An Avocado Grows in Paris

Another book influencing its predecessors is Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, originally published in 1958 and reissued in 2007 by NYRB, which includes an afterword written by Dundy in 2006. The Dud Avocado follows the period young Sally Gorce chooses an expat existence in Paris over college, expenses not exactly all paid for by a concerned uncle, so Sally’s survival, such as it is, depends also on chance, her wit, new acquaintances, and part time gigs, including as an actress in a small theatre. The precursors include the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises, Scott Fitzgerald and Lost Generation company, and other coming of age in Paris tall or short tales.

The characteristics of Dundy’s book include wit, sarcasm and satire, humor. As an example, consider this section which follows the thoughts of a wealthier (than Sally) English woman:

“We sat at the cafe until lunch time. A couple, two English people, sat down at the table next to ours just in time to see the Bullfighter and all his pals get into a shiny lavender Cadillac and drive off in a blaze of flashing chrome. The woman, a large Junoesque creature with a sensationally unhappy expression on her face, had slapped on an enormous pair of sunglasses as he came out and had been studying him intently. Suddenly she turned to her companion. ‘Well, there’s another dream gone down the drain – he must be every bit as high as my waist,’ she announced sullenly. ‘He really looks such a boring little man, doesn’t he, so utterly clueless in these revolting American clothes, I can’t think why we’re going to do this picture. Basil wants us all to go down to San Sebastian to watch him on Sunday but I don’t think I’ll bother.'”

p. 178-179 NRYB 2007 edition

The above excerpt could have been a short story written by Hemingway had Ernest stayed in Paris and become a French theorist in the 1950’s instead of continuing to take himself seriously and move his feast to, I don’t know, Idaho. Anyway, Sally continues listening to the remarkably disenchanted woman as she complains about the noise on her morning plane ride into Paris:

“‘I suppose it simply doesn’t occur to some people that one might be trying to recover from the night before.’ She took a large gulp of her drink. ‘I’d quite like to see the bullfight though, wouldn’t you? I do adore cruelty. Everybody back home’s too dreary, going on and on about the horses. Papa’s forbidden me across the threshold if I go to one. Can you believe it? That’s an added incentive.'”

179

During her stay, Sally loses, or has stolen, or both, her passport, and the plot thickens as a result, and one might recall Casablanca and the difficulty of obtaining transit papers, which, today, might include letters from one’s doctor certifying Covid free status before boarding, and again, one presumes, after landing?

Ah, the vicarious joys of reading, where one need not wear a mask or worry about the breath of one’s travel mates or show documents prior to entry. Speaking of the joys of reading, enclosed please find a pic from my recent Fall reading stack. I continue to be drawn to women writers of the mid 20th Century, most recently having discovered Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor. Natalia Ginzburg’s writing in style and substance remains untouchable, essays and fiction and her mix of the two. The Muriel Barbery I came across in a briefly mentioned review in The New Yorker and having enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog bought it and liked it enough to send a copy to one of my sisters, the one who had recommended Hedgehog to me. What goes around comes around. Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair, in the stack, remains unread. I bought it some time ago, before the general despair now enveloping us all. The Cello Suites I’ve already mentioned – a gift from one of my other sisters. I was going to write up a post briefly mentioning each of the books finished this Fall. Maybe I just did. Anyway, if you find yourself on the way to Paris one of these days, you might consider taking along a copy of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado. And keep an eye on your passport.

Fall Reading 2021

It Takes a Little Getting Used To

I’ve been reading the new Mel Brooks book, All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business (Ballantine Books, 2021), aloud evenings for family entertainment. It takes a little getting used to, but it beats Jeopardy, which I’ve given up along with ice cream as a near nightly habit moving into the new year. I got the Mel Brooks book for Susan as a Christmas gift. She likes Mel Brooks. She’s very knowledgeable about films and actors and singers and such. Remembers lyrics of far away songs and where she was and how old she was when she saw a movie and who she saw it with. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was in the film industry in Hollywood, a career scene painter, back in the days when movies were made mostly on backlots and required giant backdrops of scenery painted, so the action filmed in the foreground would look like it was done on location. His specialty was clouds, skies, oceans, also buildings and street scenes, fronts, false facades, and interior walls and columns and windows. One year, they flew him to Italy to paint some backdrops for Ben Hur. He worked for the studios. He was an artist, a painter, in the union. He used bristle brush and airbrush. I probably wouldn’t get in line to watch Ben Hur now, but it was a very successful and influential film. I don’t know if Susan’s grandfather ever met Mel Brooks, but Mel might have been influenced by the Ben Hur film when making his History of the World films. Anyway, Mel uses the phrase “It took a little getting used to” frequently in All About Me! For example, when he first eats the Army chow called “shit on a shingle” he says, “it took a little getting used to.”

We’re in Chapter Three, titled World War II, and 18 year old Mel’s just finished a 1945 seasick crossing of the North Atlantic in February and is now in the French countryside of Normandy training to join an Engineer Battalion. In an aside, a flash-forward, he returns to the French farm while in Europe during the filming of The Elephant Man (1980), which was produced by Brooksfilms. And when Mel gets to the farm, he’s greeted by the little French farm kid he befriended with candy in 1945, the kid now the size of a bear. “Mon Dieu! Mel?” the now grown kid says, recognizing the now middle aged ex-soldier.

It takes a little getting used to, but I enjoy reading aloud, even if Susan is the only person in the audience. A book like All About Me! lends itself to an oral reading, straight ahead first person narrative memoir with plenty of room for interruption to discuss what’s going on, complete with jokes and laughs and dialog, anecdote and history, and old photos to share with the audience.

Yeah, it takes a little getting used to, oral reading for entertainment, for the reader and listener, but it’s fun and engaging and certainly beats bad television, but probably not the football championships. Add another lockdown activity to the list of things to do during the Great Covid Scare.

Awash in Baroque

How do we recall a past occurring prior to our visit to the planet? The physicists are busy trying to recall the origin of the universe, and beyond. Meantime, I’ve been busy visiting the Baroque era of the 17th and 18th Centuries. We discover timelines to be arbitrarily drawn. Borges explains in his Kafka and his Precursors, arguing how Kafka influenced Shakespeare, for example. And J. S. Bach, even when played on so called period instruments in a cold church in Saxony, continues to be influenced by Thelonious Monk. It’s best to keep the algorithms confused, guessing.

For some time, Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower sat buried in the to-be-read stack, even as all her other novels were read, some more than once: The Bookshop, At Freddie’s, Offshore. The problem seemed to rest in the tag historical novel. But couldn’t Offshore also be considered a so-called historical novel? In any case, it was Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, thoroughly enjoyed, that brought about a reconsideration of The Blue Flower, bringing it to the top of the stack, opened, and listened to.

Here is an example of how Penelope influences the Baroque era of Saxony:

“‘I am not sure about that,’ said Fritz. ‘Luck has its rules, if you can understand them, and then it is scarcely luck.’
‘Yes, but every evening at dinner, to sit there while these important people amused themselves by giving you too much to drink, to have your glass filled up again and again with fine wines, I don’t know what…What did they talk about?’
‘Nature-philosophy, galvanism, animal magnetism and freemasonry,’ said Fritz.
‘I don’t believe it. You drink wine to forget things like that. And then at night, when the pretty women come creaking on tiptoe up the stairs to find the young innocent, and tap at your door, T R I U M P H !’
‘There are no women,’ Fritz told him, ‘I think perhaps my uncle did not invite any.’
‘No women!’ cried Erasmus. ‘Who then did the washing?'”

The Blue Flower, 1995, Penelope Fitzgerald, page 30 in the Second Mariner Books edition 2014.

It’s that bit of who does the washing, to cite but one example, which begins her 20th Century novel and remains a motif throughout where Penelope influences the Baroque era that is her setting.

Weather Report from Portland

I’ve been living baroquely lately, coming into the new year, the confused seasons out of control – fall to winter for now though here seemingly obvious. It’s cold and wet and dark out, the darkest days of the year, the longest nights, the hardest streets. The homeless are between a rock and a hard place. They are the meek inheriting the earth, for what that’s worth. A week ago, when it started to snow, we were exactly six months from the freak heat wave of late June when one day we reached an absurd 116 degrees. Where I came of age, the southwest side of Los Angeles County, near the beach at the north end of South Santa Monica Bay, South Bay, for short, the mostly small, originally factory lodging, houses, and our little corner house, were plotted between the oil refinery and sand dunes and ocean and the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant and the sprawling airport and the growing aerospace industrial parks, while there were on the east side of our small town still strawberry fields, a few horses in stalls, and a railroad track from the east running behind our backyards through a curving dusty chasm, what the kids called Devil’s Path (or Devil’s Pass), a short cut along the tracks into town, that ended at a small depot near Main Street and Grand Avenue. But in spite of all the brouhaha surrounding us, the ocean nearby was the weather.

There were only two seasons in my childhood: summer, which was the school vacation season, and the school year, the months on either side of vacation. The weather had little to do with our sense of seasonality. The sky was close to blue, the water almost blue and hues of such, the yards and parks and baseball diamonds multi shades of green, the streets mostly clean. Of course there hung about our heads the gunbarrel-blue cake of atrocious smog, though not so much nearer the water, unless the Santa Ana winds were blowing, maybe for a week or so once or twice a year was all in those days. And June might have been the foggy season, but the breezes off the ocean usually pushed and cleaned as they blew east across the big basin, through the canyons up into the hills and up the long boulevards that ran east and west, and blew too through our house because there was always a window open (or broken) somewhere or a door might open or close any time of the day or night as we came and went to and fro through the blues and greens and sandy yellow days and well lit nights of Los Angeles and environs.

Why did humans leave Africa? If that’s what happened, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that our history, what little we can be sure of, might be a bit more compound-complex. In any case, I can’t answer that; I don’t even know why I left Los Angeles.

We live, it’s been suggested, but I don’t remember where I first saw or heard this, at the bottom of a sea of atmosphere (I googled the phrase just now and came up with about 30,000 results, so instead of quote marks, I’ve italicized it). But nothing like water, the rain, to wash out one’s punctuation marks.

Punctuated equilibrium suggests a paragraph whose flow of ideas is steady and stable, one thought logically following another in a gradual evolutionary movement that can be traced forward and backward and annotated. Sudden changes are more difficult to explain.

In Steve Martin’s movie “L. A. Story,” the main character is a television weatherman. But there is no weather in his Los Angeles, by which is meant change in weather. That is a paragraph without a main idea.

Locally, on the television news, consisting mostly of stable formatting, the studio news teams, that is, the players on camera, consist of an anchor, the sportscaster, and the weatherperson – the great American Triumphant (one pictures Benjamin Franklin flying his kite in a lightning storm, the on location camera crew shaking in their boots). The weatherpersons rarely seem to be given enough time to elaborate, as evidenced by their speed of speech. They sound like hawkers at an auction. The numbers and maps, highs and lows, radar of fronts, systems, and directions all whiz by, “put in motion,” and “hour by hour,” as they say, so quickly that as if to include the weather at all in the newscast seems to have been an afterthought. And the channels devoted to weather 24 by 7 are no different, everyone in a hurry to get out of the weather, whatever it is.

The newshour (or half hour, as our attention spans continue to wane) is not an essay, even though the principal parts may seem like paragraphs in some unified whole. The news relies on something new happening, but not even sudden changes in the fossil record can satisfy our quest to know, let alone understand, what’s going down.

Are we in the midst of a sudden change in the fossil record? Story at 11.

The Reading Crisis Revisited: Amazon and the Gatekeepers Against the Wall

Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.

First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”

In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:

Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

Bookforum, Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.

Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).

But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.

Christmas Wish List

To see the Star
where you are
near and far.

“Zat you?
Santy?”
“No, not me.”

A message
from Mary.

fir tree shadows
wet planet
atmosphere.

There is no list
like this
upon Santa’s
largesse lap.

The Star that turns
Christmas Blue
the hue of you.

Blues
for Christmas.
Baby, it’s cold.

the fallen leaves to fly
back up to the trees!

plants asleep
astonishingly
the cat goes out.

To hear what
what does not
make noise
silent sphere.

Wanna rock around
a well-lit tree
barefoot with thee.

Foggy morning snow
blur of yellow lights
across the street.

thru rear windows
to watch the night.

and comes back in
as white as snow
in the longest night.

To hold the star
in your hands
to warm
your fingers.

Christmas, 1969

At the Bowling Alley

The bowling alley sounds like a bottling factory
its lines uncorked and every lane a light show
of spilling prolepsis and soft bottomed shoe slide
with curving anticipation and explosive excitement.

Splits appear and show in the piqued spin
of the turn about after the pause as the ball
rolls to its clatter in the gutter of chagrin
at the pins left standing and smiling

wingless pigeons dithering in place
the lane vast with its snowy beer
stained past the air warm with smoke
pin boys hiding in darkened wings.