Category Archives: Quotes

Geologists as heroes

Last year, after backpacking for days through the bright white granitic rock in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, my friends and I began descending to our point of departure near Bishop, California. As we made our way down Piute Canyon, we began to see outcrops of sedimentary rock, weathered bluffs so red they might have been out of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. This startling contrast got me wondering how that red rock got there.

Sedimentary rock in the Sierra Nevada Photo: T. Gething

Sedimentary rock in the Sierra Nevada
Photo: T. Gething

Annals of the Former World, John McPhee’s vast, extensively researched collection of five books about the geology of the continent, answered my question. In the fourth book of the series, Assembling California, he writes: “Soon we were dropping toward two thousand feet, among deeply weathered walls of phyllite, in color cherry and claret—the preserved soils of the subtropics when the unrisen mountains were a coastal plain. Geologists call it lateritic soil, in homage to the Latin word for brick. All around the Sierra, between two and three thousand feet of altitude, is a band of red soil, its color deepened by rainfall that leaches out competing colors and intensifies the iron oxide.”

The Sierra Nevada is a young mountain range, the result of the Pacific Plate colliding and grinding against the North American Plate. The range began lifting some three million years ago like “a raised trapdoor,” according to McPhee, sloping gently to the west toward its hinge somewhere under California’s Central Valley and with “a plunging escarpment facing east.” It’s still rising.

18895344Written over a span of twenty years, between 1978 and 1998, McPhee’s Annals is a chronicle of geologic discovery. The book began as a series of New Yorker articles in which he set out to describe a geologic cross section of the continent by traveling along Interstate 80. In the process, McPhee not only ranged across thousands of miles but billions of years. His attention turned inevitably to the revolutionary theory of plate tectonics that was then shaking up the field. Imbedded in his subject like fossils layered in stone was the history of our growing understanding of the earth’s mechanics.

In the first book of the series, Basin and Range, McPhee crosses Nevada with Princeton University geologist Ken Deffeyes. Stopping at road cuts to inspect the exposed rock strata, Deffeyes explains the basic concepts of plate tectonics, which leads McPhee into the history of geology as a science and the pioneering observations of James Hutton. In Scotland, in 1785, Hutton shook up the established order by asserting that geologic evidence showed the world to be much, much older than the 4,000 years theologians, basing their claims on biblical scholarship, reckoned it was. The development of plate theory in the last half of the 20th century was just as unsettling, finding staunch proponents and skeptical opponents in the 1960s and 1970s.

Much still needs to be learned about the earth’s core, mantle and crust, the vulcanism of hot spots and the movement of continental plates, but plate tectonics are now accepted as the geologic engine of mountain formation, continental drift, the spreading and subduction of the ocean floor, and the shattering earthquakes that occur where plates meet.

Today, you can watch a fifty-minute National Geographic video on YouTube that explains, somewhat sensationally, the latest thinking on plate tectonics. But what McPhee managed to capture in his twenty-year project was the fascinating intellectual chase of the scientists who helped establish the theory. In Suspect Terrain, the second volume in the series, looks at anomalies in the Appalachians with Anita Harris, a skeptical petroleum geologist, as McPhee’s guide. In Rising from the Plains, David Love pieces together the puzzling results of mountain formation and the disappearance of ancient oceans in Wyoming as plates collided. In Assembling California, Eldrige Moore carries on where Ken Deffeyes left off, addressing the seismic activity that has shaped, and is still shaping, the West Coast. And finally, in Crossing the Craton, Randy Van Schmus helps unlock the secrets of the Canadian Shield, the Precambrian craton that runs beneath the Middle West and contains some of the oldest remaining rock in the world (3.8 billion years).

No one writes with more clarity and enthusiasm about arcane terrain than John McPhee. What could easily become dull or geeky in others’ hands is a lively and at times humorous account of numerous road trips with brilliant, eccentric geologists who dedicated their lives to their science. By shadowing the men and women who have been leaders in their respective fields, McPhee delivers insights on the powers of observation, trial and error, multi-dimensional problem-solving, perseverance and obsession, and the iconoclasm that breeds breakthroughs. Being a geologist apparently leads to ambivalence about things that appear solid if not permanent, conflicted attitudes regarding man’s impact on the environment, and a changed perspective on time.

There are moments in this book that truly highlight our insignificance in the scheme of things. Just as new telescopes have revealed the mind-boggling expansiveness of the universe, improved isotopic dating techniques have shown how old our planet is. Great mountain ranges have risen and crumbled and been overlaid by new mountains. Continents have amassed and split apart and amassed again. Oceans have widened and narrowed and disappeared. Mass extinctions have occurred numerous times and may well happen again. As McPhee so eloquently tells us, time functions on two very different scales, the human and the geologic:

“In like manner, geologists will sometimes use the calendar year as a unit to represent the time scale, and in such terms the Precambrian runs from New Year’s Day until well after Halloween. Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds….Geologists live with the geologic scale. Individually, they may or may not be alarmed by the rate of exploitation of the things they discover, but, like the environmentalists, they use these repetitive analogies to place the human record in perspective—to see the Age of Reflection, the last few thousand years, as a bright sparkle at the end of time….

The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations—two ahead, two behind—with heavy concentration on the one in the middle. Possibly that is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time….Geologists, dealing always with deep time, find that it seeps into their beings and affects them in various ways. They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on the earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky. They see the thin band in which are the all but indiscernible stratifications of Cro-Magnon, Moses, Leonardo, and now. Seeing a race unaware of its own instantaneousness in time, they can reel off all of the species that have come and gone, with emphasis on those that have specialized themselves to death.”

John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World shows geology as a heroic quest for knowledge and geologists as heroes who have rewarded us with a deeper understanding of the world and of mankind’s tenuous place in it.

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The talking dead

Traditional grave-side offerings--cigarettes, decorated bread, fruit, beer and mescal--in Oaxaca. Phot credit: T. Gething

Traditional Day of the Dead graveside offerings in Oaxaca: cigarettes, tortillas, mole, decorated bread, fruit, beer and, of course, mescal.
Photo credit: T. Gething

Yesterday marked the end of los Días de los Muertos—the Days of the Dead—that syncretic Mexican celebration of Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs encompassing Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. During this time Mexican families traditionally clean up and adorn the graves of their relatives, then spend a night of vigil, eating and drinking, singing and playing music, praying for and remembering the deceased.

Two great novels capture the mood of this annual event. One is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which takes place on November 2, 1938. It’s a masterpiece for many reasons, not least for its atmospheric descriptions of this largely indigenous celebration.

38787The other book isn’t directly linked to the Day of the Dead but might as well be. It’s Juan Rulfo’s enigmatic masterpiece, Pedro Páramo. I spent part of yesterday rereading this little gem, a novella of less than 50,000 words that is perhaps the greatest and most influential Mexican fiction yet written.

This is the fourth time I’ve read it—twice in a translation by Lysander Kemp, once in the original Spanish, and now in a newer and more faithful translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. The first time I read it during the graveyard shift while working as a security guard at the university library in Tucson forty years ago. I remember being transfixed by the spare, poetic magic of Rulfo’s prose. I am still spellbound by it.

Juan Rulfo

Juan Rulfo

Rulfo published only two slim books in his lifetime, a collection of stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) and Pedro Páramo. The former was published in 1953 and the latter in 1955. Rulfo spent much of his career as a traveling tire salesman and pursued another artistic passion, photography, as he made sales trips around the country. Although there were rumors he was working on another novel, La Cordillera, he revealed shortly before his death in 1986 that he had destroyed his work in progress.

According to Susan Sontag who wrote the introduction to the most recent English edition, Rulfo once said: “In my life there are many silences. In my writing, too.”

That statement summarizes the mystery of his writing, but it hardly explains how he accomplished it. Rulfo’s prose is inimitable and perfect, whether he was writing about illiterate adulterers who have murdered her husband and are obsessed by their sin, as in the haunting story “Talpa,” or about desperate revolutionaries ambushed in a canyon, as in “The Burning Plain.” Rulfo’s economy with dialogue and narrative exposition, his use of non-chronological sequences and time shifts add a strange intensity to his writing; his prose burns with unspoken emotion. (Not surprisingly, his black-and-white photographs express the same silences and economies, as if they were renderings of his books in images.)

Juan Rulfo's photography mimics the spare stark style of his fiction. Published by the Smithsonian Institute

Juan Rulfo’s photography mimics the spare, stark form of his fiction. Published by Smithsonian Books (2002).

Here’s an example of Rulfo’s prose from the early pages of Pedro Páramo, but really any section of the book matches it in tone:

It was during the dog days, the season when the August wind blows hot, venomous with the rotten stench of saponaria blossoms.

The road rose and fell. It rises or falls depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you are leaving, it’s uphill; but as you arrive it’s downhill.

“What did you say that town down there is called?”

“Comala, señor.”

“You’re sure that’s Comala?”

“I’m sure, señor.”

“It’s a sorry–looking place, what happened to it?”

“It’s the times, señor.”

Pedro Páramo is considered a precursor of magical realism; Gabriel García Márquez admired it so much he memorized entire passages. But the novel has more kinship with surrealism than magical realism.

Simply stated, it is the story of Juan Preciado, a young man who goes to Comala, the village of his dead mother, in search of his father, Pedro Páramo. At least that’s how it begins, but soon you realize nothing is quite normal. Pedro Páramo, Preciado learns, is long dead. The town is deserted and voices of the dead fill his ears. The story jumps in time and point of view, from the first person to the third, numerous times. Soon you wonder if everyone isn’t dead, including Preciado, and if these aren’t voices from a horrible past unburdening themselves of their losses and the grief caused by their cruel patrón. Pedro Páramo owned all the land around, controlling and abusing the people subsisting underneath him, taking what he wanted—land, men’s lives, other men’s wives—as he pleased.

Rulfo tapped a deep vein of Mexican experience in his indictment of the greedy landowners who used the turmoil of the revolution to their advantage, behaving like feudal lords in their own isolated worlds. The poor, the illiterate, the weak suffered at their hands, living in terror, haunted by violent death—it is a fatalistic, distinctly Mexican vision that resonates across time and place. For what is the difference between Pedro Páramo and the Mexican drug lords of today who use corruption and intimidation to control their turf? And, as the unearthed mass graves reveal, what awaits those who must live with such terror but death and decay?

Rulfo wrote about another time, about a poor, superstitious and oppressed Mexico devastated by lawlessness from years of revolution and brigandage, but it could be now, and it could be many places.

Photo credit: T. Gething

La Catrina as a sand drawing—here today, gone tomorrow. Photo credit: T. Gething

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Summer in the Sierra Nevada

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Photo credit: P. Lane

My hiking buddies and I recently completed our annual weeklong backpacking trip into the wilderness. This year we branched out from the beautiful Pacific Northwest and travelled down to the Sierra Nevada. None of us had hiked there before, and we’d heard great things about it. We selected a 60-mile loop that took us onto a section of the John Muir Trail, which stretches 210 miles between the Yosemite Valley and Mt. Whitney. Of course, I took my Kindle along, because after camp is set up, dinner eaten and the day’s ration of bourbon sipped, it’s still only 7 p.m. I wanted to read something tied to the place, and what could be more appropriate than John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra.

Muir, the Scottish-born, Wisconsin-raised naturalist, conservationist, and founding president of the Sierra Club, first arrived in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. As an excuse to wander far and wide, sketching and taking notes on the geology and botany of the mountains, he joined a group of sheep-herders moving their flock to the high-country pastures to graze. Muir annotated this trip in detail but didn’t actually publish the journal until 1911. By that time he was a celebrated man, the friend of the railroad baron Edward H. Harriman (who persuaded Muir to write about his life in the first place) and President Teddy Roosevelt (whom Muir persuaded to preserve the Yosemite Valley as a national park).

Greatly influenced by the transcendental writings of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir’s journal of that first summer is filled with wonder and awe at the pristine wilderness he found in the Sierra. This wonder, however, is tempered by his scientific training (he had studied the natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin in Madison), a curious and observant mind, and a keen ability to describe what he saw. For the armchair traveller, his journal makes a splendid introduction to this spectacular high-country wilderness.

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Photo credit: T. Gething

“Here are many fine meadows imbedded in the woods, gay with Lilium parvum and its companions; the elevation, about eight thousand feet, seems to be suited for it–saw specimens that were a foot or two higher than my head.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: T. Gething

Photo credit: T. Gething

“Sunshine over all; no breath of wind to stir the brooding calm. Never before had I seen so glorious a landscape, so boundless an affluence of sublime mountain beauty.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized they are mostly hidden. Sheer precipices three thousand feet high are fringed with tall trees growing close like grass on the brow of a lowland hill…. Waterfalls, five hundred to one or two thousand feet high, are so subordinated to the mighty cliffs over which they pour that they seem like wisps of smoke, gentle as floating clouds, though their voices fill the valley and make the rocks tremble.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The air is distinctly fragrant with balsam and resin and mint—every breath of it a gift we may well thank God for. Who could ever guess that so rough a wilderness should yet be so fine, so full of good things.”

—John Muir

Photo credit: P. Lane

Photo credit: P. Lane

“The surface of the ground, so dull and forbidding at first sight, besides being rich in plants, shines and sparkles with crystals: mica, hornblende, feldspar, quartz, tourmaline. The radiance in some places is so great as to be fairly dazzling, keen lance rays of every color flashing, sparkling in glorious abundance, joining the plants in their fine, brave beauty-work…”

—John Muir

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“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

My wife and I just returned from North Carolina, where we toured the Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville. The museum occupies the sprawling, many-gabled boarding house his mother once ran for visitors (many of them tuberculosis patients) seeking the cool mountain air. Wolfe memorialized the house as “Dixieland” in his deeply autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel.

Thomas_Wolfe's_Home

The real “Dixieland” (Photo: Wikipedia)

Our guide said that fewer and fewer people coming for the tour have read Thomas Wolfe. This surprised and saddened me. When I read Look Homeward, Angel in my late teens, I marveled at the effusive Whitmanesque language—more poetry than prose—that energized every page. Certain scenes, in particular his brother’s death, are so vivid and sad, they can still bring tears to my eyes.

Wolfe begins Look Homeward, Angel with a prose poem that echoes again and again in the 500-page book:

…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among the bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

20317104In rhapsodic prose Thomas Wolfe captured the voracious youthful yearning of coming of age in an isolated Southern town at the turn of the 20th Century, the tug and tussle of a large fractious family struggling to make ends meet, the lonesome whistle of a late-night train heading into the vast world beyond the encircling hills, the smell of coffee and the taste of pancakes in a diner amid the drowsy conversation of tired newspapermen as the morning edition arrives with the first rays of the sun. The love and hunger of it all, etched upon the memory, unforgettable and lost.

Wolfe has been compared to Marcel Proust in his struggle to capture the detailed essence of his life. He loved the vast all-encompassing embrace of Walt Whitman’s poetry, but he equally admired the innovations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which manage to compress a world into a day. Wolfe’s own uniquely American style, so profuse and personal, would influence Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury and Pat Conroy. Faulkner said he might have proven to be the best writer of his generation had he lived.

The story of Wolfe’s discovery by Scribners editor Maxwell Perkins is one of legend. Perkins, who had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and launched the career of Ernest Hemingway, became a surrogate father to Wolfe. The towering six-foot-six North Carolinian, who sometimes wrote standing up using the top of his refrigerator as his desktop, arrived in New York and famously delivered an 1100-page loose-leaf first draft to Scribners. Over 330,000 words! With Perkins’ editing, it became Look Homeward, Angel, a book as sprawling as the boarding house Wolfe grew up in.

Because of the novel’s autobiographical nature (it included some 200 characters drawn from family, friends and Ashville citizens, and not all favorably), Wolfe dared not return to Asheville for eight years after its publication. He traveled to Europe and wrote Of Time and the River, an even bigger novel that continued where Look Homeward, Angel left off. It became a bestseller, although it is a less powerful story than Angel.

Thomas Wolfe (Photo: Wikipedia)

Thomas Wolfe (Photo: Wikipedia)

Critics began to say it was Perkins, not Wolfe, who was the genius behind the books (reminiscent of what people would say sixty years later about Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish). To prove himself, Wolfe broke with Scribners and went to Harper Brothers, where he basically wrote the same books over again in You Can’t Go Home Again, The Web and the Rock and The Hills Beyond, all published after his death in 1938, just shy of his 38th birthday. (According to our guide, Wolfe was on a ferry from Seattle going to British Columbia when he shared a flask of whiskey with another passenger. Wolfe subsequently contracted influenza, then pneumonia, which in turn exacerbated miliary tuberculosis probably acquired as a boy in his mother’s boarding house. Neurosurgury sent him into a coma from which he never recovered.)

Any and all of Wolfe’s novels are worth reading if only for those sections where his prose soars. But for those without the stamina for the novels, some of his finest writing can be found in his book of stories, From Death to Morning, which includes the superlative and experimental novella, The Web of Earth, about the birth of his twin brothers.

My sadness to hear that Wolfe is read less today was lightened by our excellent guide. He left us with some hopeful news and the prediction that Wolfe’s books would reach a new generation. A movie based on the prize-winning biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, about the stormy relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, is being filmed and scheduled for release in 2015. Titled Genius, it stars Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Wolfe. Perhaps a ghost, a great one, can come back again.

 

 

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“To make you see”—Essays on Conrad

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad

I have always been a huge fan of Joseph Conrad; I even wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Lord Jim. But it’s difficult for me to read him today because of the powerful sway (and negative effect) he has on my writing. Graham Greene felt the same way. “The heavy hypnotic style,” he called it.

Conrad has affected many writers that way. The Polish-born genius wrote his first novel at the age of 36, in English, after twenty years working as a merchant seaman in the Far East, Africa and South America. He not only became one of the great storytellers of his time, but also a remarkable stylist who expanded what fiction could do. In other words, he is the quintessential writer’s writer.

My college thesis concentrated on Conrad’s construction of character in Lord Jim, but in order to do that I had to read widely and intensively, both Conrad and the critics.

That wonderful excuse allowed me to trace the development of Conrad’s first-person narrative technique, in the guise of Charles Marlow, first in “Youth” and Heart of Darkness, then in Lord Jim, and later in Chance. I got to see how that technique added layers of perspective and irony to his tales, and how it was fundamental to the exploration of themes that preoccupied him. This literary innovation* became the model for some of the next century’s great novels, including Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Reading Conrad’s Nostromo that year, I got to experience one of the most harrowing existential episodes in modern literature, when the journalist Dacoud rows out to sea on the blackest of nights and sinks into the deepest of despairs.

I got to watch time stop and then explode in one of the most sophisticated political novels ever written, The Secret Agent.

I got to read Conrad’s remarkable prefaces, where he carefully distilled his aesthetic aims. His famous preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ not only defined his mission as a writer, but became the creed for those who followed in his wake:

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”

If you have ever read The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, then you have come as close as you can, while sitting in an armchair, to experiencing the wrath of the sea.

That year I also read the academics who championed and critiqued Conrad: F.R. Leavis, who included a chapter on Conrad and Henry James in his hallmark of literary criticism, The Great Tradition; Dorothy Van Ghent, and her Harvard colleague, Albert J. Guerard, who wrote a fine book-length study, Conrad the Novelist; also Freudian critics, Marxist critics and others of uncertain pedigree.

589659What I didn’t know was that one of the foremost living Conrad scholars, Ian Watt, was busy writing his own book, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, which appeared a few years later, in 1979. Watt planned to write a second work on Conrad’s 20th Century output, but this never came to fruition. Instead, shortly after his death, Cambridge University Press published Essays on Conrad (2000). In this collection you can see Watt building the base for the larger work, always with meticulous research and a deep-seated knowledge of his subject.

In the first essay, Watt elaborates Conrad’s core themes of alienation and commitment. Suspicious of Progress and Civilization, and all too aware of the animal within man, Conrad set his best stories in hostile environments and scrutinized his characters’ actions under duress. The ones that do right, the ones that survive, are rarely the progressive or the dreamer or the sophisticated or the bookish.

In Typhoon, for example, which Watt considers a comic masterpiece, Captain McWhirr’s ponderous approach to duty brings his ship safely through the storm. And at the moment of crisis for the ‘Narcissus’, the old sailor Singleton, by staying at the helm, steadies a mutinous crew. In these unimaginative, unlearned men, whose first duty is to their ships’ passengers and crew, Watt sees two Conradian moral imperatives: tenacity and solidarity in the face of “coercive circumstance.” That phrase is actually the one Watt used to describe his own situation as a prisoner of war on the River Kwai (see my previous post), where Colonel Toosey’s tenacity and sense of solidarity ensured his men’s survival, but it applies equally to the unwanted situations Conrad depicts in his fiction.

Conrad has ridden several waves of criticism since his death in 1924. His reputation crested after the Second World War, when his modernism and influence on next-generation writers, his psychological insights and existential themes were highlighted and hailed.

The trough may have occurred during the surge of multiculturalism in the late seventies, when the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe branded Conrad “a bloody racist,” citing his stereotyping and lack of compassion for the Congolese victims in Heart of Darkness. Watt argues otherwise, although he does not entirely succeed in dismissing Achebe’s criticism.

Conrad was certainly not a racist in any active, conscious sense. But he was a staunch patriot of his adopted country, and he did hold some of the prevailing biases that bolstered the British Empire. (It’s telling that Conrad refused to write an affidavit in support of his old acquaintance from the Congo, the anti-imperialist Irish nationalist Roger Casement, when he was accused of treason.) But Conrad also understood that an individual’s tenacity and sense of solidarity must embrace all of humanity—all of us in the boat, so to speak—or those two positive attributes risk becoming their flip-side negatives: selfishness and exclusion. That’s the lesson Jim learns when, for his own survival, he jumps from the listing ‘Patna’, leaving the passengers, Mecca-bound pilgrims, to fend for themselves.

Several critics have argued that Conrad’s fiction declined in his later years. Watt is not one of them. He finds masterpieces in all phases of Conrad’s output, and moments of stylistic brilliance in even the weakest works. Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Conrad: “He could not write badly, one feels, to save his life.”

For me, Conrad’s success depended on his subject matter. I would argue he could not write about women to save his life. His female characters, with the possible exception of Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, are helpless, two-dimensional creatures of romantic stereotype. Whenever Conrad ventured away from the heart of darkness and into the heart of romance, as he did more frequently in his later years, the result—no matter how well written—was diminished.

Conrad wanted popular and financial success, and he believed that by following the course set by Henry James he might achieve it. But Conrad was a skeptical realist, not a dramatist of social mores and subtle gender wars; he was a former sea captain with little affinity for the feminine mind. Far more than some dubious racism (a word which, Watt points out, did not exist in his day), this was his greatest weakness as a writer.

But when he stuck to isolated men in exotic locales or men isolated by their political ideals, when he stuck to sailors and steamships, and most of all when he stuck to the sea—then, Conrad always makes you see. And it is everything.

* Conrad was not alone in the development of this first-person story-within-a-story technique. His good friend and neighbor Henry James used a similar narrative device in The Turn of the Screw, published the same year (1898) as Conrad’s story “Youth,” which introduced Marlow. But with Marlow we have a narrator-observer’s haunted reflections on the events told, not simply a narrator who serves as a go-between for another’s story, as in James’ ghost story. One produces a subjective sense of witness, the other a protective layer of ambiguity.

 

 

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Arguably, our great loss

“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced.” —Christopher Hitchens, from “The Swastika and the Cedar”

Any blogger who pretends to write about books (note to self) would do well to read the essays of the late Christopher Hitchens. Arguably, his last book to be published before his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, is largely a collection of book reviews written for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New Statesman, The Wilson Quarterly, and sundry newspapers here and in Britain. Most were written in the preceding ten years.

In its entirety, the book is a massive tribute to Hitchens’ eclectic erudition. The collection is a feast of brilliant, impassioned argument for anyone who holds views on American history, the British empire, literature, politics, the Left, the Right, famous authors, infamous dictators, religion, atheism, fascism, capitalism, journalism, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, language, or popular culture. I may have left something out.

12618752Whether Hitchens is criticizing the West’s tolerance of North Korea’s psychotic theocracy, lamenting the deterioration of political campaign slogans, or reassessing the works of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, or his good friend Martin Amis, what illuminates each essay is his objectivity, honesty and critical insight. In clear, engaging prose, Hitchens comes off as if he is conversing with an intelligent friend. (Thankfully, I read the book on my Kindle, since I frequently had to look up words he used; invariably they were pitch perfect.)

Hitchens honed his prose through decades of journalism, “pamphleteering” as he liked to call it. After attending Oxford, he began his career at The New Statesman, Britain’s left-leaning political affairs magazine (equivalent to The Nation in the U.S., to which he subsequently contributed as well).

In his memoir Hitch-22 (reprinted in 2011 with the poignant, unflinching preface he wrote after receiving his death sentence from the doctors), Hitchens charted the evolution of his political views from the antiwar-protesting Trotskyist of his Oxford days to the naturalized American advocate for democracy and pluralism in the post-9/11 world.

Much like George Orwell (whom he admired enough to write the book-length study, Why Orwell Matters), Hitchens experienced a political conversion that shaped everything he subsequently wrote, including the essays in Arguably.

Orwell of course went to Spain as a socialist to fight fascism, only to discover that totalitarian oppression was ingrained in both political systems. A bullet through the neck nearly muted that discovery forever, but Orwell survived and documented his experience in one of his finest works, Homage to Catalonia. He devoted the rest of his life, in works of allegory and essay, to warn the West of the inherent tyranny of political isms and the need to defend democracy and individual freedom from this threat at all cost.

7332753For Hitchens, doubts about the Marxist Left first surfaced during travels to Cuba, Portugal and Poland in the sixties and seventies. When, in 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship attempted to seize the Falkland Islands, unlike many of his colleagues, Hitchens agreed with the Iron Lady’s decision to send the British fleet to defend the islands, not for the timeworn reasons of empire but to defeat a tyranny.

And, in 1988, when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Hitchens condemned the prevarications of many liberal intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders and launched a staunch public defense of his close friend. As he wrote in Hitch-22, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”

9/11, however, was Hitchens’ Spain—the crystalline solidification of his evolving convictions. Just as Orwell determined party-line Communism to be the great totalitarian threat of his day, so Hitchens perceived fundamentalist religion, especially the intolerant strain of Islam espoused by Al Qaida and the Taliban, as the new totalitarian threat to Western humanism. “They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates,” he wrote in the introduction to Arguably. “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”

Hitchens’ wholehearted support for the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein troubled many of his liberal friends, but for him this stance was consistent with his revulsion for tyranny in any shape or form. Like Churchill in the thirties directing his rhetoric against the rising tide of National Socialism, Hitchens was willing to become a political outlier in order to warn against the new intolerant fascism he saw in extremist Islam.

I bring up this backstory only because Hitchens applies the same consistent logic to all of the essays in this collection. You may agree or disagree with this masterful polemicist, but always you will find him adhering to a high standard of debate, basing his arguments on empiricism and laying them out with incisive wit. And I guarantee that no matter how much or how little you agree with him, you will come away from Arguably with a long list of books to read or reread, a few new words, and an invigorated desire to grapple with the important issues of our world. Indeed, we have lost a great pamphleteer.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

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The coup in Chile, 40 years on

chile
A dozen years ago, after 9/11, W.H. Auden’s haunting poem “September 1, 1939” circulated widely on the Internet. The poem, which described the “neutral air” of New York as war broke out in Europe, seemed to capture the uneasy sentiments of many Americans as they struggled to comprehend the evil done in 2001:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

September 11 also marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup that toppled Chile’s democratically elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Auden’s poem rings with irony regarding that tragic event as well:

But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

But who were the perpetrators of evil in 1973? Certainly General Pinochet and his cronies. But what about the American government under the leadership of Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger? What about the American public who remained silent as if in its own “euphoric dream”?

A friend once asked me what lessons I learned from researching Under a False Flag, my novel about American complicity in the Chilean coup. Although I am leery of historical “lessons,” I came up with four:

  1. If your elected leader lacks a moral compass, what can you expect but a rudderless foreign policy? Be careful whom you vote for, and remain vigilant and vocal.
  2. Fear begets deception and deception begets cruelty. During the Cold War, we feared the spread of Communism and frequently used subterfuge to counter it. But the outcome of our clandestine wars was often the opposite of what we hoped to achieve. How can a democracy win a war for freedom if it backs repressive regimes that are contrary to democratic principles and solely bent on self-preservation? Look at the brutal outcomes of our covert actions in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Chile. Has the War on Terror replaced the Cold War to the same end?
  3. A plurality is not a mandate. Despite the constitutionality of Allende’s election, he did not have a mandate to convert Chile into a Marxist state. His presumption of a mandate led to political stalemate and obstruction. Chile became a dysfunctional state.
  4. Factionalism can destroy democracy, and extremism kills compassion and encourages cruelty. This happened in Chile with its extremes of wealth and poverty, and with the stubborn entrenchment of the political right and left. The middle class was neither large enough nor strong enough to neutralize the polarized segments of the electorate.

Of course, proponents of realpolitik might argue that America’s clandestine intervention saved Chile from a bloody civil war with many more deaths than the 3,000-plus who “disappeared” during Pinochet’s seventeen-year dictatorship. Or they might point to Cuba and argue that Chile would have gone the same way—becoming a nation stymied by economic embargo, languishing in poverty, and lacking basic freedoms.

As I wrote Under a False Flag the philosopher Richard Rorty’s extraordinary book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity weighed on my mind. Rorty defines a “liberal ironist” as one who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do” and who hopes, while recognizing the contingency of such hope, that “suffering will be diminished, that humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease.”

For the liberal ironist, Rorty says, the question “Is it right to deliver n innocents over to be tortured to save the lives of m X n other innocents?” is as hopeless and unanswerable as the question “Why not be cruel?”

At first I questioned that statement, but now I accept it. Entirely. No human being can rationalize the murder of 3,000 other human beings (or even one) for the sake of some other number. Not Pinochet, not the CIA, not the jihadists of 9/11. That may sound hopelessly idealistic but, as Auden says,

All I have is a voice,
To unfold the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

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How empires begin and end

It has always puzzled me how a small, technologically advantaged force can dominate vast multitudes in far reaches of the planet. It’s the story of empire: The Romans extending their rule across Europe and the Mediterranean. Cortés and a few hundred Spaniards conquering the powerful and warlike Aztecs, who had created an empire of their own. And more recently, the British building an empire on which the sun never set, its crown jewel being India.

In most cases the story of empire is one of the few taking advantage of internecine disputes among the many to seize control, of dividing and conquering. It was Rome’s way. It was Cortés’ way. And although I am not well read in Indian history, I suspect that’s what happened there as well–the British striking alliances with advantage-seeking rajahs and playing up religious and cultural differences. Certainly that’s how Kipling portrayed it in such works as Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.

Map of India under the British East India Comp...

Map of India under the British East India Company, 1857. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1857, British control of India nearly came to an abrupt end. That year, the Indian subcontinent erupted in violent reaction to the steady incursion of the British East India Company, an event known as the Indian Rebellion. What astounds me is that the British prevailed.

In The Siege of Krishnapur Anglo-Irish novelist J.G. Farrell attempts to reconstruct the stubborn self-righteousness and contempt that enabled the British to prevail in that perilous year. But Farrell also wonders if the germ of empire’s end wasn’t inherent in those same myopic attitudes.

Farrell, who died in a freak accident in 1979 (while fishing on Ireland’s west coast, a wave swept him into the sea; his body was not recovered for a month), is best known for his Empire trilogy. In each volume he considers a watershed in the British empire’s decline. Troubles deals with a hotel in Ireland after World War I, The Singapore Grip with life in that colony on the eve of World War II. The Siege of Krishnapur, however, is his Booker Prize-winning novel based on the historical siege of Lucknow in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh.

256280Farrell of course has the benefit of hindsight, writing in 1974, decades after India’s independence. This distance allows him to portray the imperial mindset with comedic effect. He finds ironies in the historical context and satirizes the presumptions of the age. Wisely, he scrutinizes the character of the English, whom he knows, but does not attempt to fathom the motives of the Indian sepoys who besiege his fictional Krishnapur. Regrettably, this approach reduces the rebels to faceless hordes akin to those ant-like computer-generated armies in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Despite the Kiplingesque action/adventure story he is telling, Farrell revels in dialogue and interior monologue. The best bits are wicked: “The first thing one learns about India, Burlton, is not to listen to the damned nonsense the natives are always talking,” says one fatuous character before the siege begins.

Only the Collector, the stalwart epitome of British civility and reason who runs the residency for the Company in Krishnapur, a man for whom the technological and scientific advances featured at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 are sure signs of civilization, senses that trouble is stirring. He orders fortifications to be built which enable the small enclave of residents and soldiers to defend themselves when the attack comes.

The siege itself is central, and like the quarantine in Camus’ The Plague, provides an opportunity to observe desperate people at close quarters. The veneer of Victorian propriety soon gives way to survival. The Collector must constantly reassure himself that British rule stands for Progress; he and the Company are bringing Great Ideas to India. But as things grow dire, the busts of the European thinkers that decorate his study must be used as cannonballs against the attackers: “The most effective of all had been Shakespeare’s; it had scythed its way through a whole astonished platoon of sepoys advancing in a single file through the jungle.” Voltaire’s head jams the gun.

After months of siege and as preparations are made for the last stand, the bright red coats of the British army appear on the horizon, and the attackers flee. The Collector survives and years later, back home in London, comments to another survivor, “Culture is a sham…It’s a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its ugliness.” Farrell’s own summation of the events of 1857 are expressed in the last glimpse of the Collector: “Perhaps, by the very end of his life in 1880, he had come to believe that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.”

Farrell, like Joseph Conrad before him in “An Outpost of Progress,” Nostromo and Heart of Darkness, sees a black center in the Great Ideas that empire builders use to justify taking what they want from the rest of the world.

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In “Stoner,” John Williams defies modern conventions to create a modern masterpiece

“Show, don’t tell,” say the pundits from creative writing workshops, conferences, how-to guides and “expert” magazine articles. Start with the inciting incident, they advise. Keep your plot moving. Add backstory only when and if it’s needed. Use simple sentences. Avoid adverbs.

You can find a dozen more examples of the conventional wisdom at any blog about writing. While such “tips” are worthy of consideration, the problem for this reader is that they often reduce the art of fiction to clichéd technique—as if the style of writing should come from a rulebook rather than from the story itself. Regrettably, the overuse of such well-intended advice makes much of modern literary fiction so similar, and so forgettable.

StonerAlthough he taught creative writing at the University of Denver for thirty years, John Williams ignores all of that good advice in his novel Stoner, published in 1965. Instead, he tells an honest story in a straightforward, old-fashioned way. This quiet, thoughtful and beautiful novel about the life of an English professor at a Midwestern university during the first half of the 20th Century (imagine pitching that plotline in today’s publishing world) harkens to another era. Stoner is reminiscent of the understated, character-focused novels of two other Midwesterners, Willa Cather and William Maxwell. And its form comes from a long literary tradition.

Stoner is a bildungsroman. Told with the authority of third-person omniscience (another rarity today), it is the story of a young man of humble origins who arrives at the university to study agronomy only to discover a passion for literature and the life of a scholar. We learn the bald facts of his life in the first few sentences:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, at the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.

But, as Williams soon makes clear, these facts are the mere shell for the real story:

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses….Stoner’s  colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak rarely of him now; to the older ones, his name  is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Inciting incident be damned, Williams is interested in why this ostensibly unremarkable man’s life story is worth telling. The next 278 pages convey the complex and sobering story of Stoner’s life: collegial friendships, financial hardships, mistakes in love and marriage, failures at work, his daughter’s estrangement, infidelity and fidelity, battles won and mostly lost, the reflections of age and the approach of death. It is a hard, sometimes painful story with moments of clarity and frustration. At times foolish, often stubborn, but always honest, Stoner defies expectations. The book’s sadness is palpable. Stoner’s only solace, as he must rediscover several times in his life, is his passion for scholarship—the pure calm source of his dignity.

Williams’ prose is confident and precise. He doesn’t hesitate to use an adverb if it adds value, as in this description of a deer in the woods: “The doe’s delicate face tilted, as if regarding them with polite inquiry; then, unhurriedly, it turned and walked away from them, lifting its feet daintily out of the snow and placing them precisely, with a tiny sound of crunching.” Eliminate the adverbs and that crisp image goes soft.

And here he is confidently telling—as he frequently does instead of showing—Stoner’s state of mind after a crucial defeat: “He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness.”

Call me old-fashioned, but I love books that go deep into character, ones that explore the inner workings of the mind and heart as much as the overt actions that result. The complex reality of humanity is as much about what isn’t acted upon or said as what is. That’s why I love authors like Hawthorne, Tolstoy, Conrad and Hesse, who delve into the thought processes, the buried emotions and dark unspoken fears of their characters. I haven’t read John Williams’ other novels—the National Book Award-winning Augustus or Butcher’s Crossing—but based on the extraordinary quality of Stoner, I certainly will.

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The disinterred

The past has a way of haunting us. We think we have moved on, but events from long ago keep echoing in our consciousness. Isn’t that what William Faulkner so eloquently showed us?

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the coup in Chile, and because I spent so much time researching the events of that fateful year for my novel, I keep observing significant dates.

Forty years ago on March 4, general elections, which the conservatives hoped would reverse the course of the country’s move toward Marxism, re-energized Salvador Allende’s agenda even though the economy was in a shambles. On June 29th, it will be forty years since the Tancazo, the failed putsch that signaled what was to come, with far greater violence, on September 11, 1973.

The past refuses to die, and even the dead are not exempt. Last year, after disinterring the remains of Salvador Allende, the Chilean court officially put to rest the rumor that he was murdered. Forensic analysis proved once and for all that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot while resisting the attack on the presidential palace led by his own generals. The junta claimed all along it was a suicide. Even if it was, does that fact wash the hands of the men who stormed the palace?

Español: Salvador Allende y Pablo Neruda.

Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And now they have disinterred the body of Pablo Neruda, the poet and Communist Party senator who nearly won the nomination of the Popular Unity coalition instead of Salvador Allende. The scientists hope to dispel similar claims that the junta had him murdered with a lethal injection while he lay in the hospital receiving treatment for cancer.

Photo credit: El Pais

At Neruda’s grave on Isla Negra. (Photo credit: El Pais)

I suspect these tests will come to naught. And then perhaps Chileans will be able to bury these rumors from their disturbing past once and for all, and the dead may rest in peace again, even if the past refuses to.

In closing, a fragment from “The Disinterred” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald D. Walsh (Residence on Earth, New Directions Publishing, 1972):

When the earth full of wet eyelids 
becomes ashes and harsh sifted air,
and the dry farms and the waters,
the wells, the metals,
at last give forth their worn-out dead,
I want an ear, an eye,
a heart wounded and tumbling,
the hollow of a dagger sunk some time ago
in a body some time ago exterminated and alone,
I want some hands, a science of fingernails,
a mouth of fright and poppies dying,
I want to see rise from the useless dust
a raucous tree of shaken veins,
I want from the bitterest earth,
among brimstone and turquoise and red waves
and whirlwinds of silent coal,
I want to see a flesh waken its bones
howling flames,
and a special smell run in search of something,
and a sight blinded by the earth
run after two dark eyes,
and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
rabid, boundless,
rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.
 

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