Sunday, June 28, 2015

Davy by Edgar Pangborn

No doubt religion had to be invented for such gentle and simple minds, and perhaps they can't get along without it any more than I can get along with it.
Squint or click to check out the Foster illo or the gushing blurbs
I'd never read anything by Edgar Pangborn, and in fact knew nothing about him, so, curious, I recently picked up a few of his novels in Omaha, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.  First up, Davy.

Published in 1964, Davy appears to have been well-received by the press, who declared it ribald, spicy, racy, terrifying, and intelligent; by major science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon; and by some guy I never heard of, Clark Kinnaird, apparently a newspaper columnist.  The blurbs on my Ballantine paperback (U6018) hint that the book is full of jokes and sex.  Well, like everybody (except maybe Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield), I like to laugh and I like to have sex, so maybe I'll enjoy Davy as much as did Messrs. Heinlein, Sturgeon and Kinnaird.  Let's hope so!

Davy is another one of those post-apocalyptic stories; we readers of science fiction run into a lot of these. This one is laced with satire (like Spawn of the Death Machine), famous places are known by corrupted names (like in "Magic City"), its characters have been reduced to a pre-industrial lifestyle and everybody is worried about mutants, thanks largely to an oppressive religion that is harshing everybody's buzz (like in Re-Birth.)  In Davy (as in the three works I just mentioned) the apocalypse took place over a hundred years ago, unlike in False Dawn or No Blade of Grass, in which the characters are trying to survive in the period immediately after the collapse of 20th-century society.  Davy's world is the result of a 20th-century nuclear war followed by plagues; somehow the sea levels also rose.  (When it rains it pours, I guess.)

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm a little tired of all this post-apocalyptic business, but when I'm at the art museum I don't say "cripes, another statue of a naked person from those Greeks and Romans" or "oh, big surprise, a roomful of pictures of the Virgin Mary from those Medieval and Renaissance painters"--I recognize the intrinsic interest of these subjects, and try to judge each work on its individual merit.  I'll try to do the same for Davy.

This cover strongly conveys
the tone and content of the novel
The text of Davy is a memoir written by 28-year-old Davy as he and comrades sail the Atlantic and then found a settlement on an island in the Azores--they are fleeing defeat in a war in the American Northeast.  The narrative is not strictly linear; Davy intersperses the story of his youth (the bulk of the narrative) with references to his current adventures as well as the recent history of Nuin, a large city ruled by Davy and his buddies for a few years.  They tried to institute reforms and triggered a religious uprising which threw them out of power.  Davy's aristocratic wife Nickie and friend Dion, former monarch of Nuin, are proofreading his manuscript as he writes it, and add asides and clarifications in the form of footnotes.

Most of the 260-page novel takes place in upstate New York and New England, where Pangborn spent his college years and writing career.  The area is split up into many small countries that don't really get along, but all recognize the same church, the Holy Murcan Church, which tries to limit the excesses of wars and maintain some kind of social order by such policies as regulating 20th-century artifacts (gunpowder is outlawed), forbidding ocean exploration, and demanding the death of all mutants.  I guess this is supposed to remind you of the international political structure of medieval Europe.  People live in walled towns because of bandits and aggressive mutant predators, like fifteen-foot-long great cats.  Davy, born in a brothel to parents he doesn't know, spends his early childhood in an orphanage. As a teen he is a bond servant in the town of Skoar in the country of Moha.  He runs away the same week a war breaks out between Moha and Katskils; before he escapes he makes sure to have sex with his boss's beautiful daughter Ennia.

On the road to Conicut and Vairmont Davy hooks up with deserters from the Katskils army.  After some adventures with them he joins a musical troupe/band of snake oil salesmen and travels around, playing a French horn he stole from a mutant he befriended early in the book.  Finally he gets involved in the politics of the big city of Nuin (I think this is Boston), marries Nickie, a beautiful aristocratic woman, and befriends Dion, the enlightened ruler. 

I love this exciting cover, but it does
 nothing to communicate the feel of  the book 
Due to the Heinlein and Sturgeon blurbs on the back I sort of read Davy with those revered elders of the SF community in mind, and much of the book did remind me of Heinlein.  The plot is kind of like those Heinlein tales in which a young man leaves home, is taken under the wing of mentors, learns more about the world and grows up.  One example would be Universe, in which the protagonist befriends mutants early in the story and later learns that the "world" he is living in (despite what the priestly class has been telling him) is in fact a spaceship, with a much vaster world beyond that he undertakes to explore.  Similarly, Davy befriends a mutant early in Davy and later learns that the world is not the small square the church says, but in fact a far larger sphere, which he yearns to circumnavigate. Another would be Starman Jones; in that novel the hero is a young boy who is mentored by hobo Sam Anderson, a deserter from the military; Davy is mentored by Sam Loomis, a "loner" who is also a military deserter.  There are also parallels between Citizen of the Galaxy and Davy; in both a young person living in servitude escapes and goes on to become a leader in the fight against slavery.

Pangborn seems to share Heinlein's individualistic attitude; Davy denounces communism, calling it a "spooky religion," Christianity's younger brother.  On the same page Davy reminds us that "only individuals think," and later one of the book's mentor figures says that "loners" may be the only people who sincerely like people.  (I guess this is one of those Oscar Wilde-style paradoxes.)  The whole book romanticizes "loners" and free-thinkers, and, not surprisingly, Davy was a preliminary nominee for a Prometheus Award in 1989.

Heinlein and Sturgeon, in their writing, celebrate sex, and express a deep skepticism of religion and traditional mores in general.  (Need I remind you of Sturgeon's story about incest?)  Davy shares these themes.  Many pages are devoted to demonstrating or just plain telling you that religion is not only a scam that gives comfort to the foolish and ignorant, but can hold back society and make the lives of individuals worse.  Memorable examples include a character who forgoes the joys of sexual intercourse because of his religion, and a scene in which people get killed by one of those huge felines because their religious convictions prevent them from dealing rationally with the mutant cat.

The colony in the Azores (dubbed Neonarcheos) is reminiscent of the utopias we see in Sturgeon's work and the settlements and new nations we often see in Heinlein's work.  Neonarcheos has unconventional sexual practices: there is a group marriage (a family of two men and one woman), while Dion sexually desires Nickie (his cousin), who is 15 years his junior and whom he knew when she was a baby (this kind of thing happens in Heinlein's Door into Summer and Time for the Stars.)  The women of Neonarcheos run around topless, and what could be more utopian than that?
Ecstatic blurbs from the first page
of my copy of  Davy
I'm seeing Davy as primarily an attack on religion, but as I suggested above, Davy's blurbs sell it as a book that is fun because it is full of jokes and sex.  So, how are the jokes?  And how are the sex scenes?

I don't think I actually laughed at the jokes, but some are OK.  Many are reflections of how our world (the "Old-Time") bewilders the people of the future.  One of Davy's fellows describes at length a retractable ball point pen; nobody in Davy's world can figure out what it is.  Davy finds the iconic personages and classic literature of our civilization confusing: "St. George and his everloving cherry tree, or poor Julius Caesar dividing his gall in three parts so as not to offend his friends, Romans countrymen...." 

There is also low humor, like jokes about farts, and there is a slapsticky set piece in which a teen-aged Davy, interrupted while stealing clothes, is hiding behind a door during a seance.  He puts on a fat woman's voluminous white dress and bursts into the dimly-lit ceremony, scaring the seance participants who think he is a ghost.  In the same way that Davy thinks a fat woman's huge breasts are funny, he also thinks a skinny woman's flat chest is funny, and finds it amusing that the flat-chested skinny woman runs naked out of the house where the seance is being held and into the center of the town where everybody can see her.  Davy is full of jokes that feel like jokes you've been hearing all your life.          

A lot of these jokes are probably not going to receive the feminist seal of approval (thgere's even a mother-in-law joke), and I think the sex scenes may be in the same boat.  Davy loses his virginity to Ennia on page 84 in a "no means yes" scene which nowadays may raise eyebrows as efficiently as it quickens heartbeats: 
And she whimpered: "Ah no!"--in a way that couldn't mean anything except: "What the devil would be stopping you?"--and twisted her loins away from me, only to remind me I must use a little strength in this game.
Davy's second sexual partner (page 135) also likes to wrestle as foreplay:
"...come take me.  You'll have to work for it...."  I worked for it, wrestling her at first with all my strength and getting no breaks at all until until the struggle had warmed her up into real enjoyment.  Then all of a sudden she was kissing and fondling instead of fighting me off....
Pangborn doesn't use phrases like "rough sex" or "playacting rape," but it certainly seems like that is what is going on.

These sex scenes are probably the best scenes in the book--they inspire some kind of feeling and thought in the reader.  In contrast, the action scenes are boring, and all the anti-clericalism, and many of the jokes, are banal.  There is also way too much travelogue in the book, descriptions of towns and their history that seem pointless.

As a whole, Davy is just OK... at times it felt quite boring.  I sympathize with its attitude about sex and religion, but the pace is slow and the novel feels long, and, as I have said, many scenes and ideas feel tired, like I've read or seen them before.  (How many movies and TV shows have included a scene with a snakeoil salesman?)  I didn't find the characters interesting, and I didn't care what happened to them and I wasn't very curious about what would happen next or how the story would turn out (we know how the story turns out from the beginning.)  The novel isn't structured to have heightening tension and then come to a climax; the tone doesn't ever really change.  If anything, the novel gets more tedious in the last 80 or so pages after Davy decisively turns against religion and (perhaps) finds his father on page 182.

The extravagant praise we see all over the book is perhaps largely the product of its time period; jokes about farts, scenes of rough sex play, and relentless attacks on religion presumably felt fresher and braver in 1964 than they do today, and no doubt Heinlein and Sturgeon were eager to cheer on a kindred spirit.

I think an interesting question to ask about Davy is, why (or to what extent) is it a science fiction novel?  Fawning critics compare Davy to Tom Jones (18th century) and Huckleberry Finn (19th century) and Davy's adventures, like stealing clothes from a village, having sex in the woods, and witnessing religious zealotry and wars fought with spears, fit perfectly into some medieval, Renaissance, or Early Modern setting. There's no aliens or telepathy or high technology in Davy, and the atomic war/mutants stuff is used surprisingly sparingly.  I guess the post-apocalyptic setting allows Pangborn to combine his pre-industrial concerns with long passages about the New York, Pennsylvania and New England with which he is so familiar.

So, a disappointment.  My eagerness to read the other two Pangborn novels I recently aquired, West of the Sun and The Judgement of Eve, has been seriously diminished.  


The back of my edition of Davy has a lot of interesting advertising.

The "A Selection of Fiction" page includes writers who live on the porous border between SF and mainstream fiction, like Ray Bradbury, Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, and Nevil Shute.  The "A Selection of Non-Fiction" page gives one a sense of the historical moment in which Davy was published, its political and social controversies: there's The Complete Book of Birth Control, sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Martin Luther King's Stride Toward Freedom, books on prostitutes, pornography, and psychoanalysis.  My favorite, though, is the capsule description of Dan Mannix's Memoirs of a Sword Swallower; I find the phrase "Flamo the Great exploded that night in front of Krinko's side show" hilarious--funnier than any joke in Davy

Friday, June 19, 2015

No Man's Land by "Sapper"

But I maintain that the training, the ideals, the traditions, the morale of the good British regiment does produce, and has produced, a growth of character and a condition of mind in the men who belong to it which was largely conspicuous by its absence in civil life.
One of the stops on my recent walk up and down Manhattan (have you heard that I dragged my 43-year-old carcass 13 miles on foot?) was at Argosy Book Store. Argosy, like the Strand, is a sort of New York institution.  While the Strand is huge and always crowded, Argosy, up in the upper Fifties, is sort of elite and intimidating, with its shelves of antique leather bound volumes and bins full of hundreds of old prints.  I never feel like I belong there, with my unfashionable clothes, empty wallet, and the blood of working-class mechanics and housefraus running through my veins. It doesn't help that I somehow always end up at Argosy after a long walk on a hot or a snowy or a rainy day, my hair disheveled, my face dripping with perspiration or precipitation.  I rarely spend any money there, though on one of my first visits, back in my grad school days, I purchased a reproduction of Raphael's La Donna Velata which today hangs in my study, 1000 miles west of where I discovered it.  I recommend a visit to all readers of this here blog who find themselves in Gotham; Argosy is a strange old place, and heaven knows how long it will retain its unusual character.

La Donna Velata in her current place of honor; she has followed me
through eight different rental properties
The cover I saw at Argosy looked
like this 
Anyway, during my recent visit to Argosy I flipped through a selection of detached antique book covers, and among them came upon the pretty cool cover of No Man's Land by "Sapper."  I had that very week encountered a mention of Sapper (admittedly not a very flattering one) in George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, so my interest was already piqued. I decided that this was a sign I should read the book, which is about British soldiers in World War One Europe, a topic I'm already interested in anyway.

No Man's Land, published in 1917, was written by British Army officer and decorated Western Front veteran Herman Cyril McNeile; Wikipedia is telling me that, at that time, serving British Army officers were not permitted to publish under their own names, hence the pen name, which refers to the fact that McNeile was in the Royal Engineers.  McNeile would go on to write the Bulldog Drummond novels and other thrillers; No Man's Land, however, is the first thing by McNeile I have read.  I read an electronic version I got at

Most of the time when I hear people talking about World War One their attitude seems to be that it was just one idiotic blunder after another, that the entire war was an absolutely stupid waste, that the British government is perhaps as much to blame for the war as the Germans, that the conduct of the war by the British government and high command  was incompetent, etc.  (Contrast this with people's attitude about World War Two, at least the European theater, which we are always told was the noble work of the Greatest Generation and all that.)  McNeile, who actually fought in the war for more than a year, and who wrote and published No Man's Land and other fiction about the war while the war was actually underway, has an altogether more positive attitude.  He portrays the British soldiers as heroes, and the Germans as cruel monsters totally to blame for the catastrophe, and, perhaps even more controversially, argues that the war made real men out of its British participants, and could awaken British society from its Edwardian selfishness and decadence, instilling in people discipline and community spirit.  A recurring metaphor of No Man's Land is of the Western Front as a fertile field, the British men who go to it as seeds; those seeds that are healthy, well-tended, and lucky enough to survive, produce a rich harvest.  The war, as McNeile views it, doesn't psychologically ruin its participants, it improves them.

No Man's Land consists of four parts.  Part I, "The Way to the Land," is like 35 pages, and consists of vignettes related to Clive Draycott's travels at the outbreak of war.  He is on leave in England from service in Egypt when the war breaks out, and he travels via ship and train through France to Malta to get back to his unit.  Every town, ship and train is crowded to capacity with French and British servicemen trying to reach their posts, and civilians, Americans among them, trying to get out of the war zone. At Malta, Draycott gets word he is to return to England to prepare for service in France. The end of Part I sees Draycott arriving at the battlefield of Ypres.

Besides the overcrowded trains and ships, the eagerness of many men to take part in the struggle in France and the foreshadowing of the unprecedented death and destruction to come, one interesting theme of this first section of the book is the agony suffered by women back home while their husbands and sons are away at the battlefield.  Draycott, in a French restaurant, witnesses French women sharing a last meal with their husbands before they board the train to the front.  " half an hour her Pierre was going to leave her.  For him the bustle glamour of the unknown; for her--the empty chair, the lonely house, and her thoughts."  McNeile suggests that the soldiers, who enjoy camaraderie and a chance for adventure and glory, suffer less than their loved ones back home.

Lacking plot and climax, I thought Part I the weakest of the book's four Parts.  Because I was expecting No Man's Land to be a novel, I was surprised that Draycott didn't show up again.

Part II, "The Land," consists of eight stories (about 95 pages total) at least some of which appear to have been published earlier in magazines.  (I guess No Man's Land is what we would call, in the science fiction field, a "fix-up.")  These stories have a variety of protagonists, mostly officers and men of the fictional South Loamshire Regiment and members of the Royal Engineers attached to the same sector of the battlezone.  The value of these stories, to me, lies in McNeile's vivid portrayal of the physical realities of the Western Front--the way the trench system is organized; the difficulties of finding one's way in the devastated landscape; what the British soldiers see when back in reserve, or travelling forward in a communications trench, or peering through a periscope while at the firing line; and, how they fulfill their duties from day to day.  The actual characters and plots of the stories, unfortunately, didn't generate much feeling in me.

The stories contain quite a bit of humor, some of it directed at snooty and self-important colonels and generals; there are also characters with goofy nicknames and accents.  Some of the stories follow pretty standard genre fiction structures and conventions; "A Point of Detail" name checks Sherlock Holmes, for example, and follows the format of a detective tale.

In "A Day of Peace" and "Over the Top" we follow an officer in the Royal Engineers as he travels here and there along his section of the front lines, disposing of unexploded ordnance, seeing that collapsed trenches are repaired, providing advice on where to deploy a trench mortar, etc.

In the comedic "The Man-Trap," Percy FitzPercy, an officer known for his wacky ideas, improvises a pit with a trap door in hopes of easily taking some Germans prisoner during one of the periodic enemy raids; in the event it is an unlucky British general who falls into the trap.

"A Point of Detail" is a detective story, complete with a mysterious dead body and clues.  When a British officer on a night patrol is captured by "the Huns," an English-speaking German soldier puts on the Englishman's uniform and tries to infiltrate the British trenches.  One of the more detail-oriented British officers pieces the clues together and the German spy ends up in front of a firing squad.  This story includes the line "One is nothing; two are a coincidence; three are a moral certainty," which reminded me of the similar line, which I believe was later used by both Ian Fleming and Robert Heinlein: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action."

"My Lady of the Jasmine" is a supernatural story.  A sensitive and young British soldier (his comrades call him "The Kid") sleeps in a dug-out captured from the Germans, and he has a dream of a melodrama in which, in this very dug-out, a beautiful Frenchwoman committed suicide rather than agree to spy for the Bosche. Detective work by The Kid's fellows proves that the scene in his dream really happened a few weeks ago.  I thought this the weakest of the stories in Parts II and III; I don't believe in any kind of supernatural mumbo jumbo, and that, and the spy melodrama, was out of tune with the realism of most of the book.

"Morphia" is a sentimental tale: a terminally wounded soldier lying in a hospital, injected with morphine, hallucinates about his relationship with his fiance, who passed up more advantageous matches to promise herself to him on the eve of his departure for the battlefield.

"Bendigo Jones--His Tree" is one of the more entertaining tales.  Jones (cf. Inigo Jones) is an eccentric artist who produces abstract sculptures that the public is unable to appreciate, and McNeile comes up with lots of jokes targeting the absurd personalities and incomprehensible productions of modern artists.  The British Army puts Jones to work constructing camouflage, including a screen to hide a trench mortar pit from German reconnaissance aircraft and a fake tree stump from which the British troops can observe enemy positions.

"The Song of the Bayonet" is an officer's reminiscences about Sergeant Jimmy O'Shea, apparently a gentleman ranker, estranged from his aristocratic family and serving under an alias.  "O'Shea" trained the men in hand-to-hand combat, and excited their lust for blood by relating tales of German atrocities and what could very well be black propaganda.  O'Shea died fighting with his bayonet and knife in a German trench.

Part III of No Man's Land, "Seed Time," (around 55 pages) follows the military career of Reginald Simpkins.  Simpkins is a salesman at a department store; McNeile suggests that he is effete and effeminate because he sells silk stockings and lingerie.  Simpkins finds that women are not interested in him any more because he has not joined the service, so he answers the call and finds himself on the Western Front.  Here a master sniper and scout, Shorty Bill, takes Simpkins under his wing and teaches him camouflage, how to navigate between the lines at night, and how to kill the Hun with scoped rifle and clasp knife.  After mastering these skills, Simpkins learns the important lesson of subordinating the self to the good of the team; finally, after being made lance corporal, Simpkins learns the ultimate lesson of a soldier and of a man, that of responsibility for others.  He is then killed during a major British offensive.

The brief (8 pages) final Part of No Man's Land, "Harvest," clearly reiterates McNeile's main theme, that the war, though terrible, has improved individuals and can in turn improve society.  "Out of the evil, good will come; surely it must be so,"  he tells us.  In his argument that service in the Army can break down class barriers ("The duke and the labourer will have stood side by side, and will have found one another--men") and his arguments that service leads to greater discipline, respect for authority, and allegiance to the community ("In their civilian life self ruled...But from the tuition which the manhood of Britain is now undergoing, there must surely be a very different result...self is sunk for the good of the cause--for the good of the community") I'm reminded of the talk of Democratic Party pundits like Mickey Kaus and Markos Moulitsas about national service and military life.

As a piece of literature or entertainment, No Man's Land is just OK.  I was a little disappointed that it wasn't a true novel that followed one or a few characters through the course of their careers or a single battle or campaign.  I couldn't get emotionally involved in any of the characters or what happened to them.

As a close-up physical view and considered philosophical view of trench warfare in the Great War, from a man who lived it, I think it is much more valuable.  All the weapons, equipment, techniques, and slang are interesting (I was googling lots of stuff) and McNeile's philosophical asides are unusual and noteworthy.  I'd recommend No Man's Land as a primary document to students of social (there's plenty of class and gender stuff) and military history, and to Great War buffs, but maybe not those looking for a moving drama or thrilling adventure. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Two stories by Rudyard Kipling: "Baa Baa, Black Sheep" & "The Gardener"

Click to zoom in and see if any of your
faves are available for the low low price
of 48 cents!
I'm back on the titans of British literature beat!

I recently spent a day walking around Manhattan--according to the little "Health" feature on my iPhone I walked over 13 miles. One of the places I visited was The Strand, the famous bookstore. Outside on the sidewalk I picked up two books from the "Special 48 cents" box, a biography of Oliver Goldsmith and a tiny paperback of two Kipling stories, a "Penguin 60" published in 1995.

The Penguin 60s, I glean from the back cover, were issued in celebration of the publisher's 60th anniversary, and cost 60 pence. There is a list of titles in this celebratory series in the back of the book (see below); for the most part they are by writers you would expect, like Melville and Camus and Updike, but I was surprised to see one dedicated to Poppy Z. Brite. (I've never actually read anything by Brite, though I know her name from horror anthologies.  Maybe I would like her--Will Errickson and Harlan Ellison do.)

The two Kipling stories included in my Penguin 60 (reduced to a mere Penguin 48, you might say) are linked by the fact that they "reflect Kipling's own experiences in life."  "Baa Baa, Black Sheep," the people at Penguin tell me, is a recounting of Kipling's youth, spent with a foster family in England, while "The Gardener" is an allegory of his suffering after his son was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

"Baa Baa Black Sheep" (1888)

Five-year-old Punch and three-year-old Judy (curious pseudonyms for a brother and sister, perhaps reflecting the boy's somewhat anarchic and potentially violent life and character) are English children living in India, beloved by their parents and servants, given carte blanche to do whatever they want.  So being sent to live with a foster family back in England that consists of a tyrannical and petty religious bigot, "Aunty Rosa," and her cruel teen-aged son, Harry, is hard on poor Punch.  Every move he makes results in psychological and physical punishments from these two creeps, who take to calling him "Black Sheep" and fill his mind with visions of Hell and the idea that he is a sinful liar.

When he attends school, Punch's class snobbery ("'If I was with my father,' said Black Sheep, stung to the quick, 'I shouldn't speak to those boys.  He wouldn't let me.  They live in shops.  I saw them go into shops--where their fathers live and sell things"), and Harry's poisoning the minds of the other students against him, lead to fights and beatings.  Punch is under so much stress that he contemplates murder, arson, even suicide, and engages in brazen deceptions and makes terroristic threats in an effort to achieve some peace.  Aunty Rosa and Harry's harsh tutelage, which ostensibly has the object of making Punch behave virtuously, has in fact driven him to dreadful misbehavior.

One of Punch's few refuges is reading, and his father sends him gifts of books like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, though Aunty Rosa discourages him from spending time with his books and asking adults for help defining odd words--she thinks he is just "showing off."  "Uncle Harry," a veteran who talks incessantly of the Battle of Navarino and treats Punch decently, is another comfort, but he dies shortly after Punch and Judy's arrival.

After five years of this nightmare, Punch and Judy's parents come to England to collect them, and happy days are here again.  Mom's generous parenting is more conducive to making Punch behave than Aunty Rosa's tyranny ("...when one can do anything without question, where is the use of deception?")  However, Kipling reminds us that "when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion and Despair, all the Love in the world will not take away that knowledge...." Perhaps we are expected to see these horrible years as formative ones, that it was in such miserable circumstances that Kipling's passion for literature and interest in some of his characteristic subject matter was aroused.

This is a solid story.  Like much of Kipling's work, besides being entertaining, at times moving, it provides the 21st century reader with insight into Victorian attitudes about religion, race and ethnicity (among the students are Jews and a black boy), and social class.

"The Gardener" (1925)

I have to admit this one brought a tear to even my cynical eye!

Helen Turrell raises her "nephew" Michael, whom she tells everyone is the product of a scandalous relationship of her dead brother's.  Michael wants to call Helen "Mummy," but she refuses to let him, because, she says, "it's always best to tell the truth."  (The propriety of telling untruths is a theme of both stories in this little collection.)

Michael is commissioned as an officer during the First World War, and like Kipling's own son, is killed and listed as "missing." Like Kipling, Helen becomes involved in the administration of war memorials.

Over a year after the end of the war Michael's body is found and interred in Belgium. Helen travels to the Continent to visit his grave; on her journey she meets other women on similar pilgrimages, witnesses their grief.  One such woman has to deceive others as to whose grave she is visiting, because the fallen soldier was her illicit lover.

At the cemetery Helen has trouble finding Michael's final resting place among the thousands of graves, and is directed by a gardener, who says, "Come with me...and I will show you where your son lies."  This gardener is, in fact, Jesus Christ; this is an allusion to John 20:15, a footnote tells me.

On a first reading I misinterpreted the story; I thought that Christ was telling Helen that, because she raised Michael and she and Michael loved each other, that in every way that matters, she was his mother.  What I was missing (and what I learned while googling around to see if the cemetery in the story was a real one) was that Michael was Helen's biological son, and all that business about him being her brother's son was an elaborate lie to cover up her own illicit affair.  There are plenty of clues that this is the case in the first few pages of the story, but I missed them, naively taking what Helen had to say at face value.

A moving, and (for dunderheads like me, at least) tricky, story.


List of Penguin 60s
I've been impressed with the Kipling I've read in the past (I think The Light that Failed, which I read shortly before starting this blog, is great) and I think these two stories also have quite a lot to offer.  Presumably they are available for free online, but I don't regret purchasing this little Penguin 60, which is a curious artifact and a souvenir of my pleasant day in Manhattan--only the gods know when (or if) I will spend another such day.        

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Zenya by E. C. Tubb

"Open order, and no firing unless I give the order."

After reading two novels by giants of 20th-century British literature, I'm back to reading about a space gladiator dude!

Zenya first was published by DAW in 1974, with a cover by Kelly Freas; I own just such a copy.  I like the space ship on the cover, but I'm not crazy about the woman's face--Freas seems to be experimenting with odd angles (hello, nostrils!) and a sort of translucent or chalkboard look here, and I'm not sure it works.

Zenya begins with our man Earl Dumarest poring over old volumes in a library on planet Paiyar, looking for clues to the location of Earth, his home planet, which most people in his far future civilization think is a myth.  Dumarest and I are like two sides of the same coin--I was just poring over old volumes in a library on planet Pittsburgh! (I'm sure you'll agree that reading old R. Crumb, Tony Millionaire and Peter Bagge comics is approximately equivalent to scrutinizing old star charts and star ship logs.)

While among the stacks Dumarest gets picked up by a gorgeous blonde (I guess this is where Dumarest's and my lives diverge), the Zenya of the title, who is acting as an agent for her venerable grandfather, Aihult Chan Parect, the patriarch of the House of Aihult.  Paiyar is one of those planets where everybody is part of some house or guild, and House Aihult is the most powerful house.  Chan Parect thinks a period of instability is about to erupt, and he wants Dumarest, one of the galaxy's finest fighting men, on the side of House Aihult when the shit hits the fan!  He also thinks House Aihult has become decadent through too much inbreeding, and suggests that Dumarest could bring new blood to the House by marrying Zenya or Zenya's aunt, the equally horny Lisa.  Both of these women are eager to get into Dumarest's pants.

(Remember when Vic was going to bring new blood to that underground post-apocalyptic colony?  Good times!)

I got a kind of "Oriental kung fu" vibe from House Aihult, despite Zenya's blonde hair.  Everybody in the House, including Zenya, has "slanted eyes," they study a form of unarmed combat in which the open hand is used, and throw around phrases like "honored grandfather."

Dumarest's first job for House Aihult: go to the planet of Chard, accompanied by Zenya, to find Chan Parect's son, Salek, an intellectual and historian.  Why is Dumarest sent on this mission instead of one of Chan Parect's relatives or longtime retainers?  Grandpa is paranoid and has reason to suspect everybody in House Aihult is out to kill him!  Dumarest, of course, wants nothing to do with Chan Parect, Salek, Zenya, or Lisa, so what's to stop him from skipping out on these zany characters once he gets to Chard?  Well, while Dumarest was asleep, Chan Parect had a chip implanted in our favorite space gladiator that, should he try any funny business, will alert the evil Cyclan (they've been chasing Dumarest since book four, Kalin, because only he knows the secret formula those cold-hearted calculators need to control the galaxy) of his whereabouts!

(Remember when that wizard put an irritable creature bristling with talons inside Cugel the Clever's body that would keep Cugel on task when he was on the quest for The Eye of the Overworld?  Good times!)

Dumarest quickly gets himself hired as field marshal of the armies of the civilized farmers and merchants of Chard; their enemy is the primitive and formerly peaceful forest-dwelling natives known as the Ayutha.  The Ayutha are human, but they landed on Chard long before the farmer/merchant colonists arrived and evolved independently, developing a form of empathy/telepathy.  Tubb portrays the Ayutha as innocent and ineffectual hippies; their mental powers render them unambitious (they like to sit around and dream) and practically unable to hunt or fight (they can feel the terror and pain of their victims.)  Salek is living among these natives, helping them build weapons to protect themselves from the Chardians.

Dumarest's position as top general gives him the chance to give lots of "war is hell," anti-war speeches. "'War isn't a game conducted with neat, clear-cut rules. There is no glory, and little honor.'"  "'With sufficient force it is possible to defeat any enemy, but if the force used is too great, what have you won?  Corpses and desolation.  In my experience, it is always better to negotiate.'"  The folly of rushing into war without first weighing all the options and assessing costs is one of the novel's themes.  I interpreted the tenth Dumarest book, Jondelle, as being a warning about the dangers of inaction and an apologia for self-defense, and Zenya feels like a companion piece that warns of the dangers of recklessness and reminds us that violence should be a carefully considered last resort.

Dumarest figures out that the natives are not responsible for the attacks which touched off the war; a mutant strain of the plant the Chardians grow and sell to other planets, the very foundation of their economy, has been releasing spores which cause hallucinations and drive people to a murderous frenzy.  Those who come upon the gory remains of farm villages assume, wrongly, that the Ayutha are to blame.  Dumarest ends the war, but angers the growers by destroying their crops, so he has to leave Chard fast.  The House Aihult storyline is resolved when it turns out that Chan Parect was lying about the chip (!) and when Zenya and Lisa (who arrived on Chard on the next ship from Paiyar), get in a cat fight which leads to Lisa's death and Zenya's imprisonment.

Zenya, I'm afraid, is one of the weaker of the Dumarest novels I have read.  Zenya, Lisa, Salek, and Chan Parect aren't very interesting and don't get much screen time. The plot is convoluted, and not in a surprising or compelling way: I was disappointed that the chip was a lie, and a "war" consisting of a dumb mistake caused by a natural disaster, a war with no battles or villains, just a bunch of friendly fire incidents, is kind of boring.  Way too much time is spent on this bogus war: Dumarest lands on Chard on page 51, and on page 62 it is clear to the reader that the natives are blameless, but Dumarest's investigation, and his efforts to convince the skeptical Chardians, grind on for like 90 repetitive pages.  Again and again Dumarest orders the Chardians to hold their fire, and again and again they disobey and cause friendly fire fatalaties, out of incompetence or due to the influence of the spores.  The innocence of the Ayutha should have come as a surprise instead of being telegraphed to readers long before it was evident to the characters.  I would have preferred Tubb to spend more time developing the Dumarest-Lisa-Zenya love triangle.

A little disappointing, but acceptable.  Hopefully I will derive greater enjoyment from the twelfth Dumarest novel, Eloise.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

London!  Mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave!  He saw men as corpses walking.  The thought that he was merely objectifying his own inner misery hardly troubled him.  His mind went back to Wednesday afternoon, when he had desired to hear the enemy aeroplanes zooming over London.   
During my ill-fated pursuit of a doctorate in History I had a class on Modern Britain.  The professor was an expert on the press and publishing industry, and one class session was devoted to George Orwell.  I read Down and Out in London and Paris and Road to Wigan Pier for this session, both of which I heartily recommend for being well-written, interesting, and fun.  (I'd read 1984 and Animal Farm in junior high, and remembered them well enough that I thought I could wing it in class if the prof asked me about them.)  A woman in the class mentioned Keep the Aspidistra Flying, warning us all it was very bad and nobody should read it. Inquiries as to why it was so bad yielded no details--"It is just bad," she assured us.

This exchange stuck in my mind due to its mysteriousness; why did this student object so heartily to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and with so little specificity?  Years later, I guess in the early 2000s, I read the novel myself, and developed theories as to what about the novel had inspired her distaste.  I found the novel quite good, and recently decided to reread it.  Last week, during rare moments of solitude on a cross-country road trip, I read an old hardcover university library copy of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company and printed in the USA.  The novel first appeared in 1936.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is one of those novels in which an artist or writer has no money and is struggling to survive and achieve recognition for his art.  There are lots of these out there; Henry Miller's oeuvre comes to mind, as does Charles Bukowski's. There's also Knut Hamsun's Hunger.  Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage also includes some of this kind of material.  Even though these books are pretty thick on the ground, I tend to fall for them; there is something about the idea of the down and out writer, railing against society and counting his pennies, unsure of what tomorrow might bring, that appeals to me.

Prefacing the text proper of Keep the Aspidistra Flying is half a page of Bible verses, I Corinthians xiii, with the word "love" replaced with "money" (e.g., "abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money"), a childish sort of joke that gives us a foretaste of the book's theme.

Gordon Comstock, our hero, is an unsuccessful poet, "aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already," consumed with envy of those with money, and convinced that everything worth having--charm, love, sex, a successful career--is the product of access to money:  "It was the lack of money, simply the lack of money, that robbed him of the power to 'write.'  He clung to that as an article of faith."  "All human relationships must be purchased with money.  If you have no money, men won't care for you, women won't love you...."  The first two dozen pages are full of lines like that, as well as descriptions of Gordon toying with the coins in his pocket and fretting because he can't afford as many cigarettes as he would like to smoke, and so has to ration them out, resist smoking some today so he won't have to face a day without tobacco on the morrow.

One of the things I enjoy about Miller's and Bukowski's stories about down and out artists and writers is how the protagonists are total and absolute jerks.  They may rail against the evils of the world or capitalism or society or whatever, but they are no better-- they steal, they abuse women, they take advantage of friends, and so on.  This sets up dramatic tension, as the reader has to wonder to what extent the impoverished artist is the victim of our allegedly horrible society, and to what extent he has made his own bad luck.  (It also matches the reality of writers and artists I have met, a disreputable and snobbish lot who are always taking advantage of people, taking temporary jobs at art supply stores or bookstores so they can steal supplies, and moaning that the taxpayers should subsidize their decadent lifestyles because the art-buying public is too obtuse to voluntarily part with their lucre--which the artist himself of course has contempt for--to buy their paintings and sculptures.)

Gordon Comstock fits comfortably into this mold; he hates everybody and everything, from the advertisements pasted on the walls, to the books in the bookstore and lending library where he works, to the customers of the store, who come in two types; the educated snobs he hates for their money and polish, and the middle-class and lower-class readers of thrillers and romances whom he despises for their lack of taste and refinement. Comstock even hates Greta Garbo and Arthur Rackham!  He is so angry at the modern world that he looks forward to the inevitable mass war that will see bombers blasting civilization to rubble!  Gordon's seething hatred, his inexhaustible store of criticisms, complaints and calumnies, is amusing; some specimens of his spleen are funny in their own right, and the sheer volume of off-the-wall complaints creates, in Gordon, a laughably absurd, but still quite real, character.

Through flashbacks about his family and exemplary episodes chronicling Gordon's relationships in the mid-1930s with such people as his friend Ravelston (a wealthy and ineffectual socialist who edits a leftist periodical nobody reads called Antichrist), his long time girlfriend and office worker Rosemary (they have been dating two years and have not had sex yet), and his sister Julia (she barely makes a living for herself, but has been lending Gordon money for years which he has never paid back), we learn the hows and whys of Gordon's poverty.  As we expected, he has made his own bed, but blames society for his troubles.  When he does get fifty American dollars from selling a poem he doesn't use it to buy new clothes or pay back his sister Julia; he blows it all on booze and a whore within hours of cashing the check!  He blames this selfish and idiotic behavior on the fact that he can't be expected to know how to wisely spend money because he's never had money before.  When Gordon had a decent job he was good at (as copywriter at the ad agency where he met Rosemary) he quit, a decision he rationalizes as "declaring war on the money god."  He never finishes his second book of poetry because he's "too crushed by poverty to write." And so on.

Things get worse for Gordon as the novel progresses; he loses his crummy flat and lame job at the bookstore and lending library after, while inebriated, punching a police officer, so he has to take an even crummier apartment and an even lamer job at an even worse lending library, one which only caters to the lowest dregs of society, providing them books which are"published by special low-class firms and turned out by wretched hacks at a rate of four a year, as mechanically as sausages...."

Eventually, Rosemary has sex with Gordon out of pity.  ("It was magnanimity, pure magnanimity, that moved her.  His wretchedness had drawn her back to him.")  When Rosemary turns up some weeks later with news that she is pregnant with his child, Gordon suddenly comes to his senses. He abandons his war on the money-god, gets his job at the ad agency back, throws the unfinished manuscript of his second book of verse down a storm drain, and marries Rosemary. After resisting bourgeois life and its rules for years, the appearance of his child has inspired him to embrace middle-class life. To Rosemary's amazement, he even buys an aspidistra, the hardy plant which to him has long symbolized boring middle-class pretensions.

There is a lot to like about Keep the Aspidistra Flying.  I've already told you I enjoy Gordon acting like a total jerk to everybody.  Numerous minor characters are also entertaining.  At the same time that Gordon's misadventures are funny, Orwell manages to convey to the reader a sense of his desperation and frustration as he faces cold and uncomfortable residences, doubts about his poetry career, boring jobs, and guilt at how poorly he treats Ravelston, Rosemary and Julia, who are always trying to help him despite his trespasses against them and his self-destructive behavior.  The book is also full of interesting tidbits about literature and literary life, like a quick rundown of authors popular in the 1930s, many of whom are largely forgotten today, and a description of lending libraries, which, unlike the free public libraries I have been familiar with all my life, are private businesses that charge a few pennies to their customers for each book "borrowed." 

Orwell makes a number of surprising and interesting choices with the novel.  It is definitely strange for Gordon to throw his manuscript, the product of years of work, down the drain!  We expect writers to glorify writers, and we expect lefties like Orwell to denounce advertising, but in the end of the book Gordon turns his back on literature decisively and embraces a job producing deceptive ad copy.  Orwell's attacks on advertising seem sincere, so the reader wonders what he is trying to say by having Gordon's salvation come from producing catchphrases and slogans that will fool people into purchasing items they don't need, like foot deodorant.  (Deodorant, like advertising, is apparently a hot button issue with socialists; at Rutgers a history prof in a 19th century class told us that the selling of deodorant was a scam, and just recently we had Bernie Sanders disparagingly bringing up deodorant.  At the CUNY Grad Center there was a perennially disheveled Marxist prof who famously smelled bad.)

There is a real ambiguity about the book's attitude about capitalism and the bourgeoisie; to what extent does Orwell share the at times contradictory criticisms he puts in Gordon and Ravelston's mouths?  Should we see Keep the Aspidistra Flying as the story of a man who is stupidly rebelling against capitalism and then makes his peace with it and lives a better life thereby, or as the story of a brave man who follows his principles as long as he can, and is eventually crushed?  This ambiguity is stark when one considers that Gordon's character arc is similar to that of Winston Smith in 1984; Smith wages a (pathetic) war on the Big Brother government, and in the end of the novel embraces ("loves") Big Brother, while our man Gordon Comstock pursues his own quixotic struggle against "the money god" only to rejoin the ranks of the strap hanging army of salarymen at the end of the book because he loves his wife and baby.

Besides 1984Keep the Aspidistra Flying reminded me of Don Quixote, the tale of a mad man sometimes seen as the portrayal of a man who suffers (and makes others suffer) because he has noble values in our corrupt world, and A Clockwork Orange, in which the evil protagonist is reformed by the prospect of becoming a father.
So, if I am giving a big thumbs up to it, why did that student in my late 1990s class object to the novel?  I'm guessing it is because the book is a resounding endorsement of traditional family values and, by 1990s (and 21st century) standards, totally "politically incorrect."  In that first chapter in the bookstore Gordon heaps scorn on feminists, homosexuals, and women who like to read popular fiction about love and sex.  The book is full of what I guess you would call "essentialist thinking."  Gordon, like "all small frail people hated to be touched," while we are told fat men typically have a good humor and never admit to being fat: "No fat person ever uses the word 'fat' if there is any way of avoiding it....A fat man is never so happy as when he is describing himself as 'robust.'"  Scots get a similar treatment.  Gordon's competition for title of "Most Villainous Character" in the novel is a physically deformed businessman of low scruples; his physical ugliness represents his moral ugliness in a way that is common in literature, but which nowadays is likely to be seen as declasse or even a "microaggression" against people with disabilities.  

At the end of the book we get an unambiguous, unalloyed indictment of abortion. First the emotional case against abortion.  Gordon, even though his modus operandi though the whole novel has been to act selfishly and to hope English society will be obliterated by enemy bombs, finds abortion unthinkably revolting: "'Whatever happens we're not going to do that.  It's disgusting....I'd sooner cut my right hand off than do a thing like that.'"  Then a few pages later the scientific case against abortion. Gordon goes to a public library and looks at medical textbooks with illustrations of fetuses; Orwell describes in detail a six-month-old and a nine-month-old fetus--Gordon is "surprised" that "they should begin looking human so soon."  He'd thought it would look like a blob with a nucleus!  Finally the moral case against abortion.  "Its future, its continued existence perhaps, depended on him.  Besides, it was a bit of himself--it was himself.  Dare one dodge such a responsibility as that?"

Women in the novel are less interesting and well-rounded than the male characters; there are briefly sketched women we are supposed to find repellent (the feminist bookstore customer, a suspicious public library employee, the whores, or "tarts" as Orwell styles them), while the important female characters (Julia and Rosemary) are there to be Gordon's victims; they are there to demonstrate what a creep Gordon is and lack inherent interest.  Gordon is not punished for treating Julia and Rosemary so poorly, and a minor character (the good-natured fat man alluded to above) cheats on his wife repeatedly, but after hitting him in the head with a glass decanter she takes him back.  

I believe I have diagnosed my former classmate's allergy to Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I "get" why she wouldn't like it or recommend it to a class of grad students in the humanities and social sciences, but I will have to disagree with her overall assessment of the book.  I love Orwell's clear writing style, and Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a fun novel, full of laughs and period interest, and its somewhat ambiguous and idiosyncratic take on social and political issues may offer surprises to today's readers.  Definitely worth a read.