Quote and Commentary, Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time

From near the end of this slow-burning, painful-yet-lovely novel:

…but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, that very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. (pg 231 of the 2010 Graywolf Press Edition)

I Curse the River of Time is a bit of a sequel to Petterson’s earlier novel, To Siberia. That book concerns the maturation of a young provincial Danish girl from her childhood in the early 1930s to her young womanhood in the aftermath of World War II, and the overwhelming, larger-than-life presence of her older brother, Jesper, an adventurous spirit and person with no feeling of satisfaction in life, always looking to be great, to do great things. And that novel ends with the nameless young woman–the narrator–pregnant by a Norwegian man some years her elder, finding herself rejected of her family, and realizing that her life was over, except all the rest of it. This novel is the story of her son–not the one she’s pregnant with earlier, but the next one born to her of the same man–Arvid, 37 and going through a divorce, reliving his life on a day with his mother, dying of cancer, in her little Danish seaside hometown.

Well, Arvid does not relive his own life in toto, though there are a few glimpses of moments from childhood, adolescence, and recent years. The majority of the novel splits itself between his living in this particular day and remembering his life at 20, 21, a college dropout idealist, with a girlfriend of 17 or 18 and a factory job he’s taken as a way of feeling as if he’s doing something important, as a way of living out his ideals–in this, he’s like his Uncle Jesper, who was never satisfied. And while we do not know the causes of his divorce, or much about his life in his 30s generally, we are lead to find Arvid’s time in that factory and with that young girlfriend as a moment of turning, of transition, of his idealism (specifically his Communism) defining his life away from something mundane to something he desires and wants to be great and significant. But such is foolishness. Arvid will never be satisfied; he only plays at his ideals. He is simply a man for whom life, mere life will never be good enough. He is not a man who, as his mother said all those years before, claim that life can be over, except for the rest of it.

And thus is what Arvid faces here, making these ruminations on the day after the Berlin Wall has fallen, his ideals–and his essential, hyper-idealistic pettiness–symbolically crashing around him, knowing his mother will be dead, and being filled with regret.

We must not be afraid to live. We must not let the perfect vision of life intrude upon and destroy a version of a good life. And we must learn this before 37, lest we stand, like Arvid, thinking only of death fearfully, regretfully, with no life left to us, with all the life allotted us wasted on chasing impossibilities.

Daybook, 9 February 2017

April in February continues, though today is cooler (with blustery winds blowing) than it has been in several days. Nevertheless, it is a positively lovely day, and I’m sitting here listening to Haydn’s The Seasons oratorio, preparing to teach Henry Timrod’s long, complex poem “The Cotton Boll” in a couple of hours, and generally thinking about all of the good work there is to do today.


Something Beautiful:

I hesitate to call this something truly “beautiful,” as I know I am not a very talented photographer, and this shot is, in obvious ways, quite pedestrian, but I was quite taken by this tableau as I was walking through campus the other day:

Briefest of Commentaries: Letters from an American Farmer

Letters from an American FarmerLetters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

I began this book on a whim, recalling that I had taught an excerpt from it–the third letter–in an American literature course that focused on rural writings a few years ago. I had enjoyed that letter immensely, but had always heard that the book had some dark overtures, and was curious to see what those were like. And so, as my bedside reading for a week or so, these Letters were my companion, and I’ve been mulling over them constantly over the last several days.

First of all, what is this book? That in itself is a strange, and revealing, question. These are a series of fictional letters, written in the voice of an humble Englishman, living and farming in the Pennsylvania backcountry, to a wealthy friend back in England. But yet, only the self-deprecating, funny and naively silly first letter and the exasperated, yet darkly optimistic, last letter provide anything in the way of the “life-events” content we would expect to find in letters. The rest, though set up as letters, works as a travel journal, study of the natural landscape, ethnography, general political theorizing, social commentary and critique, agricultural treatise, and general rumination on “the good life.” Despite its fictive conceit, it’s far from being an epistolary novel, but is rather something like one would have expected to see produced by one of the Roman writers–Cato the Elder or Cicero, perhaps–for its wide-ranging subject matter, interests, and rhetorical styles within the conceit of the larger, unified work.

In a way, Crevecoeur seems to be providing a work that sits between–both chronologically and conceptually–the two most significant pre-1800 works in American letters: Franklin’s Autobigoraphy and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Crevecoeur shares their strongly-Enlightenment religious and political principles of freedom, liberty, and mild religiosity as moralistic instructor rather than deposit of transcendent Truth claims, and he gives us an extension of Franklin’s inventive, creative industriousness that points towards Jefferson’s fixation on land, agriculture, self-sufficient yeoman virtue, and suspicion of market capitalism and centralized government. Yet unlike those two lions of the Revolution, Crevecoeur presents a political vision that echoes the feelings of the common man everywhere: to be left alone, as he must do the work of caring for his family and doing the labours that have been presented to him, rather than to engage in the confusing, chaotic political controversies of his day.

This is especially apparent in the closing letter, in which we see farmer “John” lamenting the destructive excesses of the nascent Patriot movement while admitting to his love for his fellow Americans and his understanding of their criticisms of the Crown. “John” will not raise a finger against either his neighbour or his King, his present nor his past. Rather, he will remove himself to live with the Natives, where a virtue parallel to the “American” virtues he describes in earlier letters continues to be practiced, until the shooting is over. Then, he will return and rebuild his life–a life that does not depend on government of any sort, but on the blessings of a Deistic Providence, the labour and economy of he and his family, and, most especially, the cultivation of virtue.

And thus this book, which in many ways is meant to be a work of ethnography, social commentary, and natural history, becomes a meditation on the meaning of America and how we define Americans. And in an age of increased tension and conflict, its answers to these questions, its unflinching examinations of national failings (especially slavery), and the vision of the American who just can’t bring himself to engage in the fratricide in which his neighbours are participating, and who simply tends his own garden while the world burns (and struggling over whether this is cowardice or not), is a vision that is especially prescient now.

Daybook, 26 January 2017

It’s been April-in-January for the last ten days or so. There was a bit of rain this morning and it will be another spring day in winter, but all that ends tonight–so says the weatherman, again proving the Farmer’s Almanac‘s long-view weather forecast actually quite reliable for predicting general meteorological tendencies. I’m stuck in my office, rather than working in my garden, which I’ve been itching to do–and have done a bit of already. But as I sat here getting settled in for work, the sun has peeked through the clouds, the rain has dispersed, and I have several great things for you to read today:

Something Else:

A complete concert by the Poway Symphony Orchestra, of Poway, California, consisting of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, Mozart’s Concerto for flute and harp, and Dvorak’s 8th Symphony. It’s broken in tracks; use the previous/next buttons beside the play button to navigate:

Briefest of Commentaries–Glass’s Allen Tate: The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring Love

Allen Tate: The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring LoveAllen Tate: The Modern Mind and the Discovery of Enduring Love by John V. Glass III

A demanding book on a demanding subject. Glass attempts to give us a general biography of Tate, the problems of various readings of both his biography and his work, a coherent vision of Tate’s thought and intellectual/aesthetic labours, and a set of detailed close readings of a very wide range of Tate’s poems (and, to a lesser extent, his prose works). In so doing, Glass takes the best from previous Tate scholarship and deals with the consequences and shortcomings of other earlier scholarly works, and provides one of the most comprehensive and in-depth (often times intimidatingly so, but such is an unavoidable consequence of reading and studying a profoundly complex man) single-author studies one is apt to find, not just of Tate, but generally.

Glass systematically shows that Tate was no Southern reactionary, no nostalgic romantic, no ironically-detached modernist. Rather, he was an individual who profoundly understood a single, unifying idea throughout his long career–which encompassed practically his entire adult life–that modernity offers us with a means of being human which is, at best, profoundly disintegrating, if not dehumanizing. Glass argues that Tate goes through a period of trusting in art, then in the South, Southern history, and his family history, and then finally in a coming to terms with God, the transcendent Divine, and his reception into the Roman Catholic Church as a way of dealing with, reacting to, and finding purpose within this disintegration. Tate was, in Glass’s portrayal, a man who was constantly seeking what was true, and thus was aware of his own foibles, self-contradictions, and those of art, the South, his family, and all those other ways of finding meaning. Thus, it was only in the Church and its dogmas and transcendent Truths that a coherent vision of resisting modernist disintegration could occur.

To a non-Catholic (or even an irreligious person), Glass’s emphasis on Tate’s eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism seems perhaps a bit too heavy-handed or too neat of a teleology. But this is perhaps the only substantial negative criticism I can make of the book. His exploration of Tate’s relationship with the South is nuanced and full of truths and revelations that make me examine my own relationship with the South. And Glass’s expository readings of Tate’s works are incredibly strong; the book’s centre–and heart–is appropriately made up of two chapters studying Tate’s most well-known works, one chapter devoted to “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” and another to “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” Tate’s contribution to the Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand. Glass deftly explains the problem with conflating Tate’s speakers and the poet himself, and also helps us to make sense of Tate’s (in)famous call to “violence” at the end of his “Southern Religion,” positing it as a call to existential, spiritual, and psychic warfare within the self contra those things within ourselves that contribute to our disintegration.

Anyone interested in Tate needs to read this book, difficult as it may in places, and anyone interested in understanding how the South functioned (and arguably still functions) as a site anti-modern critique–a critique that is not necessarily painted with the claims of racism and reactionary-ism that are often asserted (with obviously some merit)–will also find much value here.

Daybook, 13 January 2017

Friday the 13th. As I understand it, “13” is considered an unlucky number because Caesar lead the Legio XIII Gemina across the Rubicon, and it was thus with the 13th legion that the Roman Republic was effectively destroyed. I’ve also heard that the fact that the crucifixion was, by some folks figuring, on the 13th of the month, another reason people see the day as unlucky.


Something Beautiful:

While doing my (honestly quite regular) search for rural churches this morning, I came across this church, St. Helens in Cliffe, Kent, England. Of especial interest to me is the second photograph, of the charnel house in its graveyard.

Charnel houses are places where human remains that turn up–skeletal remains dug up, unidentified bodies washed ashore, etc.–are kept until identifications can be made and proper burials take place. In many cases, they became simply depositories of unidentified skeletal remains that would be turned up when digging fresh graves, plowing fields, and the like.

Something else:

A search for books about charnel houses turned up a book of long poems by Conrad Aiken, whose work I do not know. To read this weekend, then, one of the poems from that collection, “The Charnel Rose”:

Daybook, 11 January 2017


Something Beautiful, and Something Else:

As is well-recorded, I am a great lover of rural churches. This one, St-Just-in-Roseland in the parish of the same name in Cornwall, is especially lovely.

British legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, whom tradition identifies as a tinsmith and tin merchant, came to Britain in the early years of the first century. Accompanying him was a young man from Nazareth. As this legend goes, Our Lord thus visited Britain in his lost years. This is the basis for William Blake’s romantic, counter-industrialist poem known as either “Jerusalem” or “And did those feet in ancient time,” which was set to music by Sir Hubert Perry during the Great War and became the patriotic anthem “Jerusalem”:

Inasmuch as Cornwall was one of the most significant tin mining sites in the world well into the 20th century, one version of this tradition holds that Joseph of Arimathea and Our Lord came to Cornwall on this voyage–and journeyed to the market town that was once where St-Just-in-Roseland now stands (other versions have them heading to Glastonbury, amongst other sites).

Whatever the historicity of the tale, this parish, a few miles south of the major Cornish city, Truro, it is very much a place I would like to visit:

(All photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Daybook, 9 January 2017

I’ve recently been doing some work on creating an actual workflow for how I read and discover things online, and how I engage and interact with them. It’s a work in progress, but it has pointed me to quite a few readings I wouldn’t have otherwise found. Today’s Daybook is largely a collection found via these new processes.


Something Else:

Classical music done as 8-bit video game soundtracks (below is one of the several videos found in the article):


Quote and Comment, War and Turpentine

From page 25 of Stefan Hertmans’s War and Turpentine:

The world he grew up in before 1900 was full of smells that now have largely disappeared. A tannery gave off its tenacious stench in the thin September mist; the tenders with their loads of raw coal pulled in and out of the station in the dark winter months; the odor of horse droppings in the streets in the early-morning hours could create the illusion, for the half-slumbering boy by the drafty window, that he was in the countryside somewhere, as could the smell of hay, herbs, and grass that still pervaded the city. The penetrating odor of old wood and damp sackcloth prevailed in the dimly lit shops where salt, sugar, flour, and beans were still sold en vrac, in bulk, scooped into sacks and canisters brought by thew omen who shopped there. The closed courtyards smelled of Brussels sprout trimmings, horse manure scraped off the streets, and drying tobacco leaves. Describing his own grandmother, he said that her black apron–he called it a pinafore–smelled like the offal of young rabbits.

I’ve been reading War and Turpentine in starts and fits the last several days, in snatches caught when the baby is playing contentedly by herself. Last night I laid in bed and read and read and read, and am well into the second section of the novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

There are so many passages I could highlight, I could quote and comment upon, but this one, from fairly early on, sticks with me. The smell of a lost world–that’s a notion that resonates with me. Even in my childhood, 20, 25 years ago, even that recently ago, there is a world lost that I regain briefly, fleetingly, when I come across certain smells. Some smells still exist, and their world is not lost, but merely lost to me. Thus, that world is not lost, but I am lost; I am separated from that world, living in bizarre parallelism to something that surrounded me and against which I now find myself, willingly or accidentally, hermetically sealed, foreign, lost, separate.

The smell cigarettes smoked indoors looms large in my memory. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, at 10 or so, putting together a puzzle on a rainy Saturday afternoon. A man whom I did not know, but that I remember visiting with grandma a few times, sat there with us, putting together the puzzle with us; he chain-smoked cigarettes he tapped out of a pack he kept in his shirt pocket, his old, worn-out, 50-year-old sailor’s tattoo on his forearm twitched into unrecognizability as he put the puzzle together. Whenever I smell cigarettes, I think of that moment.

The smell of hot canvas, holding the sweat and stink of adolescent boys beneath pine trees at summer camp. The acrid and sulfurous smell of the swamp mixed with a crispness reminiscent of fresh linen that is the air around my maternal grandparents’ home. My indigent uncle still lives in that home, which should have been condemned some time ago. Whenever I go to visit him, I get out of the car and am overwhelmed by that smell as soon as I open the car door, and I suddenly remember an entire childhood and adolescence of summers spent there, how open and free everything felt, how perfect and wonderful. And I walk into the house, and I’m surprised, and even oppressed, by how small it is. This can’t be the same place, can it?

Thus, I know the feeling whereof Hertmans writes: the world is always the same place, inasmuch as it is ever retreating into the distance; mournfully lost, yet inescapable.

Brief Commentary–The Sharpshooter Blues

The Sharpshooter BluesThe Sharpshooter Blues by Lewis Nordan

This is the third of Nordan’s novels I’ve read–Wolf Whistle and Music of the Swamp were both books I very much enjoyed and found incredibly moving–and I went into this one fully prepared for Nordan’s literary gamesmanship. If you’ve never read Nordan, his “magical realism” can take you by surprise, and takes a bit of work to give oneself over into the logic of his work and world. And while that same kind of gamesmanship was at work in this novel, I found myself deeply frustrated by it, and ultimately felt that Nordan’s commitment to a particular aspect of his craft ultimately got in the way of the deeply emotional aspects of this novel. Nordan knows how to plumb the depths of the human heart, and he does it here, too; he just can’t get out of his own way in many places.

Nordan’s work always shows that he is fully versed in the myriad stereotypical tropes of the South and its literature, and in many ways his magical realism is a self-aware and ironic send-up of these tropes, so as to make the truths of his characters that much more significant and vital. It’s as if he sets out to make his works so bizarrely and intensely stereotypically Southern that we ultimately transcend both the Hollywood movie-stage and overly-romantic versions of the South and enter into a world more real, powerful, and truthful; in other words, a world that is, despite its strangeness, is more in line with the actual truth of life in the South and elsewhere. And while this is often done to great effect–and continues to be done to great effect in many places in this novel–the technique itself becomes obfuscating and confusing here.

For instance, we know from the opening pages that this novel concerns the murder of “two lovely children,” a murder that has been witnessed by “Hydro,” a mentally handicapped young man. Yet, as we move further into the novel, we learn about the children, we learn the details of the murder, and the “lovely children” seem neither lovely nor child-like. They are presented as something like a Hollywood Bonnie-and-Clyde, with black French berets and a predilection for solipsistic violence and abusive nymphomania. The “girl” is especially confusing, as Nordan’s descriptions of her physical self presents her as being a child from the waist up and some sort of perverse matron from the waist down, as if two different selves exist in her body. And maybe this is the point; maybe Nordan wants us to face the instability of identity or something of that sort, the ways in which who we are is defined by others, or something like that. And while this is a real possibility–the novel is very much interested in how popular culture, like comic books and pop music especially, shape how we understand ourselves and engage others–the bizarre, dreamlike way several characters are presented blurs any sort of real engagement with them and what truths they may hold. This is especially the case with the main plot, as it surrounds Hydro, his father, and the murder of the “two lovely children.” The character of the undertake (a sort of warmed-over Norman Bates) and the reveal of Hydro’s alter ego late in the book are similarly perplexing; at some point, Nordan’s technique just gets too far ahead of his purposes, and dream-like magical realism dissolves into bizarre nonsense that left me wondering if the book was worth finishing.

This is frustrating, as I thought several times of calling the book a failure and quitting; if I would have done that, I would have missed the many places where the book truly shines. At its best, The Sharpshooter Blues rehearses the tried-and-true territory of the interconnections between self, death, and sex (although a chapter devoted to a same-sex affair between two characters of no consequence to the novel on the whole seems shoe-horned in for no other purposes than checking an identity-politics box). The stories that spin off from the main plot are where the novel is strongest, and where Nordan’s ability to write black comedy that is achingly gorgeous and tragic and true via his magical realism technique shines brightest. A young brother and sister dealing with the consequences of their mother’s alcoholism and adultery and their father’s emotional distance is masterfully done, especially in a series of scenes connected to the children’s rescuing of half-drowned wild parrots that reveals a full complement of emotions inside the children. A lawman who confronts violence with the image of possible loss and present alienation from some of those whom he loves is powerful, and the stories of a self-created sharpshooter and his hoodoo-woman adoptive mother are wonderful, and the afore-alluded-to cuckold and his alcoholic wife are sad, beautiful characters. The main plot builds to a final scene of a funeral, and that may be one of the finest things Nordan ever wrote.

All this is to say, then: this is a good novel. But Nordan gets in his own way in several places here, keeping it from being a great novel. This is all the more frustrating because of the presence of some of his finest scenes and most intriguing characters.