Thursday, April 22, 2010

J.D. Salinger: "Hapworth 16, 1924" (1965)

"Hapworth 16, 1924" was Salinger's last published story, and the most famous of his uncollected stories, because it's the only one of them that postdates his success with Nine Stories.

You may have heard that this is a strange story, not very auspicious if you're hoping for great literary riches among his unpublished late manuscripts. I do have that hope, and while this story is very strange, I think it's sort of auspicious.

The famous reading list only takes up the last third or so of the story, and it is, make no mistake, tedious, but goes a long way toward completing in the reader's mind a picture of Seymour. As we know, this story is really the only place we get Seymour speaking in his own voice.

As such, this story is an exercise in voice and tone, a piece of vocal mimicry on Salinger's part. What would an incredibly precocious, self-conscious, past-life-aware, prophetic, genius, mystic,
logorrhoeac seven-year-old write like? Like this, answers Salinger. It's a pretty persuasive answer: purely on the verbal level, it's a fascinating and very entertaining story, as we notice Seymour's verbal tics, his sensibilities just barely outstripping his prodigious eloquence (everything's "heartrending" or "touching" or "charming," evidence not only of Seymour's peculiar sensitivity and cosmic perspective, but his slight poverty of expression).

We get to laugh at Seymour, in other words. It's a pretty funny story. Not least because in form it's a parody of the familiar (especially mid-century) "letter from summer camp." Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" came out two years before, recall. Was Salinger listening to the radio? Is this story an intellectual's take on Sherman's song?

I hope it gets collected now that Salinger's gone on to his next appearance. It really adds, I think, to the Glass saga. Note the frame. Buddy tells us he had been working on "a long short story about a particular party, a very consequential party, that [Bessie] and Seymour and my father and I all went to one night in 1926." Then he became aware of this letter, and decided to reprint it instead of his own story (more of that authorial constipation from "Seymour, An Introduction").

Seymour's letter talks about this party. About halfway through the story, Seymour writes of two glimpses he's had of the future. One is about the party itself - he says a man there will make the family a "business offer" that "will not too seriously change the regular, normal course of our childhoow" but that "the surface upheaval will be quite enormous." The other is that Buddy will one day write about the party.

The party: it's pretty strongly hinted that the business offer is for the radio show that will eventually immortalize, consume, and stunt all the Glass children, the big fact of all their lives. Seymour says no more about it, but we all know what a gnawing effect this strangely anonymous celebrity will have on the children.

Buddy writing about it: of course he does - that's what Buddy tells us at the outset of his story. But once he discovers that Seymour has predicted it, he gives up. He gives us Seymour's voice instead of his own; whatever insights Buddy was going to reveal about this party, the children's career, their place in the world, are stifled, as Buddy decides to silence his own voice in favor of his dead older brother's.

As a last published story before fifty-five years of public silence, it's a great gesture, isn't it? It leaves us with this poignant vision of Buddy himself, longing for a figure of spiritual transcendence and expressive eloquence (in "Seymour, An Introduction" he makes much of Seymour's poetry), a figure who died right after the war (is it too much to say "in the war"? maybe "with the war"). Buddy is about loss: he knows the truth, or whatever, but he thinks that truth perished, essentially, with his brother. And he is unwilling/unable, in the end, to substitute his own (presumably) hard-won experiential knowledge for the elusive prescience of this vanished oracle.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Red Hot Chili Peppers

So a few years ago I went through a brief Red Hot Chili Peppers phase, and made a mix of their best stuff. I just listened to it again the other day. I'm no longer in that phase, I guess: it suddenly seemed to me that the Chili Peppers only really had two musical ideas, which they have been flogging repeatedly for - jeez, can it really be twenty-six years now? Usually if I don't much like a band I won't bother to write about them, but in this case those two ideas were pretty compelling, even if they were pretty fully explored in two songs on the same album in 1991.

One of the songs is "Give It Away." The idea that culminates in this song is white-punk funk, right? The lineage is their early covers of the Meters's "Africa" (RHCP's version is "Hollywood") and Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," etc. I'm of the age and socioeconomic background that I heard the Chili Peppers' versions of these before the original, but frankly now I'd rather hear the originals. Still I can appreciate the musicianship, the punk adrenaline, and when they tried to translate all that funk into their own thing they did manage to make it work. "Give It Away" is a masterpiece. Unfortunately I haven't heard anything else they did in this vein say anything more or better than this song does. It may be all you need by them in this regard.

The other song is, of course, "Under The Bridge." With this they stumbled into the company of the Doors and X, other rock chroniclers of L.A.'s suicidal allure. You know, pick up the rock and this is what crawls out. It's a perfect record, and while they'd do excellent work in this vein in the future ("Californication" comes close to matching it, and so does "Dani California"), they'd never quite match it. Later visits to this mode sound like they're trying to match it; part of the charm of the original is that they clearly didn't know what they had.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Robertson Davies: The Cunning Man (1994)

The Cunning Man was Davies's last book, and I think it's safe to assume it was meant to be the middle book in a trilogy. It interlocks with Murther and Walking Spirits in precisely the same way that his other trilogies interlock, not by moving a particular plotline forward but by utilizing some of the same characters and settings events as the earlier book but shifting them in importance and point of view, turning main characters into bit players and vice versa, making one person's triumph another's mere annoyance. In this case, the character of Gil, the murdered narrator of the previous book, becomes the narrator's godson and perhaps son, and his murder, which happens late in this book, is the occasion for soul-searching and revelations, rather than the expected grief.

One wonders, of course, how Davies would have concluded the trilogy if he had lived, but ending things here doesn't produce a sense of unfinished business, fifth or otherwise. Doubtless he knew he might not live to finish the project, because this book wraps up with a curious sense of finality, not to mention fatalism - and the last words are "Good-night."

So what's it about? As with the middle novels of his last two trilogies, it's a life story. In this case it's the autobiography (in the form of a "Casebook," supplemented in one key section by letters written by a neighbor, offering a valued second perspective) of Jonathan Hullah, a physician of unconventional methods. Influenced at a very young age by an Indian shamaness and later by the classical and medieval wisdom typical of the Davies intellectual, he practices a kind of mind-body medicine. It might be termed "holistic" if not for that term's New Age-y connotations; and in fact Hullah rejects homeopathy and other varieties of mysticism. Hullah's philosophy is, rather, Old Age-y, a conviction (bolstered by quotations from forgotten sages of the European Tradition) that spiritual ills will manifest themselves in bodily, and that in some cases the best thing a healer can do is just listen to the patient - the Talking Cure - and understand his or her particular grievances against Life. There's some Freud in Hullah's approach, as he admits (an interesting detail in light of the Jungian underpinnings of the Deptford books).

Medically I don't have much confidence that Hullah's ideas stand up, and I doubt Davies does, either. Rather, Hullah seems to be Davies's prescription for the ills of the modern world, another in a long line of his arguments for the Liberal Education.

But in a sense Hullah's not what this book is about. Just as Fifth Business was narrated by a man obsessed with saints, but not really about him, this book is really about a saint, even though Hullah's story only comes back to that subject here and there.

Hullah's practice is located next to a church, St. Aidan's, the parson of which, Ninian Hobbes, is a strikingly holy man: gives everything to the poor, radiates goodness, patience, and humility, is almost a simpleton in his faith. Keels over during mass on Good Friday. His flock and his assistant are ready to have him canonized. Problem is, this is an Anglican congregation, and such things just aren't done nowadays.

St. Aidan's, through no particular influence of Hobbes's, is an unusually Romish sort of Anglican church, very High: the assistant, Charles Iredale (a boyhood friend of Hullah's), is intent on restoring a lot of the Latinate beauty and majesty to the rituals. He attracts like-minded people to make over the church's music, vestments, and decorations, and for a while the church is a sort of temple to Beauty, a spiritual counterpart and even extension of the weekly salon conducted by a lesbian couple who live next door in a house that had once been part of St. Aidan's glebe. The Ladies, as they're called, comprise a kind of home base for the struggling arts scene in Toronto in the immediate postwar decades, and the membership of their salon and the neighboring church largely overlaps; Hullah is involved in both.

The push to canonize Hobbes causes a short kerfluffle, then fades away, but it forms the backdrop to the whole novel, even during the long stretches when it fades away from the narrator's attention. It seem to represent, as best as I can tell, an insistence on the old magics of faith and mysticism as being present in the modern world under different guises, combined with a yearning for transcendence in art and life. And those themes are everywhere in the book (as indeed they are in Davies's mature work). This despite the fact that only about a third of the book involves Hobbes, and that only indirectly. Mostly this is Hullah's story of his own life and education, involving long sections about his boyhood in a remote Ontario village, his schooling at Colborne, his visits to Salterton, his experiences in WWII, his friendship with Iredale and with Brocky Gilmartin (Gil's father)... Lots of sly references to earlier works.

It is, in other words, a meandering book. Davies's best work, the Deptford and Cornish trilogies, were discursive and expansive, but never meandering: they always pulled you along, either through the cleverness of the plot (there's usually some mystery going on somewhere) or the addictive medicine of the prose. This book does neither.

But it's not a failure like its immediate predecessor. It lacks the urgency of his best work, but it recaptures the depth of feeling, and of characterization, that Davies was once master of, and so the lack of urgency doesn't matter as much. We're in old-master territory here, where a reflective stillness can be enough, and nostalgia can be indulged, because it's been earned. It's a much more satisfying final chord than his previous book would have been.