Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the empty belly of Paris

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty--it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.

You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it--you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it. You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals--meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons. Afterwards you smuggle your food home in your pockets. Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine, and even the nature of the food is governed by lies. You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets. This wastes you a franc a day. Sometimes, to keep up appearances, you have to spend sixty centimes on a drink, and go correspondingly short of food. Your linen gets filthy, and you run out of soap and razor-blades. Your hair wants cutting, and you try to cut it yourself, with such fearful results that you have to go to the barber after all, and spend the equivalent of a day's food. All day you are telling lies, and expensive lies.

You discover what it is like to be hungry. With bread and margarine in your belly, you go out and look into the shop windows. Everywhere there is food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses like grindstones. A snivelling self-pity comes over you at the sight of so much food. You plan to grab a loaf and run, swallowing it before they catch you; and you refrain, from pure funk.

This--one could describe it further, but it is all in the same style--is life on six francs a day. Thousands of people in Paris live it--struggling artists and students, prostitutes when their luck is out, out-of-work people of all kinds. It is the suburbs, as it were, of poverty.
from Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

The suburbs of poverty, that's good. Orwell is observant enough to know that he's not enduring real poverty. His rent, after all, is paid. He has a small income and--most days--something to eat. Eventually he gets a job in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant, a job paying 750 francs a month. That's a bit over ‎£6 a month, in 1930s English money. I have no idea what that would be today. Orwell's rent is 200 francs a month. He eats for free at the restaurant (including two liters of wine each shift). Things are looking up. Those suburbs are receding into the distance. I continue, I see, to read non-fiction. I don't quite know why I'm avoiding fiction right now, but I am.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

from seat 26F at 30,000 feet

Above a sea of clouds, Monday afternoon.

Mighty Reader and I have been away, to Our Nation's Capitol and to The City That Never Sleeps. I finished Treasure Island in a studio apartment in beautiful Capitol Heights and began reading a collection of Abraham Lincoln's letters. In beautiful Brooklyn I purchased a copy of Clarice Lispector's Near to the Wild Heart, which I have not begun to read yet. There were a number of Lispector novels on the shelf at Greenlight Bookstore, and of course I bought the one with the James Joyce reference in the title. My attorney, Salvatore, had read the novel long ago and could not vouch for it, which I also took as a sign. Salvatore and I bonded over the complete stories of John Cheever a million-and-a-half years ago.

While in DC and NYC, Mighty Reader and I gazed long at several Vermeers and Turners. I appreciate a Vermeer, but I find that I am increasingly smitten with the works of Mr Turner, especially his later paintings when he moved away from figurative art and focused on light and color. Though I am a sucker for his maritime subjects once he got past the Dutch influence of ships tossed by a storm. The thing about Mr Turner, though (and I've said this before), is that he teaches the viewer that the sky is the largest part of any landscape, that the works of Nature and of Man are tiny things at the feet of the heavens, nearly invisible from the great heights of the clouds.

We took in a show in Brooklyn: the Anbessa Orchestra in concert (a gig in the tiny tiny tiny backroom of Barbes, a sweet little club that Mr and Mrs Salvatore could vouch for). The Anbessa Orchestra plays a sort of 1960-70s Ethiopian horn-based pop music. Very nice indeed.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Published by Erasmus in Belgium

If you do not find a remedy to these evils it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft, which, though it may have the appearance of justice, yet in itself is neither just nor convenient; for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?
2016 is, in case you were unaware, the 500th anniversary of the first publication of Thomas More's Utopia. I have an interest in utopian literature. There's quite a bit of good scholarship around utopian literature, it turns out. There is a slight possibility that one day I'll write a novel called An Atlas of Utopias (the title is stolen from George Woodcock's 1980 review of the book Utopian Thought in the Western World by Frank and Fritzie Manuel; Woodcock notes that "The utopia is in fact the literary genre in which the difference between creative imagination and plausible invention is most clearly exemplified," which seems true enough).

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

to the bottom of the earth: a progress report

Lammerson looked up, blinked into the light and then he stretched out his arm toward the immense map which stood to his right and cried, "Antarctica!" Five hundred souls shivered and held their breath at Lammerson’s feet. Lammerson tossed his head, his eyes flashing, his gapped teeth bared.

"The bottom of the Earth," Lammerson said. His Norwegian accent was a thick liquid, undulating around sharp points of consonant, a growling music that would’ve been comical in a smaller man but from Lammerson it seemed to sound forth out of another world, a world of danger and mystery.

"I have trod the ice of Antarctica on four separate expeditions, more than any other man alive. I know Antarctica well: her mountains, her blizzards, her plains of broken snowpack, her vastness, and her deadliness."

Lammerson spoke for nearly an hour, now and then leaping to the map to point out where his adventures had taken place.

"Here we first laid anchor along the shores of the Southern Ocean, more than a thousand miles below New Zealand. We marched to the southeast, parallel to this line of high coastal mountains that curve like a great archer’s bow and lead nearly to the Pole. East of the range, shown here in light blue, is a great sea, an enormous bay hundreds of miles wide that is covered over with thick plates of pack ice pressed up against the continent by the ocean currents. We pulled our sleds out onto the frozen bay and saw how it was not flat, as we’d thought from the ship, but was broken and buckled, immense slabs of dense white ice the width of villages, the height of cathedrals, all laying one atop and alongside the other, a vast waste that shone hard in the sun, blinding us nearly at mid-day, uninhabited by any man since the creation of the world. On this bay we spotted dark seals and giant penguins, which we tracked, hunted, killed and ate. The seals and penguins also live out beyond the edge of the land here, on great sheets of sea ice that float freely, encircling Antarctica in a magnificent halo. The orca, those huge fish who swim all of the earth’s cold oceans, even into the fjords of Norway, hunt beneath the sea ice, leaping up between the floes to snatch unwary seals and families of penguins. Antarctica is no pastoral and sleeping land, ladies and gentlemen. Antarctica is violently in motion, day in and day out. The pack ice filling the bay seems at first to be a solid and unchanging mass, a sculpture carved by God in millennia long past, but it is not. The sea moves beneath the ice to push and pull the surface, and we learned to our sadness that we trod over unstable ground.

"We dragged our sleds, making our way from the ship’s anchorage here, crossing the bay in this direction. At times we were forced to leap across narrow chasms whose bottoms we could not see. On the third day we reached the foot of what we’d taken to be a granite cliff. It was instead a high wall of ice, forced up from the surrounding slabs by Nature, its head rising a hundred feet into the air. My friend Lars, well-known in Oslo as a mountaineer, said he would climb the face of this gigantic slab and take photographs from the top. We could see that such a climb was possible, as the cliff was composed of long striations of blue and white ice, a natural ladder much like crushed breccia or weathered gneiss, almost a steep staircase, ladies and gentlemen. A trivial climb for an experienced mountaineer such as Lars. With his ice axe and hobnailed boots he made his way up quite easily, fifty or sixty feet above us, and then we felt the world shifting, the pack ice shrugging beneath our weight. Lars called out to us and then the face of the ice cliff collapsed; its many layers of blue and white tumbled down from the top to the bottom. Those of us below scrambled away and as I looked back I saw Lars disappear under countless tons of ice and snow that poured down upon him, a great wave of shale-like fragments the size of houses. We dug for an hour but found no sign of Lars. The next day we made our way off the ice and set foot on the continent itself."

Lammerson shook his head and walked back to the lectern, where he shrugged, adjusted his cuffs and tugged absently on the gold medal hung at his throat. He drank a glass of water and turned his attention back to the large map.
I'm foolishly still writing the first draft of yet another novel, a thing called Nowhere But North. At this point, according to my design document, I'm about 40% of the way through the work. At this rate, I'll need a year to finish the draft. I am writing this book very slowly as compared to my previous first drafts. There is a huge amount of research reading to do, as well as certain interesting formal considerations that slow me down. Structure is tricky in this one, and I'm not writing it in the order that the material will be presented in the narrative. The above excerpt will eventually be found about a third of the way into the novel. I've already written the final chapter of the book. Next I'll write two middle sections, and then three beginning sections, and then one long scene that ties all of the sections together, running like a ribbon around/between nine longer pieces. It will all be clear on the trail, as the saying goes.

Also, the usual caveats about the text above being a rough draft all apply.

Monday, March 28, 2016

leave the gun, take a book

Because, despite the Leviathan of Amazon, there are bookstores everywhere I go, I keep finding myself buying books. Just in the last week I've picked up Walter Pater's Maurius the Epicurean, Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, and three or four others I can't even bring to mind. So many books, so little time. Also, I am nearly finished with Dana's Two Years Before the Mast; I admit I've begun skimming to get past the last few months of Dana's time on the California coast. Despite the skimming, it's a worthwhile book to read. You can see how it influenced Jack London, Melville, etc. You can even see, if you crack open one of Bill Tilman's sailing books (Mischief Goes South, for example), the continuing influence of Dana's book. How does one write about the details of sailing a ship? The way Richard Henry Dana wrote. You could take pages from Three Years and swap them with pages from Mischief Goes South and do no damage to the books (though the sailing experts would wonder how a three-masted brig briefly became a sloop and vice versa).

Also, I'm eating home-baked gingerbread. It's not prosphora, but it's delicious. Khristos voskrene, brothers and sisters. If you think God wants you to murder infidels, you are mistaken.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Open to "Hamlet," the Ophelia-spurned scene

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, more commonly referred to as the First Folio, is considered one of the most important books in the world.

Anyone within striking distance of Seattle should go see it, at the Seattle Public Library downtown branch. As well as being a reference in footnotes to modern editions, it's a real book! Also, a copy of the Third Folio. No quartos, alas.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

finally, a hat

Photo credit: Mighty Reader

And now, other hats:

The mysterious mister mudpuddle in a variety of styles:

stone symphony, view from the podium