Monday, April 08, 2019

Notes for a Commonplace Book (24): Temporary Separateness


Alice Munro:
This lucky woman, Joan, with her job and her lover and her striking looks—more remarked upon now than ever before in her life (she is as thin as she was at fourteen and has a wing, a foxtail of silver white in her very short hair)—is aware of a new danger, a threat she could not have imagined when she was younger. She couldn't have imagined it even if somebody had described it to her. And it's hard to describe. The threat is of change, but it's not the sort of change one has been warned about. It's just this—that suddenly, without warning, Joan is apt to think: Rubble. Rubble. You can look down a street, and you can see the shadows, the light, the brick walls, the truck parked under a tree, the dog lying on the sidewalk, the dark summer awning, or the grayed snowdrift—you can see all these things in their temporary separateness, all connected underneath in such a troubling, satisfying, necessary, indescribable way. Or you can see rubble. Passing states, a useless variety of passing states. Rubble.
"Oh, What Avails," from Friend of My Youth

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Music Notes: "Idumea"



Charles Wesley, one of the founding fathers of Methodism, is said to have penned some 6,500 hymns, among them "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." I can't say for sure — not having heard them all — but I suspect he never wrote another as weirdly beautiful as "Idumea":
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down
And as my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

A land of deepest shade
Unpierced by human thought
The dreary region of the dead
Where all things are forgot

Soon as from earth I go
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe
Must then my fortune be

Waked by the trumpet's sound
I from my grave shall rise
And see the judge with glory crowned
And see the flaming skies
The peculiarities begin with the title itself, which seems to have come not from Wesley but from a later arranger. Why "Idumea"? According to reference works, Idumea (or Edom) was an ancient kingdom south of the Dead Sea. It is mentioned in the Bible, though not, as far as I can tell (and I'd welcome an exegesis) in any context that would explain the lyrics above. The noted folklorist A. L. Lloyd, in his liner notes to the version of the song performed by the English folk group the Watersons, thought it unnecessary (or was it impossible?) to explain the allusion.

Then there's the way the song begins: in mid-sentence, in mid-thought. Hymns tend to speak in a collective voice; this one is first-person singular and sounds almost like a monologue spoken in character, along the lines of Spoon River Anthology. Even the hymn's theology seems a tad unorthodox. Christianity, as a religion that offers, in effect, a choice of afterlives, has long alternated in its vernacular forms between a kind of "Joy to the World / God is Love" cheeriness and a darker strain, whether expressed in threats of hellfire and brimstone or in the death-obsessed pessimism of the danse macabre and Blind Willie Johnson's "You Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond." But Wesley's description of
The dreary region of the dead
Where all things are forgot
sounds more like the pagan, antinomian conception of the underworld (peopled by Homer's "exhausted dead") than it does the Christian vision of a place where sinners are sent to be paid back for their misdeeds. Is this because the speaker's voice is supposed to be an ancient, Idumean one? Is it because Wesley, though an evangelist and missionary, was also a classically educated scholar for whom the tropes of Greek and Roman literature would have been part of his intellectual training? Or was Wesley, good Methodist, really a secret Modernist avant la lettre (Pound's Cantos, after all, also begins with "And …")? All the elements are there: cryptic reference to antiquity, fragmented monologue …

According to Lloyd, the hymn fell out of favor in England, but remained popular among parishioners in what he calls "remoter settlements of the Upland Southern states of America." One can only wonder what they made of it.

The above note was originally published in A Common Reader's blog Book Case in 2003. I have dusted it off and revised a few points.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Customer Service Wolf



Three installments from Anne Barnetson's droll comic about the adventures of a lupine bookshop clerk. Having served in that role for many years in an earlier phase of my life I can vouch for its essential accuracy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Berlin (Jason Lutes)


Two brilliant pages from Jason Lutes's mammoth graphic novel set in the waning years of the Weimar Republic.


Berlin is published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Fear


Ruth Otis Sawtell & Ida Treat:
Our greatest adventure we found at Mérigon. Mérigon, with its face to the sunny roadside and its back to the dark gorge where the Volp rushes past the Plantaurel, has been the haunt of something wild and sinister. The peasants called it la Peur, the Fear. All one summer it blasted the valley. Crops drooped, cattle died. There were cries in the night, whirring of wings where no birds flew. At last the men of Mérigon set out to hunt la Peur. Guns in hand they scoured the fields, the river, the rocks, until some one—with a silver bullet—shot it down. He brought back no trophy, only the vague word of having killed "something like a bird," but from that moment the blight was lifted from the countryside. To-day you can not find a man in Mérigon who will admit participating in that hunt. But there is something in the atmosphere of the valley suggesting that if la Peur should rise again, there would still be men to hear the flutter of its wings.

Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Compliments of the Dead



This appealing book is the product of two American women, Ruth Otis Sawtell (1895-1978), a noted anthropologist and academic (and, later, author of mystery novels), and Ida Treat (1899-1978), who was, among other things, a journalist, academic, and New Yorker contributor in the Shawn era. There couldn't have been many American women engaged in the serious study of the European Paleolithic during the Roaring Twenties, but there certainly were two, and their account of their caving adventures and fieldwork, though obscure now, is more substantial than the typical Americans-abroad fare of the day. It was handsomely produced by D. Appleton & Co. with lots of drawings* and photos of artifacts and cave art and a gold-stamped front cover (at least in my copy — there seems to be a variant with a plain red binding). It's out of date now (even the famous paintings of Lascaux were unknown when they wrote it), but still enjoyable.

My copy, which I bought at one book sale or another years ago, came with the business card shown below paper-clipped to the title page. Francis G. Wickware was an editor at Appleton, and may well have been the editor of the book (he had a background in geology and was probably of a scientific bent). If the book was a gift from him the circumstances are somewhat puzzling, as "the late" has been scrawled above his name. Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees was published in 1927, thirteen years before Wickware's death; perhaps just before he died he set a copy aside for someone he knew would be interested.


* The drawings were executed by Paul Vaillant-Couturier, one of the founders of the French Communist Party. He was married to Ida Treat at the time (they later divorced) and participated in the fieldwork.

Update: Below is the cover art for one of Ruth Sawtell Wallis's mystery novels. I suspect that this is not how she actually dressed during her excavations.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Memory Man



These three slender books by the Guatemalan Jewish writer Eduardo Halfon are published by Libros del Asteroide, a Barcelona-based company that publishes a wide range of modern literature, all in the same attractive format. Two of the three, or more accurately two and a half of the three, have been published in English translations by Bellevue Literary Press, along with another Halfon book (which I haven't read) entitled The Polish Boxer.


Each book succeeds as an individual work, but they're also part of a larger whole in which characters and events may be alluded to in one but more fully developed in another. Halfon, who spent part of his childhood in the US and is bilingual (though he doesn't do his own translations), has underlined the fluidity of his project by lifting sections of Signor Hoffman and combining them with the contents of Duelo for the US translation.


All three are narrated by someone named Eduard Halfon who is a Jewish-Guatemalan writer exploring the details and consequences of his personal and family history (but who should nevertheless not be confused with the author). Imagined events aren't necessarily deprecated in favor of real ones; thus Duelo (a title that can mean both "mourning" and "duel") centers around a half-remembered story about an uncle who drowned as a child in Lake Amatitlán. The fact that the drowning never happened both is and isn't less important than the ways it is (mis)remembered. The narrative begins in Guatemala but eventually travels to Florida and Germany (and to Italy in Poland in the English version).

The books have an understated force that becomes cumulative when they are read together (in whatever arrangement or order). Halfon doesn't bludgeon the reader, even when he deals with weighty matters (the Holocaust is a shadow over the entire enterprise), but instead prefers to work by indirection. His books echo each other but they also reverberate across entire fields of history.