Sunday, June 28, 2009

West, punch list

There is a tenuous connection between my work story this week and Morris West's The Devil's Advocate, but since I want to talk about both, I will go ahead and make it. My workweek was half spent helping Mark Judge rock and tile my bathroom with subway tile, and half spent at the Naylor & Breen jobsite building "affordable" housing.

There are a lot of new guys on the jobsite, which is on the border of Winooski and Colchester, but Russ, Pat and Jimmy are holdovers from the old days of LWB, and Pat had only just arrived on site fresh from working with Doug in Cambridge. Of course, they three were happy to see me, and I them. My role is punch list (post stair installation--meaning kneewalls, soffits and handrail blocking) as well as cutting the notched stair stringers. Aside from the suspicious site supervisor (always), there was much laughter. Pat says (about a comment he just made), "no, that's not where I want to be when Jesus comes back!" Russ says, "I want to burn one with Miriam one day," and Jimmy confides in me about his wage being dropped $3 an hour. I feel as if these guys are my brothers.

And then there's Ben. Ben holds himself apart--not, I think, because he's the boss, but because he can't relate. After all, Doug (Ben's business partner) revels in earthy dialogue. But one very hot day last week, I went up to Ben's truck at lunch to ask a question, and he was hunched over, soaking his head and everything else with a bottle of water (he'd been up on the second floor deck setting walls with a crane). It seemed a very solitary and even private moment, and I'd almost not wanted to intrude. Later, Pat and I were sitting in the back of the Subaru laughing, and I (we?) were also watching Ben alone 50 feet away. When I first started working with him three years ago, I thought that he spent so little time talking with me about Japan, or Graham Greene, because he didn't want to cultivate that image in front of the rest of the crew--but now I see that it's not only that. I enjoy everyone (almost everyone) on the jobsite, on some level, and hearing them talk, well, it's like Studs Terkel's 'vox humana.'

And I remembered, in The Devil's Advocate, Meredith ruminates on this: "Other priests, he knew, found an intense pleasure in the raw, salty dialect of peasant conversation. They picked up pearls of wisdom and experience over a farmhouse table or a cup of wine in a workman's kitchen. They talked with equal familiarity to the rough tongued whores of Trastevere and the polished signori of Parioli ... They were good priests, too, and they did much for their people, with a singular satisfaction to themselves."

I like this novel very much, as I did Shoes of the Fisherman and Eminence, though it is a good deal older than those two Varican novels. In a way, it sets the precedent for them (and also the formula), but was written before Vatican II and the reforms of John XXIII. It's interesting to make a comparison of these three, because (in West's inimitable formula!) each main character undergoes a great personal transformation assisted by an impossibly ideal friendship (often between two unequal in rank) and in which the personal transformation has effects which reach into the personal lives of other characters in the novels, mostly for good. West is a Christian believer's author, where Greene is a Christian doubter's author.

Some elements of this 1959 work are surprising to me: West's rather sensitive portrayal of homosexuality (which gets even more sensitive in the more modern works) and his rather interesting portrait of the similarities and friendships between Jews and Catholics--a relationship I feel exists, but is often ignored. And West usually includes a man whose character is too beautiful to believe, but who the reader can't help but love: in this, it's Aurelio, the bishop of Valenta. Aurelio is the gentle push that sends Meredith into a renewed, if short life working as 'promoter of the faith' in a sainthood investigation.

Aurelio's suggestion to Meredith to carry a flask of grappa, and sweets, to Gemello Minore, brings me back, full circle, to work, and what it means to sit and listen and take part in conversation with people who live very different lives than me, to be as their sister, to be part of the human family.

Spooky Philadelphia (mew)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sammler's Planet

I read my first Bellow some months ago--Henderson the Rain King. I suppose I liked bits of it, but the general effect on me was this sort of painful embarrassment and so I left off somewhere around page 100 with the feeling of impending humorous doom, and read the last five pages or so, which left me rather unsatisfied about what had transpired. After all, it is not a Mike Hammer mystery with the killer revealed on the last page. But anyway, I just couldn't concentrate on finishing the book, and moved on.

While I was in Chicago I stopped by the Old Neighborhood, and by Unabridged Books. They have a rather large Penguin collection, and I found Mr. Sammler's Planet, and encouraged by the description, I bought it. I did, after all, need something to read on the trip back. This book, too had a similar point-of-no-continuing for me (somewhere in the 80s, I think) but I persisted onward this time. I think (before I get down to the novel itself) that Saul Bellow's ideas appeal to me, but I find the particular way he executes them tiresome.

Mr. Sammler's Planet is about an academic--a Holocaust survivor too--in what must have seemed like a tumultuous 1970. The plot defies explanation (perhaps to Sammler's satisfaction: early in the novel he disparages the culture of explanation). Also, interestingly, this character Sammler seems like he might be an approximation of Bellow himself. I wondered, as the book's narrative snakes in and out of Sammler's long reveries, if these thoughts are the thoughts Bellow was having as he travelled through the city, observed its inhabitants, interacted with his friends and family. But, I realize this is too easy an assumption to make. At any rate, Sammler is less than capable of human feeling (compassion, maybe), though he approximates it. The book takes him through a series of historical events in his own life (and outside it) and through modern life of 1970, introducing us to his remaining family and his friends and benefactors. They are all subject to Sammler's silent and scathing criticism, though he appears to love them too. Modern life though--or modern thought--distresses, angers, unnerves, makes no sense to him. He is particularly concerned with sexual paradigm, and with the emphasis on individuality (as demonstrated in psychotherapy, clothing, the increased interest in cultural ancestry, art, etc.) which he perceives as self-serving behavior.

Oddly, Sammler's main complaint with one of his more likable family-members, Margotte, is that she talks on and on about theoretical subjects--which Sammler himself does even more often--which suggests what he lacks is not exactly compassion, but insight. He has also (in the search for a common? old world? civilized? existence) forsaken emotion, humor, sentimentality ("a man who looks upon all mortal foolishness with hostile condescension," writes Stanley Crouch). It is arguable what exactly happens... I suspect the events that take place as his friend Elya nears death (the assault on the pickpocket, the incident with Govinda Lal's manuscript, his daughter's mental illness and Elya's children's shortcomings) are like small steps toward humanity for Sammler. It occurs to me, as it may have to others, that a survivor of attempted genocide would find compassion a difficult, maybe foreign emotion, just as Holocaust survivors often renounced faith. Sammler reluctantly and irritably believes in God, because he cannot conceive the absence of God, but instead he has renounced humanity--and then returned to it.

One of the most fascinating and encouraging things about this novel was reading Sammler's thoughts: untruncated, difficult, far-reaching and diverse. The thoughts are tenuously connected, but attaching and detaching themselves like electrons to a molecule, or like brief connections between neurons. History, philosophy and science tied together with the lightest of strings, like a web--I loved the speed of the connections. Not stream-of-consciousness, but a consciousness accurately described in writing. This book does not end neatly--just as it does not read neatly. However, it is strangely and touchingly, multifacetedly human.

Guard goat, Milton (mew)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bellow and Bowles

Bellow made me catch my breath the other day, as he seldom does, with this passage: 'And what is "common" about the "common life"? What if some genius were to do with "common life" what Einstein did with "matter"? Finding its energetics, uncovering its radiance.'

Interesting reading, recently--some new to me, some not. I thought I'd share some thoughts about a couple of recent reads: Mr. Sammler's Planet (Bellow), and Let it Come Down (Bowles); maybe I'll touch briefly on these two old favorites: Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (Greene) and The Devil's Advocate (West).

As I began Let it Come Down, I felt a slight sense of character deja-vu, and after thinking for awhile I decided that Dyar was reminding me of Jim Dixon, of Lucky Jim. Even despite the fact that Dixon is English, and Dyar is quite American. I think this has something to do with the time--a gestalt?--of the early 1950s (1952 and 1954 respectively). But where Dixon is mired in England, English values and academic work, Dyar has just arrived in Morocco, at a politically ephemeral moment, without a clear prospect or understanding of the work he is supposed to be taking with his acquaintance Wilcox. It is apparent in the first few pages, without the aid of an introduction or a back-cover blurb, that Wilcox's operation is a front for illegal business, but Dyar seems innocent, ignorant--bloody stupid. I'll admit to feeling this way about Dyar until the fourth part, at which point I'm not sure quite how to understand him, if I can't see him as a blundering idiot--then what? He is portrayed, maybe purposefully, as a blank slate, an empty vessel: even Daisy says this when she reads his palm at the beginning. Somewhat oddly, I had another recollection of a similarly empty innocent--Pyle (Greene, The Quiet American, 1955)--though ostensibly Pyle is not living a "purposeless" life.

So, if I am horrified (I am) by Dyar in almost every way, I'm not sure how Bowles intended the reader to feel--if he intended at all. His other characters are flawed--Thami, Eunice, Daisy, Hadija--but not hateful. And it is as if Dyar, by his arrival in Tangier, upsets the precariously balanced ecosystem made up of varied political, social and economic interests in the international zone. By the finish, he has unraveled everything for himself--by missing a bank appointment, by taking off with 1,260,000 pesetas, by killing Thami in a haze of majoun hashish. Because (why?, I asked. Because) something has to happen in his life? Because he wanted to be sure he was alive? Or for no reason at all?

Bowles, at least in this novel, is not quite the fine storyteller Greene is, and so I'm left (as I never am with Greene) with quite a lot of doubt about the intention. It seems, among other things, somewhere between farce and tragedy, and about the evil of innocence, possibly of rationality (in opposition to morality). However, some readers may see this as a strength (for every individual his own interpretation). There is an unarguable strength, which left me wanting more, and that was the essence of Morocco in the thing. Its foreigners (Holland, in particular, is a small bright spot) and its natives, and also the dancer with the knife in some of the final pages--a scene which I recognized from "Moon Over Morocco" and from which I could remember the music and singing (which were taken from Paul Bowles' recordings.)


Marble tombstone in Westford. (mew)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Work exchange

Me: "Oh, sorry, I should have put [the studs in the kitchen soffit] on the other side of the trusses [so the bracing would be neater]."
Ben: "It's not a violin."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cities large and small

Just got back from Chicago. I had a rough time with JetBlue on the return flight--it looked like I was going to be stranded at JFK, even as the plane sat at the gate, but with the gate closed and locked--but at the last second they opened it and let the four of us locked-out folks on. Then we sat on the runway probably for an hour. I saw a string of planes: Etihad (United Arab Emirates), Emirates (ditto, I assume), Qatar, Swiss (the odd one out). Back in Burlington at 1am. Williston Rd. was sweetly peaceful, how about that? By the way, Etihad has what I assume to be the UAE emblem on its tail, a very sinister and fascist-looking bird (a falcon, most likely). I feel like a change is in order, if only for reasons of public-relations. If the falcon had its wings raised in flight, for example, it would look 100 times less fascist.

I'll post a bit later about Chicago, but in the meantime I have pictures of Rutland, which I took on a research trip down to Proctor, home of the Vermont Marble Company. I was doing a little research into the early nursing at Proctor, the first industrial or occupational health nurse, Ada Stewart, who was hired in 1895. In addition, if I find anything about the mostly Italian and Finnish (and a few Irish) workers, so much better.

Because the Proctor Free Library is closed between 11 am and 2 pm, I had plenty of time to head into the city of Rutland, which has a style very distinct from Burlington (the largest VT city) and even from St. Albans, which has a little more grit, if you will. Rutland, from a distance, has the look of a city, with a main street row of tall buildings (between six and 12 stories, probably), all of a vintage between, say 1890 and 1940. It could easily pass for a small city in some noir fiction, I think. There are a number of large houses up the hill from the downtown. Some are subdivided, some aren't. There is obviously a lot of marble in use, in a lot of different applications; an obvious result of its proximity to Vermont Marble.

It was raining slightly as I walked around, which gave it a certain misty appeal. A Chinese place:


A motorcycle store window:


A warehouse (ha, ha):


More shortly.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Another dream

I dreamed that I had gotten off an elevator, I suspect in a building where each floor is one flat, because I basically walked out to find a husband and wife hanging pictures in an artfully lit hallway. The first ones I saw were portraits, like ink on glass, lit from behind, possibly with candles. They greeted me as if I ought to be there, and so I said (because I thought I recognized the man) "do you have a blog?"

He said, "Well, yes, but I only use it professionally." And so decided that this was not the person I thought it was, but I continued to stroll down the hall looking at the art. I saw one very large canvas with a few clouds hovering right at the edge. It was unframed. And then I was at their kitchen. They were back there, cooking, and so they asked me what specialty I was planning on. At this point I said, "oh, you're a doc." I thought I might leave, but at that point the wife started to give me some unsolicited advice.

There were a couple of guests at the door. The doc stood there talking to one, while the other came in and started to look at a stack of records(?). It was Jeff Goldblum. He was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt under a tweed blazer, and before I could reconsider it, I said, "oh, I see you decided to wear your costume from 'The Big Chill.'" He looked at me rather icily.

I thought I'd blew it with the only celebrity I'd ever meet by being cheeky, so I sat down on the couch and said, "so, how are you?" Surprisingly, he answered, but very softly--I could hardly hear him. We were talking about the piano when I woke up.