Sunday, October 5, 2014

Three Quarters in the Jukebox

A serious & good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

     –Ludwig Wittgenstein


A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, James Joyce.  You needn’t remind me that James Joyce is a genius since he spent much of his efforts extolling himself as such & he indeed displays an amazing intellect.  For instance, the depiction via stream-of-consciousness of the developing mind of young Stephen shows remarkable insight & ability as a writer.  This doesn’t mean Joyce’s text, which some see as sacrosanct, isn’t without faults.  In particular, I refer to some 30 pages in my paperback of essentially a hellfire & brimstone sermon.  I understand the importance of the episode, but for Herzliebster Jesu’s sake as well as mine, I would have gotten the drift after a much, much abbreviated version.  If Joyce had cut this sermon in half, in fact, it still would have been too long.  I found this example of extreme padding so annoying that it was difficult for me to get back into the novel, though I did eventually get over it.  However, I’m reminded of why I waited over 20 years to re-read Portrait.      

The Love Poems of Ovid, trans. Horace Gregory.  If you want the most thorough translation of Ars Amortia, go with Peter Green, but my favorite is still the Horace Gregory paperback that I’ve read over & over since I bought it for a half dollar one Saturday afternoon long ago at a used bookstore in Mississippi, where I was attending the wedding of a couple I didn’t even know with a friend.   To be clear, the wedding wasn’t in the bookstore–it was at the campus chapel–we went to bookstore to kill time because we got there too early.  In the months that followed, I became friends with the couple–he a tall wannabe poet who idolized me & she a petite hipster–though they later ostracized & spread distressing lies about me.  I never found out why.  Oh, well, fuck ‘em.   They’re now divorced.  Do I regret not recommending Ovid’s Cures for Love for them?  Not as much as I regret knowing them, but sure, that would have been funny.

Return to the City of White Donkeys, James Tate.  In Return to the City of White Donkeys, a collection of prose-like poems, Tate is at his off-the-wall best.  One of my favorite poems here is “Kingdom Come,” which tells of a couple expecting a child.  If I’m not mistaken, I have in my personal collection every book Tate’s published, save for a few chapbooks. Suffice it to say I like his work, especially his later work, this book included, though The Lost Pilot, his first book, remains a favorite.

Artists in Times of War, Howard Zinn.  Much like Cesar Vallejo in Autopsy on Surrealism, Zinn believes, not surprisingly, that artists should express a social conscience.  He provides numerous examples of artists who did just that: Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes, Joseph Heller, Helen Keller, et al.  Of Keller, Zinn writes, “I haven’t seen Helen Keller in any film other than the kind of film that concentrates on the fact that she was a disabled person.  I’ve never seen a film in which Helen Keller is presented as what she was : a radical, a socialist, an antiwar agitator.  She was somebody who would refuse to cross a picket line set up against a play that was about her.”  To be fair, how much would Keller have enjoyed a play? Sorry. Anyway, tasteless juvenile joking aside, the point that Zinn makes is fair: the artist should be willing to take a stand against social injustice.

Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse.  I bought this book when I was in high school because of how much I enjoyed both Damian & Siddhartha, but I never got around to reading it.  In a way, I’m glad I waited until I was older because the story is about growing old.  There are many incredible passages from the book to remind the reader of Hesse’s intellectualism, such as:

Do you think I can’t understand your horror of the foxtrot, your dislike of bars & dancing floors, your loathing of jazz & the rest of it?  I understand it only too well, & your dislike of politics as well, your despondence over the chatter & irresponsible antics of the parties & the press, your despair over the war, the one that has been & the one that is to be, over all that people nowadays think, read & build, over the music they play, the celebrations they hold, the education they carry on.

If I'm honest, I generally dislike stories framed as a story within a story.   I understand it when Washington Irving, literature’s greatest liar, begins "Rip Van Winkle" by saying he “found” the manuscript so that he can’t attest to its veracity.  Irving’s fictions have permeated the real world in ways that must delight him.  (Some say if you visit his grave you can hear him snickering in his grave that some people still believe that everyone, before Columbus's voyage, thought the world flat.)  But I don’t understand the frame in those cases in which the author never returns the reader to the initial story that was used to frame the second story, e.g., Henry James’ A Turn of the Screw.  That’s pretty much what Hesse does here.  If you don’t what I’m talking about because you haven’t read James’s novella, I’ll wait here while you take care of that oversight on your part.

Underworld, Don DeLillo.  Having read Bleeding Edge just prior to Underworld, I’d say that DeLillo reminds me of an unfunny Pynchon.  In fact, I’ve said that several times.  Just ask around.  That’s not to say that DeLillo is humorless.  Take the Lenny Bruce routines depicted in Underworld–please!  It’s ironic that Bruce isn’t particularly funny in DeLillo’s presentation of him.  Irony is funny, right?  Or the J. Edgar Hoover shtik.  That’s humorous, right?  Well, it’s more amusing than funny.  That’s not saying that Underworld’s not a good read.  It’s a bit repetitive, but a good read.  Repetitive, yes, but that’s part of the tome, er, tone. Still, a good read, especially for fans of Kate Beckinsale.  

The Collected Poems, Cesar Vallejo, Clayton Eshleman, ed., trans.  Honestly, I don’t have much on which to base my opinion of this bilingual collection other than comparing the poems to the few scattered translations that I’ve read in workshops & those Robert Bly compiled in Neruda & Vallejo, but here are some general observations: 1) Vallejo wrote a lot of sonnets;  2) He’s more difficult to read than Neruda; 3) His poetry’s not as overtly political as his statements in Autopsy on Surrealism might lead you to believe, though his later poems–for example, those in Spain, Take This Cup from Me–become progressively more so.  Now you are ready.  Go forth & read.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami.  I hesitate to say anything negative about Colorless Tsukuru since I didn’t like IQ84.  (Oops, I mean 1Q84, though when you think about it, the story is kinda stupid.)  I worry that I’ll come across as someone who plain doesn’t like Murakami when, in fact, I’ve read every novel he’s written.  However, I don’t understand why he chose to tell this particular story in the manner that he did–jumping herky-jerky around in time at the beginning of the book rather than pursuing a conventional linear progression, which he adopts halfway through the novel.  Am I alone in liking the Murakami who wrote A Wild Sheep Chase, Sputnik Sweetheart, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka by the Shore, Norwegian Wood & just about everything before 1Q84 better?  The good news is that Murakami's finally allowing his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, the first in the ironic four book Rat Trilogy, to be translated into English (officially--there's already a version of the novel intended for classroom use in adult education for those who know where to look).  Can Pinball, 1973 be far behind?    

Claudine at School, Colette.  This early 20th century Not-So-Sweet Valley High story was Colette’s first novel.  It’s not particularly racy by today’s standards, though perhaps it was then, what with soft young girls in short chemises & whatnots sharing beds & intimacies.  By today’s standards, some might consider it immoral, what with bristle-whiskered teachers leching after coquettish underage students in green ribbons & such.  Much in the way of sexual indiscretions is hinted at broadly, though Cinemax could with little effort transform it into late night entertainment, if it hasn't already.  I’m unsure why I read this–ok, you tell me since you know so much.    

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut.  I bought this Dell paperback in high school for a buck & a quarter, yet only recently got around to reading it.  Doh, I could kick myself.  Not literally.  I can barely lift my legs high enough to climb steps.  Steep steps, fuggetabottit, I’m taking the elevator.  (Do you know who Darth Vader’s sister is?  Ella Vader!)  Slaughterhouse Five remains his most important work, but this novel may very well be my favorite Vonnegut book ever.  The story centers, amusingly so, on the issue of the unfair distribution of wealth.  At one point, sounding not unlike any of today’s conservatives, which is just about everybody in Washington, Senator Rosewater says about the poor, “Perhaps, if they stopped believing in crazy things like the Money River, and got to work, they would stop having such a rotten time.”  His protagonist, philanthropist son Eliot replies, “If there isn’t a Money River, then how did I make ten thousand dollars today, just by snoozing and scratching myself, and occasionally answering the telephone?”  Of course, you’ll have to adjust for inflation & pollution, but the problem of who can & can’t slurp from the Money River in 1965 remains a major concern these days here in the real world, you know, the one we live in now.

Pictures from Brueghel & Other Poems, William Carlos Williams.  A collection of three of Williams’ books (Pictures from Brueghel, The Desert Music & Journey to Love), this New Directions classic is just what the doctor ordered, especially if the doctor is a New Jersey pediatrician named William Carlos Williams.  If you know anything about me, you know I like W.C. Fields & Williams.  Big fan, big fan.  Like Fields, when Williams is on, he’s spot on & that’s why he--Williams, not Fields--garnered his richly deserved place in the pantheon of American poets.  However, when he’s not, as hillbilly troubadour Jerry Reed would be quick, or perhaps hick, to say, he’s not.  Williams has a tendency to discuss the nature of poetry & its purpose overtly in the body of the poem.  When each poem is, to some degree, the poet’s implicit aesthetic statement, to remind the reader constantly that you’re writing a poem & here’s what poems do wearies me.  But doctors tend to be a pompous condescending bunch, so I guess when you factor in the fact that Williams was not only a doctor but also an Objectivist--not the rank Ayn Rand variety--it makes a certain sense, though it lacks appeal from where I sit, namely on a piece of paper atop an examination table endlessly waiting.  (Actually, I should note that by most accounts, Williams was not an elitist, but held certain left-of-the-center views.  Critics have pointed to his association with now defunct leftist magazines like Blast, his novels like White Mule, as well as such poems as "To a Poor Old Woman"  & "The Yachts,"  neither included in this collection, as evidence of his left leanings.)  Some of Williams’s poems start well, but they kind of peter out–again, a reference to my current situation in the examination room.  As in a Will Ferrell movie–any Will Ferrell movie–it starts out funny, but about an hour in, the humor fades & you watch, waiting in vain for Graham Chapman, back from the dead to reprise his role as the Colonel, to saunter onto the screen, telling the actors to end their silly skit, er, movie & move along.   Chapman, who, incidentally, studied medicine at Oxford, could have done worse than to have strolled across the pages of a few of Williams’s poems too.  (An impossibility?  Everything’s possible in poetry & dreams–all right, Leonardo–& cartoons.)    However, I don’t wish to sound negative.  Williams is one of my favorite poets.  This is a great book with great poems & parts of poems.  Take, for example, these apropos lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:    

       The bomb speaks.
                     All suppressions, 
from the witchcraft trials at Salem
        to the latest
                       book burnings,
are confessions
         that the bomb
                       has entered our lives
to destroy us.
         Every drill
                        driven into the earth
for oil enters my side
         also.
                    Waste! waste!
dominates the world.
        It is the bomb’s work.


A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess.  I hadn’t read this raskazz in some raz, but viddying how I’ve been a malenky bazoomy, what with all the gloopy lewdies going right right right with all that social media cal, I messeled it might be a dobby smeck.   I pony why an oomny moodge like Burgess govoreets all appy-polly-loggies that it’s too hound & horny to interessovat those but the dim, they being really dim.  I slooshy but cannot agree.  The way he fillies with slovos like Ludwig van, only with goloss, not orchestral warbles, is real horrorshow.  As for that sod Kubrick’s sinny–when I was malenky I went spoogy because of the ultra-violence splodging across the screen while some mersky malchick (Malcolm MacDowell) flashed his zoobies, but now I'm older & that starry veshch can’t stand up to that what you can get your rookers on at the biblio.  If thou hath not read it, my brothers & only droogies, grow thyself some yarbles very skorry do.



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