Books postsSaturday October 11, 2008
Letters from Norman
Finished reading the political excerpts of Norman Mailer's letters in the Oct. 6 New Yorker (apologies: I've been busy) and it reminded me all over again why I love that old left-conservative bastard. He's grandiose but self-effacing. He's far-sighted and non-doctrinaire. He's a late '40s Marxist who despised the Soviet Union, a man who admired both Fidel Castro and William F. Buckley, who even contributed to The National Review, but who, at the same time, or later (in '76), wrote, “But as for Ford, Reagan, Dole and the rest of that pirate ship — Mary, they're puke,” and who wrote, even later (in June '03):
Even if you're a deep-dyed conservative, and Republican, please disabuse yourself of the idea that Bush is a good guy. Please, Sal. It seems to me the best argument you can present is that he's a total, shallow, maniuplative shit, but that he's got the luck of the devil working for him and so his policy may not end up in total disaster...
Or how about this 1987 observation on the nature on Russians and Americans:
There is one difference between Russians and Americans that is crucial: in America we keep running ahead of our guilt. We stay ahead of it by technique, by every trendy step. We’re analyzed, tranquilized, and roboticized, nouvelle cuisine-ized, yuppified, we stay ahead of our anxiety and our great guilt and are able to avoid the issue. The Russians aren’t. They’re marooned in their guilt and there are very few Russians who don’t have a bad conscience because the history of that place for 30 years required one to turn on friends, not overly perhaps, but through acts of omission, not helping friends who run afoul of the authorities. And authority itself kept stalling in its own huge bad conscience. The Russians, I think, live closer to their souls than we do because they’re guilty, and I can’t tell you how moving it is that out of the top bureaucracy itself has come this recognition that they’ve got to change and have a more human government.
My favorite letter may be the one to Don DeLillo in 1988 congratulating him on Libra. Most people can't get past the size of Norman's ego but if they did they'd find a largeness of spirit that few people have:
What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, “this son of a bitch is playing my music,” but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am. I think we keep ourselves writing by allowing the core of our vanity never to be scratched if we can help it, but I didn’t get away scot-free this time. Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions—those black holes in space—into mantras that we can live with. What you’ve given us is a comprehensible, believable, vision of what Oswald was like, and what Ruby was like, one that could conceivably have happened. ... It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.
Is Ron Suskind a Coen Brothers Fan?
Continuing to read Ron Suskind's book, now on part II (The Armageddon Test), and I've come across a few references to the word "abide" — such as how Pres. Ford's funeral in January 2007, according to Suskind, "prompts reflection about what abides and what is lost with the passage of time." It's a common Biblical word but pop-culturally I couldn't help but think of Jeff Bridges' character in the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski: "The Dude abides," etc.
A few minutes later I came across this line: "But that thought is like a seed that can find no purchase..." Again, Biblical, but, again, Coen brothers, this time Raising Arizona: "Edwina's insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase."
So have both Suskind and the Coens studied their Bibles (likely) or is Suskind simply a huge Coens' fan? Either way: kind of funny in a book that is anything but.
Something to be said for blitzkrieg
I spent the morning in bed with Robert Graves. Since I liked I, Cladius so much I borrowed Good-Bye To All That, the autobiography he wrote in his late 20s, from my father, but the last few days were busy ones and I'd lost the thread. I wanted to pick it up again with a bout of sustained reading.
At the moment Graves is in the trenches of northern France. Volunteered. Raring to go. At school he was an iconoclast who didn't get along with the bullying sportsmen but as soon as war was declared he wanted to join the mass. Along with many others. Once they realized what it was they shifted to survival tactics, which might include a “cushie,” or flesh wound, that would take them away from the lines and maybe back home. One wonders about this desire to go to war. It's probably less patriotism than a wish to be where the action is; a wish to be involved in something greater than yourself. Once the action is revealed to be what it is, and the “something” not so great, other instincts take over.
There’s a great vignette about being stationed in Vermelles:
The old Norman church here has been very much broken. What remains of the tower is used as a forward observation post by the Artillery. I counted eight unexploded shells sticking into it. Jenkins and I went in and found the floor littered with rubbish, broken masonry, smashed chairs, ripped canvas pictures... Only a few pieces of stained glass remained fixed in the edges of the windows. I climbed up by way of the altar to the east window, and found a piece about the size of a plate. I gave it to Jenkins. “Souvenir,” I said. When he held it to the light it was St. Peter's hand with the keys of heaven. “I'm sending this home,” he said. As we went out, we met two men of the Munsters. Being Irish Catholics, they thought it sacreligious for Jenkins to be taking the glass away. One of them warned him: “Shouldn't take that, sir, it will bring you no luck.” Jenkins got killed not long after.
Much of the book is like this. Beautiful writing. Worlds contained in a paragraph.
I was reminded of our trip to France last summer and all of the memorials we saw in the small towns. In a church vestibule in Capestang: A la memoire del nos heroes morts pour la France: 1914-1918. Then 120 names. Outside a chuch in Manigod: Aux Enfants de Manigod Morts Pour La France. Then 56 names for World War I and five names for World War II. Something to be said for blitzkrieg.
From Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 467. As a writer, I laughed out loud at Claudius' thoughts when he suddenly became Emperor of Rome:
“So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now. Public recitals to large audiences. And good books too, thirty-five years' hard work in them. It won't be unfair... My History of Carthage is full of amusing anecdotes. I'm sure they'll enjoy it.”
My current interest in ancient Rome, about which I know nothing, began with a Sunday afternoon at the Seattle Art Museum's exhibition “Roman Art from the Louvre,” after which, in the museum gift shop, I picked up Graves' book, read the first sentence and bought it. From there we began watching the '70s BBC miniseries, “I, Claudius,” starring Derek Jacobi (nine episodes in now), and from there we watched Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), which was much better than I thought it would be. The three leads are great. Brando stuns. He certainly stunned Patricia, who forgot how good-looking and sexy he was as a young man. I was surprised, not having read the play, and particularly after watching HBO's “Rome,” that Brutus turned out to be the least calculating and most honorable of all the characters in the play. Shakespeare himself makes the argument:
All the conspirators, save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought,
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the word, This was a man!
I knew the speech but didn't know it was for Brutus.
A curious thing about I, Claudius: Claudius is one of those Romans who wishes to restore the Republic, and the actions of the Emperors, particularly Tiberius and Caligula, certainly strengthen his argument. But the Senate is so weak, bends so willingly to those in power, that one wonders what good a restored Republic would be.
The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture
Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.
The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:
In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:
Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.
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