Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Don't close the shades until the twilight gleams

I first took real notice of Mark Lanegan when I stumbled across "Winding Sheet" in the fall of 1993. The album is all hazy Delta-blues rock that focuses on Lanegan's sleepy, haggard voice and lyrics about drug addiction, too much alcohol and not enough God. For the first time, Lanegan and his voice were not battling against a wall of psychedelic guitars and drums, a welcome break from his years with Screaming Trees. I was never a Screaming Trees fan; most of their songs seemed to walk in circles in small rooms, if you know what I mean. Sometimes they'd get it right, like the Doors-influenced "Ivy," but mostly I was happy to ignore the band. "Winding Sheet" was something I couldn't ignore, and while most people who've heard of the album only know it through the Kurt Cobain-assisted cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", it's a fine set of songs even without the Nirvana connection. 

I listened to "Winding Sheet" constantly for months until Lanegan's second solo album, "Whiskey For the Holy Ghost", was released in January 1994. This record is brilliant, continuing the exploration of blues and booze, of losing faith in oneself and everything else under the all-seeing eye of a God who'd take us back if we'd only take Him back. A melancholy, beautiful album about drugs, suffering, love, hope and hopelessness. A great album. A masterpiece. I have listened to this album maybe a thousand times.

The sun is gone, and that's all I really know
No angels in the air
With hearts as good as gold
The closer you stand to the gates
And the gates are closed

These darkened days
Make somebody's hunger and thirst
And blessed burns the sun
It's throwing shadows on the earth
The shadow you find at the gate
And all the gates are closed

And in time you find your race is run
Felt much colder standing in the sun
Waiting for some warmth and coming down

Yes, junkie songs from the Lou Reed tradition, sung by a man heavily influenced by Jim Morrison and Howling Wolf. Pop music, maybe, warped pop music. But I have a fondess--a tremendous soft spot maybe--for these albums from thirty years ago, though I never connected with any of Lanegan's subsequent albums, nor any of his work with other artists. For me, Mark Lanegan meant "Winding Sheet" and "Whiskey For the Holy Ghost" and nothing else. Lionel Trilling writes of his great affection for Sherwood Anderson, an affection that abides even when he realizes that Anderson's novels are not the brilliant works he thought they were when he originally read them, having come to them at just the right time in his life to form some kind of unbreakable bond with his idea of the writer, a bond that outlasted both Anderson's life and Trilling's appreciation of Anderson's novels.

This is all written in haste, and I find I don't quite know what it was that I meant to say. Farewell, Mark William Lanegan.

Night train, silver moon
You ask me why I'm flying
To float on ashen wings
To choke on dust and feather
My dreams will go no further
Won't calm my violent river
Oh guardian of peace
Let the beggar walk in the winter

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Just twelve months, he says.

"England is not your home," I said.
"It's the way we all speak of it."
And this was the way in which things are to be managed in Britannula! Because a young boy had fallen in love with a pretty girl, the whole wealth of England was to be used for a most nefarious purpose, and a great nation was to exercise its tyranny over a small one, in which her own language was spoken and her own customs followed!

A few months before his death in 1882, one of Anthony Trollope's last novels was published. It was a curious novel, unlike any other he'd written. The Fixed Period is the story of how, in the second half of the 20th century, a former British colony called Britannula introduced compulsory euthanasia for all citizens who attain the age of sixty-six, in order to relieve the nation of the burden of an aging population, and the aged themselves of the burden of their continuing decrepit lives. The novel is narrated by John Neverbend, the president of Brittanula and prime mover behind the Fixed Period movmeent. Neverbend is fifty-six, calm, determined, and wholly sold on the idea of euthanizing the elderly. He is, in short, a dangerous fanatic. His mode of reasoning is entirely utilitarian, he is baffled by the emotions that motivate his family and countrymen, and he has convinced himself that since the Fixed Period is the law of the land, the morality of that law cannot be questioned. He speaks of the project entirely in euphemisms: the imprisonment of the elderly is "deposition"; killing is "transition"; the euthanasia procedure is "a graceful act" and so on. Neverbend becomes increasingly put out as his citizens, especially his wife and son, increasingly use terms like "murder." We have seen Neverbend's type before, we have seen governments and ideologues warp language to suit evil purposes (see Klemperer's The Language of the Third Reich for a detailed study of one historical example).

In 1882, Trollope was sixty-five, obese, suffering asthma and heart disease, and though working away busily as a writer, fully aware that had he not already retired from the civil service, he'd have been shown the door as having outlived his employable usefulness at his age. Trollope is of course arguing that the state cannot determine a human's worth or right to live based on the calendar.

"He will be the first, Mr President; and no doubt he will be looked closely after. Old Barnes will be here by that time, won't he, sir?"
"Barnes is the second, and he will come just three months before Crasweller's departure. But Tallowax, the grocer in High Street, will be up here by that time. And then they will come so quickly, that we must soon see to get other lodgings finished. Exors, the lawyer, will be the fourth; but he will not come in till a day or two after Crasweller's departure."
"They all will come; won't they, sir?" ask Graybody.
"Will come! Why, they must. It is the law."
"Tallowax swears he'll have himself strapped to his own kitchen table, and defend himself to the last gasp with a carving-knife. Exors says that the law is bad, and you can't touch him. As for Barnes, he has gone out of what little wits he ever had with the fright of it, and people seem to think that you couldn't touch a lunatic."
"Barnes is no more a lunatic than I am."

As this is Trollope, there is a romantic plot, between Neverbend's son Jack and Eva, the daughter of Neverbend's best friend, Crasweller. Crasweller is the oldest citizen of Britannula, and the crisis of the novel comes when Crasweller is approaching his Fixed Period and will soon be "deposited" in the "college" (the college is the community where those facing euthanasia are sent to live their last year, to separate them from the rest of the population so as to allow friends and family to start forgetting the elderly before they are "transitioned" into the hereafter).

Were Orwell to write this story, it would be chilling, but Trollope makes his narrator an almost sympathetic fellow, and we are almost on his side when the English send a gunboat armed with a weapon of mass destruction down to Britannula to annex the territory and put an end to Neverbend's government and Fixed Idea--sorry, Fixed Period. Almost, I say, but Neverbend (I wish Trollope had been a little more subtle with the names in this book) is a fanatic, a true believer who cannot understand why his idea, though appealing to everyone he knows in theory, is less appealing when it comes to actually going through with the plan. Neverbend is utterly literal, which is part of his charm as a narrator, for he doesn't see that he is an unreliable narrator, taking his belief as truth.

The--so I am told--compulsory Trollopean fox hunting scene has been replaced, in this novel, by a chapter-long cricket match. It's a futuristic cricket match, with spring-loaded bats and steam-powered catapults for pitching the balls. Absurd fun, and no small animals are injured. Trollope's protagonist is in a comic novel, though he doesn't know it. But it's a creepy sort of comic novel.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Wherein I stumble across myself

Today Mighty Reader and I went for a long bike ride, stopping first at one of our favorite bakeries (Fresh Flours) and then at our local bookshop, Paper Boat Booksellers, pictured above. Paper Boat seems to have weathered the economic storm of the Pandemic, at least so far, and we are always pleased to drop in and see what's in stock. It's always a voyage of discovery and I never know what I'll find there.


One thing I was happy to discover was a copy of my little novel on the shelf. It's nice to come across The Astrologer out in the wild. It seems to be in pretty good company, too.

As usual, we didn't make it out of the store without buying a stack of books. Today's stack is reasonably small, I think. The top three are my choices, the bottom three belong to Mighty Reader. She's recently discovered Louise Erdrich. I continue to pick up titles from Archipelago Books, and several of you fine folks have recommended Akutagawa. But seriously, what's up with that manga cover on the Penguin collection? Who is that supposed to appeal to?

Friday, February 4, 2022

I have been rather suspected of plagiarism was by his assistance that she had been enabled to escape from her husband; for this nobleman had the same gallant disposition with those renowned knights of whom we read in heroic story, and had delivered many an imprisoned nymph from durance. He was indeed as bitter an enemy to the savage authority too often exercised by husbands and fathers, over the young and lovely of the other sex, as ever knight-errant was to the barbarous power of enchanters; nay, to say truth, I have often suspected that those very enchanters with which romance everywhere abounds were in reality no other than the husbands of those days; and matrimony itself was, perhaps, the enchanted castle in which the nymphs were said to be confined.

That's an astute observation by Fielding, that legendary tales of imprisoned women were metaphors for unhappy marriages. Especially astute considering that almost every woman in Tom Jones is a one-dimensional character of low morals. True, the male characters are generally no better. My point is that Fielding's observation caught me unawares, as I did not think he had that kind of empathy for or even interest in the actual experience of women. Tom Jones is after all sort of a long bacchanal in and out of doors.

Another enjoyable passage comes in the next book (Book XII), where Fielding's introductory essay is about fair use versus theft:

The learned reader must have observed that in the course of this mighty work, I have often translated passages out of the best antient authors, without quoting the original, or without taking the least notice of the book from whence they were borrowed.[...]I have been rather suspected of plagiarism [...].

Now, to obviate all such imputations for the future, I do here confess and justify the fact. The antients may be considered as a rich common, where every person who hath the smallest tenement in Parnassus hath a free right to fatten his muse. [...] Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cicero, and the rest, [are] to be esteemed among us writers, as so many wealthy squires, from whom we, the poor of Parnassus, claim an immemorial custom of taking whatever we can come at. This liberty I demand, and this I am as ready to allow again to my poor neighbours in their turn. All I profess, and all I require of my [writerly] brethren, is to maintain [that to] steal from one another is indeed highly criminal and indecent; for this may be strictly stiled defrauding the poor (sometimes perhaps those who are poorer than ourselves), or, to set it under the most opprobrious colours, robbing the spittal.

Since, therefore, upon the strictest examination, my own conscience cannot lay any such pitiful theft to my charge, I am contented to plead guilty to the former accusation; nor shall I ever scruple to take to myself any passage which I shall find in an antient author to my purpose, without setting down the name of the author from whence it was taken. Nay, I absolutely claim a property in all such sentiments the moment they are transcribed into my writings, and I expect all readers henceforwards to regard them as purely and entirely my own.

Too right, Henry. Too right indeed.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.


Pictured above is a check I got in the mail today from Amazon, those swine, in the way of royalties for Kindle versions of my poor wee novel The Astrologer. One is never certain, when hearing from the Amazons, how many copies of what were sold, or what the royalty rate actually is. Yesterday I got a royalty payment of $2.66 for paper-and-ink book sales through Ingram (a large book distribution company in America and possibly worldwide). I think that's for two copies of The Astrologer sold during the holidays. I tell you all of this in order to confirm that yes, it is possible to make money as a novelist in this day and age. Drinks on me! To be momentarily serious, I am personally acquainted with only one novelist who makes a living off his novels. The rest of us are either married to people who make money, or have day jobs, or both. The joy, as Schroeder says to Lucy, is in the playing.