La porte étroite

Appropriately bilious cover art.

You’re familiar with love triangles from at a hundred thousand movies and novels. But la porte étroite is a love quadrangle with God, or rather a very specific version of God, as one of the partners.

That helps make this novel seem to come not only from a different century but from another civilization. The impact of religious zealotry isn’t a common topic these days.  Alternately exasperating, entrancing, frustrating, and finally, moving, this love story explores the effects of religious fervor and burning idealism in an extended French bourgeois family. 

I read it more or less by accident. I bought the book a few years ago, maybe because James Salter recommended it. I thought I knew Gide from a couple of other novels, but it turns how I only had a shallow understanding of his work.

It wasn’t an easy read. First of all, Gide deploys unusual versions of the subjunctive tense very elegantly, but it stressed my fragile French. Secondly, the characters behave in ways that are true to the world of the story, but frustrating to experience from a distance. I’m not usually tempted to want to yell at a given person in a fictional narrative. This time, I wanted to grab a few of them by the shoulders and give them hell. Agonizing, really. 

Still, in the end, I’m happy to have read this with its beautiful passages, its unusual sensibility, its melding of Catholic zeal with romantic yearning, and, finally, its shattering ending.

Essays In Idleness

“The person learning archery takes in this and both arrows the teacher says: ‘Beginners ought not to hold two arrows. They rely on their second arrow and are careless at first. You ought each time to think, without any idea of missing and hitting, ‘This is the shot which counts.’
One may think, ‘Surely, with two errors only, a man will not be careless in the teacher’s presence.’  But the man does not know when his own care relaxes, the teacher does know, and this counsel extends to all things.”

About a thousand years ago, Yoshida Kenko wrote his thoughts down in a random collection, later collected as Essays in Idleness.

“People who are studying think at night, ‘There is tomorrow.’ Tomorrow they think, ‘there is tonight’, and so they go on, always meaning to work diligently. Nay, more – does not the attention relax even in a moment of time? Why is it so hard to do a thing now, at the moment when one thinks of it.”

Kenko was a Buddhist monk and courtier who lived in 14th century Japan. His thoughts range over issues of court etiquette, bamboo, linguistic, and right living. They express the ferocious aestheticism you often find in Japanese books.

Initially, his obsession with etiquette seemed merely fussy and eccentric, especially alongside his more profound philosophical observations. But then, manners could be a form of spiritual discipline, and so worthy of attention.

Just as Kenko’s collection is worthy of yours. 

(Of course, it’s one thing to read a book of wisdom, and another to apply it. It’s a melancholy truth that, in my case even the deepest books have had only shallow effects, but who knows? Maybe something will sink in. Someday.) 

Review: Jewish Denver 1859-1940

Golda Meir, standing, when she lived in Denver.

I love albums of family photos. You can spend hours pouring over the images, seeing the changes time makes to the young girl or study the former elegance of men on Sundays.

Jewish Denver 1859-1940, by Jeanne E. Abrams, is a picture book with well researched captions. The Wild West in general and Colorado in particular aren’t really associated with Jews, yet they played a large role in the settling and development of the Rocky Mountains.  The first wave of Jews came mostly from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many scrappy families established businesses in the mining camps of Central City, Leadville, and Cripple Creek, along with Denver. 

They came largely because, however hard life in the mining camps or out the dusty plains was, the West offered promise and greater social mobility than any European country. Not to mention those pogroms back in the old country — nothing like watching a Cossack slice up grandpa to make you want to book a spot on the next boat out of Warsaw.

The range of faces in these antique photos are amazing — toughs, weisenheimers, machers, saints, scholars, mothers, fathers, and children. And it seems that nearly all of them did pretty well and then immediately set up charities as soon as they made an extra dollar.

Many of the businesses the Jewish immigrants started lasted well into my lifetime: Fashion Bar, Neusteters, the Robinson Dairy, and Samsonite luggage were all fixtures at the local shopping malls — all started by Jews in Colorado bootstrapping their way out of poverty.

Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll, stands center, in a nurse’s costume

Among the faces, two stand out: a darkly and surprisingly pretty Golda Meir as a young woman and Ruth Handler, the inventor of the Barbie Doll.

I’d like to have seen some note of the conflicts the Jewish community faced. Denver had a few pogroms of its own in the 1910s. The rise of the  Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was fueled by anti-Semitism. The Jewish community resisted  these evils bravely and in the end, victoriously.  Nor is there any mention of the role of Jews in the Denver underworld. And I remember well Green Gables Country Club, started when the Denver Country Club refused to allow Jews to become members.

Overall, this is the kind of book you might give to your grandma on her birthday. It’s a triumphalist narrative as it ought to be, sweet tempered and focused on the outsized impact of the Colorado Jews.

Jewish Denver isn’t an especially substantial book, but it’s worth a look if you like Colorado or Denver history. 

Or old family photos.

Coming Through Slaughter

image by tim roessler timothy roessler

This is a masterpiece. It’s a story, if you want to reduce it, of a musician who pushed the boundaries of his art into madness

Some novels take you to place where dreams and memories lie, some almost pre-verbal unconscious condition, hypnotic, intimate as the smell of your own breath. This is one.

Michael Ondaatje, with the density and specificity of a poet, tells a version of the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the creators of jazz. Bolden’s a historic and nearly legendary figure who lived and blew his cornet in New Orleans. Ondaatje brings him to life with grace and ferocity.

Along the way, we meet another artist chasing an original vision: E.J Bellocq, the photographer of prostitutes in Storyville. We know Bolden’s women, his friends, his children. And his steadily bending mind.

Bolden eventually broke blood vessels in his throat, and shattered his sanity. He ended up in the state asylum, a pace as grim as you’d imagine, by passing through the Louisiana town of Slaughter.

It took me a long time to read. Partly, because the prose is as dense as poetry. Partly, too, because of the sheer intensity. 

Read it, even if you’ll end up scorched and blistered. Because it’s beautiful on every damn page, and beautiful in a way that’ll be new to you and change you.

Life of a Klansman

This is a tough read. Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War, is a period no one likes to think about. Whole libraries have been written about campaigns in the Civil War. About Reconstruction, not so much. Of course not. Because that period ended in a shameful, dishonorable defeat, and no one likes to think about losing.

From John Dolan, I learned to think of the Civil War as really being two phases: the famous, official one filled with generals and huge battles and gruesome butchery. We won that one, and Lincoln freed the slaves. But then the second phase came — a guerrilla insurrection, using attempted coups, subversion, terrorism and the deliberate slaughter of innocents. 

We lost that one. It would take a massive civil rights struggle, the gifted leadership of Martin Luther King and all of LBJ’s dark arts to strike a balance one hundred years later.

The Klansman of the title is Constant Lecorgne, the great-great grandfather of author Edward Ball. Lecorgne fought in both wars on the side of white supremacy. His life is the spine of the book, one that unites subjects that’d make for important books on their own: Creole society, race theory of the 1850s. the beginnings of jazz, the role of blackface. Heroes appear in the story, but Lecorgne, almost comically inept, isn’t one.

He belonged to a social tier you don’t read about much. White, but not rich. A slave owner, but not a land holder. He inherited a few slaves, the way you or I might a grandparent’s condo. His slaves lived out back in a house and did chores for his family. One was a young mulatto woman, who was worth nearly double the price of the others. You wonder what her chores might have included.

Constant Lecorgne was, essentially, a loser. He seems to have excelled at nothing except for reproduction, resentment and violence. His long slide down the social ladder ended up with his widow doing menial chores for a few pennies — the same ones his slaves used to perform. 

He joined the Klan to get back what he’d lost. In his case, it meant spilled blood and terror for black people, but no change in his grubby life.

Ball writes well. He uses a wide range of sources to show the horrors and banality of slavery in the South and the subsequent imposition of white supremacy.  I learned a great deal about ante bellum New Orleans and even more about the horrors and massacres of Reconstruction.

Evil, we think, has glamor. That’s what novels and movies tell us; all the best roles are villains. But you can be cruel and boring. Evil and dull. Lecorgne was a failing carpenter, a useful idiot for powerful white men.

Just as Ivan was another mouth breather until he got the gig with the Party and got to put a revolver up against the head of a kulak. Or the way Klaus was machinist until he became a guard at Bergen Belsen, or how even old Adolph himself was just a lazy house painter who farted too much.

They’re all little people, these bullies, small and mean, and Ball’s book reminds of us of how vicious a loser can be. And how disastrous the consequences are when those thugs serve racists, ideologues and cheap hustlers who are just a few notches smarter and richer than they are. 

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: The Other Side of Dark Remembrance

The Other Side of Dark Remembrance is an inventive novella that uses its structural cleverness to serve a deeply emotional denouement. 

It opens in a satiric vein. A completely thrashed salaryman wakes up with a killer hangover. He doesn’t know where he is, his suit’s filthy, and worst of all, he’s lost a set of crucial documents. Unless he can find them, his firm may go under and he will certainly lose his hard-earned job.

The plot unfolds much like that of the American comedy, The Hangover. He has to retrace his steps through the bars, restaurants, clip joints and quasi bordellos that he wandered through the night before. He meets with anger, amusement, and, finally, sympathy as he tries to reconstruct what the hell happened to him the night before.

As he investigates the recent past of his weekend debauch, a second, more distant past begins to open up: that of his childhood and of Korea’s history. The tone shifts. We grow to know this man beyond his job title, beyond his bourgeois strivings. He becomes specifically human, and his story is one that moved me deeply.

Lee Kyun-young’s skills serve his novella impeccably. He pulls off a real narrative feat, but you never notice until the end how well he has constructed his book.

You should read it. A whole world of noodle shops, backyards, offices, good time girls, and orphanages will open up to you. You’ll learn, and feel, a chapter of Korea’s dark history.

But you just may have your heart broken.