Wednesday, March 16, 2022

a great secret which would be the key to his life forever

A faint light came from the shutters; the moon was full. Two dogs, far away, were barking at each other, back and forth, insistently, as though they were agreeing to make an appointment.

I mean, that's pure Chekhov, right? The simple description of the scene, the anthropomorphized dogs, the wry humor? Except that it's not Chekhov, it's James Baldwin, from "Going to Meet the Man," the title story of the collection of Baldwin stories I just read. There is a lot of Chekhov in these stories, which is apt enough. If Chekhov was the greatest short story writer of the 19th century (which he was), then Baldwin may have been the greatest short story writer of the 20th century. Going to Meet the Man is a strong argument to support that claim.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it, and even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

Baldwin, in these eight stories, writes not only from his own experience, but also, movingly and convincingly, of the experiences of others. This is of course one of the most vital uses of fiction: to empathize with people who are unlike us. We get inside the heads of men and women, of musicians, of actors, of children, of Fifth Avenue professionals, of dirt farmers, of people from all walks of life though mostly from America, many from New York. This is, after all, a book about America even when the story is set in Paris.

I know that Vidal has nightmares, because he knows so much about them, but he has never told me what his are. I think that he probably does not talk about his nightmares any more. I know that the war cost him his wife and son, and that he was in prison in Germany. He very rarely refers to it. He has a married daughter who lives in England, and he rarely speaks of her. He is like a man who has learned to live on what is left of an enormous fortune.

That last line is beautiful, full of understanding, more full of meaning than those eighteen words should be able to bear. Again, I think of Chekhov. But Baldwin's gift is his own, and part of that gift is a poetic sense that Chekhov didn't really have, at least not when Chekhov was looking away from nature. Baldwin can see the poetry even in impersonal capitalist architecture.

Because she was late for work and because it was raining, she dropped into a cab and was whirled out of the streets of the Village--which still suggested, at least, some faint memory of the individual life--into the grim publicities of midtown Manhattan. Blocks and squares and exclamation marks, stone and steel and glass as far as the eye could see; everything towering, lifting itself against though by no means into, heaven.

I think you can maybe see the influence of Henry James in that passage. Baldwin was an admirer of James.

The most remarkable story in Going to Meet the Man is the title story, a violent tale of a white policemen named Jesse who has spent the last few days arresting and beating Black men who are registering to vote at city hall. Baldwin takes us into Jesse's mind, into his insecurity and mistrust of the present moment, as the world changes and he no longer knows his place in it.

They had never dreamed that their privacy could contain any element of terror, could threaten, that is, to reveal itself, to the scrutiny of a judgement day, while remaining unreadable and inaccessible to themselves; nor had they dreamed that the past, while certainly refusing to be forgotten, could yet so stubbornly refuse to be remembered. They felt themselves mysteriously set at naught, as no longer entering into the real concerns of other people--while here they were, outnumbered, fighting to save the civilized world.
But no one dared imagine what there might be to confess. They were soldiers fighting a war, but their relationship to each other was that of accomplices in a crime. They all had to keep their mouths shut.

From there, Baldwin takes us into the childhood memories of Jesse, to a day in his boyhood when a mob of white men have captured a Black man who may or may not have committed a crime against a white woman ("the one that knocked down old Miss Standish"). The entire white community gathers outside of town in a field at the edge of a forest, where the captured Black man is tortured, mutilated, and then burned to death. Immediately afterward, the white folks sit down for a picnic. Baldwin maintains a close narrative style, sympathetic to Jesse's child point of view as he has his first taste of indoctrination into a culture of violent racism.

At that moment Jesse loved his father more than he had ever loved him. He felt that his father had carried him through a mighty test, had revealed to him a great secret which would be the key to his life forever.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

I've got the notion that the whole thing is the ocean's fault.

  The days seem identical, time stands still, but the cycle of nature wheels imperceptibly until the moment arrives for you to leave those desolate shores and return home. 

  Still, it doesn't matter how busy they are, little ants doing what they're told, crouching behind shore grass to hunt waterfowl, patching their tarps and whittling new tent stakes, repairing their gear that has degraded over time, like everything, like themselves, their bodies exhausted from weather and work, something in their hearts has worn out, too. 

  They aren't sure what that something is. They drag their feet along the sandy soil, eyes combing the ground for traces of some wild game, and they wonder at this new bitterness they're feeling. 

  Has their life in the outdoors reached its saturation point? Are they sick of nature, of the effort it asks of them, so dizzying, do they yearn for the volume of a house, the solidity of walls, the sound of feet on wooden floors, the footsteps of loved ones? Is it the acute longing for home that has taken the place of curiosity, and their dismay at the realization that the return trip will take them as many months as the journey out?

  Back home, you'll sit around and reminisce about the days spent paddling your fragile canoes and nights spent under leaky tents, the vast skies above, and the rest, what will you do with that, once it's all over?

Christine Montalbetti's 2014 novel Nothing but Waves and Wind (translated from the French by Jane Kuntz for Dalkey Archive) is the story of an unnamed Frenchman who travels to America and drives, on a whim, from California to the northern Oregon coast, ending up in Cannon Beach (a real town that I've visited) and spending his hours either staring at the ocean or getting drunk with a trio of down-and-out men at a bar called Ulysses Returns. These three men talk constantly, about themselves and their unhappy lives and all they've lost, and they do not become friends with the Frenchman. In fact, they dislike him and their dislike grows more intense over time, as if he is the cause of their unhappiness.

The narrator, our French traveler, draws parallels between the slow steady anger of the Oregonians and the relentless pounding of the waves on the beach, which slowly eats away at the land as if the land is the ocean's bitterest enemy (each wave pulls a handful of sand away from the continent and into the ocean, further feeding the ocean's hate). The men of Cannon Beach are full of hate, a hate somehow, maybe, fed by the ocean's endless hate. The men either arrange, or simply allow, the Frenchman to be beaten nearly to death one night by a local hoodlum. The Frenchman ends up on the beach, alone with his bruises and his cracked ribs. He locks himself into his hotel room, with no plans to leave again.

The same ocean I've been watching for days now, my own private viewing as it continues to do its fancy dance out there, frothing up a storm, all that air and water whipped together just to get our attention, in the grip of some hysteria or other; not a presence you can get over easily. It's alive and thundering, and that's what I'm dealing with here, this jelly-bellied best, this evil, lumbering, uncontrollable, tireless behemoth. Constant companion, growling at my side, and thank heaven the window's there to keep us apart. I feel like a big, fat barrel lifted and pounded by the waves of life in all its bleakness.

Somehow this is also connected to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their story interrupts and comments upon or is commented upon by the Frenchman's story. The great mission to find the ocean, the dissatisfaction and urge to leave once it is found, the misery of the trip, the question of what awaits them upon their return. Somehow this is part of the Frenchman's story, as is the discovery, by Lewis and Clark, of a dead whale on the Oregon beach in 1806. The Frenchman, after his beating, begins to eat as much as he can, to take up more space, to more fully inhabit the world, to become that whale from 1806. In a manner of speaking, I think.

This is a book about houses found and lost, of discoveries made and abandoned, of journeys and being lost oneself. To strike out into a wilderness of one form or another is to lose oneself, Montalbetti's narrator seems to say, and possibly one will become so lost that whoever returns, if anyone does, will not be whoever originally left. Not a new idea, but one examined from some interesting angles.