Books I read January 28, 2018

Right. So, I live in Los Angeles now. Above a tattoo parlor in Venice, which is a little too on the nose, all thing's considered, but I guess I'll take it. Anyway I'll be moving out soon enough. LA is cool, it's warm during the day but cool at night and its weirder and wackier than New York, and everything is jumbled all up together in an appealing way. Anyhow it's been too long since I didn't have any idea what I was doing next; that's kind of my preferred MO. Oh, also, I'm trying to learn Spanish—Duolingo says I'm 25% fluent but I say Duolingo and I have pretty different ideas of what fluency entails. In any event, these are the books I read this month.


The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – What's there to say about Chandler that hasn't been said? One of the best pure prose stylists in the English language, and his genius is on evidence here, but he also has no idea how to structure a plot, and that likewise is evident. Even if you can forgive the two narrative strands being forced together under a set of circumstances which would make Dumas blush at the coincidence, you're still left with a book which would be seriously improved by dropping about 75 pages, particularly towards the back half, which is padded out unmercifully. I mean it's still spectacular, and justly beloved, but gun to my head I think I would take Farewell, My Lovely, which has a more coherent pacing. Still, man, the sting at the end, and the meta-joke where Marlowe is working for a miserably depressed alcoholic who writes cut-rate genre fiction which he feels beneath him—I mean, Chandler is Chandler man. He's the one and only. I already have this in some back back East, so I'm not actually going to keep it but obviously it's worth keeping.

Dashiell Hammet: A Life by Diane Johnson – As far as biographies go, this was fine? Hammett had a fascinating and extraordinary life, from impoverished Baltimorean Youth (Go Ravens!) to Pinkerton Agent to Tuberculosis patient to beloved novelist and bon-vivant to political dissident, and Johnson offers a nuanced and basically well-written view of the man. I found myself sort of annoyed at the brevity with which Hammet's time time as private investigator was given, which of course is more interesting than him being, say, an elderly alcoholic armyman in the Aleutians during WWII, but that might be because there isn't a lot of information on Hammet's life at that point, I'm honestly not sure. I'll keep it for the moment because I might have an idea for a Hammet related project, but as a rule only the most exceptional biographies tend to make my cut and I don't this will survive another move.


Tristiana by Benito Perez Galdos– Eh. The story of an aging Don Juan and his eponymous adopted daughter/lover, this is basically well-written and there are some clever narrative decisions at the end but for whatever reason I found myself kind of bored. A lot of the narrative consists of love letters between Tristiana and her lover, and these are supposed to be saccharine and overwrought (in the fashion of young lovers) which, fair enough, but I still had to read them and I didn't love reading them and so I will probably drop, though in fairness to Galdos, long dead, he accomplishes what he sets out to do here.


Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West – Hysterical. Oh man, did I like this. A (mocking? Sincere?) story of a journalist taking on the role of advice giver for a daily rag during the Great Depression, whose forced familiarity with the full range of human despair and idiocy brings about religious epiphany, this is a hysterical, gorgeous, strange little novella. Like a funnier Dostoevsky (not that Fyodor wasn't funny—to the mines, to the mines!). Loved. Keep.


Naked Earth by Eileen Chang – Ooooh! A masterful, sprawling epic somehow condensed into about 300 pages, Chang's depiction of an idealist Commissar (that's not quite the right term but here we go) trying to survive Land Reform, the 3 anti campaign and then the Korean war manages to be vast in scope and also beautiful line to line.Stylistically, Chang's particular genius lies in her depiction of erotic romance (I think gun to my head I might have enjoyed Love in a Fallen City, which deals with this subject primarily, slightly more), but there are some really fabulously clever plot choices here which allow for a depiction of the horrors of Mao's China while still allowing for some rough glimmer of optimism. Keep. Chang is a rare talent.


A Cool Million by Nathanael West – Basically an anti-Horatio Alger, about an upright, heroic young man who sets out in search of the American dream and finds himself jailed, abused, dismembered, killed, and then used as the posthumous champion of a proto-fascist group. West is...really, really funny, and really, really mean, and between this and Miss Lonelyhearts (which was slightly better) I'm kind of shocked it took me this long to get to him. Keep.


A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor – About a small, English beach town fading in post-War modernity. In so far as there's a plot, it revolves around an affair and the ways in which said affair affects the town's various persona; an aging sailor, an elderly gossip, a miserable widow, a couple of other people, but really this is one of these books in which very, very little seems to happen. I quite like Taylor, her novel Angel is a lot of fun and her collection of short stories that NYRB released has one of my all time favorite horror stories (something about a fly? Or maybe the number 3 is in it? You'll know it if you read it) and her talent for prose is on evidence here but all the same I was mostly bored while reading it. Drop.


Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagi By Donald Richie – Interesting. Odd. A false biography ostensibly written by a minor character in the Genpei Wars, immortalized in the epic Tale of Heiki, one of the foundational texts of Japanese literature which is sometimes (falsely, nonsensically) described as being an Eastern Illiad. In recounting his life, Kumagi seeks to come to grips with the false narrative which surrounded his slaying of a minor noble of a rival clan, as well as, more generally, to assess the way in which legend comes to replace fact not only in the minds of the public but in our own as well. It's breezy and odd, with a talky, informal style very deliberately at odds with the traditions of Japanese chivalry and the literature of the time, and I got a kick out of it. Keep.


Day of the Locusts by Nathanael Hawthorne – My least favorite of the 4 of his that I read this month. Part of this is that it's the one which comes closest to having an actual narrative, about a painter newly come to Los Angeles who tries to woo an unscrupulous actress/prostitute, but the story meanders and doesn't go anywhere and doesn't offer anything really by way of a pay off, which, again fine, but I'd rather it just be dispensed with altogether so Hawthorne could make more silly jokes. Also, as for said silly jokes, I didn't find the ones in this as funny as the ones in the other three. But, again, all this negativity is by comparison to his other stuff, and taken alone this is weird and funny and quite mean and I would keep it.


Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte – I met a Fraulein on a beach in Lithuania, once upon a time. She had very blonde hair and very blue eyes and a smile like water on an electrical fire, and for that too-rare grin I left my home and moved to a city on the North sea where the sun did not shine and there was nothing very good to eat. Talmudically speaking, a Goy, I was nonetheless the closest she and most everyone else I met there had ever come to seeing a Jew, an and it was a rare social gathering which would not find me cornered by some or other well-meaning Deutschlander, anxious to assure me that, had they been in the place of their grandparents, they would have shown the utmost regard for my person and property, irrespective of the risk to their own

Among Germans, I found this unearned moral certainty to be a harmless, indeed faintly admirable attempt to deal with the peculiarity of being burdened by inconceivable crimes which were committed a rough half century before your birth. But for all other peoples it taught me to despise any kind of unearned moral certainty as a particularly disgraceful form of Boenhoffer's 'cheap 'grace', and when occasionally I hear it being bandied about I have to bite my tongue to keep it civil. 'Would you have chosen death above dishonor?' I want to ask. 'Are you so certain? Would you have shielded the Goldstein's from next door, knowing that the penalty for doing so was your murder and the murder of everyone else in your household? Would you have slapped anti-Hitler propaganda on the walls of Munich, as did the sainted Scholls? Are you so confident in your righteousness

I am getting somewhere with this, I promise.

Malaparte was a war reporter attached to the Italian army and thus able to travel widely throughout the Axis controlled areas during World War II. Already something of a literary star in his home country, Malaparte became part of an international socialite set which saw him welcomed throughout wartown Europe. His account—published long after the war, allowing for unknowable sorts of post-facto revisions—has him lamenting the terrible brutalities of the Nazis from deep within the belly of the beast, observing with distaste the evils of the Nazis and their supporters, though never to such a degree that he arouses their ire. He sits at table with the German overseer of occupied Poland, he slights Himmler in a hotel in neutral Finland, he does his best to hide the desperate Jews of Moldova. Welcomed because of his boundless wit (which Malaparte details with comprehensive thoroughness), Malaparte laments the inability of a single individual to do anything amid the horror of modern warfare, horror which, it must be said, he chronicles with insight and stylish prose.

I did not like this book. I did not like this man. I did not like sharing space with him, I did not like carrying him in my bag. The long intro to the contrary, I could not make my peace with a fellow who would call a Nazi friend, or even allow one to mistake him as such. Perhaps there was nothing that Malaparte could have done, within the context of his circumstance, to effect the evil going on around him. Perhaps in his shoes I would have done even worse; I can't say. But I do not think I would have eaten dinner with a man responsible for the murder of countless Poles, however clever or subtle my insults over the desert course. I do not think I would have shared that man's salt. I do not think I would have slapped that man on the back. Maybe this is false righteousness, but in any case I would as soon not have Malaprte sharing room with my other books. Drop, obviously.


The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West– Hysterical, vicious. An elaborate series of very cruel jokes about the pointless futility of writing and of art more generally. There's nothing really by way of story, just a lot of peculiar asides and a pretty fabulous Dostoevsky impression. West is one of the better comic writers I think I ever read, laugh out loud funny. Keep.