What I’m Reading

Mostly just lots of short stories these days. They’re all considered classic literature. One book is a set of French short stories by writers who are considered to write classic literature.

The French book was published in 1960, so we are dealing with dated material here, all over 60 years old:

Charles Baudelaire: Paris Spleen (1869). “Prose poems or proems,” an odd literary form. Very nice. I have read The Flowers of Evil (both are books of poetry), and I cannot recommend them highly enough, especially Le Fleurs du Mal. French Symbolist literature, or more properly, Decadent literature, from the late 1800’s. He hung out with Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé, all of them haunting Parisian bars in drunken ecstasy.

He as actually straight, unlike some of those other guys who were homosexuals. He was sickly, nuts, erratic, a drug-addict, flake, dilettante, gambler, spendthrift, and heavy drinker who lived his whole life in poverty. He attempted suicide once. Dead at 46. Marcel Proust said Baudelaire was the greatest poet of the 19th Century. He was also praised by Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot, who actually referred to himself as a “Baudelarian.” He  was claimed by both conservatives and liberals. On the left, Walter Benjamin praised him.

Francois Mauriac: The Grand-Lebrun (1933). First thing I ever read by this guy. Has a James Joyce feel about it, especially Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

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In the other book, published in 1968, so these stories are all over 50 years old:

Anton Chekhov: Misery (1885) and Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894). These are better than either of the French stories. This is the first Chekhov I have read. He’s 19th Century Russia, so I warn you, these stories, like most Russian lit from that time, are depressing and gloomy as Hell. Someone either dies, has just died, or will soon die, or all three at once. Nevertheless, his style is truly amazing and heartrendingly beautiful and sad. He is said to be one of the masters of the short story.

Ernest Hemingway: Big Two-Hearted River (1925). This one also is almost perfect. Classic Hemingway understated yet perfect prose. He doesn’t waste a sentence or probably a word. His writing is based on the Iceberg Theory. I’ve also read a number of his novels A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises. I also read Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) along with In Our Time and Men without Women, short story collections.

William Faulkner: Dry September (1930). Nice little story, terrible subject matter. He catches the South in all of its casual brutality. I also read Light in August, and it is excellent. Can’t recommend it enough. It’s written a lot in stream of consciousness, so you have to pay attention to whose mind he is in and who’s talking at the time. Also a lot of it is in dialect.

Vladimir Nabokov: First Love (1943). This story is just gorgeous, but it’s not an easy read at all. He’s one of my favorite writers ever, truly one of the greats. However, he is not an easy read at all. Like Hemingway, his work is full of hidden details, references, clues, puns, on and on. I’m not sure if it’s possible for the non-intellectual to read his stuff on an entertainment level.

I’ve also read Lolita and Bend Sinister. Both are good, but Lolita, the story of a pedophile (or hebephile) child molester and relationship with the extremely precocious, gum-smacking 12 year old sexpot Lolita, is out of this world, one of the greatest books of the 20th Century. I do know that it can be read on different levels though, and even at a basic level, it is incredible. If you wish to go hunting for the endless Easter eggs peppered all through this symbolism-shot book, you can do that too. If you haven’t read it, do so. Don’t worry about the disturbing subject matter. It’s something we talk about all the time anyway. We just don’t talk about it like this.

Richard Wright: The Man Who Lived Underground (1944). This is the first I have read of this author, the famous Black writer of the classic Native Son, which I probably need to read sometime. He’s very angry and all of his writing is about racism and Whites’ unjust treatment of Blacks. His writing is cold, vicious, cruel, and often horribly violent. But if you can handle him, he’s quite good. And to be fair, Blacks were treated terribly back when he was writing.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: EPICAC (1950) and Next Door (1955). Both of these were great! Both of them are as good as a Chekhov or Borges short story, and that’s the gold standard. There’s often a wild twist at the end.

I’ve read quite a few books of his. I’ve read Breakfast of Champions or Goodbye Blue Monday!; Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine; Happy Birthday, Wanda June; Mother Night; Player Piano; Sirens of Titan; Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, all novels. I’ve also read Welcome to the Monkey House, a book of short stories (now rereading it). In addition, I read Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons (Opinions), nonfiction.

Vonnegut is very nice. He’s quite simple and anyone can read him. But his work is nevertheless absolutely brilliant. Because it’s so simplistic, there’s a tendency to see him as overrated, until you read him again and you realize just how brilliant he really is. If you like easy reading, I’d recommend any of the books above. They’re entertaining and funny, too, often in a self-deprecatory way. As a person, he was a huge asshole to just about everyone, but again, that’s not unusual with these genius types. They’re out to lunch in a lot of ways, and socially can be one of them.

Carson McCullers: The Sojourner and The Jockey (both 1955). First I have read of her too. Interesting writer. Sort of Hemingway-like, understated stuff. Overtones of melancholy.

James Allen McPherson: On Trains (1961). I had never even heard of this author before and at first I thought it was just the author trying to be antiracist by throwing in some Black (or other designated oppressed minority) author to get woke points. I was shocked. He’s excellent. If you like Black writers, check this guy out.

He writes about race a lot, but in a subtle, understated, matter of fact way, sort of like Faulkner. But he also deals with the reality of Black-White sexual relationships, which was probably controversial in his day. When he went to Yale, he had already experienced quite a bit of racism, but he seemed more philosophical and “I’m going to show those White boys how good I am” about it. He’s not nearly as militant and angry as Wright.

John Updike: A & P (1962) and The Doctor’s Wife (1962). A & P is one of the all-time greats. Then again, not much happens. But that’s true of the best short stories of all.

Consider For Esme, with Love and Squalor by J. D. Salinger. What happens? Not a whole lot. But it’s one of the best short stories of its time. And Updike is rather like Salinger in that way. His writing is very subtle and to figure it out properly, you need to get down below the basic writing to figure out what he’s really getting at. He shows. He doesn’t tell.

And dialogue is very important. He deals well with shades of emotion, feeling, and mental states that are often pretty hard  for us to put our fingers on, and we would probably deny them even if we could. There can be a sense of lost opportunity or hypocrisy. His male characters are often gross sexists.

Misogyny is often apparent. I’m reading a recent novel of his, Towards the End of Time, and the same thing is going on. In many cases, this has to do with the author’s relationships with his ex-wives. But the lyrical Melvillean prose dancing off the pages of of this much later novel is joyous to read just for style alone..

I also read Hugging The Shore, a book of his book reviews and literary criticism. It was very good.

Donald Barthelme: Margins (1961) and See the Moon? (1966). This is literally some of the strangest and weirdest fiction I’ve ever read. It’s like this new fiction style called Weird. That’s about the only way to describe it. However, as an author, he is absolutely brilliant in a lot of different ways. You wonder how one man carried all this knowledge and insight in his 10 pound brain. I liked these stories, but they sure were weird all right. Plus which not much happens, but apparently that’s the idea.

I’ve read Amateurs; Come Back, Dr. Caligari; Forty Stories; Great Days; Sadness; Sixty Stories; Snow White; and Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, all short story collections. There was a time in the 80’s when I was binging on that stuff.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Secret Miracle (1962) and Funes the Memorious (1967). Borges is the great Argentine writer, one of the best writers of the last century. Nevertheless, he’s not for everyone and he’s a bit hard to get into. This writing is similar to Barthelme’s, but it is on a whole different level. It has been called magical realism. It has been called a lot of things. But there is no writing quite like it anywhere else.

It’s a bit like Gabriel Garcia Marquez of 100 Years of Solitude fame. After all, they are both South Americans and magical realism was birthed on the continent. He’s also rather like Ray Bradbury in terms of showing us fantastic and otherworldly visions of our world which are at once our own world and then again, something else entirely. I’ve always felt there was a bit of Franz Kafka in there too. There’s often a sense of tragedy in his writing, and usually someone dies. Death is always waiting around the corner. I’ve Ficciones and Labyrinths, both short story collections, during my time at university from 1978-1981.

John Barth: Life-Story (1968). John Barth wrote in The Literature of Exhaustion in 1967 that the novel form was used up and there was not much to do anymore as it had all already been done. It caused quite a stir on the lit scene. It appeared around the time that Roland Barthes, a literary critic, wrote The Death of the Author. Both are considered to be seminal texts in the emerging movement of postmodernism. Much literary criticism now continues to echo Barthes in positioning “author” and “reader” as completely different battling entities. It spends a lot of time mining the interplay between the two.

In 1980, he wrote The Literature of Replenishment in which he singled out Borges and Nabokov (see above) as two writers who were indeed doing new things with the novel instead of the same old same old.

Barth’s writing is self-consciously postmodern. After The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, things started getting weird. He became known for metafiction, that is fiction about the writing of fiction. The “writer” of whatever piece you are reading will often make an appearance, say a few things, and disappear.

Perhaps he will remind you that you’re only reading a book. Perhaps he will say that the story you are reading is really a story about an author writing a story. Which is about an author writing a story. And on and on. Get the picture? He was the first professor of Creative Writing in the US in 1953, although that is hard to believe. Now these departments are everywhere and all of their graduates are churning out at least a novel or two. To say we are swamped is an understatement.

His writing is full of a lot of self-conscious talk about novel-writing, how to write a novel, the components of a novel, the various ways one can choose in which to write a novel, the levels on which you can write them, characterization, plot, background, conflict, on and on. He often starts talking about this right in the middle of your reading, so you are reading along and then this “author” guy pops up and tells you there’s going to be a big plot change coming up ahead, so get ready for it. It’s weird and jarring but it’s very interesting.

This stuff is very hard to read and can be quite confusing at times. It’s also frustrating. But if you like to bend your mind a bit, this is a good place to do it.

I have read The Sot Weed Factor. That’s considered to be his best book.

You either like this writer or you don’t. I assure you that he is absolutely brilliant. But he’s not for everyone and some may find him a bore or end up throwing the book at the wall. Caveat emptor.

Saul Bellow: “A Father to Be” (1953): Interesting little story. In his early novels and short stories, the wild goings-on in the heads of his characters, who all have very rich and complex fantasy and emotional lives, is matched by the world, which is about as strange and active as the material in their heads. This can be seen in Dangling Man, The Victim, and even in The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day. After that, things start getting really weird and the outside world or the plots start veering way off course from the character’s inner lives. The mismatch between the two offers a lot of the conflict.

I have read Humbolt’s Gift at university, but I found it a bit of a chore honestly, and it was also rather boring. But then, I was 22, so hey. Maybe if I read it again at my age, I might get a lot more out of it.

It’s about the poet Delmore Schwartz, whose live was as wild as his poems. He wrote Under Milkwood, a Play for Voices. I’d never read it but maybe it’s not supposed to be read with your eyes. Maybe as the title implies, it’s supposed to be heard with your ears. I heard it on the radio one and the genius and brilliance of it was almost impossible to fathom. It was as good as Ulysses. Really. I don’t even know how he did it? How can one man do such a thing.

He drank himself to death at an early age like so many of these guys do. The story is he went to a bar and asked how many drinks he would have to drink to die and people at the bar estimated 17. So he proceeded to then drink precisely 18 drinks of alcohol. You know how this story ends, right? He died. Call it a suicide. Or a parasuicide. Anyway, it’s a typical way for this types, men as well as women, to take their final sleep.

I think the most common cause of death in poets must be suicide. And so many of them are depressives or manic-depressives. But it’s a fine line between creativity and mental illness and that’s why so many of us artistic types are so nutty. Yeah, I consider myself an artsy type. If I’m not, sue me. Anyway, it’s a great excuse for being crazy!

Also, an unbelievable number of poets are more or less gay. A lot of the women are lesbian or bi and often dykey or mannish. Gay male poets are almost a stereotype. But then the link between the Arts and Homosexuality was noted as far back as Antiquity. Some have even suggested that should a cure for homosexuality or genetic testing show up, we might want to keep gays around just for their creativity. As with so many questions of some but not great importance, I’m inclined to leave that up in the air or for the Gods to work out, which is basically the same thing.

A while back I was going through a bunch of poets because I had nothing better to do with my time and I kept running into this Gay-Suicide-Poet thing. A lot of the women’s dykeyness was turning me off, and I was terribly sad to find out that some of my favorite male authors were batting for the other team.

Then I achieved an epiphany. I don’t really if so many of these poets are faggots, dykes, and suicides or some combination of first two and the third, their lives were worth it and glorious and beautiful and perfect just for leaving us that sublime silver prose that sings off the pages as we read it. They did not die in vain. And perhaps there’s a place in the world for folks  like that. It takes all types to fill the freeways.

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