Archive for February, 2009

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

February 27, 2009

stegnertrytwoFebruary 18 marked the centenary of Wallace Stegner’s birth, so this post is some days late.  Given that Lincoln, Darwin and Mendelssohn all were born in years ending in ’09, his centenaries are likely to be overlooked — ’09 appears to be a good year for budding geniuses to be born.

I only became aware of this centenary through an exceptional New York Times online column from Timothy Egan (read it here).  For the last few months I have been berating other bloggers about Stegner — this seems an appropriate time to insert my own opinion.

As Egan notes perceptively, many of us who live in the west half of North America have a chip on our shoulder when it comes to “the East” (that would include me, if you are wondering).  “The East” denigrates our achievement, penalizes success and generally persists in regarding “the West” as an uncivilized frontier.

In Stegner’s case, that meant that Angle of Repose was not reviewed or recognized until after it won the Pulitzer in 1971.  As Egan notes, when the Times did get around to recognizing him, they called him William, not Wallace.

Stegner is certainly celebrated in western North America, with festivals and awards.  He set up the creative writing program at Stanford and ran it until his retirement in 1971.    His students include Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry and Tobias Wolff, so most readers will have to admit that he has had an impact on our world.  The old saw says that “those who can’t do, teach” . Stegner not only taught, he did — and he did exceptionally well.

He is  one of the authors that I admire most (I admit, partly because of where I have lived) and for me Angle of Repose is his best book, but it is a contest.  Big Rock Candy Mountain and Joe Hill would be up there, but if you don’t know Stegner, this is the book where you should start.

The story is narrated by Lyman Ward, crippled by a calcium-related disease, his right leg amputated, his head immoblized.  He has retreated to Grass Valley, California  to review his grandmother’s papers — and avoid his son who wants to move him into an extended-care facility at Menlo Park.  That is stream one — the lesser stream — of this exceptional book.

Grandmother is Susan Burling Ward, a child of New York, an illustrator and “journalist” and, perhaps most important, a letter writer.  Much of the book is based on her letters (themselves based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a source of some controversy which I will overlook here).

We first meet Susan Ward in New York City in 1868 — the New York of Edith Wharton and Henry James (and Stegner inserts both those authors into the book).  Raised at Milton upriver on the Hudson, she is staying with upscale friends (in the Wharton and James sense) while she attends the Cooper Institute.  Wharton and James sent their characters east to the cultured capitals of Europe — Stegner sends his west, to the hardscrabble world of mining in western North America.  While Angle of Repose periodically returns to New York, the rest of the book is set in New Alamaden, Leadville, Mexico and Idaho in the mining country that is producing the minerals that the expanding United States needs.  That mining country extends from Alaska and the Yukon in the north (the Klondike) through the lands of the San Francisco Gold Rush into Mexico.  I live in that area and I can assure you Stegner captures a picture of a century of life that is incredibly real — one of my first assignments as a newspaper reporter in 1970 was a coal mine collapse.

“Angle of repose” is a mining term that refers to the ideal angle at which overburden or waste will fall.  If you stack it too steep, you create an avalanche.  Too gentle and you waste both space and energy.  It is a perfect metaphor for human relationships, as Stegner uses it here:  push them too hard and you create turmoil, crisis and disintegration.  Too gently and the relationship never realizes its potential.

He addresses the issue directly about one-third of the way through the book when his son, Rodman, comes to make yet another effort to take Lyman to the extended-care facility and wonders what his crippled father is doing:

“I’m not writing a book of Western history,” I tell him.  “I’ve written enough history books to know this isn’t one.  I’m writing about something else.  A marriage, I guess.  Deadwood was just a blank space in the marriage.  Why waste time on it?”

Rodman is surprised.  So am I, actually — I have never formulated precisely what it is I have been doing, but the minute I say it I know I have said it right.  What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward, the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in.  What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.  That’s where the interest is.  That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.

Stegner says that he is not writing history, but he cannot avoid it — and it is one of the great strengths of the book.  He knows the West so well that he writes our history without even trying.  (Those who have seen HBO’s Deadwood will note the reference above — Oliver does go there to work for George Hearst and Stegner does ignore it because Susan is not along.  Having said that, the Deadwood portrayed on the screen does reflect the mining communities of this book.)

Consider this excerpt, as Stegner describes his grandfather Oliver’s plans to create an irrigation scheme on Idaho’s Snake River (if you drink beer in the Western U.S., you are benefitting from this scheme today):

As a practitioner of hindsight I know that Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do.  That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken.  He was premature.  His clock was set on pioneer time.  He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn’t yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid.  Like many another Western pioneer, he had heard the clock of history strike, and counted the strokes wrong.  Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality.

If there is a better paragraph describing the development of Western North America than that one, I would like to know what it is.  Oliver Ward, the grandfather who is present throughout this book, is a man with his eyes so firmly fixed on the future that he totally misses the present.  The ongoing story of how he and Susan try to find their angle of repose is a wonderful romance, set against a most imposing background.

Stegner was an ecologist and environmentalist long before the term was part of the language.  As Egan’s column notes “there are rivers undammed, deserts vistas unspoiled and forests uncut in the wondrous West because of his pen.”  Again, the author said this book was about a marriage but it is much more than that because Stegner cannot restrain his natural love of the country where he locates his story:

The mountains of the Great Divide are not, as everyone knows, born treeless, though we always think of them as above timberline with the eternal snows on their heads.  They wade up through ancient forests and plunge into canyons tangled up with water-courses and pause in little gem-like valleys and march attended by loud winds across the high plateaus, but all such incidents of the lower world they leave behind them when they begin to strip for the skies:  like the Holy Ones of old, they go up alone and barren of all circumstance to meet their transfiguration.

There is little point in trying to determine “who is America’s greatest author?” — but there is value in putting together a shortlist.  Wallace Stegner deserves to be on that list.  Angle of Repose is not just a great novel, it is three great novels — the story of a marriage, the story of the West and a celebration of what the West was and is.  I know a lot of visitors to this blog do not know this part of the world very well — this book is a perfect start to understanding it.

Mothers and Sons, by Colm Toibin

February 20, 2009

toibin21Colm Toibin has a new novel — Brooklyn — that is due out this spring.  I have read The Blackwater Lightship and The Master (but none of his non-fiction) and admired them both.  So in eager anticipation of the new novel I was trolling about online booksellers, trying to figure out if Brooklyn has a convenient North American release date (it does — May 5,  just as in the UK) when what should pop up.  Mothers and Sons, his last book, published in 2006, a collection of nine stories, being remaindered for $6.64 in the original hardcover edition.

Readers of my last post will know I am a sucker for well-made volumes whatever the price.  I am equally a sucker for bargains.  A hardcover volume at $6.64 (you’ll note from the illustration that I can’t resist posting the discount image) means that for the price of a single issue of The New Yorker I could acquire an entire hardcover book — only one story out of nine would have to be worthwhile.  For readers with access to chapters.ca, the bargain is still available at last checking.

And what a bargain it turned out to be.  All but one of these stories (actually, by my definition, eight stories and one novella) have been published on the other side of the Atlantic — for those of us on the west side, these are new works.  I know some of Toibin’s short work from other periodicals.  I am delighted to report that his short fiction is every bit as good as all the rest of his work.

(If you want an example of how good his periodical non-fiction work is, check out this article from the New York Review of Books, comparing Obama and James Baldwin — it says more about the new president than most of the journalism I have read.  And thanks to Trevor from theMookseandtheGripes for reminding me of it.  It is a very good piece of journalism.)

The nine pieces, as the title of the book suggests, are linked by the common image of mothers and sons.  But just as Henry James, subject of The Master and a number of other Toibin pieces, used a common image to create a framework for other exploration, Toibin uses the mother-son framework to explore a much broader range of emotions and issues.  If you know the author, you won’t be surprised to discover that while the mother-son bond is present in all the stories, it is not portrayed in the conventional, cloying sense — Toibin acknowledges the bond but mainly he explores the notion of what happens with the “disconnect” that is so often a part of real life.

In the first story, ‘The Use of Reason’, for example, we meet an Irish crook who has just pulled off an amazing art theft, including Rembrandt’s Painting of an Old Woman, a Gainsborough and two Guardis.  He is pretty much a common thief, albeit a tough one, and needless to say fencing these pieces, worth millions, is a bit of an issue.

His mother, ever since the death of his equally criminal brother, has become a common drunk, cadging drinks however she can.  As our hero discovers only too soon, the Guard have figured out that buying his mother drinks (since she believes that it is her son’s reputation for toughness that protects her) produces some very useful information.  The plot unfolds in a most satisfying manner.

‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ (yes, the title comes from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name — I think I have five versions, but there may be more) explores the relationship between mother and son from a completely different angle.  Back in her youth in the 1960s (I did grow up then, which may explain why I have five versions of this song), Lisa was involved in an Irish pop group with her sister and a couple of friends.  They made three albums — one of them made it into the Top Thirty, with her sister’s version of Famous Blue Raincoat the key song.

She’s kept those albums in a box in the garage ever since, resolutely refusing to listen to them again because of the memories they would raise.  She notices her son, Luke, has not only discovered the box, he has removed the albums — and discovers he has plans to burn a CD that would, of course, feature Famous Blue Raincoat.  It sends her back on a painful series of memories.  She can’t tell her son not to proceed with the project; she wishes he would not.

Luke was all competence and pride as he set up the disc in the player.

“I put the best track first,” he said, “and I had space at the end so I put it on a second time.”

She knew what it would be, and, as Julie’s voice sang the opening verse of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ with no ornamentation or instrumental accompaniment, Lisa saw her face that day when she was dead, the features all filled with life, ready to start an argument, enjoying her own lovely authority.  Soon, when the echo effect was added and the cello came in and Lisa’s voice appeared, she was glad she had spent the years not hearing this music.

I’ve probably spoiled two stories already, so I won’t spoil the rest.  From explorations of failed priest brothers to the awakening of homosexual feelings, Toibin does a most impressive job of exploring how the real world starts to intude on and disrupt — but never fully break — the bond between mothers and sons.

The novella, A Long Winter, was for me the least successful — but still entirely worthwhile — of the nine parts of this volume.  Unlike all the rest, it is set in Spain.  The brother of the son, Miquel, is about to head off for his military service.  As part of the fallout, Miquel discovers his mother has become an alcoholic — the action of the story starts when his father pours her wine out the door.  While the mother-son bond is certainly central to this work, the novella is actually much more about the strains in the father-son relationship.  It works, but not as well as the other eight stories.

Is Mother and Sons up to Toibin’s best novels?  For me, probably not — but then I will admit that I am much more inclined to novels than to short stories.  It is definitely a volume worth reading.  And if you can cash in on the remainder bargain — and even if you can’t — it is a volume that offers full value.  The description of Brooklyn says that it is a family saga which starts in Ireland, moves to Brooklyn and then returns.  I can’t think of a better way to get ready for it than reading Mothers and Sons.

A Digression: Creating a Legacy

February 18, 2009

This is a digression from the normal course of this blog, but one that I hope visitors will appreciate.  For me, it is an important thought — and also a tribute to a number of fellow literary bloggers whose thoughts I both enjoy and admire and who have inspired me.

ambergs-sixThis particular story starts a couple of days ago in the comments section of Trevor Berrett’s site regarding his review of The Great Gatsby. John Self from theasylum drew attention to a special Penguin series of six leather-bound copies of six classic novels  including Gatsby, Room With A View, Brideshead Revisited and others.  Pictures are attached, details here and they are on special at an incredible 60 per cent discount so you might want to consider — shipping to North America is quite reasonable.   Mrs. KFC and I immediately ordered a set and an email today said they are on their way.

amberg-tiffanyI did feel just a little bit guilty — spending $45 a book on books I already own, just because they come in wonderful leather covers with handsome jackets.  And then I realized there was another motive, beyond my selfish one (which I fully admit) that was at play.

On her very popular website recently, dovegreyreader unlocked not one, but two, Pandora’s boxes.  This post is an attempt to put those two boxes together — using my recent experience inspired by John and Trevor as the example.  It is outside the normal mode of this site, but I think it does speak to all book lovers and especially those who visit KevinfromCanada.

 

The first of those boxes was dovegreyreader’s Inner Child project, where one weekend a month she revisits the literature of her childhood – think Edith Nesbit and The Railway Children, if you will.  The wealth of comments – and suggestions – that followed served as ample proof that many adult readers still have an Inner Child, eager to return to those first books.  They also want to share their own childhood experience.  It is a sentiment that I share, but since I have no children it is one that had less immediate meaning for me.

 

foliorajAnd then the Folio Society, which publishes high-quality, well-designed, hardcover reproductions of classics from all kinds of literature (albeit expensive), wanted access to her audience and offered her some volumes.  (If you don’t know them, browse away — it’s great fun even if you don’t intend to buy.  And this is not a promo — I’ve paid for all my volumes.)  Her first post immediately generated another host of responses.  I am a Folio Society member and fan and not just of their work because there are certainly other publishers producing volumes of similar quality.  But I do salute any effort to reproduce excellent works of literature in an equally excellent physical volume that heightens the reader’s appreciation of the work and that is designed to last for several lifetimes.  In addition to adult classics, they have a most impressive collection of beautifully-designed works for younger readers.  I’ve included just one sample of each to show the “outer” quality of their books — you cannot believe how impressive they are when you actually have them in hand.

 

folio-childI would like to suggest a personal project – or at least one that I have undertaken – that pulls together my recent experience inspired by John and Trevor (they are both young fathers) and those two incredibly strong themes that DGR (she is a young mother with adult children) has opened.

 

Any serious reader knows that one of the most important factors in creating a literate adult is to read to a child.  And then to move on to introducing books to the child.   And to keep that process going.  We all have our own Inner Child; as adults we need to create others.

 

So, if there is any kind of child in your world – it doesn’t have to be a daughter or son; a niece or nephew or grandchild, or even neighbor is every bit as good – one way to help this process along is to begin by “gifting” them truly good books.  Affordable volumes are certainly the centre of this but, as special treats, the children’s classics that Folio (and others) publish in heirloom volumes are the ones that I would like to address here.  If you want, in the traditional sense, it starts the process of assembling a generational library of excellent books, published in excellent editions.  One hopes that they will be passed on through a number of generations, not just one.  Journeys Through Bookland is still part of my family — it was one of the most important parts of the house where I was raised.

 

The second part, in a selfish way, is perhaps more exciting – well, at least in the self-serving short term.  One of the threads in the comments following DGR’s introduction of Folio works was that second-hand bookdealers sometimes regard them as expensive versions of Reader’s Digest condensed.  That’s understandable – they aren’t, by definition, first editions; they are expensive, compared to the alternatives; and, except for collectors (that would include most of the people who might read this), they don’t represent good value.  As a monetary investment, they don’t make sense.

 

But, for someone who is willing to create a Legacy Project, none of those things are relevant.  Those of us who buy a lot of books are making an investment that is not expected to produce monetary returns but returns of the mind.  And, if we have a young person – or more than one – in mind, what could be more appropriate than beginning now to build a library of truly wonderful classic books, wonderfully published, that would be part of our legacy for that child?  They don’t have to be Folio books by any means – but these exceptionally well-produced volumes are a good example of what the project would involve.  Revisiting children’s classics has enormous value in itself – as someone who has an Inner Child, can you imagine what it would have been like to be presented with unaffordable Adult Volumes as a legacy?

 

I will be the first to admit there is definitely a selfish aspect to this.  Books like these are expensive and there are other alternatives – on the other side of the coin, the added pleasure of reading such a superbly done physical book has its own attraction.  And there certainly is an element of not just enjoying (again) the particular book, but knowing that others will be following behind me.  For my part, I don’t feel the least bit guilty that for a decade or two I will be enjoying the legacy of a collection that I intend to hand to my now eight-year-old niece or perhaps her brother or perhaps both – we’ll see who the reader is.  And when she or he is ready to read those adult books – and have them on her shelves even sooner if she wants – I will be more than happy to begin the transfer, always of course with the proviso that I have return lending rights.

 

This idea had been percolating in the back of my mind for a while.  It was only when I saw the outpouring of comments on DGR’s site – and when the post about the Folio Society books produced such a quick response – that the two streams merged as one (the Ohio and Missouri became the Mississippi, if you will).  Maybe spending money on six leatherbound novels that I already owned was a factor — it certainly entered my thinking, but I don’t think my decision. 

 

 

All serious readers know about the great historical family libraries which can never be recreated.  We are in a different world now.  One of the things that exchanging thoughts about books and literature on the net does is give us the chance to begin creating our own.  We have so many more friends to give us advice on what should be there.

 

Thanks everyone.

Moses Migrating, by Sam Selvon

February 15, 2009

selvon3And so we come to the final volume of Sam Selvon’s London trilogy, Moses Migrating.  I reviewed the background and first two volumes of the trilogy a few weeks ago.  As a short refresher, we first meet Moses Aloetta on the platform at Waterloo Station, waiting for the boat train with new immigrants to arrive — The Lonely Londoners is an exploration of what blacks (all known as Jamaicans) experienced in the London of the 1950s.  In Moses Ascending, published in 1975, Moses had moved “up” and bought a condemned building of flats in Shepherd’s Bush, installing himself as the landlord in the penthouse.  Alas, things have become worse for blacks in Britain and get worse for Moses, who ends up living in his own basement.  In a bitter way, that’s where we have left Moses so far.

So where do we find him eight years later when Moses Migrating opens?

I don’t rightly recollect when it was the idea of going back home hit me.  It could have been one time of any time when I was down in the dumps to pick up the apples that fall when my cart upset.  But I could tell you one thing for sure, that down there in the grimy basement in Shepherd’s Bush, feeling like a trapped animal while my erstwhile (white) lackey Bob and his bride Jeannie occupied my penthouse on the top floor, it was not hard to wish for a change of scenery and circumstances.

Moses is going “home” to Trinidad but, being Moses, even he is not sure whether this is a visit to celebrate the Carnival or a permanent relocation (“Just entertaining the idea of leaving Brit’n gave me the creeps.”)  And so we head to Waterloo station and the boat train again — this time going in the opposite direction.  Moses has retained ownership of the Shepherd’s Bush tenement (just in case he comes back), with Galahad in charge as manager.

The first of Moses Migrating‘s three themes is the story of the boat trip to Trinidad; it is a kind of a floating version of Moses’ London.  He is stuck in cabin 13B, on the lowest possible deck next to the engine room, with three cabin mates — two black, one white — in a “community” not unlike that he experienced in London.

Lackey Bob and his wife Jeannie, are spending some of their new-found wealth and are on their way as well to celebrate Carnival.  They are in first class but they arrange for Moses to be able to visit them by passing him off as their chauffeur and handyman.  The class structure of London has been repeated on the boat.  Moses’ voyage “home” is beginning to look a lot like the recent past.  It is an omen that when the cruise ship pulls into dock, Moses is not only not on deck to bear witness to his return to Trinidad, he’s passed out drunk in his bunk.

The second theme of this final book explores our hero’s attempts to relocate himself  into this old world.  He takes up residence at “de Hilton” — where class structures are again replicated — but spies his Tanty Flora (the woman who raised him) selling oranges across the street on his first morning there.  He begins to visit Tanty in her slum and finds Doris (the new orphan Tanty has adopted, just as she took in Moses), with whom he promptly falls in love.

Throughout this section, Selvon does an excellent job of exploring the conflict that Moses is experiencing — of class, of location, of  just what is “home”.  None of these have answers, so he has created his own:

Out on deck, ere we left the English Channel, I had come to the conclusion as Brit’n faded on the horizon that I would be a credit to the country, an ambassador not only of goodwill but good manners.  The idea put a different complexion on my circumstances.  I now had a purpose, which was to show the outlanders in the Caribbean that Brit’n was not only still on her feet, but also still the onlyest country in the world where good breeding and culture come before ill-gotten gains or calls of the flesh.  I would go forth with a stout heart and proclaim that Johnny Walker was still going strong, that the British bulldog still had teeth, that Britannia still ruled the waves.  This self-imposed undertaking not only steeled me but fired my ambitions.

And so Moses, who does not find anywhere now to be home, sets himself the goal of explaining the one he has just left to the one he left more than 25 years earlier.  The overwhelming sense of hopeless dislocation begins to grow.

Part three of the book is introduced when Moses arrives at the inspiration that, for Carnival (that’s the pre-Lent festival which is every bit as important in Trinidad as the more famous, bigger versions in New Orleans and Rio), he will appear as the image of Britannia from the recently discontinued one pee coin.  (I toyed with putting the image in this post, but in some ways it would be a visual spoiler for those who want to create their own version as they read — if you want to see it, click here.)  Tanty and Doris agree to make him a costume, shield and trident and cart so that he can be paraded before the Carnival judges.  A black male, posing as Britannia from the one pee coin.  In the final touches, white lackey Bob will pull the cart, Jeannie will be a fawning subject at Britannia’s feet and a tape recorder hidden under Moses/Britannia’s robe will play Rule Britannia as he passes the judging stand.

Going any further on the plot in this book would be a spoiler.  Let me just say that it is a more than fitting conclusion to an amazing trilogy.

Moses is not “rootless”, rather wherever he has lived, try as he might, he has never been able to establish any viable roots that will last.  The diaspora and dislocation that he is part of comes from the remnants of Empires that have now ended — the Caribbean blacks went to London, followed by the Commonwealth Asians; the other faded Empires, such as France, had their own versions.  The tensions this dislocation caused in the Mother Countries are well-documented but what it felt like to the individuals involved far less so.  Selvon’s trilogy is an exploration of how hope turned into hopelessness, not just for Moses but for many like him.

It is also a story with incredible contemporary relevance.  While the decline of Empire caused the diaspora that Moses is part of, the rise of the global economy has caused an even more complex one today.  Jobs have definitely moved, but labor must be equally mobile.  The underclasses that were necessary to make London function in The Lonely Londoners are every bit as necessary in the cities of today, only now there are far more cities involved.  The tensions and feelings that Selvon explores now exist not only in London and New York, but even in second-tier First World countries like Canada and Australia — “immigration” is an issue everywhere.

Selvon’s trilogy deserves to be read in that context.  Certainly the world he explores is less complex than today’s, but that in itself is an advantage because it clarifies the issues and brings them into focus.  Moses is an example whose experience is being recreated globally today — and his inability not just to go “home” but to find a home has a painful pathos to it.  The Lonely Londoners, the best known of this trilogy, does stand as a book alone — it is only when you also read Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating that you begin to see Selvon’s much bigger picture.

For an interesting contemporary exploration of a book that deals with similar, but current, themes check out Trevor Berrett’s review and interview with Imran Ahmad on his book Unimagined, a Moslem boy meets the West (and I admit to not yet having read the book).  The interview in particular offers some guideposts to connecting Selvon’s world with that of today.

Also, an update on availability.  As noted in my earlier post, I couldn’t find a copy of Moses Migrating when I started this project — Rienner fortuitously published one at year end 2008.  The volume I have says they are also publishing it in the United Kingdom.  I can’t find it on any of my normal book-buying sites in the UK  but would presume it will be available soon.

I suspect these availability issues, different publishers and the periodic disappearance of these books from backlists illustrates copyright issues that have kept Selvon’s work unjustly in the background.  I can only conclude by saying that this trilogy represents three books which readers will find most rewarding.  Selvon deserves the last word as Moses tries to state why he can’t explain Britain to Doris:

But how can she understand how much I owe the country that took me in and nursed me all these years?  I was hungry and they gave me fish and chips; I was thirsty and they gave me a cuppa; I was penniless and they gave me dole; I was destitute and today I am Landlord of a Mansions in West London.  I was even awarded a prize once, Tanty, by the National Front, which is the very British they say against black people.”

“A prize, Moses?”

“Yes, a one-way air ticket to Jamaica.  If I had return fare I would of gone, too.” 

The Saga of Arturo Bandini, by John Fante

February 8, 2009

fante12fante22fante31fante41

 

 

 

 

Wait Until Spring, Bandini

The Road to Los Angeles

Ask the Dust

Dreams from Bunker Hill — all by John Fante

There is an interesting gap in realist American fiction from the mid-twentieth century.  One the one side, in the school of Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck, the economy is tough, nature is tougher and the people and conventions are probably toughest of all.  On the other, in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the landscape is urban and nature is pretty much absent — the people, however, are equally tough and life may be even more seamy.  And in both cases, reflecting the U.S. experience, the story moves West.

If you look carefully, there is a suspension bridge — one of those affairs where the hand ropes are frayed and about to break and every third footboard is missing — between the two schools.   Peer even more closely and you will see the figure of John Fante making his way across the bridge.   The four novels in The Saga of Arturo Bandini are the record of that journey.

If you will forgive me for abusing the metaphor, Fante has “fallen between the cracks” in terms of reputation among American authors.  It is easy to blame the movies — Steinbeck has 17 movie adaptations and everyone knows both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  Fante struggles behind as from his works only Wait Until Spring, Bandini  and Ask the Dust ever became movies (edit thanks to Myrthe).

There is a more logical explanation, based on the absurd publication history of his novels.  Fante’s first published work was Wait Until Spring, Bandini in 1938, followed by Ask The Dust in 1939.  His publisher was keen on them and there was supposed to be great marketing support (in modern times, where have we heard that?) but a copyright dispute with Adolph Hitler (I kid you not) got in the way.  By 1940, Fante was just another impoverished writer and that’s the way he spent most of his life.

Bandini disappears for some decades after Ask The DustDreams From Bunker Hill was published in 1982 — after Fante’s diabetes left him blind and legless, he had dictated it to his wife.  The Road to Los Angeles, the first novel he started to write, appeared a few years later after his wife discovered the manuscript in his papers.

So there are numerous reasons that he fell through that crack.  What do we make of his novels and is there a reason to read this tetralogy?  My answer to that last question is definitely yes.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini opens in Rocklin, Colorado (later to become Boulder, where Fante grew up — he mixes up details a lot in these books) with an Italian family facing the Depression (enter, Steinbeck).  Svevo, the bricklayer father, is out of work for the winter, the credit accounts with the grocer are stretched to the full and Arturo is a horny high school teenager.  Here is where Fante starts to break from the norm — there are a lot of Italian-American novels, but not many set in Colorado; the Depression is a favorite subject, but again not mainly in Western mining towns.  Nature is almost absent.

Svevo is also beset by his mother-in-law, who feels (probably correctly) that her daughter has married badly.  She presages each visit to the family with a letter — Svevo has decreed that only he can open these letters.  Each time one comes, he heads off on a bender:

In the kitchen Maria washed the dishes, conscious of one less dish to put away, one less cup.  When she returned them to the pantry, Bandini’s heavy battered cup, larger and clumsier than the others, seemed to convey an injured pride that it had remained unused throughout the meal.  In the drawer where she kept the cutlery Bandini’s knife, his favorite, the sharpest and most vicious table knife in the set, glistened in the light.

The house lost its identity now.  A loose shingle whispered caustically to the wind; the electric light wires rubbed the gabled back porch, sneering.  The world of inanimate things found voice, conversed with the old house, and the house chattered with cronish delight of the discontentent within its walls.  The boards under her feet squealed their miserable pleasure.

Bandini would not be home tonight.

I offer that as an example of Fante’s prose — it is spare, direct, but has its share of images.  He is a wonderful author to read because his words proceed at a pace that few authors can match.  I’d put him much more on the Chandler side of the gap (I admit to a personal problem with a lot of Steinbeck’s prose).

Svevo is a failure, there is no work;  but  he eventually finds both work and succour with the Widow Hildegarde, who owns most of the town and, eventually, Arturo’s father.  In the meantime, in terms of the rest of the saga, Arturio is falling in love in a most inappropriate way (he will continue to do this), running into conflicts with his Catholic heritage (another recurring theme) and contemplating the impossiblity of his future.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini is the most conventional and accessible of the four novels in this saga and is every bit as good as anything that Steinbeck wrote — but it is only a start.

Fante started his writing with The Road to Los Angeles and obviously filed it — it fits second in Arturo’s chronology so that’s why I place it here.  It is a first novel, it does have first novel problems, but it is a worthwhile read.  Arturo, mother and his sisters have relocated to Los Angeles, not the Santa Monica of Chandler but the San Pedro and Port of Long Beach — grinding poverty and grinding work.  Also, his father is dead (although he is alive again in the last volume of the saga).

This is the book that, for me, most bridges the two images I introduced at the top of this review.  The Bandini’s have left the poverty of Colorado for the poverty of Los Angeles — not the Hollywood or Santa Monica of Chandler, but the mackerel canneries of Long Beach, which is where Arturo finds his job.  He wants to be a writer, but his life is stacking cans of sardines.  Without going into any more detail, this is a book about the downside of the dream of moving to the great West Coast.  Getting discovered at a soda shop at Hollywood and Vine is the dream; this novel chronicles the reality.

Moving on to volume three, Ask the Dust is probably Fante’s best-known work (and only movie adaptation), likely because it is the easiest to understand.   In the Los Angeles topography, he has moved north to Bunker Hill — if you don’t know the city, it is a bluff that overlooks “downtown” Los Angeles.  It is only about 25 miles east from Chandler’s Santa Monica coast as the crow flies — it is half a continent away in terms of culture.

Ask The Dust has two themes — a love story involving Arturo’s infatuation with Camilla Lopez (or Lombard — you get to choose which is the alias) and his overwhelming ambition to be a writer.  He doesn’t make much progress of the former front (mainly his old hangups); his correspondence with J.C. Hackmuth and the publication of a couple of short stories (with cheques for $150) marks a new beginning on the later.  The love story, tragic as it turns out to be, drives the novel; Arturo’s “career” as a writer drives the saga.  Ask The Dust is a very good book as a stand-alone novel but it is even more important in what it does for the bigger story.

When you know the background of Fante’s career  it is hard not to look at Dreams From Bunker Hill in a totally different light.  A struggling, blind, legless author who has lived through mid-century America and migrated to the West Coast to seek (and not find) his fortune dictates a final novel to his wife.  It is  a bitter book, with a lot of satire and sarcasm, and a fitting conclusion both to this saga and to Fante’s story.

Bandini is still on Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. but a series of circumstances lands him in a couple of very lucrative screen-writing jobs in Hollywood — that’s his shot at Chandler and company.  The main task in these jobs is not to write a word — the $300 a week cheques arrive precisely because of that.  His problem, much like Fante’s, is that he still wants to be a writer.  Alas, there is no money in that — complications ensue and the tetralogy finally draws to a close.

Does Fante rank with  Steinbeck or Chandler?  In the final analysis, no — but they are exceptional authors and that statement in no way is an argument against reading him.  Does he deserve to be read?  The answer must be yes — he lived, experienced and chronicled an important period in American literary history and has produced a concise record of what that meant.  There may be four volumes in this saga but they are short and to the point — and Fante never wastes a word.  If your reading time is short, by all means overlook these works.  If you want a complete picture of twentieth century American fiction, you need to read them.

By Grand Central Station, by Elizabeth Smart

February 4, 2009

smartOn Canada Day last summer, the Globe and Mail arts section published one of those features that newspapers love:  Ask 25 novelists what they think is the Best Canadian Novel.

A visiting (female) house guest, my wife and I settled in to see how many we had read.  Only one book — By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart — was mentioned three times.

“I remember that from university — great book,” said the house guest.  “I remember it too,”  said my wife, “and I should read it again.”

Not only had I not read the book, I had not even heard of it.  On the one hand, I could argue that as a leftish student of the 1960s I was preoccupied with Durrell and Lowery and Updike (not to mention Marcuse and Gramsci) and didn’t have time for the chick-lit of the day.  On the other hand….

My gross oversight has now been rectified and I have read By Grand Central Station.  I now have some appreciation for what I was missing.

Elizabeth Smart was born in Ottawa in 1913.  She attended King’s College, University of London and one  day while browsing in a bookshop fell in love with the poetry (and poet) of George Barker.  Eventually she flew both Barker and his wife from Japan to the United States — they never married but she bore him four children.  Their relationship is the inspiration for this amazing book.

First published in 1945 (and it does contain some references, mainly offhand, to the war) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept acquired an underground reputation but did not enter the mainstream until it was republished in 1966 — it has been in print ever since.

The slim volume is a meditation on love.  For Smart, love is more an affliction than an emotion, but it is both.  The book chronicles, in poetic prose, the thrill of love found, the joy of love realized, the sadness of love lost and the horror of love rejected.  The narrator’s lover is married and returns to his wife in New York; she is left utterly alone and pregnant.

He kissed my forehead driving along the coast in evening, and now, wherever I go, like the sword of Damocles, that greater never-to-be-given kiss hangs above my doomed head.  He took my hand between the two shabby front seats of the Ford, and it was dark, and I was looking the other way, but now that hand casts everywhere an octopus shadow from which I can never escape.  The tremendous gentleness of that moment smothers me under; all through the night it is centaur-hoofed and galloping over my heart:  the poison has got into my blood.  I stand on the edge of the cliff, but the future is already done.

There is a lot of mythology in this book and a fair number of biblical references — I was aware that I was missing more than I was getting.  Having said that, a real character emerges, as do the elements of a real affair, as does the notion that love can move from being an emotion to becoming an affliction.

That certainly does not make By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept a cheery book, but it does make it a fascinating read — even for a 60-year-old male who missed it when it perhaps might have been more appropriate.  Would it make my shortlist of great Canadian novels?  No, but I can now understand why it makes that list for others.  It is a gem of writing that deserves to be read.

I read cover blurbs with interest (and should note that Flamingo goes out of its way in the version I read to try for gender balance in the blurbs) but don’t usually quote them.  Angela Carter, however, has one on this book that deserves repeating:  “Like Madam Bovary blasted by lightning…a masterpiece.”


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