Characters And Dialogue

Lately I’ve been enjoying Richard Russo’s new novel “Everybody’s Fool”. I first encountered Russo’s work over twenty years ago, when I checked out a novel called “Nobody’s Fool” from the Edina library in Knox County, Missouri. I was delighted with the novel, a character-driven story of flawed but likable ne’er-do-well people in a languishing small town in upstate New York. I was reminded of Anne Tyler’s novels of eccentric inhabitants of Baltimore.

When “Nobody’s Fool” was published I was about forty years old. The main character in the novel is Sully, who was sixty during the events of the novel. To me at that time, Sully was an old man, and his exploits as recounted in the novel I saw as a sort of cautionary tale — I didn’t want to end up with such a fate!

Now I’m sixty-two, while in Russo’s fictional universe Sully has only aged ten years. Sully at seventy is much the same as he was at forty, while I can only hope that during the intervening twenty years I’ve learned more than he has!

Richard Russo, like Raymond Chandler, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, and Elmore Leonard, is a master of writing true-to-life dialogue, a skill which is more difficult than it looks. I learned this years ago when I worked the overnight shift at a convenience store in Hannibal, Missouri. During the wee hours I would have these great conversations with down-and-out night folks, and the next morning I would try to transcribe the conversations and present them in my blog, an ancestor of this one. I would jot down brief notes after the customer left, but turning these notes into readable and concise written dialogue was not easy. But it was fun!

“Nobody’s Fool” was made into a movie starring Paul Newman back in the early nineties. It’s a good movie, but, as is true most of the time, not as good as the novel.


Raindrop Suicide

I have a habit of re-reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire every couple of years. Nabokov’s verbal virtuosity combined with the novel’s extremely unreliable narrator always charm and stimulate me.

The novel is in two sections: a 999-line poem supposedly written by the narrator’s neighbor, a professor at a small Northeastern college, is followed by a rambling and demented line-by-line commentary by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, who claims to be an exile from Zembla, a “distant northern land”.

Yesterday I opened the novel at random and came across this passage:

Lines 34-35: Stilettos of a frozen stillicide

How persistently our poet invokes images of winter in the beginning of a poem which he started composing on a balmy summer night! The mechanism of the associations is easy to make out (glass leading to crystal and crystal to ice) but the prompter behind it retains his incognito. One is too modest to suppose that the fact that the poet and his future commentator first met on a winter day somehow impinges here on the actual season. In the lovely line heading this comment the reader should note the last word. My dictionary defines it as “a succession of drops falling from the eaves, eavesdrop, cavesdrop.” I remember encountering it for the first time in a poem by Thomas Hardy. The bright frost has eternalized the bright eavesdrop. We should also note the cloak-and-dagger hint-glint in the “svelte stilettos” and the shadow of regicide in the rhyme.

My dictionary (actually the ghosts of several dictionaries given new electronic lives in the mysterious bit-arrays of my computer’s memory-banks) defines the word stillicide for me:

Stillicide Stil"li*cide, n. [L. stillicidium;
     stilla a drop + cadere to fall.]
     A continual falling or succession of drops;
     rain water falling from the eaves.

I wonder why this word has fallen into disuse? I suspect that the “cide” ending leads to an unfortunate association with words such as suicide, parricide, and as mentioned in the note quoted above, regicide — but perhaps that confusion of two similar Latin roots could serve as a mnemonic for the word, a water-droplet’s suicidal act resulting in assimilation by the waiting earth.


Barnaby’s Raven

I’ve been reading and re-reading the novels of Charles Dickens for over forty years and I still stand in awe of the writer’s powers. Although his novels could stand to be edited substantially, it must be remembered that he was writing for his nineteenth-century audience, and the readers of that era seemingly liked maudlin and sentimental passages suffused with Christian values.

Dickens is commonly praised for the vigor and imagination of his portrayals of human characters, but he also had an uncanny ability to portray birds and animals, shamelessly personifying them and imagining the thoughts creatures might be having.

Recently I re-read Barnaby Rudge largely due to my memories of a non-human character in the novel. Grip is a raven, the boon companion of the half-wit Barnaby Rudge. The first time I read the novel I thought, “Dickens must have been around a talking raven at some point!”. The verbal ejaculations of the bird seemed just as would be expected. Some quotes from the novel:

“Look at him!” said Varden, divided between admiration of the bird and a kind of fear of him. “Was there ever such a knowing imp as that! Oh he’s a dreadful fellow!” The raven, with his head very much on one side, and his bright eye shining like a diamond, preserved a thoughtful silence for a few seconds, and then replied in a voice so hoarse and distant, that it seemed to come through his thick feathers rather than out of his mouth. “Halloa, halloa, halloa! What’s the matter here! Keep up your spirits. Never say die. Bow wow wow. I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil. Hurrah!”–And then, as if exulting in his infernal character, he began to whistle. “I more than half believe he speaks the truth. Upon my word I do,” said Varden. “Do you see how he looks at me, as if he knew what I was saying? To which the bird, balancing himself on tiptoe, as it were, and moving his body up and down in a sort of grave dance, rejoined, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil,” and flapped his wings against his sides as if he were bursting with laughter. Barnaby clapped his hands, and fairly rolled upon the ground in an ecstasy of delight. “Strange companions, sir,” said the locksmith, shaking his head and looking from one to the other. “The bird has all the wit.”

Here again the raven was in a highly reflective state; walking up and down when he had dined, with an air of elderly complacency which was strongly suggestive of his having his hands under his coat-tails; and appearing to read the tombstones with a very critical taste. Sometimes after a long inspection of an epitaph, he would strop his beak upon the grave to which it referred, and cry in his hoarse tones, “I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a devil!” but whether he addressed his observations to any supposed person below, or merely threw them off as a general remark, is matter of uncertainty.

“Call him down, Barnaby my man.” “Call him!” echoed Barnaby, sitting upright upon the floor, and staring vacantly at Gabriel, as he thrust his hair back from his face. “But who can make him come! He calls me, and makes me go where he will. He goes on before, and I follow. He’s the master, and I’m the man. Is that the truth, Grip?” The raven gave a short, comfortable, confidential kind of croak;–a most expressive croak, which seemed to say “You needn’t let these fellows into our secrets. We understand each other. It’s all right.”

Dickens created a believable character in Grip and gave the bird a somewhat diabolical cast. I just learned two remarkable facts, though the second might be more of an inference. The first is that when Dickens was contemplating writing the novel he actually acquired a pet raven. So there was a real Grip! The second is that Edgar Allan Poe read Barnaby Rudge in serial form and it is likely or at least possible that Dickens’ depiction of Grip inspired Poe’s poem The Raven. Thanks go to writer Jennifer Ouellette, who blogs at Cocktail Party Physics, for this link which goes into more detail:

Poe’s Raven Stuffed At Free Library

I’ve always wanted a pet raven, but at least here in Arizona I can see them flying by, uttering their guttural croaks!


Clark Ashton Smith

Since I’ve been in my teens I’ve had an intermittent liking for the works of a group of friends who, once upon a time, published stories in a Depression-era pulp magazine called Weird Tales. I don’t believe they ever met each other, back when travel was harder and the economy was straitened, but the three writers corresponded and their writings became somewhat incestuous; they created a world of terror influenced by the Bible, the Arabian Nights, and ancient Greek and Roman mythology.

These three writers were H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith.

Lovecraft, a New England resident, is perhaps the best known these days, for his tales of ancient evil well-seasoned (or ill-seasoned) with racial paranoia. My favorite is Clark Ashton Smith. Smith had a way of using obsolete words to create scenes of mythic weirdness. Here’s an example, an over-the-top scene which still impresses me; it’s from a short story called “The Dark Eidolon”:

Then, into the hall, there filed an array of tall mummies, clad in royal cerements of purple and scarlet, and wearing gold crowns on their withered craniums. And after them, like servitors, came gigantic skeletons who wore loin-cloths of nacarat orange and about whose upper skulls, from brow to crown, live serpents of banded saffron and ebon had wrapped themselves for head-dresses. And the mummies bowed before Zotulla, saying with thin, sere voices:

“We, who were kings of the wide realm of Tasuun aforetime, have been sent as a guard of honor for the emperor Zotulla, to attend him as is befitting when he goes forth to the feast prepared by Namirrha.”

Then with dry clickings of their teeth, and whistlings as of air through screens of fretted ivory, the skeletons spoke:

“We, who were giant warriors of a race forgotten, have also been sent by Namirrha, so that the emperor’s household, following him to the feast, should be guarded from all peril and should fare forth in such pageantry as is meet and proper.”

Witnessing these prodigies, the wine-bearers and other attendants cowered about the imperial dais or hid behind the pillars, while Zotulla, with pupils swimming starkly in a bloodshot white, with face bloated and ghastly pale, sat frozen on his throne and could utter no word in reply to the ministers of Namirrha.

Then, coming forward, the mummies said in dusty accents: “All is made ready, and the feast awaits the arrival of Zotulla.” And the cerements of the mummies stirred and fell open at the bosom, and small rodent monsters, brown as bitumen, eyed as with accursed rubies, reared forth from the eaten hearts of the mummies like rats from their holes and chittered shrilly in human speech, repeating the words. The skeletons in turn took up the solemn sentence; and the black and saffron serpents hissed it from their skulls; and the words were repeated lastly in baleful rumblings by certain furry creatures of dubious form, hitherto unseen by Zotulla, who sat behind the ribs of the skeletons as if in cages of white wicker.

Several of Smith’s strange tales can be found here:

Short Stories By Clark Ashton Smith


A Quote From Edward Abbey

Lately, during lulls in my travels, I’ve been re-reading Edward Abbey’s best book, a collection of essays and stories from his early years in the Southwest. It’s been thirty years since I first read Desert Solitaire, and re-reading it has confirmed my opinion that the work is one of the best accounts of an educated person confronting the American landscape.

Abbey has been dead for some years now and I’m certain that he would be horrified by the changes in the landscape and culture in the intervening years. His writings, as the years go by, have become historical documents, one man’s prescient views on the American approach to dealing with wilderness during the late 1950s and 1960s. Abbey had a non-Christian mystical streak which makes me think of such earlier writers such as Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.

Here’s a quote which I deftly extracted from Desert Solitaire while my laundry was whirling around in a laundromat washing machine this afternoon:

“If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his
capacity were not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies
of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves, and
silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than
enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams.”


Mervyn Peake Revisited

During my tumultuous but reserved adolescence I was a reader of fantasy, as well as works of the common English canon, notably Charles Dickens.

I was a devotee of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, reading them over and over, but later in life I’ve found them to be unreadable. I looked farther afield for similar works of literature.

During the late 1960s fantasy writer Lin Carter edited a series of paperback books for Ballantine, a publisher which was attempting to capitalize on the mass-market success of Tolkien. Ballantine published three wonderful novels by Mervyn Peake, the Gormenghast Trilogy. I just loved those novels, they were like Dickens with even more of a touch of the grotesque, psychological fantasies informed by Freudian and Jungian readings, I suppose. The first paperback Ballantine releases featured a center section of Peake’s wonderful drawings of many of the characters. The later editions lacked that section, no doubt due to the costs involved.

I urge you to seek out Peake’s novels. I need to re-read them. Here are a few of Mervyn Peake’s drawings:


A Quote From Michael Chabon

The paired subjects of literary quality and the relative merits of certain scorned genres have always interested me. Fine writing can be found in many books which are generally ignored by the cloistered mavens of “real” literature.

No-one writes convincing dialogue of modern-day people as well as Elmore Leonard, Stephen King, and Donald Westlake. Michael Chabon, in novels such as “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, continues this tradition. A quote from a 2008 LA Times interview:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” I could go down to the cafe at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler about the power of literature off a mug. But in the end — here’s my point — it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.

You can read the entire interview here:

The pleasure principle


On Thin Ice

Last night I could be found sitting in front of a computer screen reading some essays by Robert Louis Stevenson before turning in. I was struck by a metaphor in an essay, a rumination on mortality, called Aes Triplex; the title refers to a passage from one of Horace’s Odes. An explanation from a writer named J. Nathan Matias:

Aes Triplex means Triple Bronze, from a line in Horace’s Odes that reads ‘Oak and triple bronze encompassed the breast of him who first entrusted his frail craft to the wild sea.’

The Stevenson quote:

And what would it be to grow old?
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the
ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we
see our contemporaries going through.

Such a vivid metaphor! This morning I’ve been plagued by the idea that a variation of this trope occurs in the works of another writer — perhaps Thoreau? Sir Thomas Browne? Google was unable to help me.

R.L. Stevenson had such a natural command of prose style. He spins out elegant verbal images like an orb-weaver spider constructing its symmetrical trap in the morning sun.


A Quote From Hesse

Back when I was in my teens the novels of German author Hermann Hesse were wildly popular. I read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf but the novels didn’t really engage me at the time.

I was looking for something to read last night and found a copy of Narcissus and Goldmund in a box of books. It’s quite a story, with echoes of Neitzsche and Jung evident in the depiction of the two main characters: Narcissus the bookish rationalist, a monk devoted to the life of the mind, and Goldmund, who chafes at the strictures of the monastery and roams out into the world, becoming a homeless and shameless seducer of horny women of all ages. Apollo and Dionysius!

There are many fine passages in the novel; this one I consider to be particularly evocative:

… Goldmund knew a spot along the river where the water was not deep; its bed was covered with shards and all kinds of rubbish that fishermen had thrown there. He sat down on the embankment wall and looked into the water. He loved water very much; all water attracted him. From this spot, one could look through the streaming, crystal-threaded water and see the dark vague bottom, see a vague golden glitter here and there, an enticing sparkle, bits of a broken plate perhaps or a worn-out sickle, or a smooth flat stone or a polished tile, or it might be a mud fish, a fat turbot or redeye turning around down there, a ray of light catching for an instant the bright fins of its scales and belly — one could never make out what precisely was there, but there were always enchantingly beautiful, enticing, brief vague glints of drowned golden treasure in the wet black ground. All true mysteries, it seemed to him, were just like this mysterious water; all true images of the soul were like this: they had no precise contour or shape: they only could be guessed at, a beautiful distant possibility that was veiled in many meanings. Just as something inexpressibly golden or silvery blinked for a quivering instant in the twilight of the green river depths, an illusion that contained, nevertheless, the most blissful promise, so the fleeting profile of a person, seen half from the back, could sometimes promise something infinitely beautiful, something unbearably sad. In the same way a lantern hung under a cart at night, painting giant spinning shadows of wheel spokes on walls, could for a moment create a shadow play that seemed as full of incidents and stories as the work of Homer. And one’s nightly dreams were woven of the same unreal, magic stuff, a nothing that contained all the images in the world, an ocean in whose crystal the forms of all human beings, animals, angels, and demons lived as ever ready possibilities.

Quite a riverbank reverie! I enjoy typing out passages such as this, as it forces me to pay attention to syntax and structure, and gives me time to enjoy the imagery. Interesting how Hesse draws the reader in; the first three sentences are short, but the fourth sentence just rambles on forever. So many commas, semi-colons, dashes, and colons! One reason, I surmise, for this tendency towards long sentences is that the book has been translated from the German language, which tends towards such excesses, both in words and sentences.

While re-reading this passage as I typed it out, sentence by sentence, I was reminded of some of the video poetry collaborations of Kathy McTavish and Sheila Packa, such as Black Iris:


See the resemblance? Hesse’s prose descriptions are of hard-to-make-out shifting images filtered through rippling river-water, while McTavish’s video (accompanied by her electronica/ambient cello-playing) features shifting images which you really can’t make out either. Both pieces, one 20th- century prose and the other a 21st-century amalgam of video, music, and poetry, are dreamy, myth-like works which defy logical analysis. But, as I try to remind myself, there will always be aesthetic works which have to be taken on their own terms.

I do have one question about the Hesse passage: why would someone hang a lantern under a cart? Had Hesse seen this done, as he seems to imply?


Carl Sauer On Agricultural Origins

Many years ago I used to get ideas for interesting books to read from the Whole Earth Catalog, and later from Coevolution Quarterly. Many of the books reviewed I would never have heard about without these publications, as I have never been in an academic environment or associated with the type of person who would read such books. Yeah, I’m one of those autodidacts you hear about, pale readers who flutter around the fringes of the academic and scientific worlds, hummingbird-like learners who take their prose nectar where they can. Naturally, aside from being the mother-lode of porn for those so inclined, the internet is a paradise for autodidacts, albeit it’s a paradise infested with the dragons of fallacy and illogical obsession.

One book reviewed and recommended in the Whole Earth Catalog impressed me, and still does to this day.

That book is a compilation of Carl Sauer’s talks and essays concerning the origins of the plants and animals we (and people of other cultures) eat every day, with any luck.

Sauer was a geographer, a specialty which sounds somewhat antiquated these days. Not a narrowly focused scholar, a geographer like Sauer ranged freely through a variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, botany, archaeology, and sociology. You might call him a synthesist and a student of speculative agricultural history. Another of Sauer’s interests was the effect of human occupation upon landscapes. He grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and was well aware of what dire changes had been wrought upon that landscape during his lifetime.

Why speculative? The source material is fragmented and scanty; during the thousands of years during which food plants and animals were developed humanity was pre-literate. All scientists have to go by are the still-existing cultivated plants and domesticated animals, along with the archaeological records, which include seeds and bones found in ancient middens. Botanists and zoologists try to identify still-surviving ancestors of our food plants and animals, populations which haven’t been subject to thousands of years of selective breeding.

The book bears the title Seeds, Spades, Hearths, and Herds; the title of an earlier edition was Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. Though the compilation was published in the early 1950s, from what I can gather from current sources Sauer’s conclusions and analyses have held up well.

One question Sauer ponders is: Why did Amerindian proto-cultivators use mostly vegetative plant propagation south of a zone roughly demarcated by the southern border of Mexico, while ancient plant-breeders north of that line used seed propagation and selection?

Another conundrum he deals with is the lack of domestication and improvement of North American plant species by the ancient first inhabitants of that continent. Blueberries, Jerusalem artichoke (a species of sunflower), perhaps the Paw Paw, the cranberry — really that’s about it. All other food crops grown in North America, both by the first inhabitants and by modern Americans, came from Mexico, Central America, the Andean region, and of course the Old World.

Here’s a quote; you should be aware that Sauer uses the word “hearth” to refer to a region where a particular plant or animal was first domesticated:

The hearth indicated [the interior of the Andean region] provided also, by means of fishing and hunting, aquatic and riparian, the possibility of living in sedentary communities before agriculture was known. Such precondition I hold necessary. The initiators of domestication required a comfortable and dependable margin above mere survival, permanent homes, and a living in communities in which they could share observations and have the leisure to begin the long range experimentation that led to domestication. The business of plant growing and selection did not proceed from “prelogical minds” by hocus-pocus or chance. It required ease, continuity, and peace. It was carried out by acutely observing individuals, primitive systematists and geneticists we may assert, who taught others to identify and select, by lore and skill handed from generation to generation. The plants fashioned by man are artifacts of skilled craftsmen; plant breeders anywhere are still few and exceptional individuals. I have difficulty in visualizing the spontaneous and independent origins of agricultural living and arts by reaching an unelucidated “stage” or “level” of cultural advance, or by assuming that people turned to producing food because they were getting hungrier. Distressed folk were least likely to have the capital reserves for investment in deferred returns. Such progress I should look for as originating in a most favored area, with a society amenable to new ways and recognizing original talent in its individuals. Were such congenial physical and cultural situations present as well anywhere else in the New World?

I admit that Sauer’s prose is a bit convoluted and dated, and lacking in humor. Nonetheless he gets his points across, sometimes eloquently, and he packs many ideas and speculations into a small space. Pithy is the applicable word, I think.

The book is out of print, but a quick look at reveals that used copies are available for as little as four dollars. I highly recommend the book; it’s always salutary to pay attention to the foods which sustain our civilization and their possible origins.