CALL FOR THE DEAD

John Le Carre

This short book is instructive and a delight to read. 

1. For writers who have wondered about the differences between detective stories and espionage tales, this story, having both, is an example.

2.  For writing wondering how much dialogue to put into a story and where, this story    presents  dialogue judiciously well. There are no frills. The dialogue advances the story.

3.  Writers wondering about description by using adjectives, a phrase or a prepositional phrase, the scenery and the characters are further developed by description.

This writing advances each story well until the stories break into their constituent parts. It seems like a free for all, except bad guys (or spies) are identified or caught and the success of the espionage is identified and analyzed. 

The story revolves around the death of a British civil servant who is identified as a possible security risk. An interview with George Smiley causes his East German handlers to kill the civil servant and everyone else associated with him. Murder is committed to insure security (espionage) but some of the acts are unnecessary and criminal. Not much is investigated about each course. Smiley predicts who will be the next victims. I suppose the story does not need Smiley’s report to his superiors in the last chapter: It is a reminder that espionage is a dangerous business.   

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PATRIOTISM

During the Vietnam War the refrain of the British or other European idiots was popular in the United States: My country, right or wrong. It was only fitting that a Briton, George Orwell where I found it, offered a correction: My mother, drunk or sober.

Patriotism in the United Staes does not mean supporting the President. Every American who believes Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) or Richard Nixon deserved complete support of the American people all the time, should stand now. From the number of sitting Americans, it seems no Americans are willing to commit to LBJ or Nixon, right, left or wrong. 

Indeed, those sitting Americans have common sense and a sense of history. They are cynical when they hear Trump sputter about many diverse things, frequently unconnected, disjointed and ill-put; They is no reason anyone would support Trump. He has a credibility gap which is filled with irrationality and growing wider. Hearing Trump is like listening to LBJ tell the American people that he is sending another 75,000 troops to Vietnam to win that War. 

THE DEVELOPMENT OF SHAKESPEARE’S IMAGERY

Wolfgang Clemens

It does not take long to consider and review this criticism. What is meant by imagery? Settings, characters’ expressions, characters’ psychology, story, etc. Imagery means an analysis of all the plays and the capabilities and capacities that the playwright inserted by use of the words. 

The next question is what would Bill Shakespeare think? Shakespeare would read and wonder:

“I did that? Huh?”  “The analysis on this point sounds pretty good, but I don’t remember writing it that way.” “I like what he says about Hamlet. I must be the smartest guy in the world.” “Too bad about Love Labor’s Lost. It sounds so prosaic, although I inserted many good one-liners about love. That chapter says more about the author than it does about the play or my abilities.” 

THE COUNTRY UNDER MY SKIN

Gioconda Belli

In a store the cover says this book costs $16.00. Imagine my delight when I found a copy in new condition at a library sale for a quarter. Having read a bit, I want my two-bits back. I’ll explain.

The book’s cover states, “A Memoir of Love and War.” It is a memoir, not an autobiography, a more serious effort to convey one’s life and put it into context. A memoir might include overly described incidences. Either autobiography or memoir, there is a beginning, a middle and an end, all advanced chronologically so the reader can easily understand the progress of the tale and the life. 

There are no memoirs with flashbacks or advances in time of twenty years. That sort of book comes from from science fantasy, or are by alcoholics and other drug users.

Chapter One announces, Cuba, 1979 – arriving at a shooting range, although the author is 30 years old and the describes the trip like a elementary school outing to see animals at the zoo. 

NEXT PAGE: 

“I see you liked the .50, didn’t you?” Fidel mused with a malicious grin when I saw him a few days later. He had come to visit the Sandinista delegation and we had been summoned to the Presidential Suite. I said nothing. I smiled at him. He turned back and continued talking to Tito and the other companros who had been invited to Havana for the Cuban Revolution’s twentieth-anniversary.

I sat back and watched them. It was inevitable that the sight of Fidel would stir a collage of memories in my mind. Fidel was the first revolutionary I had ever heard of….

Reader to author: You are writing a memoir. You are not telling of the memories of your mind. Tell what happened. The author is to put those thoughts and related actions into a cogent form, not as a distracting interruption to the text.

And what about extra words, which undoubtedly clutter the author’s mind and her text? It is, “ I watched,” not “I sat back and watched them,” like you are a princess where her view of the open room allows her to spy on everyone – Revolutionary Number Uno meets Revolutionary Number Quinto. Plus if an author is sitting back, watching, she is describing the scene and the people, not recalling Fidel from her earlier memories. Finally, does the author have an impression of Fidel in the room other than her prosaic memories? Is Fidel there truly because he likes the clapping of the 50?” “Does he ask anyone for a match to light his cigar?” “Is he there trolling for babes?”

Not once does the author mention Fidel is Fidel Castro. She should do a little name dropping, after all she married someone named Castro but afterward dumped that hubby for another. 

The description of Fidel reminds me of Fidel Gonzales from Paraguay. I always suspected that Fidel had Leftist tendencies, so being in Cuba in 1979 would not be out-of-sorts. Fidel Gonzales is a good guy. The blackmarket is his business – electronics, leather goods (South American are the best; don’t buy Chinese) and garments. Fidel is thinking about opening his own fashion house. I don’t believe all the trademarks and labels are legit, but if a gown survives a season, then falls apart and the price is right, who cares? Fidel makes a lot of money on fake clothes.

About 1000 words later at the beginning of Chapter Two the author flips to Santa Monica, California, 1998. So much for chronology; so much for Fidel; so much for love and war. There is much to be said about muddleness. The subtitle of Chapter Two is, Where I tell of certain bizarre connections between California, interoceanic canals, and my life. 

Can anyone tell me how I can get my twenty-five cents returned?

PORN MOVIE

Late night on cable TV and I had just awakened. I wanted to sleep another three hours and give myself a solid eight hours.

I surfed, trying to find a movie giving a story like I was being read to. I came across a movie by Stormy Daniels – producing, directing and acting – and thought this might be newsworthy.

At best it was soft-core. Someone tried writing a script of poor dialogue and crummy action: “Hi, how are you?” “What are you doing?” (like the camera can’t show that) “You look great [tired] [harried] [used] today.(like the camera can’t show that).”  The title of the movie was Sexquarian, an attempt to tell about horse competitions, persons, corruptions and jumping two-feet fences while trotting a pony around a lawn. Of course the horses aren’t the heroes, and no one ever kisses her horse. No animal cruelty allowed.

No use wondering about sex. Men were in long conversations together. They looked like they had stepped from a jungle after 20 years, or they had just been released from prison. There were big muscles but no finesse. The talks came to nothing. Women also talked about horses, men and issues of the day. Nothing simpatico came from those conversations either: The story had indiscernible twists, turns and nothing noteworthy. 

Toward the end a competitor tried drugging Stormy’s horse. The perpetrator, a cowhand for a rich guy, got tossed on the ground, the extent of the fight. Next came the denouement, a woman, purportedly Stormy on the competition course (no close-ups) and her entourage was applauding each jump. Later in the Tack room there were ribbons, blue, red and silver (one each), harnesses but no saddles, and nothing else. 

The big moment, Stormy’s close up: A male player came in for congradulations, and Stormy lost some clothes. There were close shots. Everything looked manufactured. She has a 42 inch waist, larger wheel-wells and the fabrication on top. I now know why Don Trump stopped seeing her. Were they fake, or did they say Made In China? But something is completely wrong. He made a bad deal. He paid $130,000.00!

THE GREAT PIANISTS

Harold G. Schonberg

This is a thoroughly enjoyable volume which is well-worth reading.

What does it lack? Interesting text that would make it longer.

The author describes keyboard playing by most of the great pianists. The text changes in the last half of the twentieth century, losing some description and comment: A vocabulary arises in the eighteenth century which extends into the Twentieth. But this text becomes more concert criticism than analytical when the author has heard the pianists.

There is no accurate representation of the first-class composers set forth – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and sometimes, Liszt and Schumann, and others less capable, original composers for the piano like Mendelssohn. How did composition change their playing. The author treats these persons as pianists, yet some of Mendelssohn’s music isn’t fit to be played at a dog fight: The rhythms are uninteresting; they are straightforward rhythmic (if any) and thematic development, and the general presentation of imagination is incomplete. Indeed, many of he pianists whom the author describe played their own, insufficient compositions. That music is lost today, or might be taken from cold basement rooms of libraries and castles. None is as good as the piece discovered in Czechoslovakia in 1960, a second Haydn Cello Concerto.  

The audience is not fully explained. Did they only want acrobatics, displays at the keyboard of music that should not be played. Although opera was popular in the nineteenth century, the rush to arrange portions of operas for piano concerts was everywhere and a waste of time. Those arrangements are not played today. Yet these pieces, technically difficult and harmonically improved, took as much as half of each concert. Pianists into the Twentieth Century performed them  and other favorites – waltzes by Johann Strauss and others. Why these arrangements fell out of favor or have been ignored by pianists since 1970 remains open.   

The relationship of pianists to one another is not fully set forth. Individual meetings are noted, followings are chronicled and schools and methods are mentioned. But what of the true effect of Liszt who would sight read and play anything up to speed, or faster with control. Saint Saens had the same sight reading ability. Where were the force and effect of their compositions, definitive works? After 1855 the reader has no idea of the effect of Liszt’s E-Flat Concerto, a remarkable work that develops one theme. And the Saint-Saens Second Concerto in C minor was popular into the cartoon age, but Pianists were graded on their performance of it. Obviously Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, D Minor (l909) (the most difficult piano concerto) set a high bar for technical performance, endurance and interpretation. Schonberg does not describe much of this.

Indeed, Saint-Saens and other composers were not composing for piano alone. Why? Change of audience, or something else? Music for the piano played in 1900 was mostly composed before 1850, unless a gross adaptation of an operatic piece. The author does not explain or mention why music composed for the piano fell off. Not everyone was willing or capable of composing for orchestra. Much orchestral music of the Nineteenth Century, as well as the Eighteenth did not survive their centuries.   

What The Great Pianists also lacks is one pianist looking and hearing another and saying, “I never have to perform that piece of music again,” Sergei Rachmaninoff’s reaction after hearing Josef Hoffman playing Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata in recital. Indeed, Hoffman plays it well and distinctly.

There is little sense that pianists listened to one another much. Beginning in the first half of the Twentieth Century when recordings were made, pianists had more opportunity to listen and be informed.  More recording has made it an issue. It becomes a different issue because about 1950 the world lost two young pianists who were masters. Schonberg devotes a paragraph to each of them, and acknowledges had each lived he would have had a great career (and influence?). Indeed, Dinu Lipatti (died 1950) and William Kapell (died 1952) may have lifted pianistic performances during the last half of the Twentieth Century. The sense that any pianist during his or her life time actually influenced or lifted piano playing is not described well.

BILLY WILDER IN HOLLYWOOD

Maurice Zolotow

Like its subject this biography is told indirectly including juxtapositions and metaphors. Inferences must be made. Discussions about the films are well put, engaging and informative. I recommend the book.

Frequently, the outrageous slings and arrows of existence which are funny best define a biographical subject. Wilder knew the value of pets, especially little dogs, in film: “There’s ain’t a dog alive that can’t act the pants off Lillian Harvey…” (Chapter 3) At home and among friends Wilder disliked pets, including little dogs.

Wilder lived with his wife and daughter between Santa Monica Boulevard and Sunset in Beverly Hills during World War Two. Someone have his daughter a little dog and a pig. The pig was always getting loose and liked to run into the shopping area of Beverly Hills – you know, Rodeo Drive. Wilder was at the studio working on Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, and he get calls from the Beverly Hills cops, “Come get your pig.” Wilder hoofed across town more than once.

This was a sore memory for Wilder. It is odd that in none of his Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau movies was there ever a call to a character, interrupting a crisis or a turning point: Come get your pig. 

MOBY DICK – A POLITICAL NOVEL

Herman Melville

Nobody thinks Moby Dick is a book about politics flowing from the economic and sociological forces of its times. But it is. Heretofore, the focus of the novel is directed to make it seem more daunting, embedded within the Nineteenth Century. WRONG! Its style is pure Nineteenth Century; characters, descriptions and advancement of the theme reek of that century’s style and is long – L-O-N-G – how many more words can be used to say what should be said in five words 

It is easier if the reader approaches the novel knowing what it is about. Read for that and sense all else, which is frequently covered in Cliff Notes.Those summaries and analyses overlook the significance of Melville’s story. And overall, Joseph Conrad puts forth better stories of the sea than Herman.

The nineteenth century is not a reason not to read Moby Dick. It is invaluable today because it is very current. Readers can determinate that if they know what metaphors and allegories are. Aids may be found. Copious amounts of liquor help the mind. Any native strong drink from sea-faring nations – Dutch, British, Japanese and American  – can produce the will and courage to get through the next chapter.

Without some comprehension, understanding and knowledge of this novel, every American writer experiences a hole, a gap, and something major missing. It was published a year before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which as a political sweep was also that author’s best book. Both authors wrote other books later but none was as good. Few reviewers look at the primary political theme of Moby Dick, but they ponder literary devices to interpret part of the gross writing. There is nothing metaphysical about this book, not abiding the predominant hodge-podge prized by Emerson, Hawthorne and others from New England, pursuing philosophies of reveries leading to nothing. Disregard all that. None of that is in Melville’s mind or writing.

In its Nineteenth Century style a bit of dialogue tells what the writing is about. In the last chapter (135), Captain Ahab says about his ship, having been rammed and sunk by the whale: “The ship! A hearse! – the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat, “it’s wood could only be American.” Truer words were never spoken (only to the reader because other characters in the story could not hear them). Most reviewers like Howard Mumford Jones, reportedly an American intellectual, did not notice this line. He asked wandering questions about Ahab’s personality traits, his psyche, his psychosis, his moods, behaviors and outrages. Arab did this; Ahab did that. Write a 20 page analysis. Or perhaps Harman Melville, himself, never wrote a novel.

Moby Dick is a novel, an allegory, about what? The United States of America. Melville was writing while observing what was happening within the country: Contentious, divisive times when men were trying to attract other men to their points of view by parsing ideas and demanding agreement: There were upcoming and different rules of civility. Next came the election which brought the Southern Whig, Zachary Taylor to the White House, the admission of California as a state with the Compromise of 1850, and a tougher Fugitive Slave Law. All unsettled and divided the nation. 

In the story of the novel, who is who? What is what? The ship is the American nation. The crew is the South – Ahab may as well be a high-strung, fire-eating, slave-owning Southerner like John C. Calhoun. Sperm whales including the white whale are the North.

Reading the novel from this viewpoint makes it accessible and understandable. It removes from the process much that Cliff Notes has to add. I am not wholly critical of Cliff Notes. They’ve done their best, considering it appears written by know-all academians, who don’t explain much. That’s how academians earn their money and demonstrate their value: Tell of obscure references to Greek mythology, unconnected passages from the Bible, but omit and overlook analyses to pertinent facts and sources and neglect structure, characters and setting.

The ship is a small place. Few pages tell its size for 30 plus men. There is no hope, except that Ahab spews, mostly about greed, money to be made for finding and killing the white whale.

How is the society on the ship? A novelist who puts 30-35 men on  a ship does more than describe a little society, offer a few comments and show little interaction except as a gross group. So there is no crew eating dinner together, socializing, boasting, bantering, moping, complaining about the food, the weather or anything, There seems no camaraderie in a book of 300,000 words. Social and economic rules seem set, and those personages, despite their race (harpooners are men of color, irony anticipated because they are invaluable members of the crew). This is a strict feudal society where every person has his place and can not shift his status. Down, is the usual way toward death.

None of that is important to Melville. WHY? It is irrelevant to the story as it reflects American society in the South.

The crew is a mixed-raced society, a favorite plaything like Pip, to be protected by Ahab, and offensive – the death of Parsee by the whale. But why should Queequeg, Ismael’s best friend, disappear for chapters. And Ahab only realizes what is at stake in the last pages of the novel. 

Sperm whales are the most dangerous creatures in the ocean. (Chapters 32) Whale lore reenforces this impression (Chapter 41, 45) Yet sperm whales are intelligent, mystical (Chapter 80) and silent (Chapter 79).  

The whales are like the force and influence of the North, a fact that Starbuck cries to Ahab on the Third Day of the chase (for readers only, not character to character); “Oh Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou that madly seekest him.” (chapter 135)

Ahab is the captain with noone to challenge him, save Starbuck. (Chapter 36, 123) Ahab derives authority from the owners and their “practical world.” “This world pays dividends.” (Chapter 109) regardless of Ahab’s state of mind. (Chapter 41)

Ahab maneuvers and works the crew and officers (Chapter 41, 46: Ahab managing the men, “every minute atmospheric influence…for his crew to be subject to.”) Demanding an oath to hunt the White Whale (Chapter 119) Ahab eventually tells the crew the whale will return on the third day, like a resurrection when the whale will be killed. (Let us kill Jesus Christ): “Aye men he’ll rise once more – but only to spout his last.” (Chapter 134) Payment is promised early on in the novel with the doubloon (Chapter 36) and later for a larger prize for one man, and for all the men.(Chapter 134)  

What is Ahab’s mind? Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. …Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that.”(Chapter 135) Ahab believes himself acting for powers beyond himself: “What  is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing it is; what cozening, middle lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings; I so keep pushing, and crowding and jamming myself on all the time; reckless making me read to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm? But it the great to move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single start can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does the beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”…”Where do murderers go man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?” (Chapter 132)  Indeed, Ahab knows he is demented and is leading the weak: “Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedeviling so man others.” (Chapter 71)

And who are the men? What is the crew? “…the meanest mariners, renegades and castaways” (Chapter 26). “The savage crew…all sailors…are…capricious and unreliable – they live in varying outer weather, and they inhale its fickleness.”(Chapter 46) “I stood at the helm…and I better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continued sight of the fiend shapes before me…” (Chapter 96)

And who are the officers? “the incompetence of men unaired virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him [Ahab] to his monomaniac revenge.” (Chapter 41)

Madness does not stop Ahab from one precaution, leaving Starbuck on the ship during the final hunts (Chapters 130, 132) Indeed, having gone too far, Ahab is in a boat, and he realizes the ship is in jeopardy. He sings, “…I see: the ship! Dash on, my men! Will ye not save my ship?”

(Chapter 135; note reference to wood for a coffin being American, Chapter 117.) The crew looks – each has been described – and fears all is lost: “For an instant, the tranced boat’s crew stood still; then turned. “This ship? Great God, where is the ship?” (Chapter 135)

The ship is a small place. Few pages tell of it, but there is no hope except those fomenting from the spews of Ahab. The presence of charity is absent. Faith comes from Ahab.

Being a mixed society brings forward playthings, a favorite like Pip who is killed; the death of Parsee, the weapon maker and a fawner over Ahab and his quest during the hunt for the white whale. But why does Queequeg disappear for chapters?

When he was young and at sea, Melville in his life led or joined a mutiny against the ship’s captain. He was well-versed in ship’s rules of discipline and the authority of the officers. He knew of the independence of sailors and their edginess. In Moby Dick, the allegory, Melville avoided freewheeling ways of New England sailors, many of whom had educations. In the novel the sailors are ignorant and followers; they came from somewhere else. It is unlike the Rachel (ship in the novel) whose Captain has taken two sons on his voyage; it is assumed sailors had  educations. Moby Dick describes the sorts of sailors, but they were unusual. In the allegory, it could be expected. Southern society was narrow and hierarchical. Every person, every job, each presented status and every man was set apart in relation to other employments, reputation and status. Rabble never mixed with yeomen, or higher ups, persons in professions or wealthy. Likewise aboard ship, the “crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him [Ahab] to his monomaniac revenge.” (Chapter 41)

It was a Northern view of Southern society and culture. Hierarchy of planation owners, the wealthy and well-positioned plus resort to any invention from history, fantasy or myth – medieval ways, customs and traditions. Accordingly, Melville freely employs words of status indicating medieval rules and actions: Knights and Squires (Chapters 26, 27) The special Captain’s Table (like Arthur’s) for preferred and valuable shipmates (Chapter 34) Glories of whaling “the knightly days of our professional” (Chapter 82) Noble harpooners. St. George. (Chapter 82) The final chapter against the white whale: noble, heroic, joust, tilting, run it through.

Southerners were looking to medieval times, accepting cues from past deeds and behaviors, It made living life easier with a predictable, structured society. Likewise, having a whale boat crew be compliant to the Captain is easily understood. The Captain’ status was knowledge and authority, not insanity: Follow and trust him! A generation later Mark Twain observed that Sir Walter Scott and his novels highlighting medieval traditions had caused the American Civil War. While not completely agreeing, Clement Eaton, The Old South. devoted an Appendix to analyze Twain’s comment: The influence of Scott’s writing about medieval times and tales on Southern society. Clement Eaton might also have also included Herman Melville and other northern authors.

The sense of looking at every aspect of the whale is a disassembling of the North, and that is not good for the crew [or the South]. In many ways Southerners disliked and were disgusted by Northern Culture and Society – they did not mind a Northerner writing Dixie in 1857. But Southerners clung to their ways and fantasies to the end. In February 1865 Abraham Lincoln met three Commissioners from the Confederacy. Having nearly won the Civil War militarily, Lincoln asked what they could all do to make peace immediately. No deal – the Southerner Commissioners  offered: Two countries, or let the South be as before the fighting, and preservation of slavery. Within the confines of Southern society Southerners had to make a way out of custom and tradition superimposed by medieval examples. Southerners never did. If hierarchy did not keep persons to their place and status, then violence would. Southerners knew no other way to live but to promote a fantastical world and pursue its life. 

So it was with Ahab and the whale. “Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with  him, not only his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations… Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them [devils}; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale; he pitted himself; all mutilated against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonizes of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.” (Chapter 41)

Like Ahab who had transferred his focus from himself to the whale, the South lost its ability for self-reflection and analysis. It focused on the North in incomprehensible hatred. This stubbornness, an unwillingness to look at reality and go forward, the preference for the past, whatever it may be. Whales, Ahab, the South, Southerners – all had forsaken the lesson of Jonah (Chapter 9) “…on what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet!…” What was that  “bidding….To preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood! That was it!”

Ahab and the crew are impervious to Truth. They cannot observe and see. If they hear, they do not listen. If they touch, they don’t feel. If they smell, they do not detect. Moby Dick  is a fantastical story based upon an actual whaling event. But as an author, Melville had observed, had listened, had felt and had sensed what was happening in the South: Use a whaling ship – whaling was primarily an American occupation (Chapter 101). Melville reported what was present and advanced all the facts, using the ship, crew, officers and whales as metaphors in a grand allegory. Moby Dick a story of sociology and politics. Melville’s conclusion is the general theme of the novel, the consummate power of hate, blind and unaware and irrationally inhuman. The situation of Moby Dick was not present on most whaling ships, but it was rampant in the Ante-bellum South. Melville concluded that hate would destroy the United States. 

Indeed, a final paragraph of the novel has the sinking of the ship, with a sea hawk [like an eagle] inadvertently nailed to the top mast: “…Ahab…like Satan, would not sink to hell till she [the ship] had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.” (Chapter 135)

A TRAVELLER IN ROMANCE

John Whitehead, Editor

This collection of Somerset Maugham’s writings presents a mixed bag, in quality of writing and acuteness of observations. Short stories are included, the best being The Buried Talent: A woman with a promising career in the arts choses a quiet life of family and security in a tucked away backwater. Twenty years later she remeets the narrator who knew of her talents. Those urges return in a rush. The retired artist regrets.

That engaging story accompanies observations, not developed in a serious way: The lack of art – literature, painting and music – in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. It is true for any totalitarian system, in the past and today which represses and prohibits artistic freedom, preferring authentic replications rather than new expressions. Also mentioned but left mostly undeveloped is the issue of style for an author. Maugham is correct that each story and every set of characters in a new novel should have their own style. No use writing about New England in the same style or manner as one might an Arizona story. Likewise, writing history and in other disciplines require the writer to create a style suitable to the research and story.

 Where Traveller falls down are pieces where Maugham is delivering criticism, is writing praise about a contemporary (Neal Coward) or is discussing people he has met or known. This tedious flabbiness is longer than half the volume. 

However, the portions about writing are fun to read and need to be remembered: 

One day Alfred de Musset went to see his friend George Sand, then a famous 

novelist, and as women will, she kept him waiting. To pass the time he took  

up one of her books and to amuse himself he crossed out all the superfluous 

adjectives he came across. History relates that, when the lady came in and 

saw how he was occupied, she did not receive him with her usual show of

affection. There are few English writers whose prose could not be bettered

by the same drastic process. (p. 209-210)

 

Also Maugham has a jaundiced view of Henry James:

His influence on English fiction was enormous. Henry James never came to

grips with life. He was afraid of it, and knew it only as you might know what 

is going on in a busy street by looking out of an upstairs window. The problems

that he examined with such scrupulous integrity were little social problems of 

no real significance. But such was his skill, such was his charm and such was 

the power of his personality that he led many of the better writers in England

to turn their eyes away from the needs, passions and immortal longings of

humanity to dwell on the trivial curiosities of sheltered gentlefolk.(p.209)   

WRITING: USE OF I

DEATH VALLEY-BORAX DESERTS

by JOHN R. SPEARS

Too many books, not enough time to read. Right?

These Sketches of the Western border of the Great Basin are encumbered by poor writing. Primarily the author wrote in the first person narrative, making the writing verbose, folksy and impossible to read. I stopped after 46 pages. 

EXAMPLE:  Chapter 2, page 43. 

“Looking toward the east I observed that the white haze thickened and thinned over the face of the sun, as if clouds or varying density were passing there, though no distinct clouds could be seen.”

SUBSTITUTE:

The white haze thicken and thinned shielding the sun.

ANALYSIS:

  1. When an author uses I, he does not need to say, “I think,” “I observe,” “I wonder,” “I smelled.” The reader infers who is sensing or thinking and is recounting.
  2. There is a regrettable sentence structure requiring an unnecessary use of a passive verb at the end of the sentence.
  3. The author tries to describe, completely the haze – thickening and thinning by comparing it to clouds. There are no clouds in Death Valley (as the author’s sentence reveals) for much of the year, especially when sandstorms arise (so tells this author).
  4. The author’s description is unsuccessful. He not only departs from the singular, haze, to the plural, clouds, but the author does not say what is happening: Does the haze block the sun, or not? Does it change the color of the sky, blue, gray, brown or which hue(s)? Supposedly, I is standing on the desert floor, not making meteorological observations, but describing what is happening around him. This text does not seem real.  

EXAMPLE: Chapter 2, page 46, begins,

“As was said in the last chapter, people have read, from time to time, that men and beasts, and even birds trying to cross Death Valley fall down and die. It is true.”

The next paragraph begins, “I did not see this, of course.”

There is no SUBSTITUTE, only ANALYSIS:

  1. The author, using I, is detached from the subject.
  2. The place is known as Death Valley.
  3. As far as my reading went, of course, I, the author of this book did not stroll across the Valley and describe the effects on the human body, the mind and illusions that may appear to the sensations, which he can write about. This book is wholly deficient. In Roosevelt, Theodore, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, the author describes being exposed and riding through the blizzard to shelter, all the while using I infrequently. Any reader of Roosevelt’s book is amazed by the details of being human in that environment and on that land. The reader is alarmed. Will the author survive? And as a piece of literature, the reader wonders how the author remembered everything to write into a passage.

MORAL

When using the first person narrative upon telling a tale, a sketch or an experience, use I sparingly or not at all. Use of I carelessly leads to poor writing, too many words, awkward attempts to be familiar with readers, confusing the story, and presenting misimpression’s (details, misconceptions, misinterpretations and using the wrong words).