DEAR MARK TWAIN – Letters from his Readers

Apparently everyone in the nineteenth century is like present-day readers. Readers wrote to Mark Twain,
1. To get autographs in return (usually unsuccessful);
2. For advice about careers and writing;
3. To praise or criticize a Twain writing;
4 To superimpose one of their recent experiences on an episode in one of Twain’s works.
5. To learn where to buy the best editions of Twain’s work. [There letters were always
passed onto appropriate persons or businesses.]
6. To announce a new charity, or ask Twain to support publicly an existing charity.

Twain himself does not handle contact with the public well. He takes everything head-on, matter-of-factly and briefly, the tenor of the correspondence. The letters hardly enter the literary world where Twain works – essays, short stories. articles, novels and notes to close friends (Rogers, Howells). Twain does not purposefully neglect the common crowds; there are only 200 letters in this volume which seem representative. Twain may have received 200 or more letters per week. He had to allocate his time.

I cannot thoroughly recommend this book; I cannot completely disregard this book. The text tells a successful author almost everything to expect from a reading public. I was surprised that nineteenth century readers were interested in further stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Twain tried many; published a few. But platform fiction was not his forte. [Imagine Huck and Tom in the 1850s in the antebellum South; Consider Hank and Tom participating in the Civil War from 1861-1865; Dream of Hank and Tom during the Guilted Age.]

RISKY EDITING

THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt

I heard much about this author and decided to give her a try. Tartt likes long and longer sentences. When I experience authors using long sentences, I am inclined to send each a bag of periods.

In History of Florence, Ferdinand Schevill, Ungar, NY, 1961, has many long beautiful sentences conveying a paragraph’s worth of information before the period arrives:

“If we now remind ourselves that Boniface VIII belonged to a lesser clan of the Roman Campagna, the Caetani, and that throughout his early life he had been exposed to the slights of the greater lords, we have no difficulty in understanding that from the moment he commanded the unbounded resources of the papacy he resolved to raise the Caetani to a level with the oldest and most powerful barons of the capital.”(page 168)

This sentence states a longstanding motivation of Boniface VIII and supports inferences why other Roman and Italian families did not like and back the upstart Caetani clan. It also explains why in 1308 (ten years later) when the French sacked Rome Boniface VIII had no friends.

That sentence has its own motors. The reader goes from facts to more facts defining further the subject and other nouns all without a dependent clause following the verb. There are no semi-colons; colons and parentheses. The author has set up the motivation, ability to use power and the projected results of using power.

In The Little Friend Harriet, girl growing up, tells the story of the family. It is the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Every scene in the book may have happened, but readers don’t need a chronicle of a family’s life. The sense that events are similar makes them indistinguishable; family members dwell on nonsense – what-ifs and what-might-have-happened is conveyed. Here’s a sentence about Harriet’s and the family’s outlook: 

“She possessed, to a singular and uncomfortable degree, the narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn’t want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn’t forget; and in restringing the skeleton of the extinct monstrosity which had been her family’s fortune, she was unaware that some of the bones had been tampered with; that others belonged to different animals entirely; that a great many of the most massive and spectacular bones were not bones at all, but plaster-of-paris forgeries. (The famous Bohemian chandelier for instance, had not come from Bohemia at all; it was not even made of crystal; the Judge’s mother had ordered it from Montgomery Ward.) (page 40)

There are oblivious problems, the first being this is a summing up, which runs on. It is better if a novelist tells the story and allows the reader to sum up – reach the conclusion the author wants the reader to make. This sentence sits in the novel like it was an outline point, which should not stand out in the text.

I added the sentence in parentheses because the words or sentences in the parentheses inferentially relate to something that came before. However, it seems improbable any sentence should start with “the narrowness of vision” and link it up with the great family lie, the Montgomery Ward chandelier.

I have been around long enough to know “the narrowness of vision” and “restringing the skeleton.” The secrets and the “dirt” about families are not about whether something is gold or brass, something easily discovered on “The Antiques Roadshow.” Family secrets are about conduct, behavior and thoughts. I would know more about my family not from the filtered fables about favorite souvenirs, but how family members procured their liquor during Prohibition, from whom and how far behind was Elliot Ness.  

There is a lot of parentheses use in A Little Friend. It is irritating. I decided to look it up. Perrin, Smith, Corder, Handbook of Current English, Scott, Foreman & Company, 3rd Edition, 1968, tells, “Parentheses are curved marks used chiefly to enclose incidental or explanatory remarks.” (173) “Parentheses are used to enclose remarks and asides that are not essential to the meaning of a passage.” (174) In essence parentheses are notes or footnotes in another form. A Little Friend uses parentheses correctly but does that use make it a novel?

It is still Harriet’s tale later on:

“Pemberton Hull was driving home from the Country Club in his baby-blue ’62 open-top Cadillac ( the chassis needed realigning, the radiator leaked and its was hell to find parts, he had to send off to some warehouse in Texas and wait two weeks before they arrived but still the car was his darling, his baby, his one true love and every cent he made at the Country Club went either to putting gas in it or to fixing it up when it broke down) and when he swept around the corner of George Street his headlights swung over little Allison Dufresnes sitting out on her front steps all by herself.” (page 104)

I don’t need to know the state of repair of a character’s tuna boat. What is amazing is the car made no noise as it came up the street, and Harriet was upstairs on her bed near an open window and didn’t hear it. When Harriet talks to a boy from town, he mimics the car by sound. (108)

The realization readers have after plowing through The Little Friend (more than 200,000 words) is, how many extra words will I read by the end on page 540? After reading the first 50,000 words, I figure I had read an extra 15,000 words – 75,000 words possible total which is another novel. I refuse.

These words exist in The Little Friend because someone failed to edit it and next blue pencil the text. Long sentences, semi-colons, colons and parentheses return me to my days when I wrote law. I know legal writing when I see it, and The Little Friend is written like a lawyer wrote it. It is informative and mostly clear with a caveat: Legal writing is better organized. A Little Friend is lawyerly not literary.

The types of writing to pass information or to tell a story in a novel is a grand canyon. Each presents opinions; each should present a consistent point of view; each presents the entire opinion in steps. But informational writing follows those guides in every document in order: A, B, C, D. Opinions and their arguments in literature can bounce around: A, L, Z, Q.

In literature an author communicates her imagination; she does not communicate information. Authors shift the order of presentation of opinion: A, L Z, Q may be it. But other devices give structure and order to the story: Voices. There can be more than one. All voices must be distinct from the standpoint of the character: education, biases, prejudices, age, status. These voices pass into dialogue.  In The Little Friend Harriet’s voice seems similar to those of other characters and their dialogue. The drawback is compounded by a united style [or presentation] of writing. For the reader all the characters become the same.

The paragraph about repairs needed on Pembarton’s car would have been better placed earlier when Harriet talks to him: She had introduced him before and knows his “one-true love.” He likely would have mentioned the car, if given the chance because he talked about the car with everyone who would listen. Pembarton also talks about Harriet’s sister. The car arrives but Harriet doesn’t describe any sound, or its effect on her. (104) The sound comes from the boy on page 108. In a novel the characters and the car, obtaining character-like traits, should relay a vignette. Weave the facts into the story about the people rather than data dump: (1)Pembarton’s car, (2) Harriet’s sister, (3) who is Pembarton.  

I tired of reading informational clumps, and stopped when family members began talking about the son, ten years dead, who would now be at college in a fraternity… I realize there is a story in The Little Friend, but it is not well put together. I don’t want to read it.

P.S. I glanced at Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch (700 plus pages) and was disillusioned. There are words in parentheses on the first page! What type of author has a writing style using parentheses?

A COFFIN FOR DIMITROS – Eric Ambler

“The logic of Michelangelo’s David, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Einstein’s Physics [has] been replaced by that of the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The author sets out a story – the “special conditions which exist” – to develop this theme. As I view the world, Ambler may as well be writing about the Clinton, Bush and Obama years in the United States of America.

Protagonist, Latimer, is a writer of detective stories. In Istanbul he meets a Colonel of Turkish intelligence who has outlined a detective story but can’t write it. He gives it to Latimer to write. He also offers to show Latimer the body of an international criminal, Dimitros. Latimer sees the man and learns what the Turks know of his activities – spotty before 1924 and a blank after 1924. Latimer decides to learn about Dimitros’ political, criminal and financial activities in those missing 14 years. 

For 100 pages the story is an obligation to read. It could be improved by Ambler telling of Latimer’s curiosity to investigate as a writer. Otherwise, Latimer seems flat and a gadfly. Also when faced with dead time in a story, an author can improve the tale in one of two ways: Tell a better story, OR improve the language used in the telling of the story. Ambler finally ponies up with the second method:

       1. Who is the mastermind becomes “who paid for the bullet?”

       2. Darkness of human existence became “baroque of human affairs.”

       3. “wrinkled flesh” is “raddled flesh”

       4. A sentence “People were dying faster than if you had machine-gunned them.”

       5. An adversary learns that Latimer’s passport says he is a writer, and he says, “…writer is a very elastic term.”

If some of these phrases and sentence offend, the time of this novel is Europe between the Wars. There is a chapter on white slavery and drug dealing in Paris, circa 1930. Many of the victimized prostitutes were from Eastern Europe. I thought this novel was a prequel to the movie, “Taken.”

Tomorrow I shall blog more about the gross statement of the theme of A Coffin, but this book demonstrates with little effort and few additions to the text that something of substance can be included in a tale of international crime. Ambler makes his book a statement of his times, a mirror of society. 

What does the first sentence of this post have to do with crime and A Coffin? When one person or hundred of persons are allowed to shirk the law, step over its lines repeatedly, make fortunes, become prominent and be protected, that makes for a very different society than the one popular in political mythology: Everyone plays by the same rules, has the same opportunities, can pursue happiness, can contribute to the general weal and gain the esteem due a member of society. In the first described society, select people abuse and take advantage and rob. Under the political myth, it is assumed there is organic growth to the betterment of everyone.

Most Americans prefer the political myth, but they don’t always know how to achieve it. They neglect standards, criteria and values. One area where Americans have abandoned all caution: Countless American entertainers and artists, purporting to be part of the community, are abusing the system: They don’t entertain; they aren’t artistic. But why denounce easy targets in the United States?

Look overseas to Russia and the band Pussy Riot. In a church that band decided to perform a desecrating concert and publicize it. The performance was devoid of art and was bad entertainment. If Pussy Riot does not shock with the band’s name, it shouldn’t perform in a church for “more shock value.”

They were prosecuted and imprisoned, which only enhanced their name in the West. Pussy Riot became a cause celebre. Rock and roll musicians asked they be released. I do know if Pussy Riot committed the crimes like trespass or malicious mischief, but years in prison seem long. Although devoid of art and being poor entertainment, the West is ready to bestow awards, riches, fame and adulation on Pussy Riot. That is a mistake. There are no standards, no values, no excellence, just publicity. The West, especially America, cannot give Pussy Riot a big- welcome, you’ve-held-up-our-values, you’re-important-to-human-existence. The West, America and the remainder of the World have done that justly and recently. Who out there has the gall to compare the comparative worth of Pussy Riot to Nelson Mandela?

What does Eric Ambler say? If society does not abide by its heroes like Nelson Mandela and conduct, respect and uphold supporting values and standards, society will end with the standards, values and excellence of Pussy Riot, “the Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HIPPIE – Barry Miles

A picture book (nine by twelve inches) of the Sixties’ music and hippie scenes.

Author Barry Miles is on the inside back cover. A photograph has a biographical caption of one sentence which reads in part, “Barry Miles was a central figure in the development of the hippie movement…”

Everyone can stop laughing now. Although there are photographs, hippies were no longer hippies by 1968. They were street people, dealers, run-of-the-mill petty thieves, drug addicts, counterculture-artists as well as students, radicals, revolutionaries, communist anarchists, women belonging to various women’s groups, gays, lesbians, ecology-earth freaks, commune people and minorities.

I appreciate the pictures, graphics and artwork in Hippie, but showing them only does not distinguish among the lifestyles and goals among the various peoples. That sort of story, fiction or non-fiction, would take a long time and a long book put together with great care. By showing pictures only there are mistakes. Women’s movements (1968 to the present) ended much public nudity for the mass of politically in-tune women. Indeed, by the Spring of 1973 the underground newspaper, The Berkeley Barb, which had made a living on naked women stopped printing those photographs. Yet in Hippie Miles has photos of naked women at music festivals to support the idea that there were hippies later.

The mix of Hollywood and youth music is not well told in pictures or in the slight editorial comments. Much too many pages are devoted to Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and people prominent in the mid-Sixties when their influence justly faded after a year. One page mentions The Beach Boys – surfing, girls, ocean, beach: California Culture. The Beach Boys were in California before The Beatles, the Stones and everyone else. And California, its beaches and the Pacific had a lot to do with hippies, pot and youth music. No pictures and no words explain, tell or reveal any of this.

Hippie makes a passing glance at Charles Manson, musician hippie. His murders are mentioned, but it is Manson personally who is responsible, not hippie culture of peace and love which Manson embraced and lived, had disappointments and professional set  backs. Something should have been written. Anyone familiar with hippie culture knows how mean, degrading and violent it was. Explanations are difficult but not an impossible analyses for “a central figure in the development of the hippie movement” to narrate about hippies, Manson and murder.

Finally, while there are many photographs, graphics and artwork, collected in one volume, not much was presented that I had not seen before. The book yielded insignificant facts – Bill Graham’s beginnings. But there is no explanation in Miles’ broad brush of hippies and the culture. Did hippies disappear (1) because they no longer had anything to oppose; (2) because life was becoming more difficult to support that lifestyle; (3) because the youth of America [not English youth] were less naive; (4) because hippies could not solve anything in society with their lifestyles; (5) because hippies were predatory leeches on society; (6) because women stopped being hippies because it was primarily chauvinistically oriented and women were interested in liberation or feminism?

None of these questions or considerations are solved by showing pictures, artwork and graphics. Hippie is disappointing.