Wednesday, September 20, 2017

On "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" by Denis Johnson (about 2000 words) *****

The first story in Johnson's collection Jesus' Son, this one features an unlikely set of flash forwards. It's a technique I'd never seen before, and Johnson makes it work--astoundingly. Read the story here.

On "Jesus' Son" by Denis Johnson *****

Having read this collection for the fourth or maybe sixth time but the first time in at least ten years and possibly eighteen, I am still astounded by it. It's writing that inspires--or at least, inspired. At one time, I wanted to write as well as Johnson does here, but I have come to see I never will. The collection is a work of poetry in short story form, full of beauty amid the squalor that is described.

I won't bother with a recitation of the contents, as the collection is best absorbed afresh with each reading, even if I generally remember the stories even ten years after the last reading. The book as a whole is about addiction, and it doesn't pretty up. It's a book about a misfit, a young man, coming apart and slowly getting things back together.

My first reading was while I was in graduate school. The book had come out maybe a year or two earlier. I'd seen it in the bookstores, been told how great it was. I found a remaindered copy, and I bought it. It probably took me a few months to get around to reading it. I was not pulled toward it by others' love for it. But once I started reading, it was one of those reading experiences that changes the way one sees the story. I read it again soon after. I read pieces of it separately in other collections, astounded by the individual stories.

I read it again, I know, right after the movie came out. I suspect I read it sometime since then, but I don't recall at the moment. The movie was, I thought, a good adaptation, not insofar as strictly following a book that could not be easily translated into screen but insofar as changing it smartly as necessary so that it would work on screen. A fine movie. But still a finer book.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On "Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" by Greg Jackson (8244 words) ****

"Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy" does an odd trick of showing how one-time fame can corrupt a person's life. The narrator heads with his girlfriend to visit one of her old friends, who happens to be married to a former tennis star. The star, however, appears to be going mad. He no longer plays tennis and forbids the family from it. And yet, one day, he takes the narrator out to film a tennis match--the star player's most-famous tennis match--an act that will transform the narrator's life in ways sad and harrowing. Read the story here at VQR.

On "Rome and Jerusalem" by Martin Goodman *****

This is ostensibly an in-depth look at the context in which (and causes of) the rebellion of the Jews against Rome occurred around 70 A.D., resulting in the destruction of Herod's temple. The opener sets up the circumstances, detailing the rebellion itself. Goodman, however, wonders why the rebellion occurred, when other cultural entities taken over by the Roman Empire did not have similar rebellions and when the Jews, in many ways, were so well integrated into the system.

He begins by describing the two cities in the first century. Rome was a cultural and political hegemon. Jerusalem was a religious one. Both were international cities, taking in people from around the empire, though for their varying purposes.

Next, Goodman turns to what living in the Roman Empire was like. He starts by looking in part at how Herod Agrippa came to power (via in-fighting among the Jews, who essentially invited the Romans to take over to settle disputes). Agrippa was appointed as king eventually, being a Jewish convert/outsider of sorts but also a friend of a certain Roman politician in power. Although criticized in the New Testament, he was known for his piety among the Jewish peoples. Maintaining power was a political game, one that often had to do with who was in favor or in charge in Rome.

Goodman then turns to a discussion of diversity in the empire, and as he does so, he rather loses sight of Jerusalem, focusing on various other parts of the empire, in part to help establish how Rome interacted with its various vassals. Of note in this section is how Rome had a certain love for the exotic. Writings often focused on the strange. Our views of the empire largely come from Roman or Greek writers, however (Greece remained the cultural hegemon throughout the eastern empire and Rome adopted many of its customs as its own). One would get the impression that the subject peoples never wrote, but Goodman shows how such peoples did likely write of their own places. Most such writings did not survive, however; in cases where they did, there was usually some reason or advantage for its presentation, such as that of an early Spanish writer. The Jewish people, in this way, were unique, since so much of their writings were preserved.

Next comes a discussion of citizenship. Being Roman initially meant being of the city, then of Italy. But citizenship came to have more and more expansive meanings. One could buy it or be born into a mixed marriage or even be freed as a slave and then granted it. What it meant to be Roman slowly became watered down, until the third century, when all peoples in the empire would declared citizens. Whether people thought of themselves more as Romans or more as Gauls or whatever subject peoples they were depended on the person. Paul was born Roman, for example, but one would hardly see him as typical--for he was a Jew first. Meanwhile, some Greek writers of the time were thoroughly of the empire, serving in the Senate, though they were not of Roman heritage. To be Jewish carried similar quandaries, since one could convert to Judaism, meaning that ethnicity was only part of the Jewish identity--religion also played its part. If one were of mixed marriage, one was likely a Jew if one's father was Jewish . . . or later, one's mother. The shift from patrilineal to matrineal heritage happened between the third century BCE and the third century CE.

Differing concepts of time and history also come up. Rome had little sense of deep time--it did not know much about its origins and had to make up parts of its early history. But recent history was well documented. For the Jewish people, it was just the opposite. The Bible goes back to the origin of humanity, and the early history of the Jewish people, their judges and kings, was written out in full. But coming into the first century, history fairly well dropped off after Ezra. There was a lot less written about the Jewish people in the intertestamental era. Romans were heavily concerned about preserving parts of themselves for posterity--making some kind of monument to themselves in terms of their deeds and what they left behind. Jewish people were less interested in this, their faith focusing instead on God and on doing well for him. That said, Herod's building of the temple certainly was an attempt by him to maintain his name and reputation into posterity.

Kinship ideas among the two peoples had similarities and differences as well. The father was largely the head of the household for both. The Jewish people historically had maintained extended families, but by this time the focus was more on the nuclear family, as in Roman society. And yet, in Roman society, this focus was complex. The paterfamilia maintained, in many respects, control over the family to multiple generations. You could be a son or grandson, married and out on one's own, but you were still legally under the paterfamilia's jurisdiction. What mitigated this was that fact that lifespans were typically short(er): fortysomething.

Divorce was fairly common in both societies. Roman marriages were essentially "living together" arrangements and rarely lasted a lifetime. Stepfamilies were the norm, both because of divorce and the shorter lifespans. The Jewish peoples had contractual marriage, but a man could fairly easily divorce his wife (not so easily the wife her husband, as under the law she technically could not).

Friendship among Romans was generally a tit-for-tat sort of thing. If one did someone a favor, then one was a friend. One generally did not do favors for nonfriends, and favors were used to cultivate friendship. Among the Jewish people, there was more of a culture of charity (based on religion), which meant that they had a reputation as a people among whom there were many beggars.

Another chapter focuses on common beliefs. Romans celebrated birthdays; Jewish people generally did not. Romans practiced birth control and considered abortion and infanticide as means toward that. Until a baby was formally recognized by its father, it was not considered a real human; often newborn babies were left out (exposed) when not wanted, allowed to die. A common device in Roman plays was that of the abandoned baby taken in by another family and then reunited as an adult with its biological family. While birth control was practiced among the Jewish people, abortion was generally frowned upon, especially once the fetus took on human features, and infanticide was strictly forbidden.

Ideas of the afterlife varied among both peoples. Historically, Romans had focused mostly on the here-and-now, while the Jewish peoples had a notion of a spiritual realm and a possible afterlife (the resurrection being an item of dispute). Both eventually were heavily influenced by the Greeks and took on Greek beliefs about the eternal soul.

Burial practices among the peoples also differed. Romans burned bodies and preserved the ashes in cemetaries. Poor people were buried together, but as Rome grew better off, they too took to the upper-class way of cremation. Jewish peoples buried bodies whole, often in caverns or in holes covered with stone.

The Jewish peoples had the creation story and one God; the Romans had a pantheon of gods who were not necessarily seen as being intimately involved in human affairs (some were, some not). History started with the foundation of Rome or with the gods, not so much with creation. Astrology was common among both peoples, but mostly later on--probably adopted from Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians. Jewish teaching, however, discouraged its practice, and some writers claimed that Abraham had once practiced the art but gave it up when he realized that God created all and had control over all.

The relationship of humans to animals differed quite a bit. Jewish people believed in treating animals with kindness, but also looked at them mostly as creatures for work and food. There doesn't seem to be much of a record of them using animals as pets. Romans, by contrast, were much more affectionate to animals but also much more cruel. Records of animals as pets exist, and some buried animals, like dogs, with epitaphs much as some do today. A dog, among Jewish people, would have largely been for tending sheep or guarding a home. However, Romans also engaged in sport with animals much more--hunting or fighting and killing them in front of an audience, as at the sports arena. Herod's love for hunting is placed, by historians, within a Roman context: it was hunting for sport not food, since the creatures killed were not kosher.

Of particular interest to me was a short section on moral philosophies. Goodman summarizes three Roman systems: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Cynicalism. Epicureanism has a reputation of being one in which anything goes so far as the pleasures of this life are concerned, for it taught that pleasure is the be all and end all of living. But what this really meant wasn't so much hedonism as it meant avoiding pain. Because seeking one's own pleasure can result in pain, ascetism could be the means by which Epicureans pursued pleasure--avoid difficult situations by avoiding things that would bring them about, such as a public life or politics. Stoicism, by contrast, taught that virtue was the highest thing to be sought, and it was by virtue that happiness was to be gained. Other "goods" (pleasure, riches, and fame) were counterfeits. If attained via virtue, that was fine, but they were not to be sought for their own sake.

Cynicism taught "that life should be 'lived according to nature'"; they rejected cultural norms, materialism, and strivings after wealth, power, fame, and intellectual high thinking. Concerns about race, sex, and class were all pointless. They were, in a sense, anarchists.

Religion paid little role in these means of deciphering morality. By contrast, for the Jews, religion was, of course, the center of one's moral thinking, and what was right and wrong was laid out in the scriptures. Thinking often focused on gray areas, delineating things the scriptures hadn't outright answered. Ideas of about guilt, sin, and repentence, common in Jewish thinking, had no part in Roman thoughts about morality.

Next comes a discussion of the varying lifestyles of the two peoples, which can be clearly seen in their attitudes toward the body. Romans thought little of nudity, and muscled nude male sculptures, some in actual states of arousal, were common. Genders mixed in the public baths, and lust prevailed. Sex outside of formal marriage, it is implied, was fairly common, even if private (though displays of sex in artwork were not uncommon). Homesexuality was permitted, especially between men of power and weaker men. Jewish peoples, by contrast, had strictures against any sex outside of marriage. Bodies--let alone people or animals--were rarely displayed in art. The emphasis was on purity. When Jewish people engaged in bathing it was in large part often for purification, more so than pleasure or even cleanliness.

For spectator events, the Romans had plays, singing, mime troops, gladiatorial bouts, and chariot races. Jewish life was comparatively staid. Among the spectator (and participatory) events among them was dancing.

Both Jewish and Roman societies had a heavy emphasis on law, with extensive codes. But their attitudes toward war were a bit different. Rome used war as a means of extending power, collecting taxes, and consolidating power (for the emperor). It was heroic. The Jewish nation's attitude toward war was more ambivalent. It could be used for similar things for which Rome used war (extending power over other nations and gaining tributary), but warriors were not typically glamorized in the same sense (and often that glamour went to God, with the warrior himself disparaged for the taking of life). Roman war was vicious, with looting, rape, and other horrors common for the victors, which is one reason it was best to surrender. Romans were also perserverant: a battle might be lost, but Rome would return over and over until it won the war. Jewish credo often emphasized mercy: give the enemy the opportunity to surrender, don't cut down the fruit trees, and so on. Battle rules were written out even in the Bible. Some genocide was mandated (for peoples of Canaan), but rules for other peoples were less total in mandated destruction.

As for who had status and power in each society, Goodman sums it up nicely: "In Rome, political status derived primarily from wealth, noble ancestry, age, and (above all) military glory. In Jerusalem, what mattered was lineage (priestly or royal), learning in the law and (occasionally) a claim to divine inspiration." Romans showed off their power by showing off wealth--paying for people to enjoy the "bread and circus." Emperors often derived from the same family (or adopted family). Wisdom was accorded to age, though they put forth an effort to appease young folk with activities. And of course, success on the battlefield accorded with political power. For the Jewish peoples older generally meant wiser too, but after age fifty, priests were forced to retire. Little was done to "appease" youths, so it seems those in the middle ages were those accorded the most power. More important was being of Levitical heritage and being a scholar. Showing off one's wealth was not generally seen as a necessarily good thing, and one could be a "poor" scholar and have a modicum of respect from among the people.

Jewish people were spread throughout the empire, and their Sabbath and many of their ways came to be known among the Romans. For the most part, the two existed in relative harmony. A large Jewish population lived in Rome itself, and although they were kicked out in 19 and 49, these appear to have been temporary dismissals and perhaps not even in total. In 19, the dismissal may have had to do with various Roman rites and a turn back toward the gods and symbolic purifying of the city in preparing for the change in emperor. In 49, there apparently had been an uprising by one Christus, but it's also possible that it was simply another purifying of the city. This dismissal is the context in which Paul finds Aquilla and Priscilla in Corinth in Acts, them having left Rome (but later to return, as denoted in the letter to the Romans). At this time, gatherings of Jews weren't allowed, but continuing practice of the Jewish religion could be completed discreetly.

The time from 6 to 66 CE in Jerusalem was one mostly of peace. Goodman recounts the various uprisings that occurred during this time but notes that they were likely minor, since they are barely mentioned (if at all) in Roman records. More often, these accounts come from Josephus (sometimes they're mentioned in the Gospels or Acts). Many such conflicts had to do with Jewish issues and power more than with insurrections against the Roman authorities. And even among the Jewish people, the diaspora Jews did not typically side against Rome in putting down Jerusalem, and the royal family actually supported Rome.

The question arises, then, why the Romans put the Jewish rebellion down so hard and destroyed the Temple. Goodman sees this as largely a fluke. In the quest to consolidate power, the aspiring emperor Vespasian needed a military victory, which his son Titus afforded him, through the conquest of the Jerusalem rebels. (Nero had recently died and various men took the spot as emperor in a short span, fighting among each other.) This demanded swift and heavy action. Even then, according to Goodman's interpretation, there was no plan to destroy the Temple (the Romans did not generally mess with local gods), but the military accidentally laid it on fire, and that was that. (Accounts differ as to the motive, with Josephus claiming accident, but Sulpicius Severus claiming intent.) There was also the issue that the priests had recently begun refusing to offer a sacrifice to God in honor of the emperor. With the Temple gone, the best way to pass off its destruction was to pass it off as purposeful.

Jerusalem itself was torn apart, the Jewish people killed in great numbers (over a million, according to Josephus), with the leftover one hundred thousand or so dispersed throughout the empire after enduring torture, selling into slavery, and so forth. Land in Jerusalem was taken from the Jewish people and handed to others (Gentiles); the priestly class itself disappeared.

Another thing that followed was a tax on being Jewish. The tax was equal to the temple tax; now that there was no temple, Rome claimed the same amount of money and used it to pay for a temple to Jupiter. Over the years, anti-Jewish feelings in Rome grew in part because Vespacian, Titus, and Domitian used the victory over Israel as a way to prop up their power, to emphasize their greatness. Domitian had no victories of his own--he was simply related to the other two emperors--so victory over Judaism was particularly important. Trajan, the next emperor, even invaded Parthia, taking over Mesopotamia, to which many Jews had fled.

The tax was done away with under the emperor Nerva, who was more kindly to the Jewish people, but any hope that the Temple would be rebuilt ended after Hadrian came to power. He reinstituted the tax. Although his emphasis was on peace and stability within the empire--thus he built Hadrian's wall on the border with Scotland and ended the Parthian campaign--he saw the Jewish peoples as adding instability. As such, he built a new city atop the ruins of Jerusalem and put a temple to Jupiter near the site of the former Jewish Temple. This, according to Goodman, sparked the Bar Khokhba revolt of 132-35. (Some scholars say that it was the revolt itself that sparked Hadrian to build over Jerusalem, but Goodman comes down on the other side of this debate. What sparked Hadrian to build over Jerusalem, however, was unclear to me in Goodman's text--perhaps, simply memories of the revolt of 115.)

In the third century, emperors finally took an easier hand with the Jewish peoples, removing the tax and allowing them to live by their customs without interference. They did not return to Jerusalem, however, though many still lived in the land of Palestine (Rome had renamed the region). Julian, just after Constantine, even made plans to rebuild the Temple, though not out of sympathy for the Jews but rather because he was against Christianity and thought sacrifices to be more in line with paganism.

The destruction of the temple in 66 also helped to separate the Jewish people from the sect of Christianity, which had initially been a sect of the Jewish religion. Christians were seen as atheists by Rome, since they did not align themselves with any god to whom sacrifices were owed. By going along with Jewish customs, they were subject to the tax on Jews; by not doing so, they were not subject to the tax, but then they were subject to persecution for not participating in Roman religious/civic rites. That said, Goodman sees persecution as coming mostly from local sources rather than from the empire itself, with a few brief exceptions.

By the time that Constantine made Christianity the official religion, it was a good deal different than its Jewish roots. Gone were many of the Jewish practices: dietary restrictions, the Sabbath, circumcision, concerns with purity. However, there was still a reliance on Scripture (if only metaphorically), a much more prudish attitude toward sex, a hate of abortion, a disdain for the worship of other gods, and an emphasis on charity. Constantine tried to settle various theological disputes to help shore up the unity of the church and the empire. He built Christian churches, where before there had been only house churches, often at the supposed site of martyrdoms. In Rome, this involved just two churches within the city walls in relatively quiet spots and a host of new buildings outside. But he was still in charge of the pagan religion of Rome until his death (and many of the Roman customs, with regard to gladiator spectacles and the like, were slow to die), and because the city was so built up, he chose to move his capital to Byzantium, where he could more easily build a new Christian capital for a new Christian empire.

His conversion also changed Jerusalem, where pagan, and Jewish, sites were taken down and Christian churches put up at places of supposed significance. Jews continued to be banned from the city, though the degree to which this ban applied is somewhat uncertain (they couldn't live in the city, but some evidence indicates that they visited it--and the site of the temple). In essence, Jerusalem was renewed as well, this time as a Christian city. But interestingly, Constantine actually made an edict that all peoples could choose their religion. There was, thus, no enforced decree that all people must become Christian, and the Jewish people themselves were more easily able to practice their beliefs.

That said, the non-rebuilding of the temple became a kind of Christian priority, for in the Christian view, it had been superseded. Likewise, Christians to some extent often looked down on Jews as people who had rejected Christ. This, in turn, led to the continuation of antisemitic views that hold in many respects to this day, all because back in 66 A.D. bad local government led a group of Jews in Jerusalem to rebel, and politics in the empire at that time and in the immediate years succeeding demanded that Rome blow up the putting down of the rebellion into a major victory to be celebrated for centuries thereafter.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On "Devotions" by Gary Lutz (1182 words) ****

What is it that makes for a good marriage? The narrator in this story moves from wife to wife, one a boozer, one young, and so on. In one telling passage, the narrator recounts having an apartment where he realizes the person above him has figured out the arrangement of his furniture and is mimicking his each move. Creepy, I suppose, but I can't help but think the narrator is making some kind of comment about marriage, about being known so intimately that there is no escaping surveillance. Read the story here at Web del Sol.

On "Critical Essays on Evelyn Waugh" edited by James F. Carens ***

This book collects various essays about Waugh's work from over the course of time to about 1980, when it was published. As such, it includes reviews, in addition to actual critical work--mostly the opinions of any critic who was famous and then some, so we're talking people like George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Malcolm Cowley. As such, it's a good way to read how Waugh has been perceived over the course of his career.

The first section features chiefly reviews that look out of the course of Waugh's career up to the time of the individual book being reviewed. I got the general feeling from the reviews that Waugh's early satirical work was looked upon well but that his work from Brideshead Revisited onward not so much (except in a few cases where he returns to outright satire, such as in The Loved One). Even Scoop here doesn't seem as often pointed out as great as one would expect. What I mean is that on the list of 100 great works, the books that generally make it are Scoop, Brideshead, and Handful of Dust, but it seems that the latter is the only one almost wholly respected.

Certainly, all the critics recognize something different about Brideshead and to an extent the later work. At least one essay acknowledges that this difference actually makes for richer art: the characters are more fully drawn, the texts that much more personal in tone. But many of the critics point out Brideshead's faults: the turn to Catholicism at the end from a narrator who has been anti-Catholic seems false. The former should have colored the latter all the way through. They don't like the moralizing Waugh; they prefer the Waugh who makes fun of things and thus keeps his moralizing toned back in the form of satire.

Surprisingly, his final war trilogy often is seen in a fairly good light, in comparison to the middle work, bringing the satire and the deeper characterizations together. Also of note are some comments about the ways that Waugh revised the trilogy after its initial publication. I read the first printing and so did not know of these changes. The main character's remarriage, for example, in the revised version does not end with children of his own, thus meaning the bastard son of his ex-wife is his heir, suggesting in many ways Guy's total cuckolding and his truly final generous act (any kind of war work or work for others on a bigger level is pointless, as it leads to nothing; it is only in the small, familial act that Guy can manage any sort of value, but even this is a final expunging of himself).

Another common theme in the reviews is Waugh's traditionalism and his snobbery. He likes Catholicism at least in part because it espouses tradition and "rightful class." In a world that is falling apart, in which there is nothing to believe in, there is only tradition to keep us whole. The morality of the upper classes may be questionable (just as it is of the lower classes), but tradition can carry us through, keep us from burying ourselves in the waste. (Never mind if you are one of the lower classes, struggling to get ahead--that's your lot in life, so accept it.) Waugh's writing is seen as being about the fall of England from the world scene, the fall of the landed class, the tragedy of it. (Indeed, I got this feel as I read his works, which probably explains why I didn't care as much for it as I thought I would based on the one book I'd read decades ago.)

The second section of the book deals with specific books. Most appear to justify or show why a particular work is great--and often Waugh's very best. One review looks at Helena, which was generally panned in other essays, showing how Waugh's turn to legend is a model novel. Two reviews look at The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, one mocking Waugh himself and one, by Waugh, defending the work and pointing out how the review was largely personal rather than professional. One review extols the virtues of Put Out More Flags. Richard Wasson's review of A Handful of Dust looks at it as a critique of Victorianism, pointing out again how Waugh essentially knocks down Victorian values and class but notes that there is little to replace them with (they may be empty values and the order imposed may be less-than-ideal, but it's all we have). James F. Carens looks at the final trilogy by Waugh and sees in it the absolute climax of his work, one that balances perfectly satire and sentimentalism, class critiques and class upholding, and so forth. Reading the review, I was almost persuaded that Sword of Honor is a great work of literature; alas, having read it, I'd say it fails on one main point that Henry James once noted as the essence of good literature: it was simply not that interesting of a read to me. So while Sword of Honor shows how war and our desire to change the world on the big scene are actually harmful and how the best way to affect our society for the good is through small, familial roles, the work seemed too scattered to me, the tone inconsistent. Several other essays assess the differences between the final version Waugh created and the earlier, single-published volumes.

A final section of the book looks at Waugh's nonfiction and more generally at Waugh's career, drawing out themes similarly noted in the reviews previously featured. One review of his autobiography claims it to be a stellar work, the other is much less enthusiastic, denoting that Waugh reveals too little about himself. A review of his travel writing denotes that it is great for its genre no matter the author but it is also a great insight into Waugh's fiction, which often covered similar themes and incidents. Waugh, the author notes, was not a person who liked the adventure of travel, which gives his writing a rather peculiar air. One gets the sense he'd rather be at home relaxing. Still, the travel gives him a view of home he would not have otherwise--and that not all good. A final essay looks at Waugh's faith and how it affected even the earliest works, before he became Catholic; there is, in a sense, a theme running through his work, even the early pre-Catholic work, that England holds a certain vacuity of the spiritual, since in adopting Anglicanism it accepted a counterfeit in place of the true Catholic Christianity.

The book overall was a nice reminder to me of how reading criticism can be fun. It was also a reminder of how much aesthetic criticism (this is good and this isn't) is in the eye of the particular reader. Most literary analysis, so far as what I see being published today, has strayed from the idea of simply deciphering whether a work is good or not, but earlier reviewers weren't shy to offer opinions on the matter.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On "Ask Jesus" by Vanessa Blakeslee (1906 words) ***

A Halloween costume ornament stands in for deeper questions about the life of the narrator and a marriage. Looking for the ornament itself is a means of finding the truth lurking behind a relationship. Read the story here at Atticus Review.

On "The Complete Stories" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Waugh isn't famous for the short story form, and I can see why. The stories are certainly accomplished, but they don't have a lot of zip and zing to them. They aren't the sort that I'll be coming back and rereading or that greatly made me think or feel.

The collection runs in roughly chronological order starting in 1926, and then has two sections in the back, one of juvenilia and one of college stories. The latter are interesting to read in terms of seeing his development. I've sometimes wondered, reading classic stories from decades before my birth, whether I'd be as unimpressed by the unpublished stuff from the era as I often am by most amateur stories now.

Waugh is not known for being experimental, but the first story in the collection is a foray into that. It feels quite modernist in what it tries to do, which is essentially translate silent film into writing, while also focusing on a couple of audience members. I found it difficult to follow--and unfortunately not interesting enough to really want to try to parse it apart.

From there, we move to more traditional faire. "A House of Gentlefolks" focuses on a man who is hired to be a tutor to an idiot and to accompany him abroad, but once we meet the idiot's parents and family, we have reason to question who in the family is the real dolt.

"The Manager of 'The Kremlin'" is backstory about a man who runs a bar that is reminiscent of Russia. We learn how he was in the army and fell into poverty and the lucky break that got him where he is today. The real power of this story, however, comes in its last line. He's lived a good life, but you come to realize that it is still a life of loss.

The next two stories seem to be somewhat veiled explications of Waugh's first marriage. As such, they are both quite accomplished.

"Incident in Azania" draws from the same characters as Waugh's novel Black Mischief. As such, it is in part about colonialism. In this tale, the daughter of a colonial authority comes to live in the colony and is thus the heartswell of most of the other men who have come from overseas. Her presence proves to be very disruptive, until she disappears, as happens in "these kind of places."

"Bella Fleace Gives a Party" is about a ninety-something woman who decides to throw a ball. Not knowing any of her neighbors and rarely leaving her mansion, the venture brings new life to her. There's a certain sadness at the end of the story, with Fleace's seeming lack of success, but Waugh cuts it down by mostly playing it for irony rather than pity. I could see the tale being something truly cry-worthy in the hands of another master.

I must really like dark and twisted stories because one of my favorites in this collection reminds me much of other stories I like so much. "The Man Who Liked Dickens" is in the realm of many of Paul Bowles's stories; it's about a man who goes overseas and finds himself in a situation far beyond what his own cultural understanding will allow him to deal with. It's a kind of kidnapping story, a story about a trap, a story that takes something we usually love and makes it dreary and scary. In a sense, one could read it as a tale about the dangers of illiteracy and about the even greater dangers of cultural illiteracy.

That story also ended up being the ending of Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust. "By Special Request" brings back the characters of Brenda and Tony Last, giving a separate and happier ending to that Waugh's novel. Having just finished the novel a day earlier when I read the story, it was hard for me to read the story as a piece on its own. Rather, I kept putting it into the context of "alternate ending." As an alternate ending, it did not leave the novel with much in the way of gravitas, as Brenda's horrid actions come to be merely a fun and temporal diversion. The story then hints at Tony's conceivable revenge, though one that is hard to fathom given his ultimate loyalty to his wife. Good it is that the other story became the novel's climax.

"Period Piece" is a forgettable tale about woman who in old age has taken up reading novels in zest. When confronted with how they are so "made up" and ridicilous, she goes on a long diatribe about how life was actually "like that" in the old days. It is the diatribe that makes up most of the story.

"Mr. Loveday's Little Outing" is similarly cruel in its ending, with that ending being its seeming main purpose. Years earlier, Loveday was committed to an asylum for a murderous crime. A woman visiting her father notices how seeming sane Mr. Loveday is. In fact, the asylum director says that the man helps out the staff constantly and would greatly miss the man, who has no desire to leave, though he clearly doesn't need to be locked up anymore. So the woman sets about to free the man, who does not wish to leave save to do one little last thing he greatly desires.

"Winner Take All" is another rather cruel story, one that seems to be something of a recurring theme in Waugh's work: of a passive man taken advantage of by others, most especially by women. Here, that man is the second son of a noble family who sees every piece of good fortune that comes his way redirected to his older brother by his ever-dominating and -interfering mom.

Another of the better stories in the collection is "An Englishman's Home." Save for the trick ending, this story is one the riles the emotion and the brain with its discussion of the dynamics of village life and local politics. Mr. Metcalfe owns a small villa that normally includes about sixty-six acres. But he doesn't really need or want the other sixty and so doesn't buy the adjoining farmland. All is fine on his six acres until a developer one day buys the other sixty, putting the entire community at risk of seeing itself changed overnight. Of course, it being land that normally adjoins Metcalfe's property, the community believes Metcalfe should buy the developer out; meanwhile, Metcalfe, who neither needs nor wants the extra sixty acres, thinks the community should bind together to buy the extra land, that he should only pay about one-fifth of the total property. Fights ensue. Selfishness threatens all.

"The Sympathetic Passenger" is a silly short piece about a man who hates radios but whose hate is compromised when he meets yet another man who hates them to a great, insane degree more.

"Work Suspended: Two Chapters from an Unfinished Novel" isn't really a story but rather exactly what it says it is. In another way, it is about the way that war interrupts life, for it is war that essentially draws the novel to its close, suspends it. The novel itself is about a writer of thrillers who is having a hard time writing, having grown tired of formula. This writer also loses his father in an accident, the man who caused the accident becoming something of an acquaintance and a drain. Meanwhile, the writer falls for a married woman named Lucy, the wife of a friend. He builds a new country home. The two spend much time together, but she has a baby and that's where it ends. And also, there is a sycophantic young woman who is in love with the writer and his work who chases him around until she realizes he loves Lucy. It is a rather great start to a book and a shame in some ways to have come to an abrupt end.

Another story that feels more like a work not completed is "Charles Ryder's School Days," perhaps an unpublished excerpt from Brideshead Revisited or a character study for the work. The story recounts the early years of Ryder, during the First World War, when his mother is killed. Off at boarding school, he is granted a certain sympathy. But the real focus of the story is the pecking order among the boys and the faculty's effect on it. Though three kids are ahead of him (including Ryder) in seniority, O'Malley is chosen to monitor the dorm, because, as the headmaster explains, O'Malley needs discipline. He has less character than the other boys. Ryder is asked to support O'Malley numerous times, both by O'Malley himself and by the teacher. As children (really, teens) refuse to go to bed on time "Tacitor to participate in prayer at the chosen moment, O'Malley is faced with choosing between loyalty to his friends and doing his job, the latter generally being his ultimate decision. But the story does not seem to go beyond that; Ryder is the same kid at the start as at the end, and there doesn't seem to have been any moment of decision or chance to change, which is why this piece ultimately feels less like an independent story to me and more like a descriptive background study.

A long but gorgeous story is "Scott-King's Modern Europe." This piece reminded me a bit of Nabokov's writing. It's about a middle-aged man who teaches classics at a public school, a job that is becoming more obsolete with each passing school year, as fewer students sign up to Greek, Latin, and the classics. Scott-King has taken an interest in an eighteenth-century writer named Bellorius and studies him in his spare time. One day, he receives an invitation from the fictional country of Neutralia, Bellorius's nation, which is to hold a grand festival in the writer's honor. As it turns out, most of the invitees know little of the writer, and as the festivities continue, it becomes clear that the country is in the midst of a civil war of sorts. A scholarly trip to nostalgia turns into a nightmare attempt to escape. Ironically, it is just such escape that moves Scott-King to embrace older times rather than the modern ones.

"Tactical Exercise" is another of Evelyn Waugh's exercises in the clever and macabe. Here, Waugh explains how a couple marries later in life (by mid-twentieth-century standards) and grows to hate one another. Finally, tired, they head off to vacation. Here, the husband plots to kill his wife, setting up rumors about her sleep walking and feeding her drugs, only to find that the circumstances are not as they seem.

"Compassion" reads like a magazine puff piece in parts more than as a story. It is about a military officer who sees his job primarily as one involving military missions but who is slowly won over to aiding displaced Jewish persons in the Yugoslavic areas of Europe as World War II draws to a close. In that conversion, he runs into many a military man who thinks as he once did, and he finds that a lack of success, of being unable to stop suffering, is also a means of learning.

"Love among the Ruins" is a sci-fi story that reads like any other number of works about technologically advanced societies verging on totalitarian: Brave New World and The Clockwork Orange being two that come most readily to mind. Here, people get new faces, get sterilized or have abortions to maintain careers, go through prison reformatory systems, and get free euthanizations by the state because they are bored, bored, bored. Among these people is Mile Plastic, an orphan with a penchant for starting fires who has been sent to prison and reformed. The sole graduate of the program, the state has much interest in touting his successes. But much like the people around, he finds very little meaning to his existence and longs for a return to prison, until love provides something that at least seems real.

"Basil Seal Rides Again" returns to the character of Basil, who figures prominently in the very first story of the collection and who also plays a role in many of Waugh's novels (alas not anything more than a mention in any of the novels that I've read). Here, Basil is concerned about a certain young man named Charles Albright, who seems to be up to no good: he borrows shirts, plays guitar, has little wealth, and so on--in other words, he's like Basil was at an earlier age. The most interesting passages have to do with Basil's going away to a resort to lose weight, however, as his daughter covorts with an unknown suitor. The cruel and self-interested ending, I suppose, is standard behavior for Basil.

The book ends with a collection of Waugh's juvenalia and college stories. The juvenalia supposedly is to show what a genius he was for storytelling at a young age (twelve), but I didn't find the stories all that unusual for a child that age with a literary bent: a heavy emphasis on action, unncessary details when provided. However, by the age of twenty, Waugh's stories start to take on a certain panache. The start of a novel, while beginning with the cliché of a character waking up, displays a mastery of language and actually reminded me a bit of Brideshead Revisited--lop off the slow beginning, and the tale had potential. "An Essay" is a great display/description of a character with something of a twist at the end. Such stories got me thinking about when/how writers bloom, and I think there's something to be said for the maturing that begins to take shape in the early twenties; arguably, it's possible one doesn't advance much beyond the skills one builds by age twenty-five, assuming some good instruction.

That said, the stories in the section of Waugh's college years, while displaying a better mastery of language than the early juvenalia, often (too often) display an overwhelming interest in killing and murder: something rather common, I found, among writers who are young adults when I taught college English. In "Portrait of a Young Man with Career" the protagonist fantasizes about killing a man who has come to visit with him. "Edward of Unique Achievement" is a rundown of how a college man kills his tutor and gets away with it. "Conspiracy to Murder" is a Poe-like story about a man who goes insane thinking his neighbor wants to kill him. "Unacademic Exercise" is about some sort of ritualistic cannibalism cult. And while the last story, about cricket, gets away from these macabre themes, it still isn't at the level of Waugh's adult material.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On "Wagner in the Desert" by Greg Jackson (7940 words) ****

In "Wagner in the Desert" a man recounts his activities among a set of friends in California. He's writing a novel and chasing a woman who is happy enough to let him play with her. His friends are trying to make a movie and a baby. Together, they try out various things on their baby bucket list--things to do before one has a baby to tie one down. They seek sponsors for a movie (i.e., one is a guy named Wagner). They have sex. They do drugs. Lots of them. And that is what gives their world so much character. In a sense, there's a kind of sadness percolating beneath this story's heroics, for while there's much going on, there's really little of consequence. Read the story here at the New Yorker.

On "Unconditional Surrender" by Evelyn Waugh ***

In the final book of Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, we finally see a direct tie to the sword. I'd thought Waugh one to actually believe in some kind of efficacy of war to personal manhood--something a bit different for post-World War II literature--but I think the sword and the last book probably brings satire back to the fore. The sword is something on display during the World War II in Britain, something everyone wants to go to see, but it isn't really British. It's a gift of sorts, a commodity, as so much else in this war is. Take, for example, a hero named Trimmer, whose heroism is trumped up by the military after what is actually a bad accident, even still in this third book.

The main character, Guy Crouchback, however, remains the center of attention. Keen on joining the army and being part of the action at the start, he still finds himself interested in such even in this third book. But by the novel's end, his interests and devotion turn elsewhere. Making his life have meaning becomes doing good for others, not in battle but in the realm of the family.

A retelling of Waugh's short story "Compassion" plays a large role in this novel's ending--and this transformation. Guy becomes the main character of that story, helping Jewish refugees find food. That sort of compassion is also what leads to the familial ending.

The ongoing subplot about Guy's ex-wife also finds center stage for much of the book, as she find herself in difficult circumstances that continue to become more difficult, her life of vacuity and immorality finally catching up with her. The subplot regarding Guy's being taken for a spy also gets some play, but it never reaches proportions that make it wholly satisfying--it keeps him from some work but usually also puts him back into the same work, depending on the characters interpreting the data for their own purposes. Satire, I'm guessing, is Waugh's main concern here, but the fact that this subplot rolls through the background without ever really coming to the fore makes it something of a disappointing set of twists.

Other characters who played large roles throughout the trilogy end up writing torrid novels about their experiences, dying in meaningless battles, or dying simply of old age (Guy's father). The various ends are tied up, but I found myself more interested in simply finishing the book to have it done than in caring much about what happens to any one of the characters.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

On "On Guard" by Evelyn Waugh (about 2800 words) ****

"On Guard" is an enjoyable romp through the vagaries of love. Milly is a woman whose nose is so beautiful that it attracts many suitors, each of whom she fancies for a short time before spurning. One suitor leaves her a little dog to which she becomes devoted. The dog is to guard her from others suitors so that when this suitor returns, he can marry Milly. The tale is mostly the story of how this dog tries to keep other men away. It has a cruel ending, but in other ways, the story seems a kind of exploration on the way that some people waste their youthful years in flirtatiousness to end up alone once beauty wains. Read the story here.

On "Officers and Gentlemen" by Evelyn Waugh **

The second book in the Sword of Honor trilogy takes quite some time getting going. It follows Guy Crouchback as he moves into active service. But it also follows a number of other characters, both at home and abroad. As such, at times, I found it hard to follow, not because the writing is dense but because I just wasn't pulled forward enough to care.

Near the start, we learn that Crouchback's nephew has become a prisoner of war. His father schemes to keep his two-bedroom residence out of the service of army officers quartering in England. And Guy himself is on a mission to hunt down his dead friend Apthorpe's goods to distribute them according to his will/desire. We run into Guy's old wife and several army friends of his. There's a subplot about Guy maybe being a spy (based solely on misunderstandings) that never gets developed. There's a neat little segment where a man who fails in his mission gets promoted after the army dresses up what happened in its best language. In this absurdist and humorous sense, the book seems much like Catch-22; but unlike that book, this book doesn't for the most part seem to have as much gravitas. I didn't find myself caring that much about the characters or being sideswiped by sudden, shocking violence, until near the end.

I suppose Waugh is aiming for a climax, which is why the plot seems to kick in in the last hundred pages, when Crouchback, after being reassigned from his old unit to a commando unit, now as a communications officer, goes on a mission to Crete, where the troops beat a hasty retreat and Crouchback's own unit is left deserted--to surrender. More happens after that (we learn why they were left, for example), of course, as there is a third book and more war adventures to come.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

On "Out of Depth" by Evelyn Waugh (1699 words) ***

"Out of Depth" is a science fiction story of sorts, one that plays with ideas related to black magic. The main character meets a magician, wishes nothing to do with him, but then somehow ends up being pulled into his orbit. Said magician hurtles him into a future five hundred years hence in which London society has been turned upside down. We get the sense that some kind of devastating war has taken place and society has been propelled backward centuries in technological innovation. Read the story online here.

On "Men at Arms" by Evelyn Waugh ***

The first novel Waugh's trilogy Sword of Honor, this one essentially provides an account of Guy Crouchback's training in the military at the start of World War II. In many ways, the timeline matches that in Waugh's own life. Too young to fight in World War I and too old to fight in World War II, Waugh/Crouchback joined a untraditional group of soldiers for officer training.

Crouchback is divorced without kids. He suffers from a kind of feeling of worthlessness of life. The military, fighting for a cause, will give him something to live for. Alas, it doesn't want him. It is only after a relative tells him of this special brigade that he is able to get in.

What follows are a series of humorous little stories about training. Particularly funny scenes involve one in which Crouchback is about to get back with his former wife but keeps getting interrupted by phone calls from his best army buddy. Another involves the friend's thunder box, which the brigadier takes a liking to and which Crouchback and his friend constantly try to hide.

Overall, one gets the sense that the military is a rather funny place. This is the Bill Bailey type military, one that succeeds, when it does, despite incompetence. There didn't seem to be much in the way of angst here, except a tiny bit toward the very end--and that mostly personal rather the military/war related. As such, the book didn't seem as tied in to most of the other post-1900 war literature I've read.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On "Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure" by Evelyn Waugh (2031 words) ***

"Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure" is notable mostly for its voice, that of a young girl who falls in and out of love most ficklely, as people are wont to do on overseas cruises to Egypt. One gets the sense she is about twelve, at an age when understanding the viccisitudes of adult relationships is just beginning to don on her. Read the story here.

On "Scoop" by Evelyn Waugh ****

Another comic novel by the master, some say his best, this one focuses on skewering the profession of journalism. John Boot is a novelist who wants to escape a relationship with a gal by becoming a foreign correspondent and thus leaving the country. He calls up a connection of his, who promises to get him a position with a newspaper, which she then does.

Alas, the person in charge of hiring Boot mistakes the directive for a different Boot--William Boot--who writes a column for the paper on country living. And thus begins a novel of mistaken identity, a theme that is nearly dropped until the novel's end. William, thus, is presented with no choice but to go the Ishmaelia if he is to keep his job. Ishmaelia is an African country in the heat of civil war. And thus he packs--or buys the many things he is told that he'll need.

It's here, about a third into the novel, that the work loses steam for me. The jokes come furiously in the first third, somewhat less furiously thereafter, but more important, they become more and more easy jibes at the profession and at the characters involved. William Boot is something of a dolt who manages through incompetence and intransigence and even a little common sense (that other reporters seem to lack) to become a great foreign correspondent. Along the way he meets Katchen, a married woman whose husband has disappeared and with whom he falls in love. She promises to feed him news stories in exchange for various favors--mostly money. It becomes clear that she is primarily a gold digger (literally and metaphorically), but William, to all disadvantage, continues to support her in his grand love.

Waugh writes of one legendary journalist who tells great stories. This journalist, he notes, was sent to a country where nothing was going on and through the strength of his reports managed to get every nation to send troops to it to stop a civil war that until then had not even existed. For Waugh, news is in many ways not something that is reported but something that is created.

In this sense, this novel remains relevant in our day of "fake" news. What a media outlet chooses to report shapes what happens as much as it reflects what is really happening. Hence, one network's focus on the Trump campaign's Russian ties brings that prospect into a certain reality, while another network's almost complete ignoring of the story in favor of Clinton's botched e-mail server creates an alternate reality. Each in their own way shape and foster who holds power within the nation. Without reporting, Trump's indiscretions could never lead to whatever downfall might await us. The extent that those indiscretions are exaggerated or minimized--real or not--affects whether that downfall ever comes. If and when the downfall does come, it'll largely be at the hands of those reporting.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

On "Excursion in Reality" by Evelyn Waugh (4499 words) *****

One of the better tales Waugh tells is "Excursion in Reality"--or perhaps I'm just a sucker for Hollywood stories. In this one, a novelist is recruited to rewrite Hamlet for the motion pictures--but to update it in terms of language. In the process, of course, with studio committees what they are, the play loses much of its actual being. Meanwhile, the novelist's fickle relationship with his girlfriend is put on hold, as he becomes wrapped up in a completely other affair. Methinks Waugh uses the term reality ironically. Read the story here.

On "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh *****

I've come late to this classic novel, in part because the work always seemed like it would be something boring to me: the title, the idea that this is about some kind of life among upper-class Brits. And it is the latter, as most of Waugh's is, but it is magnificent.

What do I like about this book? It has a very strong voice, one that beguiles, that ropes one in, as if it were a true-to-life memoir. And secondly, it takes religion seriously--and respectfully--which is not something one sees in a lot of post-1900 fiction.

The story is about one Charles Ryder, an officer in the army who comes upon the Brideshead estate in his work. This is the frame through which the story of the estate--of his relationship with it--is told.

Most of that relationship is with Sebastian, the younger brother of the four children to whom the estate might one day fall. Sebastian and Charles meet at Oxford, where they do as many college students do: they drink and they party. This is the bulk of the first half of this book. It is a story of friendship. And it feels as if it is going nowhere, and yet, as I noted, it beguiles. I was reminded of On the Road, another book about a friendship that has only a loose plot that somehow manages to keep readers hooked. We're not driven to find out "what happens." We just enjoy learning about these young men, sharing in their fun times and enthusiasm for life. And most of all learning about the fun, strange character Sebastian, who carries a teddy bear with him as a friend.

While one can clearly read the story as one of male friendship, there is a subtext of homosexuality going on as well. Some of the friends of the pair are clearly of that persuasion, and at various times we are provided strange asides: the two too naked in a bedroom to come out to see their sister, the two being denoted as not interested in women by other relatives. But Waugh keeps that in the background; his focus is on friendship. This might be a reflection of the time in which Waugh wrote or it might be more that friendship is Waugh's concern here. Or both.

Alas, a plot does kick in. The drunken escapades become more regular, and from here the novel loses some energy as it becomes more and more concerned with Sebastian's alcoholism. Attempts are made to keep him from drinking, and one sees the strain that is put onto a friendship in which one is confronted with wanting to help one's friend in two different ways: giving the friend the freedom he wants but also keeping the friend from destroying himself.

Eventually, Sebastian wanders off into Europe and Africa and drifts apart from Charles, who has become a kind of member of the family. Eventually, Charles is sent to find Sebastian to tell him of his mother's impending death, but such ends up being the climax and end to the friendship. Years later, having moved into a career as a painter and married, Charles meets again Sebastian's sister Julia. The two have an affair, and one has to think that it is in part an unspoken love for Sebastian and for times past that draws them together.

Charles is the lone cynic among the family of Catholic believers. His agnosticism is the point of view from which the novel is written, and thus much of the book is about Charles attempting to understand the family's devotion to Catholicism. It is in this sense that the book takes religion seriously, for rather than dismiss religion, in the end, Charles comes to have an understanding of its meaning.

Waugh, himself a Catholic, thus wrote a Catholic novel. If we take this as being his view of the church, one would see within it a way to stave off or deal with the issues of modernity and death, a way to put order to the world. It's more a feeling than a logic or way of life, insofar as its enacted in the novel, though I'm sure Waugh would see that to be very much logical in itself.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On "Too Much Tolerance" by Evelyn Waugh (1543 words) ***

Just as "Love in the Slump" seems in part a commentary on Waugh's first marriage, so too on some level does this one, "Too Much Tolerance," which is about a very happy man who lets himself be taken advantage of by his business partner, son, and (ex-)wife. But all is good in his book. Something was odd about this piece to me insofar as I didn't really feel bad for the man--perhaps because even though he had much to complain about, he was so happy despite it all. Maybe there's something to being a Penelope. Read the story here.

On "A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Were it not for the masterfully cold ending--one that is an almost verbatim casting of Waugh's great story "The Man Who Liked Dickens"--this novel likely would have been almost entirely forgettable. This is not Waugh the humorist at work here; this is Waugh the bitter divorcee. There is plenty of commentary about English high society, and the story itself is compelling enough to keep one reading, but the book consists in large chunks of dialogue and much of it not very good. Characters speak for paragraphs, expositorily telling the story: "I am going to do X, and then because I feel this way, I will do Y. Do you think that will please my spouse or will it make for hurt? I do so hope for hurt." "I believe that your husband will find your actions to be difficult to adjust to. He has always been . . ." And several of the central characters in the story have little to recommend themselves as people.

The book is forged mostly around the Lasts--Tony and Brenda--who maintain an estate called Hetton and throw regular parties. A man named Beaver comes to visit Tony, a man whom Tony barely knows. Brenda takes a kind of liking to him. He is young and difficult to make love her, and that is precisely why she likes him.

Bored by life in the country and wanting to take up with Beaver, Brenda arranges to rent a flat in London that the family can barely afford. She tells Tony it is so that she can study economics. More and more time is spent away from him--and more and more time with Beaver. Tony never seems to catch on, even as Brenda and Beaver become the talk of high society.

Brenda attempts to set Tony up with another woman. The efforts fails masterfully.

Meanwhile, their son John (whose age is hard to fathom since he too speaks in complete paragraphs) is left without a mom. Reared by nannies and butlers, he has a great liking for horse riding. And it is a tragedy involving him that brings the whole affair to light.

So little sympathy can be thrown Brenda's way by the time that divorce is in the offing, Waugh's description of her next acts make her utterly detestable. She's conned her husband of money for months, ignored her child, and taken up with another man. And now Tony agrees to go through with setting up a divorce for her by faking his own affair. The attempt does not go well, but rather than be happy with the alimony Tony is offering, Brenda opts to sue him for an amount that will force Tony to put the family estate on the auction block, this so that she can be supported in the manner in which she is used to and so that her lover, Beaver, can be supported as well (since he has no means of support for himself). It is this that pushes Tony to run away to the jungles of Brazil, where the story's final tragic ending comes into being.

What readers get then is a sense of the utter desolation that divorce works on a man, one that is put into metaphor by Tony's experiences in the jungle. But because the text seems so one sided, the characters fail ultimately to feel fully forged.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On "Love in the Slump" by Evelyn Waugh (3291 words) ****

"Love in the Slump" focuses on a marriage between two friends--a couple who decide to try out marriage because they are getting toward the end of their marrying years and haven't found anyone. Alas, one gets the feeling that as companionable as they are, they still act and feel single, which does not bode well for the future. Read the story here.

On "Decline and Fall" by Evelyn Waugh ****

Waugh's first novel showcases the same dry humor that is apparently present in most of his fiction. Throughout, great one liners are popped off randomly. Meanwhile, the story itself is, while funny, somewhat dark. However, Waugh is definitely English. There's a kind of obsession with class and with title that doesn't quite exist in the same way in American fiction.

The story revolves around one Paul Pennyfeather. Waugh denotes it himself toward the end of the book: Pennyfeather is a static character. Things happen to him, rather than he doing things to others. And that's right where the book starts. Paul is studying to become a minister when he is mistaken for a person from another college, a person whom revelers see fit to attack by stripping him and forcing him to dance naked in public. This results in Paul losing his place at the divinity school and sets into process the rest of the novel's events.

Where Paul ends up first is at a school for young boys. Waugh, in this first part of the book, pokes easy fun at academia and teaching. Paul has no credentials, but he seems utterly perfect to the man doing the hiring. The main job, it seems, of the teacher is mostly to babysit the students. At the school, Paul meets several other men, including Grimes, a former military man; and a man who tells tall tales about himself. The latter ends up being a crook of sorts and is arrested. The former marries but is already married, and so gets caught for bigamy, fakes his death, and escapes.

Paul opts to marry into a noble family, the mother of one of his students. Unbeknownst to him, the woman is a purveyor of prostitution, procuring young English girls for use overseas. Paul, believing he is helping the girls attain noble standards, agrees to help out with the family business, but on the eve of his wedding, he is arrested. His job finally becomes plain to him.

Now in prison, he meets up with all the people he used to teach with. Like Grimes, who begins anew by faking his death at each ill turn, Paul is given such an option as well.

Do we feel for Paul? He is a rather pitiful character, and I found myself not that concerned about him until, in prison, his fiancee, who is the cause of his imprisonment, announces she is marrying someone else. The odd thing is that by this time, Paul doesn't care: he hurts because he doesn't hurt, as Waugh writes. That's the sad part, that he seems so lost to any good in life.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

On “Dalyrymple” by J. C. Hallman (2005 words) ****

"Dalyrimple" is an odd tale of a man who offers sleep sessions for a fee. Pay a price for a half hour, hour, day, or ??? What are the ramifications if someone decides to sleep forever? Who is responsible and is this more-or-less death or something else? These are some of the questions the story poses. Read the story here.

On "Brief Lives: Evelyn Waugh" by Michael Barber ***

Part of a series that a friend of mine read volumes from a decade or so ago, this book gives a tad more information about Waugh's life than one would read in an encyclopedia but a good deal less than one would read in a fuller biographical expose. As such, it's a bit workmanlike, spilling out facts but not bringing Waugh quite to life the way a longer biography likely could and would. But it's a great for someone like me, who didn't really want to read a really long life study.

In Barber's hands, Waugh comes across as something of a bore to me. He had a caustic wit and seemed to treat people generally rudely, though the wit kept him semipopular. He was also obsessed with British tradition and class. These sort of things suggest to me that I would not have much cared for the man.

Waugh's life began rather rough, not in the sense that he grew up underprivileged but rather he grew up the less-liked son of a family. Alec, his brother (a novelist I've also read but did not realize was actually related), was papa's favorite. Thus, Evelyn and his father did not get along very well. Arguably this helped to create Evelyn's personality. One thing his father did do, however, was introduce him to literary culture, for his father was a literary biographer, and often he read aloud Dickens and other nineteenth-century British authors.

Evelyn graduated to the university, where he studied literature and generally drank too much. He took up with other men, since it was an all-male school. But afterward, almost on a seeming whim, he would marry a woman named Evelyn. She-Evelyn was looking to escape her family and was not really in love with Evelyn. This would prove fateful, as a year later, she would run off with someone else. Still, the marriage granted Evelyn access to the noble class, which is something he seemed to want.

Evelyn, the writer, would turn to Catholicism to address issues with regard to the modernizing of society. Like T. S. Eliot, Evelyn seemed to find in long Western tradition the means to address changes brought about by modernism. As such, he seems like a man out of his time. Indeed, his writing, well often greatly satiric, is fairly traditional; early Evelyn experimented a bit, but he came to think that traditional techniques were all that were needed.

Catholicism wouldn't really affect his sexual behavior, however. He would continue pursue and bed women, including married ones. And he would continue to drink.

And he would marry again too, to another aristocrat. He would travel a lot, in part to write about it. He would mingle with the British literary crowd, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, and others. He would live in an old estate that he'd purchase expressly for the sake that it would look as if it had been around (in the family) for generations.

While he would enjoy quite a bit of success before World War II, his reputation would begin to take a hit later. World War II itself would prove, personally, useful to him in terms of giving him experiences to write about. He set about to become part of it. He would not, however, rise far as an officer, and the three major campaigns he was a part of would each prove not to be very successful. Waugh wasn't really cut out, personality wise, for the military anyway.

Nor does it seem that he was cut out well to be a father. He tended to spend as little time as possible with his children (though that was likely also the British way at the time--he being of a generation not far from my own father, who often denotes how parents at that time did not dote on their kids). The kids themselves, generally, appreciated his humor and were not, according to the biographer, resentful.

The war would provide fodder for his trilogy, in the midst of which he would have a breakdown, which would become material for another book. He would sue and be sued for things he'd say about others and they about him. He'd grow old. And the world would change, and he'd continue on in his conservative aristocratic leanings and seem to be of another time and era.

After his death, the posthumous publication of his diaries and letters and the television production of his novel Brideshead Revisited (a rather atypical book for him) would restore his reputation and bring him back to the literary conversation.

Friday, April 28, 2017

On "Princess of Pop" by Vanessa Blakeslee (3542 words) ***

This is essentially the tale of Brittany Spears retold in lyrical prose. Read the story here.

On "The Loved One" by Evelyn Waugh *****

I last read this book toward the end of my senior year of high school. I remember loving it and wishing I'd picked Waugh for my senior paper instead of Thomas Hardy (who I'd chosen as the least of the uninteresting British writers much earlier in the year). Yet strangely, I never went back and read more of Evelyn Waugh.

And now, here is it nearly thirty years later, and I'm finally picking him up again, with the intention of reading much more of this humorous British novelist.

The book, which I remembered was being about a love affair between morticians, one of whom was a plagiarizing poet, was enjoyable again, as it was those decades ago. I can see why I liked it so much in my late teen years: it was funny, and it was dark. The latter probably would have made me like it even more in my early twenties. For it has, under its core, some of the same themes that pop up in many other modernist works. I was reminded quite a bit of the two most famous novels of Nathaniel West, both because of its setting and because of its use of advice column letters.

Also of note--things I didn't remember: The book is about Hollywood, most specifically British writers in Hollywood. There's a good amount of skewering of the movie industry in addition to that of the funerary industry. And the morticians--well, one of them works at a pet cemetery. I laughed out loud at some parts.

I could say something here about how the interest in death is also about the death of the soul, how the main character's interest in becoming a minister merely to make money represents the loss of religion, how he returns to art to replace religion, after losing his artistic abilities to the materialist interests bound within capitalism, which even tries to sell you on burial spots for your pets. Or I could focus on the title and try to ferret out what it is Waugh is saying about our "loved ones." But those sort of philosophical ideas, while perhaps interesting, to me now seem perhaps a bit put on and also lead me to the one fault I have with the novel in these my older years: it doesn't have much heart. It is a vicious book. Funny, but in the end, these characters are cardboard and/or dreadful, and while I enjoyed the book, I didn't find myself caring much about the people themselves. This isn't to say that all books must accomplish this; I like scathingly funny works, dark works, works with characters no one can love too--but I probably prefer most those books that in the end make me feel, and care.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On “Dendromancy” by Zach Falcon (904 words) ****

"Dendromancy" is about a young man in love with a witch, a real one, into black magic, not "white witchcraft." The story seems innocuous enough, and then it takes a very unsavory turn that shocks, except it's told in such a humdrum manner that one gets the feeling that the narrator does not feel deeply about much, except maybe the beauty of the world. Read the story here at Hawk and Handsaw.

On "The Monopolists" by Mary Pilon *****

I'd had this on my list to read, and then I was listening to the podcast 99% Invisible, and the author was interviewed for the show, and I figured the whole story was just about given away. After all, she went into pretty good detail regarding the origin and histories of the game of Monopoly, something I knew just a bit about.

As it turns out, however, the podcast merely skimmed the surface. Another good chunk of this book is about a court case--and about trademark (in addition to copyright and patents) and what it means for inventors and businesses. As such, this book becomes much more than a history. It becomes a kind of polemic, one that will invest you emotionally and will make you a bit angry. You'll cheer the little guy here, which is to say that on one level, this book focuses more on the disadvantages of trademark than the advantages, on the way trademark stifles innovation and small business. My wife, by contrast, pointed out to me that trademark actually protects the little people, and she has a point. There are usually two ways to look at things. No one would want to go into a store and buy a Gucci handbag and then have it fall apart two weeks later (because it wasn't really Gucci); in this sense, trademark protects the consumer. We know when we buy a brand or product that we are actually getting what we have purchased, and if someone tries to get around that trademark, that person will be punished, eventually, so that counterfeiting is discouraged.

But I like a book to rile me up, and this one did. The history part becomes part of the recounting of the lawsuit. The game essentially arose like this: a certain woman named Lizzie Magie created a board game to promote the economic theories of Henry George. That theory essentially promoted a single tax system--a property tax. That way, in theory, excessive landowning would be discouraged, and landlords would not be able to charge exorbitant rents for lousy properties. It was a game intended to show the evils of capitalism; it was called The Landlords Game. One could play it in two ways, one with a single tax system wherein players ended up working harmoniously or one in a monopolistic way wherein people tried to take advantage of each other. The latter, of course, is what won out.

Her game won little notoriety, but people did play it--and copy it--and change it. Games such as Finance and Inflation all played with similar ideas and concepts. A game very much like Monopoly found form among Quakers in Pennsylvania. Enter Charles Darrow. He plays the game at someone's house one night, then asks that person to write up the rules for him. He hires a professional designer to draw up some pictures and make the components pretty. He then begins selling the work as his own, until finally he sells it to Parker Brothers for big dollars, plus residuals. He claims the game as his own creation. Parker Brothers buys up as many patents of similar games as it can in order to better stake a claim to the rights to Monopoly. Magie gets a whopping five hundred dollars.

Parker Brothers does this because it had been burned in the past. Tiddly Winks and Ping-Pong (formally called Table Tennis) being two games that they invested in and marketed heavily only to see those games be considered public domain. So it has good reason to hold its rights to Monopoly closely.

That's the history part. The court case part considers one Robert Anspach, who creates a game for similar reasons as Magie created hers: to show the evils of capitalism--or rather the evils of monopoly. He calls his game Bust the Trust, but no one knows what a trust is, so he changes the name to Anti-Monopoly and sales begin to take off. Enter Parker Brothers, who claim that Anspach has ripped off their trademark. The rest of the story follows the next ten years of Anspach's life as he goes through hell to defend his right to sell and market his creation. There are surprises along the way, so I won't go deeper into the story than that. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of irony in the story: a game about fighting monopolies that becomes, in a sense, the subject of an intense fight over a monopoly. And in the end, the result is the monopolists and trademark advocates get stronger measures in Congress to defend themselves, lest other people like Anspach come along and create problems for big business. This is the part that really makes one feel angry--how much money really seems to matter in terms of the creation of our laws.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On "The Lung" by Vanessa Blakeslee (2638 words) ***

What is love? Is it trying to force someone to do something they don't want to do for their own good? Or is it sticking by that person, even when they do bad? That's the question Blakeslee poses in this short tale. Read the story here at Split Lip Magazine.

On "Neither Snow nor Rain" by Devin Leonard ****

This history of the U.S. Postal Service is entertaining and easy to read, through perhaps not the most thought provoking. There isn't a strong thesis, as one would see from most more scholarly works. Here, the point is simply to tell us how the postal system has changed over the years and give us some fine anecdotes along the way.

Leonard starts off with a preface that recounts the trips of various postal afficionados, guys with blogs who go traveling to all the various post offices around the United States. But they have to move quick, because those post offices are closing. Many were great architectural works.

And then, we're off, back in the days of colonial America, where the British post master in the colonies generally made money off commission (or really, a salary that only kicked in once one made a profit to pay it). But there were various advantages in terms of connections for one's business; for example, if you owned a printshop and printed newspapers, you could ship your newspaper using the service, and as postmaster, it cost you nill. Benjamin Franklin recognized this advantage and sought the commission for the service, eventually winning it. (Before that, he had bribed postal employees to take his newspaper, since not having the commission, he couldn't get the postal service to carry it.) He then used the commission to send his newspapers accordingly, but he also sent other's papers for a small fee. And he expanded where the service went and how fast it worked, making postal service profitable and then even more so. He and his partner made their salary and became quite well off--enough that Franklin left off actually monitoring the work himself and left it mostly to family members, while he lived in Britain (and then later, after the Revolution, in France).

Even so, sending materials via the post cost a good amount of money. Newspapers generally had a special pricing deal, but for the individual consumer, the cost was such that only the rich generally used the post or the well-connected (politicians generally could send things for free). This inspired various private companies to form, who would send mail for people--companies like Wells Fargo. The U.S. Postal Service stayed out of shipping parcels, which also gave such companies an opportunity. But the private companies could take the best routes, and thus kill off profitability for the postal service. Eventually, Congress passed a law that only the postal service could carry letters. But there were loopholes. For example, it didn't cover letters sent via boat or railroad, and so private companies continued to exploit such loopholes until they were closed. They also were the main bringers of mail to far-flung places like California. Companies like the Pony Express (which only operated for about eighteen months) managed to get mail to the far West much faster overland than the government could do so going around and overland through Panama using a company of ships.

The Postal Service in its early days usually worked by having mail delivered to post offices. People would come to the post office to collect their mail. And that's when one usually paid for the mail--it was collect. There were no stamps. Some took advantage of this by placing short notices on the outside of the letter (envelopes often were not used, because of the extra expense, since charges were by number of pages), much like in the days of pay phones, one might call someone for a ride but that person would not accept the collect call, knowing that the call itself was the signal to come pick the person up. But eventually, stamps were introduced, allowing people to pay for mail in advance. Pricing was made more competitive so that the common person could use the service. And rural routes were introduced, along with home delivery, resulting in fewer post offices. The postal service also began accepting packages, and in the early days, some folks even sent children (up to a certain size limit) through the mail (put the necessary postage on them, and off they go).

But change generally came slowly, and often slower than the postmaster general wished. Congress was often slow to take up new ideas that were being used overseas. The introduction of rural routes, for example, proved to be expensive (and caused losses), as some in the government had feared (because population density was not what it is in Britain, where such experiments were first used). Mail sorting on the railroad was also another innovation, and it sped service quite a bit.

A certain man named Comstock carried out a campaign against sending lewd materials through the postal service, and his work helped to keep various books out of general circulation until the 1930s or so.

Airmail had many fits and starts. In the early day, it was often done by the military, to give pilots something to do in non-warring times. But the military pilots often would not fly in inclement weather, and the postal service wanted to better guarantee service, so when allowed, it hired its own pilots. In some cases, it could speed up delivery by halving the time to send letters, but often weather and crashes interfered, and the service was often cancelled by Congress and then brought back and then cancelled and then put under the military again and so on. Eventually, however, it was farmed out to private carriers at the lowest bid; the proliferation of carriers, however, meant few made much in the way of profit, so one postmaster finally got Congress to lift the bidding requirement--instead, the postmaster chose four carriers to do all the work: the companies that became TWA, United, American, and Eastern airlines. This helped bring in passenger airlines as well. (As short return to military delivery in the 1930s proved a disaster, and the service entered private carrier usage again shortly thereafter.)

Stamp collecting came to be of a certain vogue under FDR, who was himself an avid collector. The post office began to issue commemorative stamps and other items for aficianados, and that generated a lot of profit for the postal service. I got the feeling that this was likely the golden age of the post office (when the postmaster even ran against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1941). After FDR, the office began its descent. Continuing in the red, its buildings aging, its service reduced from twice a day to once a day (because of the decline in the railroad and the proliferation of phone service, even as the number of packages delivered rose), its techniques increasingly outdated (hand sorting, just as had been done in the time of Ben Franklin), the post office would not again have so much positive attention lauded on it.

That decline would reach a crisis point in the 1960s under postmaster O'Brien. So much junk mail would clog the system that there would be a backlog of mail that had become impossible to catch up on and offices too small to hold the backlog; Xmas packages would be delivered in February. The year 1963 saw the introduction of the zip code (first number for region, second for state, and the last three for post office sorting, the last one being the very closest post office). Optical recognition scanners could feed the numbers to computer if the numbers were typed (and 80 percent were, because that was the volume of business mail). The problem: the post office had only one scanner, in Detroit. Unable to raise rates or update technology because of Congressional unwillingness to spend money or raise more, O'Brien suggested turning the post office into a semiautonomous corporation, with a governing board; otherwise, Congress's micromanagement would make it continue to have billion-dollar deficits. AT&T's former CEO (AT&T was profiting about $2 billion per year with twice the volume of message) was brought in for consultation.

While that CEO would have preferred to have privatized the post office, what he ended up recommending was that the service become a federal corporation: it would have its own board, set its own rules, take in the money it needed to pay its own way, but remain part of the government. The plan would not go anywhere until Nixon's presidency, in part because of the opposition of postal worker unions. And just as the plan implementation was about to come into being, postal workers went on strike. They wanted higher wages--and in cities like New York, arguably needed them badly and aggressively. The head of one of the major unions had agreed to the postal organization plan in exchange for a 6 percent raise for workers, but that was not enough for a New York union. Other postal unions in other cities stood with those workers, and mail ground to a halt. This was the 1970s, so mail really was relied on, as it was when I was younger. Without it, paychecks could not be distributed, bills did not go out, payments to bills did not get made. Losses proliferated in the business community. It was sort of hard for me to imagine, to go back to those times, because in the past two decades so much has become electronic--bills and payments and paychecks all can and often are done electronically now. There are options to the mail; not so then.

The strike led to further concessions. Instead of a 6 percent raise, the postal service got a 14 percent raise--6 percent immediately and 8 percent upon implementation of the plan the unions were not keen on.

Meanwhile, private carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL began to offer services. The founding of DHL was rather humorous. The letters stand for the initials of the three founders. They essentially started off by simply offering to deliver time-sensitive materials for people and companies. They literally went to an office, picked up the package, drove to the airport, got on a plane, and then went to where they were supposed to. That would be expensive, so truly these were time-sensitive items. But that became a business. FedEx, a story I'd heard before, began as a college paper that earned a D; the founder had an idea that he, after graduation, put into practice--again to deliver time-sensitive materials. After operating in the red for a few years, it turned a profit in 1978 or so and never looked back. The USPS wasn't happy about the competition and threatened lawsuits and other action, since it has a legal monopoly on carrying letters, but business lobbyists in Congress got USPS to stand down, since ExpressMail never has been quite as dependable as FedEx and some other carriers are.

Meanwhile, with the implementation of the postal corporation, the USPS finally started to turn a profit. Mechanicalization led to needed efficiencies. Bulk and junk mail began to take up more and more of its work. But working conditions were such that some began to feel frustrated and "go postal." Leonard traces two major reasons for this: One was that the postal service tended to hire a lot of army vets, and while they worked with vets with physical disabilities, they did not pay much attention to mental and emotional disabilities coming out of war. Another was that the culture of the postal service was such that once people worked up from regular employees to managers, previous treatment caused them to feel it was their turn to dish out meanness. But a third reason, heavily implied, was that the postal service was also seeing cutbacks--in employees and managers. No matter, the first issue was dealt with, and employees were also provided with a hotline to call to report threats, and after a decade of bad publicity with regard to employees shooting up one another, the problem dissipated.

Alas, the time of surpluses was a short one. The postal service attempted to adapt to the times. It created services such as one where people could send electronic messages to the post office, then have the post office print it out and send it as a hard copy. But these early attempts to deal with the coming electronic age were largely opposed by various lobbyists, who did not want the postal service interfering--or trying to claim a monopoly--in e-correspondence. And then, e-mail really did take off, and first-class mail began to nosedive, especially as bills and bill paying became increasingly fully electronic. The post office saw its mail drop to levels from two decades earlier. Other efforts to update or save money failed also. The post office wanted to cut Saturday service--Congress prevented it (because of the postal workers lobby), even though 70 percent of Americans thought the plan a smart one. Certain rural delivery was to be scratched, but that too was interfered with, though many post offices have been closed. That said, not as many post offices have been closed as would likely have made for more efficiencies. There was a plan, for example, to place postal service kiosks in Sears stores (replacing full-fledged office), but again, lobbyists prevented it from happening.

While the post office bleeds red, its one saving grace during the Internet revolution has been package delivery. Amazon relies on USPS more than on UPS or FedEx. But that is a dubious deal, as Leonard denotes, since Amazon could at any moment pull its support--especially once it forges more efficient means to deliver goods (most likely via its own package delivery service). Such is a quandary I know well. Publishers too find Amazon to be a dubious ally. It sells more books than most other outlets--pays its bills, doesn't return much, makes virtually any book available for purchase to end users--but by controlling so much of the market, it can also more easily dictate terms.

In this sense, the book ends on a sad note. One finds that the postal service has been a great boon to the nation but that in some ways it is aging badly. Attempts to modernize are being interfered with by the government itself. This is where those who argue that private firms do better work win. The postal service could do more to get into the black, but the government and the lobbyists who influence lawmakers won't allow it to do so and then complain when the postal service bleeds red. At the same time, there are reasons the postal service is better as a government entity--most especially because it is the only way some rural clientele are served. The market simply wouldn't provide for such customers. One wishes there were ways to strike a better balance.