‘Night Games’ by Arthur Schnitzler (GLM)

Night Games is the first story in the collection Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas. The collection was published in 2002 by Ivan R. Dee and was translated by Margret Schaefer. The short story was originally published in 1926 as Spiel im Morgengrauen. It begins with Lieutenant Wilhelm Kasda being awoken one Sunday morning by his orderly to announce that Wilhelm (or Willi as he is known throughout the story) has a visitor. His visitor is an old acquaintance, Otto von Bogner, a man who had once been an officer as well but who had to resign after running up some debts at a casino that he couldn’t honour. Von Bogner now works as a cashier in the office of an electrical installation company and has ‘borrowed’ some money from the company only to discover that on Monday the office is due to be audited by the company headquarters; he needs some money fast, about a thousand gulden. But Willi is living in straitened circumstances and only has about a hundred gulden himself. Bogner suggests that Willa approach his uncle Robert but he dismisses the idea as he no longer has any contact with him. Bogner suggests some other people that Willa could approach but he is uneasy about asking anyone for money. Instead he suggests that as he was intending to visit Baden that evening to indulge in a game of baccarat that he would use his hundred gulden to see if he could win the money for his old friend. Meanwhile Bogner still has a few gulden of his own and he intends to go to the races to see if he can win the money himself.

Well, I guess we half-know how the story is going to proceed from this point; Willa arrives at Baden and although he feels like being distracted by the Kessner sisters he ends up at the gaming table. He’s cautious at first and then becomes bolder. Before long he has a thousand gulden and exits from the table with the intention of visiting the Kressners for dinner only to discover that they have left already. He’s now at a loose end.

The Kessners might have left word for him with the housemaid! Well, he had no intention of forcing himself on them. He really didn’t need to do that. But what to do? Return to Vienna right away? That would perhaps be best. How would it be just to leave the decision to fate?

Willa goes for a walk in the evening air, but as we suspected he finds himself drawn back to the café and the gaming table. And he loses his money, right? Well, yes and no, he wins, then has a losing streak, then a winning streak, so that when he is due to catch the last train back to Vienna he has over two thousand gulden in his pocket.

Although there is a certain inevitability about the story, Schnitzler has a lot of fun playing with us; we’re expecting things to go badly but things keep turning out fine for Willa. This story reminded me of one of my favourite short stories, stickman’s laughter by Nelson Algren. In both stories the protagonist is initially reluctant to gamble their money, they’re cautious but end up with sizeable winnings, they walk away with the knowledge that they could end the evening in the black; but circumstances draw them back, they don’t want to, but fate seems to draw them back to the table, their winnings increase but as the evening proceeds they get sucked in so that they can no longer escape.

Willi is lent the use of a coach so that he can get to the railway station.

Still, the horses maintained a good clip, and in five minutes they were at the station. But at precisely the same moment the train, which had arrived just a minute earlier, began to move from the gate in the station above. Willi leaped from the carriage, started after the brightly lit coaches as they moved slowly and heavily forward across the viaduct, heard the whistle of the locomotive fade into the night air, shook his head, and didn’t quite know whether he was angry or pleased.

Oh well, back to the baccarat table.

I won’t divulge any more of the story—at this point we’re about a third of the way through it. Although it’s a bit predictable at times I found that Schnitzler took us to places we weren’t expecting. In the end it’s a fun story, rather in the style of Maupassant, and one well worth reading. I shall look forward to the rest of the stories in this collection, although some I have read previously.

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‘Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart (Part One) by Jakob Wassermann (GLM)

I first heard of Caspar Hauser from the 1974 Werner Herzog film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which I probably first watched in the early 1990s. I would imagine that for many of us this was our first encounter with the story. Jakob Wasserman’s novel, Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart, which was first published in 1908, did a similar job as the Herzog film in popularising the story of Caspar, which is based on real events. It’s worth checking out the Wikipedia page if you are interested in discovering the historical facts of the case. I always find it difficult with fictionalised versions of real events because it’s always tempting to check the fiction against the historical events, which I have done whilst reading this novel, but with this review I will try to stick to what is solely contained within the novel. I shall also use the spelling used within the novel, i.e. ‘Caspar’ rather than the more commonly used ‘Kaspar’ but I shall avoid using the spelling of ‘Nürnberg’ for ‘Nuremberg’ that is used in the book except when I’m quoting from the book. The edition I am reading was published in 2012 by Floris Books and is a reprint of a translation by Caroline Newton from 1928.

The story begins with a description of Caspar, a seventeen year-old boy, entering Nuremberg on foot one day in May 1928; he can barely talk and barely walk and seems to be surprised even by the movement of his own body. He has with him a letter bearing the address of Cavalry Captain Wessenig. He is taken to the police office where he is unable to answer any questions but is just able to scrawl his name on a piece of paper. He refuses all food except bread and water. Although he is dressed like a peasant it is noted that he has a fine white skin and looks ‘more like a young lady of aristocratic birth than a peasant.’ A doctor examines Caspar and also notes the lack of callouses on his feet.

“One thing is evident,” his testimony concludes, “we are dealing with a person who has no conception of his fellow men, does not eat, does not drink, does not feel, does not speak like others, does not know anything of yesterday or to-morrow, does not grasp time, does not know he is alive.”

The story of the boy attracts a lot of attention from the populace who wish to see this curiosity; some believe him to be a wild man reared by wolves whilst others believe that he’s deceiving them. The unsigned letter that Caspar had on him was apparently written by his guardian who claims to have taken in him as a baby in 1815—his mother is unknown. He claims to have kept Caspar hidden away indoors so that no-one in the village knew of his existence and that he brought Caspar to Nuremberg in the night. Caspar knows neither the name of his guardian nor the name of the village whence he came. He says that ‘if you don’t want to keep him you will have to kill him and hang him up the chimney.’

The local teacher, Professor Daumer, becomes increasingly interested in Caspar and he tries to help him learn to talk. Surprisingly Caspar is quick to learn and he eventually tells Daumer what he can of his life so far.

So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, and yet he had known nothing of himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.

In the mornings he had had fresh bread and a pitcher of water by his bed. On occasions the water tasted strange and caused him to fall asleep, when he awoke he would find his hair cut, his nails clipped and fresh straw on his bed. He had a wooden horse as his only toy. One day a man entered his room and for three days taught Caspar how to write his name. On subsequent nights the man led Caspar outside and taught him how to walk and then one night the man led him to Nuremberg and handed Caspar a note.

As the story of Caspar becomes known more widely it is not long before stories emerge of him being of noble blood, that he was kept in a dungeon to keep him out of the way so that an illegitimate heir could claim Caspar’s rightful place. Before long Caspar is moved from his cell to live with Professor Daumer but is ultimately under the protection of von Feuerbach, the president of the court of appeals. And so Caspar begins to learn about the world; the sun is especially fascinating to him, at one point he asks Daumer ‘is the sun God?’

But Daumer is in a bit of a quandary as he sees Caspar as an innocent and regrets that he has the task of exposing him to the cruel world. Daumer has to protect Caspar from the talk about his supposed noble lineage or the other claims of him being a swindler and yet at the same time he is compelled to parade him in front of his guests. During this period characteristics of Caspar’s personality emerge that will persist throughout the novel: he is fascinated with learning the identity of his mother, he is accused of lying by others, he refuses to let others read his diary. These all seem quite natural, especially as everyone seems to feel that they have a claim on him, that Caspar is there for their benefit and that he has no right to a personal life; his lying, his ‘secrecy’ just seem to me to be attempts to get away from this public life that everyone is intent on inflicting on him.

Events take a more sinister turn when one day he is attacked. In the garden one day he hears a voice from behind him say ‘Caspar, you must die’ and he is struck on the forehead with a knife. He made his way into the house and is later found in the cellar bleeding. Caspar recovers and it is during this period that an English lord first appears on the scene making enquiries about Caspar and offering a reward for anyone with information of Caspar’s attacker. Daumer, by this point, has become weary of looking after Caspar and it is agreed that he will go to live with the Beholds. Frau Behold is particularly obnoxious and domineering, Herr Behold is mostly absent. She bosses Caspar about and is only interested in him as a toy doll to parade around with at gatherings. She discourages his studies and teases him when he shows compassion towards slaughtered animals.

No, Caspar did not feel in the least at home. Frau Behold was utterly incomprehensible to him; her glance, her speech, her manner, all repelled him greatly. It cost him much thought and artifice not to show his dislike, although he was sick and miserable when he had spent only an hour in her company.

Relations deteriorate quickly between Caspar and Frau Behold. One morning he wakes to discover his caged blackbird dead on the dressing-table with its heart next to it on a plate. Caspar moves in with Herr von Tucher after Frau Behold locks Caspar out of her house.

At 467 pages this is quite a long novel, and as I have had to spend quite a while on the preliminary events I shall cover the rest of the novel in a second post.

The novel, so far, gives a pretty straightforward account of events, we could almost say that it’s Caspar’s version. But later on we get to see glimpses of others’ views and opinions.

Have you read the Wassermann novel? or seen the Herzog film?

I am reading this as part of German Literature Month VII.

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‘Demian’ by Hermann Hesse (GLM VII)

Demian was first published in 1919. My Picador edition made use of a translation from 1958 by W. J. Strachan. Demian was originally published under the pseudonym, Emil Sinclair, who is the narrator of the story. The narrator begins the story by describing ‘two worlds’, the first is the comfortable, clean, friendly world of his parents’ house and the other world is, well, basically the world outside of the first world, which is noisy, scary, violent and chaotic but also exciting, fun and lively. At the beginning of the story Emil is ten years old and he describes an event that has repercussions throughout the whole narrative. Emil gets to know an older, burly, rough boy called Franz Kromer who likes to boss and bully the younger boys. One day the boys sit around telling stories of their misdeeds in order to impress Kromer and each other. Emil can’t think of any bad things that he’s done so he makes up an incident where he stole some apples from a garden. Kromer suspects that Emil is lying but starts to blackmail him threatening to tell the owner of the apple tree if Emil doesn’t pay him two marks. Emil’s life becomes miserable as he ends up stealing small amounts from his parents in order to pay Kromer.

And then along comes a new boy, Max Demian, who saves Emil from Kromer’s bullying. How he actually gets Kromer to stop is never made explicit but Demian seems to Emil and the other boys to possess hidden powers over other people. A year or two pass and then Emil begins to encounter Demian more frequently. One time Emil sees Demian in a street crowd surrounding a dead horse and gets to observe him closely.

I saw Demian’s face and remarked that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s and then I saw, or rather became aware, that it was not really the face of a man either; it had something different about it, almost a feminine element. And for the time being his face seemed neither masculine nor childish, neither old nor young but a hundred years old, almost timeless and bearing the mark of other periods of history than our own.[…]Perhaps he was handsome, perhaps I found him attractive, perhaps he repelled me too, I could not even be sure of that. All I saw was that he was different from the rest of us, that he was like an animal, a spirit or an image. I cannot describe him except to say that he was different, unimaginably different from the rest of us.

Emil and Demian soon become close friends. Demian seems to have powers over other people, he seems to be able to bend them to his will, which impresses Emil. Demian believes that we should not just honour the ‘good’ things ascribed to God but we should also honour the ‘bad’ things ascribed to the Devil; this line of thinking is in tune with Emil’s thinking of the ‘two worlds’.

Emil ends up going to another school and is separated from Demian. At this school he ends up drinking a lot and leading a dissolute life for a while. This period comes to an end when he becomes obsessed with a woman called Beatrice. Rather than try to meet her he takes up painting in order to paint her portrait, but the portrait, Emil realises, actually resembles Demian. Emil meets Demian during this period and after a chat Demian says, enigmatically:

It is good to know that we have within us one who knows everything about us, wills everything, does everything better than we can ourselves.

The novel begins to take on a more spiritual tone at this point as Emil embarks on a spiritual journey to ‘find himself’. In his studies he comes across the god Abraxas, the god who was both God and Devil. He meets a new friend, Pistorius, an organist who also knows about Abraxas and who reminds Emil of Demian. Pistorius helps Emil to discover more about himself and his own life.

And at this point I felt the truth burning within me like a sharp flame, that there was some rôle for everybody but it was not one which he himself could choose, re-cast and regulate to his own liking. One had no right to want new gods, no right at all to want to give the world anything of that sort! There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself, to become resolute within, to grope his way forward wherever that might lead him. The discovery shook me profoundly; it was the fruit of this experience.

Emil then goes to university and once again comes across Demian and also gets to meet Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, who is even more enigmatic than her son and whom Emil, of course, falls in love with. But as Emil’s spiritual journey continues the world is hurtling towards a world war.

Hesse tells a fascinating story, his style is compelling and although I cannot really identify with the spiritual, metaphysical nature of Emil’s journey it is an interesting journey to follow.

This post was my contribution to the German Literature Month challenge.

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The 1968 Club: Come and Gone

Well, The 1968 Club has come and gone in a flash. I got to read and review two books for it but there were so many more that I could have chosen. Although it seems quite a short time, only a week, I think it works well being such a short time-span as it’s meant to be a snapshot of a particular year not a comprehensive review of all the books published. It also means that we leave open the possibility of revisiting a year again if we feel like it. Anyway, thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book for hosting this challenge once again.

I thought I would have a quick look at those I read, those I wanted to read, those I’d read before and so on. During 2017 I have been trying to read as many books from my TBR pile as possible; I even joined a GoodReads group to keep me on track. However I didn’t have a single unread book from 1968 on my TBR list and I didn’t fancy re-reading anything as there were enough unread books from 1968 that I wanted to read—I just didn’t own them. So the two books that I read and reviewed were:

I also wanted to read Bukowski’s Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window but copies of it are expensive and I couldn’t even find a list of the contents of it so I wasn’t sure if any of the poems were contained in the collections that I had.

I only reviewed two books but I also started Paul Bowles’ collection of short stories, Pages from Cold Point, which I had intended to include but which I only finished today. I’m certain I’d read it before, years ago, but couldn’t remember much about it. But it was nothing special, the stories are all set in North Africa and are a mixture of realism and fable but they didn’t really do anything for me. I think Bowles was a better novelist than short story writer.

When I was trying to decide on books for this challenge I noticed that there were quite a few from 1968 that I had read before. They are:

  • The Wild Cherry Tree by H.E. Bates
  • Pages from Cold Point and Other Stories by Pul Bowles
  • In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Chocky by John Wyndham

In some of the previous year challenges I had included reviews of comics or children’s books, such as Krazy Kat (for The 1924 Club) and Dr. Seuss (for the The 1938 Club). Well 1968 was the year that underground comix really took off, especially with Zap Comix, and I was going to include a review of as many underground comix from 1968 as possible, but it would have meant hunting down my copies and re-reading them, scanning relevant parts and in the end I just didn’t have the time to do it. But, I am already regretting not doing so.

There were many books that I considered reading before making the final decision. I was always going to include some Bukowski as he had been a favourite author of mine from years back and besides I thought I’d include him to bring the tone down a little.:-) I decided on Brian Moore’s book because he’s quite a new writer for me and I only needed the smallest excuse to try another book by him. But here are some of the others that I thought of reading:

  • A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
  • Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson
  • La Place de l’étoile by Patrick Modiano
  • Tigers are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys
  • I Used to Believe I Had Forever Now I’m Not Sure by William Saroyan
  • My Youth in Vienna by Arthur Schnitzler
  • The Public Image by Muriel Spark
  • Couples by John Updike
  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
  • The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I was glad to see that some of these were reviewed by others in the challenge.

What books did you consider for ‘The 1968 Club’ but didn’t make it to the final cut?

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‘I am Mary Dunne’ by Brian Moore

I am Mary Dunne covers a single day in the life of Mary Lavery, née Dunne, ex-Mary Bell, ex-Mary Phelan. She’s currently married to her third husband but can’t help remembering events from the past even though she has trouble with her memory. Brian Moore is a new favourite author of mine but I was a little wary of this one at the beginning as he adopts a first-person narrative where we are dropped straight in to the confusion that is Mary’s life; but Moore handles it really well and although it takes a little while to work out which husband is which and who all the other people are in Mary’s life Moore slowly reveals the details so that we can begin to make sense of her life. Within the first few pages of the book Mary recounts her morning visit to a beauty salon where the receptionist forgot Mary’s name but when she asked Mary for it Mary’s mind went blank until she gave her name as Mrs Phelan, her name from her first marriage. Then upon leaving the salon she was stopped in the street by a smiling man, a stranger, who said ‘I’d like to fuck you, baby’ and then walked off leaving Mary stunned then angry. It’s not a great start to the day.

Mary is currently living in New York but she’s originally from Montreal, Canada. Her current husband is Terence Lavery, a British playwright, and as the novel unfolds it seems that she’s finally settled on a man whom she truly loves and who loves her. But she always feels that she’s playing a part; with each husband she has had to act differently.

I play an ingénue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor. For Jimmy I had to be a tomboy; for Hat, I must look like a model; he admired elegance. Terence wants to see me as Irish: sulky, laughing, wild. And me, how do I see me, who is that me I create in mirrors, the dressing-table me, the self I cannot put a name to in the Golden Door Beauty Salon?

She doesn’t quite know who she is. With each husband she feels that she has to be different. Even when she changes jobs she feels that her identify has to be detroyed and re-created. She feels that she is split into three Selfs: Sensible Self, My Buddy and Mad Twin. On the day of the novel she is mostly possessed by her Mad Twin self. And she’s a bit of a blabbermouth, she says things before thinking through the consequences.

I am, always have been, a fool who rushes in, a blurter-out of awkward truths, a speaker-up at parties who, the morning after, filled with guilt, vows that never again, no matter what, but who, faced at the very next encounter with someone whose opinions strike me as unfair, rushes in again, blurting out, breaking all vows.

This confession comes when she’s relating a visit from an old gent who is looking to rent the flat while she and her husband are going to be away. She notices that his clothes are a little shabby and recognises him vaguely from somewhere and more or less accuses him of casing the joint. Emabarrased, he tries to leave, but Mary (Mad Twin Mary), realises that she’s made a mistake, chases after him to try to apologise even though it’s too late. It turns out that he’s lonely and just likes looking around rich people’s flats and meeting people.

During the novel we find out more about Mary’s past, her family and her previous jobs but the stand-out scenes for me are the two times throughout the day when she meets up with old friends. First she meets up with her old friend from Montreal, Janice Sloane, who’s in New York for a few days. This lunch scene is very amusing, right from the start there’s a mix up over the restaurant they’re going to. Throughout the lunch they end up revealing things about each other that are surprising and hurtful. They talk, then argue then make up. The second scene is at the end when she gets a phone-call from an old friend, or rather an old friend of her second husband, who wants to meet up with her. His name is Ernest Truelove (is Moore trying to signal something here?) and he has dinner at the Lavery’s apartment, gets increasingly drunk, makes some startling revelations and makes a complete ass of himself. Moore’s characterisation is brilliant here as although Ernest appears at first to be an obnoxious caricature, introduced for comic effect, he gradually becomes more realistic and, although he’s still a ridiculous character at the end, we begin to empathise with him. Here’s a quote from a section from the end of the novel, after Ernest has told his story.

    There, in the dining-room, amid the wreck of dinner glasses, dishes, wine bottles, there settled on all three of us an instant of total immobility, as though the film of our lives had jammed. We sat, frozen in stop frame, until, suddenly, Ernie’s head jerked forward and he turned to me, his face screwed up in a painful parody of a boy’s embarrassed grin. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I guess I have finished. Eh, Maria? Golly, I’ve gone and done it again. Made a fool of myself, imposed on people’s kindness, irritated the people I most want to be friends with. You and Terence. Golly.’
    Having castigated himself, he, like all those people who are quick to apologize, considered himself at once forgiven. He grinned again and said, ‘What a horse’s ass I am. I’ll bet that’s what you’re thinking?’

I am Mary Dunne is another great novel by Moore. I have also read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal which were both excellent novels.

This was read as part of the 1968Club challenge.

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‘At Terror Street and Agony Way’ by Charles Bukowski

When it was decided that ‘The YEAR Club’ would be reading books from 1968 I thought it would give me a chance to revisit an old favourite author of mine, Charles Bukowski. In the past I had read many of his books consisting of novels, short-stories and poems. But looking at his output from 1968 reveals only two chapbooks of poetry, both with superb titles, At Terror Street and Agony Way and Poems Writtten Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window, neither of which I had read before but both of which are relatively difficult, and therefore expensive, to buy. I did briefly consider buying a copy of ‘8 Story Window’, partly due to the cover, but my natural stinginess kicked in and I realised that most of the poems from ‘Terror Street’ were contained in the two, relatively cheap, kindle editions of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame and The Roominghouse Madrigals; so I have cheated a little bit by reading from these collections rather than the original.

For the record ‘Terror Street’ contains forty-three poems, of which twenty-eight are in ‘Burning in Water’ and another nine are in ‘Roominghouse Madrigals’. Why the collections don’t contain all the poems from the original chapbooks is not mentioned in the introductions. In Bukowski’s introduction to ‘Burning in Water’ he mentions that the only copy of the poems in ‘Terror Street’ had been thrown away after making a tape recording of them. They later had to be transcribed from the recording before being published in 1968. The poems were written between 1965 and 1968.

It is fair to say that Bukowski splits opinion; it’s true that he is coarse, sexist, brutal and many more things besides, but he’s not these things all of the time and he can, and does, share more tender, intellectual and thoughtful moments. What initially attracted me to his writing was his brutal honesty, his indifference to much of life and his ‘fuck-you’ attitude. Bukowski was of the Beat generation and became popular with the hippy generation but his attitude was probably closer, in some ways, to the punk generation; Bukowski, however, didn’t identify with any movements and was quite happy to be a loner, in fact I think he revelled in his loner status and loved to incite hatred from people, or at least some sort of reaction.

I don’t read or understand much poetry so I’m totally unaware as to how Bukowski’s poetry compares to other poems but I suspect that it’s not favourable. Although I prefer his prose, his poems have an immediacy that makes them fun to read. He would have liked us to believe that he wrote most of them whilst drunk or drinking and, knowing a little of Bukowski, I believe this is probably true, at least until his later life. His casually wanton and crude manner aligns him in some ways with the punk ethos of producing an immediate, punchy, uninhibited, low-brow art form rather than some elegantly crafted work that only a few literary professors can understand.

A lot of his poems and prose is about drinking, fighting, going to the races, having sex with prostitutes, arguing with landladies, working crappy jobs etc. But some of his poems are about everyday events such as sleeping, getting dressed, going to the shops. Here is the beginning of the poem on going out to get the mail:

the droll noon
where squadrons of worms creep up like
stripteasers
to be raped by blackbirds.
I go outside
and all up and down the street
the green armies shoot color
like an everlasting 4th of July,
and I too seem to swell inside,
a kind of unknown bursting, a
feeling, perhaps, that there isn’t any
enemy
anywhere.

The poem living covers a similar domestic event where Bukowski has spent the whole day sleeping, enjoying not having to go to work or do anything at all. Eventually, though, he has to rouse himself:

and I had to get up and go to the urinal
and I hated to get up and go to the urinal
because somebody had thrown paper, some loser had thrown paper
into the toilet again and it wouldn’t
flush, and when I came back out
everybody had nothing to do but look at my
face
and I am so tired
that they know when they see my face
that I hate
them
and then they hate me
and want to
kill me
but don’t.

Here’s a poem, called the flower lover from the collection that’s a bit different from the others, but it still contains his grim sense of humour. Bukoswski is very often quite funny. Anyway, here’s the poem in full:

in the Valkerie Mountains
among the strutting peacocks
I found a flower
as large as my
head
and when I reached in to smell
it
I lost an earlobe
part of my nose
one eye
and half a pack of
cigarettes.
I came back
the next day
to hack the damned thing
down
but found it so
beautiful I
killed a
peacock
instead.

In his work Bukowski fluctuates between arrogance and self-deprecation; here’s an example where he’s having fun with his own supposed arrogance in a poem called the difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck in which a writer tries to earn money by his writing, failing to do so he gets work on the railroads, he then ends up holed up in a small town in Texas:

I had on a pair of old bluejeans, and they said
oh, you’re a writer, eh?
and I said: well, some think so.
and some still think so…
others, of course, haven’t quite wised up yet.
two weeks later they
ran me out
of town.

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‘Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time’ by Hilary Spurling

I have always been rather ambivalent towards biographies as I find the minutiae of people’s lives rather dull reading, especially when we have to wade through the subject’s childhood and ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’; but certain people have generated enough interest in me to find out about their lives and quite a lot of those subjects have been authors. Typically those I have read biographies of have been authors that have led exciting or extraordinary lives, those I’ve read a large amount of their work and those whose work is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Part of the interest of reading biographies of those authors whose work is at least partially autobiographical is comparing the work with their real life and this was, in part, the interest for me in reading this recent biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling. Writers, such as Powell and Proust, as well as their biographers warn us that we shouldn’t be looking for real life comparisons of characters in their books, but in the end it’s just too tempting to resist, especially when many of the novelists’ characters do have real-life counterparts and events are similar to those in the author’s life; I then think we are justified in looking for them and as long as we’re grown-up enough to realise that there isn’t necessarily a one-to-one connection, that not all the characters are taken from real life and that some may be a mixture of different people or just inventions of the author then I don’t see any harm in this pastime.

At first Anthony Powell’s life doesn’t seem to be a particularly interesting topic but as with his novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, it is the characters that he comes in contact with as well as his reflections on them and himself that ends up making this an interesting book to read. Spurling doesn’t attempt anything fancy, instead she cracks on from 1905, the year of Powell’s birth, giving a brief description of Powell’s mother and father and his childhood years before surging on. The opening sentences gives a picture of these early years.

Small, inquisitive and solitary, the only child of an only son, growing up in rented lodgings or hotel rooms, constantly on the move as a boy, Anthony Powell needed an energetic imagination to people a sadly under-populated world from a child’s point of view. His mother and his nurse were for long periods the only people he saw, in general the one unchanging element in a peripatetic existence.

His mother was very introverted, religious and had a liking for the occult, whereas his father was explosive and demanding and mostly absent from Anthony’s early life, especially once WWI began as he was an officer in the army. Spurling then covers Powell’s school years at New Beacon School in Sevenoaks, Kent followed by Eton, where he became friends with Henry Green, and then on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he befriended Evelyn Waugh.

Although the sections on Powell’s schooldays and university period are of interest as we get to see the young Anthony Powell and we can compare it with Nick Jenkin’s life in the first novel of ‘Dance’, the biography really became interesting for me after he left university and he began work at the publishers Gerald Duckworth and Co. in London. It’s here where we start to see several interesting characters filtering through Powell’s life. Duckworth’s was a strange publishers for young Powell to end up at as the owner seems rather uninterested in publishing books and tries to block any attempts to revitalise the firm. But it is at Duckworth’s that Powell begins to experience life more fully and on his own terms. During this period he has love affairs, meets artists, buys a car and starts writing his first novel, Afternoon Men. Spurling does an excellent job in portraying the rather seedy bohemian lifestyle that Powell was immersed in. His rather dilapidated lodgings in Shepherd Market appealed to him as a counterpoint to his life at Oxford. Reading the chapters on this period in Powell’s life has really made me want to read more of his pre-WWII (and pre-‘Dance’) novels, especially What’s Become of Waring?, which is set in a publishers much like Duckworth’s – see Karen’s review at Kaggsybookishramblings.

During a visit to Pakenham Hall, Ireland, he met and fell in love with Violet Pakenham, whom he married in 1934. Powell left Duckworth’s and tried, but failed, to make it in Hollywood as a scriptwriter. During the war he entered the army as a Second Lieutenant and, like Nick Jenkins, ended up in Intelligence. The post-war years were somewhat difficult for Powell, as they must have been for nearly everyone. Spurling describes Powell’s moments of depression during this period, convinced that he’d wasted the most productive years of his life and that he’d never write again. During the war years his sole work had been a biography of John Aubrey but it is during this period that he came across Nicolas Poussin’s painting, A Dance to the Music of Time in the Wallace Collection which was to inspire his own work.

Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time at the Wallace Collection, London.

Powell worked as a freelance writer, a book reviewer and wrote a regular column at the Daily Telegraph. Powell became friends with many famous people whom most of us have heard of, such as Malcolm Muggeridge, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Julian MacLaren-Ross, Ivy-Compton Burnett, Kingsley Amis, and many other interesting people that I hadn’t heard of before such as Gerald Reitlinger, Edward Burra, John Heygate etc. He seems to have formed deep and lasting friendships with many of these people and to have enjoyed socialising with them, possibly making up for his rather sombre childhood at home and young adulthood at university.

Powell began writing A Question of Upbringing, the first novel of ‘Dance’, in March 1948 and which was published in 1951. When the first volume was published Powell had envisaged the whole work as ‘at least a trilogy’ but he was to continue over the next twenty-five years to publish a new novel in the series roughly every two years. It was only when he was writing the volumes relating to WWII that he knew that it was going to consist of twelve volumes. Curiously, Spurling seems to race along with the narrative once Powell begins work on ‘Dance’ and even stranger is that the biography more or less ends with the publication of the last novel of the series. There’s a Postscript which covers this period from 1975 up to Powell’s death in 2000 but it appears rather rushed especially as Powell still produced a couple of novels and a four-volume set of memoirs during this period. This is my only criticism of this excellent biography and is recommended to anyone who has read the novels of Anthony Powell.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Spurling, Hilary