WORD OF THE DAY – DECIMATE

Kill One in Ten.

Originally from the Latin: decimatio (decem – ten). Historically decimation was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences, such as cowardice, mutiny, desertion, and insubordination, and for pacification of rebellious legions.

It has since come to mean to kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of, as “the project would decimate the fragile wetland wilderness.” Or more recently, “the hurricane decimated everything in its path.”

20191002_1518553480171169761590866.jpg

Graham Greene wrote about this concept, in the historical sense, in his novel, The Tenth Man.

A group of Frenchmen were being held hostage in a Gestapo camp. A German officer enters the cell one afternoon and announces that there were three murders in the town last night. He is ordered to shoot one in ten of them in the morning. There are thirty men in the camp, therefore three men must be shot. He doesn’t care who. They choose. They chose by lot. Louis Chavel was the tenth man.

Things get tricky from there, but Greene supplies a heavy dose of irony as the plot unfolds.

Book Notes

The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

20190907_092007337551118192970555.jpg

So, I finished one book and started another. I finished The Snows of Kilimanjaro and started Sweet Tooth.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a book of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, some I have read before and some of which were new to me and I was reading for the first time. The last story in the collection was The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, my favorite Hemingway story and quite possibly my favorite short story of all time. The last time I read this story I was in my 20s. I remember when and where I read it and under what circumstances I was my reading it. It made such a large impression on me. So, these many years later, I read it again with great joy and new eyes. It still made a great impression on me and revived many fond memories. This story taught me at an early age that Hemingway lived by code and it was possible to even have a code. This was an early and important teaching in my life and one I have always tried to live by.

I picked up Sweet Tooth and began to read it. Within 10 pages I knew I was going to like it. First of all, it was dedicated to Christopher Hitchens. One of my favorite writers and one to whom I most look up to and strive to write like when I attempt to write nonfiction. It is not easy. He has set a high bar. A few pages in McEwan references some of my other favorites writers and books as well. These are writers of fiction who are also my heroes: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. All of which I have read. I am betting this book will prove to be a good read!

Love in the Time of Cholera

Book Review

20190825_1620467841434774524986379.jpg

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of unrequited love.”

That is the first sentence of the novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It tells you all you need to know about what is to follow. For this is a novel of unrequited love and about all the other kinds of love as well. And they are many. There is the central love triangle between Floerntino Ariza, Fermina Ariza, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino. But there are other kinds of love too: old and young, faithful and unfaithful, respectful and shameful, sexual and chaste, and everything in between.

Bitter almonds always remind me of death. That is also what this novel is about. Old age and death. One character takes his own life at age 70 rather than living to become old and feeble. Other characters live into their 70s and 80s and suffer all the ailments of old age lovingly detailed by the author.

Cholera features heavily in the book as the title suggests. This was a time when cholera was endemic to the geographic setting of the novel. It breaks out many times during the course of the book, causing death and motivating characters to move, and creating a constant state of fear. It is also a metaphor for love. One of the main characters falls ill several times throughout the novel and it is said of him, “The symptoms of love are the same as those of cholera.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez spins his magical tale like a spider spins a web, each sentence a silken thread that creates a web of intrigue that ensnares the reader’s imagination and draws them into the fold of the story.

When Florentino Ariza is denied the love of his life, Fermina Daza, when she marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, he vows to wait for her. He realizes it might be a long wait. He realizes he might have to wait until her husband dies, which he does 60 years later. Meanwhile, Florentino wastes no time getting involved with other women, always in the hopes of finding something that resembles love, but without the problems of love.

When Florentino visits the Widow Nazaret, she proclaims, “I adore you because you made me a whore.”  He taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it perpetuates love. “One comes to the world with a predetermined allotment of lays and whoever does not use them for whatever reason, one’s own or someone’s else’s, willingly or unwillingly, loses them forever.” A tragic loss I might add.

Every character Is drawn with intricate detail both inside and out. From the time Florentino first falls in love with Fermina, when Dr. Juvenal Urbino is struck by the lightning of his love for Fermina, until 60 years later when Florentino has her finally in his grasp after Juvenal falls to his death at age 81 from a tree trying to catch a wayward parrot, each character having lived a life in full. At last Florentino and Fermina are together as they cruise up and down the river Magdalena, under the flag of Cholera, in the last phase of their own lives, “forever.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound and the Fury

Book Review

20190603_1509536147826496329215840.jpg

 

I must admit reading Faulkner is a bit of a challenge. I didn’t know how big of a challenge until I started reading The Sound and the Fury.

Reading challenging material has it rewards however, and I’m glad I did. Here are some of my thoughts about this strange and enchanting novel.

First, the title. It is from a quote by Shakespeare from his play, Macbeth: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day/To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” Act 5, scene 5

The idiot in this case has a double meaning. Shakespeare is referring to man writ large but Faulkner is referring not only to all mankind but the first section of the novel is narrated (told) by Benjy, a mentally retarded (idiot) family member. It takes a while to figure this out. Faulkner brilliantly takes us inside the head of this mentally retard person and his tale is told in a sort of a primitive poetry.

The Sound and the Fury is divided into four parts. The first three parts are written from the points of view of the three Compson brothers. The fourth and final section is told by an omniscient narrator.

The time-line is a little confusing as each section is told out of joint, so to speak, as follows:

Part 1. April 7, 1928 (Holy Saturday) – Benjy

Part 2.  June 2, 1910 – Quentin

Part 3. April 6, 1928 (Good Friday) – Jason

Part 4. April 8, 1928 (Easter Sunday) – Omniscient Narrator

Faulkner wrote Quentin and Jason’s sections, he says, to clarify Benjy’s section. “I had already begun to tell it through the eyes of an idiot child (Benjy). I had to tell the same story through the eyes of another brother.”

According to Faulkner, in his introduction to the book, he set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. It began with the image of the little girl’s (Caddie) muddy drawers. “I was just trying to tell the story of Caddy, the little girl who had muddied up her drawers and was climbing up the pear tree to look in the window where her grandmother lay dead.”

Faulkner writes of the south which he describes as old, since dead as opposed to the north which is young, since alive. The Civil War killed the south. There is a thing called the new south, but it is not the south. Only southerners have taken horse whips and pistols to editors about the treatment or maltreatment of their manuscripts.

I was born in the south, but I have had the privilege of living all over the United Sates. The last twenty years of my life I lived in the northeast before returning to my roots in Kentucky. My friends in the north would ask me what was it I liked about the south? I like everything about the south, I would answer. But I could always tell they were deeply suspicious.

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s review he states that a critic’s task is to define the writer’s metaphysics. He says it is immediately obvious that Faulkner’s metaphysics is time. Man’s misfortune lies in his being time bound. “…man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune.” This, then, is the real subject of the book: “…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when time stops does time come to life.”

Faulkner frequently refers to the “branch” in his novel, and remarks that the branch was to “become the dark, harsh flowing of time.”

The best description of the book also comes from Sartre: “Faulkner’s vision of the world can be compared to that of a man sitting in an open car and looking backwards at every moment, formless shadows, flickering, faint tremblings and patches of light rise up on either side of him, and only afterwards, when he has a little perspective, do they become trees and men and cars.”

Faulkner does wonderful things with dialect and idiom. A couple of examples:

“I wuz huntin’ possums in dis country when dey was still drownin’ nits in yo pappy’s head wid coal oil, boy. Ketchin um, too.” Louis

“Dat’s de troof. Boll-weevil got tough time. Work ev’y dayin de week out in the hot sun, rain er shine. Aint got no front porch to set and watch the wattermilyuns grow and saty’dy don’t mean nothin a-tall to him.” Uncle Job

And finally, as finely wrought a piece of prose as I have ever read describing Dilsey:

“The gown fell gauntly from her shoulders, across her fallen breasts, then tightened upon her paunch and fell again, ballooning a little above the nether garments which she would remove later layer by layer as the spring accomplished and the warm days, in color regal and moribund. She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage and fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.”

The past takes on a super reality. The present moves along in the shadow, like an underground river. Everything is absurd. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Sleep – Book Review

 

20190425_0849224118949557124608030.jpg

I have been having a lot of fun lately reading the annotated version of the Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The text of the novel appears on the left side of the book while the notes are on the right. This book was annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto. Much of the material in this review is gleaned from their notes.

Raymond Chandler wrote, as Ross Macdonald said, like a slumming angel. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, was portrayed as a knight errant, searching for adventures and rescuing damsels in distress. He embodied the chivalric code.

In The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.” He also said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

The Big Sleep, like all of Chandler’s novels and short stories, is of the hard boiled, pulp fiction, detective story genre. But Chandler was a cut above the rest. Heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, he improved upon a category of fiction that was mostly known for its lurid and salacious subject matter.

Another reason I like this book is that it gives the history of Los Angeles during and around the time period (1930s) of the novel. It also goes to great lengths to explain Americanisms, colloquialisms, slang, and genre jargon.

The Big Sleep, while a great read and a ripping good story, has a complicated plot. In this version the editors give us some guidance into Raymond Chandler’s intricate and labyrinthine novel.

I quote liberally from the novel as Chandler’s writing style is the best part of his work and the most entertaining. His use of hyperbole and exaggeration is a real gas. Also, I will be dropping some interesting asides about LA.

Los Angeles in the 1910s was the fastest growing city on earth. The population exploded 400% between 1910 and 1930. It went from 310,000 to about 1,250,000, with the greater LA County area housing 2.5 million. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was built to steal water from the Owens Valley 250 miles away. Corruption was rife. Politicians and the police often worked together with organized crime. Los Angeles was also known as a “Sin City” much like Las Vegas, with booming prostitution and gambling. According to journalist Carey McWilliams, “Los Angeles was the kind of place where perversion was perverted and prostitution was prostituted.”

“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

Marlowe cracks wise throughout the novel. The term wisecrack dates from the 1920s and is associated with tough guy or hard-boiled fiction. The queen of the wise crack was the dame of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker, who was known to have said, “The first thing I do in the morning brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Carmen: Tall, aren’t you?

Marlowe: I didn’t mean to be.

Carmen: What’s your name?

Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.

Carmen: That’s a funny name. Are you a prize fighter?

Marlowe: Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.

Chandler considered it his duty as a writer to affirm life and liveliness against the deadly and the dull. A sentiment I have always lived by myself.

She put a thumb up and bit it. It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow, like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint. She bit it and sucked it slowly turning it around I her mouth like a baby with a comforter.

Chandler used blackmail in fourteen of his short stories and five of his novels. Blackmail was very common in LA in the 20s and 30s. As headlines show: “GIRL TRIES BLACKMAIL! CAUGHT IN POLICE TRAP!” “FUGITIVE SEIZED IN EXTORTION CASE.” “FANTASTIC PLOT AGAINST POLA NEGRI BARED” “EXTORTION PLOT SUSPECT TAKEN: STANDARD OIL MILLIONAIRE’S EX-CHAUFFEUR ACCUSED.” W. Sherman Burns, head of the Burns Detective Agency, said in 1922, “Blackmail is the big crime in America today.

The 1939 WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guide calls Los Angeles the fifth largest Mexican City in the world.

In 1904 Lincoln Stephens wrote an expose called, The Shame of American Cities. In it he states politics is business. In America, politics is an arm of business and the aim of business it to make money without care for the law, because politics, controlled by business, can change or buy the law. Politics is interested in profit, not municipalities, prosperity, or civic pride. The spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit. Raymond Chandler wrote in 1934, “The typical racketeer is only slightly different from the business man.”

Ernest Hopkins wrote in Our Lawless Police, 1913, “Nothing so clearly marks our policing traditions in American cities as the use of extreme and unlawful force. In LA there exists a theory of law enforcement more openly opposed to the constitution than any I have yet encountered.”

“A life is a life.”

“Right. Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”

There seems to be a connection between French Existentialist writers and hard-boiled fiction writers like James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond chandler. Albert Camus may have been influenced by the private investigators appearing in American detective novels like Philip Marlowe, as his portrayal of the quintessential alienated outsider Meursault in his own novel, The Stranger, clearly shows.

“I was fired for insubordination. I test very high on insubordination.” Marlowe

Marlowe is not an outlaw, but he does live by his own code, and he sometimes breaks the law by so doing. Jean-Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on none but himself; that he alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than to the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Marlowe understands this and accepts the challenge.

Some of my favorite lines and quotes from the novel:

  • “What does Carmen say?”

“I haven’t asked her. I don’t intend to. If I did, she would suck her thumb and look coy.”

“I met her in the hall. She did that to me. Then she tied to sit on my lap. I was standing up at the time.”

  • “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
  • The general spoke again, slowly, using his strength carefully as an out of work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.
  • The next morning was bright, clear, and sunny. I woke up with a motorman’s glove in my mouth, drank two cups of coffee and went through the morning papers.
  • “Well, how’s the boy?” He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.
  • Vivian: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front runners, or come from behind…I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
  • “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business man’s lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of soft glowing hair. Her smile was tentative but could be persuaded to be nice.”
  • Marlowe: You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who is in the saddle.

  • The giggle got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting. She started to get hysterical. I slid off the desk and stepped up close to her and gave her a smack on the side of the face. The giggles stopped dead, but she didn’t mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boyfriends got around to slapping her sooner or later.
  • The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street Tunnel, but I didn’t move. Not being bullet proof is an idea I had to get used to.
  • “Get up Angel. You look like a Pekingese.”
  • “You’re broke?”

“I’ve been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

  • “Go fuck yourself”

“That’s how people get false teeth.”

  • I made myself a drink and was drinking it when the phone rang.
  • Listen hard and you will hear my teeth chattering.
  • I was thinking of going out to lunch and that life was pretty flat and that it would probably be just as flat if I took a drink and that taking a drink all alone at that time of day wouldn’t be any fun anyway. I was thinking this when Norris called up.
  • I was catching up on my foot dangling.
  • I got out of my office bottle and let my self-respect ride its own race.
  • …even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid.
  • “Two coffees. Black, strong, and made this year.”
  • “That makes you just a killer at heart, like all cops.” Vivian to Marlowe
  • “Let’s get out of this rotten little town.” Vivian
  • A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog.
  • I braked the car against the curb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel. Under the thinning fog, the surf curled and creamed, almost without a sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
  • “Hold me close you beast.” Vivian to Marlowe
  • Her eyelids were flickering rapidly. Like a moth’s wings.
  • “Killer,” she said softly her breath going into my mouth.
  • She took her right hand from behind her head and started sucking her thumb.
  • I didn’t have anything really exciting to drink, like nitroglycerin or distilled tiger’s breath.
  • She’s a grifter, shamus. I’m a grifter. We’re all grifters. So, we sell each other out for a nickel. Okay. See you can make me.
  • “Let’s dip the bill. Got a glass?”
  • Canino driving fast through the rain to another appointment with death.
  • …bare as hell’s back yard.
  • Fate stage managed the whole thing.
  • “A man has the right to live his own life.” General Sternwood
  • He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men looked.
  • You were sleeping the big sleep.

And the last line of the novel:

  • On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.

Angels Over America

The Big Sleep and Look Homeward Angel

dscn42605522044785165733791.jpg

I just finished reading Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It was a monumental mountain of beautiful prose. Now I turn my attention to a different sort of angel. A slumming angel. Of course I am speaking of none other than Raymond Chandler. I have read The Big Sleep before, but not the new annotated edition. Chandler’s prose is a bit more hard boiled than Wolfe’s but it is no less poetic. I can’t wait to get started!

 

20190118_14434824260679500058451.jpg

Top Ten Books 2018

I read 27 books in 2018. Did not hit my goal. I’ll try to step it up for 2019. So many books so little time. Here is my Top 10.

  1. The Man With The Golden Arm – Nelsen Algren
  2. The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell
  3. The White Album – Joan Didion
  4. Never Come Morning – Nelsen Algren
  5. The Fall – Albert Camus
  6. The Crossing – Cormac McCarthy
  7. Paterson – William Carlos Williams
  8. The Other Shore – Thich Nhat Hanh
  9. Young Once – Patrick Modiano
  10. Rabbit At Rest – John Updike
20180921_1238233401602285525544895.jpg

“Got ya for the Greek, Lefthander. Two witnesses.”
“Knew I’d never get t’ be twenty-one anyhow.”

20180709_1636424692238238236370415.jpg

Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life – and hence its crimes – becomes denser, darker. Here we are in the last circle.

man with the golden arm

Some cats just swing that way…

20190114_1631265693206498999950201.jpg

“Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.”

the crossing

The dome of the moon rose out of the ground white and frat and membranous.

 

20190116_1646186924965482756476527.jpg

Anyone want to talk about any of these books I would be happy to discuss. Your comments are welcome. Each book was special in its own way and I would be hard pressed to say which one I like the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FALL: BOOK REVIEW

A Novel by Albert Camus

20180709_1636424692238238236370415.jpg

 

Every once in a while, I get inspired to reread one of my favorite books from the past. I have just read Camus’ The Fall for the third time. I read The Fall for the first time 34 years ago when I was age 36. It made a huge impression on me then and quickly became my favorite of Camus’ books. It somehow resonated with me in a way I didn’t quite understand. A second time in 2003….15 years ago when I was 55, a little grayer and a perhaps a little wiser.

Now, many years later, with a little more living under my belt, I am at it again. This time I have discovered a whole new territory. There on every page was an earthquake. In each sentence an incendiary device. What could I have been thinking all those years ago when I was reading this extraordinary book? How could I have missed so much? Was I sleeping? Well, the sleeper has awakened.

The novel opens with Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the main character, sitting in a dive bar named Mexico City located in the red light district of Amsterdam. He is talking to another patron. They discover they are compatriots, both hailing from Paris. Clamence tells his interlocutor about his past life in Paris as successful lawyer. The person he is talking to he refers to as “you.” This is a clever literary device by Camus. The “you” is actually you, the reader. Clamence regales you with stories of helping others. As a lawyer he takes most usually “widow and orphan” cases. He looks at himself as a person who lives solely for the purpose of benefiting others and living a life where virtue is its own reward.

Mexico City

Mexico City Bar, Amsterdam

He asks if you have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life – and hence its crimes – becomes denser, darker. Here (in Mexico City), we are in the last circle.

Amsterdam

Then he tells you about an incident that happened late one night in Paris while crossing the Seine on the Pont Royal on his way home from seeing his mistress. He comes across a woman dressed in black leaning over the edge of the bridge. He hesitates a moment but continues on his way. He had walked only a short distance when he heard the distinct sound of a body hitting the water. Clamence stops walking, knowing exactly what happened, but does nothing. The sound of screaming was repeated several times as it went downstream, then it ended. He continued on his way home doing nothing.

23661115021_688e446188_o

The Seine River, Paris, France. Photo: Benn Bell

This incident haunted Clamence throughout the rest of the novel and weighed heavily on his mind. There were a couple of other incidents that occurred that brought Clamence to the realization that he had actually lived a life seeking honor, recognition, and power over people. He was, in short, a hypocrite. Having come to this realization he knows he can no longer live the way he once lived. These factors precipitated his fall from grace and led to how he landed in Mexico City in the red light district of Amsterdam in the last circle of hell.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Bridge over the Seine River, Paris. Photo: Benn Bell

Clamence responds to his intellectual crisis by withdrawing from the world. He closes his law practice, avoids his former colleagues and people in general and throws himself into debauchery, which he describes in the absence of love is a suitable substitute. “True love is exceptional – two or three times a century, more or less. The rest of the time there is vanity or boredom.”

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

St Michael’s Fountain located in the neighborhood where Clamence lived in Paris.  Photo:  Benn Bell

“There is a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see the mind dominates the whole past and the pain of living is over forever. I went to bed with harlots and drank nights on end.  Sensuality dominated my love life. I looked merely for objects of pleasure or conquests.  For a ten-minute adventure I’d have disowned father and mother…I can’t endure being bored and appreciate only diversions in life… I have never been bored with women. I’d have given ten conversations with Einstein for an initial rendezvous with a pretty chorus girl.”

He thought for a while about joining the French Resistance, for this during the time of war, but decided against it as it was not suitable to his temperament. He preferred the “heights” and could not see himself part of a movement situated somewhere in a “cellar for days and nights on end with some brutes coming to haul me away from hiding, undo my weaving, and then drag me to another cellar and beat me to death.” He joins the army instead, gets captured by the Germans in Tunis, and is interred in a concentration camp in near Tripoli. Here he is elected to the position of “pope” by the other inmates and holds this position of power for a while. He drinks the water of a dying comrade, oh well, he was going to die anyway, and I needed to stay strong to survive to carry on continue to do more good, or at least that is how he rationalized it. He was eventually released and made his way to Amsterdam.

Foggy amsterdam

Foggy Amsterdam

On the way home, walking through the streets of Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells you stories. He says he lives at the site of one of the greatest crimes of history, “the Jewish Quarter or what was called so until our Hitlerian brethren made room. What a clean-up! Seventy-five thousand Jews deported or assassinated: that’s real vacuum-cleaning. I admire the diligence, that’s methodical patience. When one has to apply a method. Here it did wonders incontrovertibly.”

Jewsish Quarter, Amstedam

Jewish Quarter, Amsterdam

He relates this story: “In my little village, during a punitive operation, a German officer courteously asked an old woman to please choose which of her two sons would be shot as hostage? Choose! – Can you imagine that? That one? No, this one. And see him go. Let’s not dwell on it.”

Another story: “I knew a pure heart who rejected distrust. He was a pacifist and libertarian and loved all humanity and all the animals with an equal love. An exceptional soul, that’s certain. Well, during the last wars of religion in Europe he had retired to the country. He had written on his threshold: ‘Wherever you come from, come in and be welcome.’ Who do you think answered that noble invitation? The militia, who made themselves at home and disemboweled him.”

Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s final monologue takes place in his apartment. There he relates the story of how a famous 15th century painting came into his possession. One night a regular patron of Mexico City came into the bar with the priceless painting under his arm and offered to sell it to the bartender for a bottle of booze. It was hung on the back wall of the bar for some time until Clamence told the bartender the painting was in fact stolen and that police from several countries were searching for it. He offers to keep it for him and the bartender readily agrees.

just judges

The Just Judges

The painting is a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece known as The Just Judges. Clamence takes from this image the idea to identify himself as a “judge-penitent.” As a judge-penitent freedom is relinquished as a method of enduring the suffering imposed on us by virtue of living in a world without objective truth, and one that is therefore, ultimately meaningless. A judge-penitent confesses his sins so that he has the right to judge others.

The following snippets from the novel are spliced together and presented to you to give you a further flavor of the horror of the piece and are better told in the author’s own voice:

“I need your understanding. I have no friends, only accomplices.

The question is to slip through and, above all – yes above all, the question is to elude judgement. But one cannot dodge it so easily. Today we are always ready to judge as we are to fornicate.

People hasten to judge in order to not to be judged themselves.

The idea that comes naturally to man is his innocence. We all like that little Frenchman, Buchenwald, who was interested in registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: “Useless old man, you don’t lodge a complaint here!” “But you see sir,” said the little Frenchman, I am innocent!” We are all exceptional cases.

Let me tell you of the little-ease. I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the middle ages. In general, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take an awkward manner and live on the diagonal. Sleep was a collapse, and waking a squatting. Every day, through the unchanging restriction that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously…we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. I’ll tell you a big secret. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.”

“Do you know why he (Christ) was crucified? He knew that he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of he had committed others – the slaughter of the innocents, the children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place. Why did they die if not for him? Those blood splattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror…it was better to die, in order not to be the only one to live…he cried aloud his agony and that’s why I love him.

Since we are all judges, we are all guilty before one another.

A person I know used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to hide, rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden. I’ll let you choose the pigeon hole that suits me.

But, let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!”

 Conclusion

What is Camus telling us in this extraordinary novel? First of all, it is a novel of confession. The stories he tells his interlocutor are a confession. Jean-Baptiste Clamence says that one cannot die without confessing all one’s lies. It is also a novel about guilt: “I always hope my interlocutor will be a policeman and that he will arrest me for the theft of the Just Judges. Perhaps the rest will be taken care of subsequently; I would be decapitated for instance. I would have no more fear of death. I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd. You would hold my still warm head so they could recognize themselves in it, and I could again dominate- an exemplar. I should have brought to a close, unseen, and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness.”

Clamence discovers he can’t condemn others without judging himself first. I am a judge-penitent, he says. The more I judge myself the more I can judge you. So, the idea is to heap judgments on himself in order to justify judging others. That’s why he is a judge. Someone who condemns others, but also a penitent, someone who recognizes and judges his own crimes. All men are guilty of something. We are guilty not only by our actions but by our inaction or our failure to act.

On the absurdity of existence Clamence tell us, “a single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers.  Each day hundreds of millions of men, my subjects, painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work.”

As for Truth: There is no objective truth.

And the fall from grace: The fall always occurs at dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAFKA

The Metamorphosis

metamorhosis

 

My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?

Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.

I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.

Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.

Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.

As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory!  Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.

Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.

Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.

In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”

EXIT GHOST

35866705916_a0ab986e41_o

With the passing of Philip Roth the world has lost a lion of literature.

All my favorite writers are dying off. John Updike, Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, and now Philip Roth. Who will take their place? No one. There is literally no one who can  fill the shoes of theses giants.  With the passing of Philip Roth follows the death of the Great American Novel.

No more….