Tag Archives: Books

Reading Chatwin, Gide, and Connolly

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

It makes sense that Bruce Chatwin and Werner Herzog were friends. Of course they were. According to Herzog, the two of them met in 1984 in Australia’s Northern Territory. Chatwin was doing research for the book that would become The Songlines and Herzog was working on his film Where Green Ants Dream. They spent two full days talking to each other. Chatwin on his deathbed supposedly gifted Herzog with the leather rucksack he’d used on so many of his travels. Parallels both of style and substance can be drawn between the two artists, but I suspect that Chatwin must have been the happier person. Curiosity in Herzog seems most of the time to serve his melancholy. Chatwin is no less curious, but more sanguine. In The Songlines Chatwin’s curiosity turns toward the roots of human language, early human evolution, and the origins and meaning of wanderlust. The book is in part a travelogue (though one should never take Chatwin’s reportage at face value) and in part an essay in speculative anthropology. Fascinating and great fun at the same time.

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Lafcadio’s Adventures, André Gide

Diverting, satirical, but nothing very deep, despite the fact that it reminds me of a Dostoyevsky novel in some respects. I mean that it deals with questions of faith and corruption and the peculiar allure that some people feel for motiveless crime. But this is not Gide at his best and Lafcadio’s Adventures is only a cheap-shot, bitter-at-heart version of Dostoyevsky.

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The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

Connolly made his name as a critic and so when he opens his book with the statement that “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence,” it serves both as a jab at fashionable contemporaries and an announcement of his intention to make his own “assault on perfection.” The book was written during WWII and is part journal, part commonplace book, and part philosophical essay. There are lengthy quotations from French authors which, unfortunately, I was usually unable to decipher without help, but Connolly’s own prose is engrossing, his ideas engaging. He was exorcising some personal demons here: his marriage was falling apart at the same time the world around him was falling apart, and the general sense of catastrophe is strong. The Unquiet Grave may not be quite the masterpiece Connolly hoped for, and I can’t endorse certain of his Freudian obsessions and conclusions. Nonetheless, the book is highly quotable, bright if only with a fractured light, and in the end it makes a powerful meditation on the significance of love and of art and of being human in a world that is often short on all three.

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Marginalia, no.353

There are two hotels in Djang: the Hotel Windsor and, across the street, the Hotel Anti-Windsor.

~ Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines

The choice in this case is less clear than the choice my wife and I conceived on seeing one day that the retail space next to Super Donut was vacant. How could we fail to succeed, we thought, if we rented the spot and opened Super Duper Donut right next door? Who would settle for a merely super donut when he could have a super duper donut instead?

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Loss and Raptors

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Your father dies unexpectedly. You wrestle your grief by training a goshawk, a temperamental, bloodthirsty, half-mad sort of bird. It’s natural enough – inevitable, almost – if you’re Helen Macdonald. It’s inevitable, too, that you’ll spend half the book you’re writing about it trying to explain your fascination with T.H. White’s troubling, unintentional masterpiece – The Goshawk – about failing utterly to train the same sort of bird. Sharing Macdonald’s interests in raptors and in White, I waited impatiently for H is for Hawk to arrive in the States. The British reviews were so gushing it was embarrassing to read them. I special ordered the book from a distributor who, by an oversight, had no hold placed on the title, and so I received my copy a few weeks before its official American publication date. It mostly lives up to the hype, though I do have a few complaints. For one, Macdonald is overfond of the word “indeed.” And two or three chapters might have been excised entirely. Macdonald makes awkward transitions sometimes from the choppy, poetic, descriptive language that shows her at her best to a slangish informality (“And I was all, bloody hell…”) that rings comparatively hollow. Her anguished emoting at the loss of her father was sometimes hard for me to slog through, but there really is an alchemy to her book. As you read it the image of Macdonald herself and of Mabel (the goshawk) blur and overlap in surprising ways, ways that alternately challenge and invite sympathy. When she’s writing from her eye (i.e., from a point of observation, either of Mabel or herself or White) rather than from her heart, Macdonald is compelling and you won’t want to put the book down. Her engagement with White and the strange appeal of his book is also well done and makes an excellent counterpoint throughout.

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Marginalia, no.352

When men are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.

~ Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

Should we find this dismaying? Our habits of imitation may be explained on the one hand by the uniformity of human desires and, on the other, by the diversity of human interests. Nature in each of us wants the same things. Food, shelter, sex, influence, books; the catalog isn’t long. And no matter how far afield our curiosity moves us (even so far as the gut flora of dust mites), we can be sure that someone else has already cut a path. We inevitably find company, even when we don’t want it.

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Marginalia, no.351

“I’ve got a couple skulls down in the crypt,” he said, “come and see those. Oh, do come and see the skulls! You are a young man out for a holiday, and you want to enjoy yourself. Come and see the skulls!”

~ Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

My idea of a good time generally does not involve skull viewing, but perhaps that’s only because the opportunity so rarely presents itself. And who wouldn’t, deep down, like a human skull for his work desk, where he can sit alas-Yoricking to his heart’s content rather than slave away at that damned presentation?

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Marginalia, no.349

We wot never whom God loveth & whom God hateth.

~ The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

The Internet was supposed to bring people together in a warm fraternal embrace of global dimensions. That’s what they told us back in the mid-’90s. Instead, it’s made it easier to hate, and be hated by, people on the other side of the world whom, in the old days, we never knew existed.

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Marginalia, no.348

That human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom; and that boredom is a direct proof that existence is in itself valueless.

~ Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

I’m convinced that we have Schopenhauer to thank for all those over-serious European films where people mope around wintry granite cities and have loveless relationships and opine about how suicide is the only really logical option. I don’t appreciate his general philosophy but there are some colorful vistas on the way to hell, and reading Schopenhauer is (like watching those awful movies) a sick kind of fun.

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