I CHOSE ROTTEN GIN The story of a disillusioned Communist, who had not the courage to go against the party.
. . . so ostentatiously aimed at writing a masterpiece that, in a less ambitious work, one would be happy to call promising, for such readers as he may be fortunate enough to have . . .
OI CHITTERING ONES A serious work which urges us to lay aside our fears and realize our true
. . . the outside world of American life is described so imperfectly and so superficially as to make us feel that the novelist himself has never known it . . .
—M Axswill Gummer
THE R I COONS IGNITE Violence in a small southern community, the racial question delicately and faithfully dealt with.
. . . nowhere in this whole disgusting book is there a trace of kindness or sincerity or simple decency . . .
—S T Erlingnorf
TEN ECHOES RIOTING A delicately evocative novel.
. . . a delicately evocative novel . . .
—B R Endengill
. . . a literary event, of sorts . . .
THE ONION CREST G I A rousing war novel, adventure with a tough talking sergeant from Wisconsin (the onion state).
. . . does not persuade us that it is based on any but a narrow and jaundiced view, a projection of private discontent . . .
—Milton R Goth
. . . another long and rather dreary saga of modem man in search of a soul . . .
THOSE NIGER CONTI Lusty romance with the Godzzoli family in love and the Italian secret service in Egypt.
. . . a complete lack of discipline . . .
THE TIGER ON SONIC A killer in provincial New England trapped by the brilliant deductions of the author’s popular armchair detective, Mr Ethan Frome.
. . . a really yummy read . . .
James Joyce’s death mask, by Paul Speck (1941)
[Ed. note: I usually don’t preface these one-star Amazon selection riffs with much, other than to note the occasion for the post. In this case, the occasion is my coming to the end of a second reading of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is very much about the military-industrial-entertainment complex. And so well anyway, I keep thinking about Infinite Jest, which I have not read in full since 2002, but plan to reread later this summer. I expected Pynchon to show up a few times in the one-star reviews, but he’s present throughout, often obliquely referenced. Otherwise, the one-star reviews are typical: Rants against academia, “literary elites,” etc. The term “self-indulgent” appears again and again. Only one reviewer bothers to engage the plot though.
Update: I ran this post (minus this update) in the summer of 2015; I’m running it again because today’s the 20th anniversary of IJ’s publication]
spawn of PC Elitist writers
reads like a math textbook
This is the T.S. Eliot Effect
terminally adolescent drivel.
The footnotes have footnotes.
Big words and run-on sentences
utterly lacking in aesthetic merit
I only read the first 50 pages or so
wow, that’s a heck of a lot of words.
challenging, involving, and horrifying
A humorous book? – no. Absurd – Yes.
never made it to the end of chapter one.
I never did get through Gravity’s Rainbow
the magnum opus of American hipsterism.
the worst science fiction novel ever written.
If you like Pynchon, fine, go ahead, you’ll like this.
over a hundred pages of notes that serve no purpose
I pride myself on being an intelegent well read person
At least Pynchon, has humor, literary references, etc.
He probably sold more books on hype than on talent.
All in all, I suppose Wallace will just become a footnote.
this book(?) would not be worth the money if it was free
I trie d to think of Catcher in the Rye, but no comparison.
If you want to be warm, burn your overrated copy of Infinite Jest.
Wallace makes up words which does not help one reading a story.
I think it was in that book that I learned the word “omphaloskepsis.”
I’ll bet Dave had to beat off the nubile young co-eds after they read this one
obviously didn’t follow Elmore Leonard’s last tenet of his “10 Rules for Writing”
I suppose that some might consider Wallace a great writer, but was he popular?
It’s written in the first-person from the point of view of a mentally ill teenager.
he filled it with worthless footnotes that pretend to enlighten the victim of his prose
I just don’t understand how my fellow Amazon reviewers could have scored this book highly.
I realize that this book is considered to be “literature” but IMHO the internal ravings of mentally ill people isn’t literature.
It is called “INFINITE JETS” but there is not a single aircraft within, in fact the book is about people on land with drugs problems.
The book contains an anecdote plagiarized from the humorist, Gerard Hoffnung, who recorded it in the 1950s.
700 pages of clumsy sci-fi and the kind of smarty pants absurdist nonsense you’d expect from a precocious middle schooler
The premise for this novel derives from a Monty Python sketch in which the world’s funniest joke is also fatal.
Oh one other thing that drove me crazy: he started so many sentences with “And but so..” or “So but and…”
if Finnegans Wake was a rancid fart that was proudly left to rip, Infinite Jest is a weak one, lacking sound and odor.
Just a bunch of irrelevant words to set the scene…. not to mention he described everything into painful detail.
a kid thinks he’s going to the dentist but it’s really some sort of counselor and they have a long battle of wits to see which one of them is the bigger booger-eating nerd
DWF is desperately trying to emulate one of the century’s greatest authors, and utterly fails.
Put down the bong, go outside and get some real world experience before putting pen to paper.
Comparing Wallace to Pynchon is like comparing a kettle of sponges to Disney World
Academics also praise it as a badge of courage for (allegedly) reading it
It’s just the narrator’s interior thoughts about trying to buy drugs.
I was two pages in and started to feel confused, zoned out, and lost.
It reads like the stream of consciousness of a spoiled 10th grader.
What I read would have gotten an F in a freshman writing class.
The style is Pynchon. And by style, I mean, an exact duplication
At least, now I know where Dave Eggers ripped off his garbage
sorry Amazon,you definitely missed the boat with this one.
completely lacking in any kind of moral or ethical center
He and this book are simply silly, and a waste of pulp.
Book was a work of art, one I wasted my time viewing.
seems to spend forever talking about tennis and drugs
Characters are unbelievable and are over analyzed
Sure, he was making good points, for the 1990s!
Reading a thesaurus does not count as research.
Over 1000 pages of pseudo-subersiveness.
It’s the tyranny of the English Deparment
I only read about four percent of the book
For my taste, there were too many words
I think his suicide inflated his reviews.
I still feel awful thinking about it.
Bad read no stars.
…is this an essay?
—No it’s all right . . . he’d brought his eyes up sharply from the loose collar of her blouseless suit, more the appeal of asking a favor than granting one in his tone—that was when he was old though, Wagner I mean, when Wagner was old and . . .
—Yes but that’s what you meant isn’t it, about creating an entirely different world when you write an opera, about asking the audience to suspend its belief in the . . .
—No not asking them making them, like that E flat chord that opens the Rhinegold goes on and on it goes on for a hundred and thirty-six bars until the idea that everything’s happening under water is more real than sitting in a hot plush seat with tight shoes on and . . .
—Mrs Joubert could I have a dime?
—I think you’ve had enough to eat Debby, we’re . . .
—Linda yes I’m sorry, where’s your sweater.
—Over on the table, I don’t want to eat they said it costs a dime to go to the toilet here, you have to put a dime in to get in the . . .
—Yes yes all right if, oh thank you again we must be taking every penny you.
—No no it’s all right I’ve, I’d put some aside for the union and when they wouldn’t take me, when you say you’re a concert pianist they give you as hard a score as they can find there was a drummer there and all they asked for was give us a paradiddle . . .
—But why must you join at all, if you simply want to compose . . .
—No well since this teaching was, since it didn’t really work out too well I thought if I could find some work playing I could keep on with my . . .
—Mrs Jou . . .
—Here . . .! he thrust a dime at the figure shifting rapidly foot to foot beside her,—that I could keep working on my . . .
—But couldn’t you earn something writing music for, I don’t know but there must be somewhere you could . . .
—Yes well that’s what I did, what I’m doing I mean somebody I met there, a bass player, he was on standby he’s getting paid not to play at a Broadway show they say is a musical just because it . . .
—Mis . . .
—Excuse me, boys please! You’ve just had a dollar J R you don’t need . . .
—No I know, I just wondered if Mister Bast wants me to change some nickels from a dollar for him.
—Not, no but if you’d like something?
—Some, just some tea I think, I don’t feel awfully well . . .
—Yes wait, here . . . he peeled away a bill under the table.
—And he found you something? this bass player?
—No well yes sort of indirectly, he said he wanted to help me out and sent me to a place over on the West Side where they said they wanted some nothing music, three minutes of nothing music it’s for television or something, they said they had three minutes of talk on a track or a tape they needed music behind it but it couldn’t have any real form, anything distinctive about it any sound anything that would distract from this voice this, this message they called it, they . . .
—But of all things how absurd, paying a composer to . . .
—Yes well they didn’t, I couldn’t do it I mean, they were in a hurry they would have paid me three hundred dollars and I tried and all I could, everything I did they said was too . . .
—And that’s hardly what I meant, someone being paid not to play who sends you somewhere to write nothing mus . . .
—Well what do you think I . . .! he caught one hand back with the other,—I’m sorry I, three hundred dollars all I could think of was that concerto of Mozart’s the D-minor, that’s more than he got paid for the whole series and I couldn’t even . . .
—But I think it’s marvelous, that you couldn’t write their nothing music? I mean just because you can’t get paid to play Chopin or even write music that’s . . .
—No but I am though, I didn’t finish . . . he looked up from her fingertips touching his hands clenched there,—when I left somebody else there said he’d like to help me out and sent me downtown to see some dancers who want their own music for . . .
—Boys . . .! her hand was gone,—settle down! she called after the collision at the marbled cashier’s cage—I’m sorry, we . . .
—Do you like Chopin?
—Oh of course I do yes, that ballade the Ballade in G? it’s simply the most roman . . .
—In G-minor yes that’s on the program if I could get tickets would you, it’s next week would you like to go if I can get the tickets it’s a recital by . . .
—That’s awfully sweet Mister Bast I . . .
—No well I guess I, I mean you’re married I didn’t think of that I just . . .
—That’s hardly the reason no but, I’m just afraid I can’t, I’m . . .
—No that’s all right I just, I just thought you, you wanted some tea yes I’m sorry I’ll get it . . .
—Thank you I’d, oh be careful! she’d seized his wrist.
—No I’m all right . . . he came up slowly as her hand fell away,—I’ll get it . . . he righted the chair and stood looking, turned toward the figures huddled at a table near the telephone booths foreheads almost touching, hands churning coins.
Another intersection of art and commerce in William Gaddis’s novel J R.
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
So I’m going through William Gaddis’s novel J R again (via Nick Sullivan’s amazing audiobook recording-performance)…
Last week on Three Books, I featured three books I kinda sorta maybe plan to read in 2016. Here are three more:
Slow Learner by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback by Little, Brown (1984). Jacket design by Fred Marcellino. I’ve only read “Entropy” from this collection so far. (I actually tried to use it in my Intro American Lit class—it’s in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. E, somehow—and no, it didn’t go over well, but hey).
The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz; English translation by Adrian Nathan West. First edition trade paperback from Dorothy (2015). Cover art is Anonymous by Hella van ‘t Hof. Book design by Danielle Dutton. I started this as the chaser to Ishmael Reed’s The Free-Lance Pallbearers—proved to be a false start (went on a Le Guin jag instead). Feels like a one-sitting read.
The Easy Chain by Evan Dara. First edition trade paperback from Aurora (2008). Cover and design by Todd Michael Bushman. Does anyone want to read The Easy Chain with me?
While the staff members think in terms of good or bad codes – how well everyone did what they were supposed to do, whether the patient responded or not – I think in terms of good or bad deaths.
Bad deaths are ones with the manager of a hotel as next of kin, or the cleaning woman who found the stroke victim two weeks later, dying of dehydration. Really bad deaths are when there are several children and in-laws I have called in from somewhere inconvenient and none of them seem to know each other or the dying parent at all. There is nothing to say. They keep talking about arrangements, about having to make arrangements, about who will make arrangements.
Gypsies are good deaths. I think so. . . the nurses don’t and security guards don’t. There are always dozens of them demanding to be with the dying person, to kiss them and hug them, unplugging and screwing up the TVs and monitors and assorted apparatus. The best thing about gypsy deaths is they never make their kids keep quiet. The adults wail and cry and sob but all the children continue to run around, playing and laughing, without being told they should be sad or respectful.
Good deaths seem to be coincidentally good Codes – the patient responds miraculously to all the life-giving treatment and then just quietly passes away.
From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977.”
Michael Silverblatt: It seems to me that this book is truly the first to pay extended stylistic respects to the writer who, it’s been said, has been your mentor and model, Thomas Bernhard. I wondered, was it after three books that one felt comfortable in creating a work that could be compared to the writing of a master and a mentor?
W.G. Sebald: Yes, I was always, as it were, tempted to declare openly from quite early on my great debt of gratitude to Thomas Bernhard. But I was also conscious of the fact that one oughtn’t to do that too openly, because then immediately one gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc., and these labels never go away. Once one has them they stay with one. But nevertheless, it was necessary for me eventually to acknowledge his constant presence, as it were, by my side. What Thomas Bernhard did to postwar fiction writing in the German language was to bring to it a new radicality which didn’t exist before, which wasn’t compromised in any sense. Much of German prose fiction writing, of the fifties certainly, but of the sixties and seventies also, is severely compromised, morally compromised, and because of that, aesthetically frequently insufficient. And Thomas Bernhard was in quite a different league because he occupied a position which was absolute. Which had to do with the fact that he was mortally ill since late adolescence and knew that any day the knock could come at the door. And so he took the liberty which other writers shied away from taking. And what he achieved, I think, was also to move away from the standard pattern of the standard novel. He only tells you in his books what he heard from others. So he invented, as it were, a kind of periscopic form of narrative. You’re always sure that what he tells you is related, at one remove, at two removes, at two or three. That appealed to me very much, because this notion of the omniscient narrator who pushes around the flats on the stage of the novel, you know, cranks things up on page three and moves them along on page four and one sees him constantly working behind the scenes, is something that I think one can’t do very easily any longer. So Bernhard, single-handedly I think, invented a new form of narrating which appealed to me from the start.
From W.G. Sebald’s December 2001 interview with Michael Silverblatt; republished in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Lynne Sharon Schwartz ed.).
She visits others. Before they’re up, dawn, she walks to the lake, listening to Bach, the first clavichord exercise, which she plans to have played at her funeral someday, has had this plan since she first heard the music and, thinking of it, she weeps lightly. The lake is whipped by wind and tides (big lake) doing what tides do, she never knows in or out. There is a man standing on shore and a big dog swimming back to him with stick in mouth. This repeats. The dog does not tire. She peels a swim cap onto her head, goggles, enters the water, which is cold but not shocking. Swims. High waves in one direction. The dog is gone. Now she is alone. There is a pressure to swim well and to use this water correctly. People think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place to hear the nightingale sing, see the groom kiss the bride, clock the comet. Every water has a right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke. What does that mean, fail it.
Because he needed the money Peterson answered an ad that said “We’ll pay you to be on TV if your opinions are strong enough or your personal experiences have a flavor of unusual.” He called the number and was told to come to Room 1551 in the Graybar Building on Lexington. This he did and after spending twenty minutes with a Miss Arbor who asked him if he had ever been in analysis was okeyed for a program called Who Am I? “What do you have strong opinions about?” Miss Arbor asked. “Art,” Peterson said, “life, money.” “For instance?” “I believe,” Peterson said, “that the learning ability of mice can be lowered or increased by regulating the amount of serotonin in the brain. I believe that schizophrenics have a high incidence of unusual fingerprints, including lines that make almost complete circles. I believe that the dreamer watches his dream in sleep, by moving his eyes.” “That’s very interesting!” Miss Arbor cried. “It’s all in the World Almanac,” Peterson replied.
“I see you’re a sculptor,” Miss Arbor said, “that’s wonderful.” “What is the nature of the program?” Peterson asked. “I’ve never seen it.” “Let me answer your question with another question,” Miss Arbor said. “Mr. Peterson, are you absurd?” Her enormous lips were smeared with a glowing white cream. “I beg your pardon?” “I mean,” Miss Arbor said earnestly, do you encounter your existence as gratuitous? Do you feel de trop? Is there nausea?” “I have enlarged liver,” Peterson offered. “That’s excellent!” Miss Arbor exclaimed. “That’s a very good beginning. Who Am I? tries, Mr. Peterson, to discover what people really are. People today, we feel, are hidden away inside themselves, alienated, desperate, living in anguish, despair and bad faith. Why have we been thrown here, and abandoned? That’s the question we try to answer, Mr. Peterson. Man stands alone in a featureless, anonymous landscape, in fear and trembling and sickness unto death. God is dead. Nothingness everywhere. Dread. Estrangement. Finitude. Who Am I? approaches these problems in a root radical way.” “On television?” “We’re interested in basics, Mr. Peterson. We don’t play around.” “I see,” Peterson said, wondering about the amount of the fee. “What I wanted to know now, Mr. Peterson, is this: are you interested in absurdity?” “Miss Arbor,” he said, “to tell you the truth, I don’t know. I’m not sure I believe in it.” “Oh, Mr. Peterson!” Miss Arbor said, shocked. “Don’t say that! You’ll be …” “Punished?” Peterson suggested. “You may not be interested in absurdity,” she said, “but absurdity is interested in you.” “I have a lot of problems, if that helps,” Peterson said. “Existence is problematic for you,” Miss Arbor said, relieved. “The fee is two hundred dollars.”
Favorite Reading Experiences
I finally read Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015. Then I immediately read it again (which is sort of like really reading it), occasionally dipping into Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion. Rewarding, hilarious, challenging, perplexing, Gravity’s Rainbow is too brilliant to look at directly, and is perhaps best approached slantwise, as one Ms. Dickinson of Amherst has advised.
On page 588 of Gravity’s Rainbow, the narrator (?!) suggests that we “Check out Ishmael Reed.” So I did. His novel Mumbo Jumbo is like nothing I’ve ever read before—the reviewer’s crutch “dazzling performance” comes to mind, because Mumbo Jumbo is a performance (jazz, bebop, soft shoe, vaudeville, a hoodoo magic show, an exorcism: performance art), and it does dazzle, overwhelm, energize, haunt, titillate, reverberate, howl…and there are pictures! Reed uses photos in a way that Sebald would a few decades later—documentary evidence of a sort. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Like Reed’s novel, Anne Carson’s novel-poem-myth-book Autobiography of Red is impossible to categorize and extremely difficult to describe. I tried to write about it a few times on this site and failed, which is fine. What matters here is the reading experience: Carson’s book zapped me, gave me tingles, reminded me that what I want to think and feel when I read is, How is this possible? How is this allowed? (Another huge thank you to BLCKDGRD for sending me Autobiography of Red and its sorta-sequel Red Doc>).
And finally, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose so-called Hainish Cycle I read most of this year. I still have to read The Telling, but great stuff, and a full write-up early in the new year.
Favorite Books I Read in 2015 That Were Actually Published in 2015
Mislaid, Nell Zink (although I liked The Wallcreeper better, but hey, it was published last year)
Favorite Indie Presses of 2015
Favorite Films I Saw in 2015 That Came Out in 2015
I had a relatively contrarian opinion of Fury Road, but I enjoyed it overall, I suppose. The Force Awakens was a better spectacle for my money/nostalgia. Overall, 2015 was kind of a weak year for movies, filled with overrated indies, comic book schlock, and self-serious entertainments that Tried Too Hard. Hard to Be a God was the only thing that really zapped me, although a quick google shows that it was actually released in 2014.
You know, Inherent Vice was released in late 2014 too, but I saw it and loved it and obsessed over it in 2015…so, Inherent Vice, yeah…
I also liked that Scientology documentary, which was full-on Pynchon.
Favorite Television Shows of 2015
I thought the second season of Fargo was near-perfect and found the tawdry spectacle of The Jinx thrilling, but there was no show I enjoyed watching and reading about more than the second season of True Detective.
Favorite Albums of 2015
The albums I listened to the most this year were soundtracks that came out before 2015: Inherent Vice and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But I did like a number of new albums this year, including Joanna Newsom’s Divers, Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs, and Destroyer’s Poison Season.
Favorite Books I Didn’t Finish in 2015
I’ve been crawling my way through a full read of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, but: No end in sight. I also read most of the essays in William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (check out my interview with the editors). I also read a hefty chunk of the Ben Marcus-edited collection New American Stories. My favorite discursive reading though was dipping into William H. Gass’s nonfiction.
…speaking of Gass—well, I read his essay “Even If, by All the Oxen in the World” in conjunction with a reread of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which turned out to be most rewarding—both the rereading and the reading-in-conjunction. Reading Infinite Jest for the first time since 2001 ended up being a deflating, even depressing experience, but I wouldn’t trade it. I also reread against the second reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Other rereading highlights included Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, High Rise by J.G. Ballard, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (which I’ve reread every year since I first read it). But it was McCarthy’s Suttree that I got the most out of rereading this year.
I’ll finish out Le Guin’s Hainish books with The Telling, and then probably crack into William H. Gass’s Eyes. In between I might read Marianne Fritz’s novel The Weight of Things. More Lucia Berlin for sure. Thomas Bernhard if it ever cools down again. (End of December 2015 and it feels like early summer here in Florida). I’d also love to take a shot at William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass, but who knows…there are always more pages than hours.
Loretta met Anna and Sam the day she saved Sam’s life.
Anna and Sam were old. She was 80 and he was 89. Loretta would see Anna from time to time when she went to swim at her neighbor Elaine’s pool. One day she stopped by as the two women were convincing the old guy to take a swim. He finally got in, was dog-paddling along with a big grin on his face when he had a seizure. The other two women were in the shallow end and didn’t notice. Loretta jumped in, shoes and all, pulled him to the steps and up out of the pool. He didn’t need resuscitation but he was disoriented and frightened. He had some medicine to take, for epilepsy, and they helped him dry off and dress. They all sat around for a while until they were sure he was fine and could walk to their house, just down the block. Anna and Sam kept thanking Loretta for saving his life, and insisted that she go to lunch at their house the next day.
It happened that she wasn’t working for the next few days. She had taken three days off without pay because she had a lot of things that needed doing. Lunch with them would mean going all the way back to Berkeley from the city, and not finishing everything in one day, as she had planned.
It was Christmas night and the proper things had been done. The whole village had come to dinner in hall. There had been boar’s head and venison and pork and beef and mutton and caponsbut no turkey, because this bird had not yet been invented. There had been plum pudding and snap-dragon, with blue fire on the tips of one’s fingers, and as much mead as anybody could drink. Sir Ector’s health had been drunk with “Best respects, Measter,” or “Best compliments of the Season, my lords and ladies, and many of them.” There had been mummers to play an exciting dramatic presentation of a story in which St. George and a Saracen and a funny Doctor did surprising things, also carol-singers who rendered “Adeste Fideles” and “I Sing of a Maiden,” in high, clear, tenor voices. After that, those children who had not been sick from their dinner played Hoodman Blind and other appropriate games, while the young men and maidens danced morris dances in the middle, the tables having been cleared away. The old folks sat round the walls holding glasses of mead in their hands and feeling thankful that they were past such capers, hoppings and skippings, while those children who had not been sick sat with them, and soon went to sleep, the small heads leaning against their shoulders. At the high table Sir Ector sat with his knightly guests, who had come for the morrow’s hunting, smiling and nodding and drinking burgundy or sherries sack or malmsey wine.
After a bit, silence was prayed for Sir Grummore. He stood up and sang his old school song, amid great applausebut forgot most of it and had to make a humming noise in his moustache. Then King Pellinore was nudged to his feet and sang bashfully:
“Oh, I was born a Pellinore in famous Lincolnshire. Full well I chased the Questing Beast for more than seventeen year. Till I took up with Sir Grummore here In the season of the year. (Since when) ’tis my delight On a feather-bed night To sleep at home, my dear.
“You see,” explained King Pellinore blushing, as he sat down with everybody whacking him on the back, “old Grummore invited me home, what, after we had been having a pleasant joust together, and since then I’ve been letting my beastly Beast go and hang itself on the wall, what?”
“Well done,” they told him. “You live your own life while you’ve got it.”
William Twyti was called for, who had arrived on the previous evening, and the famous huntsman stood up with a perfectly straight face, and his crooked eye fixed upon Sir Ector, to sing:
“D’ye ken William Twyti
With his Jerkin so dagged? D’ye ken William Twyti
Who never yet lagged? Yes, I ken William Twyti,
And he ought to be gagged With his hounds and his horn in the morning.”
“Bravo!” cried Sir Ector. “Did you hear that, eh? Said he ought to be gagged, my dear feller. Blest if I didn’t think he was going to boast when he began. Splendid chaps, these huntsmen, eh? Pass Master Twyti the malmsey, with my compliments.”
The boys lay curled up under the benches near the fire, Wart with Cavall in his arms. Cavall did not like the heat and the shouting and the smell of mead, and wanted to go away, but Wart held him tightly because he needed something to hug, and Cavall had to stay with him perforce, panting over a long pink tongue.
“Now Ralph Passelewe.”
“Good wold Ralph.”
“Who killed the cow, Ralph?”
“Pray silence for Master Passelewe that couldn’t help it.”
At this the most lovely old man got up at the furthest and humblest end of the hail, as he had got up on all similar occasions for the past half-century. He was no less than eighty-five years of age, almost blind, almost deaf, but still able and willing and happy to quaver out the same song which he had sung for the pleasure of the Forest Sauvage since before Sir Ector was bound up in a kind of tight linen puttee in his cradle. They could not hear him at the high tablehe was too far away in Time to be able to reach across the roombut everybody knew what the cracked voice was singing and everybody loved it. This is what he sang:
“Whe-an/Wold King-Cole/was a /wakkin doon-t’street, H-e /saw a-lovely laid-y a /steppin-in-a-puddle. / She-a /lifted hup-er-skeat/ For to / Hop acrorst ter middle, / An ee /saw her /an-kel. Wasn’t that a fuddle? / Ee could’ernt elp it, /ee Ad to.”
There were about twenty verses of this song, in which Wold King Cole helplessly saw more and more things that he ought not to have seen, and everybody cheered at the end of each verse until, at the conclusion, old Ralph was overwhelmed with congratulations and sat down smiling dimly to a replenished mug of mead.
It was now Sir Ector’s turn to wind up the proceedings. He stood up importantly and delivered the following speech:
“Friends, tenants and otherwise. Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin’”
There was a faint cheer at this, for everybody recognized the speech which Sir Ector had made for the last twenty years, and welcomed it like a brother.
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin'” it is my pleasant dutyI might say my very pleasant dutyto welcome all and sundry to this our homely feast. It has been a good year, and I say it without fear of contradiction, in pasture and plow. We all know how Crumbocke of Forest Sauvage won the first prize at Cardoyle Cattle Show for the second time, and one more year will win the cup outright. More power to the Forest Sauvage. As we sit down tonight, I notice some faces now gone from among us and some which have added to the family circle. Such matters are in the hands of an almighty Providence, to which we all feel thankful. We ourselves have been first created and then spared to enjoy the rejoicin’s of this pleasant evening. I think we are all grateful for the blessin’s which have been showered upon us. Tonight we welcome in our midst the famous King Pellinore, whose labours in riddin’ our forest of the redoubtable Questin’ Beast are known to all. God bless King Pellinore. (Hear, hear!) Also Sir Grummore Grummursum, a sportsman, though I say it to his face, who will stick to his mount as long as his Quest will stand up in front of him. (Hooray!) Finally, last but not least, we are honoured by a visit from His Majesty’s most famous huntsman, Master William Twyti, who will, I feel sure, show us such sport tomorrow that we will rub our eyes and wish that a royal pack of hounds could always be huntin’ in the Forest which we all love so well. (Viewhalloo and several recheats blown in imitation.) Thank you, my dear friends, for your spontaneous welcome to these gentlemen. They will, I know, accept it in the true and warmhearted spirit in which it is offered. And now it is time that I should bring my brief remarks to a close. Another year has almost sped and it is time that we should be lookin’ forward to the challengin’ future. What about the Cattle Show next year? Friends, I can only wish you a very Merry Christmas, and, after Father Sidebottom has said our Grace for us, we shall conclude with a singin’ of the National Anthem.”
The cheers which broke out at the end of Sir Ector’s speech were only just prevented, by several hush-es, from drowning the last part of the vicar’s Grace in Latin, and then everybody stood up loyally in the firelight and sang:
“God save King Pendragon,
May his reign long drag on,
God save the King.
Send him most gorious,
Great and uproarious,
Horrible and Hoarious,
God save our King.”
The last notes died away, the hall emptied of its rejoicing humanity. Lanterns flickered outside, in the village street, as everybody went home in bands for fear of the moonlit wolves, and The Castle of the Forest Sauvage slept peacefully and lightless, in the strange silence of the holy snow.
—From T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The Kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I argued earlier this year was the novel’s moral core).
Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–
The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.
No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.
The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.
Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”
It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.
From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The bold emphases are mine—mea culpa, I couldn’t help it.
They discharge the Hands and leave off for the Winter. At Christmastide, the Tavern down the Road from Harlands’ opens its doors, and soon ev’ryone has come inside. Candles beam ev’rywhere. The Surveyors, knowing this year they’ll soon again be heading off in different Directions into America, stand nodding at each other across a Punch-bowl as big as a Bathing-Tub. The Punch is a secret Receipt of the Landlord, including but not limited to peach brandy, locally distill’d Whiskey, and milk. A raft of long Icicles broken from the Eaves floats upon the pale contents of the great rustick Monteith. Everyone’s been exchanging gifts. Somewhere in the coming and going one of the Children is learning to play a metal whistle. Best gowns rustle along the board walls. Adults hold Babies aloft, exclaiming, “The little Sausage!” and pretending to eat them. There are popp’d Corn, green Tomato Mince Pies, pickl’d Oysters, Chestnut Soup, and Kidney Pudding. Mason gives Dixon a Hat, with a metallick Aqua Feather, which Dixon is wearing. Dixon gives Mason a Claret Jug of silver, crafted in Philadelphia. There are Conestoga Cigars for Mr. Harland and a Length of contraband Osnabrigs for Mrs. H. The Children get Sweets from a Philadelphia English-shop, both adults being drawn into prolong’d Negotiations with their Juniors, as to who shall have which of. Mrs. Harland comes over to embrace both Surveyors at once. “Thanks for simmering down this Year. I know it ain’t easy.”
“What a year, Lass,” sighs Dixon.
“Poh. Like eating a Bun,” declares Mason.”
The last paragraphs of Ch. 52 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.