Sunday, January 31, 2010

Learning to Read

In Great Books, film critic David Denby returns to his freshman year at Columbia to re-read in a classroom setting the canon of Western literature. What ensues are thoughtful, interesting, enriching essays on writers from Plato to Woolf. Early in the book, Denby says the reader can skip around. I've been doing just that and finding it a rewarding experience.

Denby delves into the experience of reading, the joy of reading, but also the implications of reading, the academic, cultural and social struggle over canon. Some of his observations knock me out. On Conrad, for example: "The great achievement of modernism was is union of the discordant and the metaphysical." On Lear:

The devastating power of King Lear, I now realized, is derived from emotions that we barely admit. We are obsessed, so many of us, with power, with work, with money, with love, sex, and art, and meanwhile two of the most essential and unfathomable tasks in life - raising our children and lowering our parents into the earth - pull away at us steadily, unacknowledged and sometimes unattended... no rules or guidelines, no training or expertise, really helps you take care of children or elderly parents.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Arthur Lyons?

Everybody should know a Sheridan. I’ve known mine for years. He’s the proprietor of Cross Street Books in Ypsilanti and I have been patronizing his little shop for more than fifteen years. Sheridan doesn’t have time to read all the books he buys and sells, but he absorbs a great deal about them and he has an instinct for them, one that guides him in recommendations he makes for customers he knows. I am grateful that he has turned me on to many books.

Sheridan’s latest hunch is Arthur Lyons. Something about Lyons, especially the compelling layout of some of the hardback covers that have come his way, makes him think Lyons’d be up my alley. I haven’t read All God’s Children (1975) yet but the opener looks promising.

Maybe it was one of those days when you don’t want to get out of bed because something is waiting for you.

Or maybe it was one of those days when you don’t want to get out of bed because nothing is waiting for you, and that’s worse.

Or maybe it’s just knowing that the telephone book beside your bed is full of names that have been dead for half a lifetime and others that shouldn’t be living at all.

Or maybe it’s the sky beyond the windows where it looks like rain, but the rain never falls.

But finally you do manage to get up and shower the ghost and shave the spirit and go out and drive ninety miles an hour to make yourself feel brave – a plastic value, as they say – and then slow it down to forty and wonder if that’s the coward.

All that being true or untrue, I did get up that morning and went out under a sky that refused to rain and drove off at a cowardly forty through gray city streets where other people were just getting out of bed beside similar phone books of the buried or about-to-be-die. I was on my way to see a man about a job.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eric Ambler and the New Theology

For years I have been meaning to read Eric Ambler, often mentioned in connection with the great spy novelists of the 20th century as their progenitor. His novel, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1937), is usually held up as his masterpiece and on every short list of the greatest spy and suspense novels. For good reason – it is excellent.

The protagonist of the book is Latimer, an Englishman, a former lecturer in economics on his second career as a mystery writer. By chance, he makes friends with a colonel in the Turkish police and is exposed to the dossier of Dimitrios, a career criminal whose body has just been fished out of the Bosphorus. Latimer takes an interest in Dimitrios and spends the rest of the novel tracking the dead man’s career, from the 1920s Balkans along a refugee trail to Belgrade, where Dimitrios dabbles in the dark side of politics, to France, where Dimitrios was once involved in a heroin ring.

I’m leaving out the significant twists that follow, because, even though they are entertaining as suspense, the best parts of the novel, the cream of it, for me are the prose (of course), the flavor of internationalism and history in the story, the depth of the characters and, not the least, the rich motive of the protagonist.

Latimer left a career in economics unsatisfied at its ability to explain the world to him. He finds mystery writing little better – the opposite, in fact, because it fits humanity and its crimes and passions into easily reconcilable boxes. His quest to fill in the gaps in Dimitrios’ dossier is his journey into the heart of human nature, a confrontation with the realpolitik of evil. Latimer wants to know where Dimitrios comes from and what drove him to be a con man, cut throat, drug dealer, pimp… and spy. He’s still an economist, but now he’s trying to determine the workings of a much different marketplace, one that traffics in human souls.

Having lived through a great war and standing on the brink of another, Latimer wonders, is there such a thing as evil in 1930s Europe? If so, is Dimitrios it?

But it was useless to try to explain him in terms of Good and Evil. They were no more than baroque abstractions. Good Business and Bad Business were the elements of the new theology. Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town. The logic of Michael Angelo’s David, Beethoven’s quartets and Einstein’s physics had been replaced by that of the
Stock Exchange Year Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.