Zorro he was not

Recently, I wondered aloud about the seemingly substantial number of Great Writers who suffered brothel-related misadventures/trauma in pubescence. Someone appropriately named “tlon” simply replied “Borges,” and sure enough, here it is in this month’s Harper’s (and elsewhere, no doubt) in a review of Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life:

Williamson has Borges caught between the noble sword of his heroic grandfather and the gaucho knife. His mother enforced the one; his father, the other. Borges went off to his first day of school with a knife his father gave him for fighting duels on the playground.


When Borges was a shy adolescent, his father made an appointment for him at a Swiss whorehouse. He couldn’t bring himself to go. The trauma of this reluctance, Williamson explains, remained with him throughout life: he had let down his father’s chivalric ideal of a man wielding sword and penis with equal fervor, a man with balls enough to engage in a bloody knife fight at every opportunity. On the other hand, he had lived up to his mother’s ideal of moral purity.

Somewhere, surely, a Freudian is smiling.

David Mitchell: Complacent? And does anyone care?

Dueling mini-reviews of Cloud Atlas (courtesy of Kevin Wignall and Ed) pulled from Tingle Alley’s backblog:

KW: David Mitchell is, Im told, a lovely person, but he represents everything I detest in fiction. Ive tried to read both Number 9 Dream and Cloud Atlas and found both of them messy, too in love with themselves, and wilfully complacent about the need to tell a story in a compelling way. Id be happy for Ed to try and put me straight – I remain open-minded – but if the argument is, sometimes you have to work hard to appreciate a great work of art, Im sorry, it doesnt wash. Ive said the same about David Peace. The difficulty of a story should be in the content, not in the telling. We are in the business of entertaining people, and any writer who forgets that, no matter what the subject matter, deserves not to be read.

EC: It may be a difference of sensibilities. Even so, Cloud Atlas is such a rich, goofy, operatic and downright kickass work that hits so many fantastic tones (satire, pathos, pulp, nostalgia, concern for humanity, futuristic argot, surrealism, light pomo) that I just cant see why anyone looking for a bracing literary ride wouldnt love it. It does require a dictionary. It does require looking up arcane references. And, yes, its a showboat. But the plots are so entertaining, the prose so invigorating, and the five puzzling plots much fun to pick through (although admittedly the book loses steam near the end) that why would anyone possibly care? Hell, you could argue that Faulkner, Joyce, Gaddis, Barth or Pynchon are complacent to some extent. But then, for me, plunging into arcana is what makes literature worthwhile.

I know where I stand on this one, but what say you, EdHeads and David Mitchell fans/detractors? Is Mitchell generally making his readers work too hard or is this just a case of to-ma-to/to-mah-to?

We Have the Facts and We’re Voting “Asshole”

Alas, a bit of research shows that Herr Hamsun did indeed suffer from a case of Nazism. Worse, if that’s possible, he said and did things that rocket him way past “casual flirtation”–like meeting with Joseph Goebbels and then sending Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift:

Hamsun’s loyalty to the National Socialist New Order in Europe was well appreciated in Berlin, and in May 1943 Hamsun and his wife were invited to visit Joseph Goebbels, a devoted fan of the writer. Both men were deeply moved by the meeting, and Hamsun was so affected that he sent Goebbels the medal which he had received for winning the Nobel Prize for idealistic literature in 1920, writing that he knew of no statesman who had so idealistically written and preached the cause of Europe. Goebbels in return considered the meeting to have been one of the most precious encounters of his life and wrote touchingly in his diary: “May fate permit the great poet to live to see us win victory! If anybody deserved it because of a high-minded espousal of our cause even under the most difficult circumstances, it is he.” The following month Hamsun spoke at a conference in Vienna organized to protest against the destruction of European cultural treasures by the sadistic Allied terror-bombing raids. He praised Hitler as a crusader and a reformer who would create a new age and a new life. Then, three days later, on June 26, 1943, his loyalty was rewarded with a personal and highly emotional meeting with Hitler at the Berghof. As he left, the 84 year-old Hamsun told an adjutant to pass on one last message to his Leader: “Tell Adolf Hitler: we believe in you.”

Fucking hell. This doesn’t quite answer the question of whether I should read Hamsun or not, but to say it dampens my enthusiasm (in advance) would be an understatement.

Hungry for Accolades

I’ve found that The Writer’s Almanac is a lot easier to enjoy when you separate the content from Garrison Keillor’s soporific mumble. From today’s entry:

It’s the birthday of novelist Knut Hamsun, born Knut Pedersen in Lom, Norway (1859). Author of Hunger (1890) and The Growth of the Soil (1917), he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. He said, “Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be transformed into a color, light, a smell. It is the writer’s task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored.”

Any Hamsun fans out there? I confess to being completely ignorant of his work, so I’m wondering if I should be running to my local bookseller or not. (I assume that’s a “yes,” but pls. elaborate for my personal edification.)

Like most Nobel Laureates, his Banquet Speech is worth a look, if you please. Extract:

It is as well perhaps that this is not the first time I have been swept off my feet. In the days of my blessed youth there were such occasions; in what young person’s life do they not occur? No, the only young people to whom this feeling is strange are those young conservatives who were born old, who do not know the meaning of being carried away. No worse fate can befall a young man or woman than becoming prematurely entrenched in prudence and negation. Heaven knows that there are plenty of opportunities in later life, too, for being carried away. What of it? We remain what we are and, no doubt, it is all very good for us!

From Whitewater to Whitewash

In response to a request from Edith Wharton to produce a poem for her 1916 anthology, The Book of the Homeless, WB Yeats took the opportunity to issue a general put down to poets who get involved in politics. In On Being Asked For a War Poem, he advocates a policy of conscientious inaction, suggesting that “a poet’s mouth [should] be silent”, and claiming, rather bombastically, that “We have no gift to set a statesman right”. While there is scope for a charge of hypocrisy – a performance of Yeats’s nationalist play Cathleen ni Houlihan at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was later credited with sparking the Easter Rising – Yeats’s message is clear: politics and poetry don’t mix.

John Kerry, apparently, does not agree. The presidential hopeful who yesterday gave his address to the Democratic national convention has adopted Let America Be America Again, the title of a 1938 poem by American poet Langston Hughes, as his official campaign trail slogan. What’s more, in case anyone missed the point, he has gone on to quote extensively from the poem in his campaign speeches. When announcing his choice of John Edwards as running mate at a rally in Pittsburgh, for example, he chose to round off his speech by proclaiming the association between his position and aims and those of the poet. To resounding cheers, he said:

“Langston Hughes was a poet, a black man and a poor man. And he wrote in the 1930s powerful words that apply to all of us today. He said ‘Let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be for those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, for those whose hand at the foundry – something Pittsburgh knows about – for those whose plough in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again.’ “

The Guardian on John Kerry & campaign trail poetry. Elsewhere, Slate‘s Timothy Noah is less than pleased with this adoption, saying that Kerry–in his preface to a newly published book featuring the poem–is willfully misreading and performing “a whitewash” (pun intended, you betcha) on the Stalinist vision Hughes was espousing. Here’s Kerry:

It was in that climate that Langston Hughes, Black America’s unofficial poet laureate, wrote his powerful poetic lament, “Let America Be America Again.” While it is the litany of the great promise of opportunity that has drawn so many of the world’s disaffected to our shores, the poem is also a call to make that promise real for all Americansespecially for the descendants of slaves.

Not unmindful of the duality of meanings, I was drawn to incorporate the words of the poem in my 2004 presidential campaign, because it reminds us that America is a nation always in the process of becoming, always striving to build “a more perfect union.” We must not forget that African Americans and women were written out of the Constitution before they were written in.

Now Noah:

Chatterbox applauds Kerry’s political message, but as lit crit, this is a whitewash. What “duality of meanings” is Kerry talking about? The poem has only one meaning: America’s golden promise is hooey. It’s hooey for blacks, it’s hooey for the farmer, it’s hooey for the Native Americans. It’s hooey for the entire proletariat. Time to seize the means of production!

Jeez, Noah. Trying switching to decaf or maybe looser underwear. You want to go back to the dark days of Reagan’s Born in the U.S.A.? Well?