Tuesday, March 29, 2016

to the bottom of the earth: a progress report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

leave the gun, take a book

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

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Open to "Hamlet," the Ophelia-spurned scene

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

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

Pedro Páramo and the other dead

This town is filled with echoes. It's like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone's behind you, stepping in your footsteps.
If the dead could speak, what would they say? To whom would they say it?

Pedro is Peter, the rock, the stone. Páramo is a moor, a wasteland. So the title character, the title of this novella, is something like "the stone in the wasteland." I get the impression that Rulfo is implying an inversion of St Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, for Pedro Páramo is the rock upon which the tale is told, and also the rock upon which the characters are dashed and destroyed. There are also historical forces at work, at the edges of the story, piercing the action toward the end in the form of revolutionary armies, but I lack the knowledge of Mexican history to know what those forces mean. I'm left looking at the humanity of the characters and the forms of expressions, the early stirrings of magical realism, that Rulfo puts into Pedro Páramo. Which is plenty enough to think about.
The sky was filled with fat stars, swollen from the long night. The moon had risen briefly and then slipped out of sight. It was one of those sad moons that no one looks at or pays attention to. It had hung there a while, misshapen, not shedding any light, and then gone to hide behind the hills.
The Páramo family is a dynasty of almost feudal landowners somewhere in rural Mexico, the family seat being a hacienda called Media Luna*, outside the town of Comala**. The Páramo patriarchs more or less own Comala and the surrounding ranches, taking what they want by intimidation, corrupt legal dealings, and murder. The Páramo men take whatever women they want, fathering who knows how many illegitimate children, ruining lives as if by instinct.

Rulfo lets the dead of Comala narrate their own stories, in short episodes that build a sort of branching viny picture of the dead town. The first speaker is Juan Preciado, who makes a promise to his dying mother to make a pilgrimage to Comala, to find Pedro Páramo. Páramo is Juan's father. Juan's mother claims to have been Páramo's legal wife before she left him forever. Juan makes the long journey to Comala to discover that everyone in the town has died, that it is populated now only by ghosts whose deaths have brought them neither peace nor rest. Juan learns, in fact, that he himself is one of the dead. Pedro Páramo is a book of the dead speaking to the dead. If you are reading the book, you too may be one of the dead.
I am lying in the same bed where my mother died so long ago; on the same mattress, beneath the same black wool coverlet she wrapped us in to sleep. I slept beside her, her little girl, in the special place she made for me in her arms. I think I can still feel the calm rhythm of her breathing; the palpitations and sighs that soothed my sleep... I think I feel the pain of her death... But that isn't true. Here I lie, flat on my back, hoping to forget my loneliness by remembering those times. Because I am not here just for a while. And I am not in my mother's bed but in a black box like the ones for burying the dead. Because I am dead. I sense where I am, but I can think...
This is all clearly metaphorical speech on the part of Rulfo, maybe a claim that Mexico--or at least parts of rural Mexico--have died due to the violence and greed of someone, I don't know who. I can sense the power behind all of this surrealism, the anger and sadness of Rulfo, but I can't really understand the center of it. Which is fine, because we can all understand the anger and sadness of the world's losers, right? My inability to know the subtleties of Rulfo's argument don't necessarily blind me to either his artistic strengths or his portrayal of suffering.

This is after all a book about suffering. It's Lent as I write this, so I am allowing myself to think about how my people believe that suffering can lead to grace. In Rulfo's ghost town of Comala, suffering leads to nothing but an awareness of one's pain, pain beyond endurance, eternal despair that can never be forgotten. The dry stone in the middle of the wasteland.

* "half moon" (but which half?)

** My Spanish fails me with comala, and the best I can figure is that it's a portmanteau of coma and mala. Someone help me with that one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

the author's sense of doubt: a report on Max Frisch

A few evenings ago I finished reading Max Frisch's 1957 novel Homo faber; ein Bericht. The novel is the tale of Walter Faber, an engineer employed by UNESCO to build hydroelectric dams and other things in third-world countries, who discovers that the world is not a rational and carefully-built machine, and neither is his own life. Yes, that's a good way of putting it, I think. The irony is that Faber himself has never been rational; he's been blindly selfish, objectifying everyone around him; he is given to outbursts of irrationality (on a flight from New York to Mexico City, Faber's plane suffers engine trouble; he lectures his fellow passengers on the safety of airplanes--and as an engineer he knows something about this--but he himself suffers a panic attack; in fact, during an earlier short layover in Texas, Faber collapsed in the men's room and then hid in a broom closet to avoid getting back on the plane) and continually misunderstands the simplest emotions of those around him.

This is by now fairly familiar comic territory, the aging man who has no understanding of real life, whose blindness about himself leads him to carry on with much younger women (he ages, of course, but his romantic targets are always young women and, to Faber, signs of aging are signs of ugliness). Faber makes declarations about the women ("she knows of course that I won't ever marry, and she accepts that") that are usually inaccurate and he disingenuously declares that he "has no idea what she meant--sometimes she talks as if she is crazy" when a woman accuses him of selfishness. We all, I think, know this character, and Frisch's protagonist is well drawn and entertaining, even if painfully so.

The plot of Homo faber is a network of coincidence, an almost Kafkaesque carnival of absurdity where Faber keeps running into people from his past, and through his blundering he wreaks havoc in their lives. The comic novel is generally tragic, you know, the failure of the clown to find happiness in a world whose rules he cannot understand. Walter Faber is a traditional clown character in this respect. Home faber is a traditional comedy in this respect, a fine book full of irony and pathos, until about 3/4 of the way through when Max Frisch, our intrepid author, unfortunately loses his way.

This is the point in the book where the story really ends, where the timelines all collapse, where Frisch has reached the end of his comic sympathy for the engineer-clown Walter Faber. The tragedies are deadly and perverse, and even Faber is emotionally affected, shaken to a core he didn't know he had. This is also fairly familiar territory in a novel, a common spot in which an author will find himself 75% of the way through a story. In the fiction business we call this the end of the second act, the hero's lowest point, the point-of-no-return, etc. This is also the point in Homo faber where the narrative transforms and Faber's dry delivery of the "facts" dissolves into figurative language, sometimes overwhelmed by passages of powerful beauty where author Max Frisch has pushed fictional Walter Faber to the side and picked up the pen himself:
I will never forget how she sat on this rock, her eyes closed, how she stayed silent, letting the sun shine on her. She was happy, she said, and I'll never forget: the sea that became visibly darker, blue, purple, the sea of Corinth and the other, the Attic sea, the red color of the fields, the olives, verdigris, their long morning shadows on the red earth, the first heat and Sabeth, her arms around me, as if I have given her everything, the sea and the sun and everything, and I'll never forget how Sabeth sang!
There is a later passage, describing a summer thunderstorm in Havana, that is equally rich and beautiful, equally not in the voice of our man Faber. Another passage later where Faber rides a passenger plane over the Alps and describes the mountains, the glaciers and the valleys and the clouds, the black shadow of the plane rippling across the ice and snow ("like a bat!"). Reviewers of the novel when it first came out pointed to these passages as a triumph of prose writing but a failure of the novelist's art, a cheating escape from the prison of the first-person narrator. I think those reviewers were correct about that. I think that Frisch got to this point in the narrative and had no idea where to go next, and you feel the author's sense of doubt on every page as he stumbles forward, throwing pages from Faber's diary at us alongside Faber's retelling of his physical/emotional/vocational collapse alongside the updates on his health (stomach cancer). It is a mess.

Perhaps Frisch knew exactly what he was doing. I would like to think he did, and that my desire for Homo faber to be a more unified--or at least less uneven--work is my own shortcoming as a lazy reader. I tend to believe that a sudden shift in style/approach at the end of a novel is a sure sign that the author had no idea what to do with his material in order to bring things to a close, and has panicked.

There is a lot to admire in Homo faber despite the awry ending pages. The passages where Frisch lets go of Faber's limitations and lets himself write beautifully are very fine, well worth reading. The bulk of the book, the tragedy of the clown, is very good indeed. I feel like I'm giving a report but I don't mean to be. I really wanted to talk about the fracturing of the narrative caused by the author's mistrust of his own creation, which in itself was worth seeing, was instructive.


  1. Faber means maker, same as Smith, so Homo faber would be maker-man, yes?


    1. Yes, that's right! Walter Faber narrows life down to single characteristics, for example claiming that men are essentially their jobs and nothing more, that a civilization is its technology, etc. He denies most of life, denies the value of experiences. Facts and machines, that's what he wants to know. Meanwhile, he's having a psychic breakdown.
  2. it sounds like faber wanted to write a book of contrasts, describing selfishness and relating that to a wider, more universal truth of some sort; but he maybe just got disoriented about the transition...


    1. Certainly you can mix comedy and tragedy, certainly you can contrast ideas, but the change in the narrative is quite abrupt, as if Frisch forgot what book he was writing. The last fifty pages aren't the most important thing about the book, though. I seem to be making too much of it in this post, and other readers will read it differently than I did. Still, I have my suspicions about what was going on in the fashioning of the novel.
  3. Frisch, not faber; darn. i got disoriented...


    1. The names of people you don't know can often look identical.
  4. Reminds me of the arguments about Huckleberry Finn...

    I do like to assume that authors know what they are doing, and that a book has an integrity, if only I can find it. Of course, writers hope for the same kindness in regards to their own paper children.


    1. This was one of those posts where I put together a long argument and then discovered that I think my argument is wrong. Which is useful, at least.
    2. Unusual for a person to admit such a thing... no doubt good for you!
    3. The older I get, the more often I find myself starting to make pronouncements and then realizing that no, I don't believe what I'm saying at all. Hopefully that means I'm questioning my unexamined opinions more often.
  5. i don't think there's any "wrong", just interestingly different wasys of looking at it. the world would be pretty boring if everybody thought just like me...