Saturday, January 31, 2009
It is a fast-paced read and it is quite different from any books by either author. They alternate (pretty much) from chapter to chapter, with two different narrators--Will Dennison (for Burroughs) and Mike Ryko (for Kerouac). They do keep with their habit of barely fictionalizing their work. But this was written in 1944 or 1945, when Kerouac was only 23 and Burroughs was just 30. The two of them would not become famous for twelve or more years. Their styles are not quite exactly what they would become--but they are not that far off. Kerouac's style is not as "poetic" as it would later be, and is more imitative of Burroughs dry, stark, noir-style diction, which is not far off from Queer or Junky. Forced to pick between the two writers in this text, I would lean in the direction of Burroughs. His chapters seem slightly more precise--but that is not a dig at Kerouac. On the whole, this is a truly excellent novel that demands to be read along with all of the other classic Beat Generation books like Naked Lunch, Queer, On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Howl.
The story is a thinly-veiled account of the story about Lucien Carr and David Kammerer, who are named Phillip Tourian and Ramsey Allen (called Al throughout the book). Tourian is 17 and Al is 40 or so and smitten with him. This is not really that far off from Queer. There are not as many prevalent drug themes, and the setting is New York City, mostly around Greenwich Village. Tourian is about to join the Merchant Marines with Mike Ryko, but certain things seem to keep getting in their way of shipping out. Meanwhile, Al hangs out with Will Dennison, Mike Ryko, Phil, a few girls named Barbara (Phil's girlfriend), Janie (Mike's girlfriend), and Agnes. Their parties are very much in the same vein as those frequently described by Kerouac in his books. Eventually, something very serious happens--more serious than anything in any of the other books. The proximity that Kerouac and Burroughs had to this event makes for a truly shocking tale, and it is not hard to understand why they wrote about this scenario so often.
The afterword by James Grauerholz is an excellent piece of literary biography. That will explain everything about this book that you need to know, but you should read the book first. Just trust me--it's a significant work of art that hasn't seen the light of day due to very serious issues of privacy and public image. More shocking and to the point--Grauerholz wrote the afterword in June of 2008--only 8 months ago! I had just finished my post on Desolation Angels on this very blog and was about to dip into Buddenbrooks! So, along with Snuff and How Fiction Works and Dead Boys, ATHWBITT is one of my most "immediate" reviews on this blog, purely by chance.
I don't want to find any quotations to give a sense of the style. Most of this book is dialogue and eschews long-winded description or poetic diversions. You just have to trust me, this book is a fantastic document. If anything, it just goes to show how work that is rejected for publication can hold great, truly significant, value. I feel like this book was rejected more for its at times hardcore language (though it has nothing on Naked Lunch, for sure!) than its lack of literary merit. Just another reason to hate the publishing industry for going after stuff that "works" and "sells" when there are much more important books being written that don't "deserve" to see the light of day because the public at large (generally held to be, ahem, a bit closed-minded about certain matters) will not provide a profitable enough audience. Excuse me while I go puke with that thought in my mind.
These are all the sets I would try to see if I were going:
Paul McCartney (just because)
Franz Ferdinand (because I've never seen them live and like them okay)
Leonard Cohen (because he is legendary)
Girl Talk (if there was nothing else on and if I wanted to try to pick someone up)
Silversun Pickups (just because I lived right by the plaza they named their band after)
Crystal Castles (because I am listening to them right now and they are cool)
M. Ward (if there was nothing better on)
The Hold Steady (because they're an awesome band, particularly live)
A Place to Bury Strangers (because I've wanted to see them a little bit)
---nobody else the first day---
TV on the Radio (would be very nice to see in that atmosphere)
Fleet Foxes (just to see what all the fuss is about)
Amy Winehouse (ditto--more interesting than the Killers at least IMO)
Henry Rollins (yes! now get offered gobs of money for a Black Flag reunion next year!)
Hercules and the Love Affair (are supposed to be good)
Superchunk (because they might be my favorite band-one of the highlights of the lineup)
Bob Mould Band (because it's the next best thing to Husker Du)
---nobody else on the second day---
My Bloody Valentine (one of the best live experiences of my life--too bad they're almost last)
The Cure (I've always wanted to see them, they rule)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs (debuting new material--are always fun)
Paul Weller (because I really like the Jam)
X (another huge highlight--been dying to see them for years)
Fucked Up (are really sweet--I predict they will play P4K though)
No Age (not the most exciting band live, but still wonderful)
Throbbing Gristle (just because)
OK, so 26 bands I really want to see for the hefty price tag of $269+fees. If I weren't going to Disneyworld, I would drop the cash (that I really don't have) on this. To me, it would be worth it. Coachella in 2004 was a wonderful experience--even if I did it totally the wrong way--and because of that I would love to go back and do it the right way now that I know what it's like. For anybody who hasn't been--you should go! And if you need any advice on how to prepare, drop me a line and I will give you a few tips.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Which is better--Buddenbrooks or Magic Mountain? Oh, that is hard. As for a "typical" novel, Buddenbrooks is more easily enjoyed. It certainly is no typical novel, but it presents the typical elements of literature in a more digestible form. It is slightly more "safe" than this novel, but there are more heartbreaking elements that might cause one to weep amidst reading. There are many death scenes as well, and most of them quite memorable. Not as many death scenes in Magic Mountain--three major ones. Enough with the comparison.
Published in 1924, The Magic Mountain concerns one Hans Castorp, 24, but soon to be confused about his actual age, even shortly after his arrival at the eponymous locale, a.k.a. Sanatorium Berghof, presided over by the melancholic, amateur painter of oils, Director Behrens, and his assistant given to "psychic dissection," Dr. Krokowski. Hans travels to the town of Davos-Dorf by train in order to visit his cousin, Joachim Ziemssen, a soldier recently afflicted with tuberculosis, dutifully following the rules of the house in order to recover as quickly as possible. But that is more difficult than it seems. Indeed, the doctors in charge of the sanatorium are quite possessive of their patients, and often extend their length-of-stay for three months or six months at a time, into what soon seems an endless illness. Hans Castorp feels left out the first few times the doctors and nurses visit all of the other patients in their rooms and pass his over, and soon he is examined by Director Behrens and diagnosed as anemic, and as having a "moist spot" on his lung. Originally intending to visit Joachim for three weeks, he is soon told that he should stay confined to his bed for the next three weeks, and should stay for at least another three months.
But he soon realizes that life is not so bad at the Berghof. There are five exquisitely prepared meals a day, and a splendid lounge chair on the balcony off his room, where he observes the house rules of the "rest cure," which is instrumental in clearing the body of toxins through the immaculate purity of the alpine air. He soon meets an Italian literary scholar, Lodovico Settembrini, who never changes his clothes and always talks about how he is a humanist, and who initially annoys Castorp, seeing him as an "organ grinder" in a dream, but who eventually grows on him and becomes his mentor and one of his best friends. A variety of other fellow patients are introduced. There is Frau Stohr, a table mate of Castorp, who is constantly mixing up words and is regarded as one of the lesser intellects (to put it kindly) at the sanatorium--also probably the source of the greatest humor in the novel. There is Herr Albin, who receives his own "mini-chapter" but who never figures prominently in the novel, despite longevity. Castorp first becomes aware of him when he is causing a ruckus, playing show-and-tell with his revolver on the common lounging area, which Castorp can hear from his balcony during rest cure:
"'But why? Why do you have it, then?' several trembling voices asked with foreboding. 'How horrible!' one voice suddenly cried--and Herr Albin nodded.
'I see you're beginning to understand,' he said. 'And in fact, that is why I keep it handy,' he went on lightly, after first inhaling and then exhaling a great quantity of smoke, despite his recent bout with pneumonia. 'I keep it at the ready for the day when all this malarkey here gets too boring and I shall have the honor of paying my final regards. It really is very simple. I've studied the matter at some length, and I have a very clear idea about how to pull it off.' (Another shriek in response to the words 'pull it off.') 'The region of the heart is out of the question--it's rather awkward to aim there. And besides, I prefer snuffing out the conscious mind on the spot, and can do so by applying one of these pretty little foreign objects to this interesting organ...' And Herr Albin pointed with his index finger to his close-cropped blond head. 'One aims here'--Herr Albin pulled the nickel-plated revolver from his pocket again and tapped the barrel against one temple--'here, just above the artery. Slick as a whistle, even without a mirror.' (93)
There are several others as well, but none more mysterious and disquieting than Frau Clavdia Chauchat, a Russian that slams the door every time she arrives for a meal. Hans is initially put off by her unrefined manners, but eventually cannot stop looking at her, until they carry on a very subtle relationship strictly governed by eye contact at meals, and perfunctory greetings in the hallway. The manner in which his obsession grows, and finally reaches its manifestation in language, after a coincidental appointment in the house X-ray room and the lightened spirit of a Mardi Gras party, is truly an exercise in anticipatory tension--a very tactful method that all those amateur writers unacquainted with Mann would be well-served to observe--economy being the unsettling virtue of contemporary literature that it is, giving sway to unrealistic situations of slapdash romance. Perhaps more intriguing is the germ of Castorp's longing for Clavdia, unveiled in the "Hippe" mini-chapter, whence it has already been mentioned that Hans dreamt of a day in the schoolyard and a person he saw there that reminded him of Clavdia on some indefinite level, and where Hans derives the connection in his mind of his former schoolmate, Pribislav Hippe, whom he knew when he was 13 and once quite meaningfully asked to borrow a pencil from. His attraction to Pribislav is rendered almost unthinkably, but is not far off from the opening segment of Mann's other great short story, "Tonio Kroger":
"The thing was that Hans Castorp had his eye on young Pribislav for a long time, had chosen him from among all the boys in the bustling schoolyard, those he knew and those he didn't know, had been interested in him, had followed him with his glances--should one say, admired him?--in any case, observed him with ever-growing sympathy. Even when walking to and from school, he looked forward to to spotting him among the other boys, to watching him talk and laugh, to picking out his voice from a good distance--that husky, opaque, slightly gruff voice. Granted, there was no sufficient reason for this sympathy--particularly if one disregarded such things as his heathen name, his status as a model pupil (which, indeed, could have played no role whatsoever), or those Kirghiz eyes, which from time to time, in certain sidelong glances, when gazing at nothing in particular, could darken, almost melt, to a veiled dusky look--but whatever the reason, Hans Castorp did not worry about the intellectual or emotional basis of his reaction, or even what name he would give it if he had to. It could not be called friendship, because he didn't really "know" Hippe. But from the start, there was not the least reason to give it a name; the furthest thing from his mind was ever to talk about the matter--that would have been most unlike him and he felt no need to do so. Besides, to give it a name would have meant, if not to judge it, at least to define it, to classify it as one of life's familiar, commonplace items, whereas Hans Castorp was thoroughly convinced at some subconscious level that anything so personal should always be shielded from definition and classification." (142)
When later Clavdia is asked for a pencil in order to attempt the drawing of a pig with his eyes closed, one is almost caught off guard by the fact that the same gesture is made to these two separate entities which become so tied in Castorp's mind that he even later tells Clavdia that he knew her before. Regardless, they do not have their hotly-anticipated tete-a-tete until page 400, and with Clavdia leaving the next day, only to return a couple years later with a traveling companion, Mynheer Peeperkorn. One would expect this personality to take up the role of villain, but Mann recognizes this trope, even spells out that expectation in the text, and instead reveals him to be a "brother" to Castorp.
So this novel is mainly about two things: Castorp's pursuit of Chauchat and his education under the tutelage of Settembrini, and later, Herr Naptha. Much is made of these two characters in all scholarly studies of this work, and indeed if one were to write a paper on this book, several of their exchanges would be prime fodder for interpretation. At its most surreal level, this novel is an allegory of the European situation in the seven years leading up to World War I. To take it even a step further, one could almost sense the growing totalitarian urge of Germany, even though it was published nine years before Hitler would ascend to chancellor of the country. In one of his philosophical duets with Settembrini, Naptha hits upon a few unsettling phrases:
"Whereupon 'youth in search of light' was forced to watch as Naphta took each argument, one after the other, and wrung its neck. He ridiculed the philanthropist's reluctance to shed blood, his reverence for life, claimed that such a reverence for life belonged to only the most banal rubbers-and-umbrellas bourgeois periods, but that the moment history took a more passionate turn, the moment a single idea, something that transcended mere 'security,' was at work, something suprapersonal, something greater than the individual--and since that alone was a state worthy of mankind, it was, on a higher plane, the normal state of affairs--at that moment, then, individual life would always be sacrificed without further ado to that higher idea, and not only that, but individuals would also unhesitatingly and gladly risk their own lives for it. His good adversary's philanthropy, he said, was aimed at robbing life of all its difficult and deadly serious aspects; its goal was the castration of life, and the same went for the determinism of its so-called science. The truth was, however, that determinism could never abolish the concept of guilt--indeed it could only add to its terrible gravity." (546)
In the introduction to the text A.S. Byatt states, "Naphta, Jew, Jesuit, connoisseur of the irrational, the anarchic, the nihilistic, is closer to Mann's own vision, which itself is closer to Nietzsche's strong pessimism than to the hopefulness of the Age of Reason," (xii) and so I expected Naphta to lend greater excitement to the pedagogic sections with Settembrini, but truth be told, these were not the most compelling portions of the work to me. Whether by the prospect of my own intellectual limitations, or those of our age, the majority of the words spoken by these two characters flew clear over my head. Only Settembrini's intended contribution to an encyclopedia where he has been commissioned to summarize all of the examples of human suffering portrayed in the history of literature captured my attention, but that is more of a tangent than a central storyline. The final scene with Naphta and Settembrini is certainly compelling, however, one of the best scenes in the novel, but I do not want to spoil it. Instead, there was one particular notion spoken by Naphta that did provide me with great catharsis, following a mention of Rousseau's notion of man in his primal state:
"'--we, for our part,' Naptha continued, 'are perhaps no less revolutionary than you, but we have always deduced, first and foremost, the supremacy of the Church over the secular state. For even if the state's ungodliness were not branded on its brow, one need only note a simple historical fact--that its origins can be traced to the will of the people and not, like those of the Church, to divine decree--and thereby prove that the state is, if not exactly a manifestation of evil, then at least a manifestation of dire necessity and sinful shortcomings.'
'The state, my dear sir--'
'I know what you think of the nation-state. 'Above all else, a love of the fatherland and a boundless hunger for glory.' That is Virgil. You amend him with a little liberal individualism, and call it democracy; but your fundamental relationship to the state remains completely untouched. You are apparently not disturbed by the fact that money is its soul. Or would you contest that? Antiquity was capitalist because it idolized the state. The Christian Middle Ages clearly saw that the secular state was inherently capitalist. 'Money will become our emperor'--that is a prophecy from the eleventh century. Do you deny that it has literally come true, making life itself a veritable hell?'" (475-476)
Indeed I am hard-pressed to consider any other work of literature that may hold more manifold philosophical inquiries than this one. Perhaps The Republic may be a more intimidating work on the whole. I am sure that works of pure philosophy by Hegel or Nietzsche or Heidegger or Schopenhauer are far more difficult to read than this text. As far as novels go, with a regular plot and storyline, comic and tragic elements, "beautiful characters" and "beautiful words" as Settembrini and brewer-patient Herr Magnus mock, conflict and resolution, rising action, falling action, etc., this work may contain more pure genius than any other single item in that category. How does one classify it--the dust jacket says something about Hans Castorp spending seven years at a sanatorium where he "succumbs to the lure of eros and the intoxication of ideas." What is the conflict? How to get out? He does not want to get out--until a rather abrupt thunderbolt strikes, so to speak. What is the rising action? Arriving, the first several pages of the book? Or rather, the painstakingly slow seduction of Frau Chauchat? I would love to read a query letter that Thomas Mann might compose for this book.
There are still greater pleasures yet to be discussed. The mini-chapter "Snow" (the book is separated in 7 larger chapters and perhaps two dozen mini-chapters) is a remarkable account of nearly freezing to death after an exploration of the alpine region on skis, complete with one of the more superlative dream sequences ever captured in literature. The trilogy of Mynheer Peeperkorn mini-chapters, not counting the "Vingt et Un" mini-chapter which recounts a raucous evening party, fit the tone near the end of the novel almost perfectly. Peeperkorn can barely speak. He speaks, he is a "personality" of great import, but he never seems to say anything, his words have no meaning. And yet what opportunities there are to talk about drugs:
"Hans Castorp smoked. Frau Chauchat likewise indulged in filter-tipped cigarettes that she took from a Russian enameled box decorated with a speeding troika, which she had laid within easy reach on the table; nor did Peeperkorn scold his neighbor for yielding to the pleasure, though he did not smoke himself, never had. If they understood him correctly, the consumption of tobacco was, in his opinion, one of those over-refined pleasures, the cultivation of which meant robbing the simpler gifts of life of their majesty--gifts and claims to which our emotional vigor scarcely did justice as it was. 'Young man,' he said to Hans Castorp, fixing him with his pale gaze and subduing him with a cultured gesture, 'young man--whatever is simple! Whatever is holy! Fine, you understand me. A bottle of wine, a steaming dish of eggs, pure grain spirits--let us first measure up to and enjoy such things before we--absolutely, my dear sir. Settled. I have known people, men and women, cocaine-sniffers, hashish-smokers, morphine addicts. Fine, my dear friend. Agreed. Let them. We should not reprove or judge. And yet for what should come first, for what is simple, grand, direct from the hand of God, for such things these people were all--settled, my friend. Condemned. Cast out. They failed to give such things their due. Whatever your name may be, young man--fine, I knew it, but have since forgotten--depravity lies not in cocaine, not in opium, not in vice as such. The unforgivable sin lies in--" (670)
Aside from Peeperkorn's jumbled thoughts on intoxicating pleasures, early on there is a mention of Hans Castorp's own feelings on smoking, which should be used in some magazine advertisement nowadays:
"'I don't understand,' Hans Castorp said. 'I don't understand how someone can not be a smoker--why it's like robbing oneself of the best part of life, so to speak, or at least of an absolutely first-rate pleasure. When I wake up I look forward to being able to smoke all day, and when I eat, I look forward to it again, in fact I can honestly say that I actually only eat so that I can smoke, although that's an exaggeration, of course. But a day without tobacco--that would be absolutely insipid, a dull, totally wasted day. And if some morning I had to tell myself: there's nothing left to smoke today, why I don't think I'd find courage to get up, I swear I'd stay in bed. You see, if a man has a cigar that burns well--and obviously it can't have any breaks or draw badly, that's really terribly annoying--what I'm saying is, that if a man has a good cigar, then he's home safe, nothing, literally nothing, can happen to him. It's the same as when you're lying on the beach, because there you lie on the beach, you know? and you don't need anything else--no work, no other amusements. Thank God, people smoke all over the world, there's nowhere you could possibly end up, as far as I know, where tobacco's unknown. Even polar explorers lay in a good supply of smokes to get them over their hardships--that's always struck a sympathetic chord in me whenever I've read about it. Because things can go very badly--let's assume, for instance, that things would go miserably for me--but as long as I had my cigar, I'd carry on, that much I know, it could bring me through anything.'
'All the same, it's a sign of a rather weak will,' Joachim said, 'to be so dependent on tobacco...'"(55-56)
Though this is quite a serious book taken as a whole, when each scene is scrutinized down to its most basic elements, it is quite comic and absurd. Take for instance, one of the final mini-chapters, "Highly Questionable," which features Ellen Brand, a new patient with supernatural powers, who is called upon to contact ghosts in two different scenes. By the time that you have made it this far into the book, you may be compelled to believe anything that is written in it, and a scene which demands such unreasonable suspension of disbelief is temporarily rendered profound. That is ultimately the effect of reading The Magic Mountain--the reader becomes "one of us up here" and distances themselves from the real world, forgetting their former prejudices and adopting a tableau of renewed convictions. Sprinkled throughout, there are little utterances which cannot fail to capture one's sympathies. One particularly broken character, Herr Wehsal, who shares Castorp's obsession with Chauchat in an even more pathetic condition, reminded this reader too much of himself and inspired a moment of self-reflection:
"'Did you see,' he asked, 'how she was making fun of you, because you had to ride alone with me? Yes, yes, that's her way of adding insult to injury. Does it annoy and disgust you all that much to have to sit beside me?'
'Pull yourself together, Wehsal, and refrain from such ugly comments,' Hans Castorp rebuked him. 'Women smile on all sorts of occasions, just to smile. It is pointless to worry about it every time. Why are you forever cringing and writhing? Like all of us, you have your good points and your bad. For example, you play the music of Summer Night's Dream very prettily, and not everyone can do that. You must play it again soon.'
'Yes, there you sit offering me your condescending advice,' the wretched man replied, 'and have no idea how much insult is in your consolation, that you only humiliate me all the more with it. It's easy for you to offer comfort from your high horse, because even if you look rather silly at the moment, at least you had your chance once, and were in seventh heaven, good God, and felt her arms around your neck--good God, just to think of it burns at my gut and tears at my heart--and, then, knowing full well all that was granted you, you look down on me in my wretched torment...'" (732-733)
As we come to the close of this lengthy review, I urge you all to find some time in your busy lifetime to seek out this text and experience it for yourself. It took me nearly a month to read it from start to finish and it was certainly the highlight of this particular January. As the cold dawdles and the responsibilities of life continue to squeeze one in its vise, it is quite an escape and a relief to enter a world where rest cures are the rule and the cultivation of the body and mind are the loftiest goals. It would be hard to name this the single greatest book I had ever read, but it certainly makes for a strong case.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
-14 "best of Merge artists" mix CDs by various celebrities
-1 remix CD
-1 covers CD
-1 comedy CD
-1 coffee table book of all Merge album covers
-1 box to hold all of this stuff
-also downloadable content, such as the latest Superchunk bootleg show in their "clambake" series.
The only thing missing is a Merge t-shirt.
I don't expect any rich person to swoop in and ask me what my mailing address is for no good reason, but I wanted to write about this because I believe that Merge is, pretty consistently, one of the greatest record labels ever. They are right alongside Matador and Sub Pop and Touch & Go, and they perhaps eclipse K, Dischord, and SST. They are holding a festival the same way that Touch & Go and Sub Pop have for their anniversary years. For those of you unaware of who may play this festival, I will offer my dream line-up for this event. It promises to be one of the premiere musical gatherings of 2009. It is from July 22-26, 2009, so hardcore indie rockers will probably be able to go to the Pitchfork Festival (assuming it will happen again this year, and I would be shocked and disappointed if it didn't) and then return to Chicago for Lollapalooza right after. Then a month later they could go to New York for All Tomorrow's Parties. This, of course, is way later than Coachella, and who knows whether that gathering will prove more appealing than last year. I might just have to return to L.A. if it does. (Ed. Sadly, though Coachella will happen to take place over my birthday weekend, and would make for a wonderful gift to myself--particularly since both Morrissey and a Pavement reunion are rumored as headliners--I will be spending my 26th birthday in Disneyworld with my parents and little sister. This would not be such a cause for complaint if I had not gone to Disneyland twice in 2008.)
So, a 5-day festival in North Carolina should include between 30 and 50 bands. I don't know 30 bands on Merge Records, but here are all of the ones I would pray to sign-up:
The Arcade Fire
Trail of the Dead
East River Pipe
The Magnetic Fields
M. Ward/She & Him
and finally the band that could make the festival an absolute must for all of its die-hards:
Neutral Milk Hotel
I like NMH but nowhere near as much as MBV, so their reunion would not be enough for me to make the trek to NC. However, people seem to be very obsessed with them, and their reunion would certainly make for quite the story. Superchunk playing anywhere will always make me think twice about where I should be, but I'm not in the sort of financial condition I was in a year-and-a-half ago when I saw them play in Chicago and then saw them play in New York a few days later in the course of the same week. I would also assume that other bands not necessarily on Merge might be asked to play, since this festival is so long. But there are a lot of bands on the label that I didn't list, so who knows what's going to happen. I just think it's great that they are putting together such an extravagant celebration for the whole year of 2009. Okay, hiatus resumed.