Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Journey to the End of the Night

“Reader, fuck you!”
--William T. Vollman,
in the afterword to the novel

I'd high hopes for Celine's Journey to the End of the Night. All the cool cats had read Celine long ago (the coolest of them in the original French) and Henry Miller had it on his list of personal faves. And for the first two-hundred pages I was right there with Celine's misanthropic misadventures-- in fact, reading the novel I could not help but think that Henry Miller would not have existed without Celine-- here was an anti-hero, Ferdinand Bardamu, who was as funny, horny, and charismatic as Miller's starving artists. The free-flowing prose, the dirty old man vibe, the profane nuance, this was proto-Miller, which does not diminish Tropic of Cancer in my eye-- in fact, it elevates his work, as if Miller stole a page from Celine's dirty canvas and made it actually likable. If your protagonist is going to be an absolute dick, then it's best if he is at least someone worth breaking bread with. To be honest, I am too much of an optimist and I don't quite hate myself enough to love Celine's most famous novel.

But what a start. Celine's surrogate “hero,” Bardamu, a ne'er-do-well with no career prospects or money is swept along early 20th century France in a tide of social upheaval. An infantryman in World War I and horrified by the idea of being cannon fodder, Bardamu attempts desertion, then fakes lunacy to escape the trenches. Released from the asylum, he winds up on a boat to the Congo in colonial Africa, where everyone is drunk and disorderly and where he is stationed alone in the bush with nearly nothing to live on. He escapes this scenario as well and winds up on a ship to America where he is hungry in New York and later, after a brief tenure on Ford Motor Car's assembly lines, finds the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold to sugar mommy his habits until the need to move on seizes him again. The changing scenery, often capricious and episodic, is nevertheless exciting, and Bardamu reminds the reader of a latter-day Job or Candide, though Bardamu is never under the Panglossian impression this is the best of all possible worlds. All he wants to do is get laid and have a little food in his belly and a place to sleep. Self-preservation is the priority. Fraternal brotherhood or such utopian “flapdoodle” never enters his febrile mind: “Each man for himself, the earth for us all.”

Though this is not necessarily a most sympathetic sentiment, Bardamu is just likable enough, and Celine's portrayal of mankind's hypocritical foolishness compensates for the narrative leaps, until we skip five years ahead and Bardamu is a penurious doctor. The remainder of the novel takes place in France, and lacks the propulsion of the first half-- what was a philosophical adventure has evolved into a bitter misanthropic tirade against life itself and it goes on for at least a hundred pages too long. Bardamu is an unrelenting head case of negativity. There are no “genuine realizations of our deepest character except war and illness, those two infinities of nightmare.” No one can nail one-liners about the futility of living quite like Celine.

The titular “end of the night” is death (and I don't need to tell you there is any sort of glorious afterlife to be expected in Celine/Bardamu's world view), and everything before that is suffering. As William T. Vollman paraphrases Celine in the novel's afterword, this void might be a relief for creatures that are “no more than decaying, flatulent assemblages of phlegm and fecal matter, animated by lechery and self-delusion to commit acts of increasingly futile denial of the grisly fact that existence is spoiled.” This adequately summarizes the characters's motives and world views. If you're not cool passing a long novel reminded of the meaninglessness of your existence and your indignation only exemplifies what a presumptuous asshole you really are, Celine might not be the right author for you at the moment. Myself, I've flirted with nihilism, but never courted her. I'm only glad that I managed to finish the book with most of my idealism intact.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Year in Reading (2013)

"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them."
--Lemony Snickett

Reading!” those busy zip-zipping multi-taskers cry superciliously, “who has the time these days anyway?” And to be fair, I find the pleasure of reading more often a luxury than a responsibility. But it is not just in a human being's prerogative to challenge himself with reading, it is in our collective social interest. Through reading not only do we acquire smarts but we also become a better, more compassionate, empathetic species. There is a historical argument gaining momentum which suggests that the rise of the novel and the belief in the universal rights of man could very well be interconnected.

Here are the books I read in 2013 in sequential order. They are marked with their year of publication. Those with a * details a second (or multiple read) and those with a <> designate a book read while traveling.
  1. High-Rise by J.G. Ballard (1975)
  2. East West by Salmon Rushdie (1994)
  3. The Birdman and the Lap Dancer by Eric Hansen (2004)
  4. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (1934) *
  5. Karma Cola by Gita Mehta (1979) * <>
  6. Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (2004) <>
  7. Delhi: a Novel by Khushwant Singh (1990) <>
  8. Kubla Khan: The Mongol King Who Remade China by John Man (2006) <>
  9. A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (1993) <>
  10. Bill Contino's Blues by James Ellroy (1994) <>
  11. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938)
  12. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (1965)
  13. The Boy with the Thorn in His Side by Keith Fleming (2000)
  14. The Road to Wellville by TC Boyle (1993)
  15. Quiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller (1956) *
  16. The White Nile by Alan Moorehead *(1960)
  17. Howard's End by E. M. Forster (1910)
  18. Loving by Henry Green (1945)
  19. 1984 by George Orwell (1948) *
  20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) *
  21. Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain (2007) *
  22. Welcome to the Monkeyhouse by Kurt Vonnegut (1970)
  23. Hip: a History by John Leland (2004) <>
  24. In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (1997) * <>
  25. The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander (2007) <>
  26. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912) * <>
  27. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1988) <>
  28. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (2012) <>
  29. Double Indemnity by James Cain (1935) <>
  30. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (2010) <>
  31. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007) <>
  32. The Reader by Bernard Schlink (1995) <>
  33. The Art of Travel by Alain de Bottom (2002) <>
  34. Motoring with Mohammed by Eric Hanson (1991)
  35. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (2007)
  36. The Assault by Harry Mulisch (1982)
  37. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever (1957)
  38. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949) * <>
  39. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954) <>
  40. Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1887)
  41. The Spice Trade by John Keay (2005) *
  42. The Magic of Blood by Dagoberto Gilb (1993)
  43. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928)

All in all I managed to read 43 books this year (last year I'd read 42-- it seems that thus my pace is one book every nine days or so). 25 of the books were novels, 7 were short story collections, and 11 were books of nonfiction, including memoir, history or travel narrative. Also 11 of the books were rereads, and 19 were read "traveling," which included a stint at my mother's for three weeks with all the time in the world. The oldest book read was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) and the most recent Nathan Englander's What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank (2012). 18 of the books were published before I was born. 21 of the books were written by Americans. Of the others, only three were translations. All books were hard- or softcover-- I am yet to read anything on the tablet. 

It was wonderful to discover Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, Harry Mulisch's The Assault, and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I revisited some of my favorite books this year including Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, Ben Fountains Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and the historical narratives of John Keay's The Spice Trade and Alan Moorehead's wonderful The White Nile. There were no absolutely bad reads, though I found myself slightly exasperated at times with Khushwant Singh's Delhi, Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, and John Leland's trying too hard on the prose vernacular of Hip: a History.

As this blog has been slightly moribund of late, I will make some attempt to summarize the books I'm reading-- I say that now but following through on resolutions-- especially those related to writing-- is not one of my strong suits. Nevertheless, it's important to try. The first book I'm reading in 2014 is Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, and after a promising start I rather loathe it.

How was your year in reading?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Year at the Movies

Carol Reed's The Third Man

Unfortunately, I don't really prioritize cinema-- it's very rare that the movie I watch is the last thing I do before sleep. If too comfortable I don't make it through the film (it took three sittings to make it through Brewster McCloud).  It might seem then that I watch movies in order to relax-- that is partly true, but that doesn't mean that I don't love movies-- I'm just getting to the point where they are a luxury of time and I am getting older.

That said, I did blow my share of hours on TV series including multiple seasons of Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Californication, and Homeland. I don't consider these hours lost-- as interesting as real life might be it's important to lose ourselves in something larger than life, albeit in vicarious thrills of fictitious plots. Today's Breaking Bad was yesterday's serialized Dickens' novel. Between the two, I'll take Walter White over Oliver Twist, at the end of the day, anyway.

Following are the films watched in 2013. Those marked with an * signify a multiple viewing, an & means watched on the road, and $ means a visit to the movie theater:

Gimme Shelter (1970) *
Oceans 11  (2001) * &
Rocky 3 (1983) * &
Top Gun (1986) * &
Commando (1985) * &

Crossfire Hurricane (2012)
Searching for Sugarman (2011) *
Stomping Ground  (1972)
Wanderlust (2011) * &
Flight (2012) $ &
Closer (2002) * &
Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968) *



The Last Movie (1970)
The Great Gatsby (2013) $
Duel (1971) *
Religulous (2007)
The Bank Dick (1940) *
My Man Godfrey (1936) *
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
The Running Man (1987) *
Paper Moon (1972)
0Dark30 (2012)
In the Year of the Pig  (1968)
Underground (1976)
Sans Soliel (1982)
World War Z (2013) $
Before Midnight (2013) &
The Bling Ring (2013) &
Sideways (2003) * &

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) &
The Killing Fields (1983) * &
Stardust Memories  (1980) * &
Spring Breakers (2013) &
The Limey  (1999) * &
Guilt Trip (2013) &
Django Unchained (2013) &
Before Sunrise  (1995) * &
A Scanner Darkly (2006) &
Now You See Me (2013) &
Walkabout  (1971) &
Wild Strawberries  (1957) * &
Empire of the Sun (1987) &
Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) * &
Elysium  (2013) $ &
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) &
No (2013) &
Dr. Strangelove (1964) * &
March of the Penguins (2005) &
The Internship (2013) &
The Wickermen (1973)

Brewster McCloud (1971) &
Cries and Whispers  (1972)
Gravity (2013) $
200 Motels (1971)
Blank City (2011) *
The Third Man (1949) *

There are 56 films on the list.  23 were multiple viewings, and five of them were watched on the big screen where movies are designed to be watched. Five were documentaries, five were foreign language films, and interestingly, seven were related to music.

Of the films watched on the road (outside home), there were 31. To better quantify that, 23 of them were watched at a stretch staying at mother's for three weeks this summer (seven of those 22 watched on transoceanic flights). Obviously, there were stretches where I was too busy to watch much of anything, particularly last spring.

I loved discovering Gravity, Sans Soliel, and Cries and Whispers. It was a joy to revisit The Third Man, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Gimme Shelter. I loathed Django Unchained, 0Dark30, and Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby for various reasons. And I still have no idea what to make of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels.

Comments, debate, subjectivity welcome!