Thursday, November 3, 2016

"The hell it can't!"

...Doremus went on: “If Bishop Prang, our Savonarola in a Cadillac 16, swings his radio audience and his League of Forgotten Men to Buzz Windrip, Buzz will win. People will think they’re electing him to create more economic security. Then watch the Terror! God knows there’s been enough indication that we can have tyranny in America…Wait till Buzz takes charge of us. A real Fascist dictatorship!”
            “Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”
            “The answer to that,” suggested Doremus Jessup, “if Mr. Falck will forgive me, is ‘the hell it can’t!’ Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical – yes, or more obsequious! – than America. Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch over Louisiana, and how the Right Honorable Mr. Senator Berzelius Windrip owns his State. Listen to Bishop Prang and Father Coughlin on the radio – divine oracles, to millions. Remember how casually most American have accepted Tammany grafting and Chicago gangs and the crookedness of so many of President Harding’s appointees? Could Hitler’s bunch, or Windrip’s, be worse? Remember the Kuklux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage’ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles’? And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the – well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimée Semple McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy?...Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?...Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? Not happen here? Prohibition – shooting down people just because they might be transporting liquor – no, that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours! We’re ready to start on a Children’s Crusade – only of adults – right now, and the Right Reverend Abbots Windrip and Prang are all ready to lead it!”
            “Well, what if they are?” protested R. C. Crowley. “It might not be so bad. I don’t like all these irresponsible attacks on us bankers all the time. Of course, Senator Windrip has to pretend publicly to bawl the banks out, but once he gets into power he’ll give the banks their proper influence in the administration and take our expert financial advice. Yes. Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word – just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours – not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini – like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days – and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again. ‘Nother words, have a doctor who won’t take any back-chat, boss the patient and make him get well whether he likes it or not!”
            “Yes!” said Emil Staubman. “Didn’t Hitler save Germany from the Red Plague of Marxism? I got cousins there. I know.”
            “Hm,” said Doremus, as often Doremus did say it. “Cure the evils of Democracy by the evils of Fascism? Funny therapeutics. I’ve heard of their curing syphilis by giving the patient malaria, but I’ve never heard of their curing malaria by giving the patient syphilis!”
            “Think that’s nice language to use in the presence of Reverend Falck? raged Tasbrough.
            Mr. Falck piped up, “I think it’s quite nice language, and an interesting suggestion, Brother Jessup!”
            “Besides,” said Tasbrough, “this chewing the rag is all nonsense, anyway. As Crowley says, might be a good thing to have a strong man in the saddle, but – it just can’t happen here in America.”

            And it seemed to Doremus that the softly moving lips of the Reverend Mr. Falck were framing, “The hell it can’t!”

                                                               - Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, 1935

Image proposed by Atelier Lawnmeadow for unrealized book jacket for It Can't Happen Here
featuring The News Photographer, San Francisco City Hall, John Gutmann, 1935

Monday, October 3, 2016

October Update

Hello everyone,

As you may have noticed, it’s been a bit quiet around here lately. Some personal circumstances have contributed to this long hiatus and may prolong it for some time to come. I write today to affirm that seraillon will go on. I’ve sorely missed the blog and the wonderful community of literary bloggers (you’ve all been so prolific these past few months that I may never catch up…).

I am still reading and will continue to update the “Books Read” page. In fact, I’ll take this opportunity to give two quick thumbs up to two very different works I’ve just finished, both of them accidental finds completely off my radar when I lucked into them, one at a book sale, the other sent me as a gift.

The first, Scarlet Sails, by early 20th century Russian writer Alexander Grin (or Green in the English translation by Thomas P. Whitney), is apparently adored in Russia by children and adults alike, a fairy tale/fable set in a mythical country given the nickname “Grinlandia” by Grin’s fans. I too adored the book, especially its insistence, despite ample romantic elements, on dismissing superstition and affirming the role of human agency in creating magic, sensitively depicting those who feel compelled to create and to cherish their own imaginations.

The second is Serbo-Croatian writer Aleksander Tišma’s The Use of Man, a thematically sobering novel that still manages to burn with life and resilience in tracing the experience of several citizens of Novi Sad during WWII and the Holocaust. Using an unusual and recursive narrative style, Tišma gives us a series of discrete glimpses of his chief characters such that their stories unveil themselves gradually, almost matter-of-factly, drawing us into their remarkable and sometimes harrowing stories. I can say without hyperbole that I found Tišma’s novel as powerful as anything I’ve read about this period, a classic worthy of occupying the same shelf space as works by Primo Levi, Vassily Grossman, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank.

As for the group read of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale that I promised in July, I do expect to return to it. I read and greatly admired the book, and would love to get a discussion going about it when the circumstances are more favorable.

Thank you as always for reading, and see you all when the clouds clear a bit.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Arnold Bennett Group Read, a General Update, and a Couple of Quotations

I had promised back in May a group read of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale for July, so since it’s already past the middle of July, I want to give those who are still interested (especially, perhaps, myself) an update - and a bit of breathing room. While I’d expected to be done with the book by now, I am scarcely a third of the way through, and hope that potential participants will not be disappointed if I postpone the group read until Labor Day week (September 5-12), perhaps a fitting time given the book’s concerns with the world of work and economics, and certainly a more propitious time for me given an unexpectedly challenging spate of work and other commitments these last couple of months.

In lieu of a post about literature, I’ll just add to this update a couple of quotations from my recent reading, offered as a promise of more attention to the blog to come soon.

The first is from Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World, an account of an 18-month journey Bouvier made with his artist friend Thierry Vernet in a Fiat from Geneva to the Khyber Pass between 1951 and 1953. I thought it a marvelous travel book (albeit one that rather exudes male privilege, so one might read Bouvier’s Swiss compatriot Isabelle Eberhardt or the works of Freya Stark, who visited western Iran 20 years before Bouvier, to regain a bit of balance). Anyway, here is the 24-year-old Bouvier in the Balkans - the “heart” of Europe, if France is said to be its “brain” - early in his journey, early in his growth:

The invited us into dark kitchens, into little, ugly, comforting sitting-rooms for enormous bellyfuls of aubergines, kebabs, melons which sprayed open under a pocketknife. Nieces and frail old relatives – because at least three generations would be sharing these cramped quarters – would have already, excitedly, set the table. There would be introductions, low bows, phrases of welcome in charming, old-fashioned French, and conversations with these old bourgeois who were passionate about literature, who killed time by re-reading Balzac or Zola, and for whom J’accuse was still the latest literary scandal from Paris. Spa waters, the ‘colonial Exhibition’…when they reached the end of their recollections, there would be silence, and then the friend who painted would go off in search of a book on Vlaminck or Matisse. All the dishes would be cleared from the table, and we would leaf through the book while the family looked on in silence, as though a ceremony they couldn’t participate in was taking place. This gravity touched me. During my years as a student I had earnestly potted ‘culture’, done my intellectual gardening, analyses, glosses, taken cuttings; I had dissected various works of art without grasping their dynamic value. At home the stuff of life was so well cut, distributed, cushioned by habit and institutions that there was no space for invention, it was confined to decorative functions and only thought of as something ‘agreeable’ – that is, immaterial. In Serbia, things were quite different; being deprived of necessities stimulated, within certain limits, an appetite for what was essential. Life was still demanding and greatly in need of form, and artists – by which I mean any peasant who knew how to hold a flute, or daubed their wagons with sumptuously mingled colours – were respected intercessors, or bonesetters.

The second quotation is from Jean Giono’s Que ma joie demeure, which I’m re-reading in the French original, though the passage is copied from Katherine Allen Clarke’s English translation, Joy of Man’s Desiring. The setting is the Plateau de Valensole, in the southern part of Giono’s beloved Alpes de Haute-Provence, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. Bobi and Jourdan, a stranger and the farmer who has welcomed him and asked his help, are returning to the farm on a cold winter’s night after a journey to see a man about a horse. They are a bit lost.

The lights had disappeared. They had been slowly turning away from them. The ground rose gently. The cold solidified the night like cement in the bottom of the mortar box.
            “Look at the signs,” said Bobi.
            Before them, in the distance, golden signs had just blazed forth. They looked like letters. One was a capital L. And after this letter was a sort of apostrophe. They were level with the ground. There was a sign that made a capital E, but the E from time to time became an F. They were really signs and they were indeed of gold. But they could not be read.
            Jourdan tried. He squinted his eyes. He said: “L-apostrope-e-f, l-apostrophe-e-f. What does that mean?” As they drew nearer, the letters changed shape. The one that was an L had almost become an O, a little square, and the apostrophe had melted into it. The other letter became an M laying on its side. “We ought to mark them down on paper,” said Jourdan to himself. To know. Prescriptions are sometimes written out like that in strange letters, and he who does not know them looks at them and does not understand.”
            “L-apostrophe-e-f-o, l-apostrophe-e-f-o-m,” he said to himself, like one of those great, formless words that must have signified the sun, the moon, and the stars in the mouths of the first men.
            “Is it the house,” said Bobi.
            Jourdan pulled in the reins. The horse stopped.
            “What?” asked Jourdan.
            “The signs,” said Bobi; “it is the house. Marthe has lit the fire. She has closed the door and the window shutters, and there in front of us is the light flowing through the joints around the door and the shutters.”
            Jourdan remained silent for a moment.
            “One who knows is worth ten who seek,” he said.

Until next time…

Edith Berger, Les Foins dans le champ, 1948 (collection C. Perous)

Nicolas Bouvier photographed by Thierry Vernet, Turkey, 1953

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Jean Giono’s An Italian Journey - “…an ideal exercise of your ability to enjoy the world”

Since finishing, along with a handful of other bloggers, Jean Giono’s Hill, I have not been ready to let go of this enthralling French writer. And since I’m still centered on Italy and Italian literature, I was delighted to find the perfect intersection of these interests: Giono’s 1953 An Italian Journey  (Voyage en Italie). “Giono,” after all, is not exactly a French name. The writer’s father hailed from a small Piedmontese village, and Giono himself, in some late works, turned to Italy for source and inspiration.

An Italian Journey (the evocation of Goethe’s title is perhaps intentional) traces a 1951 journey by car Giono took with his family through the north of Italy. Though a biography would shed some light on Giono’s other experiences with Italy, the account conveys the feeling of a first visit, at least to the region.

Peculiarly, it also conveys the feeling of a reluctant visit. The initial pages suggest Giono’s hesitation in quitting his beloved Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and offer a first, noteworthy bit of self-revelation: his intense dislike of the sea. He and his family take an inland route, coming down first into Turin. Milan, Brescia, Peschiera, Verona, Venice, Padua, Ferrera and Bologna follow until the trip’s apparent terminus in Florence – that’s where the writing comes to a halt anyway.

Once Giono gets over his initial anxieties, he settles into a rhythm, packing into his account enchanting and piquant observations on a plethora of subjects. He incorporates amusing anecdotes as well as a few passages borrowed from his voracious reading, which appears to have ranged from the Georgics to Ariosto to Dante, from Homer to Stendhal, from Machiavelli to the serialized Don Camillo stories of Giovannino Guaraschi, and from memoirs of Italian military officers to an “amazing” history of an 1838 revolution in Italy’s north, written by a personal friend who mapped out every village and pathway involved and spent thirty years wandering the region to mine the local archives. There are commentaries on painting (Giotto’s Scrovini Chapel frescoes look to him “like an aquarium”); on aesthetics (an oil refinery in Mestre is appreciated as something Don Quixote “would have included…straightaway in his repertoire of lyrical tropes”); on finding illumination just about anywhere (“…you can find traces of sublimity even in a grocer’s shop”); on history (a people’s history appears to be of chief interest); and on war, and the historical shift in the notion of battle from a means of acquiring property to a Napoleonic pursuit of ideas. Giono appears to have little truck with political parties and theorists: “I don’t like it when some other person comes along and decides to do my work for me. I want to see to it myself.”

Among things Giono does like is food, and this evident gourmand catalogs several miraculous food preparations, from a paste made of fennel leaves macerated in brandy to a Venetian recipe for cuttlefish spaghetti with tomatoes and raw mullet liver. What easily counts as among the most particularly French observations I’ve ever read about cuisine must be quoted in its entirety to be believed, and is written in response to an “atrocious” meal of fried fish at Lake Garda:

Fish always taste of the water they live in. Each river has its own particular qualities. These can scarcely survive a process akin to cooking salsify almost rigid in castor oil. I have known people to reject some freshwater fish because they tasted of sewage. They were quite right to do so when they had been served up something out of a chamber pot seasoned with boiled peanut oil. But even a tincture of sewage is delicious if you wash the fish so thoroughly first that you leave it with only the least trace of pee odor, especially if the juice of the fish is mixed in, and there’s the additional aroma of a slightly fruity olive oil. Eat it in the open air that smells as the fish tastes, alongside the water it came from, and the pleasure will be indescribable. You should try everything. Happiness demands effort.

Giono’s language, after the lyric intensity of Hill, here can be surprisingly witty. We are in Brescia, his first major stop:

When you arrive in any city at night, to be sure, it can easily seem mysterious. This was the same, but in a different way. The street where we looked for somewhere to eat, for instance, stretched out like any normal big street with shops and even a lawyer’s nameplate, but finished up as a dark, narrow byway from which a trolley bus emerged, all but scraping the walls. The bus was decorated with flickering red and green lights, and was quite empty: it was like an ambulating pickle jar.

Here he is in Venice, observing the widespread use of black both in dress and ornament:

That black, however, was very soothing in the Venetian light. I have already said how pure it was because of the absence of any dust. It was also the only color that added something new to the intense clarity. In the long run other colors became tedious because they repeated what the sun had already said, which was quite enough to deal with anyway.

In another instance in Venice, he cannot tear his eyes away from a beautiful woman, who in turn “all but feather-dusted me with her long eyelashes for the space of a generous instant.”

I worried a bit about this Venice chapter, since, like many people, I have my own obsessions about this grand, realized dream, yet Giono’s first sensation in relation to the city is dread. He associates it with Wagner and D’Annunzio and, of course, the pernicious sea; had his family not rebelled, he might well have skipped it altogether. Moreover, he arrives in the worst possible manner: at night, in darkness, into the depressing autopark at Piazzale Roma, and in the company of a dwarf tourist tout who quickly latches onto the group and maligns every place of interest. But the section on Venice proves miraculous. Despite my having read nearly everything I’ve run into about the city, I’ve seldom seen it depicted with such a conjuring of atmosphere or with as much attentiveness to the Venetian modus operandi. His selective details aim at elucidating Venetian character, and through them, one glimpses pockets of the city’s mysteries, such a waiter’s promise to show Giono “vast rooms where the windows were now all closed up and where beds with all four posters infested with beetles and devoured by rot had become as fragile as sand castles,” or tales of young women tucked away “in total seclusion in immense palaces.” The pockets are even literal; Giono notes the vertical pocket sewn into workers’ clothing just by the liver, and where the wearer could insert a small figurine of Saint Anthony of Padua. This 45-page section on the Serene Republic would be worth publication on its own; one only wishes it were longer.

Giono’s observations about Italy and Italians can appear as sweeping generalizations, but they’re so original, effusive and seductively idiosyncratic that one can hardly help but indulge and trust. Quite often they’re buttressed by Giono’s sense of responsibility to provide evidence to support his claims, but at other times one must simply accept on faith. One I particularly liked, the kind of assertion that appears to reveal something vitally important yet omits the instruction manual, is an observation of the people of Turin: “Here it was simply a matter of being happy and of reaching that state by very skilled procedures.”

The book also provides some welcome insight into Giono the person and writer. For instance, he notes having been transfixed by both his father and his Italian grandfather, who together “constructed a vast oral novel,” adding new “picaresque details” every evening. He recognizes how much novels invariably leave out. He muses about writing “a lively narrative” in which fictional characters meet real people and are “embellished” by them. His deep affection for nature, so evident in Hill, comes across in a celebration (no lesser word will do) of the trees planted along roads in Piedmont. In Giono’s appreciation of “resounding empty spaces,” unpeopled streets, the silence he finds in Venice, one might detect a tinge of misanthropy, but this is likely a bit of a put on. “You cannot think of people without thinking of happiness. What else do they strive for?” he writes at one point, and his early mornings and late nights in cafés and restaurants, engaged in observing and learning about those he encounters, reveal someone who wants to know people. Sitting in a café in Brescia, he finds “that capacity for spontaneous, almost totally uninhibited enjoyment, with absolutely no reference to any kind of deity, irresistibly infectious,” and later he counts himself among those who possess a “rare form of courage: people who dared to enjoy things.” Giono takes measurements of this enjoyment everywhere he goes, revealing its distinct regional gradations, and also making his journey an inquiry into human happiness – a pretty nifty subject for an exploration of Italy. The word appears repeatedly in the book, and many of Giono’s meditations probe the myriad manifestations of happiness. One such passage echoes the stark elements of Hill, and that novel’s concerns with violence and the importance of being-in-the-world:

The carrot of ultimate happiness has been held out to us since humanity left the Garden of Eden. It is an advantageous tool for all and sundry, for the mere promise of its eventual reign is enough. There is no difference between the happiness guaranteed by the Church and that which materialists assure us will be ours. It always lies in the future and we have to run after it, killing, killing, killing all the way, running amok in helpless, murderous frenzy like (so they say) the Malays. A tragic fate is reserved for those who want to remain free or who hold on to their own ideas: they are thrown to the Christians.

But more often Giono’s references to happiness come in less abstracted, philosophical forms, rising directly from experience. Recognizing his own contradictions, he finds hope in the gripping sight of a woman and her two daughters supplicating, in deepest devotion, at a church altar.  “If I want to be happy,” he asserts near the end of his journey, “I have to be sure that I am among people whose faces plainly declare that there will be a tomorrow.” This might be the rapturous impression of one merely traveling through – surely faith in the future is not possessed by everyone in Italy, not even in 1951. But An Italian Journey has made me ache to extend, though the north of Italy, those aspirations to travel through Provence that Hill inspired. I should only be so fortunate to have for company a mind as agile, inquiring and generous as Giono’s, and a spirit as attuned to the infinite possibilities of joy. One only need look at the portrait above to place some trust in the declarations that face makes.

Image: "Portrait de Jean Giono" by Jean Dieuzaide, from Autour de Giono, Actes Sud, 2002