first year (2001) of the reading journals of John Casey–following years TK

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard                                                                                           My friend Savi’s pick for a funny novel. I thought it a strange tour de force—congruent with Schoenberg variations (as I remember being told about them). One of those novels that wraps around and around an obsession—in this case a compelling one.

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale                                                                        Captain Iliam Quillian Kewley, man and skipper ofSincerity is the best character of this novel narrated by multiple narrators. Second best is Peevay, the aboriginal. Rev. Wilson & Dr. Potter, one a crank hoping to find Garden of Eden in Tasmania, the other a rack-theorist (Saxons best Norman how did they get on tap? Celt sly lazy. Black—jail—aborig. & African—will lose in great race war)—but the English reverend and doctor get to go on too long. Still, a good yarn, even if heavy on making fun of 19th c. colonizing mentality—It had its idiocies & cruelties which should be rewarded, tho’ the more interesting story (having rebuked the evil) would be that of well meaning projects going awry not through utter stupidity but by a small blind spot in an otherwise clear eye.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson                                                                                   I’m annoyed with Bryson in the same way I’m annoyed with those two books about the joys of rowing [names omitted]—they haven’t got past tenderfoot, maybe Scout second class. I don’t expect Eagle Scout but a bit more effort. So they can look back at tenderfoot. The good part of Bryson’s book is Kate, the relationship with Kate. Also the Maine woods. The insistence that “I hiked the AT” is the bit that’s annoying. He did 810 miles. 2/5. Good. Don’t claim more. But he’s a pretty good reporter—Park Service, Forest Service, the Centralia Pa.

Arcadia by Jim Crace                                                                                                            Rook, a quick foxy assistant to Victor, 80-year-old tycoon who owns soapgarden, the city farmers’ market, to be transformed into ‘Arcadia.’ Joseph, a country boy with notions of city life. Anna, maybe late 30’s, 40, works for Victor, gets it on with Rook. The main attraction is the sense of city life, country life, Victor’s childhood, infancy even, his mum and aunt. Just a few acres in the city—the office tower, the vegetable market, a couple of bars. (Good concentration of energy with right setting.)

Something insistent in the rhythm of the prose—not as perky as The Thirteen Clocks (thunder) but still a drumbeat. I think a success. Two epilogue chapters I’m not so sure about. Book did need a slower movement to come to an end without the brakes squealing—and it was touching to hear that Anna was still thinking about Rook—but a bit too much about the newspaperman who is the mostly invisible narrator.

Still, all in all, a good and substantial novel, and Crace a man of good and substantial knowledge & sympathies.

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri                                                               I prefer her to Arundhati Roy. She shows off less, pays attention to things instead of seizing them to brandish as symbols or ornamentation. I liked the story (not in this collection) which I read in the New Yorker a month or three ago—even better. Though there were moments. “Sexy” is good. “The Interpreter of Maladies” is a nice stretch to a man’s point of view—actually Lahiri can do that. I sort of liked in a quiet way the 1st person male narrator who takes a room in the house of the 103 year old woman. Quiet & careful. What will Lahiri move towards? Bigger world? Deeper in psyche? Oh—I like the babysitter one—the Indian woman terrified of driving.

Fraud by David Rakoff                                                                                                            The problem with collected cute essays is that the shtick gets repeated too often: Gay/Canadian/Jewish city-dweller. I was annoyed (as I am at Sedaris—: get over it & learn a little French, stop reveling in ineptitude, it’s worse than Private Benjamin)—BUT Rakoff—once off Mount Monadnock (which 8-year-olds climb without a whimper) he’s good. Did Tom “Tracker” Brown week, Tokyo, Aspen Comedy Arts (sic) Festival very well. His Hodgkins disease memoir essay too—good.

The Ruin of Kasch by Roberto Calasso                                                                                 I dunno. Brilliant, but I have no idea if he’s right. Have to read it again to see if I’m dumb or he’s obscure on the question of sacrifice. Amazing what Calasso has ingested & (maybe) digested. Riffs on Freud, Marx, the Veda, anthropology; lots of scraps of observation from minor characters. Worth reading again. Also send it to my old friend Duncan Kennedy.

What’s the big idea? Sacrifice somehow allied to star-time & that’s good. The ceremonial kept us in time. Maybe that’s why Talleyrand a significant figure—he did ceremony and therefore stayed on top through 4 different regimes. Talleyrand not a hero but exemplary in that narrow sense of knowing how ceremony-ritual-protocol is as powerful as Napoleon’s will.

But it’s Calasso’s by-the-way that inspired his ear & eye.

Deus lo Volt by Evan S. Connell, Jr.

For someone who hasn’t read the Runciman history of the Crusades this would be a revelation. For someone who has—a bit of review, revisited pleasure, sometimes like a novelization of a movie—no, that is unfair—but novelization of history. It goes awfully fast over some things I would have like to linger over (Runciman takes 3 volumes). But a pleasure. Odd—a lot of passages end with a bit of medieval piety, as if to remind us that the chronicler is on the last crusade—his forbears were in the 1095 one—a repetitious insistence on fiction although very likely the medieval chroniclers stuck in these quasi-prayers too. One thing I missed from Runciman is the adaptation to the Near East by those crusaders who settled there. Learned Arabic, wore silk, grew local fruits…I’m a fan of Connell’s—especially his novel Mrs. Bridge and his biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star. Deus Lo Vult is an historical novel about the Crusades. It is told by a French crusader whose forbears were also crusaders—family lore and chronicles allow him to be both a first-person narrator and an omniscient one. Neat. It’s a skillful gallop through a couple of centuries, but I was reminded how much more I liked Stephen Runciman’s History of the Crusades (three volumes). Runciman is famous as an historian, but he also has the grace to narrate as well as Parkman or Prescott. He does the overview, the battle by battle, the power struggles, the culture shock (and the slower culture shift) as well as some small scenes that are like raised ghosts.

Republic by Plato                                                                                                                    Read in response to a phone call for help from Clare. I must have read parts before—certainly heard notions—but I’d forgotten how exuberant and nutty it is. And that it could be the blueprint for a horrible state. But exhilarating—and he’s daydreaming wonderfully. Until he says—hey, we could get some ruler to impose this. An interesting notion of history: the many twisted forms the Guardians have taken.

The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age            by Alan Trachtenberg                                                                                                                 Worst to be said: cobbled and vaporous.

How to write it: 1) You check out who’s been most quoted on the subject by your colleagues. 2) You quote different passages from the same “authorities” to slightly (but only slightly) different effect. 3) You try to connect the dots; when you can’t you call it an “intuitive leap”. 4) You call it inter-disciplinary and learn the jargon of some other trades to create an ornamentation of authoritative vocabulary. 5) You “speak figuratively” so you don’t have to get down to cases—or to define “corporate system” or “ ‘the world culture’”.

Best to be said: 1) Suggests some further reading in text and in bibliography of other good commentary. 2) Suggests (by lack of extended quotation) how nice it would be to encounter primary sources. 3) Some helpful summaries of events—e.g. the rise of newspapers, the physical description of the “White City” (tho’ cp. David Foster Wallace on Indiana State Fair in “Getting Away From It All” in A Supposedly Fun Thing for how to do a granfaloon of a fair).

All in all a far better book is 1846: Year of Decision by Bernard de Voto. For all his quirks and growls de Voto makes the people, their actions & notions, come alive. Trachtenberg can’t get out of the library, literally or figuratively.

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman (a gift from Anastasia Khitruk)          Memoir by Szpilman. Excellent commentary on it in an epilogue by Wolf Biermann. “…its language is surprisingly cool” says Biermann. True—but not as literary understatement—it seems more a product of a precision that is in its turn a product of reflection and cautious memory. There is horror in the bare narrative of the SS entering a dining room and, offended because the head of the family doesn’t get to his feet (he’s crippled), the SS throw the man and the chair out the third floor window. Szpilman sees the chair and the man fall apart, then hears two different noises. More horror than if we were urged to horror by exclamations or commentary.

Especially in the second half there are such careful descriptions of places—details of hiding places—of meetings with saviors (& a betrayer)—that the story embeds itself. The German Hosenfeld—standing with arms folded across his chest—says to Szpilman “Play the piano.” No indication of how it will turn out—no endowing him with more radiance than any of the Poles who helped Szpilman.

Was it discipline of playing and/or composing (no extra notes) that taught Szpilman this lesson? Or did the stress of his experience purify him of lecturing & rhetorical adding on?

And the end:

“Tomorrow I must begin a new life. How could I do it with nothing but death behind me? What vital energy could I draw from death? I went on my way.”

Perhaps he could have stopped there. He adds snow & a darkening sky. It would have been perhaps subject to a too resurgent interpretation if he’d stopped at “I went on my way.” And the snow & sky are better than an adverb.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass                                                             Written only ten years after his escape from Maryland, when he was about 28. (So he was 17 or 18 when he got to NY & then New Bedford). I wonder what he read—aside from the Bible & the Liberator. It is a high style .He does mention Sheridan (the same who wrote “The Rivals” and “School for Scandal” ?)—an argument in favor of Catholic Emancipation, I presume in Ireland.

Many of the events take place near Wye Island or St. Michael’s. I wonder if there are any plaques…

Again it is the details that are most compelling—as when he stands up to fight with Mr. Coffey, the slave-breaker. Or how he teaches himself to read & write when he’s in Baltimore—on fences, brick walls, pieces of wood—by challenging white boys to show they’re better than his LF or SA (larboard fore or starboard aft) that he’s copied from the carpenter writing on planks at the shipyard. His point about the Underground RR is well taken—keep the slave masters in the dark.

I wonder if Dickens read him. Or he Dickens. There are similar riffs in places—invocations and loftiness.

Portraits in Miniature by Lytton Strachey (plus “Four English Historians”)               A great pleasure. Connie could do a book like this. Opening a spyglass on a discrete piece of history (but you have to have a feel for the general period). And have wit. Not necessary to be smart-ass mean witty, which Strachey is once in a while.

Old Money by Nelson Aldrich                                                                                          Bogged down—was it because Aldrich was repeating himself? Graceful writer. A bit slippery on question of being a patrician/a bit of an artist/a good modern liberal guy/(a bit of a snob to Podhoretz, by the way)—

Fred Seidel CIA-poem quoted neatly and out of context to make a point counter to Seidel’s snide point.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan                                                                                                Very good. Marred a bit near end by the arranged clear-it-all-up-for-the-widow-who-thinks-her-husband-was-having-an-affair picnic. But up till then kept me coming back for more. The suspense and self-conscious & very knowledgeable narration—nicely alternating.

The Bhagavad-Gita (Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War)                                                 Repetitious but compelling. My friend Savi loves this—Krishna arguing Arjuna into fighting the battle, similar to each person must fulfill his destiny, be true to his nature. I particularly like the part where Krishna reveals himself in his true aspect—not a nice god but the (unbearable) source of all power.

The Candlemass Road by George MacDonald Fraser                                             Great pleasure. Not one of the Flashman series & better than the Flashman I did read. Fraser can do Elizabethan English—and what I guess is Border dialect. Second time I’ve heard Derrick was a hangman. BTW, Carol Janeway (my editor at Knopf) “discovered” Fraser.

Simple Stories by Ingo Schulze                                                                                              He calls it a novel, which it is in a way. I lost track of the names. However it still works out.

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey                                                                       Dear Margot Livesey—this is the most tender piece she’s written—quite self-contained & lovely. (Her essay on memory is more of a knock-out punch—beautifully written and achingly dire.) I admire Eva the matter of factness of the ghosts—“companions”. Controlled piano piano all the way—and then an aria at the end.

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod                                                                              A bit awkward in its toing & froing in time but powerful. All those really tough Scots staying tough through two centuries on Cape Breton Island. The narrator however has joined the world—is a dentist/plastic surgeon, but carries the stories. The title is wonderfully buried in the middle—General Wolfe used the Highland Scots as his vanguard at the Plains of Abraham. He mistrusted them (he’d been fighting them in Scotland not long before). He is said to have said “No great mischief if they fall.”

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen                                                                                  The note I wrote to Ros (my second wife):

Dear Ros,

This book is really very good. The last 1/5 especially—but you can’t just skip to it, unfortunately. Fortunately it’s pretty funny (once in a while too funny for its own good) but it’s finally not caricature, not of the people or of the world. I’m not sure the characters are always three-dimensional—well maybe 3-D but not 4-D (but to get 4-D you have to go all the way to Proust).

Mainly though there are takes on stuff you do know (siblings) and then, what’s ahead, a requiem for old failing parents. The novel does do one thing that novels ought to do (among several) which is to remind me of some things and prepare our nerve ends for some others.

Yes, it’s 500 & some pages—at 25 pages a night that’s…less than a month.

Love, John

Some other things: 1) chess-player skill (though I noticed it…) at keeping four stories linked together with some small connecting details (e.g. the murderer of the daughter of a woman Enid meets on the cruise ship is the object of an anti-capital punishment vigil in the Denise-in-Philadelphia section). 2) I did laugh out loud several times. 3) I liked the supporting character Gitanas, the Lithuanian would-be warlord. 4) The ending—or penultimate section Last Christmas, does Christmas and American family Christmas very well. Should be required reading in place of Dickens’s Christmas Carol.

Foley’s Luck by Tom Chiarella                                                                                                 I read this for the purpose of giving an outside opinion on a promotion at De Pauw. I’d read one story years ago. The book of stories is greater than the sum of its parts & the parts are pretty damn good. He should be writing more of these rather than the golf stuff for Esquire.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Vol. VIII) by Edward Gibbon                Just the last volume, the part after 439 AD. A lot about Odaoser, Clovis & the Franks…Best part is about Belisarius. And Chouzroes (sp?) the guy who made off with the true cross).

Close Range by Annie Proulx                                                                                                Stories. Some tall tales, reveling in the wind, snow, bad luck, grit, &c. My friend Savi hates the one she read in the New Yorker—not her West. I sort of enjoy these. She’s being Synge listening to western Irish through the floorboards. But I can see Savi having a reaction like mine to Deliverance—in-bred dangerous hillbillies buggering & killing canoeists—yup, a scary story but it’s exploiting the weirdness without giving an account of the whole place.

Emigrants by W.G. Sebald                                                                                                         A great book Goes in my spring lit-class list. In some ways a sequel to Speak, Memory—or anti-sequel. Very moving—the first two pieces especially. The last moves me in a different way—it has poignancy but also a mysterious glory.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer                                                                                                 Scott sent this as a thank-you present—when?—a year or so ago after he was here. Now I know what all the fuss was about. It’s a good smart book. Maybe ¾ of the way through he wasn’t sure which way to go, but it ends with as much energy as in the beginning & middle. The only thing that throws me a bit is that Jade is so certain David was guilty when all David did was run away from Hugh. Maybe there’s that about him embodying her own hatreds for her family & getting him to act them out that makes it work. I would have liked more. Anyway, once past that it’s a good rush to the end. What’s good is that it’s smart and the wail of crazy love is fully sung. (He does the voices well too—David’s parents, the sophisticated Ann.)

Gentleman Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles by Peter Grose                                         The writing is more pedestrian than Evan Thomas’s The Very Best Men but the breadth & length of the subject (Allen Dulles was born in 1893) and the relatively small cast of characters (the same four as in Evan Thomas’s book plus Lord Meyer, John Gross, Robert Amory, Kermit Roosevelt & al.—during WWII, the Korean War, Guatemala, Berlin-Wall-tunnel, V-2, Bahia de Cochinos(!)) make the WWI-WWII more of an epic, & the post WWII more of a general lesson. I had no idea that it was via Sullivan & Cromwell as well as HYP that was the pool of talent. Nor that Allen Dulles was so under the influence of Kipling, especially Kim—nor that the parameters of his thinking were so 19th c. British. Grose is basically a journalist, but good enough to get the names of the players and their theme-songs (Kennan=containment; Dulles=great game; what larks; Bissel-tech; Council on Foreign Relations=shadow state department).

I wonder if it would be possible to find out what notions changed & in what minds as events moved along. Tracy Barnes, after he was out, changed his mind a good deal (re Vietnam, for example) but it was after… Did these guys pick the game first & then work with the ideas provided? Was it like law school—you don’t want to get caught being too “metaphysical”?

Grose is good at offering the crucial misunderstanding about the Bay of Pigs—CIA hoping to get bailed out by US forces if initial action isn’t enough. Kennedy won’t go along, pulls the plug.

Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser                                          Reading this to see if it will serve for the extra book Clare has to write about. I mistook a glance at a review of Alexander Hamilton’s writings (more than 1000 pages in the Library of America) as a possible book. So this replaced it. Didn’t notice Brookhiser’s credentials—National Review, book dedicated to William Rusher, &c. But it is only by arrangement of blocks of narration that Brookhiser has a conservative/National Review slant. He is, I think, reliable in what he presents.

Main claims for Alexander Hamilton: self-made man. Wants the same for other Americans.

Contrast: Jefferson—rich (tho’ that’s a question) Southern slave-owner

Hamilton: a complete rationalist—argues from fundamental principles of law—couldn’t see why people didn’t agree by the time he was through.

Jefferson: by contrast—sometimes inspired, sometimes rational, sometimes a flatterer.

Hamilton: good about finance—mainly because he understood that if the nation honors its debts it’ll get more investors.

Hamilton: pro manufacturing

Jefferson: vision of nation of good agrarians

Hamilton: rights of Government as well as individual rights

Jefferson: rights of people (from his mountaintop—easy for him to be in favor of Shay’s rebellion—Oh good! Another bloody uprising to fertilize the land of liberty!

Hamilton: distrusted The People. “Democracy” a danger.

Hamilton: pro British system which has “corruption” i.e. government can give favors to “worthy” big shots.

Jefferson: pro French Revolution (at least for a while).

Another theme of the book: we tend to look back on the Founding Fathers as calm & great-minded. But look—they fought & spit at each other like anybody else. (Tho’ they wrote better.) Vicious newspaper spats. Adams vicious about Hamilton the bastard of a Scots pedlar.

A current neo-conservative argument: liberals don’t really trust the people, they’re secret aristocrats. So Brookhiser emphasizes that Jefferson’s Republicans were upper-class, Southern slave owners.

Issues that I didn’t know about:

  1. “discrimination” against speculators in government IOU’s to Revolutionary War vets.
  2. Should new US government assume debts of states incurred before nationhood came about?
  3. Should Britain return slaves taken from Revolutionary slave-owners? (Hamilton argues that “odious” or “immoral” treaties shouldn’t be honored. I’ll go with him on that) But the principle that all contracts should be honored is a Hamiltonian notion—what would he have said to the notion that if there wasn’t a fair bargaining position when the contract was made that that contract is “odious” or “immoral”?

Queenie by Alice Munro                                                                                                             A short story in book form. Not her best—but the innocent not entirely articulate narrator not a method Munro usually goes for. Her very best stories have a surface intelligence—either a sharp first-person narrator (who can still have done some regrettable things) or a hovering sharp omniscience (as in the historical ones).

The Business of Memory editor Charles Baxter                                                       Margot Livesey’s is the shining one. Most of it is crap. Okay are Jim McPherson, Karen Brennan, maybe Richard Bausch, Victoria Morrow, Patricia Hampl, (Michael Ryan marginal). Baxter himself seems half in a daze. “We are now children of Beckett more than…of Proust.” Jeez. The authors I haven’t named are really adrift. Particularly the one re-translating Proust.

Naturalist by E.O. Wilson                                                                                               Wilson’s autobiography. Good. Three or four parts to it. Childhood (blind in one eye, parents divorce), military school, early career—University of Alabama, working working working, gets to Harvard, gets to work on a bigger scale. Think about the whole scheme, big ideas. Then the spat with molecular biologists (Watson. Also Mark Ptashne.) Then the Stephen Jay Gould leftie attack on sociobiology, apparently for the political consequences of the theory.

Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown                        Short—97 pages. Even simpler—more simply written than Gifts of the Body which I liked a lot. This is completely personal. The writer is almost not there, just the daughter. And sister to her sister & brother and lover to her lover. Mainly a daughter. Step by step. The definitions on the verso sides are good—it isn’t a technical medical dictionary but a home manual. It binds this sickness and death to others. This whole book could be a manual for children of a dying parent whom they have loved.

It made me like her a lot.

Dangerous Muse by Nancy Schoenberger                                                                   (biography of Caroline Blackwood, one of Robert Lowell’s wives. CB a good writer.)       Breathy or breathless gossip, especially towards end when author is trusting just about anybody. And I’d guess the subject is lost—but an okay chronology & a list of names. In some places I found some people I’ve run into Jonathan Raben, Lorna Sage (bless her), Anne Winter Williamson, and of course Peter & Eleanor, Robert Lowell, William Alfred. Biographers are apt to get engulfed—this one does—accepts the ethos of Anglo-Irish when with them, high art when with that, NY tattle when with that. Read this because Bobby Pittman had it on hand. I would like to read more of For All that I Found There.

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr                                                                           Absolutely wonderful. Perfect pastoral. Comic (understated) with shadows (mostly understated). Goes on top 10 list (at least of short novels).

The Hunters by Claire Messud (two novellas)                                                                   Tony Winner (colleague and trusted advisor) said one was terrific the other not so hot. Right. A Simple Story: B-. The Hunters right down Tony’s alley—eerie, self-doubting, mysterious about sexual identity, seismographically sensitive to the tiniest quaver of the heroine/hero’s psyche, which is filled with acid for others & self.

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth by Richard Fortey                                                                                                                     Started this a year & ½ ago—don’t know why didn’t go straight through. Now want to re-read it.

There could be a different category of Literacy—Don Hirsch has a first one for Americans—the frame of reference necessary to read the New York Times. Another: that necessary to read Tristes Tropiques, Richard Fortey’s Life, maybe Shakespeare? (with notes). Set up different standards perhaps for Science, Social Science…does it hinge on Freud, Darwin, Marx? (But who’s read Das Kapital? Duncan kept urging me to—yeah, you’ll be perplexed and bored for the 1st 1/2 , then, bingo. Not enough to get me to. I’ll take the Classic Comic, or osmosis.)

Present History by Timothy Garton Ash                                                                       Took a while to get into. Then followed it as briskly as a novel. But not sure what I’m left with…message to England to join EU, support more democratic East Europe, hope the rest will catch up. Ash’s narration of various incidents well done. Good thoughts on whether a country should “remember” or “forget”, maybe forget so you don’t have to forgive. Germany—now—chose to remember Communist past (3 miles of files)—Czech Republic chose to let it go by—but then…Hungary…I can’t remember.

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