Saturday, May 30, 2020
THE PURPLE PLAIN, by H.E. Bates (1905-1974)
Forrester became engaged to a nice girl just before WWII and they were married after the war began and went on a honeymoon for a week or so. While dancing at a dance hall in London, the building was hit by a bomb and Mrs. Forrester was blown out of Forrester's arms and her body was never found. In a more or less permanent state of shock, her husband joined the RAF and built a reputation for his daring and reckless skill during missions. In fact he was trying to kill himself, but he received promotions and medals anyway.
After several years of perilous action he was garrisoned in Burma, where he was promoted to squadron leader. The area he was stationed in was a semi-desert with very high temperatures and very little water. Heat and dust were the principal environmental issues, creating tension and hostility between Forrester and his men. He had a checkered reputation: admired for his piloting competence, but shunned for his black and sarcastic attitude toward his subordinates. The local doctor, Harris, is concerned about his mental health and invites him to dinner one night at a Mrs. McNab's house in a local village. She's a short, skinny, fiery sort who yells a lot. And he meets Anna, the younger sister of a nurse, who, with McNab, survived a 500 mile trek from Rangoon to the village, during which most of the contingent died. McNab, especially, was respected for having saved many lives at that time with her indomitable drive and medical skills as a nurse. Forrester falls in love with Anna.
Back at the airfield, he arrives in time to see one of the last planes belonging to the squadron crash while attempting to land, killing the pilot and the navigator. This event, combined with his awakening love for Anna, bring about a sea change in his psyche, so that he realizes that he's been in a state of delayed shock for the last several years. His attitude begins to improve at this point and he starts to become aware of other people in a way that was new to him. He starts seeing them as individuals, each with their own difficulties and characters. It's as if he'd suddenly been released from a psychological prison that he'd built for himself over the previous few years.
New orders arrive for Forrester to fly his tent-mate, Blore, to a new assignment farther up the Irrawaddy river. Together with a recently-arrived navigator, Carrington, he takes off and begins what he expected would be a routine flight. Except Carrington sees oil coating one of the wings of the plane. Forrester does a 180 degree turn, but it's too late: the plane catches on fire. The ground-cover is mostly jungle, with wide streaks of bare soil and rock that demarcate seasonal flood areas washed clean of vegetation during the monsoon rains. Forrester makes a desperate landing on one of these cleared patches and wrecks the aircraft in doing so. He and Blore escape relatively unhurt, but Carrington has badly burned legs. They have little food or water left, but decide to try to walk to safety, as the area is a remote one, and the chances of being rescued are not very good. They hadn't had a chance to use the radio.
So they begin walking, Forrester carrying Carrington on his back. They have difficulties; Blore falls over a six fool shale escarpment, damaging his ankle, and the heat is so intense that they decide to only travel at night; luckily there's a full moon. But they make progress even though they're not sure where they're going. They come to a fork in the dry river bed they are following and Blore, being several hundred yards ahead, takes the right fork while Forrester and Carrington are resting. He disappears in the distance and Forrester has to chase after him to bring him back, as he's convinced the other branch will take them to a village. They start off again the same night, traversing the sometimes rocky terrain that features occasional shelfs (waterfalls without water) that cause them to
trip and fall. Then they reach a large dry lake. Totally exhausted, it seems like the end. While the others are asleep, Blore leaves by himself. The other two are awakened by a gunshot. spoiler ahead:
Blore has shot himself and is dead. Dragging up his last reserves of energy, Forrester with Carrington tramps onward until he can't do it anymore. He leaves Carrington and continues on, eventually, at the very last second, running into some native bearers who rescue him and the navigator. Carrington survives and Forrester is reunited with Anna.
I read this book mainly because i'd previously read, some years ago, Fair Stood the Wind for France: another book by the same author that i liked quite a bit. This book had a few problems i thought, but also had some astute recognitions of psychological states that in general afflict many people. I became aware once again, while reading it, that many experience shock in their daily lives without ever knowing it, and that that can cause all sorts of problems from interpersonal relationships to mental blocks impeding the attainment of desired goals of one sort or another. Bates definitely makes it overt in this work that he is aware that the most mysterious problems or enigmas in life lie within the depths of one's own personality, not so much in whatever outside environment an individual may happen to exist in. And that the solutions or resolutions of adversities or quandaries may often depend upon self-awareness as much as on manipulation of situational complexities. It's sort of like tuning a guitar: it takes a developed ear to be good at it; and successfully dealing with the world we live in takes a lot of tuning also: a kind of evolving theme and variations, haha... anyway, this book was well worth reading; exciting and informative both...
Saturday, May 23, 2020
A STRANGE DISCOVERY, by Charles Romyn Dake, 1849-1899
A few followers of this blog may recall that some months ago i wrote about a Jules Verne sequel to Edgar Allan Poe's "A Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket"; well, this is another one. Charles Dake was a homeopathic physician in middle America and this pastiche concerns the experiences of a narrator (who remains anonymous) in the U.S. after he receives a behest from his deceased father in Newcastle, England and travels to this country to sell some land. The year is 1877. While staying in a hotel, the Loomis House, in Bellevue, Illinois, he becomes acquainted with two doctors. One is Dr. Bainbridge, a gentle, competent physician with a quiet approach to patient care, and the other is Dr. Castleton, a riotous, opinionated, self-aggrandized polymath who has, according to his own lights, never been wrong about anything. Through his association with these two, the narrator learns about one of their vic, uh, patients, who lives in a tumble-down cabin several miles from town named Dirk Peters. Peters was apparently the former companion of Pym's during their mutual experiences in Antarctica in the 1820's.
A brief summary of Poe's story: Pym was a restless youth and stowed away on a ship where he hid in the hold and was fed by Peters for several months. A mutiny occurred and most of the crew were killed in a subsequent ship-wreck and Pym and Peters found themselves in a small boat sailing toward Antarctica. Caught by a powerful current, they passed through dangers galore, including escaping from tribes of black savages, passing through a gigantic wall of mist, and espying, at the end of Poe's account, a large feminine figure looming in front of them at the end of the story.
Drs. Castleton and Bainbridge are treating Peters in his cabin and through their discussion of his case, the narrator learns that Peters was in fact Gordon Pym's former Antarctic associate. So he takes a ride with them both to visit the old seaman and finds a short, seasoned veteran of the seas who seems to be expiring from old age. Castleton wants to purge him with calomel and home remedies, but Bainbridge, mainly because Castleton becomes distracted with other business, manages to heal the old sailor to the point that he agrees to share his story.
Over a series of visits, Bainbridge learns what really happened to Peters and Pym, and, in nightly sessions, relates the tale to the narrator. To wit: Pym and Peters discovered a race of white people living in a temperate zone behind a wall of fog in an archipelago of sorts, with one large island and many smaller ones. At the South Pole itself, an area about 30 kilometers in diameter had fallen into the center of the earth, allowing hot magma to rise and heat the surrounding area. The resulting heat enabled the growth of a civilization as mentioned. The inhabitants had arrived there in the fifth century after escaping from Italy with the Huns on their heels and without knowing their destination, they were whirled by the current into the confines of Antarctica. They had created a society of peace and tolerance and were a quiet and intellectual people. Their architecture had something of the Roman about it, but with touches of pre-BC Egypt and a bit of Greece. The indigenes called their country Hili-li. They supported themselves through farming, viniculture, and a modest amount of fishing. The ambient temperature stayed at around 90 degrees year-round.
Pym fell in love with the king's daughter, Lilama, who reciprocated his affection, but a jealous rival, Ahpilus, maddened with devotion, kidnaped her and sailed away to Volcano bay, a local inlet at the base of a mountain eight miles high named Olympus. There was a small colony of exiles at this locale, who were ostracized by the Hili-li rulers for being overly belligerent. Possessed by his maniacal desires, Ahpilus, clutching Lilama, ascends the mountain and is followed by Pym and Peters along with some relatives of the kidnapee. The two groups meet each other near the top, and glare at one another across a forty foot chasm. Ahpilus is about to jump off and take Lilama with him, when Peters (he was about 4'8" tall and immensely strong; rather orangutangish, actually) leaps across the gap and rescues the girl. He breaks Ahpilus's back in the process, eliminating him as an enemy. (spoiler ahead),
They all return to Hili-li, where the malefactors are forgiven and Pym and Hili-li are married. Shortly thereafter the whole country falls victim to a sudden freeze, a phenomenon that occurs every 500 years or so, and many citizens die, including Hili-li. Pym is distraught and decides to leave, which he does, accompanied by Peters. They sail a small boat north until they meet a coasting schooner that provides Pym passage to a port from which he arranges transportation home. Peters spends many years following his profession as a sailor until he retires to the small town of Bellevue.
This was the only novel Dake wrote, and it worked quite well, i thought, as a completion to Poe's tale. The writing style was 19th centuryish, but readily comprehensible. The only critique of the book(which i actually found quite entertaining) had to do with the frequent oracular expeditions by Castleton (he had a tendency to extrapolate at length, and often, about his opinions concerning politics, business, economics, travel, agriculture, etc.) and the peculiar antics of Arthur, a sort of hotel odd- job boy who ranted about his desire to operate an ice cream store. It was fun and exciting at times, and offered a different perspective on 19th C. writing and authorship. I wonder how many other Pym-related books are out there, unrecognized and waiting for some curious reader to find them...
Sunday, May 17, 2020
Karl Capek: 1890-1938
In an imaginary 1943, C.H. Bondy has succeeded almost beyond his wildest dreams. He owns the Bondy Metallo-Electric Company which is doing well, but Bondy is looking forward. There is currently a coal crisis in the country and new sources of power are desperately needed. So he's interested in inventions and in exploring innovative uses of natural resources. While investigating various areas of research he learns about an old school friend, R. Marek, who apparently has discovered or invented a machine that has interesting possibilities. The two get together and Marek, evidently on the verge of bankruptcy, invites Bondy to visit his factory, where the machine he's invented is located in the basement. Arriving at the plant, Bondy walks down the stairs alone, as Marek seems highly nervous and apprehensive about something. A large copper cylinder is sitting by itself in the middle of a broad concrete floor. There's a light bulb on top of the cylinder and attached to it is a massive flywheel. The bulb is lit and the flywheel is slowly revolving. After a while, Bondy begins to feel slightly giddy and euphoric. Light-headed and somewhat ecstatic, he returns to where Marek is anxiously waiting and asks for an explanation.
Marek says that he's discovered a technique for the total release and utilization of quantum energy, the force that holds electrons and atoms together. The machine, the Karburetor, operates on coal but uses a very small amount to release an unlimited supply of power. Bondy becomes excited as he envisions the financial possibilities looming before him. The Karburetor could be used to power whole cities, countries even, constructing a firm basis for the expansion of progress throughout the entire planet. But Marek says there's a problem. A byproduct of the process is that a sort of spiritual energy is released as a result of liberating the quantum forces, and human beings experience that release as the presence of God. In the presence of the Karburetor, people become highly religious and enraptured and capable of performing miraculous feats such as levitation, curing diseases through the laying on of hands, mind-reading, and predicting the future. Also, the machine seems to have a mind of its own. It's capable of refining its own operations and inventing new processes to improve its own function, and apparently does so with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Bondy convinces Marek to let him market the device and in remarkably little time, Karburetors are operating world-wide. And vast segments of the population are performing miracles, fore-seeing the future and forming sectarian groups devoted to assorted religious didacts that soon start to condemn each other's devotional rites, to the point that religious wars are eventually raging all over the globe. It's not long before the activity turns political, so that large areas of factionally similar believers are combining to invade and conquer other countries. At one point a sort of Napolean conquers most of Europe, and equivalent demagogs are successful in many other locales. At the same time, the Karburetor is running wild, reproducing itself and consuming quantities of matter to make submarines, airplanes, trains, cars, lawn mowers, dish washers and a multitude of other products.
Because the Karburetor's source of power is infinite, it never knows when it's made enough stuff. One philosopher compared it to the origin of the universe, wherein the destruction of quantum matter resulted in the release of infinite amounts of God, or spiritual force, which drove the remnant particles in a sort of explosion that created the stars, galaxies, super-novae, etc. as we currently observe them. At any rate, a true world war developed on Earth, so that four or five major powers were fighting each other and destroying the infrastructure almost faster than the Karburetors could replace it.
The main reason, besides the uncontrollable operations of the Karburetor, for the global genocide was that each machine's devotees couldn't imagine that their belief was only a part of a planetary whole; that they couldn't imagine that anyone else was in possession of the, what seemed to them, absolute truth. So war continued unabated, in due course causing Bondy and Marek to flee civilization. Bondy retires to a south sea island named Hereheretia and Marek builds a little cabin in an isolated valley north of the arctic circle. (spoiler ahead).
Ultimately, the war dies out, with only a few humans left. Thirteen soldiers are left napping under a Birch tree and after twenty years some kind of universal tolerance has reluctantly made an appearance. Mr. Byrch: "... you know the greater things are in which a man believes, the more fiercely he despises those who do not believe in them. And yet the greatest of all beliefs would be belief in one's fellow-man."
This was a terrific book. Capek had a profound understanding of human nature and the creative ability to express that vision in original and telling ways. Like his other two books, he's a master of extrapolation: taking an idea and developing it satirically into an exhaustive version reflective of human foibles. He's one of the very few authors i've read who can combine horror with humor and turn the resulting shambles into an image of human conduct. Or maybe a mirror image...
Saturday, May 9, 2020
THROUGH ENGLAND ON A SIDE SADDLE
Celia Fiennes (1662-1741)
I saw a reference to this book on Travelin' Penguin's blog and ordered it over the net; the price was very reasonable but i was a bit surprised when it turned out to be just excerpts from her diaries. But I began reading and got interested and decided to post on it. Celia was not a stay at home personality. Her travels started in 1684 and continued to 1714, more or less.
The five sections of this book begin in Wales and follow a more-or-less clockwise route through the border countries to Newcastle on Tyne and down through the fennish swamplands, over through the Cotswolds to Bristol and Bath and thence down to Lands End, exploring the southern English coast and Cornwall. In Staffordshire she visited some of the pottery manufacturies and described how that industry was somewhat mobile, following clay deposits one after another as the beds were used up. In most of the places she passed through, her main concerns seemed to be the churches and cathedrals and the sources and types of coal that were in use by the householders. She was upset by the road conditions in many of the locales, such as along the east coast, where she and her guide were often forced into sandy areas containing quicksands and boggy places, or having to ford numerous creeks and rivers while slogging through mud and swamps. She seemed fascinated by St. Winifred's Well, with it's stoney, over-hanging arches and the clear water that featured circles of red pebbles on its bed. These were dropped in by parishioners and pilgrims, in honor of the saint, who had been beheaded in the same place, but later restored to life through holy intercession.
In the Lake district she commented on the pristine lakes and the impressive mansions built by some of the upper class lords. Most of them were constructed of slate and with a sort of very hard coal found in that region. The "burning well" was of interest: the water burned one's mouth when drunk, and it could be lit on fire with relative ease. Crossing a rocky creek, her horse slipped and skidded on some of the smooth rocks but she didn't fall off. This happened near the "Three Brothers" tree: an ancient oak 39 feet in circumference. She stopped to examine the Great Mag, a Henge like the more famous one in Wiltshire, but with thirty standing stones. In Carlisle she stayed at an inn, unusual for her because she often spent the night with one of her many relatives that were spread all over the country. She was evidently not happy with it; she said it was the most expensive night in her whole trip: 12 shillings for 2 joints of mutton, a pint of wine, with bread and beer.
She was not pleased with Scotland, describing the rutted and rocky roads and the dirty and unlettered inhabitants, inferring that England was more civilized. But she only crossed the border country without venturing into the more civilized areas. She admired the fine cathedrals in Bath and Bristol, but noted that there was a lot of air pollution in that coal-mining region. She stayed in that area for several days, attending, among other things, an anatomizing dissection of a corpse in the local "Barber's Surgeon's Hall". Wookey Hole was a very interesting cavern. The Axe river runs through it and it consists mainly of three large rooms although it has, even today, never been completely explored.
On the way into Cornwall, her horse slid and fell over in a mudpuddle but Ms. Fiennes kept her seat, apparently not much disturbed. They arrived in Exeter and spent some time there, visiting relatives and exploring the fulling mills and serge production facilities. Exeter at that time was a rival to London in terms of total merchant and trading activity even though it was four miles from the ocean and all its products had to be carried on mule or horseback to and from the sea. While Ms. F was there, a channel was being excavated to alleviate the problem. Continuing on, she examined Plymouth and some of the other southern ports, citing rope walks and dock yards devoted to the maintenance of British commercial shipping.
In Cornwall the tin mines attracted her interest and she went to some lengths in studying their operations. Water was a big problem and half of the work force was used in running the water-driven pumps that kept the lower levels liquid free. One thousand men were employed in 20 mines in one section of the country. Ms. F stayed with relatives in another great house located in the area. She could see for 20 miles in every direction because of its position on a promontory. Descending to continue onward they had to walk the Pensand region next to the ocean; they passed a church that was sinking into the beach. Going through St. Ives without meeting anyone with seven wives, they arrived at Lands End, where Ms. F clambered around on the rocks until she got tired and went back to the house to rest.
LIFE IN A PUTTY KNIFE FACTORY
H. Allen Smith (1907-1976)
I'd been threatening to read this book for a while and finally did. It's a series of humorous vignettes from the author's history, describing in detail some of the funny things that happened to him in his pursuit of his vocation as a columnist/journalist. There are 17 essays, from "In Defense of Smiths" to "Walla Walla Talk". Smith has an occasionally sardonic sense of humor that frequently amuses but often wanders off into the fiendish undergrowth. The first paragraph from "Flight from the City Room": Twenty years is not such a long time to a carp because a carp lives to be one hundred fifty and doesn't worry much, being just as dumb at the age of one hundred forty-nine as he was at the age of two. Twenty years is, however, a long time in my estimation, for it represents the period i spent as a newspaperman."
Smith was good friends with Westbrook Pegler and Fred Allen, and the trio, with others in that hard-drinking journalistic era, often tooted themselves into difficulties, social and physical. H. Allen mines these sorts of events with a coarse-toothed comb, draping them over a superstructure made of newsprint and editorial exaggeration with a liberal hand. Most of the articles are pretty funny, but not all. But I remember reading and hearing Fred Allen and he, along with Thorne Smith (another comedic writer of the age), often reduced me to tears with their crazy conversation and witty repartee.
These books are probably only available in library sales anymore, but are gold for the lucky bibliophile; quite the thing for relieving depression and bitter rancor.
I wanted to post on these two books at the same time because they help me discuss a literary/philosophical subject. Life as we humans know it is like being caught in a web whose threads are constructed from time and place. We are prevented from analyzing the reality we live in by the constant ongoing press of time, and by the same token cannot understand aging or time because we never stay in the same place long to know what's going on. The eternal paradox that's been addressed by authors for centuries. I recall the Malabar caves, Plato's cave allegory, many situation and unresolutions in Shakespeare, and lots of others in all literature. Maybe mostly in poetry. Religions have been invented to try to stabilize the situation, but have only been effective in distracting people from the real problem, which is: what are we doing and does it have any meaning? Unfortunately no real answers have evolved that i'm aware of, aside from the major historical efforts to convince children and others to believe things of which there is no evidence save that of wishful thinking. This later has been a powerful force in human history, and is a resource of comfort for many, but for the few of us who haven't experienced the joy of worship or sacrifice in one or another of the sectarian propositions, it is pretty much meaningless. So, the point i'm trying to get at is that literature and reading in general are two of the few ways to learn about reality and the human experience that exist. Speculation seems to be the limit of human aspiration, aside from science, which is not a medium for imagining, but a search for clues only.
So the above two books are examples of two widely varying approaches to understanding the world around us and our place in it, which is why i chose them. The brain can do all sorts of things, but reading to expand our consciousness is one of the most effective methods of chasing the reality ghost and cheering ourselves up that I know of. End of harangue: apologies, if needed, for treading upon any toes...
Saturday, May 2, 2020
Caroline Spurgeon (1869-1942)
Ms. Spurgeon was an English professor at the Bedford College in London when she began wondering what kind of person Shakespeare actually was. So she developed a plan to find out. She read all of his works as well as the plays, essays and poetry of other Elizabethan authors and created a set of categories into which she placed the metaphors, similes and personifications that she had found in their writings. 7040 images were gleaned from Shakespeare's works and these were compared/contrasted with images from Francis Bacon and twelve other Playwrights, including Marlowe, Kyd, Lyly, Greene, Peele, Dekker and Jonson.
Most of the imagery from Shakespeare had to do with nature or domestic and household affairs, and this was distinctly different from the average references found in the works of the other authors, so that an early picture began to develop of what sort of a person William really was, in contrast as it were. Bacon liked marine associations and discussed gardening a lot. He was concerned with sicknesses also, and with science to a lesser extent. Marlowe had a penchant for classical imagery and often referred to the stars and planets and the cosmos. Kyd had a fondness for river images and wrote about the law quite a bit. Lyly was a chief proponent of euphuism, a sort of double punning and multi-allusional way of writing, meant to be amusing and titillating. And so forth.
Ms. Spurgeon first of all analyzes Shakespeare's history plays, pointing out that images of growth and gardening are followed by descriptions of corruption and rotting vegetation, are utilized to indicate the moral and ethical decay of the principal adversaries. "All the horrors suffered by England under the civil wars, shaken and frighted as she was by murders and battles, scheming and treachery, by the putting up and putting down of kings, by waste and misrule, have translated themselves into the pictorial imagination of the country playwright as the despoiling of a fair 'sea-walled garden
full of fruit, flowers and healing herbs, which ignorance and lack of care have allowed to go to seed, to rot and decay; so that now in spring time, instead of all being in order and full of promise, the whole land is, as the under gardener says, "full of weed; her fairest flowers choked up, her fruit-trees all unpruned, her hedges ruin'd, her knots disorder'd, and her wholesome herbs swarming with caterpillars." Punning is occasionally used to describe some of the characters. Richard Plantagenet "is described as a 'sweet stem from York's great stock'.
The comedies are also analyzed, being replete with references to stars, the moon, the passing of time and the river, and descriptions of the dawn: "Even till the eastern gate, all fiery-red, opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams, turns into yellow gold his salt green streams."
Ms. Spurgeon continues relating the actions of the rest of the plays to descriptions of the countryside and the various surrounds adhering to the actions, as the characters dance, hunt, plot, and romance their ways through his inventive scenes.
The portrayal of Shakespeare's character, as a result of the above comprehensive analysis, is of a slender, active sort of person, with a ready wit and an irrepressible curiosity about everything around him. He was a light eater and drinker, and had a distaste for dirt and slovenliness. His accurate instincts about the motivations of how and why people do the things that they do were unparalleled, and he had a preternatural perception of what was happening around him. Plus he liked what he was doing and was apt to overwork himself when in the throes of creation.
It's difficult to say how much i enjoyed this book. Ms. Spurgeon's accreditations are impeccable and she writes superbly. Her keenness and acuity in ferreting out solutions and answers to textual problems is admirable and she has the gift of communicating her enthusiasm to the reader. I literally couldn't put this book down, at times. highly recommended!