Sunday, November 29, 2020

"The Darling" (1899)

I finally got to Anton Chekhov's version of "The Darling," going about it all ass-backwards and reading the Scott Bradfield demi-homage from 1990 first, a few years back. I like the Chekhov more, perhaps needless to say, though I appreciate Bradfield's stunt work. The stories have parallels but are rather different. Chekhov is more artful and lacerating about the comic aspects of his tale and the main character's strange emptiness. Olenka starts as a young woman whose father, a retired collegiate assessor (whatever that is), is dying. Kukin is a theater manager and impresario who lives at "the lodge" with them. He's always complaining about his business. After her father's death, Olenka falls in love with him and they marry. Olenka discusses the ins and outs of theater business with everyone she meets, and they live happily ever after. Until Kukin dies rather suddenly after a few years. Olenka retires within herself and mourns for several months. Then she meets a lumber merchant, they get along very well, and they marry. Now her conversation is full of remarks like, "Timber gets dearer every year; the price rises twenty per cent." Of course this guy dies too after a few years, equally untimely. And there's another one. On a certain level the psychological realism is remarkably modern, looking forward to Woody Allen's Zelig, Jerzy Kosinki's Chauncy Gardner, and a disorder known as environmental dependency syndrome. Olenka's style is a strange mix of disappearing and consuming. She disappears into her partners yet somehow also seems to be eating them up. Or maybe it's bad luck, or perhaps it's an ironical take. We learn nothing of her mother, which suggests another untimely exit in Olenka's life, another trauma. When we meet her she is losing her father. As a woman alone in the world at the turn of the 20th century, she was dependent on a man for her survival. Women could push against that and did, currents of suffrage and feminism were in the air by then, but the baseline was still dependency on men. Olenka does not seem to push against it—except, perhaps, in a passive-aggressive way—but rather to accept it whole-heartedly. She gives herself entirely to her men. "You darling!" they say. Later in the story, when she is much older and maternal instincts have taken hold, it's a boy. All things must pass, as our strange darling Olenka learns well. The pathos of her emptiness is drawn to a tee.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Vast of Night (2019)

This endearing curiosity, which debuted at Sundance nearly two years ago and is a first effort by director, cowriter, and editor Andrew Patterson, probably needs some disclaimers to set expectations right. It contains plucky teens with a decidedly Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys vibe in a 1950s small town America trying to unravel a mystery involving UFOs. It opens and closes as a parody of The Twilight Zone¬—in the end, I took this odd frame as evidence of Patterson's ambitions to create his own franchise, which by this evidence I can only support. More than Rod Serling, The Vast of Night reminded me of a semi-obscure 2008 movie, Pontypool. They are both almost theatrical, within the relatively confined spaces of isolated radio broadcasting studios and a high-concept mystery from without, but closing in. The Vast of Night breaks rules at will but always seems to work. For example, sometimes, when people are telling stories (telling stories is ultimately the essence of the picture), visuals drop away entirely into a mostly black screen and we are simply listening to a voice in the dark. So intensely are these stories told we almost don't notice—indeed, it's some relief to have no visual distractions, the better to fill in and expand into the stories. At other times the picture shrinks and takes the shape of a TV screen. The images have a blue cast and are staticky and snowy the way TVs in the '50s could be. Though it is a movie of storytelling, like scary stories told around campfires, really there are only two long ones. But they are doozies. One is told by a late-night listener calling in to the radio station. He identifies himself as Billy (Bruce Davis, purely a voice performance). He claims to have participated in secret Area 51 types of government projects. The other is told by an old woman in her home, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who appears to be addled. Not exactly to us—we know by that point what kind of movie we're looking at, so we are more willing to give her bizarre story and conclusions more credence. But to the plucky teens hearing her out she is merely deranged. These teens—Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz)—may yet end up as a couple but they are not all the way there yet, and their connection is mostly cerebral but fruitful. They work well together. From The Twilight Zone to H.P. Lovecraft (the title serves as proximate homage) by way of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—which is the last time I saw such a stately awe-inspiring UFO in a movie—and then all the way back again in a tidy hour and a half. It's impressive—worth a look.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tropic Moon (1933)

My first venture into the work of the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon turned out not to be a detective novel at all, but rather one of his self-described roman durs, or "hard novels." And it is indeed quite hard, in terms of life conditions, with a colonial setting reminiscent by turns of Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, and The Sheltering Sky—arguably even "harder" than any of them, flat, brutal, and so compact it is always directly to the point. The literal translation of Simenon's title, Coup de Lune, is "moon burn" or "moon stroke," which are more apt. Joseph Timar is a young Frenchman, about 23, who travels to Libreville, Gabon, in Africa, on the promise of work through his connected uncle. Once there he finds the job with a logging concern is not available exactly because the man presently holding the position has promised to shoot any replacement who shows up to try to take it away from him. Timar doesn't know what to do about it so he hangs around the hotel drinking a lot and eventually starts having sex with the hotelkeeper's wife. Apparently everyone around there has her on the regular. Then she shoots a native and all the troubles turn in a new direction. In fact, there's no end to troubles in this very short and impressive novel. In his introduction to the 2005 edition (ridiculously overpriced at the moment, sorry to say), Norman Rush discusses how Simenon was more interested in the damaging effects of colonialism on conquering oppressors. All that privilege is turning these whites into monsters, Timar absolutely not excepted, though he causes more the kinds of problems we see from bumbling well-meaning nice guys. Whites are a tiny minority in Libreville. At a certain level they have to stick together. Africans are most often "a black," and just in that way Simenon shows how deeply the dehumanization has hold. Everyone here is pretty much fucked up, much of it racism and other side effects of colonialism, and things proceed from there. I had not realized before how prolific Simenon was, a member of the sparsely populated 500-novel club with Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard (I had actually not realized it about Hubbard either). The structure of Tropic Moon and the way it moves do feel as though written by someone who is comfortable writing novels, however short it might be, well under 200 pages. The composer Joseph Haydn wrote short symphonies too, but he wrote 106 of them, compared to Beethoven's nine long. All the ones I've heard are polished and satisfying. Just so, Simenon mixes and chooses and emphasizes his elements to best effect. Really great—can't wait to try another.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Bells (1979)

[Early cuts here and here.]

More than 40 years later (I happened to pick it up the day it came out), I still can't make up my mind about this curious Lou Reed album, poised before one of his best solo periods. Sometimes it feels like a brilliant experiment I can't quite fathom. Sometimes it feels like outtakes from the previous year's Street Hassle. It carries on with the "binaural" production strategy from that album, with Reed taking the sole formal producer credit this time. But the sound is lumbering and muddy, like someone spilled syrup on it. Too late I learned the supposed way to listen is on headphones, which I don't do anymore and never thought to try with this. Reed's vocals are often pitched at hysterical levels, distractingly weird, and out of step with the lyrics. Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone cobbled together a case for The Bells as a return to Velvet Underground form and Robert Christgau in the Village Voice gave it an amiable B+, but the folks throwing up reviews over at Amazon are closer to my own take for once (though I will say I like the album more than many of them). "Families" drew me in first and most enduringly with its tale of nuclear family heartache but sadly I have about used it up by now. The album kicks off pretty well with "Stupid Man"—neglectful father with regrets—though it is hampered by Reed's vocal, which sounds like a coke jag. "Disco Mystic" follows. It is neither hostile to disco nor actually disco, coming on with a walloping attack, pepper pot sax, and drowned "disco mystic" quasi-chant.

I start to lose attention with "I Want to Boogie With You," in which boogieing has never sounded so lackluster yet strangely desperate. The star of this album could well be saxophonist Marty Fogel, although on "Boogie" he sounds more like an SNL session guy. "City Lights" is a pleasant ditty that appears to be about the Chaplin movie, or maybe just Chaplin himself, or possibly something else altogether—it's cryptic. (Still, if it inspires anyone to see City Lights it has done its work. I recommend you look into it immediately.) "All Through the Night" reprises the same party background effects (with possibly the same exact recording) as "Kicks" on Coney Island Baby. It's convincing as a portrait of a New York party in the '70s but Jesus Christ Reed himself already did it. Maybe the most apt comparison I found for The Bells was to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which is similarly out of character for its artist, yet recognizably him, and much adored among a certain slice of the dedicated fans. For me, I've always been a Lust for Life partisan for Iggy in that period, and I like Street Hassle a lot more than The Bells—for the title suite alone, even if the rest of the album veers toward the weak. The problem, as M. Salmestrelli argued it in 2013 on Amazon, and I think I agree, is that it just wasn't a good period for Reed. "Lou Reed was in a very bad state by the tail end of the 70's and his music reflected it," he writes. "Aside from Metal Machine Music, the live Take No Prisoners, Growing Up In Public and Rock N Roll Heart are the worst albums in Lou Reed's career." Of course I don't agree entirely—I'm one who likes MMM and I think 1974's Sally Can't Dance (not to mention Mistrial if we're looking beyond the '70s) belongs with his worst. I will probably be puzzling out The Bells for the rest of my life. To start, why that title?

Friday, November 20, 2020

Mean Streets (1973)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
Photography: Kent L. Wakeford
Music: Martin Scorsese's vinyl collection
Editor: Sidney Levin
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Cesare Danova, David Carradine, Robert Carradine

Mean Streets is a landmark film in many ways, big and small—a powerful early picture by director and cowriter Martin Scorsese, a tale of New York street life and low-level gangsters, a sneaky coiling script, and a certain model of early jukebox movie, rolling out yet another way to do it, with The Graduate, Easy Rider, and American Graffiti advancing their own theories on the matter. And it may have been harder for me to see earlier through the welter of noise and violence, but Mean Streets is also the work of a self-conscious student of film, with self-conscious inflections as it barrels along toward the work of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut.

Mean Streets opens on a black screen and Harvey Keitel murmuring about sin and salvation (two years later Patti Smith would turn it upside down with "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" on her cover of "Gloria"). Then the drum hits and kicks from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" go off and the song blares in all majesty for the titles, playing loud. Turn it up anyway—it's still one of the most inspired and thrilling mashups of song and images ever stitched together, and it's followed not long after with a red-light barroom scene to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" that's not far behind. There are other pop music high points like these (and some opera too)—for me, notably, "Rubber Biscuit"—but within 10 minutes Mean Streets already felt vastly different from anything I'd seen before.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Lazarus" (1906)

The story of Lazarus as told by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev in the 20th century is great. It asks an obvious question no one ever seems to ask: How did the rest of his life go for Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from the dead? No doubt it was a hand-slapping moment of jubilation for Jesus and his followers and the crowd. But what about the guy stumbling out of the tomb? I think we have always presumed he would be a grateful, joyful disciple in waiting, but this story sees it in a more believable way. He is bewildered and haunted. He still bears the marks of a corpse—his face and hands are "cadaverously" blue, his belly distended ("one sensed the presence of the rank liquid of decomposition"). At gatherings, people always ask him what it's like to be dead but he never answers. He doesn't say very much in general. Before long, he's kind of unpopular, and avoided, though he's also a celebrity or at least a well-known freak. Later in the story, he is sent for by Augustus Caesar and visits Rome. He has something of a strange power, which is that anyone who looks into his eyes is permanently depressed and filled with despair. A newlywed couple he meets, for example, remain in love and stay together but are never happy again in their lives. Accordingly, in the Roman fashion, Augustus has his eyes put out and Lazarus spends the rest of his life blind. His shabby treatment, the shunning and cruelty, are nothing particularly insightful for students of human psychology, but I am stopped by this picture of Lazarus himself. He is disturbingly unforgettable, and raises many questions. Is the afterlife so terrible? What did he see? What does he know? Is it just black nothingness after all? But doesn't his resurrection itself put the lie to that? We feel certain whatever Lazarus experienced explains his psychological collapse, which is contagious as noted. It's not just eye contact. You get a hit of this despair reading the story too. It's remarkable. There's a recurring and virtually cinematic image of him as a dark silhouette against a giant red setting sun on the horizon, which he walks toward every evening. The story follows him all the way to his second death, which is anonymous and obscure. "And it came to pass that once he went out and did not come back"—nice biblical cadence there, at least partly the uncredited translator in my Big Book of Masters product. Everyone knows about the resurrection of Lazarus and no one knows anything about his second death—he disappears from the Book of John after Jesus' big mic drop, and remembering also that John is the most fanciful gospel and the only one with the story. In some ways this story looks forward to and connects quite neatly with Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary and it even looks forward to zombies a little too. Powerful story—a great one.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Roughing It (1872)

I haven't read widely in travel literature but I generally enjoy Mark Twain's forays into it. Though he can bog down in description when he huffs up too hard, he usually redeems himself with anecdotes and an easygoing rambling style—I like the rambling style, on balance. His sentences threaten to turn into mush sometimes with an excess of words, but he maintains a certain dry tone that makes the jokes work, sneaking up on you in the earnestness of their exaggerations: "The simple child of nature, yielding momentarily to sin when sorely tempted, acknowledged his error when calm reflection had shown it to him, and came forward with noble frankness and offered up his grandmother as an atoning sacrifice," and so forth. In Roughing It, Twain takes a stagecoach in about 1861 out of Missouri and into the North American Wild West. He spends a good deal of time traveling and finally lands in Nevada in the midst of mining boom times. Eventually he makes his way to San Francisco and, from there by ship, to Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. In light of renewed activity in recent years, it was interesting to read his reports of Kilauea, reminiscent for how striking across time it is of the account by Lewis and Clark of Mt. St. Helens. But Hawaii is well the dullest part of the book, with long passages of description. Much better are the sections on Nevada, where the economic mania looks a lot like our own booms and busts, built around feverish speculation. The opening sections are also fine—it's startling to see the American West without a railroad and with quite hostile Indians to contend with, and no shortage of white miscreants either. Horses were the only way to make the trip—or walking. Twain also spends some time in Salt Lake City and on Mormons, which is often interesting though his biases color the accounts. His own judgment seems to have been set by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the story of which he includes in an appendix. His encounters with Native Americans, especially the aboriginals in Hawaii, are a typical 19th-century white man's response of reflexive loathing. He can speak of them in such belittling terms that it is shocking and distracting, which is unfortunate. He's much better on the foolishness of white people, including, often, himself. Good one, mostly.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Top 40

1. Planet 1999, "Party" (2:50)
2. Comet Is Coming, "Blood of the Past" (8:15)
3. YOB, "Our Raw Heart" (14:23, 2018)
4. Mud, "Tiger Feet" (3:50, 1974)
5. Jimmy Reed, "Little Rain" (3:07, 1956)
6. Fountains of Wayne, "Hackensack" (3:00, 2003)
7. Pussy Riot, "Make America Great Again" (3:15, 2016)
8. Rage Against the Machine, "Bulls on Parade" (3:49, 1996)
9. Jessie Ware, "Spotlight (Icarus Remix)" (3:58)
10. Noga Erez, "Views" (2:45)
11. Lil Yachty, "Oprah's Bank Account" (3:25)
12. Run the Jewels feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha, "JU$T" (3:25)
13. Penny & the Quarters, "You and Me" (2:41, ca. early 1970s)
14. Khruangbin, "Time (You and I)" (5:42)
15. H.E.R., "I Can't Breathe" (4:47)
16. Joe Bataan, "Mestizo (12" Mix)" (6:45, 1980)
17. Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" (4:40, 1983)
18. Jay Electronica, "Ghost of Soulja Slim" (4:26)
19. Glen Washington, "One of These Days" (3:21, 2000)
20. Grace Jones, "Do or Die" (6:42, 1978)
21. Surfaces, "Sunday Best" (2:40)
22. Benee, "Supalonely (Clean Version)" (3:43)
23. Lil Mosey, "Blueberry Faygo" (2:42)
24. Pop Smoke, "The Woo" (3:21)
25. Erasure, "Nerves of Steel" (4:13)
26. Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion, "WAP" (3:07)
27. Rolling Stones, "Scarlet" (3:44)
28. Sufjan Stevens, "Video Games" (4:15)
29. Perfume Genius, "Your Body Changes Everything" (4:13)
30. Psychedelic Furs, "The Boy That Invented Rock & Roll" (3:37)
31. Killing Joke, "Requiem" (3:45, 1980)
32. Killing Joke, "Tomorrow's World" (5:28, 1980)
33. Killing Joke, "The Wait" (3:41, 1980)
34. Killing Joke, "Complications" (3:06, 1980)
35. Pharrell Williams feat. Jay-Z, "Entrepreneur" (4:18)
36. Phoenix, "Identical" (3:13)
37. Father John Misty, "To R." (4:26)
38. Lil Wayne, "Funeral" (3:14)
39. Public Enemy, "State of the Union (STFU) (Main)" (2:58)
40. Saweetie, "Tap In" (2:19)

thnx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, etc. ... 5, Keith Richards, Life ... 38, foolish endorsement notwithstanding

Monday, November 09, 2020

Leave No Trace (2018)

Perhaps because it's set in Portland, or more generally the Pacific Northwest, Leave No Trace reminded me a lot of the movies Wendy and Lucy and Lean on Pete. They all look to the economic desperation in the underbelly of modern neoliberal America and take on the corrosive results with small-bore focus. Director and cowriter Debra Granik gave us Winter's Bone 10 years ago and in many ways Leave No Trace makes it a matched set. When we first see them, Will (Ben Foster) and Will's 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living comfortably in a patch of old-growth forest. We think they are in isolated deep woods as they forage and start campfires with flint and steel, discuss points of tracking and covering tracks. But when they head in to Portland for supplies we see they're not far from a huge freeway system, living in a public park. That's the reason they want to cover their tracks. We learn by pieces that Will is a Bush/Cheney wars veteran suffering from PTSD. He wants to have as little as possible to do with human civilization, as he raises Tom, teaches her to read as well as to possess survival skills. Above all, mainly, he keeps to himself, a brooding and obviously pained if kindly figure. Early in the picture, however, they are discovered by park police and the downward spiral into the system begins. Marshaled in, they find themselves living in government low-income housing, required to meet certain conditions ("I've got some paperwork for you," is a regular refrain from the social worker assigned to them). Will takes a job working on a Christmas tree farm as Tom starts to discover that civilization might not be so bad. But before long Will packs them up and they are gone again. The picture is largely spent watching Will desperately try to get away and find his peace in isolation even as Tom more and more desperately wants to stay put, practically anywhere will do. She looks to the kindness of others, which she sees can be real. Although it's not particularly clear for some time, Leave No Trace is ultimately a coming-of-age story about Tom. For that matter, Wendy and Lucy and Lean on Pete are coming-of-age stories too. And Winter's Bone. If anything, Granik has gotten even better at this.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Plague (1947)

I went back to reread Albert Camus's The Plague about a year before the covid-19 pandemic started and it has turned out to be even more eerily accurate than I suspected, down to small details of bizarre behavior. It's so convincing I had to keep checking Wikipedia to make sure there really had not been a bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940s. Camus based The Plague in part on an outbreak of cholera in Oran in 1849 but—no doubt because we seem to be so forgetful as a species about the way epidemics and pandemics work—people have preferred to read into it things like an allegory of the French resistance to Nazi occupation. I guess that makes sense, certainly given our collective amnesia about epidemiology. It also reminded me of the quiet way the stories in the Martin Beck series of police procedurals go down—nothing to see here, just professionals working on solving a public health problem. In a more general way, its tone of glum plodding realism also seemed like a Jean-Pierre Melville movie. The Plague is restrained and polished, letting the details tell the story, for example that the epidemic virtually starts with a sudden and massive die-off of the city's rat population. The main character is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a physician in his 30s. It feels like a police procedural because another main character is the state, which sets curfews, seals borders, maintains quarantine rules, cares for the sick, disposes of the dead. And an epidemic is much like crime—obeying its own rules and patterns, random, cruel, and lethal. Rieux has a small circle of friends he sees during the epidemic. He is separated from his wife because she is sick herself (not with plague) and has lived in a sanatorium since before the epidemic. Rieux is confined to living in the city, which no one is allowed to leave. The Plague is a great novel, straightforward and moving, compressed and to the point—in the category of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I can see now how accurate it is about the ways these ordinary people resist and deny the reality, on the one hand, and can also rise to the occasion on the other. At the time I reread it, these extraordinary circumstances still seemed exotic. It reminded me more than anything of Camus's novel The Stranger and also the work of Paul Bowles. Now I see better there is nothing flashy or overly cerebral about The Plague. It has a terrible story to tell—the one, in fact, we have struggled through most of this year—and it simply tells it. It has statistical proportion. In a metropolitan area of 200,000, where hundreds are dying every week, any single individual's actual exposure to the experience of the worst still feels limited. As now, people feel isolated and distant from the disease until they are plunged right into it. When we finally see a death (after only very quick snapshots of the grotesque, such as the rats) it's powerful and moving. There's something about The Plague that almost feels sacred. At the very least, it's essential 2020 reading.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, November 06, 2020

A Day in the Country (1946)

Partie de campagne, France, 40 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, Guy de Maupassant
Photography: Claude Renoir
Music: Joseph Kosma
Editors: Marinette Cadix, Marguerite Renoir
Cast: Sylvia Bataille, Georges D'Arnoux, Jane Marken, Paul Temps, Jean Renoir

Here's another one of those highly touted masterpieces of cinema with a confusing origin story and various uncertainties of provenance. It was shot in 1936, interrupted for unspecified reasons (something to do with the weather is the best I've been able to figure), and then assembled from the parts in 1946 by producer Pierre Braunberger for release in 1950. Sources like Wikipedia and IMDb treat it specifically as unfinished. Director and screenwriter Jean Renoir was working in the US in 1946 and apparently had nothing to do with it at that point, nor seemed to have any objections to its being finished or to the result. I have to say it doesn't feel particularly unfinished to me—maybe that's some happy accident of circumstances. A Day in the Country is based on a short story by Maupassant and it's true that some crucial scenes near the end are not in the film or at best are arguably undeveloped in a picture otherwise faithful to the story. But I'm not sure how much longer you could make this movie from here. A good deal of its charm is its brevity and its high-spirited freedom to dart among the characters, landing on them like butterflies and flying away again, sketching with quick sure strokes. It's the story of a middle-class Parisian shopkeeper who takes his family on a picnic outing to the French countryside on a summer day. His wife is a bit of a flirtatious goose. Their teenage daughter appears wise beyond her years. They meet a couple of men who attempt to seduce them, in a frothy lighthearted French sort of way. Later it turns out to be a moment of shared separate epiphany for the daughter and her beau of that day, one they can never return to, as the daughter by then has made a safe and conventional but likely unpassionate marriage. It's true the picture is a bit abrupt at the finish, where scenes are most felt to be missing, though it can easily be taken as 1930s decorum on sexual matters. Certainly the encounter at the very end is more ridiculously convenient than not. But Maupassant's story is also abrupt and convenient, and it's easy to lay off any complaints on him and his story. The movie thus manages to have it both ways, faithful to the defects in a way yet delivering all the pleasures of a good story well done, with pungent detail, memorable glimpses into characters at crossroads, a sense of peering in at secret lives momentarily revealed, and epiphanies arriving on the regular. I'm not always that sure myself about either Maupassant or Renoir, maybe I have some complex about French culture, but this short piece glows with charm, confidence, humanity, beauty, foolishness, and plain fun. It is itself a little picnic on a summer day.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

"The Familiar" (1872)

This Sheridan Le Fanu story appeared over 20 years earlier in another version called "The Watcher." As the new title, "The Familiar," suggests with perhaps even more force, it's the story of a demon that attaches to and torments a single person, to the death. I've been characterizing stories structured like this one (and others by Le Fanu as well as many others) as inspired by the Sherlock Holmes model, with a rational investigator grounding and explaining fantastic events. But obviously Le Fanu predates Arthur Conan Doyle's tales by decades. This should remind us once again that it was Edgar Allan Poe, with Auguste Dupin in the 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," who basically invented the rational investigator and detective fiction, though Doyle certainly gets the credit for perfecting it in certain ways. But Le Fanu chipped in his advancements too, working out the details and systematizing many aspects of it in the horror vein. The device works well with horror—H.P. Lovecraft used it all the time—and Le Fanu uses it well. "The Familiar" has predictable problems with antiquated language, and generally is a little too long, but it is often effective (the technical term for "scary"), proceeding like a true-crime account. It starts with an experience that is common. Walking alone at night, you often think you hear footsteps besides your own, as if someone is following or approaching from behind. The next day our man has another strange experience, one of the story's high points, with an anonymous note in the morning's mail. It's in an unfamiliar hand and makes sinister reference to the experience of the night before. Mostly the story follows along from there with the haunted man's attempts to cope, his increasing agitation, and a few more tricks up its sleeve as well. At the end there is some explanation of the demon's grievance—it's not unjustified. This story has fundamental points of horror. This type of harassment by demon is as lively as ever, for example, in the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity, existing somewhere in between demonic possession and ghost or haunted house. It's closest to a ghost story, but this ghost travels with a specific person. Our haunted man eventually sees a diminutive but ferocious figure wearing red, something like the dwarf in the movie Don't Look Now. Daphne du Maurier wrote the long story that movie is based on and almost certainly she was aware of Le Fanu. She came much later, of course, but Le Fanu was fashionable in the 19th century, counting Henry James and M.R. James among his most admiring readers. Even if your name isn't James you might like it too.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Under the Volcano (1947)

I'm aware how appreciated and respected Malcolm Lowry's novel is. It's not only high on the Modern Library list of best 20th-century novels (#11), and Larry McAffery's too (#14), but I've also personally heard good word of mouth on it from friends. But, lord, it's not an easy one for me. I gave up on it early 10 or 15 years ago and then got through it on a second attempt recently. I love the swooning, surging language, and the use of Mexico and the volcanoes is effective too. I'm more ambivalent about the swirling way the plot unfolds. On the whole it requires study aids. For example, it's not only set on a single day but also, according to Wikipedia, a specific date in history—November 2, 1938 (82 years ago tomorrow, for those keeping track)—which I don't believe is ever actually mentioned in the novel, nor particularly means anything of itself, other than being the last day of the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico (and the birthdate of Pat Buchanan). Whoever figured it out had to spend time parsing the clues, for which I'm grateful as it does clear up much of the talk about the Spanish Civil War, Nazis, and so on. I only wish I had checked in with Wikipedia sooner than the 90% point I reached when I did. Under the Volcano is a lot of work, in other words, and I'm not convinced it's worth it, though another reading could well open it up. But, lord, another reading. Geoffrey Firmin is our main man, which is not evident until midway through the second chapter (and these chapters are long). His quasi-estranged wife Yvonne is important too, and his younger brother Hugh. Yvonne has been unfaithful in the past (we glean slowly) but with whom is never entirely clear. Hugh seems likely. Some vivid scenes come swimming up out of this, such as a bullfight and strange incidents on a bus. There is a wonderful miasma of doom over it all. It ranges into Spanish language often and I was grateful for kindle translations. There's also French and German as well (again grateful). In that way it reminded me a little of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. On one level it's an annoying kind of cosmopolitanism, yet it's also an accurate recounting of experience in a place like Mexico on a day like November 2, 1938. I was often put off by the excessive drinking too, I must admit. In the early chapters Firmin, known as "the Consul" for his minor political position, thinks he is drinking strychnine (shades of the movie The Master!), and all through drinks mescal. In fact, Yvonne, Hugh, and a lot of others are worried about his drinking. Am I giving something away if I mention things never get better for Firmin or anyone? Actually, that's part of the study guide too.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.