On Symbols

Symbols attract as well as repel, signal good or evil, nearness or farness. Roadside signs first used to advertise products, cigarettes or shampoos, evolve to say something abstract: Jesus Saves. A symbol is a belief.

An abandoned roadside sign, the billboard, its wooden legs leaning askew, its paper layered panel weather faded, becomes a symbol of change, of nostalgia, its country road long ago bypassed by an interstate highway, its message no longer visible or intelligible to the passing strangers, one of whom, at a quick glance, scratches his head and wants to shower or reaching into the glove box finds the pack empty and begins to watch for a filling station, motel, or cafe to appear on the horizon.

A series of signs spaced along the side of a road at planned intervals may form pieces connected to frame a storyline, like a sentence connects words to form a complete thought. The symbols pass fast and furiously. The whole edifice constructed by some outlier becomes part of the local landscape. In town, the abandoned grade school is converted to a micro brewery and bed and breakfast inn. The old one room church is now a real estate office.

The romanticist, who loves symbols, is a quick change artist who substitutes his own for the ones he was given:

“It is always, as in Wordsworth, the individual sensibility, or, as in Byron, the individual will, with which the Romantic poet is preoccupied; and he has invented a new language for the expression of its mystery, its conflict and confusion. The arena of literature has been transferred from the universe conceived as a machine, from society conceived as an organization, to the individual soul.”

Edmund Wilson, “Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930,” Scribner, 1931.

That soul comes and goes like the moon, now new, now waning, and the reader might be caught in the moon illusion, where symbols appear larger when closer to the tree line, where a tree is traded for shade or a home.

In today’s political jargon, as writ large in media, classicism is conservative, romanticism liberal, the symbols of the conservative fixed and permanent, those of the romantic fluid and ambiguous:

“Blake had already contradicted contemptuously the physical theory of the eighteenth century. And to Wordsworth, the countryside of his boyhood meant neither agriculture nor neo-classic idylls, but a light never seen on land or sea. When the poet looked into his own soul, he beheld something which did not seem to him reducible to a set of principles of human nature.”

same as above

The classicist looks at the billboard and sees an advertisement upon the landscape; the romantic looks at the billboard and sees an advertisement as part of the landscape:

There is no real dualism, says Whitehead, between external lakes and hills, on the one hand, and personal feelings, on the other: human feelings and inanimate objects are interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional notions of laws of cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea.

same as above

And, as science advances, the soul retreats. It’s difficult if not impossible to register and catalog the movement of the soul:

“Every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other; and it is, in consequence, impossible to render our sensations as we actually experience them through the conventional and universal language of ordinary literature. Each poet has his unique personality; each of his moments has its special tone, its special combination of elements. And it is the poet’s task to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings. Such a language must make use of symbols: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or description, but only by a succession of words, of images, which will serve to suggest it to the reader. The Symbolists themselves, full of the idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes and chords. But the words of our speech are not musical notation, and what the symbols of Symbolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects – for one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poetry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake: one has to guess what the images are being applied to. And Symbolism may be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means – a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors – to communicate personal feelings.

same as above

The classicist wants to be sure of things, and has a fixed point of view, wants to demolish the target; the romantic lives with variable viewpoints, ambiguity – it’s enough to get close. The symbols of the classicist do not suggest beyond convention, but can only denote. In any case, neither seems satisfied with what unwritten laws they develop. A tree at an oasis to a desert nomad is not the same tree as the one under which the family on vacation parks its recreational vehicle in the state forest campground, not to mention the one in the wilderness no human has ever seen. And, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake says in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

Or a billboard, for that matter.


One might approach the memoir form, one’s own memoir, with a casual indifference, for no doubt everyone else will, while it takes a bit of faith to trust as total fact any stranger’s avowed remembrances. There’s also the problem of what’s to be left unsaid, for any deletion – deliberate, determinate, accidental – turns down the path of fiction, yet all of experience, the universe of one’s life from its big bang forward or the unexpurgated version of the time one visited (fill in your personal fave), will take way too long. Even Proust must have left some stuff out, and Knausgard, if for no other reason that they had not eyes in the back of their heads. It’s not what we remember, but how that fills dreams and notebooks. And most folks are quickly bored hearing one’s dreams recast in words over morning coffee. While the day-book or journal is not quite yet a memoir, often neither the what nor how of memory but the immediate reaction to a still unfolding event.

I’m looking into again Edmund Wilson’s “The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, Edited with an Introduction by Leon Edel” (First printing, 1980). From the Editor’s Foreword:

“Wilson intended his journals to be edited as ‘trade’ books, not as scholarly editions; he wanted no scholarly apparatus and in particular no treatment of his text as if it were sacrosanct. Journals are written in the rough; and he knew journal keepers repeat themselves. He wanted his slips of the pen silently corrected without the inevitable sic and explanatory notes.”


Fortunately for this reader, L. E. ignored Wilson’s want and provided copious explanatory notes as to who’s being talked about, why important to the era, and what’s going on around them at the time. Though Wilson also logs enough everyday observation to make notes unnecessary:

July 18 [Journey to the Soviet Union, 1935]. Rowing on the river at Marmontovka, Free Day – little curling river with grass-green banks, with people, largely naked, on the banks: they look better without their clothes because the clothes are no good – very nice to see them – blond girls with white skin, thick round legs, and big round breasts, boys burned brown except around the hips, where they had been wearing trunks, where it was comparatively white – bathing suits seemed to be becoming more and more perfunctory, they seemed more and more to be leaving them off – the factory, where a very rudimentary little swimming dock of planks had been built; at the end a dam and falls, beyond which you couldn’t go any farther, a flock of white goats; two men in a pup tent, a man in a shack; an elderly man and woman sitting on something, turned away from each other reading the papers.


I pulled Wilson’s “The Thirties” off the “now reading” shelf (aka books with bookmarks still somewhere in them), looking for parallels to today’s “The Twenties,” though we are of course only just into them. In a long note, Edel says “He [Wilson] could not see why the American leftists should not be as critical of this [the Stalinist regime] as they were of other tyrannies – Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Franco’s” (714).

Of closer if not exact parallel is Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” which begins with:

“It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war very far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep – the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved.”

3. First Vintage International Edition, May 2007.

“Appendix I,” which includes Nemirovsky’s notes taken from her notebooks, begins:

“My God! what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters. Whether you look at it from a mystical or a personal point of view, it’s just the same. Let us keep a cool head. Let us harden our heart. Let us wait.

21 June [1941]. Conversation with Pied-de-Marmite. France is going to join hands with Germany. Soon they will be calling up people here but ‘only the young ones.’ This was no doubt out of consideration towards Michel. One army is crossing Russia, the other is coming from Africa. Suez has been taken. Japan with its formidable fleet is fighting America. England is begging for mercy.

25 June. Unbelievable heat. The garden is decked out with the colours of June – azure, pale-green and pink. I lost my pen. There are still many other worries such as the threat of a concentration camp, the status of Jews etc. Sunday was unforgettable. The thunderbolt about Russia* hit our friends after their ‘mad night’ down by the lake. And in order to [?] with them, everyone got drunk. Will I write about it one day?”

373, *Footnote 2: “Germany invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941.”

What a Reader Wants

“To be sure of getting something above the average,” Edmund Wilson tells us, in his disparaging take on the genre, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” (October 14, 1944), “I waited for new novels by writers who are particularly esteemed by connoisseurs.” But Wilson is repeatedly disappointed, in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, in Agatha Christie, in Dashiell Hammett. Wilson acknowledges Graham Greene may be on to something: “The spy story may perhaps only now be realizing its poetic possibilities.” And Wilson separates “the psychological horror [story] an entirely different matter.” But of the detective story, he has trouble understanding its popularity. He ascribes the taste for it to a search for guilt in a world where nearly everyone seems in some way partly to blame. Since no one is trusted, everyone under suspicion, the detective performs the clarifying and clear calm act of calling out the true bad guy, and everyone else, including the reader, is free to go.

For readers who rely upon the opinions of connoisseurs, The New York Review Books: Classics is the place to go. From its online About description:

The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

Maybe “the classroom” and “discoveries” serve different purposes. In any case, last week, in another walk around the block, I pulled a NRYB Classics out of the neighborhood library box down around the corner in the lot at the Line 15 stop. It bears an odd title, mainly for a syntax which seems uncharacteristic of the sentence structure found in the book: “Black Wings Has My Angel.” Written by Elliott Chaze, it’s the only one of his novels worth reading, according to connoisseur Barry Gifford, who took on the “Introduction” responsibility for the 2016 NYRB reissue of the 1953 Gold Medal Books original. It certainly is a discovery.

“Black Wings” has the look and feel and taste and aftertaste of the detective story genre, but it’s not a detective story. There is a detective, an FBI agent, in fact, but he remains a distant foil, lurking off center stage like a bad guy. Gifford thinks Billy Wilder “would have been the ideal director” for a movie make. I’m thinking Alfred Hitchcock, or the Coen Brothers. “Black Wings” is a dark, dark, dark situation comedy. Gifford also points to Chaze’s obvious study and use of the Hemingway style: “brief, often blunt sentences devoid of unnecessary frills or explication.” That is mostly true, but for the plot and themes, a greater literary debt is probably owed Theodore Dreiser and the characteristics of the Naturalist school of literature: the ironies of fate; the missing brick responsible eventually for the collapse of the wall; chance reversals; inescapable socioeconomic determinations; greed for a wealth and lifestyle little understood by a protagonist looking to get ahead of society’s mind your manners expectations and aversions to rumination.

Though we know the first person narrator protagonist of “Black Wings” is a bad guy almost from the get go, we’ve a lot to learn about him. His fatal flaw, to use a Naturalist literary term, is falling in love. How love and bad guys get defined and treated are themes that are illustrated outside the norms of genre literature. His disappointments, his reversals, are tragicomic. His attitude might even borrow something from Camus’s “The Stranger.” “Black Wings Has My Angel” is a study of the outsider who thinks he wants in to something he doesn’t fully understand until it’s much too late. He isn’t a true existential character, because his decisions are too fraught with misunderstandings, false preconceptions and assumptions, misused talents.

Is the protagonist of “Black Wings” a free agent? Or is he at the mercy of an impossibly complicated series of chance events leading inexorably to one ignoble unavoidable end? Of protagonists, we usually ask what it is they want, and what it is that’s preventing them (the antagonist) from getting what they want. One thing he wants is to confess his story, but his story is not an apology. What he wants changes throughout the story and at the end remains ambiguous and irrelevant, such that we might not get what Edmund Wilson saw to be the attraction of the detective story – we might not get the feeling we are free to go.

Notes on John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”

John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” is a conservative and cynical, short poetic novel. It’s poetic because its episodic movement is tense and packed, its diction deliberate, satisfying Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry. It’s cynical because of its unrelenting brutality posing as reality. Must one always suppose that to live in seediness and squalor means to live unhappily? The antonym climb from the seedy leads too often to the high-class, which breeds its own pot of seed. And it’s cynical because it views unrequited love a mean and debasing disease; it’s cynical as Nietzsche is cynical – it’s nihilistic. It’s conservative because the characters are portrayed as hypocrites who get what they deserve, base characters whose tasteless origins explain their bad decisions. It’s conservative because its hopes are grounded in middle class values, where shame is used as a tool to control, even to control oneself. It’s conservative for its traditional views locating alcohol and drug abuse at the heart of human decline and misery, where lust is confused for love, and abuse for affection, and greed for dreams. At the same time, it’s possible to read the novel as an American proletariat satire, a tragicomedy, but first you have to allow tragedy off its pedestal. Then again, maybe it’s just farce, the difference between satire and farce being that satire has a point.

The action takes place during the Great Depression. The year is 1933. The young, first person narrator and main character, the hyperbolic, capricious, and vindictive Arturo Bandini, has relocated from Colorado to Los Angeles to win fame and money as a writer. The character would today remind us of the 1968 Hal David lyric, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” which references wannabe actors who are employed at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, literally. The prototype gets off the bus at Hollywood and Vine, cardboard suitcase in hand, expecting to walk onto a movie set, but soon finds himself running hotel shuttles to the airport with aspirations to work his way up to a bellhop job. Except in the great Bandini’s case the stereotype is true. He sells a couple of magazine stories and then a novel. But he knows not frugality, the temperamental Bandini. He spends lavishly, wastefully, funnily – buying, for example, two new suits, only to yank the clothes off in frustration for their ill fit and general unsuitability, as he digs his old but comfortable duds out of his trash.

Bandini’s (if you can take his word for it) extensive reading has done nothing to soothe his scorched brow as he types feverishly away at his torched stories. He claims familiarity with Joyce, whom he’s going to give a run for his money, and while he hasn’t read Lenin, he’s heard him quoted, and claims allegiance to Lenin’s idea that religion is opium for the people (22). He apparently hasn’t read Marx either. He’s read Emerson and Whitman, though, but no help there either for our lovelorn antihero. And Bandini has read Mencken, which is where he might have acquired his idea of a sense of superiority. Mencken plus Nietzsche plus greed – now there is a formula for the will to power. But: “You have read Nietzsche, you have read Voltaire, you should know better. But reasoning wouldn’t help” (96). Bandini is a hypersensitive, mood swinging, hypercritical victim of unrequited love, determined to get revenge by writing his way out of the storm and win his love by twisting her arm and knocking out her humiliating boyfriend.

In the middle of the book, Bandini follows the mysterious Vera Rivken down to Long Beach. So far, he’s not capitalized on his chances with women. Something always goes wrong, usually with his mood. He’s easily insulted, and his own tongue is so brazen and quick and uncontrollable that what offends his ear causes a whiplash to fly out of his mouth. He’s a braggart, but his wit and aim usually hit the target, yet he’s prone to even the score immediately through his self-loathing. His every resolution is betrayed in his next breath. In Long Beach, he’s caught in the earthquake, which scares him back to church, and he even “gave up cigarets [sic] for a few days” (104). He’s a human yo-yo: “This interested me. A new side to my character, the bestial, the darkness, the unplumbed depth of a new Bandini. But after a few blocks the mood evaporated” (108).

“Nothing like it since Joyce” (113), Bandini says. Nothing like it before, either. Consider the trip into the Valley with Hellfrick, who bludgeons a calf and drives it back to their hotel in LA where he promises Bandini “a lesson in butchering” (111). It’s scenes like that one that give the short novel its episodic and spasmodic structure. Time dances. In places, the writing is like something out of a comic book. This idea is even made explicit: “take that, Sammy boy, and that, and how do you like this left hook, and how do you like this right cross, zingo, bingo, bang, biff, blooey!” (118). And then comes the set piece, the letter criticizing Sammy’s efforts to write, which indeed is “devastating” (119). But that’s ok, because before dropping it in the mailbox, Bandini changes his mind yet again and rewrites it to give Sammy some legitimate help. Besides, Bandini’s in love, and “Who cares about a novel, another goddamn novel?” (146), this one included, the one we’re reading.

In the end, “Something was wrong, everything was wrong” (160), and we wonder why bother with any of it, the flip flopping, the depression, the indecisiveness and lack of commitment, the vengeful, childish fantasies. Well, because that’s just where things begin to ring true, and you can hear the noon Angelus bells ringing throughout the Basin. This acceptance that this is really how people behave, including, perhaps particularly, people in love, is apparently what attracted Charles Bukowski to the book. In his short introduction to the 1980 reissue of the book (originally published in 1939, then out of print), Bukowski suggests he liked “Ask the Dust” because it seemed to be about the street from the street. He says Fante was an influential writer for him.

And who was John Fante, and what did he do after “Ask the Dust”? As it turns out, Fante may not have been as interested in the street as in getting off the street. This is what Bandini wants. Interested readers will benefit from a series of interviews (about four hours worth) conducted by Ben Pleasants at Fante’s place in Malibu in the late 70’s. The link is to 3:AM Magazine. The first interview mentions Edmund Wilson, and Pleasants and Fante wonder why Wilson didn’t review “Ask the Dust,” particularly since Wilson had shown the special interest in California writers. Pleasants suggests Wilson’s “The Boys in the Back Room” (about California writers James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Richard Hallas, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and Hans Otto Storm) came out before “Ask the Dust.” But my copy of Wilson’s “A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950” indicates, at the end of the chapter on California writers, “These notes were first written during the autumn and early winter of 1940” (245), so after “Ask the Dust” was published and out. Wilson then adds a postscript after F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West die within a day of one another in late December, 1940, where he seeks to “make the California story complete” (246), and the end date for the whole chapter is then given as 1940-1941. Maybe Wilson excluded Fante deliberately, or maybe he simply had never read him. Wilson’s opinion about Hollywood was clear, “…its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted” (249), but for the Fante of “Ask the Dust,” that apparently was still ahead.

John Fante, “Ask the Dust,” 1939. With an Introduction by Charles Bukowski, 1980 (Black Sparrow). First Ecco edition, 2002, and with Archival Material (24 pages) in First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, 2006. The text of the novel is 154 pages in the Harper edition.

George V. Higgins’s On Writing

Unlike Stegner’s, Higgins’s On Writing is unexpected, full of convoluted sentences (the kind lawyers reputedly cast) and five dollar vocabulary. Higgins values readers, but they are a dime a dozen, and critics, penny each, and, as it turns out, editors are the true friends of Eddie Coyle.

Higgins emphasizes repeatedly what he considers his most sage advice for writers: “…read good prose aloud” (p. 8), and, to stick the point in your gut, inserts samples of some of his favorite writers, in some cases entire stories, and asks you to read them aloud. So you get to read, interspersed throughout the chapters, the prose of Dickens, Hemingway, Gay Talese, William Manchester, Irwin Shaw, John O’Hara, James Thurber. Then Higgins explains how their writing works, from a street level viewpoint, and that’s the value in this book. 

Not a bad idea, the inserts; takes the attention off of Higgins for a spell. Higgins opens his book calling Edmund Wilson, the august critic of most of the 20th Century (see his Twenties; Thirties; Forties; Fifties; and Sixties), a professional torturer (p. 1). Speaking of torture, try this Higgins sentence on for fit: “Conformably to that presumption, this manual includes numerous selections by writers whose work I consider exemplary” (p. 9).

Like Stegner, and others, Higgins thinks “Writing is hard work” (p. 6). In part, perhaps, that’s because you may “Never tell your reader what your story is about” (p. 82).

George V. Higgins’s On Writing is worth reading, for its prose personality, and for how he shows how writing works. 

Higgins, G. V. (1990). On writing: Advice for those who write to publish (or would like to). New York: Henry Holt.

Into the valley of rejection rode the 850

Having read Dana Goodyear’s “The Moneyed Muse” (New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007), we were surprised to hear that the Willesden Herald received only 850 entries in this year’s annual short story contest, then again surprised at the outcome, for into the valley of rejection rode the 850.

The follow up on the Willesden Herald site, including finalist judge Zadie Smith’s letter of explanation, is the interesting part of this story. The judges decided there will be no prize this year, all 850 of the entries failing the requisite “make it good.” Zadie says, “…we didn’t receive enough,” after the editors have already described an overdose reading experience. From Goodyear’s article, readers might recall: “At last count, several years ago, Poetry, which prints some three hundred poems a year, had to choose from among ninety thousand submissions.” One wonders how even a fraction of those get read – and how do they select which ones to read?

But Willesden Herald’s total rejection may have been a response informed by a pre-determined argument rather than a reader confronting any actual story. From Zadie’s letter: “Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores.” Does that describe the stories they received? We don’t know. And is there ample evidence to support that “everybody” is concerned? The number of those concerned is probably closer to nobody than to everybody.

It’s apparently no fun being a judge: “…by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.” Perhaps a fresh crop of volunteer readers might have read things differently.

“No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions,” Rene Char said, nor read in one, no doubt. While we have been struggling in the current reading crisis to identify a common reader, here is evidence of a common writer. How is it possible that the publication these writers are reading received not a single entry that matched the quality of what they publish, or would like to publish? How can the number of writers be growing while the number of readers is declining? Was the quality of writing really the issue, or is there a warrant in the Herald’s justification, an attempt not to devalue as much as revalue? What does the common reader (in this sentence defined as a reader who is not also a writer or a would be writer) want to read? What if next year they get 90,000 submissions; how will they handle that?

Good is that which suits its purpose. A good story is one that achieves its goals, even if we happen to dislike those goals. We don’t like horror films, but we’ve no doubt there are good ones. We go to Edmund Wilson, speaking of Flaubert and Baudelaire, who “exerted, in dealing with the materials supplied them by their imagination, a rigorous will to refrain; that their work might thus fortify their readers as well as entertain them…” Further, Wilson maintains, “…fine workmanship itself always contains an implicit moral… experimentation is necessary: one must allow a good deal of apparently gratuitous, and even empty or ridiculous work, if one wants to get masterpieces.” And, finally, Wilson: “…they may not be good for anything, but, on the other hand, they may be valuable – one has to wait and see what comes of them, what other writers may get out of them.”  

Perhaps the Herald should have spent the prize money to publish all 850 stories, thereby letting their readers decide. Or we may leave literature and go into social science, where we will find that a preference for a particular story is the result of class privilege, for taste is not a virtue; it is distilled.

Edmund Wilson quotes above taken from “Notes on Babbitt and More,” from Edmund Wilson, A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, Doubleday Anchor Books.