April 3, 2015
Comparative European Lit 101. We all took at least one course in college with a name something like that. But there was always, in the back of my head, a small nagging question: Why do we compare literature? We read it, we enjoy it, we try to understand it. But compare it?
But now as I think about it, I realize that the only way to completely understand books is to analyze the history, culture, language, and personalities that go into them. Besides influencing one another, writers change society, and society returns the favor.
And I find myself, probably more and more as time goes on, doing comparative lit in my head. Spontaneously. Even obsessively. I compare genres, I compare authors, I compare centuries, eras, hemispheres? I need to know where the books I read fit into the world. It means something. It’s important.
But sometimes (oftentimes, really), my mind comes up with pretty goofy groups of books or writers that, for some crazy reason and certainly out of abject ignorance, it wants to read and compare. The silly thing is that these books have no valid reason for being grouped together and being compared. But the surprising thing is that, once in a while, the comparisons turn out to be quite apt.
Well, this is embarrassing, but it won’t be clear unless I give you examples:
Group A: Room at the Top; Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Group B: Lost Horizon; Teahouse of the August Moon; The Ugly American
Group C: To Have and to Hold; To Have and Have Not
Group D: Samuel Johnson; Samuel Richardson; Samuel Butler
Group E: The Power and the Glory; The Sound and the Fury
Group F: Rebecca West; Nathanael West; Jessamyn West
Group G: Thomas Wolfe; Tom Wolfe; Tobias Wolff
You get the picture. . . Silly, huh? So what I wonder is: am I the only one who makes up these odd, goofy groupings of famous books or authors? If not, I’d be curious to hear the groups that other readers have put together in their own heads. It may be a whole new discipline in the mysterious field of comparative lit.
March 20, 2015
No matter how much she gives you that look, no matter how devastating or gut-wrenching her frown, do not, under any circumstances or under the influence of any intoxicant or undue social pressure, take your wife to see Fifty Shades of Gray (now festering in a theater near you). I walked out half way through. I should have made my exit during the opening credits.
Even if the movie (book too, I presume) had had nothing to do with sex, it would still have been a worthless piece of tripe, with almost no literary quality. The story, the dialogue, character development: pure pulp. But the sexual content made it twice as offensive, and I am shocked that that movie was not plastered with an XX rating. 17-year-old kids should not be seeing that kind of disturbing content.
And it kills me that I paid good money to subject myself to such punishment. And that the money goes into the pockets of the people who created the monstrosity.
But I really shouldn’t overstate my case and thereby foster some kind of sympathy for the poor, misunderstood film, or book. So I’ll be fair: it was only the second worst film I’ve ever seen in my life.
Now, once you’ve withstood your wife’s sad pleas and pouts, try to discourage her from seeing it with her girlfriends. No one should pay money to see this film. It’s a free country and we’re all entitled to our own thoughts and tastes. And you’ve just heard mine.
February 22, 2015
“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”
That short passage from Stephen Crane’s story Maggie, a Girl of the Streets may seem trivial, at first glance. But after reading Maggie, that bit of banal dialogue proved to be a perfect window into the icy irony and social criticism that Crane put into that classic story, and into his body of work as a whole. There is no question that Crane broke new literary ground in two important ways, at least if we consider this side of the Atlantic.
His prose, in the words of Hamlin Garland, was “astonishing”. He wrote in a style more modern and, I think, more poetic, than any earlier or contemporary American prose writer. He almost certainly inspired the next generation or two of story writers, and they were an innovative bunch indeed.
The other quality that Crane pioneered was the gritty realism of his settings and subjects. He told it like it was, long before that expression became a cliché. He had the most amazing ear for vernacular speech. Add to that a sharp understanding of human nature. The characters and their dialogue are so lifelike that one can’t help but enter their world and identify with their problems.
Despite illness and death at 28, Crane left us a sizable collection of novels and stories. We all read The Red Badge of Courage in high school. I remember nothing about it, sadly, and did not read other Stephen Crane works until now. That is my loss. Besides Maggie, I have now read many of his collected short stories. The Monster was powerful and ahead of its time in social consciousness, and The Open Boat was impossible to put down. In a very few short but prolific years, Stephen Crane made himself into one of the best American writers, of any era.
December 12, 2014
I’m no authority on American drama, having seen far too little good drama on the stage, and having only scratched the surface of what’s available in print. I’ve always thought, for some reason, that Arthur Miller, Eugene O’neill, and Tennessee Williams were the Big Three, universally accepted to be head and shoulders above the rest. But now that I’ve read some of the collected works of William Inge and Horton Foote, I think Big Five might be a little more accurate. And I don’t doubt for a second that there have been plenty of brilliant playwrights I’ve never even heard of.
But, of the recent plays I’ve read, the ones that really stood out and tugged my slightly-frayed heartstrings most were Inge’s Bus Stop and Come Back Little Sheba, and Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful and The Chase. These four plays are so touching and gripping that I don’t see how to distinguish them, in terms of greatness, from the plays of Miller, O’neill or Williams.
Horton Foote and William Inge wrote plays cut very much from the same cloth: they wrote about regular small town people in the midwest or south, they wrote about being poor, getting old, finding someone to love or losing that someone. They wrote dialogue that sounds like regular small town folk. They didn’t embellish, but they somehow brought to light the deep-down problems that are real and inherent for us all.
Foote’s The Chase is exceptionally engrossing, and depicts a scenario and an issue—mob violence—that was so powerfully portrayed in Theodore Dreiser’s short story Nigger Jeff a generation earlier. But Foote’s characters are complex and conflicted, which makes the drama all the more compelling. I don’t expect I’ll ever have a chance to see these terrific plays on the stage, but at least I’ve seen them come to life in my head, and there they will stay.
December 6, 2014
I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard a better expression of what religion should be than this eloquent description by Charles Eastman [also called Ohiyesa], a native American doctor, writer, and leader. If all religions actually practiced such humility and humanity, we would be living in a world free of war, hate, and hunger. Here are Eastman’s words:
“The original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the “Great Mystery” that surrounds and embraces us, was as simple as it was exalted. To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life.
The worship of the “Great Mystery” was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker. None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another. Among us all men were created sons of God and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity. Our faith might not be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who were unwilling to receive it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution, neither were there any scoffers or atheists.
There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky! He who enrobes Himself in filmy veils of cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where our Great-Grandfather Sun kindles his evening camp-fire, He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas—He needs no lesser cathedral! . . .
The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to the brothers of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers.”
November 27, 2014
You might say that Rebecca West’s 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows is more or less a British version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They do have much in common, subject-wise. But there is a difference: While A Tree Grows has more warmth and poignancy, more emotion and power, West’s novel has not only that wonderful British cleverness, but it has perhaps as much depth of perception and depth of character as anything I’ve read in recent years (which is about as far back as my dwindling memory goes). I can’t claim to have read much Proust, but it seems to me The Fountain Overflows is almost Proustian in its youthful but sublime sensibility.
The book is quite autobiographical, and Rebecca West was a leading feminist of her day. The mother she depicts is such a strong, loving person, regardless of constant adversity, that she will certainly stick in my mind for many Saturdays to come. Every child should have such a mother (I did, thankfully). And I felt so much in common with this family, their love of books and classical music, and refinement without superficiality. Given that Rebecca West wrote this fine book, and given that she and her real family were its inspiration, I have a pretty good hunch that she was at least as beautiful to know as she is to read.
November 26, 2014
It was sad this morning walking in downtown Los Angeles and wishing familiar smiling faces a happy Thanksgiving with their families and receiving the same wishes in return, and then seeing the various homeless people limping or dragging themselves down the sidewalks, looking lost, no place to go. There are so many homeless, and L.A. is just a big unfeeling corporate wasteland. So millions of people pass by countless men and women who have no shelter, let alone a warm Thanksgiving meal, and spare no more thought for these creatures than for any other creature than crawls across their path. So hardened and conditioned are we city dwellers to this ubiquitous misery that we walk right by not even looking or seeing half the time. How can we help being apathetic when trouble is everywhere and we are made to feel powerless by the systems that run our lives?
November 15, 2014
Weak and abusive parenting is poignantly contrasted with the sweetness of first love in the exceptional YA debut novel of Sarah Lynn Scheerger, who has published several picture books for young readers. The Opposite of Love (Albert Whitman and Company, publisher) is a good balance of sensibility and hard-boiled, with natural yet funny teen dialogue and an effective use of shifting point of view between the two main characters.
“As much as he wanted to believe the muffins were a sign, maybe they were just muffins.” There’s a great deal of depth and dimension to these teenage characters, who are torn by conflicting forces, fears and emotions. We are told explicitly and we are shown heartbreakingly the truest meaning of that elusive title. Adult readers will relate to this well-told story almost as easily as their own high schoolers.
October 4, 2014
I get a kick out of the way American characters are depicted in British novels. Somehow they all come out sounding like George Babbitt– a little coarse and homespun in their speech. I noticed it recently in Lost Horizon by James Hilton, which had one American among its cast of characters, and you would swear you were hearing the voice of George Babbitt. It doesn’t bother me, it’s just interesting and funny. I’ve seen other examples, but can’t recall where right now. Can anyone think of a good example of this phenomenon?
September 26, 2014
Please see my son’s blog, http://5432fun.tumblr.com/ , for my latest music review, plus lots of other musical events and insights. Thanks.
September 21, 2014
If holocaust literature is a genre, then I have recently read some of its best examples. Rachmil Bryks was a holocaust survivor from Poland, who wrote his stories in Yiddish, many of them during the holocaust itself in the Lodz ghetto and even in Auschwitz. They were published after the war, and eventually translated into other languages. The collection I read was titled A Cat in the Ghetto, and included the title story and several other stories. The longest story was “Kiddush Hashem”, a gut-wrenching portrait of life (and death) in Auschwitz. It is never easy to read such stories, but I do recommend Bryks’ stories because of their honesty and authenticity.
For similar reasons, I found The Pawnbroker, the 1961 novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last several years. The Pawnbroker is the Harlem-set story of a holocaust survivor trying to cope with the pressures of everyday life with a profoundly-damaged body and brain. It has to be a difficult task to describe the innermost thoughts and feelings of a holocaust survivor, especially for a writer who did not have first-hand experience. But in The Pawnbroker, I would say that Wallant came as close to the mark as could be hoped for. With spare, hard language and experimental syntax, Wallant seemed to draw quite effectively from the stylings of Nathaniel West and James M. Cain. Sadly, like West himself, Wallant died young after completing four novels. But his Pawnbroker left us a character as memorable and as broken as Orwell’s Winston Smith, and it’s hard to overlook the parallels between 1984’s dystopian society and the reality of Nazi terror, which left so many broken victims like Wallant’s iconic Pawnbroker.
July 5, 2014
Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.
I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.
So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.
June 22, 2014
I’ve just finished one of the notable novels about the American West, The Octopus by Frank Norris. Norris, also a talented short story writer, finished the book around the age of thirty and, sadly, only survived the book’s 1901 publication by a year or two. Even so, I believe he proved himself one of the great novelists of his era. In its scope and Naturalism, The Octopus clearly paved the way for later generations of Western writers, like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, or Wallace Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The Octopus is a fictionalized saga of the conflict between the wheat farmers and the railroad monopoly that raged in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the two decades preceding the book’s publication. Although some critics may be right in finding Norris’s style occasionally too flowery and repetitive, those flaws did not spoil for me the superb storyline and character development. Those wheat farmers and their families became so real and important to me. Much of Norris’s prose is stunning and, though certainly less lyrical than Dickens or Eliot, I believe he may possess as great a command of the English language as any writer in any era – including a fair number of words I had never seen before in my life.
So, if you enjoy reading about the West, right versus might, progressive politics, and even a bit of romance thrown in, The Octopus would be high on my list of suggested novels. As a great novel should, it held my interest continuously, never flagging in its realism and humanity.
June 17, 2014
I wrote this ranting essay a few years ago at the time of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear near-meltdown in Japan. I sent it to all the liberal newspapers I could think of and none were interested in it as an op-ed piece. Well, what’s the use of having a blog if you can’t post your own unpublished and unwanted rants? Here it is, thanks:
by Chuck Redman
If we didn’t absolutely need electric hair dryers. . .
If we didn’t actually have to have electric shoe polishers or nose-hair trimmers . . .
If we could survive, somehow, without plug-in air fresheners containing built-in motion sensors and alternating fragrances. . .
If we could watch television enough without DVR’s that record multiple programs at once, while we watch yet another program. . . or without big screen TV’s, high definition and surround sound. . .
If we could be just as happy, perhaps, to go to our mailboxes and find only mail from people and businesses we know, rather than unwanted junk advertising. . .
If we could get through the day, perchance, without sipping $4.00 coffee, at a 1000% markup, through throw-away lids. . . or bottled water from Fresno, France, or Fiji. . .
If we could get places on time without 18-karat-gold watches that are waterproof to 99 feet. . .
If we could unabashedly venture into the public glare in sunglasses costing an hour’s salary instead of a day’s. . .
If we could smile with the lips, chins, eyes and noses that nature gave us, and support fewer plastic surgeons grinning to themselves while they scrub up for surgery. . .
If a car might take us places even though the front seats aren’t individually heated or cooled and you need an actual lever to adjust position, even though AM/FM radio and one speaker are all you have for amusement while you drive, and even though your passengers are forced to read or look out the window instead of watching the latest DVD’s. . .
If we didn’t spend billions widening the 405 to absorb more traffic instead of spending a fraction of that to install a dedicated bus lane in the middle. . .
If we stopped putting up high-rise office buildings, with windows you can’t open and air conditioning at full blast. . .
If we finally decided that we have enough shopping malls already, and that they’re too expensive to heat, cool, and light. . .
If, instead of pouring most of our agri-dollars into raising meat, we redirected those resources into healthier and hugely more productive foodstuffs . . .
If we suspended space exploration until we could better afford it. . .
If billionaires paid more taxes (which could help us produce alternative energy) and bought fewer villas, private jets, yachts, $500,000 showoff parties, or jewels that could choke an anaconda. . .
If big corporations weren’t bailed out. . .
If we didn’t gamble on military interventions that only heighten instability and suffering. . .
If drugs and prostitution were decriminalized, regulated and taxed. . .
If the billions spent on political ads to no one’s betterment were spent instead on safe energy alternatives and conservation. . .
Then maybe we wouldn’t need all those nuclear power plants. Or nuclear weapons either, for that matter.
May 31, 2014
I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)
I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.
May 18, 2014
I recently read a very powerful and disturbing novel, The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France. The story is set in the same historical context as A Tale of Two Cities (probably my first choice for greatest novel of all time). Anatole France does not have Dickens’ wit (who does?), but he crafts an intricate and well-woven drama about the French Revolution and its unspeakable Reign of Terror. France’s comprehensive knowledge of history, as well as theology and ancient mythology, make the novel more challenging to read, but a richer experience. If you appreciate the tradition and style of Victor Hugo, you will probably enjoy The Gods and place it in the same distinguished class.
May 4, 2014
I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.
The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.
Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?
April 19, 2014
My daughter, Rebecca, introduced me to the delightful stories of Italo Calvino. I especially like Calvino’s stories of Marcovaldo, a sweet, bumbling, schlemazel kind of character. Well, I decided to read the other famous Italo: Italo Svevo – his unusual fictional stream-of-consciousness psychological study Zeno’s Conscience. Two years ago I had never heard of these Two Guys Named Italo (why am I suddenly thinking of pizza?). Now I’m reading them and thinking deep thoughts about their work!
Svevo’s subject and style remind me of the little bit of Proust that I’ve read: full of small real-life reminiscences that have secret meaning to their narrator, and add up to a life of inner conflict. Svevo, although years older, was a protégé of James Joyce. Descended from German and Italian Jews, Svevo may even have been a prototype for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.
Unfortunately, as with Proust, although the writing is rich and full of wit and personality, I simply could not finish Svevo’s book. I wish I had more patience, but the book was just too slow for me, pages and pages of Zeno’s “conscience”: his internal discussions about his day to day life. I appreciate the intelligence and artistry of it, but if the storyline is weak or nonexistent, I can only read so much and then I’ve had enough. Even Shakespeare would become tiresome if his dialogue and descriptions were not plot-driven. I don’t know if Svevo’s other works are stylistically different; Some day I’ll find out.