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Hugh Kenner (on taking the best stuff for granted)

Thinking of “Better Read Than Never” – my cleverly named series of reviews on books that are “yesterday’s news” (but not for me) – my tendency to untimely reading isn’t limited to novels. My mind being what it is, I decided to finish off the November 2014 edition of The Atlantic, an interest-packed number of a great old magazine. A James Parker piece on the “rock-star poet” Dylan Thomas, among many other things the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s stage name¹, came first, a welcome re-read. What I hadn’t noticed the first time through, or what at least didn’t make much of a dent in my memory bank, was a startlingly great quote from Hugh Kenner.

¹ So far, I have reserved judgement on Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m leaning towards The nostalgia and narcissism of the Boomer generation triumph again. Interesting choice. People paid attention, but I’m not sure it does anything for literature, which continues to have a declining coolness index unless I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong).

Kenner – yup, news to me, too – is described in the Atlantic piece as a student and explainer of Marshall McLuhan, though I’ve come to discover that he was much more than that. Alongside McLuhan and the uber-educated imagination of Northrop Frye², the I hardly knew ye Kenner was in fact one of the great critical minds of 20th-century scholarship, a prodigious writer and one of the great Wise Guy Canadians. (True to form, I’m now bandwagon-jumping on to an e-book platform of his The Elsewhere Community (1998), an account of his travels to learn from and be among the greats of the arts and sciences.³)

² I was lucky enough to have a remarkable English teacher in high school, Pete Hill, who shoved The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye at me. Even then, my rather lightly educated mind knew it was awesome. (Note to self: read more Frye.)
 ³ Also true to form, I will now find an obscure way to connect this literary life to basketball: Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario, where one of the older high schools is Kenner Collegiate, named after Hugh’s father, a teacher. (A school named after a teacher?!) At least one of my teams has played at Kenner, so there.

(But enough about me.) The knockout punch of the Dylan Thomas look-back came toward the end of the article, which argues that we should not look at the excesses, lifestyle and literary, of the Welsh poet but rather at the best of what he was and what he did. Author James Parker reminds us of the famed McLuhan aphorism: The medium is the message. Parker advises, therefore: don’t look so much at this or that Thomas poem, which may by now feel dated or immoderate or just plain meaningless; instead, consider what the man himself meant, and attempted. At this point, Parker quotes Kenner’s explanatory paraphrase of The Medium is the Message.

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Everything’s Coming Up *Marilynne*

[5-minute read]
Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

#ObamasFavoriteWriter is the most reductive, semi-dismissive and ‘Net-friendly way to capsulize her, so I won’t. (Um…)

Let’s start this way: Before 2016, I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson, or at least her name never stuck to my brain casing. Now, I have read all four of her novels, listened to a lecture and two interviews, and read and re-read her Paris Review discussion and one book of essays while ploughing through a second, which was my main accomplishment yesterday and the day before. I think about her work, and about her – where does such a person come from? – constantly. I find myself pestering everybody I like whom I consider might be even a remote candidate to read her. She’s a glorious read.

It started with Phyllis¹. She is a retired university prof who decided, as one of her several voluntary teach-ins, to start a book-club looking at great modern fiction with spiritual themes and underpinnings — as if such literature could actually be found in what often seems to be a doubtful, jaggedly ironic and chronically disillusioned age. Surprise! It can be! Phyllis knew where to look. And so, I got to be the token male among a dozen-and-a-half thoughtful, quietly eager book-types. We read Louise Erdrich and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and the conversations were fun and light-shedding.

¹ Nobody names a daughter Phyllis anymore, yet once upon an old time it was a beautiful name suggestive of green leaves and ancient Greek loyalty and goddess-love. Not bad, Phyll!

But mostly, we careened off on a helpless Marilynne Robinson jag. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t include her 1980 first novel, Housekeeping, which brought her critical praise and a “writers’ writer” designation and a faculty position at the University of Iowa. (I went back and read that one on my own, after I’d finished her Iowa-based sort of a trilogy but not really.) Our little group pulled its chairs up in a circle and started talking about Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, which had stunned me and shaken the ground of American fiction at its 2004 publication – not that I noticed! (I show up late to some of the very best parties.)

Gilead came nearly a quarter-century after Housekeeping. I remember Frank McCourt’s reaction to questions about how late in his life his “overnight success” had come. (His 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes, was an international publishing sensation; he was well into his 60s when it came out.) “I was TEACHING,” he wrote, “that’s why it took so long!”² Robinson might give the same explanation, as she is a long-time faculty member of the legendary Iowa writers workshop. However, she has said in interviews that, not wanting to contribute shallow or derivative novels to the stream of American literature, she wanted to read. And think, as well as teach. And well she did, and does. She is a profound scholar: history, literature, religion, philosophy. Gilead, far from being a work that she laboured over for the intervening decades, came to her quite quickly in the voice of John Ames, a rural Iowa pastor.

² Ever grateful, I am, for McCourt’s lesser-known third book Teacher Man, an in-depth account of his locally legendary career as a high school English teacher in New York City. My review of Teacher Man has a special place, one of the few JHdotCOM pieces to run elsewhere before it ran here, and as a free-lance piece for which I Actually Got Paid.
The NY Times review is worth a read, if you're hungry.

The NY Times review is worth a read, if you’re hungry.

As I read Gilead, I kept asking myself, How is Robinson doing this? How can a novel about a Christian minister in a nowhere town even get published, let alone be this gripping and so smartly written? Simply put, it is a literary miracle, and our little group couldn’t stop, since neither could Ms. Robinson. She wrote Gilead – it is a tiny actual town in Iowa – as the letter that the aging Pastor Ames writes to his young son, the product of a strange, late and utterly unexpected marriage to a much younger woman. Ames wants to explain himself before he dies, so that the boy will, when he comes of age, know something of his departed father. As a novelistic result, so do we, as well as making other compelling acquaintances  of the imaginary kind: Ames’s young wife Lila, his lifelong friend and intellectual sparring partner Robert Boughton, and Boughton’s troubled and troublesome son Jack. Robinson couldn’t get enough of these characters either, to our good luck and delight.

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Hundreds! The 700 Club. Double Century Descending. And Other Not Really News.

Twitter made this just for me. Thanks, Twitter!

Twitter made this just for me. Thanks, Twitter!

[2.5-minute read.]

It’s a day of hundreds, centuries, and numerical landmarks that end in double zeroes. (N.B. Not *that* 700 Club. Relax.) Because hundreds! Because, why NOT? Because you’ll see, that’s why! [UPDATE: And thousands, too, ‘cuz ’bout a month after this breathless report, JHdotCOM — this humble effusion of my thinkings — hit its 30,000th page view, which sounds like a lot. (If I cut back on the thinkings.)]

The 100. This is a TV show I have never seen, and only know because I follow a guy on Twitter who’s brilliant but weirdly seduced by gobs and gobs of television. What’s more: a hundred? In the folly of my middle age, I feel I want to live to that age, partly because I’m afraid of missing out on grandchildren if I don’t¹, partly because though allegedly a man of faith I’m afraid to croak, and principally because my hero, the basketball coaching legend John Wooden, fell a few months short and I’d like to do something he couldn’t pull off. When he died in 2010, I was a long way from L.A., and my bucket list was one large item lighter.

¹ Well, of course this is a shot at my sons!

200. TWO HUNDRED? Before this blog existed, somewhere around the turn of the century, I hit two hundred pounds for the first time ‘round, and it hit me back. Hard. I found the never-published chronicle of my comical lard-based dismay a couple of years ago, when I was flirting (again! still!) with that flagstaff of fatness, and included it in a 2014 blog-post. My China years of playing basketball, walking everywhere, and reduced access to my preferred vices had gotten me down. Weightwise, that is. Sometime this past year, I cow-tipped my new scales at 200 again, and it ticked me off, so I instantly did nothing about it.

HOWEVER! This very morning, friends and strangers and aliens and all my flat-bellied players, my scales said THIS: 199.5  (Pounds, that is.) So: YES!! And ‘BOUT FRIGGIN’ TIME!! And more brave muttering about how this is just the start and I can DO this and old-guy underwear ads, here I come! and so on. And Bruce Springsteen started singing in my head, so that’s good, too, though I think he had a different kind of descent in mind.

300. I refused to see the movie, and I still think it was crap. * he limps off to growl at children* But I was a pretty consistent .300 hitter in my bat-swinging days. *he prepares to launch into “boring stories of / Glory days…*   Springsteen’s everywhere today.

400. It has been four centuries since Shakespeare died. So whatcha gonna DO about it?

500. Nothing to say about this number, except that it’s linked to Fortune, which is a fickle and ephemeral thing (and I haven’t made mine yet but this blog post could change all that).

600. Tennyson, anyone?

(Give yourself a banana split if you guessed “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.)

“…’Forward, the Light Brigade!’ / Was there a man dismayed? / Not though the soldier knew / Someone had blundered. / Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred…” Because poetry.

700. SEVEN. HUNDRED. BLURTS. SEVEN HUNDRED! (In which the bloggish typist finally gets around to the point of what this post is, sort of, about. Don’t miss it!!)

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John Updike: On Race and Being American

(3-minute read)
Grampa Up.

Grampa Up.

Today, we look back at the insights and perspective of one thoughtful White American on his society’s racial culture, and his worried-grandad prospectus for two young Blacks that he loves like family, because they are.

In Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (I reviewed it here), he knits together six themed reflections on the life that he lived. In nearly all of them, the world being what it is and the United States playing the role within it that it does, he refers to the question of race, even if only obliquely. One of his essays, though, addresses it straight on: “A Letter to My Grandsons”, second-last of the six, speaks directly circa 1989 to the two young boys born from the union of Updike’s eldest daughter and her West African-born husband, who “are about as black and white as people can be”. The boys’ names are Anoff and Kwame, and who knows who and where and what they are today? I wonder what they make, as grown men, of the 48-page public rumination that their deceased and famous literary grandfather bequeathed to them, to say nothing of the country left behind by his and subsequent generations.

For my taste, too much of the letter was preoccupied with obscure and distant Updike-side genealogy. It made for dull reading. However, other parts were electric, for me, and these are the places where the writer frankly assesses the American racial culture and bares his fears and hopes for his beloved young grandsons’ place within it. Updike was an honest, perceptive and profoundly eloquent writer, in 1989 and before, and until his death in a subsequent century. Here is a small chunk of what he left behind for his dark wee darlings to read when they came of a suitable age;

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Gunter Grass (on joining the SS, 1944)

Gunter Grass died Monday. I remember my 1970s awe at an older friend, Kenny, who buried his beard and mighty forehead in John Barth and Grass and other literary lions I’d never heard of. Hundreds of heart throbs later, I still haven’t read The Tin Drum, or even seen the movie, but in my usual time-impaired way I expect I will be soon. Because the man has died, and the man wrote fearlessly of the business of being German during and after that nasty Nazi business. He took considerable heat for revealing, in 2006, after a lifetime of calling Germans to account and to remember, that he himself had been drafted into the SS as a 17-year-old. Too late! they cried. Hypocrite!

I beg to differ, and so do most commentators who are better-informed than I am. So does anyone, I would think, who has actually read his account. It is deceptively laconic, describing almost whimsically the conditions of war-time Germany and of an ignorant, artistic lad who sought to escape poverty and insignificance. I got to read this New Yorker article by Mr. Grass thanks to smart Tweeters: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/06/04/how-i-spent-the-war?mbid=social_twitter (Sorry, I’m unable to hyperlink right now.) It’s an entrancing read, and I highly recommend it.

That he survived was a fluke, several flukes in succession. RIP, Gunther Grass.

That he survived was a fluke, several flukes in succession. RIP, Gunther Grass.

Here is a short piece of his description, riding the train to accept his call-up to some branch of the military (he’d wanted to serve on submarines), which turned out to be an extremely disorganized and depleted branch of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the elite “protective squadrons” of the Nazi armed forces. The British, the Americans, and the Russians were closing in:

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Vladimir Nabokov (on disobedience and purity)

Perhaps I will do my usual rambling opinionation on today’s quote some other time. It captured me as I was gobbling up Azir Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, this unruly Iranian literature professor’s memoir of her last years in her homeland, and especially her Thursday mornings with one hand-picked class of book-mad young women.

Nafisi has her students read this exceptionally challenging novelist, not only Lolita but other texts as well. Of course, this did not go over well with the authorities of the Islamic Republic. Speaking of her father’s imprisonment before the 1979 Revolution, and her own and her students’ restricted lives after it, Nafisi recalls “a sentence by Nabokov” that she later learned. Here it is: 

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Jonathan Franzen (on Alice Munro)

“Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I’m immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.”

Jonathan Franzen is the great American novellist (The Corrections, Freedom, and a brilliant non-fiction collection called How To Be Alone, among others). He paid the most breathtakingly erudite tribute to Ms. Munro in a 2004 New York Times review of her collection Runaway. This remarkable piece lauds the greatness of Alice Munro, and criticizes literary fashion and our culture’s blindness, in one restless, contrarian, impassioned and unpredictable essay.

Better Read Than Never: FALLING MAN

Got DeLillo? Here he is, somewhere in New York City.

Not everybody gets Don DeLillo. If you don’t pay attention to the contemporary art of the novel, you may not have even heard of him. Presto! That’s why I’m here today! Mr. D. is in the pantheon of current American fiction writers. Literary fiction, that is – this is not a “page-turner”, and he’s no Dan Brown. (That would be like comparing Vincent Van Gogh to the guy who makes the blue outlines for the old “paint by numbers” craft sets.) And I’m no DeLillo expert: of his major, and often hefty, acclaimed novels – White Noise, Mao II, and the famous Underworld – I have read precisely none. I tiptoed into his work with a comparatively slender novel called The Body Artist. It was clever, admirable stuff, a bit morose, and I don’t remember much about it. It left me cold, or maybe I was there to begin with. I may, however, need to read it again.

My recent second voyage into DeLillo Country was his 2007 novel Falling Man, the post-9-11 book he hadn’t intended to write. I found it on a remainder shelf in a mega-bookstore back home in Canada, next to a non-fiction book by Martin Amis in the same historical vein: The Second Plane. I was trawling for all-things-I-can’t-get-in-China, and not only were these two volumes a few cultural steps higher than the Harvey’s burgers and Baskin-Robbins cones I’d been gorging myself on last July, they also seemed fated together to increase my lugging for the next month’s return trip to China. And here’s why The Body Artist might deserve a second look: Falling Man is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a long time, one that I immediately started re-reading once I’d finished. How did he do that? It’s brilliant, but also an accessible introduction to a challenging writer.

See those towers? On the left, the back jacket, peeking through clouds.

We later find that one of the central characters is Keith Neudecker, a thirty-something lawyer and lover of games. We first meet him, though, as he staggers down a New York street. The novel opens like this:

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It’s Been a Quiet Day in Dalian

Well, except that there’s a loud-speaking voice carrying into our ninth-floor apartment from the college next door. No doubt, it’s another exercise in, well, exercise and patriotism and precision marching for the young people of Qing Gong Xue Xiao. (This means something like the School of Light Industry, and as far as I can tell it’s where the future barbers, seamstresses and short-order cooks of Dalian come from.) Like all college and university freshmen — though some of these kids look about 15, and may have simply not qualified to get into high school — their first few weeks of school are spent marching, shouting patriotic slogans, and singing team -building songs.

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If I Had Only Had…

It’s a perfect day to account for my failings as a writer, quite apart from the practical consideration that I have to teach school today. The call came. It came to me. I’m a class act.

I find myself at one of the real centres of juvenile creativity in Canada, Canterbury High School. It’s a specialized arts school. The annual musical is spectacular, and a far more important event than any number of Big Football Games. (Actually, there is no football at Canterbury. There aren’t even that many boys at CHS; it’s about a 70/30 split. The kids who attend here because they live in the immediate district are also a minority. They’re called “Generals”, as opposed to “Visuals” or “Instrumentals” or “Vocals”, and they can find it a hard place to come in some respects. The place is crammed with keeners who applied from all over the region to come here and dance, sing, play, act, paint, sculpt and write. It may still be the only school in the country with a Literary Arts program. My family’s move to Ottawa five years ago was made, in large measure, because Son the Third had been admitted here as a ninth-grade writer. It was a 500-kilometre move, and an easy decision, finally, and a wonderfully fruitful one.

Replacing Ms. Barkley today, my Dave’s ninth- and twelfth-grade writing guru, I’m in a class where to write myself seems not only possible but necessary. Grade 12s. Supremely pleasant and diligent and highly motivated, which does not suggest that they are not also distracted by the epic conversational possibilities with fellow writers they’ve shared and performed and edited and sweated with for four years now. Still, they don’t need much from me. It’s a strange kind of a high school. It’s beyond okay to be smart, to read, to care about social issues and cultural richness. Among the seniors, it verges on being a requirement, which explains why coming from the school catchment area without actually belonging to the Arts Canterbury crowd can be a bit of a trial. Generals. Of course, it could be a rich and fascinating place to wind up in if, say, you were a smart, sophisticated and confident adolescent, unbounded by cliques and suspicion. In other words, for only a few.

But back to me. (It’s all about me.) I am prone to think, Gosh. Sons One and Two would have been so much more at home or challenged or stimulated by a high school experience like this one. But I am also subject to selfish and exculpatory thoughts: Damn, if I’d been exposed to the idea that writers were real, if I’d had the chance to be among other kids that read as much or more than I did, if I’d been encouraged to write and party ARTY when I was young, I wouldn’t find the literary learning curve so steep in my advancing age. I coulda bin a contendah. I coulda bin a star. Yeah, I just didn’t get the breaks. Sigh. Et cetera.

All of which helps me not at all, but it’s a soothing diversion. And it’s writing, and so am I. And it’s now. And the bell hasn’t even rung yet. Maybe I’ll even get around to posting about the WritersFest, as I recently promised.