ever talk to anyone who knows?
A:  I couldn't talk to Colette.  Couldn't talk to Kimberly.
Q:  Did you talk to anyone who knows, Mr. McGinness?
A:  Yes, I did.
Q:  Who did you talk to?
A:  I talked to MacDonald.
Q:  You know that he knows?
A:  I know in my heart that he knows.
Q:  Did he ever tell you that he did?
A:  He certainly didn't.

Monday, September 23, 2013

James Salter. A Sport and a Pastime

"Over France a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin.  The walls grow dark with water.  The gutters are running, the streets all abandoned.  It started at dusk.  By nine it is still pouring down" (Sport, p. 143).

"Now, at the age of twenty-four, he has come to the time of choice.  I know quite well how all that is.  And then I read his letters.  His father writes to him in the most beautiful, educated hand, the born hand of a copyist.  Admonitions to confront life, to think a little more seriously about this or that.  I could have laughed.  Words that meant nothing to him.  He has already set out on a dazzling voyage which is more like an illness, becoming ever more distant, more legendary.  His life will be filled with those daring impulses which cause him to disappear and next be heard of in Dublin, in Veracruz" (Sport, pp. 78-79).

"But of course, in one sense, Dean never died -- his existence is superior to such accidents.  One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them.  And they become real through our envy, our devotion.  It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess.  And in turn, they give some back.  But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are.  They do not last forever.  They fade.  They vanish.  They are surpassed, forgotten -- one hears of them no more" (Sport, p. 185).

"There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real" (Preface to All That Is).

"Through the green water of the harbor, late in the day, long, dark, and powerful, moving slowly and gravely at first, a bow wave forming, gathering speed, almost silent, the large dock cranes pasing in silhouette, the shore hidden in evening mist, leaving white swirls of foam trailing behind it, the Yamato headed for sea.  The sounds that could be heard were muted; there was a feeling of good-bye.  The captain addressed the entire crew massed on the deck.  They had plentiful ammunition, lockers filled with great shells the size of coffins, but not the fuel, he told them, to return.  Three thousand men and a vice admiral were aboard.  They had written farewell letters home to their parents and wives and were sailing to their deaths.  Find happiness with another, they wrote.  Be proud of your son.  Life was precious to them.  They were somber and fearful.  Many prayed.  It was known that the ship was to perish as an emblem of the undying will of the nation not to surrender"  (All That Is, pp. 10-11).

"What if there should be no river but only the endless lines of unknown people, people absoutely without hope, as there had been in the war?  He would be made to join them, to wait forever.  He wondered then, as he often did, how much of life remained for him.  He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived.  He would be going where they all had gone and -- it was difficult to believe -- all he had known would go with him, the war, Mr. Kindrigen and the butler pouring coffee, London those first days, the lunch with Christine, her gorgeous body like a separate entity, names, houses, the sea, all he had known and things he had never known but were there nevertheless, things of his time, all the years, the great liners with their invicible glamour readying to sail, the band playing as they were backed away, the green water widening, the Matsonia leaving Honolulu, the Bremen departing, the Aquitania, Ile de France, and the small boats streaming, following behind.  The first voice he ever knew, his mother's, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child.  He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home -- the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned" (All That Is, p. 289).

"There is no complete life.  There are only fragments.  We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands."  (Light Years, p. 35).

"'Greatness is something which can be regarded in a numbers of ways,' he said.  'It is, of course, the apotheosis, man raised to his highest powers, but it also can be, in a way, like insanity, a certain kind of imbalance, a flaw, in most cases a beneficial flaw, an anomaly, an accident'" (Light Years, p. 123).

"You are not obscure, they told him.  You have friends.  People admire your work.  He was, after all, a good father -- that is to say, an ineffective man.  Real goodness was different, it was irresistible, murderous, it had victims like any other aggression; in short, it conquered" (Light Years, p. 136).

"'Do we really only have one season?  One summer,' she said, 'and it's over?'" (Light Years, p. 140)

Over the past several months, I've fallen for James Salter, widely acknowledged as the writer of the most luminescent, elegant sentences in American prose today.  "There were a dozen or more," he writes of fuel tanks dropped by jet aircraft, "going down like thin cries fading in silence."  A graduate of West Point, Salter flew 25 missions during the Korean War -- the subject of The Hunters, about a jet fighter pilot who longs for the kill, who longs to be immortal -- and then he quit the military in order to write, so that he might be immortal, like Achilles in Homer's Iliad.  The tick tock of time -- the passing light that the sun casts on the grey waters of the ocean, the passing of a day, a season, a life -- time slips through the fingers of Salter's characters as water, and his heroes, whether Philip Dean in Sport and a Pastime, drowning in love in Southern France in the 60s; Rand climbing Solo Faces in the French Alps; the architect Viri in Light Years, dying to be remembered in the face of a crumbling marriage; the editor Philip Bowman in Salter's most recent novel, All That Is, savouring each glass of wine, each kiss, each embrace, that never will be again -- in all of Salter's novels there is, against the current of time that sweeps all out to sea, this desperate and terrific hope that reminds us to live this life intensely, for it is all that is.  Against Salter, it is true that there is much to be said:  women who are not so much companions as prizes, like Achilles' Breisis; an adoration of the way in which light flickers over the patina of things; and above all, an anachronistic longing for the heroic, the legendary, the immortal that seems more suitable to the world of Homer or Beowulf, than to our self-absorbed age of ambivalence and despair.  But Homer spoke truly, no less so than the Psalmist, when he wrote of "the lives of mortal men," "like the generations of leaves ... -- now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth'" (Iliad 6.171-72; Fagles translation).  This James Salter knows as well:  the terrible brevity of life, the terrifying urgency to make it matter, the irrevocable turn of the seasons.  "Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime," cautions the Koran.  This James Salter remembers as well, and it is because he remembers, that each sentence, each moment in his novels is treasured with equal measures of melancholy and love.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Robert Caro. The Years of Lyndon Johnson

“Though George Brown wasn’t surprised by Marsh’s offer, he was surprised by the response it received.  Johnson thanked Marsh, polite, ingratiating and deferential as he always was with the older man.  But he was also, Brown recalls, quite firm.  He would like to think the offer over, he said, but he felt almost certain he was going to have to decline with thanks.  I can’t be an oil man, he said; if the public knew I had oil interests, it would kill me politically.

“All that week, Lyndon Johnson considered the offer – in a setting that emphasized what he would be giving up if he declined it.  The Greenbrier [Hotel in the mountains of West Virginia] – with its immense, colonnaded main House rearing up, gleaming white, in the midst of 6,500 acres of lush lawns and serene gardens, its vast,  marble-floored ballroom in which guests danced under huge cut-glass chandeliers, its cupolaed Spring House, around which, every afternoon, chilled champagne was served at canopied tables, its arcade lined with expensive shops, its indoor swimming pool as big as a lake, its battalions of green-liveried servants, its fleet of limousines which met guests arriving at a nearby station in their private railroad cars – was, as Holiday magazine put it, ‘opulent America at its richest,’ the distillation of all that was available in the United States to the wealthy, and not to others.  As the three men lay every morning on their blanket, which had been spread on a slope in front of their accommodations – a row of white cottages, set away from the main building for privacy, which were the resort’s most expensive – Johnson discussed the offer with Brown, telling him details of his life he had often told him before:  about the terrible poverty of his youth, about his struggle to go to college – and about the fact (which, Brown felt, preyed constantly on his mind) that after three years in Congress, three years, moreover, in which he had accumulated, thanks to President Roosevelt’s friendship, far more than three years’ worth of power, he still had nothing – not a thousand dollars, he said – in the bank.  Again and again he spoke to Brown of his fear (a fear which, Brown believed, tormented him) of ending up like his father, who had also been an elected official – six times elected to the Texas State legislature – but had died penniless.  He talked repeatedly about his realization that a seat in Congress was no hedge against that fate; so many times since he had come to Washington, he said, he had seen former Congressmen, men who had once sat in the great Chamber as he was sitting now, but who had lost their seats – working in poorly paid or humiliating jobs.  Again and again, he harked back to one particular incident he could not get out of his mind:  while riding an elevator in the Capitol one day, he had struck up a conversation with the elevator operator – who had said that he had once been a Congressman, too.  He didn’t want to end up an elevator operator, Johnson said.  Accepting Marsh’s offer would free him from such fears forever – Brown could see that Johnson had not misunderstood the offer, that he was aware he had been offered great wealth.  But again and again Johnson returned to the statement he had made when Marsh had first made the offer:  “it would kill me politically.”

“George Brown had been working closely with Johnson for three years; Johnson’s initial nomination to congress, in 1937, had, in fact, been brought about to ensure an immensely complicated transaction with a very simple central point:  the firm in which George and his brother Herman were the principals – Brown & Root, Inc. – was building a dam near Austin under an unauthorized arrangement with the federal government, and it needed a Congressman who could get the arrangement authorized.  Johnson had succeeded in doing so – the Browns made millions of dollars from that federal contract – and ever since he had been trying to make them more, an effort that had recently been crowned with success by the award to Brown & Root of the contract for a gigantic United States Navy base at Corpus Christi.  Having worked with Johnson so long, Brown felt he knew him – and knew how important money was to him, how anxious he was to obtain it.  He sensed, moreover, that this anxiety was increasing, a belief nurtured not only by the growing intensity of Johnson’s pleas that the Browns find him a business of his own, but by a story circulating among Johnson’s intimates:  several months before, at a party, Johnson had introduced two men, and one of them had later purchased a piece of Austin real estate from the other.  The seller, a local businessman, had been astonished when the Congressman approached him one evening and asked for a ‘finder’s fee’ for the ‘role’ he had played in the transaction.  Telling Johnson that he hadn’t played any role beyond the social introduction, he had refused to give him anything, and had considered the matter closed; the transaction, he recalls, was small, and the finder’s fee would not have amounted to “more than a thousand dollars, if that.’  When, therefore, he opened the front door of his home at seven the next morning to pick up his newspaper, he was astonished to see his
Congressman sitting on the curb, waiting to ask him again for the money.  And when he again explained to Johnson that he wasn’t entitled to a fee, ‘Lyndon started – well, really, to beg me for it – and when I refused, I thought he was going to cry.’  Brown, knowing how desperate Johnson had recently been over a thousand dollars, was surprised to see him hesitating over three-quarters of a million.

“He was surprised also by Johnson’s reason for hesitating.  It would kill me politically – what ‘politically’ was Johnson talking about?  Until that week at the Greenbrier, Brown had thought he had measured Johnson’s political ambition – had measured it easily, he thought, for Johnson talked so incessantly about what he wanted out of politics.  He was always saying that he wanted to stay in Congress until a Senate seat opened up, and then run for the Senate.  Well, his congressional district was absolutely safe; being an oil man couldn‘t hurt him there.  And when he ran for the Senate, he would be running in Texas, and being an oil man wouldn’t hurt him in Texas.  For what office, then, would Johnson be ‘killed’ by being an ‘oil man’?

“Only when he asked himself that question, George Brown recalls, did he finally realize, after three years of intimate association with Lyndon Johnson, what Johnson really wanted.  And only when, at the end of that week, Johnson firmly refused Marsh’s offer did Brown realize how much Johnson wanted it.”  (Robert Caro, “Introduction” to The Path to Power (pp. xiv-xvi), Vol. 1 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.)

“He had noticed something in the State Department briefing cards, he said.  ‘The people I talked to tonight, out of a hundred nations, there are only six of them that have an income of as much as eighty dollars a month.  We don’t really recognize how lucky and fortunate we are until something tragic like this happens to us.  Here is our President shot in the head and his wife holds his skull in her lap as they drive down the street.  Here is our Governor who looked around and said, “Oh, no, no, no,” and because he turned a bullet just missed his heart.  It went down through his lung into his leg and tore his left hand off.  And, then, yesterday, they take the law into their own hands.  We have to do something to stop that hate, and the way we have to do it is to meet the problem of injustice that exists in this land, meet the problem of inequality that exists in this land, meet the problem of poverty that exists in this land, and the unemployment that exists in this land.’” (Robert Caro, The Passage of Power, p. 420).

“The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act would not be Lyndon Johnson’s only victories in the fight for social justice.  Other bills passed during his Administration made strides toward ending discrimination in public accommodations, in education, employment, even in private housing.  Almost a century after Abraham Lincoln had freed black men and women from slavery, ‘black men and women – and Mexican-American men and women, and indeed most Americans of color – still did not enjoy many of the rights which America supposedly guaranteed its citizens,’ I have written.  ‘It was Lyndon Johnson who gave them those rights.’  Lincoln had been president during the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth century, of all of its seventeen American presidents, ‘Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest champion that black Americans and Mexican-Americans and indeed all Americans of color had in the White House, the greatest champion they had in all the halls of government.  With the single exception of Lincoln, he was the greatest champion with a white skin that they had in the history of the Republic.  He was to become the lawmaker for the poor and the downtrodden and the oppressed.  He was to be the bearer of at least a measure of social justice to those to whom social justice had so long been denied, the restorer of at least a measure of dignity to those who so desperately needed to be given some dignity, the redeemer of the promises made to them by America.’  ‘It is time … to write it in the books of law.’  By the time Lyndon Johnson left office, he had done a lot of writing in those books, had become, above all Presidents save Lincoln, the codifier of compassion, the President who, as I have said, ‘wrote mercy and justice into the statute books by which America was governed.’  And as president he had begun to do that writing – had taken a small but crucial, ineluctable, first step toward breaking the century-old barriers that, at the time he took office, still stood against civil rights on Capitol Hill – with that telephone call he had made to Representative Bolling on December 2, 1963; with that decision he had made, so early in his presidency, to support the discharge petition; with that decision he made, when he realized that only one lever was available to him, to lean into it with all his might.”  (Robert Caro, The Passage of Power, pp. 569-70)

(The word “magisterial” was surely invented to describe Robert Caro’s eloquent, monumental, and galvanizing account of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, 4 volumes, 3,388 pages, and 36 years in the making -- with one, or two, more volumes to go.  Having won the Pulitzer Prize for The Power Broker, about the New York urban planner and titan Robert Moses, Caro has continued his obsessive fascination with the nature and levers of power in this multi-volume biography of the 37th President of the United States:  The Path to Power (1982), an account of the tall, awkward Johnson’s move from the hard-scrabble Texas hill country to the House of Congress, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award (Caro, not Johnson); Means of Ascent (1990), a gripping account of how Johnson stole his first Senate seat with an 87-vote margin, winning the same award again; Master of the Senate (2002), winner of Caro’s second Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award, beginning with a 100-page account of the history of the Senate and telling the story of how Johnson became its youngest majority leader, turning a moribund institution into a force to be reckoned with, maneuvering to passage the first civil rights legislation since 1875; and, ten years later, The Passage of Power (2012), which, after describing Johnson’s wretched powerlessness as Vice President, while in the shadow of JFK, spends the second half of its 700 pages recording in riveting detail what it was that Johnson accomplished in the 47 days between JFK’s assassination and his State of the Union address the following January, achieving critical tax cut and civil rights legislation while “yanking the bit out of Congress’s teeth” (p. 601).

We despised him back then.  “Hey, Hey, LBJ!  How many kids did you kill today?!” chanted the protesters.  I still remember dancing, if not in the streets, alongside the freeway in Wisconsin or Minnesota, when my wife and I heard the incredible news, that Johnson had decided not to run for a second term in 1968.  So it has come as a real revelation to discover the shadows of light and dark, the streaks of ugliness and the wealth of compassion that made of him, finally, neither an ogre nor a hero, but a human being who used power ruthlessly, at times for his own sake, but at times as well for the sake of good.

“Caro has learned about Johnson’s rages, his ruthlessness, his lies, his bribes, his insecurities, his wheedling, his groveling, his bluster, his sycophancy,” writes Charles McGrath in a recent article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Robert Caro is a Dinosaur,” but he also writes of “his charm, his kindness, his streak of compassion, his friends, his enemies, his girlfriends, his gofers and bagmen, his table manners, his drinking habits.”  “If Caro’s Moses is an operatic character – a city-transforming Faust,” McGrath concludes, “his Johnson is a Shakespearean one:  Richard, III, Lear, Iago and Cassio all rolled into one.  You practically feel Caro’s gorge rise when he describes how awful Johnson was in college, wheeling and dealing, blackmailing fellow students and sucking up to the faculty, or when he describes the vicious negative [Senate] campaign Johnson waged against Coke Stevenson.  But then a volume later, describing Johnson’s championing of civil rights legislation, he seems to warm to his subject all over again.”

Already widely acknowledged as the greatest political biography of the century, Robert Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson is simply magnificent – easily one of the half dozen greatest works that I have had the pleasure of reading.  The shadows of Vietnam loom ahead.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

H.W. Tilman. The Seven Mountain-Travel Books

“We argued and debated our future course of action with the earnestness due to its importance, and, like the tribe of whom Gibbon [in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire] writes, we took counsel together when drunk to give our resolutions fire and when sober to give them moderation.”  (Snow on the Equator, p. 97)

“At the height of the pilgrim season the scene in the one narrow street of Badrinath brings back memories of Kim.  Wealthy babus in ‘jhampans’, or dandies, carried by four sweating coolies, the more economically minded in long cylindrical baskets carried by only one; old men and women of all classes arriving on foot travel-stained and weary, clutching their pilgrim’s staff; all welcomed by a roll of drums nicely proportioned in length and loudness to the probable state of the pilgrim’s purse; naked fakirs smeared with ashes, long-haired saddhus, blind and deformed beggars thrusting their wooden bowls under the nose of every shopkeeper in the bazaar, getting here a little flour or a handful of rice, there some spices or salt, and nowhere a refusal; all these jostle each other in the narrow stone-flagged street between the open-fronted shops where yak-tails and Manchester cottons, musk and cheap photographs lie huddled together; and over all, aloof, watchful, stand the snows of Himachal where the gods live.”  (The Ascent of Nanda Devi, p. 171)

 “If bread is the staff of life, to the Turkoman melons are life itself, and here they are in prodigious quantity and variety – green and golden spheres, sliced half-moons of cream and scarlet – major planets among a galaxy of peaches, nectarines, apricots, rosy deceitful pomegranates, and white and purple grapes.  Against this rich back-cloth are set piles of more homely massive onions, mountains of grated onion, stately leeks, radishes as big as turnips, pyramids of eggs, hills of rice, and towers of bread.”  (Two Mountains and a River, p. 611)

“Although at Shambu-nath a smaller but similar stupa, with the same grave, all-seeing eyes, occupies a commanding position, its effect is less striking.  The eyes are too far above the earth-bound mortals of the valley, so that their searching admonitory gaze is directed to the four quarters in vain.  I felt I could live in the village at the foot of Shabu-nath and sin at ease.  The temple stands a mile west of Katmandu on a wooded hill which is climbed by several hundreds of stone steps.  The whole hill, the temple itself, and the neighbouring houses of its attendants, are the home and playground of a far too numerous colony of Rhesus monkeys, which pay even less attention than their human brothers to the unspoken question of those eyes.  Instead of studying the medley of architecture, I stood fascinated by the antics of these amusing but disgusting beasts as they clambered upon and defiled the dieties, and played hide-and-seek among the prayer wheels.  As a climber I could only regret that if we are descended from apes, monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, or a blend of all four, we have not inherited their prehensile toes.  I stood spellbound by the ease with which they climbed the holdless walls of the adjacent houses to poke their long arms through the carefully barred windows reaching for anything within.  Living in one of those houses must be an everlasting nightmare, what with the eyes of the stupa just about level with the upper window, the sad, unblinking eyes of some damned monkey on the sill outside, and the hairy arms groping within.”  (Nepal Himalaya, pp. 757-58)

“That the majority of our porters were women would surprise no one who had studied life in the Langtang.  In addition to their household work the women do the digging, the weeding, carry much to the fields, and harvest the crop.  Except for a few who are up the hill tending the cattle, the men sit about and weave mats.  In a more perfect world, no doubt, they will just sit.”  (Nepal Himalaya p. 775)

“At Calcutta I had made some enquiries as to whether a war which had seen the invention of atomic bombs and self-heating soups had not also given birth to something of more general benefit such as a leech repellent.  My surmise was correct.”  (Nepal Himalaya p. 778)

 “Poised high above the Naur river, the village [of Naurgaon] surprised us by its comfortable and prosperous air.  The houses, as usual, appeared to grow out of the brown, stony hillside, while below lay terrace upon terrace of young barley of the liveliest green where a swarm of women and children were busy weeding.  We camped short of the village by a brook, its grassy bank fragrant with thyme, where the headman soon found us.  This man, whose every word confirmed the shiftiness of his eyes, amused me by his anxiety to play down the obvious well-being of his village.  Like Justice Shallow, fearing a call was about to be made upon it, he deprecated his goodly heritage: ‘Barren, barren, barren; beggars all, beggars all, Sir John.’”  (Nepal Himalaya p. 843; quoting Shakespeare, 2 Henry IV 5.3)

“This little green patch betokening human activity shone like a good deed in a naughty world – a word of shocking sterility, harsh colour and violent shapes.”  (Nepal Himalaya p. 854; quoting Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice 5.1)

(Having survived WWI, H.W. “Bill” Tilman joined a number of fellow refugees, including George Mallory, Eric Shipton, and Robert Graves, in spending much of the remainder of their lives travelling abroad – as far from home as possible.  Tilman started out growing coffee in Kenya and climbing pretty much everything on the continent, after which he bicycled across the waist of Africa in order to catch a freighter back home  (Snow on the Equator [1937]).  In the 1930s he joined several Himalayan expeditions, penetrating the Nanda Devi sanctuary with Eric Shipton in 1934; two years later leading an Anglo-American expedition up the 25,643 ft Nanda Devi – the tallest mountain to be climbed by man until 1950 (The Ascent of Nanda Devi [1937]), and reconnoitering Mount Everest, reaching 27,200 feet without oxygen in 1938.  During WWII, after action in North Africa and Dunkirk, he was dropped behind enemy lines to fight with Albanian and Italian partisans, which naturally provided him with opportunities to climb in the Italian Alps as well (When Men and Mountains Meet [1946]).  After the war, he took up sailing, seeking out still more distant mountains, all of which is accounted for in a second massive anthology called Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books.  He died at sea en route to the Falklands, his ship foundering with all hands in 1977.

Tilman took good care of me while I went trekking in Nepal during the Fall of 2011.  In an age of Goretex, nylon tents, freeze-dried dinners, ultra-light headlamps, “smart wool,” GPS devices, cell phones, and more, it’s sobering and wonderful to imagine a rag-tag bunch of climbers wandering on hobnailed boots through the unmapped Himalayas for months on end, surviving pretty much on pemmican, sardines, courage, and imagination.  He writes wonderfully, quoting Gibbon, Shakespeare, Johnson and others with ease, drawing such exquisite, detailed pictures of people, places, and hair-raising adventures, that you cannot help but sweat and shiver in his company, sharing his exhaustion and exhilaration at every turn.  I held a first edition of The Ascent of Nanda Devi in my hands at Pilgrim Book House in Katmandu, but I couldn’t afford it.  I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

But I’ll let Jim Perrin -- an English rock climber and travel writer, author of the superbly written, eccentric Travels with the Flea, and author as well of the introduction to this anthology -- have the last word, because his comments on the effects of WWI on Tilman and his generation are memorable:

“The general run of his humour is towards irony, and Tilman’s irony, which frequently has about it something of a Switftian saeva indignatio, is a way of coping with a world the moral stability of which was thoroughly eroded throughout his lifetime, and shattered by the effects and implications of two world wars.
            Tilman went to war a month before his eighteenth birthday.  He was wounded in the thigh shortly afterwards, but was back in action in time to see the start of the Battle of the Somme.  In the next six months over a million soldiers were to die, 420,000 of them British, and dying as much through the fault of a cold-eyed, antediluvian British High Command as by German machine-gun fire.  Tilman was a first-hand witness to this slaughter channelled between two bitter winters.  Thirty years after the event, he wrote:
… after the first war, when one took stock, shame mingled with satisfaction at finding oneself still alive.  One felt a bit like the Ancient Mariner; so many better men, a few of them friends, were dead:
            And a thousand thousand slimy things
            Lived on; and so did I….

            The experience of the Great War coloured Tilman’s later attitude in two important ways.  Firstly, it put him out of all patience with whiners, complainers, and malingerers – how could a man who had seen death and suffering at first hand so early in his life have fellow-feeling for such people?  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it put him out of all patience with England.  The dreams of soldiers who spent their days in muddy trenches, waterlogged craters or out in the winter snow, are probably accurately expressed in Max Plowman’s poem When It’s Over, which I heard Tilman quote on several occasions.  There are the aspirations of the lotus-eater:

            I shall lie on the beach
            Of a shore where the rippling waves just sigh,
            And listen and dream and sleep and die.

Or, more constructively, those of the soldier who will

            … get out and across the sea,
            Where land’s cheap, and a man can thrive.

            Which is what Tilman did in 1919, joining that astonishing exodus from England which was to make travel-writing the characteristic literary genre of the twenties and thirties.”  (Jim Perrin, “Introduction” to H.W. Tilman: The Seven Mountain-Travel Books, pp. 9-10)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Geoff Dyer. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

"Hearing that I was ‘working on Lawrence’, an acquaintance lent me a book he thought I might find interesting: A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence, edited by Peter Widdowson.  I glanced at the contents page:  old Eagleton was there, of course, together with some other state-of-the-fart theorists: Lydia Blanchard on‘Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality’ (in the section on ‘Gender, Sexuality, Feminism’), Daniel J. Schneider on ‘Alternatives to Logocentrism in D.H. Lawrence’ (in the section featuring ‘Post-Structuralist Turns’).  I could feel myself getting angry and then I flicked through the introductory essay on ‘Radical Indeterminacy: a post-modern Lawrence’ and become angrier still.  How could it have happened?  How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it?  I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at any more, but I didn’t because telling myself to stop always has the effect of urging me on.  Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off.  Oh, it was too much, it was too stupid.  I threw the book across the room and then I tried to tear it up but it was too resilient.  By now I was blazing mad.  I thought about getting Widdowson’s phone number and making threatening calls.  Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book.  In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it.

"I burned it in self-defence.  It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches.  That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches.  Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.  I recently met an academic who said that he taught German literature.  I was aghast: to think, this man who had been in universities all his life was teaching Rilke.  Rilke!  Oh, it was too much to bear. You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted, to say, you kill Rilke!  You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust.  Then as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves.  I was beside myself with indignation.  I wanted to maim and harm this polite, well-meaning academic who, for all I knew, was a brilliant teacher who had turned on generations of students to the Duino Elegies.  Still, I thought to myself the following morning when I had calmed down, the general point stands:  how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?"  (Out of Sheer Rage pp. 100-101)

"What has happened in the interim to the people who are in the picture and the people who should have been in it but aren't?  The same things that happen to everyone:  home ownership, marriage, a kid or two, disappointment, divorce, cancer scares, worsening hangovers, death of a parent or two, qualified success, school fees, depression, sudden rejuvenation following the discovery of Ecstasy, holidays in India or Ibiza, telly watching, coming out (as homosexuals), coming in (as heterosexuals), going to the gym, more telly watching, new computers, bad knees, less squash, more tennis, rewriting (and downplaying) of earlier ambitions to diminish scale of disappointment, fatal breast cancer, less sleep, less beer, more wine, more cocaine, hardly any acid, frightening ketamine overdose, total breakdown, more money, discreet tattoos, baldness, stopping going to the gym, yoga, even more telly watching....  looking at the picture and its inscription, I realize it was familiar to me back then, that the taste of ashes in the mouth was as much a generalized premonition as it was a particular reaction to a football result.  Destiny, I think, is not what lies in store for you; it's what is already stored up inside you -- and it's as patient as death."  (Otherwise Known, "On the Roof," pp. 372-73).

"It takes a bit of getting used to, the idea that spending 365 days a year doing exactly as you please might be a viable proposition.  Getting sacked from that job was what allowed this notion -- that the three years I spent as a student could actually be extended indefinitely and rather profitably -- to gain some kind of purchase on my adult consciousness.  Since then I've done pretty much as I pleased, letting life find its own rhythm, working when I felt like it, not working when I didn't.  I've not always been happy -- far from it -- but I've always felt responsible for my happiness and liable for my unhappiness.  I've been free to waste my time as I please -- and I have wasted  tons of it, but at least it's been me doing the wasting; as such, it's not been wasted at all, not a moment of it." (Otherwise Known, "Sacked," p. 366.)

(If I were teaching a course on "the essay," I'd bookend it with Montaigne and Dyer:  the former, looking intently at one's face, one's life, in the mirror, celebrating the significance of individual, human experience; the latter, breaking the mirror, combining, as James Woods has written of Dyer in a recent New Yorker review, "fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining" into witty, exuberant, post-modern essays.  "The result," writes Woods, who is twice the better essayist but with a tenth of Dyer's range -- "the result ought to be mutant mulch but is almost always a louche and canny delight."

An Oxford grad with a Bachelor's in English, Dyer is the author of four novels and a half-dozen genre-busting alternatives.  My favorite is Out of Sheer Rage, which spends its time determined to write an academic work on Dyer's hero, D.H. Lawrence, only to find itself continually loitering on the author's doorstep, visiting his haunts, reading Rilke, moving from Rome to Greece, perpetually finding something to distract him -- "not quite pursuing his subject but hanging around it," writes Woods, "like a clever aimless boy on a street corner."  He's also written But Beautiful, on jazz; The Missing of the Somme; a travelogue, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It; and most recently a book-length, unreadable meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker, called Zona.

At times it's hard to take seriously an author who, in a recent column in the New York Times Book Review, spoke of bleeding on the pages -- only to reveal that he'd been picking his nose.  And at times there's something self-indulgent and adolescent about his repeated collapses into sex and E.  (There is an ecstatic essay on hanging out at Burning Man.)  But if he writes like a drunk, at times, he manages to keep his wits and his intelligence about him.  The result is probing, provocative, often insightful accounts of the works of Fitzgerald, Johnson, McEwan, DeLillo, West, Cheever, Sebald, and more.  Although E.B. White remains my gold standard for the modern essay, genial and humane; and although James Woods is the more insightful literary critic and David Foster Wallace is the most intelligent of the lot, nobody writes essays that take greater, insouciant delight in thinking and writing and living -- with all of its ecstasy and heartbreak and sorrow, all of its light and darkness, all of its humor and stupidity and despair and hope, its longing to soar on wings are made of wax and the feathers of old birds -- than Geoff Dyer.)