Thursday, December 16, 2010

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus

The Basement Tapes, recorded in the summer of 1967, was a loose collection of material born of Bob Dylan’s seclusion following the burst of manic creativity that produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. It was also the product of exhaustion and a self-imposed exile following a motorcycle accident and/or a bout with drug addiction. The songs turn away from surrealism and psychedelia, finding their wellspring in what we would now characterize as roots music – the country blues, hillbilly tunes, and murder ballads recorded in the 1920’s and 30’s, but which reach back beyond the advent of the phonograph.

The Basement Tapes trickled out on publishers’ demos and bootlegs before being officially (and only partially) released on a double album in 1975, an album for which Marcus wrote the liner notes. Some of the material such as the gnomic and dirge-like “I’m Not There” have only recently seen the light of day on official releases. A definitive release of these sessions is long overdue.

Invisible Republic includes analyses of individual songs from the Dylan album wrapped up in an almost impenetrable mythologizing prose. There is also a fascinating long digression on the Virginia coal miner Dock Boggs, who abandoned his short musical career during the Depression when record sales slumped and his God-fearing wife gave him an ultimatum to put aside the Devil’s music, only to pick it up again 30 years later in the heyday of the folk revival. The centerpiece of the book, however, is a chapter on the magico-illuminatus Harry Smith, who compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music as if he were preparing an alchemical treatise, complete with Renaissance woodcuts and a numerologically significant ordering of tunes. Smith’s Anthology remains, as it was in Dylan’s youth, a powerful talisman, a unique undertaking for its time which rescued dozens of country blues and murder ballads from oblivion just as upstart rock and roll was gaining its first footing as the latest iteration of Satan’s music. Anyone paying attention to Dylan’s output, especially over the last 15 years or so, will find the source of many of his best lines and imagery in the Anthology. To put it bluntly, Dylan has sampled those old 78s to a fairly astounding degree, weaving new cloth from old, and preserving therein the vernacular of a fascinating, bygone era of American folk tradition.

Marcus’s first book, Mystery Train, although a bit dated at this point, was a thoughtful and readable placement of rock and roll into its American context. (I still have a photocopy of the Robert Johnson chapter tucked into my King of the Delta Blues LP.) The great weakness of the present text is that Marcus over contextualizes the material, laying a too heavy burden on both Dylan’s Basement Tapes and their antecedent folk tunes by pushing them too hard into a mold of Americanism going back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. His writing is maddeningly oblique and top-heavy by turns, sacrificing clarity in pursuit of a grand idea. Still for fans of old-time Appalachian mountain music and the soundtrack of (in Marcus’ memorable if overexposed phrase) “the old, weird America”, this is essential reading.

Note: Link below is to the more recent edition of the Marcus book, retitled The Old Weird America. Dock Boggs trading card by R. Crumb.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel

As he reminds us with almost comic regularity, Hanta has been operating an antiquated wastepaper compactor on the outskirts of Prague for thirty-five years. He has some acquaintances in the town, but for most of his time he shares his solitude with his compactor, and with the mice that swarm the cellar in which he works. He works at a Sisyphean labor, taking time out only to go fill his pail with beer, because he truly loves his beer. He passes his days in greasy clothes and a state of inebriated equilibrium.

Amongst the newsprint and bloody butcher paper that Hanta compacts are books - beautiful old, leather bound volumes that have no use in a totalitarian society. Hrabal's book is a memoir from Hanta's point of view. He seems a simpleton, but one with an eye for books, and the ability to recall quotations from Hegel, Erasmus, and Schopenhauer. And he does more: he blesses each bale of compacted paper with a carefully chosen book or art print, often open to a particularly significant passage. When he can, he rescues books from the brink of oblivion. Some he gives to furtive acquaintances, a churchman interested in the history of aviation, a professor with a passion for old theatre reviews. He takes books home and fills every available space with them; he sleeps under a precarious platform upon which he has stacked two tons of books, and which could crush him instantly should he make an unfortunate shift in his sleep. He clearly has a mania. It is only late in the book that we will find out if there is a purpose to his madness.

As he performs his assigned role, his holy calling, Hanta recalls his life. He relates the tragicomical story of a love found and lost in two scatalogical episodes, with a denouement that is told with perfection. He remembers the strange gypsy girl who followed him home and waited at his door every night, who fed his meager fire and warmed his bed, whose name he does not recall and who disappeared when the Nazis occupied Prague. (He takes particular pleasure in compacting Nazi propaganda.) In the present, he sees the future in the form of a huge, state of the art, compactor manned by efficient young men in immaculate uniforms who eat their lunch with bottles of milk and who cast nary a glance at the volumes of humanity’s intellectual heritage riding the conveyor belt into oblivion.

His goal is to retire and move his faithful compactor to a spot on his uncle’s property, where he can give artistic expression to the memory of the sorry task he has spent his life performing. He has visions of young Jesus and old Lao-Tzu, and armies of rats fighting it out in the sewers. When his boss peers down at him and calls him an imbecile, and hires two uniformed young milk-drinkers to work the compactor, he beings to see the writing on the wall. Tense dualities abound in this book, particularly the progressus ad futurum and the regressus ad originem, but dualities yearn for integration, a state of completeness. Hrabal’s book is itself simple in execution, yet enormous in its implications, both sad and hopeful. In its brevity, it approaches a state of perfection.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Reader's Delight by Noel Perrin

When I started this blog a few years ago, it was for the vague purpose of making note of books that were by and large obscure and forgotten, yet deserving of wider acquaintance. Little did I know that Noel Perrin (among, I am sure, others) had had a similar idea many years before. He had published dozens of short reviews of such books in the Washington Post, and it is these that are collected in A Reader’s Delight.

I consider myself fairly well read, but Perrin has noted many worthwhile books that I have never heard of, but which I will no doubt be tracking down in the months and years ahead. His list, I am glad to note, also overlaps my own somewhat, and we find in it such treasures as Lord Dunsany’s The Blessings of Pan, Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man, and Charles Williams supernatural thriller All Hallow’s Eve. He also includes works by James Branch Cabell, Stendhal, and Herbert Read. Many of Perrin’s titles I recognize from having passed over them on the shelves of used bookstores. Thanks to his enthusiastic endorsements and the knowledge that his judgments ring true, I now know to stop and give them a second look. I’m happy to recommend A Reader’s Delight to all my fellow bibliophiles.

Tales of the Inquisition, or, You Can't Torquemada Anything!

The Inquisition: A Critical and Historical Study of the Coercive Power of the Church by E. Vacandard

This work, published in English translation in 1907, was apparently an attempt to rebut the perceived anti-Catholicism of the 19th century chronicler of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea. In a short work, the author traces the Church attitudes towards heresy from the earliest Church Fathers through the 14th century. One has to give some grudging admiration to the author’s perseverance in asserting, in the face of the most heinous evidence, that although the Inquisition was bad, it wasn’t quite as bad as some would make it out to be. His is a decidedly uphill battle.

With memory fresh from its own brutal suppression under the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, the early doctors of the Church adopted a rather gentle approach to heresy. In his Divinae Institutiones (308 AD), Lactantius wrote: “If you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, by tortures and by crime, you no longer defend it, but pollute and profane it. For nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion.” While Tertullian wrote harshly of the Gnostic heresies, he likewise declared that “(i)t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his convictions. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion.” The preferred method of dealing with heretics and apostates was that which could be traced back to St. Paul: simple excommunication. Augustine, a former Manichean who also dealt with the Donatist schism in North Africa, began with a policy of absolute tolerance which ultimately evolved into a reasoning that errant sheep must be goaded back into the fold, sometimes with firm measures (flogging is acceptable, as was exile), but that the death penalty was contrary to the ideal of Christian charity. His is an interesting evolution, inasmuch as he had to contend with secular authorities for whom the death penalty was justified in cases of groups fomenting civil unrest, a perspective which Augustine ultimately noted had some justification.

Over the next few centuries, as the corpus of canon law grew, the Church found ways (albeit with some dissention) of utilizing the powers of the civil authorities as a means of punishing heretics, which meant that although the Church could identify and condemn heretics, their hands stayed “clean” as the guilty parties were handed over to the State for punishment. The condemnation and execution of the heretic Priscillian in the late 4th century was an early instance of this procedure, although it was a controversial one at the time. It was during the years from 1000 to 1250 that a great leap towards the classic model of the Inquisition took place. The irruption into Western Europe of the Manichean (later Cathar) sect shook the Church hierarchy, which saw in the sect a strong vehicle for undermining Church authority, and a rival ideology in its own right. (A threat that may seem rather odd to our eyes, as the Cathars condemned equally marriage and procreation, hardly a model for exponential growth.) The logic, which echoed earlier formulations, was that heresies such as this represented nothing less than treason against God. As it was long established that the punishment for treason against the State was death, how could treason against the Creator be any less serious? The suppression of the Cathars was intense and brutal, and increasingly went well beyond the more humane punishments of imprisonment and/or confiscation of property. Taking a cue from Germany and northern France, the authorities of which more often than not prescribed the stake for “anti-social” activities, the Ecclesiastical authorities did not long dwell on the theological aspects of the Cathar errors. It is in the chapters dealing with the “anti-social” and “anti-Catholic” aspects of the Cathar/Albigensian heresy that Vacandard is most vehement in his assertions, asserting with no small level of hyperbole that if the rigorous ideal of chastity promulgated by the Cathars was allowed to be realized, “the human race would have disappeared from the earth in a few years.” He concludes with the breathtaking statement that “(i)n bitterly prosecuting the Cathari, the Church truly acted for the public good.”

The next portion of the book deals with the establishment of what we have come to know as the classic model of coercion in the Church, the monastic (i.e. Dominican and Franciscan) Inquisition. Vacandard notes that the true beginning of the Inquisition dates to the Sicilian Code of Frederic II, prepared in response to Gregory IX’s request that heretics be prosecuted with utmost severity. It became codified that all suspected heretics were to be tried by an ecclesiastical tribunal, with the guilty and unrepentant being condemned to the stake. The persecution was an active one, with bishops and archbishops being directed to visit once a year or more any parish where heresy was thought to exist. One or two “trustworthy” men were then compelled to denounce any citizen whose mode of thought or living deviated from that of the “ordinary Catholic”. It was the reluctance or ineptness of the bishops to engage in such practices, with such latitude for abuse that compelled the Pope to put the real power of the Inquisition in the hands of the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans. The procedures established under the Inquisition were, to our sensibilities, atrocious. Suspected heretics were not informed of who might have given their names to the authorities, they were not allowed counsel, and witnesses in their defense were rarely given the opportunity to appear (and most likely wouldn’t have, given the risk of associative guilt). All these were considered by the Inquisitors to be adequate “safeguards” against abuse, although we find them tragically laughable today. The accused had a simple choice: abjure his heresy and repent, or deny heresy and suffer the consequences. Penance might range from (among other minor humiliations) having to wear the yellow cross for a period of time to confiscation of property and imprisonment. Quoting Lea, Vacandard notes that the “Inquisitor never condemned to death, but merely withdrew the protection of the Church from the hardened and impenitent sinner who afforded no hope of conversion, or from him who showed by relapse that there was no trust to be placed in his pretended repentance.” In other words, there was no appeal to individual conscience in the face of the authority of the Church.

Next, the establishment of the use of torture in 1252 under the papacy of Innocent IV is discussed. Vacandard makes some objection that the heinous activities of the Inquisitors did not necessarily echo the directives of the Popes, who “exercised a supervision which was always just and at times most kindly.” I need not go into the details of the cruel procedures inflicted by secular authorities under the “direction” of the Inquisitors, but suffice it to say that they do not bear out Vacandard’s summation that “we must at least give [the Church] credit of insisting that torture ‘should never imperil life and limb’”. It is interesting to note that he admits that, although they did utilize hideously cruel means of extracting confessions, the Inquisitors did in fact realize “so well that forced confessions were valueless, and that they required the prisoner to confirm them after he had left the torture chamber.” It was the fact that it was the confession taken outside the torture chamber that counted as “official” that allowed the preceding torture to be downplayed, a tactic that plays right into Vacandard’s hands as an apologist for the Church.

The remainder of the book is largely a summation of what was discussed before, with emphasis on the thinking of theologians and canonists on the purpose and methods of the Inquisition, which saw heresy first and foremost as an offense against God. By the end, Vacandard’s attempts to mitigate the worst excesses of the Inquisition as being subsequently exaggerated, or being prosecuted with a cruelty beyond that prescribed by the Papacy, or being simply reflective of the harsh times in which they occurred ring hollow. The Inquisition was symptomatic of a pervasive mindset in which deviation from a dominant ideology was simply not allowed, and could be punishable by anything ranging from confiscation of property to imprisonment to death. It was the evolving political situation in Europe, and the rise of the Protestant reformation, quite bloody in its own right (John Calvin’s condemnation and execution of Michael Servetus was hardly more humane than the persecutions of the Catholic Church) that slowly reined in the Church’s coercive authority, not any great humanistic awakening on its own part.

If one reads Vacandard’s apologetics with a critical eye, this is not (considering its age) a bad short summary of the history of the Inquisition. For the gruesome, gothic details, Lea’s work remains entertaining. For another perspective, we have Netanyahu’s The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, which treats in exhaustive detail the persecution of converted Jews in Catholic Spain, an area ignored in this study.

This work is available through Internet Archive (, and in a reprint edition as linked below.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems by James Thomson

My LibraryThing friend and Master of the Chapel of the Abyss ben waugh recently led me to a consideration of Thomson’s work. Of the poems in this volume (available on Internet Archive), most of which I have admittedly only skimmed, none carries the force of the title piece (although “Sunday Up the River” contains a nice tribute to my beloved Jameson’s whiskey). “City of Dreadful Night” is an extended night wanderer’s meditation on the vanity of life and the comforts of the grave’s dreamless sleep. It is a kind of British cousin to the more exquisitely constructed - but thematically similar - German masterpiece Die Nachtwachen des Bonaventura.

Atheistic at heart, the wanderer cannot help a knife thrust at the great deceiver, the absent God, author of this deficient world, who created man in a spirit of mockery –

Who is most wretched in this dolorous place?
I think myself; yet I would rather be
My miserable self than He, than He
Who formed such creatures to his own disgrace.

There is, in a litany of circumstances, a refrain that speaks of the vanity of human wishes in a meaningless existence -

I wake from daydreams to this real night.

And yet there is some comfort in the void, in the liberation from the fear of God and the monotony of eternal life-

Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:
There is no God; no Fiend with names divine
Made us and tortures us; if we must pine,
It is to satiate no Being’s gall.
This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again

The wanderer views the corpse of a dead beauty on a bier before ending up in a dark and gloomy cathedral, in which a preacher, announcing the nonexistence of God, gives absolution to all who seek relief from the vale of tears and presents the holy sacrament of suicide -

Lo, you are free to end it when you will-
Without the fear of waking after death.

The gloomy odyssey continues on to the River of Suicides before ending before a colossal statue representing Durer’s Melancholia, the guardian spirit of the City of Dreadful Night. Thomson’s verse may not be a high poetic achievement, but it is an impressive statement of a subterreanean current of existential despair in the Victorian era.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

The House, located in our dimension within a remote region of Ireland, is a simulacrum of its celestial archetype, a tear or portal in the universe by which the reclusive narrator of the tale encounters the terrifying gods of ancient lore, gigantic and inhuman. In the physical present, the house is besieged by swinish creatures from the depths of the earth, noxious beings which resemble a creature of unimaginable foulness which assails the narrator, driving him to madness at novel’s end.

Following several chapters in which the narrator seeks to preserve the house from the repugnant creatures, he is ultimately translated into a realm beyond time and space. As the physical universe accelerates, he witnesses the decline and death of the earth, the sun, and, ultimately, the universe before he returns, like Muhammad from his night journey, to his familiar study, with only one important bit of evidence revealing that his journey has not been a hallucination. The excursion through the dying cosmos is, it must be admitted, rather overlong, veering towards tediousness, but still with some remarkably evocative passages - not least being the recluse’s recognition that it is his own body that has crumbled to dust on the stone floor after the passage of eons. There is a certain unreality in the recluse’s tale that gives one pause to consider if his experiences are no more than madness, a worm in the brain. (His elderly sister, with whom he lives, seems quite unaware of the remarkable occurrences passing within the environs of the old house.)

It has been rightly noted that Hodgson’s tale is a transitional form between the gothic romance and Lovecraft’s tales of ancient evils and unspeakable interstellar horrors. Despite a curious and overindulged attention to the details of imagined astronomical phenomena – dark nebulae, green suns and the like – The House on the Borderland stands, even as it utilizes the standard narrative tricks of the nineteenth century while finding new ways to exploit old fears, as a classic work of modern horror.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology

Expanded from a Harper's magazine article, this short and entertaining book introduces readers to the strange Museum of Jurassic* Technology in Culver City, California. With nary a trace of irony the proprietor, David Wilson, has stocked his storefront museum with weird and mind-boggling curiosities (a bat embedded in a solid block of lead, illuminated from the inside, no less!) and accompanies the exhibits with pitch-perfect museum quality explanatory texts and recorded remarks. The MJT is a Chinese box of fiction and reality - an elaborate puzzle begging to be deciphered.

The MJT is a modern iteration of the Renaissance and Enlightenment Wonderkammer, private museums which can consist of (as the name suggests) a collection of curiosities exhibited in a cabinet or an entire suite of rooms given over to the bounty of natural oddities encountered during the first centuries of European exploration and discovery. David Wilson's cabinet is chock full of imaginative and awe-inspiring panoramas and exquisitely detailed minutiae, and has a healthy cult following among museum professionals. Weschler's fascination with the MJT is genuine and his story (which he seems reluctant to put to bed) is enthusiastically told.

The second half of the book, an expansion of the narrative, looks at the history of the Wunderkammer in general, and Weschler doggedly runs down connections and convergences between some of the more famous ones and the MJT. One feels admiration for Wilson's having pieced together such a remarkably seamless reality, while still feeling a tinge of regret for seeing some of his minor secrets revealed. Weschler also cites some apparently remarkable books on the history of wonder cabinets, works which are, alas, ridiculously rare and expensive, but to which Wilson clearly had access. This book is a good exposition of our ancestors' curiosity about the world of wonders around them, and a reminder that our world is no less wonder-full.

*As a note of explanation, Jurassic in Mr. Wilson's imagination refers not to the time of the terrible lizards, but rather to a what is prosaically known as the Nile River Delta.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson was always quite effective, in her own way, in portraying the inner life of the psychically disturbed. This tale in the tradition of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is a signal bit of American Gothic, with a proto-feminist twist.

Two sisters, one quite mad, and an old uncle have sequestered themselves on the family estate after one of the sisters has done off the rest of the (apparently) unpleasant family with arsenic. They live in a reasonably comfortable stasis until the arrival of a male cousin whose motives seem torn between freeing the older sister into society and plundering the family's hidden weath. His presence breeds resentment and threatens the delicate balance, until a crisis is reached on one dreadful, apocalyptic night when the house burns and is trashed by vengeful villagers right out of an old Frankenstein movie. Jackson does not end the novel there, but instead shows how a new normalcy is built in the chaos by the beleagured sisters. This is a popular novel that is, at the same time, deserving of its reputation as a modern classic.

Note: I have the classic 1963 Popular Library paperback edition of this book (shown above), however, the link below is to the recent Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, with the wonderfully weird cover illustration by Thomas Ott.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Last Museum by Brion Gysin

Of an older generation, Brion Gysin was a precursor to the Beats and a catalyst for them and for the bohemian generation that followed. His activities and interactions are the stuff of legend: he introduced Burroughs to the Dadaist “cut-up” method of writing; he worked as a multimedia artist, creating the “Dreamachine”, a stroboscopic device alleged to alter consciousness; he was proprietor of the “1001Nights” bistro in Tangier; he was artist in residence at the Beat Hotel in Paris; he submitted a recipe for hashish brownies to the Alice B. Toklas cookbook; he did avant-garde sound recordings and introduced the master musicians of Joujouka (his former house band) to Brian Jones.

But for all his accomplishments, Gysin ended his life in 1986 (succumbing to cancer) with a wistful regret for having not pursued specific disciplines more diligently. He was a catalyst for so many, but in his own career he was all over the place. His was a peripatetic existence, following whatever artistic whim took his fancy at any particular time (he might now be classified by heartless psychiatry as ADHD). There is perhaps a lack of rigor in his work, more than made up for by enthusiasm, and in the end he was more muse than artist (Burroughs describes him in the Introduction as “the only man I ever respected” and “regal without a trace of pretension”). Still his art is worth seeing, and as such he is currently the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Arts. It goes without saying that he died poor.

The Last Museum is Gysin’s final novel, a loose and freewheeling remembrance of the famous Beat Hotel, told as postmortem adventure in the Bardo, the intermediate death state of Tibetan Buddhism. The work itself is, sadly, a truncated version of Gysin’s much longer unpublished text. There is a progression through the rooms of the Hotel, which is itself being removed piecemeal by the Interdead International Movers to a vast museum site on the San Andreas faultline (the west is the realm of the dead), where it will share space with the Sphinx, the Louvre, the Acropolis, and other detritus of human civilization. Anyone hoping for a simple and straightforward narrative will be disappointed; there are a dizzying number of shifts of name, gender, and sexual orientation, quite often within the same sentence. One of the pleasures of this book is in the anecdotes, the thinly disguised references to the Beats and their associates that we tease from the text. Gysin’s reimagining of his life as he travels the stygian stream of memory is scatological, raunchy, at times tedious, and at times hilarious. Apparently a life of Rabelaisian pansexuality was, in his last years, Gysin’s fondest recollection. He reveals himself - and I say this with no malice - as the pervert’s Dante.

And yet the revelry - or the summary memory of it, the blessed and profane recollection- hurtles toward an end. After 28 days in the Bardo, the soul becomes rank. It was not meant to be stationary, and our hero, our Little PG, our Gysin surrogate with all memory spent yearns for that state to which all good Buddhists aspire: release. Despite the comfort, or horror, of a vision of the interconnected totality of existence, the obligatory peek at that Great White Light, and a cameo appearance by the Devourer of Souls, he longs for that laminated Get Out of Jail card, he seeks to beat cheeks from this mortal coil and not look back. “There is no one in this world I want to see again.” Before this freedom, the freedom which comes from nonexistence, all others pale. But is the sensuality a sacrament or an impediment? Does the road of excess lead, to paraphrase Blake, to enlightenment? Can the story have a happy ending?

Brion Gysin died at the age of 70. Perhaps in the fullness of time he (or some constituent elements of him) will return to this plane of existence in yet another fleshy iteration and read his own text, and remember.

Note: Nothing Is True - Everything is Permitted is a biography of Brion Gysin written by John Geiger. I have not read it, but it seems to have elicited favorable reviews.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues by Giles Oakely

This book was first published in 1976 as a companion volume to a BBC television documentary series on the blues. That such a deeply American musical form would receive such capable treatment from an Englishman should come as no surprise, given the enthusiasm for the blues felt by a generation of British musicians that included Clapton, Page, John Mayall, The Rolling Stones, et al. The book forms a social history as much as a musical one, giving documentary testimony to the grinding poverty and oppression suffered by generations of African Americans in the Deep South. The arc of the blues, of classic blues as it were, was a relatively short one. The blues developed from a variety unschooled musical forms - field hollers, jug band music, stomps and other manifestations that were miles away from what was considered respectable music at the turn of the 20th century. When in 1903 W.C. Handy, a formally trained musician and bandleader, heard a guitarist on a train platform in Clarksdale, Mississippi playing with an old knife for a slide, and later had a request for his orchestra to forgo his more accomplished tunes in favor of “native music”, he began to see the potential of the blues. Handy’s revelation was a somewhat conscious turning, as opposed to the pianist Jellyroll Morton, who absorbed the music in whorehouses, gambling joints and dives along the Gulf Coast. The Holy Land of the Blues was the fertile delta between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers near Clarksdale, where the music - unamplified as it was, and performed by men (and women) who toiled all day at hard labor - had to be loud to compete with the whoops and shouts of the gamblers, johns and drunkards in some pretty rough spots scattered among isolated communities. Even as the music spread, west to Texas and up to Chicago, it was looked down upon as a very low, unsophisticated type of music, the music of the downtrodden and the poor, attitudes that persisted even among some black communities as the momentum of the music wound down in the postwar era. The blues largely remained a rural music, despite being carried to and being revitalized in cities such as Chicago, Memphis, and Dallas. It was in some ways analogous to the “hillbilly” music of the southern whites that would coalesce into country music, and there was clearly some cross influence going on, even if the performers tended to labor under segregation.

Oakley’s book, while putting the music in social context, does not skimp on discussions of the great blues artists of the 20’s and 30’s such as Mamie Smith, Peetie Wheatstraw (“the Devil’s Son-in-Law”), “Ragtime Texas”, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Victoria Spivey, and the big-hearted Ma Rainey. The legends are also here – Charley Patton (whose only known photo, with his serious mien, belies the man’s expansive sense of humor), Skip James, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Son House – as well as the postwar greats such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Elmore James. If you are lucky enough to have recordings of these artists, you’ll want to supplement your reading with some listening. When Oakely and company were preparing their documentary, they had opportunity to interview some of the greats and get some terrific anecdotes. (A vaudeville performer tells the notoriously unlovely Ma Rainey that there are only two things he’s never seen, “an ugly woman and a pretty monkey”, to which Rainey replies “bless you, darlin’”.) This book is a sympathetic, informative, and entertaining history, with an emphasis on the singularly remarkable blues of the 20’s and 30’s, and is well worth the attention of any blues enthusiast.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg

A short psychological novel, told through the diary entries of a Swedish doctor in his mid-thirties, at the crossroads of isolated youth and lonely middle age. Doctor Glas has largely gone through life as an observer, a non-participant. His attraction to women is limited to those already flushed with love, to who he is invisible. His unknowing nemesis is the toadish elder clergyman, Reverend Gregorius, who inspires in the doctor an almost tangible disgust. By some coincidence, the clergyman’s young wife comes to Doctor Glas’s consulting room. She has an embarrassing anguish: her husband, an old hypocrite whom she has come to despise, is given to forcing himself upon her sexually in the name of the divine duty of procreation, a revelation that the doctor finds confirms his repugnance towards Gregorius. Glas promises to assist her – to give testimony to the Reverend that his wife is of a delicate constitution and must practice abstinence for the sake of her health. Despite his acceptance of this diagnosis, the Reverend cannot resist, and after a few days is once again going after his bride like a satyr in an attack that she characterizes as a rape. A new ruse must be devised, that of giving Gregorius the impression that he has a severe heart ailment, one which could be fatal in the event of sexual overexertion.

This sequence of events ties into the doctor’s increasing perception of himself as a kind of self-appointed savior to the wife (even as it conflicts with his judgmental attitudes towards the sexual responsibilities of his other patients). He is already aware, from her confession, that she has a lover, and the doctor has easily determined who this might be. The doctor’s motivations towards the wife are not overtly sexual, although he finds himself having disconcerting dreams in which she appears naked, offering him a rose, like a maiden to a knight. In the course of the novel, Glas becomes more obsessed with, and agitated at, the problem of Gregorius. He begins to look for means by which he can free Mrs. Gregorius completely, so that she may live a happy life with (who the doctor imagines to be) her true love. But Glas’s isolation increases even as he seeks to put his plan into effect, and he comes to a too-late realization that his perceptions of the situation (and of his own motivations) may not be as he believes them to be. Soderberg’s 1904 novel is, like the works of such contemporaries as Strindberg and Schnitzler, remarkable for its modernity, addressing issues such as abortion and euthanasia against a backdrop of Freudian analytics of the self and the nature of obsession. A perceptive introduction by Margaret Atwood is included in this edition.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Accumulated Wisdom

"This world is fulla people seekin' the advantage of other people...Now this type of person don't care about anything, and the least thing he get, he'll make out with it. He don't have no sympathy for those that are tryin' to do right and be honest. You go to Dallas, Texas - there's a place where you can pay fifty cents and see anything you want. Some guys there would sell their brothers. Crimes against nature: make you sick to your stomach.

I never did seek for those things, but it's a good idea sometimes to experience things because heaps of times everybody ain't gonna tell you exactly how things are. You might think or say 'Aw, I don't believe that humans would do things like that.' Well, you take your fifty cents then you go there and you'll see things you may not think are existing in the world."

Skip James,
quoted in Giles Oakley,
The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues

Painted Veils (1920) by James Huneker

I happen to think that one of the worst things an author can do in a novel is to constantly remind his or her readers of books that a) are much better than the one that they have written, and b) they really ought to be reading instead. James Huneker’s decadent American novel, an attempt to bring the fin de si├Ęcle sensibilities of Paris to Manhattan is at bottom a rather melodramatic morality play. It is the story of Ulick Invern, the Paris-born son of an Irish drunk who, thanks to his maternal grandfather’s money, has managed to secure a place for himself on the outskirts of New York society, while not neglecting his studies of Baudelaire and Huysmans and the practical application of Baudelairean aesthetic theory in his field work among the demimonde . (To be fair, the pursuit of whores seems to be the boy’s greatest vice – he neither smokes nor drinks - and Huneker doesn’t quite convince me that he even engages in this particular vice wholeheartedly. Honestly, for a rakish protagonist, he’s a bit of a windbag.)

The apparent catalyst for the novel is the appearance, subsequent long absence, and reappearance of a naturally gifted soprano from Virginia, Miss Esther Brandes (who calls herself Easter, and who takes the professional name Ishtar, and who much later comes to be known as Dame Lucifer – but I’m getting ahead of myself). It appears that Easter and Ulick have had some previous acquaintance, having gotten swept up into the company of some sort of Negro temperance cult known as The Holy Yowlers (or rather, “De Holy Yowlers” - Huneker employs all the stereotypes of his age, down to the rolling eyes and blubbery lips). Of course, the leader of this little revival, one Brother Rainbow, gathers his sheep into a tent, blows out the candles, and an orgy ensues. When Easter and Ulick meet up again, their relationship is colored by their recollections of who may have bumped into whom, accidentally on purpose, when the joint went dark and the night was rent with animalistic cries of pain and ecstasy. Woo Hoo!

Most of the novel takes place without Easter. Ulick, in her absence, has to contend with his growing feelings for the sister of his seminarian friend Milt, an independent but sweet girl with a strong mother instinct which creepily manifests itself in the form of imaginary children and a large doll with whom she shares her bed. There is also, to round out the cast, a rich jackass with a loud checkered suit and slicked back hair (or so I imagine him) who keeps showing up to make an ass of himself, a sort of sexually ambiguous friend who moves the story along with his catty gossip, and a nicely stacked prostitute.

Well, I won’t go into a lot more details. I’ll just say that there is a lot of decadent intellectualizing in the pages that follow, most of it coming from Ulick (who has the unfortunate tendency to sort of “go off” on extended flights of aphoristic fancy, none of which are worth quoting, but many of which revolve around sex and a highly romanticized view of bodily excretions) but also, for the sake of some kind of balance, from his friend Milt the seminary student, who tries his damndest to throw a wet blanket on all the fun by quoting Thomas a Kempis. Aside from the whore-mongering, the best bits involve an elaborate orgy (Yes! Another one!) staged for the benefit of a select crew of young bucks. As a matter of fact, Mr. Hunecker, as if to prove that he isn’t just some staid ol’ music critic, tries with all his faint might to shock his 1920 audience. For a while, I was afraid there wouldn’t be any homosexuality, but he managed to get a whiff of lesbianism in just before the closing pages.

I’ve noted that Mr. Huneker had previously issued a work entitled Egoists: A Book of Supermen, in which he interprets for his American audience all the most exciting intellectual celebrities of 19th century Europe: Stendhal, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Huysmans, Wagner, Anatole France, Bernard Shaw, Flaubert, Barres (whoever the hell he is). He manages to name drop most of these figures into this book. I can’t fault his enthusiasm for at least some of those then-electrifying figures, but as a philosophical novel, Painted Veils is a bit of a dud.

Note: An item of interest pertaining to the orgy scene in the novel:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf

The violent incursion of the Norman princes and their fanatical allies into Asia Minor and the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard in the closing years of the 11th century could be reasonably characterized as the last of the great barbarian invasions. Through a 200+ year ebb and flow of hostilities and alliances, the establishment of so-called “Frankish” states in the Middle East left deep scars upon the Muslim psyche which the intervening centuries have not effaced. The narrative of this misadventure is by turns thrilling and horrifying – with episodes of gracious chivalry exhibited between sworn enemies alternating with the most heinous atrocities.

The exploits of the combatants have passed into folklore. For generations, western children heard the tales of Richard Coeur de Lion, while the eminent and just Saladin, an ethnic Kurd, remains a strong symbol of Arab resistance. More recently, the well known chronicles have been supplemented with eyewitness accounts from the other side, most readily accessible in Francesco Gabrieli’s excellent anthology Arab Historians of the Crusades. The Lebanese journalist and novelist Amin Maalouf, using these writings as a starting point, has spun a compelling narrative history. As one might expect in a popular history, battles and personalities dominate. One gets a sense of the Western war machine, well disciplined in the beginning by the desire to “liberate” the holy city of Jerusalem. Upon first view, the Franks were terrifying – mounted giants with armor impenetrable to Asian arrows and an apparently inhuman bloodlust. We also see the weaknesses of the Muslim princes – rivalry and intrigues that undermined united resistance, a highly developed code of honor which often compelled them to release prisoners following victory (leaving them free to fight another day), the tragic inability to establish mechanisms for succession, leading to violent bloodbaths which weakened their ability to resist the invader.

We also see that, upon establishment of the Crusader states, the Franks were quite willing to “go native” to some degree. They learned Arabic, made use of the medicine and sciences which the Arabs inherited from the Greeks (the Muslims were shocked at the quality of medical care exhibited by the Franks in the early years) , and introduced a tolerant and well-organized variant of feudalism. On the defensive, the Muslim princes never ceased to have some measure of disdain for the Westerners and, understandably, learning the languages of the intruders was not a priority. It took time for the Arabs to develop coherent strategies to push back against the Westerners, most notably exhibited in the genius of emirs such as Zangi and Saladin.

Over the years (and with some exceptions), the presence of the Crusaders became a tolerated fact of life, and a certain balance was achieved. All this changed, however, in the late 13th century, with the Mongol invasion of Persia and Syria. Many prominent Mongols had sympathies with Nestorian Christianity, and were thus potential allies of the weakened Crusaders. At one point, this threat was so great that Islam might have been, with the loss of its heartlands, reduced to a marginal religion at best. Yet again fate and blind luck intervened. Fighting over Khanic succession and some lucky breaks for the fierce Mamluk military machine enabled the Tartar threat to be minimized and the last of the Crusader strongholds to be reduced and their knights expelled. The dream of Jerusalem faded as the Europeans returned home to fight their own interminable battles on native soil, and a new political entity under the Ottoman Turks gained ascendancy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Crusades were, ultimately, an exercise in futility.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Balthasar's Odyssey by Amin Maalouf

In the year 1666 (“the Year of the Beast”), mystically inclined adherents of the three Abrahamic religions have reason to believe a transformation of the world is at hand. In a small Levantine town, a bookseller and antiquities dealer named Balthasar Embriaco, descendant of an impoverished Genoese house, becomes aware through the agency of a Russian pilgrim of the existence of a book of Islamic scholarship which purports to reveal the secret and powerful “hundredth name of God.” Astonishingly, the only known copy of this rare book is subsequently given to him under strange circumstances, and is just as quickly whisked away from him by a French diplomat who visits Balthasar’s shop at the very moment he prepares to examine the precious tome. While Balthasar prides himself on his lack of superstition and what we nowadays would call his moral compass (in his case, a weathervane might be a more apt symbol), he is also – as we shall see in the course of the story - easily manipulated, and the more pious of his nephews convinces him that he must pursue this most divine book.

The narrative takes Balthasar and company to Constantinople, to Smyrna and Chios, to Genoa and even to London through a convoluted series of coincidences and unlikely circumstances. Who could not see in this odyssey the hand of Fate? Along the way, he falls in love with the wife (widow?) of a notorious brigand and develops intimacies with a series of sympathetic confidants, including a kindly and skeptical Jew, a rich Genoese merchant (who sees in Balthasar – the descendant of a noble yet almost extinct house – the perfect potential son-in-law), a dour ex-Puritan chaplain who almost incidentally possesses what Balthasar seeks. There are also myriad minor characters, including the mystical false messiah (and subsequent convert to Islam!) Sabbatai Sevi.

Now, given the geographical and philosophical distances traveled in this novel, one would expect that the text would progress towards some essential unity – some grand design or intrigue in which each character has a secret function in facilitating Balthasar’s odyssey. It seems we are in the midst of a grand novel of 15th century conspiracy, and we furrow our brows trying to tease out the connections and significances of people and events. But we do so in vain. Throughout the book, Balthasar is torn between his preferred rational skepticism and the strong pull of apocalyptic mysticism and superstition. Clearly, the signs are there pointing to an impending transformative conflagration, either in the form of Sevi’s rumored dominion yet to come or in the fire that engulfs London before the protagonist’s eyes. Yet such dramatically definitive resolutions are not in the cards for poor Balthasar, the supreme ditherer, for whom all vital decisions are made either by others or by the hand of Fate. He is, ultimately, soft and indecisive, given to the attractions of comfort. When he hits a new town, the first order of business is to find out where the good food is, and if it’s delivered by a plump and buxom redhead, so much the better. Is this a man who really wants to know the secret name of God? Given the opportunity, his eyes go dark, either from psychological blockage or his inherent unworthiness in the eyes of the Divine.

In the end, the great treasure is all forgotten in the face of an impending betrothal to the rich merchant’s teenage daughter, the book destined to be left “discreetly on a shelf in some bookshop, so that one day, years hence, other hands may take it up and look avidly into it, eyes which may by then be able to read it.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Live Together, Die Alone

The Birds Discover the Simorgh

The thirty birds read though the fateful page
And there discovered, stage by detailed stage,
Their lives, their actions, set out one by one -
All that their souls had ever been or done:
And this was bad enough, but as they read
They understood that it was they who’d led
The lovely Joseph into slavery -
Who had deprived him of his liberty
Deep in a well, then ignorantly sold
Their captive to a passing chief for gold.
(Can you not see that at each breath you sell
The Joseph you imprisoned in that well,
That he will be the king to whom you must
Naked and hungry bow down in the dust?)
The chastened spirits of these birds became
Like crumbled powder, ant they shrank with shame.
Then, as by shame their spirits were refined
Of all the world’s weight, they began to find
A new life flow towards them from that bright
Celestial and ever-living Light -
Their souls rose free of all they’d been before;
The past and all its actions were no more.
Their life came from that close, insistent sun
And in its vivid rays they shone as one.
There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simorgh of the world - with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.
They see the Simorgh - at themselves they stare,
And see a second Simorgh standing there;
They look at both and see the two are one.
That this is that, that this, the goal is won.
They ask (but inwardly; they make no sound)
The meaning of these mysteries that confound
Their puzzled ignorance - how is it tru
That ‘we’ is not distinguished here from ‘you’?
And silently their shining Lord replies:
‘I am a mirror set before your eyes,
And all who come before my splendor see
Themselves, their own unique reality;
You came as thirty birds and therefore saw
These selfsame thirty birds, not less nor more;
If you had come as forty, fifty - here
An answering forty, fifty, would appear;
Though you have struggled, wandered, traveled far,
It is yourselves you see and what you are.’
(Who sees the Lord? It is himself each sees;
What ant’s sight could discern the Pleiades?
What anvil could be lifted by an ant?
Or could a fly subdue an elephant?)
‘How much you thought you knew and saw; but you
Now know that all you trusted was untrue.
Though you traversed the Valley‘s depths and fought
With all the dangers that the journey brought,
The journey was in Me, the deeds were Mine -
You slept secure in Being’s inmost shrine.
And since you came as thirty birds, you see
These thirty birds when you discover Me,
The Simorgh, Truth’s last flawless jewel, the light
In which you will be lost to mortal sight,
Dispersed to nothingness until once more
You find in Me the selves you were before.’
Then, as they listened to the Simorgh’s words,
A trembling dissolution filled the birds -
The substance of their being was undone,
And they were lost like shade before the sun;
Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained.
The Simorgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned.

From The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar

Monday, May 03, 2010

"The Hangman" by Maurice Ogden

Into our town the hangman came,
smelling of gold and blood and flame.
He paced our bricks with a different air,
and built his frame on the courthouse square.

The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
only as wide as the door was wide
with a frame as tall, or a little more,
than the capping sill of the courthouse door.

And we wondered whenever we had the time,
Who the criminal? What the crime?
The hangman judged with the yellow twist
of knotted hemp in his busy fist.

And innocent though we were with dread,
we passed those eyes of buckshot lead.
Till one cried, "Hangman, who is he,
for whom you raised the gallows-tree?"

Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye
and he gave a riddle instead of reply.
"He who serves me best," said he
"Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree."

And he stepped down and laid his hand
on a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for anothers grief
at the hangmans hand, was our relief.

And the gallows frame on the courthouse lawn
by tomorrow's sun would be struck and gone.
So we gave him way and no one spoke
out of respect for his hangmans cloak.

The next day's sun looked mildly down
on roof and street in our quiet town;
and stark and black in the morning air
the gallows-tree on the courthouse square.

And the hangman stood at his usual stand
with the yellow hemp in his busy hand.
With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike,
and his air so knowing and business-like.

And we cried, "Hangman, have you not done,
yesterday with the alien one?"
Then we fell silent and stood amazed.
"Oh, not for him was the gallows raised."

He laughed a laugh as he looked at us,
"Do you think I've gone to all this fuss,
To hang one man? That's the thing I do.
To stretch the rope when the rope is new."

Above our silence a voice cried "Shame!"
and into our midst the hangman came;
to that mans place, "Do you hold," said he,
"With him that was meat for the gallows-tree?"

He laid his hand on that one's arm
and we shrank back in quick alarm.
We gave him way, and no one spoke,
out of fear of the hangmans cloak.

That night we saw with dread surprise
the hangmans scaffold had grown in size.
Fed by the blood beneath the chute,
the gallows-tree had taken root.

Now as wide, or a little more
than the steps that led to the courthouse door.
As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,
half way up on the courthouse wall.

The third he took, we had all heard tell,
was a usurer..., an infidel.
And "What" said the hangman, "Have you to do
with the gallows-bound..., and he a Jew?"

And we cried out, "Is this one he
who has served you well and faithfully?"
The hangman smiled, "It's a clever scheme
to try the strength of the gallows beam."

The fourth man's dark accusing song
had scratched our comfort hard and long.
"And what concern," he gave us back,
"Have you ... for the doomed and black?"

The fifth, the sixth, and we cried again,
"Hangman, hangman, is this the man?"
"It's a trick", said he, "that we hangman know
for easing the trap when the trap springs slow."

And so we ceased and asked now more
as the hangman tallied his bloody score.
And sun by sun, and night by night
the gallows grew to monstrous height.

The wings of the scaffold opened wide
until they covered the square from side to side.
And the monster cross beam looking down,
cast its shadow across the town.

Then through the town the hangman came
and called through the empy name.
I looked at the gallows soaring tall
and thought ... there's no one left at all

for hanging ... and so he called to me
to help take down the gallows-tree.
And I went out with right good hope
to the hangmans tree and the hangmans rope.

He smiled at me as I came down
to the courthouse square...through the silent town.
Supple and stretched in his busy hand,
was the yellow twist of hempen strand.

He whistled his tune as he tried the trap
and it sprang down with a ready snap.
Then with a smile of awful command,
He laid his hand upon my hand.

"You tricked me Hangman." I shouted then,
"That your scaffold was built for other men,
and I'm no henchman of yours." I cried.
"You lied to me Hangman, foully lied."

Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye,
"Lied to you...tricked you?" He said "Not I...
for I answered straight and told you true.
The scaffold was raised for none but you."

"For who has served more faithfully?
With your coward's hope." said He,
"And where are the others that might have stood
side by your side, in the common good?"

"Dead!" I answered, and amiably
"Murdered," the Hangman corrected me.
"First the alien ... then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do."

Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
none before stood so alone as I.
The Hangman then strapped me...with no voice there
to cry "Stay!" ... for me in the empty square.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Vanished Splendors: A Memoir by Balthus

This “as told to” memoir of the painter Balthus leaves one wanting. If we expect some revealing statement as to why he painted such unusual portraits and tableaux, it isn’t here. Those famously unladylike young girls were, he assures us, not intended to have any (or rather, not as much as some would like to read into them) erotic appeal, but were rather created as an expression of transitional adolescent innocence, painted consciously in the manner of the Renaissance masters. Ok, I’m skeptical, but I’ll go along with it for argument’s sake. On a personal level, I must say that I find the artist’s paintings strangely compelling, interesting for their subtle surrealism (which he claims to abhor, but see the weird 1933 composition The Street, painted when he still had some obvious connection to that crowd), their overt creepiness (his portraits of Derain and Miro), and their occasional technical maladroitness (Cat with Mirror III, with the impossibly poor figure of the girl). And yet the paintings and drawings still have an undeniable mastery, particularly in works such as the Passage du Commerce Saint-Andre and The Children. Strangely, while this book contains several pages of photos of the artist, there are no illustrations of his paintings other than the self- portraits on the front and back covers .

Born into the Polish nobility, the painter’s father made the laughably bad decision to sink the family fortune into Russian railroad stock on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution (ouch!). The financial prospects of young Balthus and his brother were somewhat redeemed by what he refers to as a small legacy from another relative. Balthus spent the 20th century amongst the intellectual nobility of Europe. As a child, his mother played footsie with Rilke, who encouraged his artistic interests (Balthus published a picture “novel” as a child which revolved around the first of many cats who answered - or not, as cats do – to the name of Mitsou), and he casually name-drops the likes of Gide, Artaud, Picasso, Malraux, Fellini, etc. in the course of this memoir. (He also notes that Bono was a visitor to the chalet, although that may overstretch the term “intellectual nobility”.)

The main issues with this memoir are its repetitiveness and apparent coyness. Balthus stresses his indebtedness and kinship with the old masters such as Piero della Francesca and Poussin and his distrust of Breton and the Surrealists. He stresses (rightfully) the significance of his friendships with Rilke, Picasso, and Giacometti. He describes his favorite relaxations of contemplating the canvas with a cigarette and of stretching out in the chateau and letting Mozart’s operas wash over him, resounding through the empty rooms. He emphasizes that he is, as befitting old-school titled nobility, a conservative Catholic. As interesting as these facts may be, they are repeated quite too often, and there is no real depth or revelation to the memoir. There are some madding allusions to situations that call out for explanation : the relationship with his niece Frederique, with whom he lived before the Countess Setsuko came into his life being the most tantalizing bit of coyness. There is also the odd caption that reads “The painter and his daughter, Harumi, understand each other perfectly.” Now what the hell is that supposed to mean? Balthus’s relationship with his brother, the notorious author Pierre Klossowski de Rolla, is passed over quickly, in a chapter of less than a page (he sees his brother’s work as “transgressive”, lacking luminosity). He notes that Klossowski’s work is “a black diamond, while I try to paint starbursts, shuddering wings, and children’s flesh lightly touched by angels.” Okay, then.

I can’t help coming away from this memoir feeling that something has been hidden, that there is some dimension of honesty that is lacking. Whether deliberately, as of an old man whistling past a graveyard, or from some deeper sense of denial, I can’t say. The repetitiveness, if not born of senility, seems to suggest a strategy of “here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it”, and the absence of any reproductions of his paintings suggest that the artist would just as soon not be confronted with them as any sort of evidence to the contrary in terms of the image he is attempting to project. There are some lovely and strange passages, such as Balthus’s jaw-dropping confession that “I’ve never felt a real attraction to horror, ugliness, and oddness” and his wonderfully politically incorrect cultivation of “the aristocratic taste for displeasing”, which he attributes to the 19th century dandies. There are also some passages replete with unctuous piety. In the end, what we get in this book a nice portrait of the outer trappings of a man – the silk kimonos, the hundred-windowed chalet in the Alps, the aristocratic profile – but the inner man seems out of reach.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Marquis of Bolibar by Leo Perutz

This novel relates an unlikely series of events surrounding the annihilation of a garrison of occupying troops in a Spanish town during the peninsular war. The eponymous figure of the Marquis appears only briefly in these pages, yet he sets in motion the mechanism by which the German units of Napoleon’s army occupying the town of La Bisbal will be destroyed almost to a man, with one significant exception who survives not only to relate the incidences, but who also comes to strongly identify with the now-legendary Spanish nobleman.

Perutz’s tale is told with a certain lightness, as a group of German officers plot the sexual conquest of their Colonel’s new Spanish concubine who, in a book where the double and issues of identity play important roles, has an uncanny resemblance to the Colonel’s dead wife, whom the officers had managed to seduce in the past.

The story is told from the perspective of the 18 year old officer von Jochberg, and begins by relating how a wounded German officer eavesdrops on a conversation between one of Wellington’s officers, a guerrilla leader, and the Marquis in which the Marquis outlines a plot by which the garrison at La Bisbol may be destroyed. The plot relies on the ability of the Marquis to infiltrate the town incognito and give three signals intended to set the stage for its liberation. Unfortunately, in the guise of a poor mule-driver, the Marquis overhears the German officers planning their seduction, and he is taken out and summarily shot so that the secrecy of the planned seduction may be maintained. Before he dies, the muleteer asks that they fulfill a promise that he has made. When the officers ask for specifics, he replies cryptically “God will tell you.” The remainder of the novel details how the officers, both deliberately (driven by jealousy and lust) and unknowingly fulfill the doomed man’s plans.

The characters in this historical novel are finely and satirically drawn, and Perutz’s themes of the motivations of evil and the fluid nature of identity do not get in the way of the unlikely yarn at the core of the story. Originally published in Perutz’s Vienna, an English translation was first published in 1926. . It appears that an Austrian film based on this novel was made in 1922, with a UK production following in 1928. Perutz’s idiosyncratic novels were admired by Borges, Greene, and Calvino. It ought to be pointed out that Perutz makes sly reference to the legend of the Wandering Jew while at the same time lightly satirizing both Spanish piety and the contemptuous rationality of the Germans. The Marquis of Bolibar is a nice page-tuner - a worthy entertainment which concludes with a neat twist.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ugetsu: Moonlight and Rain

The supernatural tale has a significant history in East Asia. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, in the Dover edition and recently updated by Penguin has long been a favorite for browsing, with its enchanters, ghosts, and other supernatural beings. A couple of months ago, I enjoyed reading Lafcadio Hearn’s retelling of some Japanese ghost stories in his In Ghostly Japan. These tales put me in a cosmically fortuitous state of mind when, browsing a nondescript bookstore in a Scottsdale strip mall, a copy of Ugetsu Monogatari: Tales of Moonlight and Rain fell into my unsuspecting hands. This is a collection of supernatural stories written in the 18th Century by Ueda Akinari, most with settings in medieval Japan and reflecting a worldview steeped in Buddhist (and Daoist) mythology and ultimately derived from the literature of Ming Dynasty China. (According to the introduction, Akinari was particularly indebted to the Chinese collection “New Tales for Lamplight”.) Moonlight and rain evoke romantic sentiments in the West, but translator Leon Zolbrod’s introduction explains that in Japan, ‘rain’ and ‘moon’ are contrasting qualities, with the former implying qualities such as life, love and passion, and the former evoking grief and melancholy, but wisdom and enlightenment as well.

The stories evoke those seemingly precise aesthetics of Japan - the scent of pine on a mountain road, the rustle of silk, the gentle sliding of a rice paper door - and also contrasting elements such as a ruined mansion, a hoard of rusting weapons, an abandoned temple and a skeleton among the weeds. One of the best stories is “The Lust of the White Serpent”, wherein a studious young man is repaid for an act of chivalry with an offer of marriage from a beautiful noblewoman. Little does he know that he is under a dangerous enchantment - that the fine mansion in which he reclines is a ruin and that the beautiful girl is in fact a noxious spirit endangering his very soul. In these tales, the dividing line between our world of illusion and the deeper world of the spirits is thinner than a gauze curtain.

It was also through this edition that I was made aware of Kenji Mizoguchi’s enchanting 1953 film “Ugetsu”, which reworks two of these stories (including the story mentioned above) along with a tale by de Maupassant into a parable of avarice, honor and seduction in the midst of a brutal civil war. The Criterion Collection edition of this film includes a beautifully done restoration of the film, a booklet with an essay and translations of the pertinent stories, and a lengthy documentary feature on the director.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Traditional and World Music

I have been slowly cataloging my music collection on my LibraryThing account. I am about 1/6th through the vinyl, with most of the classical stuff entered except for multiple disk sets. Now I'm deeply into the traditional/world music, and it's been fun listening to forgotten recordings while working on the computer. As a result of this activity, I've come across a nice blog for fans of this type of music called "The World's Jukebox". This site is now listed on the blogroll. On this site, you'll also find links to sites "Excavated Shellac" and "The Old Weird America". If you enjoy ethnic and world music, I hope you'll enjoy these links.

To browse my collection in progress, look for the "Music" collection on my LibraryThing profile. Be warned - it is tragically uncool.

Photo: Makifat's Museum of Obsolete Technology. You may be happy to know that I've recently installed bigger and better speakers.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Student of Prague (1913)

With a screenplay by the controversial German author Hanns Heinz Ewers (author of Alraune and the classic horror story "The Spider"), IMBD gives "The Student of Prague" the distinction of being the first horror film.

The story is another iteration of the Faustian bargain, but is effective in a way that most silent films are not for modern viewers. The Devil or his emissary has once again struck a deal with a hapless soul, in this instance stealing the very soul from the student's mirror. Mischief and tragedy result as Balduin's doppelganger materialises to interfere in his courtship of the Countess. This 41 minute film builds an adequate atmosphere of paranoia in portraying Balduin's realization of the full significance of his bargain. The special effects utilized in this 97 year old film are restrained yet effective (the double stepping from the mirror is like something out of a Bunuel film).

A good appreciation of this film and its context as a forerunner of German Expressionism in film can be found at

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Blaugast: A Novel of Decline by Paul Leppin

Paul Leppin's Blaugast: A Novel of Decline is a chronicle of the degeneration and humiliation of a debauched syphilitic in old Prague. Blaugast is an office worker who spends his down time among the lowlifes of the saloons and whorehouses. Stumbling home one evening, he bumps into an old school chum who intrigues him with a question: "Are you interested in catastrophes?" He follows this fellow Schobotzki home where he meets, and invites home, the prostitute Wanda. Wanda quickly moves in, and, pleased to have a roof over her head and a free lunch in Blaugast, begins to indulge his every sexual whim and fantasy with her troupe of whores. There is a touch of the fetishist in Blaugast, and the sexual tableaus become more and more elaborate while Blaugast sinks deeper into debauchery, forsaking everything for these pleasures. When in a post-coital torpor, the prostitute Johanna confronts him accusingly: “Why are you doing this? It isn't worthy of you!" Faced with the shame of his degeneracy, Blaugast beings a downward spiral. He goes from master of the house to its pathetic servant - shining shoes, fetching water, sleeping in a dirty corner and soaking up the abuse of Wanda's “gentleman” callers.

He abandons the house to roam, as his syphilitic condition becomes more pronounced, ravaging him mentally and physically. He performs - for the amusement of tradesmen, the slumming well-to-do, and their whores - despicable acts for drinks of cognac; he accosts school girls in the park; his body begins to fold upon himself and his mind turns to mush; he remembers his past, sometimes cruel, encounters with women. Meanwhile, the disreputable Schobotzki, who runs a sleazy costume shop for the debauched, is being tormented by vandals, and is looking for retribution. This leads to a final brutal humiliation for Blaugast, a descent into the deepest pit of hell. But there remains a chance for grace, for some redemption in the arms of a lonely fallen angel….

Paul Leppin (1878- 1945) an older contemporary of Kafka, was a German Czech working as an accountant by day, and a decadent bohemian by night. As his reputation grew among the artistic set, his work was denounced as pornographic by the authorities. Still, he became a bridge between the Czech and German artistic communities, having been hailed by the Expressionist movement in Berlin. By age 60, his work was receiving recognition in prizes and awards. Disease and the Nazi occupation of Prague shadowed Leppin’s final years: he was tormented by the Gestapo (who may have suspected him of being a Jew) and his own syphilitic dementia. He died in April 1945. Twisted Spoon Press has helped rediscover and revive some of Leppin’s considerable oeuvre in English translation. This edition of Blaugast includes useful appendices on Leppin and his work.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Marquise of O- and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist

The introduction to this volume mentions, with regard to Kleist's Penthesilea, the Bacchae of Euripides. The anti-rationalism of that particular drama is a thread which runs through these stories of tragedy, violence, injustice and despair. Living in that rational age of Goethe (who spurned his one-time protege) and Schiller, and hot on the heels of the Enlightenment, Kleist (1777-1811) began his young adulthood with a plan for success. Whatever that plan may have been, it fell to pieces rather quickly, and Kleist lived the remainder of his short life in a state of restlessness and disillusionment. (A clue may be found in Kleist's reading of Kant, whose epistemological theory pulled the rug out from under Kleist's tender notions of the perfectability of man, an experience which seems to mirror that of the 20th century Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.) This dissatisfaction with human nature and political and ecclesiastical authoritarianism are well reflected in these remarkable stories, which range from a ghost story ("The Beggarwoman of Locarno"), to tragic tales of love ("The Earthquake in Chile" and "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo"), to a chilling tale of kindness repaid with betrayal ("The Foundling"), a precursor of Kafka (the title story), and an excellent novella of a man driven to madness and violence by a corrupt and unresponsive bureaucracy. ("Michael Kohlhaas").

In addition to this venerable Penguin edition, Archipelago Books has recently published Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist, a collection of “short stories, novellas, and literary fragments". The aforementioned Penthesilea is included in the out-of-print Five German Tragedies, also published by Penguin, and in the collection of Kleist's plays in Continuum's excellent German Library series.