Play It as It Lays

No one writes about dread with the elegance of Joan Didion. The evidence: Play It As It Lays, her novel set in an angst-filled Hollywood in the 1960s.

(And: that the sense of free-floating anxiety that she writes about so well? It never felt more immediate than now.)

It’s one of the greatest novels of existentialism ever written. Our protagonist, Maria, faces dread and despair. She is brittle, sensitive, attuned to the depths of mood that swirl about her. Maria fights for her damaged daughter. And even the depths of her own despair, she remains courageous and compassionate.

She knows the abyss and the threats latent in life. She knows night terrors and emptiness as real as the desert between Barstow and Las Vegas. And with — or despite — that knowledge, she makes a choice. The only choice that really matters, as Camus said.

Play It As It Lays is less about plot — although it has one, and Didion deploys it skillfully — than it is about mood, a series of psychic states and fragments woven together by landscapes and slicing encounters. 

Never less than faultless, Didion’s prose sends you to a place of dreams, to half-conscious states of drunkenness and to the lobbies where snapping nerve endings brush up against frigid air conditioning and even colder laughter.

Among other conditions, she makes you understand, on the surface of your skin, what it is like for a beautiful women to be the cynosure of men’s eyes and desires. The terror of it.

Faced with grief, with losses that cut to the marrow, with nothingness itself, Maria comes through at the end. Just as Sisyphus, Jake Barnes, Meursault, and Ralph Ellisons’ Invisible Man do. 

And just as we must do ourselves.

(The novel was filmed with Tuesday Weld as the lead. That’s where I found the images for this post. I’ve only seen a few clips of the movie: L.A. freeways, and a delicate blonde at the wheel of a Camaro shot with telephoto lenses. And that’s perfect. It’s enough; I don’t want to see anymore. Some films are better left imagined. What’s a shame, though, is that I read that Sam Peckinpah wanted to direct it. And that makes you ache at the loss of what might have been a great film.)

Read: Berlin in Lights

kessler by tim roessler

My diaries embarrass me. I keep a notebook, which is a different beast. But a diary? No way. It’s pure torture to read any of my scribbles.

To write well off the cuff and in the privacy of your own mind — now that’s a feat of character, of talent, even of soul. And while those qualities are rare, many fine diaries exist. Samuel Pepys, Eugene Delacroix, André Gide, and Paul Léautaud all wrote so well that their journals make a fascinating body of work on their own.

Count Harry Kessler belongs to that exclusive club. Kessler was a diplomat, a publisher of fine editions, a co-librettist for Richard Strauss, a connoisseur of art and music, a colonel, a Prussian aristocrat, a committed democratic socialist, and, most importantly for us, a fine writer.

His journals from 1918 to 1937 cast a cool and penetrating eye on the fall of the Kaiser, the splendors and decadence of 1920s Berlin, and the rise of the Nazis.

He knew practically everyone worth knowing. Kessler offers sharp-etched portraits of Albert Einstein, George Grosz, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Aristide Maillol, and Josephine Baker, to mention just a few. But he wasn’t a mere social butterfly. He had principled break ups. Perhaps the most painful for him was with Richard Strauss over the latter’s enthusiasm for dictatorship.

For all his sensitivity, Kessler was a cool customer. During the 1918 revolution, his entries describe machine gun bursts and sniper fire as mere annoyances. Perhaps his sangfroid was not only because of his aristocratic values, but also because he had recently returned from the front lines of the war. After that storm of steel, what’s a few extra shots? His reserve is all the more striking because Kessler’s diaries were not meant for publication. Even in the privacy of his own journal he was brave.

Perhaps because he had to be. Right-wing assassins killed two of his closest associates. He pushed for social democratic reforms –deeply unpopular in some powerful circles. Later, he’d be exiled. Kessler describes it all with dispassion and a total absence of self-pity.

He writes vignettes that are like haiku in their compression and clarity. And, inevitably, you find out some history, too.

The entries from the late 1920s are especially heartbreaking. So many people in so many countries wanted to make a better world, to establish lasting peace, and to move civilization forward. You could find good signs everywhere. Then, slowly and suddenly, the Fascists took over.

Yet, you learn, up close, that the great tragedy wasn’t necessarily inevitable. The Weimar Republic, despite everything, was working. Hitler, far from being an evil genius, was a mediocre creep whose own stench of failure actually helped him blunder into power – helped by theoretically clever power brokers who thought they could use him. Kessler, though, saw right through him, knew the danger he represented, and opposed the Nazis from the beginning.

The loss of Kessler’s Germany – one of broad cosmopolitanism, of insane refinement, of deep culture, of wild innovation in every art, and of tentative hope, is among the many tragedies the Nazis inflicted on the world.

To wrap up, here’s a quote to you a good sample of Kessler’s style – his perspicacity and aestheticism. Kessler’s visiting the Imperial Palace, occupied by rebel sailors. As he wanders through the ransacked rooms, he notes:

But these private apartments, the furniture, the articles of everyday use, and what remains of the Emperor’s and Empress’s mementoes and objets d’art are so insipid and tasteless, so philistine, that it is difficult to feel much indignation against the pilferers. Only astonishment that the wretched, timid, unimaginative creatures who liked this trash, and frittered away their life in this precious palatial haven, amidst lackeys and sycophants, could ever make any impact on history. Out of this atmosphere was born the World War…

Kessler’s diaries are worth reading for so many reasons. Observations like these, filled with a sort of moral aesthetics are just one.

Read: Battle Cry of Freedom


Book review by Tim Roessler

I wanted to learn about the Civil War. I wanted perspective on our current insanity, and I hoped to gather more knowledge about the conflict without mournful fiddles and honey smooth voice overs.

Something solid, but approachable. I found the perfect book.

Battlecry of Freedom puts the whole period into nearly 900 pages of graceful, fast moving prose. James McPherson manages to pack libraries of research into each paragraph so deftly that you come away informed and even entertained rather than overwhelmed. 

One of the strengths of the book is McPherson’s portrayal of the forces that lead to the war.  It truly seemed inevitable. And yes, it was about slavery. When you hear Confederate defenders grumble about “states rights”, the “right” in question was that of owning other human beings. It wasn’t even the preservation of slavery that drove the war, but rather the South’s demands to expand it beyond the borders of what would become the Confederacy. 

That even lead to foolish expeditions to places like Cuba and Nicaragua. Thank God we put that kind of nonsense aside.

Some parts surprised me. I didn’t realize the depth of disunion within both the North and the Confederacy. More than a few of the yeomen in Dixie figured out that the conflict was a war primarily to benefit the planters class. Up North, it wasn’t all virtuous abolitionists, either. An eye-opener was the massive race riot in New York City which killed dozens of African Americans — the worst race riot in U.S. history. Not to mention the so-called Copperheads.

The inevitable corruption and messy squabbles shouldn’t have shocked me, but the depths of chicanery and striving did.

He covers the military history, as you’d expect. But he also gives good background on the economics, the social issues and the messy politics of the period. 

The other great lesson was just how contingent the outcome was. We like to think of it as an inevitable march to greater freedom and justice. Even with the overwhelming superiority in men and material, it was anything but a guaranteed victory.

And, sure, there’s plenty of valor and honor in those pages. Lots of horrors, too. McPherson is pretty light on the gruesome and the blood. But the numbers and the diary entries tell all you need to know.

This was a fine read, and McPherson completely earned the Pulitzer he won for it.

Review: Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie

book photo by timothy roessler tim roessler

The details seem mythical. A preternaturally gifted boy writes lyrical poetry better than the literary stars of his age. Then he rebels, writes new work that transcends anything ever written and remakes poetry forever. As he touches the face of God and plunges into hells, Rimbaud also struggles with a tempestuous affair with the other leading poet of his time, Verlaine. 

All by the time he was 20. Disillusioned with poetry and his failure to transform the world, he gives up literature. He wanders, then turns to trading guns and goods on the shores of the Red Sea. Rimbaud died at 37 a victim of cancer.

(Man, what was up with those 19th century geniuses? Poe, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Doestoyevsky, Keats, Byron, the list of great monsters and great sufferers is long.)

Professor Starkie tells the story well. She writes clearly with a fine eye for illuminating details. More than a biography, the book includes detailed readings of Rimbaud’s work. The analysis of the poems is grounded, free of ideology and well based in the works themselves. 

That said, some of her interpretations seem reductive, even if they’re well argued. Her research into Rimbaud’s alchemical studies provides us with some useful insights. But to say a poem like “Voyelles” is a descriptions of on the transformation sequences of the soul as taught by a magickal theorist drains a lot of the true magic out of the poem. 

Three issues: If you don’t speak French, you’ll need a translation of the poems handy. She also quotes significant passages of Rimbaud’s prose in French without an English version. Starkie also seems naive about hashish and homosexuality. 

Overall, this is a fine work of scholarship and of intellectual integrity as well as a beautiful tribute to one of greatest poets to have graced the planet.

Reading Turgenev


Three Novellas: Punin and Baburin, The Inn, and The Watch, by Ivan Turgenev and translated by Marion Mainwaring.

For a project I’m working on, I’ve been reading the works of Ivan Turgenev. 

Wedged as he is in between the two monstrous geniuses of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Turgenev doesn’t receive the nearly same attention as Tolstoyevsky. And that’s a damn shame.

Lyrical, penetrating, subtly crafted, Turgenev’s stories work on every end of the spectrum from humor to suspense to melancholy. He draws you into his world, one of serfs, petty nobles, and birches, sure, but also one filled with passionate characters who often stumble through a hard-won wisdom. That new knowledge is often bitter. Yet, the key shifts from comic to tragic and even to the uncanny with seamless ease.

In this collection, the first novella follows an odd couple from the view point of a boy who keeps meeting them as he passes on. Punin is sort of a holy fool, Baburin a committed radical (for the time). The second novella describes an act of fathomless betrayal that ultimately leads to wisdom, ruin, and a surface prosperity for the traitor. The final story traces how a watch, given initially as a present, unwinds a family.

Turgenev’s stories are less about plots than they are about overgrown gardens, the pale skin and dark eyes of a half-peasant, or, simply, longing as much as a simple narrative. Sometimes comic and always profound, always mysterious and beautiful, Turgenev’s work puts him there in the pantheon along with the gargantuans of his generation.

These were all fine novellas. I’d recommend them to anyone who cares about love, literature, or life. If you’re new to Turgenev, though, I’d start with A Sportsman’s Sketchbook, Fathers and Sons, or my favorite, First Love.


(painting: A Soldier’s Tale, Illya Repin)