From “Regretfully We Are Returning Your…” by Umberto Eco. Published in Misreadings. English translation by William Weaver.
“‘The Haunted Man’
by Ch_r__s D_i_ck_n_s
A Christmas Story”
THE FIRST PHANTOM
Don’t tell me that it wasn’t a knocker. I had seen it often enough, and I ought to know. So ought the three-o’clock beer, in dirty high-lows, swinging himself over the railing, or executing a demoniacal jig upon the doorstep; so ought the butcher, although butchers as a general thing are scornful of such trifles; so ought the postman, to whom knockers of the most extravagant description were merely human weaknesses, that were to be pitied and used. And so ought for the matter of that, etc., etc., etc.
But then it was such a knocker. A wild, extravagant, and utterly incomprehensible knocker. A knocker so mysterious and suspicious that policeman X 37, first coming upon it, felt inclined to take it instantly in custody, but compromised with his professional instincts by sharply and sternly noting it with an eye that admitted of no nonsense, but confidently expected to detect its secret yet. An ugly knocker; a knocker with a hard human face, that was a type of the harder human face within. A human face that held between its teeth a brazen rod. So hereafter, in the mysterious future should be held, etc., etc. Continue reading ““‘The Haunted Man’ by Ch_r__s D_i_ck_n_s: A Christmas Story” — Bret Harte”
Fantine (after the French of Victor Hugo)
As long as there shall exist three paradoxes, a moral Frenchman, a
religious atheist, and a believing skeptic; so long, in fact, as
booksellers shall wait—say twenty-live years—for a new gospel;
so long as paper shall remain cheap and ink three sous a bottle, I
have no hesitation in saying that such books as these are not
utterly profitless. VICTOR HUGO.
To be good is to be queer. What is a good man? Bishop Myriel.
My friend, you will possibly object to this. You will say you know what a good man is. Perhaps you will say your clergyman is a good man, for instance. Bah! you are mistaken; you are an Englishman, and an Englishman is a beast.
Englishmen think they are moral when they are only serious. These Englishmen also wear ill-shaped hats, and dress horribly!
Bah! they are canaille.
Still, Bishop Myriel was a good man,—quite as good as you. Better than you, in fact.
One day M. Myriel was in Paris. This angel used to walk about the streets like any other man. He was not proud, though fine-looking. Well, three gamins de Paris called him bad names. Says one,—
“Ah, mon Dieu! there goes a priest; look out for your eggs and chickens!” What did this good man do? He called to them kindly.
“My children,” said he, “this is clearly not your fault. I recognize in this insult and irreverence only the fault of your immediate progenitors. Let us pray for your immediate progenitors.”
They knelt down and prayed for their immediate progenitors.
The effect was touching.
The Bishop looked calmly around.
“On reflection,” said he gravely, “I was mistaken; this is clearly the fault of Society. Let us pray for Society.”
They knelt down and prayed for Society.
The effect was sublimer yet. What do you think of that? You, I mean.
Everybody remembers the story of the Bishop and Mother Nez Retrousse. Old Mother Nez Retrousse sold asparagus. She was poor; there’s a great deal of meaning in that word, my friend. Some people say “poor but honest.” I say, Bah!
Bishop Myriel bought six bunches of asparagus. This good man had one charming failing: he was fond of asparagus. He gave her a franc, and received three sous change.
The sous were bad,—counterfeit. What did this good Bishop do? He said: “I should not have taken change from a poor woman.”
Then afterwards, to his housekeeper: “Never take change from a poor woman.”
When a man commits a crime, Society claps him in prison. A prison is one of the worst hotels imaginable.
The people there are low and vulgar. The butter is bad, the coffee is green. Ah, it is horrible!
In prison, as in a bad hotel, a man soon loses, not only his morals, but what is much worse to a Frenchman, his sense of refinement and delicacy.
Jean Valjean came from prison with confused notions of Society. He forgot the modern peculiarities of hospitality. So he walked off with the Bishop’s candlesticks.
Let us consider. Candlesticks were stolen; that was evident. Society put Jean Valjean in prison; that was evident, too. In prison, Society took away his refinement; that is evident, likewise.
Who is Society?
You and I are Society.
I’m leaving to (finally) see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice in a few minutes.
I’m going with my uncle. (I also saw No Country for Old Men with him in the theater. This point seems hardly worth these parentheses).
Below, in block quotes, is my review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (which I published here—the review obviously—in 2009). My 2015 comments are interposed.
Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice
Oh god I used to bold face key terms jesus christ sorry.
is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia.
Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it.
Not a bad little summary, bro.
At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader.
And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).
When I heard the PTA was adapting Inherent Vice, I thought: Wait, the Coens already did that before Pynchon wrote the book.
While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills,
Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world.
If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:
. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.
Oh cool you finally quoted from the book. Not a bad little riff.
If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.
Will PTA’s film convey the ironies I found here? Or were the ironies even there?
Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be.
I’m not sure if I believe any of that, bro. Did I believe it even when I wrote it? It’s a shaggy dog story, and shaggy dogs unravel, or tangle, rather—they don’t weave into a big clear picture. And maybe it is a heavy hitter. (Heavy one-hitter).
At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.
Okay, I should write more but my uncle says it’s time to roll.
Toward the end of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf inserts this wonderful parody of a certain kind of midcentury writing (Henry Miller seems like the most obvious target here, although I use the term “target” loosely). The piece ends with Wulf’s “own” voice returning, declaring “If I’ve gone back to pastiche, then it’s time to stop.” And then the notebook stops.
* 19 The Romantic Tough School of Writing
The fellows were out Saturday-nighting true-hearted, the wild-hearted Saturday-night gang of true friends, Buddy, Dave and Mike. Snowing. Snow-cold. The cold of cities in the daddy of cities, New York. But true to us. Buddy, the ape-shouldered, stood apart and stared. He scratched his crotch. Buddy the dreamer, pitch-black-eyed, sombrely staring, he would often masturbate in front of us, unconscious, pure, a curious purity. And now he stood with the snow crumb white on his sad bent shoulders. Dave tackled him low, Dave and Buddy sprawled together in the innocent snow, Buddy winded. Dave drove his fist into Buddy’s belly, oh true love of true friends, mensch playing together under the cold cliffs of Manhattan on a true Saturday night. Buddy passed out cold. ‘I love this son-of-a-bitch,’ Dave said, while Buddy sprawled, lost to us and to the sadness of the city. I, Mike, Mike-the-lone-walker, stood apart, the burden of knowing on me, eighteen-years-old and lonely, watching my true buddies, Dave and Buddy. Buddy came to. Saliva flecked his near-dead lips and flew off into the saliva-white snowbank.
He sat up, gasping, saw Dave there, arms around his kneecaps, staring at him, love in his Bronx-sad eyes. Left side of hairy fist to chin, he hit and Dave now fell flat out, out in the death-cold snow. Laughing Buddy, Buddy sat laughing, waiting in his turn. Man, what a maniac. ‘Whatta you going to do, Buddy?’ I said, Mike the lone-walker but loving his true friends. ‘Ha ha ha, d’you see the expression on his face?’ he said and rolled breathless, holding his crotch. ‘Didja see that?’ Dave gasped, life coming to him, rolled, groaned, sat up. Dave and Buddy fought then, true-fought, laughing with joy, till, laughing, fell apart in the snow. I, Mike, winged-with-words Mike, stood sorrowing with joy. ‘Hey I love this bastard,’ gasped Dave, throwing a punch to Buddy’s midriff and Buddy, forearm stopping it, said: ‘Jeez, I love him.’ But I heard the sweet music of heels on the frost-cold pavement, and I said: ‘Hey, fellas.’ We stood waiting. She came, Rosie, from her dark tenement bedroom, on her sweet-tapping heels. ‘Hey, fellas,’ says Rosie, sweet-smiling. We stood watching. Sad now, watching the proud-fleshed Rosie, swivelling on her true sex down the pavement, twitching her round-ball butt, which jerked a message of hope to our hearts. Then Buddy, our buddy Buddy, moved apart, hesitant, sad-eyed, to our sad eyes: ‘I love her, fellas.’ Two friends were left then. Two-fisted Dave and winged-with words Mike. We stood then, watching our friend Buddy, fated with life, nod and move on after Rosie, his pure heart beating to the tune of her sweet heels. The wings of mystic time beat down on us then, white with snowflakes, time that would whirl us all after our Rosies to death and the frame-house funeral. Tragic and beautiful to see our Buddy move on out into the immemorial dance of fated snow-flakes, the dry rime rhyming on his collar. And the love that went out from us to him then was fantastic, true-volumned, sad-faced and innocent of the purposes of time, but true and in fact serious. We loved him as we turned, two friends left, our adolescent top coats flapping around our pure legs. On then, Dave and I, I-Mike, sad, because the intimation-bird of tragedy had touched our pearly souls, he-Dave and I-Mike, on then, goofy with life. Dave scratched his crotch, slow, owl-scratching pure Dave. ‘Jeez, Mike,’ he said, ‘you’ll write it someday, for us all.’ He stammered, inarticulate, not-winged-with-words, ‘You’ll write it, hey feller? And how our souls were ruined here on the snow-white Manhattan pavement, the capitalist-money-mammon hound-of-hell hot on our heels?’ ‘Gee, Dave, I love you,’ I said then, my boy’s soul twisted with love. I hit him then, square to the jaw-bone, stammering with love-for-the-world, love-for-my-friends, for the Daves and the Mikes and the Buddies. Down he went and I then, Mike, then, cradled him, baby, I-love-you, friendship in the jungle city, friendship of young youth. Pure. And the winds of time were blowing, snow-fated, on our loving pure shoulders.
If I’ve gone back to pastiche, then it’s time to stop.
[The yellow notebook ended here with a double black line.]
I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.
First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”