‘Travels With My Aunt’ by Graham Greene

‘Travels With My Aunt’ by Graham Greene  (1969) – 244 pages

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Reading a Graham Greene novel is for me like meeting a dear old friend again.  I have a strong liking for Greene’s writing and have read most of his work. 

There are a couple of reasons I had not read ‘Travels With My Aunt’ before.  First the title wrongly suggested to me that this might not be fiction and might instead be some dreaded memoir.  I’m no fan of memoirs generally.  Also I erroneously thought that ‘Travels With My Aunt’ was one of the last works by Greene, and I have not had good luck with the last works of prolific authors.  Only today did I find out that he wrote several of his best novels including ‘The Human Factor’ and ‘The Honorary Counsel’ after ‘Travels With My Aunt’.  For whatever reason, I still find the title ‘Travels With My Aunt’ anomalous among the titles of his novels in its personal reference   However the number of Graham Greene novels I haven’t read is dwindling down to a precious few, and it was time for ‘Travels’.

‘Travels With My Aunt’ is a fun good-natured comedy by Greene, perhaps not as edgy as some of his other books.

The main character in this novel is Englishman Henry Pulling.  He has recently retired from his life’s work as an accountant.  He has never married, and now that he is retired his main interest is tending his garden of dahlias.  The novel begins on the day of his mother’s funeral.  His aunt Augusta shows up at the funeral, and she turns Henry’s world upside down or right side up as the case may be.

Aunt Augusta’s life is entirely different from Henry’s sedate life.  She is a free spirit living her life to the fullest.

 “I despise no one, no one.  Regret your own actions, if you like that kind of wallowing in self pity, but never, never despise.” - Aunt Augusta in ‘Travels With My Aunt’

Soon they are travelling to Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, and Paraguay on missions involving mysterious gentlemen, jewels, and government intrigue. 

I found ‘Travels With My Aunt’ a merry romp of a novel, but perhaps not quite as dramatic as some of Greene’s other work. However a technique is used in this novel that I hadn’t seen before.  A secret becomes apparent to the readers early in the novel.  We wait for the main character Henry Pulling to figure it out, but he never does.

I would not recommend ‘Travels With My Aunt’ as a book to start with in reading Graham Greene.  Better books to start with would be ‘The Heart of the Matter’, ‘Our Man in Havana’, ‘A Burnt-Out Case’, or, above all, ‘Brighton Rock’.   There are any number of other fine Greene novels to start with, but ‘Travels With My Aunt’ isn’t one of them.

However I do recommend that you start reading Graham Greene if you haven’t already.   I should mention that I am a fallen-out Protestant and still hold this most Catholic of novelists, Graham Greene, in highest esteem.

‘The UnAmericans’ by Molly Antopol

‘The UnAmericans’ by Molly Antopol  (2014) – 258 pages

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Listen carefully to the stories you hear from your relatives and friends.  Some day a few of those stories might make great fiction.

The stories in ‘The UnAmericans’ seem to be the result of listening closely to family stories.  Some of the stories go back to the old European world while others take place in the modern world of the United States and Israel.  These stories capture the poignancy and emotion of the lives of the people in them over time.

Molly Antopol is one of the 2013 ‘5 Under 35’ fiction writers selected by the National Book Foundation.

All of the stories in ‘The UnAmericans’ are strong, but in order to give you a better idea what this collection is like, I will focus on a single story.  In ‘The Quietest Man’, a father finds out that his 24 year old daughter has written a play about her family which is to be performed in New York City.  The father is terribly anxious to find out what is in the play, because he is divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughter. When his daughter visits him, he recalls times over the years when he was less than a good father  The story goes all the way back to Prague, Czechoslovakia when he and his wife were young, and their daughter was born.   It tells about the reason they left Prague, their life in the states, the marriage falling apart, the strained relationship between father and daughter.  As the story ends, we find out the plot of the daughter’s play.

When one reads this story, one can’t help but think of the young Molly Antopol writing stories about her own family.  I suppose most authors face this dilemma of including the traits or the past of people close to them in their fiction.

Some of the stories begin in Belarus or in Kiev, Ukraine and wind up in either the United States or Israel.  Except for the Native Americans, most of us who live in the United States are UnAmericans in that the stories of our families begin long ago and far away. If there are any pictures from the old times left, these ancient family members may bear an uncanny resemblance to us.

Each of the stories has as much substance as a novella, yet is only about 30 pages long.   These stories in ‘The UnAmericans’ are so well-written and moving, they reaffirm my faith in the short story form.  Adam Johnson describes Molly Antopol as “a writer of seismic talent”, and I agree.

Molly Antopol is at work on a novel tentatively titled ‘The After Party’.

W. H. Auden and the Great Divide Between People

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Here is a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books this week called The Secret Auden by Edward Mendelson.  Unlike so many articles today, this one does not reveal the secret vices of a famous person.  Instead this article reveals the kind acts of generosity that W. H Auden did but kept hidden from the public.

 But the main point of the article is to show us W. H. Auden’s views of life and of people.   Auden was a sensitive supremely intelligent man who was able to put the whole world into his poems.

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table …”
                                            ‘Herman Melville’, by W. H. Auden

The key time in our world history is just after World War II.   Civilization had just been through two major wars, the second much worse than the first. Auden said, ‘War may be necessary, but it is still murder.’  Many people were pessimistic that a third world war, much worse than the second, was inevitable.    Auden addressed this fear with the following lines.

“More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
but we shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler,
trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively,
all is possible.”

‘The Cave of Making’ by W. H. Auden

Somehow we have muddled through these almost seventy years since World War II without that third world war occurring, although we have built and stockpiled the weapons for it.

As Mendelson points out in his article, there are two sides to our current argument, two ways of looking at things.  Since Mendelson presents this idea so persuasively, I will let him explain.

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

One of many forms this argument takes is a dispute over the meaning of the great totalitarian evils of the twentieth century: whether they reveal something about all of humanity or only about the uniquely evil leaders, cultures, and nations that committed them.”

                             ‘The Secret Auden’, Edward Mendelson

So here is the great divide between people.  The members of one group say, without irony, ‘We are good persons and it is all those other evil people that are causing all the trouble’.  However the members of the second group say, ‘We ourselves, as well as everyone else, have the potential to commit evil.  It is up to each of us to curb our own evil instincts.’

AudenVanVechten1939Auden and I strongly support the second group.  If Hitler and all the Nazis could have figured out for one second that they themselves were the problem, tens of millions of people would not have had to die in World War II.

Over the last few days, I’ve discovered much more in Auden’s poems than his views of evil and good.  Only now am I beginning to realize the full extent of his accomplishment.

Another line from Auden seems appropriate here.

“You shall love your crooked neighbour, with your crooked heart.”

             ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ by W. H. Auden

‘Strange Bodies’ by Marcel Theroux – A Novel with a Split Personality

‘Strange Bodies’ by Marcel Theroux (2014) – 292 pages

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‘Strange Bodies’ starts out as a literary mystery and then changes into a science fiction caper.  Somewhere during the transformation the novel lost me, because the two parts were not joined together particularly well at all.

Nicholas Slopen is a literary academic specializing in the 18th century and in particular Samuel Johnson, the great English man of letters and creator of  ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’.  Slopen is asked to authenticate some essays purportedly written by Johnson.  These are essays that have never before come to light, so Slopen is excited to have the chance to read them.  After a thorough examination of the essays, Slopen is ready to validate them as the work of Samuel Johnson only to notice that the paper they are written on would not have been available in Johnson’s time.

So who wrote these essays?  That is the central literary mystery here.  I suppose many readers would be impatient with all this talk of Samuel Johnson and such, but for me that was the most interesting part of the novel.  

Just as I was settling in, the novel turns into a futuristic science fiction chase involving wild Russian experiments into the resuscitation of human lives.  When the book left the literary world, I found that I did not care enough for the present-day characters in order to sustain my interest.   

The chief concern of the second half of the novel is the Malevin Procedure which is a wild-eyed technique for implanting the writings and thoughts of one person into another.  Samuel Johnson may be worthy of this procedure, but others in this novel are not.   We are not given a detailed enough description of how the procedure is actually implemented.  The procedure itself is incomplete, and the result is a mixture of before and after.      

I suppose that the main problem with the novel is that the chief character, Nicholas Slopen, is never developed into someone we empathize with.  First he is an academic authenticating someone else’s writings.  There is a half-hearted attempt to give him a wife and two children which is rather unconvincing.

I must admit that science fiction is usually not my genre of choice, although I have enjoyed several of the classics such as ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘We’, and ‘Brave New World’ in the past.   ‘Strange Bodies’ seems to have a split personality.  Somehow I don’t believe that it takes its science at all seriously beyond putting its characters in motion.

‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ by Magdalena Zyzak

‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ by Magdalena Zyzak  (2014) – 269 pages

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Here we have a ribald comic folk tale from the imaginary Slavic nation of Scalvusia about young pig farmer Barnabas Pierkiel and his quest for the beautiful gypsy Roosha Papusha. He first encounters Roosha in her garden bending over as she pulls out weeds, and “his beloved’s buttocks glared at him through a cloche of heaped skirts.”

What is special about ‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’ is that it is written in the fashion of those wonderful novels from the 17th and 18th centuries such as ‘Tristam Shandy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Candide’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.  Each chapter has a subtitle such as ‘In which two friends become friendlier in a shed’ or ‘In which Apollonia divulges her secret’.  My favorite chapter subtitle is ‘In which too much transpires to be summed up’. 

To have a modern novel written in this old manner is a delight.  It has been so long since a modern novel has been written in this classic style that it comes across as new and different and unique.  Magdalena also pulls off the archaic language and the bizarre plot of a twisted folktale well.    

This absurd bawdy farce takes place in this backward town of Odolechka just before World War II, and the Germans are on the verge of invading.   We meet the mayor, the mayor’s wife, the police chief, the priest, as well as many others.  All are town characters in one way or another.        

The distinctive classical style and Magdalena Zyzak’s wicked sense of humor make this novel great fun at first.   Zyzak has pulled this madcap folk comedy off for about 150 pages. However the novel is 269 pages long. It loses some of its comic energy during the last half.  Too many characters from the town are introduced, and many are not defined sharply or rudely enough to be funny.  This is broad humor, and it probably could have been limited to 10 or 12 well-defined characters.

Despite not being entirely satisfied with ‘The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel’, I believe that Magdalena Zyzak is a novelist to watch in the future.  It is her willingness and ability to attempt something different from the crowd that makes her fascinating.

A Descent Due to Alcohol

The Drinker’ by Hans Fallada (1950) – 282 pages

Translated by Charlotte and A. L. Lloyd

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There are two distinct sides to German writer Hans Fallada. In ‘Every Man Dies Alone’ (also called ‘Alone in Berlin’), he wrote what Primo Levi called “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”. That is a wrenching powerful account of what Berlin was like for working class people during the Nazi era. Fallada wrote it soon after the end of World War II shortly before he died.

‘The Drinker’, another of his novels, captures the other side of Hans Fallada. It was written in an encrypted notebook by him while he was locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane in the early 1940s. He was locked up, because he had made drunken threats with a gun against his ex-wife during an alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown.

‘The Drinker’ tells the story of one man’s descent due to alcohol. While it certainly is fiction and written as a novel, one gets the sense while reading that this is very much Fallada’s own story. The first part of the novel is about the drinking taking over this man’s life, and the second part is about life in the asylum.

“This place was horrible with its filth and meanness and envy, but that is how it was, and what was the use of rebelling against it? We prisoners, we patients, were not worth it.”

Lately the subject of American writers and alcohol has been up for discussion due to the recent book, ‘‘The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” by Olivia Laing. The case of Hans Fallada would suggest that alcoholism is a problem not only for American writers.

‘The Drinker’ very much reminded me of the novel, ‘Disturbing the Peace’, by American writer Richard Yates. Like Han Fallada, Richard Yates had a form of alcoholism that went well beyond the fashionable. His alcoholism was also mixed in with bouts of psychosis and depression. At age 34, he spent one weekend in the Men’s Violence Ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York. He put that weekend into his novel ‘Disturbing the Peace’.

‘Disturbing the Peace’ was the first novel by Richard Yates that I read, so this searing account of an alcoholic has always had a special place in my memory. Since then I’ve read all of Richard Yates’ fiction. Recently I came across a critic saying that ‘Disturbing the Peace’ is one of Yates’ lesser novels, and I don’t believe that critic for a second.

falladaThe style of ‘The Drinker’ is much different from the style of ‘Disturbing the Peace’; they are very different writers. ‘The Drinker’ captures a bit of the humor of the drinking episodes, while ‘Disturbing the Peace’ is more heartfelt and sincere. What Hans Fallada and Richard Yates share is a brutal accuracy about themselves. Perhaps that honesty gave them the empathy and insight into the plights of other people so they could get beyond their walls and deceptions and reach the real story.

Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times

‘Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times’, a poetry anthology edited by Neil Astley (2002) – 496 pages

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 ‘A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’  – Randall Jarrell  

‘Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ – Don Marquis

 

I finally discovered a poetry anthology that works for me, ‘Staying Alive’ which is edited by Neil Astley,  I admit I’m late to the party, since this book was published way back in 2002 and has already sold over 200,000 copies in Great Britain alone.  However this book of poems is so powerful, I consider myself fortunate to have discovered it even now at this late point, better late than never.

Too many anthologies seem to be written more for the poets who appear in their pages rather than for the people actually reading the poems.  I’ve read anthologies where none of the poems hits home.  If I don’t discover even one poem which strikes me or stays in my mind, that anthology is a failure for me.

‘Staying Alive’ takes a different approach which can best be summed up by its subtitle: ‘Real Poems for Unreal Times’.  The focus here is on the reader.  These are contemporary poems written since 1900.  Many of the poets are justly famous like Robert Frost, T. S Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin.  Yet there are many other lesser known poets as well. The amazing thing is that many of the poems by the less famous poets rival the classics.  This anthology gives a good sense of the continuation of poetry from the early twentieth century until now.  It may have been helpful to know the year each poem was first published, but in this book the emphasis is on the words of the poem itself.    

Neil Astley founded his poetry publishing house Bloodaxe Books in England in 1982.  At least since then he has been devoted to finding and publishing other people’s good poems. He has played a fundamental role in getting new poets published and in increasing the audience for poetry.

‘Staying Alive’ is divided into twelve sections with such section names as ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Roads and Journeys’, and ‘Bittersweet’.  Each section starts with a short explanatory note from Astley. Of course the poems don’t always fit neatly in to their categories or fit into more than one category,

I’m not going to quote individual poems here, but I will list a few from the book which particularly impressed me.

 ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver (Page 28)         (This poem has a place of honor in the book as the first poem and the only poem that is outside of all of the twelve sections of the book.)

‘And the Days Are Not Full Enough’ by Ezra Pound (Page 130)

‘I, Too’ by Langston Hughes (Page 326)

‘The Moose’ by Elizabeth Bishop  (Page 87)

   ‘The Door’ by Kapka Kassabova (Page 70)

‘Consider the Grass Growing’ by Patrick Kavanaugh (Page 455)

‘Staying Alive’ is a book that I will pick up occasionally whenever I want to discover another good poem or poems or to reread an old poem I particularly like.  It was followed by two more major anthologies also edited by Neil Astley, ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Being Human’, both of which I’ve added to my future gift wish list.

I would recommend ‘Staying Alive’ to anyone who already has an appreciation for poetry and wants to discover more poems or anyone who wants to develop a taste for poetry.

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