First off, the great Misery Tourism observed Flag Day by publishing a piece of historical fiction, based on a certain president and premise I’d been kicking around for a few years. It was delightful to hear that readers have indeed learned something from this work. Folks oughta learn things from fiction I say.
Meanwhile, it’s been an eventful summer (a bout of Covid infection, a fulfilling visit west to see friends, a neat museum trip) with some excellent movies—but this post will focus on a couple of old masters I felt the need to revisit, to kickstart myself out of a midsummer reading dry spell.
I’ve been underrating Raymond Carver.
I’d meant to write about this for a few weeks but every time I tried, I would just read another poem or story.
It started with grabbing his later collection of poems A NEW PATH TO THE WATERFALL. Carver has been there for virtually my entire literary upbringing, yet I’d never read his poetry till now. It has the same starkness as his prose, but he also permits more weird stuff—some of these lyrics approached James Tate territory.
A large amount of these poems were actually just epigraphs, passages of prose from the 19th century or earlier cut up into lines. A lot of it by Chekhov. And a great deal of these are about fishing.
His lineation of the Oliver quote helps to bring out the driving rhythm you can find in early 19th century prose, compared with the syllabic austerity in the 17th century epigraph on the opposite page in the image above. The former has the self-assured tenor of a teaching pamphlet, while Chetham’s text, while expressly the same purpose, feels like a spooky recipe.
I’ve used the past month to go through the stories collected in the amazing Vintage Contemporaries selection called WHERE I’M CALLING FROM. Reading these masterfully crafted pieces altogether, you get the sense that they are about the same lower middle class heterosexual couple, somewhere in the American west, sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, drinking too much, smoking pot occasionally. The stories unfold like a garden of forking paths, different jobs, different housing situations, different struggles, different processes of breaking up. But other elements remain constant: fishing, coffee in a thermos, taking the phone off the hook. (This is I think the content of Carver’s “minimalism,” if he has it.) Beneath the placid phrasing on the surface is an ever-winding tension. One feels like disaster could strike any moment, but instead of drama you get lines like these:
“Jesus,” he said. “Jesus, Eileen. I don’t know what to say to that. I really don’t. I have to go now. Thanks for calling,” he said. (“Fever”)
I feel as if I’ve come to a place I never thought I’d have to come to. And I don’t know how I got here. It’s a strange place. It’s a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation. (“Whoever Was Using This Bed”)
She sits there waiting, her dainty fingers poking her hair.
It is August.
My life is going to change. I feel it. (“Fat”)
Wes, it’s all right, I said. I brought his hand to my cheek. Then, I don’t know, I remembered how he was when he was nineteen, the way he looked running across this field to where his dad sat on a tractor, hand over his eyes, watching Wes run toward him. (“Chef’s House”)
Just the simple “I don’t know” in the middle of that last example before the memory has that mini blast of pathos; the phrase lends a whole atmosphere to the narration, and the occasion for her telling this story and who her “audience” could be coming around the edges.
In the multiple fictive worlds of this typical-Carver couple, these narratives end up staging certain epiphanies, never quite directly related to the sometimes odd encounters they experience, but such experiences trigger the same kind of realization (like at the end of “Fat”), that is precisely expressed in the epigraph from Milan Kundera (another favorite of Carver’s):
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
Graham Greene’s THE QUIET AMERICAN was a terrific shred, a story that feels like an emotional disaster in slow motion, seething with pain. The hero is an aging British journalist who mostly hangs out with a prostitute named Phuong, smoking opium in his Saigon apartment while filing war correspondence (it is the final years of the French Indo-China war). But then a young and high-minded American named Pyle comes through, with ideas of a “Third Force” between the colonists and the Communists. He wants to intervene despite Fowler’s discouragement. And worse, he has fallen in love with Phuong and wants to marry her, while Fowler isn’t even formally divorced from his wife in England, and can’t compete with Pyle economically.
This is my second foray into Greene’s kind of fictive world after END OF THE AFFAIR. I was struck once again by that voice full of generic, pronounciatory utterances, and a capacity for self-reproach that can only come from a Cathlolic upbringing or an equal kind of parental cruelty. “We are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation.” Fowler says this after reading a letter from his wife in England refusing him a divorce. Lines like these are peppered through the narrative, including towards the end, when Fowler confirms that Phuong has left him for Pyle, he becomes reflexively anti-American, which is understandable, but in his description he also says: “It was as if I had been betrayed, but one is not betrayed by an enemy.” Which speaks to the human ties that exist between these two men, who indeed go through quite a bit together—even a book taken as a keepsake has a charge of “friendship” to it.
I loved Fowler’s denigration (tinged with pity and caring) for Pyle’s bright-eyed liberal naivety, striving for a “third force” that is neither Communism nor colonialism, relying on spurious bourgeois “analyses” that were indeed very prominent in the mid 20th century (think of Macnamara’s empiricist fetish of statistics in the American war to come). I suppose many of us are in a reflexive anti-American mood at the moment, so it was appropriate.
Suddenly I saw myself as he [Pyle] saw me—a man of middle age, with eyes a little bloodshot, beginning to put on weight, ungraceful in love, less noisy than Granger perhaps, but more cynical, less innocent; and I saw Phuong for a moment as I had seen her first, dancing past my table at the Grand Monde in a white ball dress, eighteen years old, watched by an elder sister, who had been determined on a good European marriage. An American had bought a ticket and asked her for a dance; he was a little drunk—not harmfully, and I suppose he was new to the country and thought the hostesses of the Grand Monde were whores. He held her much too close as they went round the floor the first time, and then suddenly there she was, going back to sit with her sister, and he was left, stranded and lost among the dancers, not knowing what had happened or why. And the girl whose name I didn’t know sat quietly there, occasionally sipping her orange juice, owning herself completely.