Saul Bellow Week, Day 2 – Zetland: By a Character Witness

For Day 2 of Saul Bellow Week, I read his short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness”.  This one came in at only about 30 pages – a little shorter than “Him With the Foot in His Mouth”.

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Very short on plot, the story sets out the childhood and early married life of Elias Zetland, an intellectual Jewish boy growing up in Chicago (I’m seeing a pattern, here).  The narrator is unnamed and only gives a slight clue as to his relationship with Zetland (or Zet as he calls him).  He seems to be a boyhood/adolescent friend who knows much about Zet’s life.

The usual early adulthood changes make up the plot.  Zet marries Lottie – a marriage neither family likes.  They move from Chicago to New York and Zet changes his mind about majoring in philosophy when he reads Moby-Dick.  Melville and Moby-Dick have been popping up in a lot of the stories I’ve been reading lately.

There is a light-hearted depth to “Zetland” that I’m finding is characteristic to the Saul Bellow stories I’ve read so far.  The depth comes from an obviously intelligent writer creating intelligent characters.  The light-heartedness keeps both Bellow and his characters from taking themselves too seriously.

As a native of Chicago, Bellow writes a little tongue-in-cheek as Zet and Lottie move to New York:

Zet and Lottie swam into New York City from the skies… They were in the East, where everything was better, where objects were different.  Here there was deeper meaning in the air.

I would (so far) consider Woody from “A Silver Dish” as the best example of Bellow’s characters – smart, but not wanting to follow the path set out for them by family or society. Perhaps Zet might come in second.

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Bradbury of the Month: July – The F. Scott/Tolstoy/Ahab Accumulator

For the July edition of Bradbury of the Month, I picked up another collection of Ray Bradbury stories, One More for the Road, that I found at the library and settled on his story “The F. Scott/Tolstoy/Ahab Accumulator”, the intriguing title being the main reason for selecting it.

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any Bradbury fan that this story involves time travel and the time machine looks much like a butterfly.  The narrator of “The F. Scott/Tolstoy/Ahab Accumulator” determines that he will use the machine to try to change the lives of some great writers of whom at least several died not realizing how great they would eventually be considered.

Yes, the story is a tad gimmicky and just a tad sentimental; however, Bradbury makes it work.  And in a turn both humorous and amazing, Bradbury manages to write in the same style as the author being visited but still make the story flow and still make the story completely his own.  The time traveler’s conversation with Ernest Hemingway contains short, choppy remarks without indication of who is saying what.

Anyone who loves books and loves reading is going to at least appreciate the sentiments the narrator explains to those he visits and achingly wonder if something could have changed for these writers.  He does manage to “change history” in one instance.

In his best Melville, Bradbury writes a wonderful paragraph about libraries:

…it firms a man’s bones, brightens his eye, tunes his ear.  Thus a man is renewed breath by breath, when he swims the library deeps where multitudinous blind creatures wait.  Your mind says rise and they swarm, overbrim, drown you with their stuffs.  Drowned but alive, you are the atoll it floods without end.  Thus, you are no mere reader, but a survivor of tides that surf from Shakespeare to Pope to Moliere.  Those lighthouses of being. Go there to survive the storms.

In the Heart of the Sea

…as the survivors of the Essex came to know, once the end has been reached and all hope, passion, and force of will have been expended, the bones may be all that are left.

It’s taken me at least as long to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea as it took the crew of the whaleship Essex to survive being shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean – which is approximately three months – and not everyone survived which is one of the more gruesome aspects of the book.

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Philbrick writes a very readable non-fiction story and gives fascinating background into the whaling industry and the island of Nantucket that sparked the industry boom during the early years of the United States.  His details regarding the influence of the Quakers in this area shed more light on those “Quakers with a vengence” that owned the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  This connection to Melville’s novel prompted me to read Philbrick’s account along with the trailer to the upcoming film based on the book.

Based on published accounts by the surviving members of Essex along with letters and other documentation, Philbrick narrates the whaleship’s destruction by a sperm whale that to all involved appeared to aggressively attack the ship – something shocking to the crew members and other whalers of the time.  The struggle to survive pushed all of the crew’s morals and ideals to the limit and in some cases passed the limit.

According to Philbrick, this incident inspired Herman Melville, who spent time employed by whaleships, himself, to write Moby-Dick, his Great American Novel.  In the Heart of the Sea contains fewer details about Melville than I was expecting; however, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in survival stories.

Herman Melville: A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 15

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Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2015 project started with me having to look up a word in the title of a story, Herman Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids” which I chose by drawing the Queen of Spades.  I discovered “Tartarus”, in essence, means hell – it was a lower region of Hades in Greek mythology.  And, therefore, “Paradise” can be assumed to mean heaven.  Melville uses both of these words figuratively in a story that Joyce Carol Oates (in an introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories of whom Oates is editor) suggests could make him the first American feminist.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Herman Melville

I can’t say that this story has a plot, but it has words – and Melville’s poetic and magical words are enough.  As the title suggests, it’s a contrast of two situations.  In the first section, the unnamed narrator visits London, England for business purposes.  He has a grand time among lawyers and businessmen – all of whom are bachelors:

In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library; go worship in the sculptured chapel; but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle.  Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.

The second section brings the narrator back to the United States, somewhere in New England.  He visits a paper factory to buy envelopes for his seed company.  Here, he encounters a group of women working in drudgery with no rest. Melville throws his sympathies to the ladies even if he doesn’t have a solution:

To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragging long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint.  The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.

An obvious contrast of genders exists in this story so it begs Joyce Carol Oates’ question in her introduction “Herman Melville, our first native feminist? – can it be so?” (p.1, Oxford).  Written in the mid-nineteenth century, it’s difficult to see Melville as a feminist by today’s standards; however, it’s easy to see the beginning recognition of inequality.

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Anniversary the Third!

Today is the third anniversary of Mirror with Clouds!  It’s been an interesting, informative and all around great three years and I’m looking forward to year #4.  It’s become my anniversary tradition to post some of my favorite quotations from the past year – so here they are!

These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold.  They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world.  Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere.  With a lantern I inspected them more closely.  Such worshipful venerableness of aspect!  Such furry greenness mantling the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells.  I no more saw three tortoises.  They expanded – became transfigured.  I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay.

– From Herman Melville’s “The Encantadas” (a reference to the tortoises found on the Encantadas, also known as the Galapagos Islands)

 

In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.

-From Ernest Hemingway’s “Ten Indians”

 

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

-From Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

 

He did not believe that he himself was formed in the image of God but that Bishop was he had no doubt.  The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love.  Anything he looked at too long could bring it on.  Bishop did not have to be around.  It could be a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk.  If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him – powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise.  It was completely irrational and abnormal.

-From Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away

 

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble.  You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside.  You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.  So you’ve got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen.”

-From James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

 

And then Trout, with his wound dressed, would walk out into the unfamiliar city.  He would meet his Creator, who would explain everything.

-From Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions

 

 

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Merry Men

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In drawing the Ten of Hearts this week for my Deal Me In 2014 project, I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Merry Men”.  From what I’ve read of Stevenson, I know his stories’ themes can be about both the good and the evil in a human being (e.g., Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).  Ships and the ocean play a prominent role in his more well-known stories (e. g., Treasure Island).  “The Merry Men” join both of these characteristics – and it doesn’t have anything to do with Robin Hood.

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Charles heads to his family home, Aros, off the coast of Scotland, as well as to his Uncle Gordon Darnaway and his cousin Mary.  But he also has another reason for the visit:  to look for buried treasure from the sinking of the ship Espirito Santo.   His initial visit with his relatives finds him hearing the story of another, more recent ship that sank near Aros – the Christ-Anna.  The cause of these ocean tragedies is a rock formation known as “The Merry Men”.  Do these rocks possess some sort of evil that comes from the ocean?  They have had an effect on Charles’ Uncle Gordon.  After reading a Psalm from the Old Testament, Gordon makes a chilling observation:

Maybe Dauvit wasna very weel acquaint wi’ the sea.  But troth, if it wasna the Lord, but the muckle, black deil that made the sea.

The ocean continues to bring Gordon to the brink of insanity when a severe storm crashes yet another ship on “The Merry Men”.  The fascination with which Gordon watches the horror reminds me of King Lear’s descent into madness.  The contrast between the evils of the sea and the very religious names of the ships makes for interesting thoughts on what Stevenson was trying to convey with his story.  I’m not sure the ending gives any firm conclusions to the author’s motives.

While the story is enjoyable enough, I have to continue to recommend Herman Melville for philosophical and theological stories about ships and oceans.  In addition, the thick Scottish accent of Uncle Gordon makes for some slow reading.  But if one is looking for a story that is a little scary, a little adventurous – and fun – this might be the one.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Goodman Brown

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Week 39 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project brings me to my final Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Young Goodman Brown”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I think this is another story that is fairly well-known but I happened to have not read until now.  I have found Hawthorne almost as intriguing this year as Herman Melville.  Both authors are stalwarts of Nineteenth Century American Literature.  To make still another comparison, I’ve been surprised at how downright scary Hawthorne’s stories can be – just as scary as Edgar Allan Poe, another of Hawthorne’s American contemporaries.

Young Goodman Brown says goodbye to his new wife, Faith, to embark on a journey in which the reader (and Faith, I think) never gets the full details as to the reason.  The reader gets the distinct impression that less than noble intentions are behind the journey.  Along the way, Brown meets up with an older man.  Is this man behind the purpose of his travels or is he unexpected?  The reader isn’t sure.  It doesn’t take long to realize that the older man is most likely the Devil himself.  Through eerie descriptions Goodman and the Devil travel through the woods.  The Devil seems to take pleasure in pointing out how many of Goodman Brown’s church people are secretly working for him.  Ultimately, Goodman gets the impression that even his wife, Faith (great name!), might be in cahoots with his travel companion.

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The story leaves many questions.  Is this all a dream of Goodman Brown or is it real?  Hypocrisy of religious people seems to play a prominent role in Hawthorne’s stories.  However, Young Goodman Brown doesn’t seem to be completely pure (or puritan) in spite of his name (another good one!).  The possible change in Faith is what makes me think the story is more dream than real.  If any character is pure, it would be her.  But if this is a dream, it’s a dream that has a drastic effect on the rest of Young Goodman Brown’s life.

In this story, as in all of Hawthorne’s stories I’ve read, I love the way he describes the rugged colonial Massachusetts landscape.  Letting him take me back to a younger country with forests and footpaths, scary though they may be, will make me continue to visit and revisit Hawthorne’s writing.