Monday, September 21, 2020

Mid September Log: H. P. Lovecraft, W. Somerset Maugham and Varlan Shalamov--plus NSFW manga recommendations

At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft

The week of September 13 I reread H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness from my Corrected Ninth Printing of Arkham House's At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels.  This is a good story, but I have to admit that the story's power was diminished by the fact that I knew everything that was going to happen.  I did not feel that way at all when I reread "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" back in March of 2018--in fact, even though "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" no longer held any surprise for me, my reread of that tale lead me to gush that it was a masterpiece classic deserving of "5 out of 5 unblinking fish eyes."

So, why might I prefer "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" to At the Mountains of Madness?  At the Mountains of Madness feels a little long and tedious, a little cold and clinical, and can be kind of repetitive (e. g., Lovecraft mentions painter Nicholas Roerich again and again, when once would have been sufficient.)  As you probably know if you are reading this, the plot of At the Mountains of Madness follows an Antarctic expedition that discovers a huge city built by aliens (the "Old Ones" or "Elder Things") many millions of years ago and pieces together from sculptures the history of that alien society, which, among other things, created the human race and went to war with Cthulhu and with the Mi-Go, the natives of Pluto.  The story, which is over 100 pages long, spends page after page describing the aliens' biology and architecture and history.  With the exception of the last quarter or so of the tale, the story kind of feels like a technical report, the narrator being pretty detached from what is going on.  "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is much more direct, personal and human--the narrator is in the thick of things, his own life and his own sense of himself at stake.  While At the Mountains of Madness shares many themes with "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"--cultural and societal degeneration, subversion and violent revolution, the psychological danger of learning the truth about the universe and our place in it--"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" addresses these themes in a more personal and direct way, and adds themes I find particularly compelling, like weird sex and miscegenation, worries about one's own identity and disappointment in one's self. 

(Perhaps the most interesting distinction between the two stories is how the hideous revolution wrought in Innsmouth results from an American inviting in aliens from overseas, while the revolution that overthrows the Antarctic city of the Elder Ones is the result of the aliens' own genetically engineered slave race rising up against them and supplanting them--might this reflect fears of blacks rising up against whites and/or technology becoming the master of the humans who created it?) 

At the Mountains of Madness is a quite good cosmic horror SF story, but it doesn't thrill and chill like some of Lovecraft's other work--just four out of five star-shaped burial mounds. 

I looked through some of the volumes of Lovecraft's letters I own to see if I could find any fun tidbits about At the Mountains of Madness.  The story was first printed as a serial in Astounding (then edited by F. Orlin Tremaine) and in letters to Duane W. Rimel (February 12 and June 20, 1936) HPL complains at length and with considerable specificity about editorial changes made to the story for magazine publication, but does praise the illustrations for the story; in a January 18, 1936 letter Lovecraft even tells F. Lee Baldwin that, "The chap who drew those monsters must certainly have read the text with care."  Such sentiments are repeated in letters to Robert Bloch (March 14, 1936 and an undated one from June 1936) and to Donald Wollheim (February 7, 1936.)   

"Red," "Honolulu" and "The Pool" by W. Somerset Maugham

I reread three more stories by W. Somerset Maugham from East and West, the first volume of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham.  All three of these tales are about disastrous sexual relationships between white men and Pacific Islanders, and one features a suicide.  Maugham is an expert craftsman, and these stories are all just the right length, pace, and tone, including just the right level of detail to create believable and interesting characters, settings and situations without going overboard and burying you in superfluous verbiage.  Catastrophic love relationships, suicide, and the experiences of people who find themselves in an alien milieu are among my favorite themes, so I am absolutely on board with what Maugham is doing with these stories.   

"Red":  We observe the meeting of two white dudes who have spent the last 25 or 30 years in Samoa, a Swedish philosopher who moved to the Pacific for his health (old books are chock full of peeps who move south for their health) and an obese American sailor.  Through their conversation we learn about their relationships with women, and Maugham reveals to us the terrible truth about love--erotic relationships are tragically asymmetric and even passionately attached couples quickly get sick of each other.  A downer! 

"Honolulu":  This is an above average Maugham story, full of interesting stuff, and I think characteristic of his stories in general, so if you are curious to read one Maugham story to get an idea what he is all about, I think this would be a good one.  Maugham's portrait of Hawaii at the start of the 20th century is pretty interesting, and this story (judged by 2020 standards, as if I would do such a thing) is even more racist and sexist than most Maugham stories, so if you are writing your dissertation on white supremacy and patriarchy in early 20th-century literature penned by male homosexuals, well, here is grist for your woke mill!  Anyway, "Honolulu" is about a cheerful and obese ship captain, Butler, who has gotten in a lot of trouble in his life (like getting drunk so his ship sinks and innocent people are killed) but has managed to maintain a good attitude nonetheless.  Butler tells a story to our narrator (Maugham stories often have elaborate framing devices so that the text consists of a guy repeating with his own additional commentary a story he heard from some other guy) about that time the first mate of the little schooner Butler ended up skippering after his drunken boo-boo fell in love with his (Captain Butler's) girlfriend.  Both the mate (hilariously known as "Bananas") and the girlfriend (known simply as "the girl") are native Hawaiians (Maugham calls them "Kanakas.")  Bananas was a good sailor, so Butler didn't fire him for harassing his girlfriend, he just beat him up.  Immediately after Bananas recovered, Butler, who had never been ill in his life, got some disease no white medico could diagnose and started wasting away.  The girl of course thinks this is black magic employed by the jealous Bananas.  There is a clever twist ending that I had forgotten about and which took me by surprise--it is not a cheap gimmicky surprise, but the kind of surprise that feels real that I probably should have expected.

"The Pool": A Scottish banker takes a job in Samoa because his lungs are bad (see?--I told you.)  He marries a beautiful half-caste girl he sees bathing in a pool.  Because of a multiplicity of cultural differences, their marriage is a disaster, and the banker becomes a violent drunk and his career collapses--things then get worse from there.  Feminists take note: this story depicts a woman who would rather have a strong lover who hits her than a sniveling sensitive man who grovels before her and begs forgiveness for his infractions.  

"A 'Pushover' Job," "In The Night," "Shock Therapy," "In the Bathhouse" and "Carpenters" by Varlan Shalamov (trans. John Glad)

For much of the period 1937-1954, Varlan Shalamov was imprisoned in various labor camps in the region of Siberia known as Kolyma.  After his release he wrote many stories about life in the Gulag, and I read five of them in the last week in an internet archive scan of a 1980 book of selections from Shalamov's six volume work, Kolyma Tales, translated by John Glad.  Glad splits the collection into seven parts, and I read the five stories in the first part, which bears the heading "Survival."  These stories are quite short, the five of them totaling like 30 pages altogether.  All five stories are well-written and are compelling historical documents, but some are like journalistic accounts or fragments, while others have a traditional narrative structure.

"A 'Pushover' Job":  At the start of this story the narrator describes to us the "Siberian dwarf cedar," a tree or shrub that in winter leans close to the ground to protect itself from the cold and wind and in summer becomes erect again.  We are told the tree can be fooled into standing erect in winter by burning a fire near it.  Maybe this tree is a symbol of the people who have so long lived under a tyranny emanating from Moscow or more specifically the prisoners in the Gulag?  Anyway, we learn that the Communist Party's eggheads have the (fallacious) belief that needles of the dwarf cedar, when ingested, can cure scurvy.  Scurvy being a problem among the Gulag prisoners, the administrators of the forced labor camp have the needles processed into a noxious goop and compel all the inmates to choke down a dose of this gunk daily.  Collecting the needles is considered the easiest job in the camp, and our narrator, who is a physical wreck after working in the gold mines that are the ostensible purpose behind the Kolyma forced-labor camp system, is given the job of collecting needles as a little break.  Even the easiest task in the Gulag, the narrator finds, is difficult, dangerous and corrupting.

"In The Night":  At the beginning of the story we meet two prisoners; the scene demonstrates how little food the prisoners are provided.  Earlier in the day a man was buried in a shallow grave, and at night these two men dig up the body and steal the underwear from the corpse--they expect to sell the article for food or tobacco.

"Shock Therapy":  While "A Pushover Job" and "In the Night" are more like anecdotes or vignettes, "Shock Therapy" is a full scale story with characters, a plot that has a beginning, middle and end, and a little humor.  Gulag prisoner Merzlakov is a big man, tall and husky.  He has observed that the meagre rations issued the prisoners are not enough to sustain large men, and that as a result large men like himself die off much more quickly than small men.  He is caught eating food meant for the horses, and the guards beat the crap out of him.  Scared of being sent back to the mines, Merzlakov hides the fact that he has recovered from the beating, remaining bent over 24/7, tricking the authorities and doctors for months into thinking the guards broke his back.  Walking around all bent over, he looks like a gorilla (Merzlakov is compared to different animals several times over the course of the story.)  But when he is sent to a better equipped hospital, staffed by a doctor who is an expert at identifying fakers, our hero's ruse may be unraveled.  

"In the Bathhouse": The prisoners in the forced labor camp are regularly trooped out a bathhouse some distance form the camp, stripped, and given the opportunity to wash while their clothes are put in the "disinfestation chamber."  In journalistic fashion (no characters or plot this time) Shalamov describes the many reasons why men who are filthy from working in a gold mine and are crawling with legions of parasites are not relieved when it is bathhouse day, but instead dread its arrival.

"Carpenters":  Like "Shock Therapy," this has the conventional elements of a piece of fiction.  The driving force of "Carpenters" is the life-threatening cold of Siberia and the prisoners' quest for warmth; one telling detail is that when the prisoners awake in the morning in their barracks, their hair has frozen to their pillows.  When an official comes to a work gang saying he needs some carpenters, the foreman tells him he is out of luck, that this gang is made up of political prisoners, intellectuals--the foreman suggests that the official go to one of the gangs composed of petty criminals.  Enticed by the idea of working in the carpentry shop, which is heated, two of the political prisoners claim to be carpenters, humiliating the foreman and putting themselves in a tough situation--these smarty smarts don't know the first thing about working with wood and axes and saws, and once in the toasty warm shop they learn they are required to make thirty axe handles a day when they don't even know how to make one!


In September I have also read a bunch more of those politically incorrect and NSFW Japanese comic books about young women suffering (and embracing!) various psychological issues.  The funniest and perhaps most outrageous was Yuugai Shitei Doukyuusei by Kuroha.  Pretty "out there" but presented with absolute seriousness is Takane no Hana wa Midaresaki by Itou Ei.  One that is fun and funny and not terribly outrageous, though like the other two manga I am recommending it questions conventional values (or is it that these manga are documenting current evolutions in conventional values? hmmmm...) is Yoshida Satoru's Hatarkanai Futari.   

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Early September 2020 Log: H. D., Norm Macdonald, and W. Somerset Maugham

Suffering from a cascade of fashionable, undiagnosed and unfalsifiable maladies ranging from writer's block and stage fright to social media fatigue and carpal tunnel syndrome, the MPorcius staff throughout August abstained from tweeting, blogging, and reading fiction.  During this period I read first hand accounts of service in the British Army and RAF during World War II and read the poetry of T. E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, and H. D.; I also, in biographies of T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound and collections of their letters, investigated the relationships of Hulme, Aldington and H. D. with Eliot, Lewis and Pound. 

I was favorably impressed by Hulme's lamentably small body of poetical work, which I felt combined striking images with human feeling and human drama and also exhibited an admirable economy.  We love economy at MPorcius Fiction Log.  I have to confess to being less impressed by the verses of Aldington and H. D.; their poems are competent, but page after page of rehashing topics that have been picked over for two thousand years or longer, like Helen of Troy and Circe, and gushing about the beauty of flowers and trees, gets a little tiresome.  Still, I enjoyed Aldington and H. D.'s poetry more than most of Pound's, which I continue to find difficult and boring.  (Eliot's poetry, seeing as it addresses topics of interest to me, like alienation, deracination, sexual dysfunction, and the search for meaning in our urbanized, globalized world, I find difficult but very rewarding.)

Bid Me to Live by H. D.  

Aldington and H. D. were novelists as well as poets, however, and this brings us to the first subject of this blog post, the blog post that proves that MPorcius Fiction Log is not really most sincerely dead, but merely in a coma--H. D.'s 1960 novel Bid Me to Live.  In the first week of September I finished reading a 1983 edition of the novel published by Black Swan and available at the internet archive; it has a cover photo of H. D. by Man Ray and includes useful afterwords  by Perdita Schaeffer and John Walsh, as well as a drawing of flowers by H. D. herself.

H. D., as you probably already know if you are still reading this, is an American woman born Hilda Doolittle who in her youth dated Ezra Pound and who later, in England, was one of the pioneering Imagist poets that gathered around Pound; it was Pound who conferred on her the distinctive pen name "H. D."  Between 1913 and 1938 H. D. was married to Aldington, though early on the marriage faced such disasters as the miscarriage of their child, Aldington's World War I service and his infidelities, and the two poets were separated for most of the period they were married, though they remained friends (we can see in the correspondence between Aldington and Eliot how Aldington continued to vigorously promote his wife's poetry.)  Bid Me to Live is an autobiographical roman a clef,  an impressionistic account of the collapse of H.D. and Aldington's marriage during World War I, and the beginning of a new phase in H. D.'s life, as she leaves London for the countryside (one theme of H. D.'s and Aldington's poetry is the superiority of the countryside to the city) and is influenced by other men, particularly D. H. Lawrence and composer Cecil Gray.

Bid Me to Live is a very literary novel, full of ambiguity, flashbacks and classical references.  The first line of the novel is a paraphrase of Cicero's "o tempora o mores," and H. D. doesn't mention Cicero by name--as a reader you are expected to be familiar with this famous, practically cliched, phrase.  The first paragraph also name checks Jocasta and Philoctetes.  I got the Cicero allusion, but no doubt the book is full of stealthy classical references I didn't get.

My favorite classical allusion from Bid Me to Live is when Julia (the H. D. character) watches her husband Rafe Ashton (Aldington), on leave from the battlefields of France, walk about the apartment naked, and thinks that in peacetime his body had been a sort of "Greek image," but now, hardened by his war service, he appears to be a "bronze late-Roman image [that] had got out of the wrong department of the Louvre or the British Museum...."  Of course, all the novel's references aren't classical; the title of the novel is from a poem by 17th-century poet Robert Herrick, and the Ashton marriage is compared to that of Punch and Judy (ouch!), while one wonders if Jocasta there in that first para isn't an allusion to psychoanalysis--H. D. was both a friend and patient of Sigmund Freud's.

I think we can break the novel into three main parts.  In the first part Julia is in an apartment in London, and we witness scenes of her there with the various other characters, mostly importantly her husband Rafe while he is on leave from France--during his leaves he brazenly has sex with a woman who is living upstairs, Elsa.  Elsa is a member of their circle of friends of artists, musicians and writers, and these bohemian types spend a lot of time plotting who should sleep with who, including lining up men to have affairs with Julia.  One of the interesting themes of the novel is the idea that people feed each other energy; Elsa is in a relationship with Frederick, AKA Frederico AKA Rico (one of the novels odd little elements is how several characters have multiple, apparently interchangeable names) and even as Elsa sleeps with Rafe, she (Elsa) is seen as the bedrock that anchors Rico so he can go on his various erotic and intellectual expeditions.  Elsa tries to set up Rico and Julia, because she sees Julia as a woman perhaps capable of inspiring Rico to some new sort of writing, and in fact it is Rico who, via letters full of literary critique and life advice, who inspires Julia to write new things and to make a change in her life.  Rico/Frederico/Frederick, incidentally, represents D. H. Lawrence.

In the second phase of the book Julia and another man proposed as a suitable mate for Julia, the composer Vane or Vanio (modeled on Cecil Gray), go out at night in blacked out London to the cinema.  In the third and final phase of the novel Julia moves to the countryside, into an old ramshackle house with Vanio, and spends lots of time wandering around, examining plants and old walls and so on.

In outline this novel sounds pretty good, but reading it it felt long and tedious.  For one thing, it is emotionally flat--our viewpoint character, Julia, seems to be in a kind of daze, stunned and depressed.  This makes sense--Julia recently suffered a miscarriage, she lives in a city subject to German air raids, and her marriage is collapsing and all her clever (and I guess well-meaning?) friends are manipulating her--but it doesn't make for a thrilling narrative.  Julia doesn't seem to have many strong emotions or drive, and doesn't really take initiative--H. D. doesn't portray her as passionately in love with any other characters, or as animated by anger at them or hate for them, or making big decisions; Julia just seems to drift along, a victim of circumstance, fate, and other people.  This is believable, but it is not page-turning stuff.

Much of the word count of Bid Me To Live is taken up with static descriptions of rooms, furniture, items, and plants, lots and lots of plants.  Julia and Rico love plants.  (Maybe these descriptions are supposed to trigger emotions in the reader, and my reception equipment is just too insensitive to read H. D.'s subtle transmissions.)  In the brief middle phase of the book, when Julia and Vanio go to the cinema, H. D. describes the film they watch in great detail.  In some ways this middle section is the most striking part of the novel, as it relates to the war--first comes the walk in the blacked out city, and then, at the theatre and at a restaurant, Julia sees scores of fighting men on leave, and thinks of how so many of them are doomed to death or maiming on the battlefield--from a balcony in the cinema she looks down and sees the legions of khaki-clad men and thinks of the cinema as a sort of charnel house.

It is hard to recommend this novel to a general audience as it is kind of slow and boring, though of course it is worthwhile for people interested in the literary world of which D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound are among the most prominent members.  There is also good stuff for scholars of gender here--for example, an epistolary discussion between Julia and Rico over the ability of women to write from a male point of view.  (This is one of the few times Julia seems to be taking a stand instead of just passively going with the flow.)  I'll definitely read more of H. D.'s poetry and I am interested in her memoirs of Ezra Pound and Sigmund Freud, but as for H. D.'s novels, well, I don't think I'll be cracking another one open anytime soon.     

Based on a True Story: A Memoir by Norm Macdonald

Like a lot of people, I think Norm Macdonald is the best comedian/stand-up comic.  When his novel, Based on a True Story: A Memoir, came out in 2016 it got lots of positive notice, and not just from comedians--I got the impression people were treating it like a real literary novel.  So in the first week of September I finally borrowed a hardcover copy of Based on a True Story: A Memoir from a Maryland public library via contactless pickup--it is OK for people who work at grocery stores and department stores be exposed to coronavirus, but we have to make sure our aristocratic priestly class of oh-so-precious government employees is safe!--and read it.

I can't deny that I was somewhat disappointed in Norm's book, after all the hype it received.  It is not bad, and I did laugh a few times, but some of the jokes are obvious, some are very familiar (e. g., the famous moth joke) and some are tedious.  The interesting thing about the novel is Norm's efforts to achieve literary value, to instill in the book the kind of ambiguity, unreliable narration, foreshadowing and sudden surprise you might find in a book by Nabokov or Proust or somebody like that.  The novel has a main narrative, a sort of adventure/crime story in which Norm and assistant Adam Eget travel cross country, trying to win money via gambling, a perilous which venture that leads to a dangerous expedient--the borrowing of money from a dangerous loan shark.  This caper story is regularly interrupted by flashbacks to Norm's earlier life, as Norm reminisces or relates to Adam Eget stories from his youth and early career.  These accounts of Norm's childhood in rural Canada and of famous episodes in his life--e.g., working at Saturday Night Live or on the film Dirty Work--seem to be based on a kernel of truth, but include outlandish and absurd elements, including horror elements that are sometimes played for laughs (one example: imprisoned after being convicted of a terrible crime, Norm tries to win status in the big house by raping a fellow inmate, only to have this man turns the tables on our hapless hero.)  These things obviously did not happen in real life, but are we expected to believe they happen in the context of the novel?  It soon becomes clear that this novel was (partly at least) written by a ghostwriter who was hired to listen to Norm tell stories of his life and work them into a salable manuscript.  The ghostwriter is a failed literary writer, and he hates Norm, so we have reason to suspect the many episodes of Norm suffering grievously and demonstrating his own incompetence do not reflect "the truth" of the world depicted in the novel, but have been made up out of whole cloth by the bitter and ultimately suicidal ghostwriter. 

Followers of the comedy scene will no doubt find mentions of Sam Kinnison, Dennis Miller, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and other comedy luminaries of interest.  In fact, I suspect that readers will require some familiarity with the work of Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield to "get" the humor behind extended sequences featuring those comedians.  I'm 49, and I assume people my age are pretty familiar with Rickles and Dangerfield, but maybe younger people are not--I recently met a young woman, the manager of a book store, no less, who, when Robinson Crusoe came up, had to admit she had never even heard of Robinson Crusoe.  Oy! 

"Rain," "The Fall of Edward Barnard" and "Mackintosh" by W. Somerset Maugham

On September 9, I reread the first three stories from my copy of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Volume 1: East and West, which I first read years before this blog rose from the depths.  The thirty stories in this 900-page book were all written between 1919 and 1931, Maugham tells us in the introduction.  I find Maugham's well-crafted stories very comfortable and smooth and entertaining, and on a reread I found "Rain," "The Fall of Edward Barnard" and "Mackintosh" all enjoyable.  All three concern Westerners (Americans or Britons) in the South Pacific, and all deal with literal or figurative suicide.  Suicide is a favorite topic here at MPorcius Fiction Log!   

"Rain:"  A devout and energetic missionary is stuck in quarantine with an American prostitute, and he tries to reform her.  Who will win this test of wills? 
"The Fall of Edward Barnard:"  An upper-middle class Chicagoan heads to Tahiti to find out what happened to his best friend, who went to Tahiti two years ago to learn the business with the idea he would return to Chi-town to marry his sweetheart--our dude finds his buddy has gone native!
"Mackintosh:"  Two British guys are administering an island in Samoa.  The second-in-command, a young, skinny, smart sophisticate, hates the old, fat, brutish and ignorant head administrator, but which of them is the better man and the man better suited to the task of maintaining order among the natives and promoting peace and prosperity on the primitive island?   


For a few weeks there, I really thought MPorcius Fiction Log was kaput, but I find value in keeping a record of my reading and this blog is as convenient a means of keeping such a record as any.  So I guess MPorcius Fiction Log is not licked yet, though I doubt I will be putting as much energy into it as I did during what may come to be seen as MPorcius Fiction Log's "Golden Age."