Monday, August 26, 2013

1944: Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith

The Author:

            Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was born in Jasper, Florida.  Her family was the product of American aristocracy, yet the outbreak of World War One caused her father’s business to lose much of its income, and the family moved from Jasper to Clayton, Georgia in 1915.  Once there, she attended a local college, then studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.  She served as a music instructor in a school in China from 1922-25, before returning to the US as director of the Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, where she met Paula Snelling, who became her life-long romantic partner. 

            With Snelling, Smith created and edited Psuedopodia, a literary magazine designed to feature work about race in the South.  Smith spent most of her life as a political activist, fighting against segregation.  Her 1944 novel, Strange Fruit, about an illicit affair between a white woman and a black man, made her a public figure and the subject of much controversy.

            She published several more novels, non-fiction books and many essays on the subject of discrimination.  She gave many speeches and dedicated much of her life to fighting for equal rights.  Lillian Smith passed away in Atlanta in 1966.

The Book:   

            Strange Fruit takes place in the town of Maxwell, Georgia in the 1920s.  The story radiates around an affair between Tracy Deen, the son of an established white family, and Nonnie Anderson, a college educated African American maid, delving into the pasts of these characters, their families and the  history and social structure of Maxwell and the changes in that structure over the course of the preceding decades. 

            Obviously, a subject as charged as race in 1920s Georgia has to tread a narrow line.  If it tries too hard to keep all the negative aspects of the time and place in between the lines, it comes across as false, as a revisionist or apologist work.  If, on the other hand, it goes overboard in the other direction (e.g. portraying every white character as a sadistic Tarantino-esque villain), it comes across as caricature (e.g. Django Unchained).   Smith’s book generally doesn’t fall to either of the above traps.  She portrays the relationships between and within the black and white communities as complex, without trying to use this complexity to justify the predatory actions of much of the white community (yet she let’s us see the justifications the characters offer to themselves).  The black community’s relationship with the white community is as complex as the other way around.  Strange Fruit shows the codependence of these two communities: The whites need the blacks as laborers or servants, and are worried by the fact that the black community is moving north.   This same control of industry in Maxwell keeps the blacks dependent upon the white community for employment, and as they start going to college, moving north, or serving in the military, that control begins to shrink.  Nonnie and Tracy’s affair is a microcosm of the race relations of that time and place.  

            Strange Fruit is not a fun read.  It’s laced with the type of moral ambiguity in regards to race that you find in books like Richard Wright’s Native Son.  There is no clear ‘hero;’ the most blameless anyone can be in this book is as victim.  The language in the book (the N-word appears frequently throughout) would certainly be off-putting to some people, especially considering that, to this day, there are moves to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the same type of language.  But none of this is meant to imply that it isn’t a good book, just one that focuses on challenging the reader.   

            At the time it was published, Strange Fruit was banned in several places, notably Detroit and Boston, and for a few days was not allowed to be shipped through the U.S. Postal Service.  This controversy only served to increase book sales.  But as time went on, Smith’s popularity waned.  Strange Fruit is only second book on my list that hasn’t had a full-length film adaptation (the first being 1917’s bestseller, Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H.G. Wells).  Other films have been made using the same title, but (like Smith’s novel) the title is a reference to a Billie Holiday song.

Also published in 1944:

Saul Bellow - Dangling Man
Jorge Luis Borges - Ficciones 
W. Somerset Maugham - The Razor's Edge


Blackwell, Louise and Clay, Frances. Lillian Smith. New York: Twayne Publishing. 1971. Print.  
Smith, Lillian. Strange Fruit. 1944. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. 1992. Print.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Truman Capote and David Frost Talk About Sex, Love, and Friendship

I just finished reading Breakfast at Tiffany's (an excellent novella (and A Christmas Memory is one of the saddest stories I've ever read)), so I thought I'd find leave you all with a little Capote today.  

1943 & 1953: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas

The Author:

           This is Lloyd C. Douglas’s second book on the list, the first being Green Light (1935).  Douglas (1877-1951) is an Indiana born Lutheran minister.  He found success as an author in 1929 with Magnificent Obsession.

The Book:

            The Robe follows Roman Tribune Marcellus and his Corinthian slave Demetrius in the early first century A.D.  As punishment for insulting Prince Gaius Agrippa, Marcellus is sent from Rome to lead a garrison in Minoa near the Dead Sea.  He and Demetrius accompany troops to Jerusalem to keep order during Passover week, and Marcellus is assigned to watch over the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  He wins Jesus’s robe in a game of dice from some one of the other Romans present but, when he puts it on, has an emotional breakdown and returns to Rome. 

            Demetrius and Marcellus return to Rome.  Demetrius begins to believe that there may be something to this Jesus fellow after all, and when Marcellus’s mental collapse is rectified by touching the robe again, he decides to learn more.  Demetrius and Marcellus travel back to the Middle East and talk to the people who knew Jesus.  Eventually, they both become Christians as does Marcellus’s love interest, Diana, back in Rome. 

            Like in Green Light (and The Inside of the Cup and TheKeys of the Kingdom), Douglas focuses on a less dogmatic version of Christianity, preferring to emphasize the importance of compassion and redemption.  In fact, he challenges some of the New Testament miracles.  In the 1986 introduction by Andrew Greeley: “It is a curious indication of the change in Catholicism that forty years ago Douglas was faulted for not being literal enough in his approach to the Bible and that now he might be criticized, especially by Catholic biblical scholars, for being too literal.”   

            One problem I ran into reading this was that I’m clearly not part of the audience Douglas was writing to.  The novel heavily relies on not only knowledge of New Testament stories but a strong pre-existing emotional connection to Christianity.  Most of the novels I’ve read so far that deal heavily with Christianity have been attempts to rebuke a purely dogmatic or hypocritical approach to the religion.  From an outsider’s perspective, it baffles me how a multi-billion dollar industry can spring from an individual who was crucified for throwing the money-changers out of the temple, or how members of a religion based on a document eschewing the existing dogma and preaching love and tolerance can use that same document as an attempt to claim automatic moral and legal superiority, while others use it to promote prejudice and justify any political action.  This novel, and the others like it, is aimed at reinforcing the faith and behavior of those who use religion as a positive personal and social force, while attempting to improve people the likes of which I’ve alluded to above.

            Even when not the main subject, this view of religion appears in many of the books I’ve reviewed so far and has remained pretty relevant.  In 1953, The Robe reached the number one spot again, in conjunction with the release of the film version starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons.

            If you are interested in New Testament theology or Christian literature, you’ll probably like The Robe.  Otherwise, it’s probably not something you’d enjoy.

Also Published in 1943:  
Ayn Rand - The Fountainhead  
Antione de Saint-Exupery - The Little Prince
Jean-Paul Sartre - Being and Nothingness 
Betty Smith - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Douglas, Lloyd C. The Robe. 1942. New York: Mariner Books. 1999. Print.
Kunitz, Stanley. Twentieth Century Literature: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern 
              Literature. New York: The H. W. Wilson Co. 1942. Print.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Some Ramblings on Borges, Calvino, and Barth

            I just finished reading if on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino (tranlsated by William Weaver).  A great book, certainly, and one that I would have enjoyed in any circumstances, yet I was fortunate enough to, for no reason other than my own gratification, also be reading the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley).  The effect is complementary.     

            In the introduction to his collection, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), Borges writes: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.  The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them… A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.”   

            And so Calvino has wrote the openings to imaginary books, with their own contexts and authors and influences.  But what struck me was a line from Borges’ story, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain, in which the narrator  states: “For those ‘writers manqués,’ whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories of Statements.  Each of them prefigures, or promises, a good plot, which is then intentionally frustrated by the author.”      

            Not only is my reading of Calvino enriched by this, so too is my reading of Borges enriched by knowledge of its influence (or at least reflection) in Calvino’s novel.  Another connection that springs immediately to mind, tying the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges in 1941, to the Italian Italo Calvino in 1979, is the American John Barth in 1967, who states in his famous essay, The Literature of Exhaustion:  “I suppose the distinction is between things worth remarking and things worth doing.  ‘Somebody ought to make a novel with scenes that pop up, like the old children’s books,’ one says, with the implication that one isn’t going to bother doing it oneself.”     

            This essay (obviously including the majority of which not reproduced here) not only unites these two novels in a particular sense, that of suggestion and execution, but also connects them to that movement we call postmodernism, retroactively or in its future.  Which is all a really long way of getting to the fact that influence and interpretation work retroactively.  Borges himself said, in his essay Kafka and His Precursors: “the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. The second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem "Fears and Scruples" by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word 'precursor' is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Monday, August 12, 2013

1942: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel

The Author:

Franz Werfel (1890-1945) was born in Prague, Austria-Hungary, to a family of wealthy Jewish merchants. From a young age, he was immersed in several different religious cultures (most notably Jewish and Catholic), which informed much of his work. He attended a Catholic school and later served in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire’s army in World War One, eventually becoming a member of the Military Press Bureau.

Werfel was a well established member of the Austrian literary world, successful as a poet, novelist, and playwright. After the first world war ended, Werfel began an affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the Austrian composer Gustave Mahler, and was at the time married to the influential German architect, Walter Gropius. She divorced Gropius in 1920, eventually marrying Werfel in 1929.

In 1930, after touring the Near East, Werfel fought to bring the world’s attention to the Armenian genocide.

Werfel’s career continued to grow in Europe, but the rise of anti-Semitism led Werfel and Mahler to flee to France in 1938. In 1940, they snuck into Spain and made their way to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. In 1942, Werfel published The Song of Bernadette. He died of a heart attack in Los Angeles in 1945.

The Book:

The Song of Bernadette is about Saint Bernadette Soubirous, a French peasant girl from the town of Lourdes who, in 1858, claimed to witness numerous apparitions of the Virgin Mary. It's the story of her conviction in her faith in the face of doubt, and the events that led to Lourdes becoming a major pilgrimage site.

The story of what led Werfel to write this novel is fascinating and may also have bearing on decisions he made about the story and characters.

"In the last days of June 1940, in flight after the collapse of wife and I, had hoped to elude our mortal enemies in time to cross the Spanish frontier to Portugal...but had to flee back to the interior of France on the very night German troops occupied the frontier town of Hendaye. It was in this manner that Providence brought me to Lourdes... We hid for several weeks in the Pyrenean city. It was a time of great dread...

"It was, I repeat, a time of great dread. But it was also a time of great significance for me, for I became acquainted with the wondrous history of the girl Bernadette Soubirous and also with the wondrous facts concerning the healings of Lourdes. One day in my distress I made a vow. I vowed that if I escaped from this desperate situation and reached the saving shores of America, I would put off all other tasks and sing, as best I could, the song of Bernadette."

I can't help but be underwhelmed with The Song of Bernadette.  Because Werfel wanted to paint an undoubtedly positive image of Bernadette, what we get is a character that is guileless and ingenuous and beyond any negative qualities.  She is, literally, a saint.  Since Bernadette starts out practically perfect (spiritually, at least), and there is no fall from grace, she ends up being a pretty static character.  Unless you already have an emotional involvement in the story of Saint Bernadette, or see this book as an affirmation or your religious philosophies, it comes across as largely uninteresting.

Yet The Song of Bernadette falls between two more very religious novels on my list, 1941's The Keys of the Kingdom and 1943's The Robe. At a time when the U.S. was gearing up for another war and still recovering from a major economic disaster, an attempt to seek out solace and inspiration from religion makes a lot of sense.  It's interesting to note that of the these three novels, one is by a Scot, one by a German, and one by an American.      

Like The Keys of the Kingdom and The Robe, The Song of Bernadette had a major movie adaptation.

Also like the above-mentioned, Bernadette remains notable primarily in the genre of religious fiction, it's mainstream appeal having diminished in the intervening decades.   

If you're interested in the story of Saint Bernadette or in modern religious history, you'd like The Song of Bernadette.

Also published in 1942:

Albert Camus - L'Étranger
C. S. Lewis - The Screwtape Letters   
Edith Hamilton - Mythology


Verlag, S. Fischer. Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood. New York: Grove
             Weidenfeld. 1987. Translated from German by Anselm Hollo.

Werfel, Franz. The Song of Bernadette. New York: Viking Press. 1941. Print. Translated by
              Ludwig Lewisohn


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut couldn't write Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction

My thoughts on fan fiction are mixed.  There have been a few good examples of works directly based on extant fiction (e.g. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Robert Coover's A Political Fable, John Gardner's Grendel), but these are almost always professional, talented writers using the existing worlds and characters to go in a new direction.  And, in the examples mentioned above, two are based on works no less than 400 years old, and the other uses a children's book character to emphasize satire.  Furthermore, these were artists who felt that the best way to say what they had to say was through these characters.

Amazon's concerns are purely monetary.  That's to be expected; it's a business.  Here's a quote from the L.A. Times article on the subject:    

"We've been very pleased with the success of the Kurt Vonnegut backlist on Kindle," said Donald C. Farber, a trustee of the Kurt Vonnegut Trust, in a statement. "With Kindle Worlds we have an opportunity to further his reach with today's readers." 
Referring to the protagonist of "Slaughterhouse-Five," Farber continued, "Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is going to quickly become a Kindle Worlds favorite."

Slaughterhouse-Five is on Modern Library and Time Magazine's lists of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.  This may sound silly to the people at Amazon, but Vonnegut's works are, quite frankly, art.  More than that, they have become a unique and important part of our literary heritage.  I'm not saying that his ideas or even his characters should never be used, but there is a difference between considering the merit of a submitted work and actively soliciting fan fiction.  Simply put, if it were good enough to find a publisher, it wouldn't be published through your fan fiction program.  If you write a story about Tralfamadorians and, after changing the name of their species and physical description, you can't sell that story to as SF magazine, it's not good enough to be published.      

In case you were wondering, here are the rules for the Vonnegut fan fiction project.  Pretty much anything the man ever wrote would be prohibited under these rules.    
One rule is: "We don’t accept offensive content, including but not limited to racial slurs, excessively graphic or violent material, or excessive use of foul language."
This is a man who has  a story called "The Big Space Fuck."  Breakfast of Champions  has a drawing of an asshole on page five.  From God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "Now Eliot came out of the lavatory, all naked and hairy, drying himself with a tea towel... Eliot now began to play unconsciously with his pubic hair.  It was nothing extravagant.  He would simply uncoil a tight spring of it, let it snap back into place."    
Vonnegut's books have been burned because people have found the content offensive!  His novels frequently end with the protagonist committing suicide!  He routinely draws assholes in his books! And what counts as offensive content?  He writes about World War 2.  One of his novel's main characters is a Nazi propagandist.  Try that without risking offending anybody.  You've figured out how I feel about this, but maybe I should let Vonnegut speak for himself.   
From Palm Sunday (page 221):
"I did want to make the Americans in my book talk as Americans really do talk.  I wanted to make jokes about our bodies.  Why not? Why not, I ask again, especially since Riah Fagan Cox [his ex-mother-in-law], God rest her soul, assured me that she herself was not wobbled by dirty words.  
"If I had gone to Riah's friends...they would have insisted that the words should not be published anyway.  It was bad manners to use such words.  Bad manners should be punished.  
"But even when I was in grammar school, I suspected that warnings about words that nice people never used were in fact lessons in how to keep our mouths shut not just about our bodies, but about many, many things -- perhaps too many things."

Monday, August 5, 2013

1941: The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin

The Author:

           Archibald Joseph Cronin (1896-1981) was born in Dunbartonshire, Scotland.  His father died when he was seven, and he and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents before eventually moving to Glasgow.  At the University of Glasgow, Cronin became a medical doctor, serving as a medical officer in the first world war and later as a general practitioner in small towns in Scotland and a mining town in Wales, before being appointed Medical Inspector of Mines.  At the university, he also met Agnes Mary Gibson, whom he married in 1921.  They had three children together and they were married for nearly sixty years.

            He was laid up with an ulcer in 1930, requiring six months recuperation, during which time he wrote his first novel, Hatter’s Castle, which was an immediate success.  He wrote several books before, in 1937, publishing The CitadelThe Citadel is to the British National Health System (NHS) what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is to the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Not only a huge critical and commercial success, The Citadel established Cronin’s as an important literary figure of his time.

            In 1939, Cronin and his family moved to the US, settling in places as disparate as Bel Air, California and Blue Hill, Maine.  He remained a prolific writer for the rest of his life, and spent the last years of his life living in Switzerland.  He passed away in Montreux in 1981.

The Book: 

          The Keys of the Kingdom tells the life story of Francis Chisholm, a Scottish Catholic priest, from his childhood to his old age, focusing largely on his thirty five years spent in establishing a mission in Pai-Tan, China. Chisholm is an extremely sympathetic character, and, like most of the supporting characters, is written with a good amount of depth.  The characters are the greatest part of this novel.

         From the beginning, we know that Chisholm is not your dogmatic, stiff, hellfire-and-damnation cleric.  The first chapter takes place when Chisholm has a vocation in Scotland in his old age, and is being investigated by the local bishop (the rest of the novel is chronological, starting from his childhood).  He had complaints against him for saying things like, "Atheists may not all go to hell. I knew one who didn't," and "Christ was a perfect man, but Confucius had a better sense of humor."1  This is a trend I've been finding in a lot of the books on this list: pro-religion via being anti-dogma.  That is to say, many of these books argue that reliance on dogma is not only bad, but directly detrimental to religion, arguing instead a form of what is essentially Humanism based on Christianity.  The first book I reviewed, The Inside of the Cup, dealt with a priest discovering this.  This trend continued.  There were the good preachers in Elmer Gantry, Dean Harcourt in Green Light, and Casey in The Grapes of Wrath.  Whereas a novel like Elmer Gantry tried to combat what Lewis saw as hypocrisy by exposing a negative figure, the others I've listed focus mainly on presenting a good preacher, an example of what religious officials should be. (I don't think it's a coincidence that the good preachers in the novels listed above rarely achieve any high status, as opposed to the Gantry-like characters.)

     Chisholm's life is one long attempt to make the world a better place, which he does, to the extent that he is able.  Other characters, often within the clergy, stand in his way, but this opposition is not generally due to malice or greed, but rather people who are more concerned with the number of baptisms at the missions than with the number of people who benefit from the mission.  The amount of philosophical and theological monologues alone suggests that Cronin is using Chisholm to state his own religious views, which seem to be humanistic.  Chisholm argues that the church should argue pacifism in times of war.  He argues that good works, regardless of religion, are paths to salvation.  Basically, he argues for human decency and kindness.
      Like pretty much every book I've read here so far, this one was adapted to film:

      The 1944 film starred Gregory Peck (who also played Pa Baxter in the film adaptation of The Yearling).  It seems, though, that Cronin is better known outside the U.S. Most of the search traffic for his name comes from India and the U.K.,2 which is probably in no small part due to the importance of The Citadel in the U.K.

     I wouldn't try to stop anyone from reading The Keys to the Kingdom, and it is certainly an enjoyable book.  I don't feel that it's one that you need to go out of your way to read, though.

Also published 1941:
James M. Cain - Mildred Pierce   
C. S. Lewis - The Screwtape Letters 
H. A. Rey and Margret Rey - Curious George 
Bertolt Brecht - Mother Courage and Her Children

1. Cronin, A. J. The Keys of the Kingdom. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1941. Print.
2. Google Trends page