The Conversation Continues
Welcome to Page 5 of my ďforum.Ē The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from ďintelligentĒ conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. Thatís all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page ó unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each otherís knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: Wild Harmonica Mesa is definitely a good title for a western. I did read a few Zane Grey books once upon a time, but soon found them redundant. Zane Grey loved the West, though, no doubt about it. Letís see. Wasnít he a baseball player who learned to be a dentist? Or was it his father who was the dentist? Dentists of the Purple Sage. Nope, that doesnít work either. In general, though, I havenít read many westerns. Canít think of a single one right off hand. No, wait. I did read Cormac McCarthyís The Crossing, which was the second part of his Border Trilogy. That was good. The weather and landscape were so dry in that book that I was spittiní dust after just a few chapters. And then there is that Lonesome Dove feller ó what is his name?
Judy: Larry McMurtry wrote the Lonesome Dove novels. I havenít read any. I often resist reading books that make a big splash until fifteen years or so later. Yes, Zane Grey did have some connection with baseball and dentistry. When I was trying to think of other musical instruments that would work well (or not) in titles, I thought ďaccordionĒ would be rare, but then I remembered there is a book called Accordion Crimes.
William Michaelian: I wonder what thatís about. I know many people consider accordion music to be a crime. I am not among them. How about The Accordion Files, or Last Polka in Paris?
John Berbrich: Thereís The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass. Philip Josť Farmer wrote a science fiction novella entitled Riders of the Purple Wage. You see, itís the future and everybodyís on welfare and the welfare checks are purple. . . . Itís a great story, filled with puns.
William Michaelian: Sounds zany, all right. Oops. Bad one. Will I have to be smacked now?
Anita: Only if you say pretty please with sugar on top.
William Michaelian: Nah, it ruins the spontaneity ó which brings up a subject Iíve had on my mind for seconds now, and have been dying to bring up. This might come as a surprise, but I have been recording this entire conversation, and simultaneously presenting it to the world via something called a web page. Friends and strangers from around the globe are following our every word, which appears soon after it is said on their computer screens. I was going to tell you sooner, but everyone was having so much fun that I was afraid it would ruin the spontaneity. But now you know. And now that you do know, Iím wondering if any of you have anything you would like to say directly to the audience. Remember, the audience is also here by choice, and, in a cyber-sense, is just as real as we are, and therefore just as deserving of our consideration. Anyone care to break the ice?
John Berbrich: Tempus fugit!
William Michaelian: Brilliant ó and succinct.
Phil E. Buster: Too succinct, in my opinion. But first allow me to introduce myself. My name is Phil E. Buster, and I am a member of the Audience your host just mentioned. I am a modern-day Character in search of an Author. I have tried many other Internet forums, but no one will give me the time of day. The women ignore me and the men make fun of me. See, Iím cursed with a lively sense of humor, so everything I say is treated as a joke. When I came here, I could sense right away that the leader of this small group ó most of you call him Willie ó was in the same sort of boat. In a way he deserves it, though I canít help feeling sorry for him. Now, you take my dad, for instance. A long time ago, he used to work as a mechanic out in California. He was good at what he did, but the work bored him stiff, so he took to drinking big time and wound up on skid row. Didnít see him for years there while I was growing up. Then I went to college and flunked out, because I had no idea what I was interested in. I thought, well, I could be a mechanic like my dad, but my mom wasnít too keen on that. She took it kind of as an insult, as if as soon as I started working on cars Iíd turn into a drunk. I can understand how she felt. I didnít want to be a mechanic anyway because I hated grease. Maybe that was Dadís problem too. I donít know. I did turn into a drunk, though. Isnít that funny? I guess thatís one reason I keep reading what you guys have to say. All along, I thought you were drunks like me. Champagne this, moonshine that, beer, whiskey. It sounded like one big party. I was thinking, man, if these people can have this much fun with their computers for crying out loud, Iíd sure as heck like to meet íem in person. By the way, I live in a motel room right now, not far from Olympia, Washington. It made me laugh when John said tempus fugit because right away I thought of Fugit Sound. Anyway, back to my dad. I was the one who found him and literally pulled him out of the gutter. The guy next to him groaned and asked me where I was taking his brother. I told him I was taking him for a ride on the Ferris wheel. It was the first thing that came into my mind, because the fair was in town, and I really was thinking of going there before I found Dad, which is kind of mysterious because I can still remember him taking me for rides on the Ferris wheel when I was little. Weíd get up in the air, and being a mechanic heíd say scary things like, ďWhatís holding this thing together, I wonder? Bubble gum and peanut butter?Ē And then weíd both laugh and Iíd just about fill my pants it was so funny. The machinery was creaking and groaning, and I could see bolts flying off left and right, and down below there was always the operator in greasy blue coveralls standing there with a cigar in his mouth and needing a shave. He was in control of something dangerous and big. I liked that. I trusted him, too. Dad liked to talk to the operators before and after the ride. I swear he knew íem all by name. There was James, and Carl, and a guy named Freddie who looked like a big clown. Had the biggest shoes of any man Iíd ever seen. Mustíve been size twenty-eight. He wore a crumpled felt hat and stood in a pile of dimes and old tickets. So. Anyway. I put Dad in the old black Cadillac I had at the time ó bought it with my sister Thelma, then Thelma got married and moved to Topeka ó and I took him for a ride up in the mountains east of Fresno. He stunk something awful. I had it in my mind to take him up there and give him a good old-fashioned bath in an ice-cold stream, but ó say, am I boring you guys? If I am, I sure donít mean to.
John Berbrich: Well, Fugit Sound sounds better than Puget Sound. No pun intended. Willie, any of that brandy left? I was afraid of Ferris Wheels when I was a kid cuz I always got stuck at the top. But I always liked the word Ferris, so I kept getting on the wheel, only to get stuck at the top again. Now I stay away from them but I still like the sound of the word. Ferris, Ferris, Ferris. I hate the word limpid.
Phil E. Buster: Reminds me of a guy I knew once. His name was Ferris. Arthur T. Ferris. The T was for Terwilliger. Almost ran for mayor of Bakersfield once. That was about the time that olí Buck Owens was begging me to be in his band. But like I told Buck, I was working so hard then that I was too haggard to play, no matter how much cash he offered me. Though the Good Lord knows, Johnny, I could have used the paycheck. When my sister Thel came back from Topeka without her dimwit husband who had been playing around on the side, I suggested that she hook up with Buck and maybe do a little singing. But she wasnít into country music, so she got a job at a biscuit-and-gravy diner right on Highway 99. There was a guy who owned a dry cleaners who used to stop by for coffee and biscuits and gravy every morning. They hit it off right away ó and the next thing you know, Thel was helping him run the shop. No one could sew on a button faster than olí Thel. And she seemed happy for the first time in her life, bless her heart, back there pressing pants and working in that nasty steam heat full of chemicals. She lost twenty pounds in the first month ó only weighed ninety-seven to begin with. Six feet tall, we always had to keep an eye on Thelma when the wind came up, which it rarely did in Bakersfield, or if it did, it died out before it got to the other side of the street. By the way, did you say brandy? Hot dog, I knew I would like it here. Kinda wish I hadnít waited so long to pipe up and say something. But better late than never, right? Hereís lookiní at ya, Willie. You, too, John. Whatís that magazine you print up? Barbaric Yip? One of these days, I just might send you a poem. It so happens Iím a genuine poet. Ohh, thatís good. A little too good, Iím afraid. Say, what does limpid mean, anyway?
Anita: A limpid is a tent-shaped shellfish that clings to a rock. No, hang on, thatís a limpet. Limpid means transparently clear. Whaddya know ó I thought it meant something completely different. Iíve never been on a Ferris wheel due to my fear of heights and getting stuck at the top. Folks tell me the view is great though.
John Berbrich: Yeah, the view is cool ó usually carnival lights down below. Getting back to limpid, thatís precisely one of my objections to the word. It sounds like it should mean something entirely different. Plus it sounds kind of greasy, limpid. Limpet is cool though, and I love prawn. But only on the side, not a main course. Or was that Maine coarse?
Phil E. Buster: Limpid is a funny word, all right. Iíd sure hate to find it in my favorite swimming hole. Or, after I busted my leg, I limpid all over the room.
William Michaelian: Heh-heh. I like your style, partner. Pour yourself another drink. So. What kind of poems do you write? Maybe Johníll be interested.
Phil E. Buster: All kinds, really. But I try to model myself after Walt Whitlock. Heís my favorite. You guys were talking about him awhile ago, and I got all excited, but then you dropped the subject like a hot potato. Fact is, thatís one thing Iíve noticed about this bunch. Youíre always bringiní up good stuff, but nobody goes anywhere with it. Not that I havenít run into the same thing at other forums, but I figured out early on that there is a lot of wasted potential here, kind of like a truck load of sugar beets on the highway to nowhere. Used to see them íround Bakersfield all the time. Talk about lonely. There is nothing lonelier than a truck load of sugar beets rattling down the highway through dry country. Makes me feel empty inside just thinking about it. There was one county dump I went to with my dad before he bailed out on us ó this has nothing to do with sugar beets, mind you ó where these dried up Okies used to wait in a little shack a ways inside the entrance to see what kind of junk you were bringing in. Theyíd eyeball your load and take anything that appealed to íem or that was worth anything. There were chickens pecking around in the dust, and these Okies were all stubble-faced and some of the friendliest, most down-to-earth folks youíd ever want to know. Then theyíd point out a spot between two flags about half a mile away and that would be the place to go and dump our cans and bottles. This was before recycling, mind you. Weíd drive out past the tires and refrigerators with no doors on íem and once I saw a little girlís doll in the dirt with one eye missing. Not my eye, the dollís. I picked her up, because something told me it wasnít right for a doll to spend the night alone in the county dump. But who left her? That was the question. God, it made me feel sad. Dad, he approved of what I did, told me weíd see if the Okies wanted it, and if they didnít, weíd take it home and let my mom clean it up. Well, the Okies did want it. They cooed over that thing just like it was real. And then I saw a little white-haired girl come out of the shack and she took the doll in her arms and started singing it a lullaby. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. But here. I donít mean to monopolize the conversation. Hereís to Walt Whitlock ó the great American poet and world citizen. . . . Ohhh, that hits the spot. The old body electric, thatís what it is. Christ Almighty, itís good to be alive.
John Berbrich: Pal, what were you drinking before you got here? Okies, huh? Iíve read Steinbeck so I know. Another word I love is cluster. Imagine ó a cluster of prawns. Wonderful thought. I also like outer space kind of words, like galaxy, nebula, and neutron star. I mean, what could be cooler and stranger than a neutron star? Half a neutron star?
William Michaelian: How about a cluster of neutron stars.
Phil E. Buster: Me, I picture olí Walt walking through space with a big canvas bag slung over his shoulder. The bag is full of stars, and heís sowing them left and right. Thatís where your galaxies come from. And thereís kids following him ó angels, maybe. I donít know. Or maybe kids like that little Okie girl with the doll. I can imagine her singing one of Waltís poems to that baby of hers, and then all of a sudden waking up one morning to find herself a real mama with a real baby girl in her arms, still singing, and Walt looking down from the heavens and smiling.
John Berbrich: I like your vision of Whitman, Phil. He is certainly colossal, godlike. I always pictured him striding from mountain to mountain, but I can easily imagine him scattering stars throughout the dusty black cosmic lanes of space. Tossing clusters here and there. Itís beautiful.
Anita: Being an Aussie, Iím not as familiar with Whitmanís poetry and his works are rarely found in our public library system. I was wondering though: are Whitmanís chocolates named after him? Now thatís a beautiful image. Whitman striding from mountain to mountain casting handfuls of hazelnut chocolate clusters.
Phil E. Buster: Sounds more like Johnny Appleseed than the Man from Manhattan. Thatís too bad about your libraries, there, Anita. It never occurred to me that there could be a library without Leaves of Grass in it, except maybe in Siberia somewhere. Anyway, let me tell you guys something. To be dead honest, I get shivers thinking about that man and all he did. If Iím drunk, his poems make me sober. And I can be high as a damn kite and heíll bring me back down to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Itís like being dead at your own funeral and some old friend walks by your casket and sticks a needle into your arm and says, ďCome on, you jackass! Wake up! Youíre not dead!Ē And you get up. That is how powerful Waltís words are. For me, anyway. I can understand not everybody liking him, or some people not really caring one way or another about the old bearded geezer, or whatever the heck they see him as. Thatís just nature. Iíve read where a whole buncha folks thought he was indecent, and improper, and sex-crazed, and fruity, and anything else youíd care to name. And why? Because he loved life, and loved himself, and didnít mind sayiní so, and it scared íem to death to hear it all put into words that they werenít equal to because the words were so damn simple.
William Michaelian: The beautiful thing is, chocolate or no chocolate, this is a poet weíre talking about. A poet who changed history by changing the way we look at things. I wish there were someone like him around now.
Phil E. Buster: Maybe there is, Willie. Whoís to know? My dad, he never did read Walt. I mean, I donít know this for a fact, ícause thereís a lot about his early days that he never told my mom, or if he did, she didnít pass it along, she was so upset about the way things were turning out. I donít think she read him either, for that matter. Fact is, I almost didnít read him myself. I rode a Greyhound bus halfway across the country, and drove a busted down í57 Ford station wagon the rest of the way, and Walter didnít even pop into my head. Then I got back and just about blew my head off, I hated myself so much. Glad I decided against that move. Had I followed through, I would have never known. And Iím pretty sure my dad wouldnít have ended up the way he did if I coulda just tucked a handful of Waltís poems under his pillow. But itís too late now ó except for us, ícause weíre still here. Hoo, boy. I can put the brakes on if you like. Iíve been told before that I talk too much.
Judy: Whew . . . many more like Phil E. Buster, and weíll be to Page 105 in no time.
Anita: O Captain, my captain! There are copies of two of Walt Whitmanís books including Leaves of Grass in the public library in the town I am moving to and two copies of that. Things are certainly looking up. As you are so fond of poetry William, Iím kinda surprised that you havenít created a Dead Poetís Society forum or shall we all raise our hands and have a vote that we discuss poets, alive on both sides of the veil, for the month of March? Just a suggestion as I would certainly enjoy some poetic edjamacation. Meanwhile, Iíve found this site about Whitman and I like him already from what youíve said about him, Phil. I read that he published Leaves of Grass at his own expense. Now thereís a man with the courage of his convictions and who refused to be kept in a box ó chocolate or otherwise.
Phil E. Buster: In my humble opinion, I think both of you nice ladies should talk about whatever floats your literary boat. If itís poetry, then lay right into it, donít hold back. You do that, and you just might wake up Tim Hinshaw here, who does nothing but smile and hasnít let out a peep in ages. But it seems to me that a whole month is an awful long time to talk about just one subject. Am I right, Willie?
William Michaelian: Oh, I donít know. It depends on whoís doing the talking, I guess.
Phil E. Buster: Iím glad you said that with a smile. You might be interested to know that my dad never was the talker I turned out to be, and neither was my mom. Musta picked it up from my sister Thelma. I kinda think thatís how she got so skinny, from talking all the time. Take me, for instance. Every once in awhile Iíll shut up and eat myself a sandwich, but not olí Thel. Sheíll make a sandwich, all right, but by the time she gets around to eatiní it, itís gone stale. What is a Dead Poetís Society, by the way? Sounds like a buncha raunchy dead guys sittiní around an old trunk fulla bones.
Anita: Dead Poetís Society was the name of a movie in which Robin Williams played the main character. I suggested we discuss poets, for the month of March and as thereís a few hundred of them a whole month may not be long enough. I suspect Tim may just be waiting for one of us good ladies to make you a sandwich so he can get a word in edgewise. Heíll be waiting a long time.
William Michaelian: Iíll tell you what, Anita. There is no need for Phil to wait. Iíll be happy to make him a sandwich if he wants one, and sandwiches for the rest of you. It will be my pleasure.
Phil E. Buster: Thanks, Willie. Thatís mighty nice of you. But what I think Anita really means is that she wants me to shut up. Well, I can do that. Like I said, I sure didnít mean to monopolize the conversation. Itís just my darned fool enthusiasm, I guess. Been a problem all my life. I throw myself into things like thereís no tomorrow. Because, well, maybe there is no tomorrow. Anyway. The funny thing about it is, I thought we were already talking about poets. I mean, olí Walt was a poet. There is another scene I picture him in, besides the one where heís up in the sky scattering stars. I picture him sitting on the banks of a river full of blood, and beside him is a man all dressed in black, and that man is Abraham Lincoln. Abe is crying, and Walt is trying his best to comfort him. On the other side of the river, off through the woods, there is a lonely trumpet playing. The Civil War is over, but the pain, Lord, the pain will live on and on.
Anita: Goodness no, Phil, I didnít mean for you to shut up at all. Iím enjoying your enthusiasm and underneath my moustache I was smiling when I suggested you should have a sandwich. Good on ya, Willie, for offering to make sammies ó hold the tomato. I went to the library today and came back with Margaret Atwoodís collection of selected poetry from 1965-1995 entitled Eating Fire. Iíve read several of her novels yet wasnít aware she also wrote poetry. Margaret wrote this poem back in 1968 in response to an earlier war. I read it and . . . well . . . the more things change, the more they stay the same, apart from the names on the maps.
IT IS DANGEROUS TO READ NEWSPAPERS
While I was building net
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses
and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs.
Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse
and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke.
I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal.
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
can I stop myself
It is dangerous to read newspapers.
Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees
another village explodes.
Tim Hinshaw: Thanks for the poem, Anita. Iím not a raging poetry buff, but I remember reading that poem shortly after escaping the underbrush of that war myself. It made me cry.
Judy: William, Iíll have my share of the tomato, and Anitaís too, as well. Thanks.
William Michaelian: Uh, sure thing, Judy. One blood-red tomato, coming up.
Phil E. Buster: Well, shoot. This is a heart-breaker, all right. That is one whale of a poem there, Anita. Glad you rousted it out of the library.
Judy: Last night I was reading the introduction to the Best Travel Stories of 2004, and the editor listed a few people he considered travel writers, including Emily Dickinson. Very surprised, I said to myself but Emily Dickinson was a recluse. I often take things very literally, you see. Then I read further and realized that the editor was talking about all kinds of voyages and journeys. So I got out my Emily Dickinson book and found in Book IV, Time and Eternity, No. XXXV:
I went to heaven, ó
íTwas a small town,
Lit with a ruby,
Lathed with down.
Stiller than the fields
At the full dew,
Beautiful as pictures
No man drew.
People like the moth,
Of mechlin, frames,
Duties of gossamer,
And eider names.
Almost contented I could be
íMong such unique
Isnít that a pleasure to read? The ďsmall townĒ part and the ďunique societyĒ part make Heaven sound rather exclusive, so Iím glad I donít worry very much about my afterlife. This is a great website, donít you agree, Phil? I havenít looked at my Emily Dickinson book for years, but had a wonderful time reading a few poems looking for evidence that Emily Dickinson traveled.
Phil E. Buster: Yep, this is real a good place to come in out of the weather. I think Willieís doiní a good job, and I appreciate the work he goes to, ícause you know, if I understand it properly, our words donít just pop onto the screen by themselves. Iíve been to websites like that, where they do pop up, and people can post all sorts of garbage without having anybody look at it first to see if itís fit for human consumption ó not that any of us would post garbage, mind you, but itís just the atmosphere I donít like. Now, my momís sister Reno ó ainít that one heck of a name? ó she loves Emily Dickinson. Always wanted to go to Amherst and have a look around and see where Emily lived, but she got too danged old and now about all she does is make it to her backyard. Feeds the birds, talks to the squirrels, soaks up a little sunshine or a few raindrops ó sheís honored by it all, considers it a blessing. If I remember right, she told me once that Emily wrote to some critic back there and asked him if he was too busy to say whether her verse was ďalive.Ē Naturally, she knew it was. It was only a rhetorical kinda question, for the sake of formality. But Iíve read where almost none of what she wrote ever got published while she was alive, about seventeen hundred poems in all.
Anita: I like this poem of Emilyís:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
On the Neurotic Poets website, it states that Emily Dickinson most probably suffered from some form of agoraphobia or anxiety disorder and that she became known as ďthe woman in whiteĒ in Amherst. I remember reading Wilkie Collinís novel The Woman in White years ago and wonder if there is a connection here. Another memory has surfaced from my high school years of reading poetry by e.e. cummings.
John Berbrich: But wait! Wait! Hereís my favorite poem by Emily:
Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, ó youíre straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.
My Aunt Joan was an English professor. She died about ten years ago, but before she died she gave me an envelope containing pine needles from Emily Dickinsonís home in Amherst. My Aunt had made a pilgrimage to collect them.
Phil E. Buster: Iím glad somebodyís aunt made it, anyway. And what a poem. Thatís what I call lookiní íem in the eye. And thirty-six words was all she took. Canít get much closer to poetic moonshine than that.
William Michaelian: Iíll say. All of the Emily Dickinson poems have been good. Thatís pretty neat, J.B., having those pine needles. Do any of you know if the Dickinson home is being preserved as a historical site and whether it might be open to the public? Iíve always liked the idea of being able to visit artistsí homes and see where they worked.
Phil E. Buster: The thing about artists, Willie, is that no matter how much you think you know about íem, you donít really know anything at all. And thatís pretty much the same with all of us. We know each other, but at the same time, we donít know each other. Now, you take this website of yours. Itís fulla stuff about you, and it helps folks get closer to the real you. But Iíll bet thereís a whole raft of stories youíve never brought up ícause theyíre too dang personal. And then thereís Emily, hidiní herself away. What would you find out about her by walkiní around in her upstairs bedroom?
William Michaelian: Nothing, I guess. Iím sorry I brought it up.
Phil E. Buster: Well, now, I didnít mean it that way, and you know it. Iíd like to see where she lived just as much as you would. All Iím sayiní is, if you go to a place like that, youíre just as likely to find out somethiní about yourself as you are about the person who lived there.
John Berbrich: Thereby confirming that everything in the universe is mysteriously connected. You never know what sort of illumination will emanate from an experience. This is perhaps the essence of poetry ó unexpected illumination, about yourself or anything.
William Michaelian: Yes, and thatís true whether youíre writing poetry or reading it. Now, what about e.e. cummings, who, among other things, experimented with the typographical element of poetry and its visual presentation on the page?
Tim Hinshaw: Speaking of place, Willie: On a vacation trip to England many years ago I visited the house where Dickens wrote David Copperfield. I had just finished reading that book in preparation for my journey and it was fresh in my mind as I stood in the room and gazed at the desk where Charlie penned it. What a rush.
William Michaelian: Iím jealous. I wonder, too, what Dickens thought of the place himself. Letís see. Iím still way behind in my Charles Dickens reading. Isnít David Copperfield one of his most autobiographical books?
Tim Hinshaw: It must have impressed him. It is near Dover (Folkestone is the name of the town, I believe) and looks out over the English Channel. Beautiful view from the window of the room in which he wrote. Someone there told me he called it Bleak House and, indeed, there is a novel by that name. And, yes, David Copperfield is the most autobiographical of his novels although there are parts of his life in all of them, of course.
William Michaelian: Iíve read, too, that he was quite the performer, and that when he gave readings of his work he changed voices for the different characters and really put on a show. Judging by pictures of him, he must have been a character himself. And what a life he had. What a childhood.
Judy: Interesting that you are talking about Dickens right now. I went to Salman Rushdieís lecture last night, and Dickens is one of his favorite authors. I am about one-third of the way through Satanic Verses right now, but wouldnít have needed to be to find his lecture enthralling. SR started out his lecture talking about the ambiguity between writing novels and writing autobiography. He feels the autobiography part of fiction is not so much talking about where your characters work or who or when or how many times they married, and so forth, but does the novelist speak with the voice of where he grew up or where he lives. Iím guessing that his writing in the Verses imitates the British-Indian hodgepodge they spoke in Bombay where he grew up. He also talked about the family lore that is part of all our histories, and how those tales are similar to the oral traditions of illiterate cultures, in which the storyteller would dance around or interrupt himself or make many asides to keep the audienceís attention. Mr. Rushdie feels thatís what a good novelist does, and that thatís another way the writing relates to autobiography. After he wrote the Satanic Verses, and the fatwa was upon him, he chose not to tame his writing in order to make his life safer. He didnít cave in. He believes one of the roles of all artists including writers is to push the edges of whatís acceptable. He mentioned a passage from Saul Bellowís Deanís December in which a dog outside is barking incessantly. The character ponders this a long time and finally decides the dog is requesting ďPlease open up the universe a little.Ē SR says there are many forces at work now trying to close down the universe a little, so artists have to push in the other direction. There were many other important ideas in his lecture; I wish you all had come along too. Speaking of forces that try to close down the universe a little, Mr. Homeland Security, whycome no yellow, orange or red alerts since the election? Such an amazing coincidence, Mr. Homeland Security. You say Bushís recent election scared all the terrorists? Then I say the moon is made of green cheese.
Anita: Iíll tell yaíll what Bleak House is. Itís where I am living now. No internet access for three days, no heat and no hot water for the first two days and a flame-throwing grill that exploded the first time I used it. I sat on the beach yesterday and watched the sun go down, looked across the bay at the skyscrapers of Melbourne in the distance and thought ďI donít think weíre in Kansas anymore, Toto.Ē Someone throw a rope and drag that cheese moon down so Iíve got something to go with this whine.
William Michaelian: I guess itís safe to say, then, that youíre in a ďperiod of adjustment.Ē Judy, Iím glad to hear you made it to the Salman Rushdie concert. If I remember correctly, none of us have read Satanic Verses, so be sure to let us know how that goes. It sounds like Mr. Rushdieís talk was an insightful one ó maybe not as dramatic as Dickens, but, as they say, there is a time and place for everything. If Iím not mixing up my authors, I think it was Saul Bellow who, during his Nobel acceptance speech, referred to his lifeís arduous literary journey and said, ďI now stand before you in the costume of a head waiter.Ē I like that line, ďPlease open up the universe a little.Ē But of course itís already open. No one, including Mr. Homeland Security, is capable of closing down the universe, except to the degree that we buy into their nonsense. The political criminals of the world are in reality mental pipsqueaks, childish bullies who should be ignored.
Anita: Hereís a great website with a link to an article about ee cummings.
Judy: Anita, the best I can do is bleu cheese on a cracker. Who likes green cheese anyway? Itís probably moldy. William, I find your observation on the impossibility of closing down the universe very reassuring. It reminds me of one of the points Mr. Rushdie made, that some ideas grow in strength when they are suppressed. Excuse me, Iíll go check out the ee cummings article.
William Michaelian: yes, letís all Meet at the cummings arTicle. thanks for the Lynx, anita. while reading a short cummings biography i found this classic line: ďHumanity i love you because when youíre hard up you pawn your intelligence to buy a drink.Ē
John Berbrich: Cummings was one of the favorites of my glorious youth. His disdain of capital letters played quite nicely into the general juvenile repulsion at everything adult and authoritative. He managed some amazing effects with words, accomplishing what other writers only dream of. He is an original, and not easy to copy.
William Michaelian: Youíre right. All that can be copied in art is the outward appearance, the structures, and so on. But the outrage, joy, and experience that informs an artistís life and work cannot be copied. We succeed in art and life to the degree that we learn to see with our own eyes.
Judy: That gave us so much to think about that weíve all been quiet, even Phil. Or else William has gone on vacation. I have put aside, either temporarily or permanently, the Satanic Verses and have started Shadow of the Wind. My own eyes will be out of town for a few days.
Phil E. Buster: . . . Snore . . .
William Michaelian: Poor guy. Iíd like to think itís the hooch, but my droning voice does act as a sedative. Shadow of the Wind looks interesting, if itís the book I found listed on Amazon by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Here is the synopsis:
Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the Ďcemetery of lost books,í a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his ten-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out ĎLa Sombra del Vientoí by Julian Carax. But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from La Sombra del Viento, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Caraxís work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.
But what happened to Satanic Verses? Didnít it measure up to Mr. Rushdieís talk the other night? Youíll have to let us know when you get back from your vacation. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my daily journal, One Hand Clapping, has come to an end and I have foolishly begun work on another book. Heaven help us all.
John Berbrich: Whatís this one called, Willie?
William Michaelian: Songs and Letters. Click here to read all about it. But do it quietly, otherwise you might wake Phil.
John Berbrich: Songs and Letters ó I like the title. Sounds like a compilation of recently discovered unknown writings by some famous but little known author, doubtless posthumous. The guy would have a beard and long tangled hair, smokes a big pipe, drinks brandy in a fancy unwashed glass. At least he did all of this while he was alive. But I prefer to believe that he lives among us still, his ideas fermenting into a rich strange brew, turning us all into artists. Willie, am I close?
William Michaelian: Well, my hair isnít tangled, but thatís my goal in a nutshell ó with an emphasis on the nut. The interesting and challenging and fun part is, I get to discover the unknown writings in the compilation. Along the way, I hope to find out whether or not I am still alive. Whatever the answer, itís bound to lead to another book.
John Berbrich: Sounds like an amazing adventure. Count me in. Most of your stories and a great deal of your poems turn on the unexpected ó the author is as surprised as the characters. This reminds me of something Ayn Rand says in that book I was talking about earlier, something about Romantic Literature being the sort of writing where one finds marvelous surprises waiting around every corner. Doesnít it sound like a great way to live?
William Michaelian: Absolutely. If we are not surprised, we are dead ó or pretty close to it, like Phil, here. It reminds me of what you said when I interviewed you ó your Theory of Art and the great cycle of inspiration and appreciation.
John Berbrich: Yes, the Artistic Triangle: the Creator, the Creation, and the Appreciator. If all goes well, the Appreciator is inspired to become a Creator, thereby producing a Creation for another Appreciator, and the loop just keeps spinning into the future. Writing for the closet is okay for practice, but it breaks the string.
William Michaelian: Indeed, miraculous things happen outside the closet. Inside, ideas wither due to the absence of light and air.
John Berbrich: Do you find, Willie, that you can trace the inspiration for a particular story or poem back to its source? Sometimes it is merely a line embedded in a longer narrative that catches the eye, mysteriously crying out for expansion or completion or enhancement. That line becomes the bright star around which your creation orbits like a planet, receiving light and life.
William Michaelian: And it might be a line read, spoken, remembered, overheard. Or a privately witnessed scene that etches itself on the mind. Several years ago, driving home from my motherís house, I saw an elderly husband and wife standing on their front step, waving to their children and grandchildren who were leaving after a visit. It was beautiful, poignant. I find myself wondering what happened next. There are so many possibilities for everyone involved.
Anita: Yesterday I found a great bookstore and noted advertising for an evening with Geraldine Brooks, author of Nine Parts of Desire and Year of Wonders, who Iíve mentioned before. Her latest novel March has just been published, which is the story of the absent father from Louisa May Alcottís Little Women. Thereís also another new book by Louis Bayard titled Mr. Timothy, which is the story of Dickensí character, Timothy Cratchit from A Christmas Carol, all grown-up and living in nineteenth century London. Itís an interesting manifestation of the Artistís Triangle. It would seem that both Brooks and Bayard novels have been inspired by the question ďWhat happened next?Ē However, a part of me wonders whether an ethical/moral line has been crossed when an author ďpoachesĒ a character from another authorís book and then writes their own book based on that character: an unauthorised biography if you like. What do you guys think?
William Michaelian: I think itís complicated. My basic gut response is, ďI donít like it.Ē But there are also characters that are as real as any of us, in some cases even more so. Itís natural to wonder what happens to them next. Usually, though, I think this kind of book is conceived out of artistic wedlock, so to speak, for business reasons. The sequel to Gone With the Wind comes to mind. From an artistic standpoint, it seems to me that in writing a sequel to another writerís book, or a book based on another writerís character, an author runs the risk of betraying his own vision and ideas. He even runs that risk when writing a sequel to his own book. Itís tempting to retrace familiar ground, and part of the brain says, ďCome on, letís do it, because itíll be a heck of a lot easier than dreaming up something new.Ē On the other hand, writers like Zola and Balzac wrote dozens of novels involving the same characters, with an overall goal in mind. Personally, the idea of mapping out the next twenty years of my writing life seems repulsive. First, I donít know if Iíll be alive tomorrow. Second, if I do survive, why should I live and write according to something I decided fifteen years ago? It assumes far too much.
John Berbrich: I agree with Willie here. Planning out your writing in this manner is like taking a vacation where every moment is accounted for in a cruel, inflexible schedule. Myself, I like to leave room for spontaneity ó if I spot an interesting bookstore, Iím going to explore it for hours, the schedule be damned! Yet planning huge literary works may be just right for certain authors whose vision is so acute and colossal that they can kinda see twenty novels into the future. Certainly Dante had vision, Milton and Homer too. As for plucking characters from another authorís story and breathing new life into them, I think that it generally doesnít work. This reminds me of music ó I hate remakes; the originals are almost always better ó but not always!
Tim Hinshaw: Excellent point, J.B. Carlos Santana did a much better job on ďSheís Not ThereĒ than the Zombies did.
William Michaelian: Hmm. What about Ray Charles singing ďEleanor RigbyĒ?
Judy: Iím probably going backwards in this conversation ó Alice Walker wrote a few books incorporating some of the same characters, but each book was approached from such a different angle, that it seemed very clever to me at the time. She took a little artistic liberty with some of the characters as well. About Satanic Verses. For one thing I wanted to get through Shadow of the Wind before book club meets again. But the real reason is that Iím a bit of a left-brained person, and I have an easier time with fiction that resembles real life, no matter how improbable. Satanic Verses starts out with two men who survive a fall to the English coast after a plane blows up and one of them takes on the form of a satyr, so itís a bit harder for me to wade through. In the beginning, there were some clear-cut enjoyable parts which got me through the other parts, but that distinction started to go away. I am not able to find information about Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I donít know if his family name is Ruiz Zafon or merely Zafon. He also writes music, so at book club, we will listen to a CD as well as discuss the book. You know those pictures that show an artist painting a picture, and the picture is the same as the original picture, and it just goes on ad infinitum? Shadow of the Wind has a plot within the same plot. I donít know how many layers the book is going to suggest yet.
William Michaelian: Thatís interesting about Satanic Verses, and also about Carlos Ruiz Zafon writing music. My guess is, Rushdie doesnít write music. Another approach some writers have taken is to have several different characters recount the same event, and to let their sundry observations slowly add up to the ďwhole story.Ē Itís a good reminder of how people notice different things and interpret them according to their age, personality, desires, fears, and
John Berbrich: Rather than having an omniscient narrator tell the whole story, eh Willie? I think that almost any strategy can work, depending upon the skill of the author. Itís commendable when a writer tries something new, even if maybe the attempt doesnít quite turn out as expected. Itís commendable also when an author sticks to tried and true methods and creates a work really vivid and interesting. Anyone familiar with Richard Brautigan?
William Michaelian: I know who he is, but havenít read his stuff. He was from Washington State, had a strange, unsettled childhood, spent some time in Keseyís ďCuckooís NestĒ here in Oregon, and ended up a counter-culture hero in the Sixties and Seventies who committed suicide. Wrote poems and novels. The titles that come to mind are Ahhhhhhh ó Iím not sure how many hís there are supposed to be ó and In Watermelon Sugar. I have no idea what they are about.
John Berbrich: Iíve read In Watermelon Sugar several times and Iím not entirely sure what itís about either. In that book, and others such as Confederate General at Big Sur and Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan follows his own star, creating something new, I think ó memorable at least. A critic has suggested that we call them Brautigans instead of novels, because they are so unlike traditional novels. Whatever one calls them, his books are effective. Worth at least one serious reading anyway.
William Michaelian: A Brautigan sounds like a sandwich, or maybe a kind of shoe. Does his writing bear any resemblance to Kerouacís? Is it lazy? Dream-like? Poetic? Intense? Harsh? Optimistic? Autobiographical?
John Berbrich: Nothing like Kerouacís. It is rather lazy in a way. He spends time on little things. Like he might wind up in a cab & talks to the cabbie for ten pages in a conversation that seemingly has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and yet the conversation is exactly like one youíd hear in real life, a good one. And you remember it, the way you remember real life occurences that donít relate to the rest of your life at all, just bizarre random moments that you canít get out of your head. Heís optimistic in a way, sad in another, like some vision of a beautiful America is slipping away. Sometimes poetic, although I donít care for the majority of his poetry, which is often just plain dopey. Heís gentle. I canít imagine San Francisco in the 1960s without Brautigan. His short stories are a hoot.
William Michaelian: Sounds refreshing. Iíve read some of the poetry that came out of that San Francisco scene. Canít remember any names at the moment. Too much booze. But in general, what I read is pretty uneven in quality, though there are moments of clarity, insight, humor. Some were obviously meant to be performed. Certainly, the lives of some of the poets were performances. What do you think of Ginsberg? Did you ever read Howl?
John Berbrich: Howl I read years ago. Ginsberg is okay. In some recordings Iíve heard, he comes across like a stand-up comic, one with a definite political agenda. He gets the audience involved, but on paper I think he is too wordy. I donít normally like babbling poets. Ginsberg likes to shock too, thumbing his nose at the ďevilĒ establishment. I donít know much about him since Iíve never been attracted to his work.
William Michaelian: Same here. I read about half of Howl a year or so ago, and found it more clever than challenging or upsetting. Granted, a few years have passed since Ferlinghetti published the book and it was on trial for obscenity. Have you been to any poetry readings or performances? Also, what do you think about the so-called poetry ďslamĒ?
John Berbrich: Once in a while I attend a small local reading. I read at one & was a big hit with the local high school girls. One of them shouted out, ďI want to have babies with your poems!Ē Talk about gratification. Robin Merrill from Maine drove here a few years ago for a visit. She gave a couple of readings at small venues, which went over pretty well. They have some college slams around here but I donít go to them. No big names ever venture this far north. You?
William Michaelian: Your story reminds me of the woman who wrote to Walt Whitman and said she knew they were soul mates and she wanted to have his children, and insisted on meeting him, and when they finally did meet, she realized it was hopeless. But itís nice to know the high school girls in your area have such good taste. That mustíve been a whale of a reading. Iíve never been to a slam. Iíve seen footage of some ó not my cup of tea. Iím trying to recall if Iíve been to any readings. I donít think I have, at least not in the last twenty or thirty years. And certainly, no one asks me to give a reading, because theyíre afraid Iíll show up. On the other hand, a few months ago I saw a guy in a suit on a Salem street corner giving a reading. He was in his sixties and had neatly combed gray hair, was holding a bible but not looking at it, or at anyone else, for that matter. I was going to say hello, but the light changed. By the way, wasnít there a well known San Francisco poet who used to walk out into traffic and recite his poems amidst cars waiting at a light?
John Berbrich: Iíve never heard of that but Iím sure it could have happened. Poetry is tough to do live. Real poetry is so concentrated that I need to read it slowly and more than once to get a lot out of it. I think you have to be a master dramatist to transmit the essence of a short lyric to an audience. Narrative poems work better, or funny ones. I have a slender folder of my own poems that are suitable for performance. You need fierce images and resonating sounds. If you can connect with the audience you can generate a lot of energy.
William Michaelian: Which is exactly what happened when Ginsberg read Howl and Kerouac was in the audience thumping his wine jug and shouting, ďGo, go,Ē at the end of each line. I suppose a little practice also comes in handy. Oh ó Bob Kaufman was the guy I was trying to remember. He was a Beat poet who died back in the Eighties, the guy who said his ambition was to be completely forgotten. Anyway, I think one of the best ways for a writer or poet to know if a piece is done is to read it to himself aloud. Itís often easier to hear difficulties than see them. When reading to yourself, itís easy to skim past trouble spots. My basic rule is, if itís hard to say, then it is probably going to be hard for someone else to read ó not that a little work canít also be a good thing. But even work as complex as Joyceís, for instance, still has a rhythm that helps you understand his message. How words appear on a page is also important.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah. I mean, how would you read some of E E Cummingsís poems out loud? Iím thinking of the poems with the extremely weird orthography, spacing, and punctuation. Would be quite a challenge. I can see this developing into a sort of contest at a college, six students giving their own dramatic presentation of ďIn Just Spring.Ē That would be cooOOLLL. You could have a lot of fun with something like this, although the poetry itself might vanish.
William Michaelian: Why six students? Why not two students, two professors, one administrator, and a janitor? Or there could be tag teams, with alternating readers rushing on and off the stage, with the audience keeping score. Or has this already been done?
John Berbrich: Probably at a traffic light in San Francisco. But I think weíve been diverted from our main topic, darned if I can remember what it was. . . .
William Michaelian: Donít feel bad. There isnít one. Or if there is, we havenít stumbled onto it yet. I wonder how Judy made out with Shadow of the Wind. Because of visiting relatives, Iíve done zero reading the last couple of weeks. Have any of you unearthed anything new and exciting in the reading department?
John Berbrich: New and exciting, huh? Well, Iím reading The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, As We Know, poems by John Ashbery, and The Diaries of H.L. Mencken, to name a few. The Mencken is by far my favorite. I recently finished a beautiful anthology of verse, The Maine Poets, edited by Wesley McNair. All the poets either were born in Maine or lived there for a long time. Includes poets like Longfellow, Millay, Louise Bogan, May Sarton, and lots of current people Iíd never heard of. And their work is terrific. I sometimes judge poetry like this: would I include it in the YAWP? And yes, much of this stuff I would. Itís that good.
William Michaelian: Thatís a powerful recommendation. I really like Millay. Bogan and Sarton I havenít read. What about John Ashbery? How about giving us a sample? Or a sample of any of the Maine poets that you think stand out.
John Berbrich: Okay, hereís one by Baron Wormser:
My Wife Asks Me Why I Keep Photographs in a Drawer
Beneath tee shirts and underwear
A few almost-sepia photographs
Of my mother and father ó before they knew me.
My mother stands in front of the school
Where she first taught fourth grade.
Sheís young and lovely and smiling
In a summer dress. Her shoulders are bare,
Her eyes alight with candid feeling.
The year before she worked in
A department store where she read Tolstoy
During her breaks. One day she came back
To her counter red-eyed; her supervisor inquired
About her. ďAnna died,Ē my mother blurted.
My father sits at a table. He holds some cards
And smiles. All the other guys at the table
Are soldiers too and they smile. Theyíre going
To live through the war. Itís aces and swell
Broads and highballs and home runs for them.
I should set up some sort of shrine for these
Bouquets of time, something more visible. They
Lie there in my drawer as I stutter through
My slice of time ó from semi-hippiedom
To that middle-age wariness
That signals a flagging of mortal belief.
I never take them out. I know them too well.
Itís dark in the drawer and common and hidden.
Photos tell you that people can smile at
The dark eye of oblivion. Albums and walls are
Too insistent. Whatís part of every fumbling
Morning is closer to the fleeting mark.
The good Baron was Maineís poet laureate at the time the book was published, 2003. I donít know who has that honor now.
William Michaelian: He still does. Hereís a short page with some info about him, with a link to another nice poem about boiled eggs ó well, quite a bit more than that, really. And now hereís ďDirge Without Music,Ē the first poem I ever read by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, ó but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, ó
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
In the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes that all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave,
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
What do you think? A year or so back I also picked up a used copy of her 1934 collection, Wine From These Grapes. Very nice. It must have sold a few copies back in the day, because it was in its thirteenth edition.
Judy: I finished Shadow of the Wind rather quickly for a book that is almost 500 pages long. I am not sure that my comparison of the plot to a picture within the same picture is entirely accurate. Perhaps it is more similar to an overlapping repetition such as when people sing ďRow, row, row your boat . . .Ē Or one part of the plot might be an echo of another part. At any rate Iím very happy I read it. Now, do I pick up Satanic Verses again or do I move on???
William Michaelian: Ah, such are the burning questions we readers face. Maybe it would be worth it just because it is different.
John Berbrich: Very good, Willie, the ďDirge Without Music.Ē Especially the ďDown, down, downĒ part. Really gives me a feeling of dark descent. I find it very difficult to write a serious poem in rhyme. They usually turn out silly. Of course, Millay has the masterís hand. The poem is like a dirge ó slow, sad, funereal. And I like it ó she does not approve & she is not resigned. An excellent poem.
William Michaelian: Millay is something. And youíre right about the rhymes. Itís a tricky business, especially if you use the basic end-of-line approach. Lately Iím finding it possible to use rhyme more irregularly within lines, in a way that helps recall earlier images and at the same time create some movement ó if that makes any sense.
John Berbrich: Yeah, it does. Irregular rhyme keeps the ear awake. Rhyme at the end of short lines creates that humorous Ogden Nash effect. T.S. Eliot uses end-line rhyme in ďThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,Ē but the lines are long and complicated ó there is nothing funny about that poem. I recall you were reading Byronís Don Juan; the dashing Lord uses rhyme, but makes up ridiculous rhymes with an overall comic effect. I just love that piece.
William Michaelian: I still havenít gotten back to Don Juan, but I will. Itís a riot. I canít imagine it taking a sudden turn for the serious, but maybe Iíll be surprised. By the way, in the new print edition of Rain Taxi ó hereís their website ó thereís a review of E.E. Cummings: A Biography by Christopher Sawyer-LauÁanno. The review is by Peter Ritter. Hereís a quote from the book about the poem ďr-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-rĒ:
At first glance, the poem seems nearly impossible to decipher, but a little attention to the arrangement of letters begins to make the meaning clearer: Cummings is simply showing his readers how a grasshopper moves. But, of course, it is more than just a clever visual representation of movement. It is also about the need for readers to pay attention to the details, to how language is constructed, how mysteries (whether in nature or on the page) can be solved with a little patience and a little work.
How many readers and writers have that patience is another matter. Mentioned in the review was Cummingsís The Enormous Room. Have you read that?
John Berbrich: Yes, several years ago. Definitely worth reading, particularly for the character studies of both the other prisoners and of the French guards. Quite an adventure for a young fellow.
William Michaelian: Iíll try to run that one down, then. Speaking of adventure, there was also a nice two-page article in Rain Taxi about Blaise Cendrars and the republication of his Moravagine from 1926. Talk about a life. He seems to have been everywhere and done everything ó and made up a lot about himself in between. Apparently, Moravagine is not your average book. Hereís a snippet of what reviewer Tim Keane had to say:
The novel is ďmeta-fictionĒ in its purest sense, as the distinctions between narrator and author and character dissolve; in the bookís preface, Cendrars apologizes for not having completed his editing of the Complete Works of Moravagine, and introduces us, through a sample of his personal correspondence, to the man who will narrate the novel he is prefacing. Much later in the novel, a character named Blaise Cendrars enters the action. Cendrars as the author provides a detailed afterword about the composition of the novel, and all of this adds up to a compelling, provocative play on the nature of fiction, authorship, and creation akin to that of American postwar classics such as Vladimir Nabokovís Pale Fire and Joseph McElroyís A Smugglerís Bible.
Sound interesting? Keane said biographers and literary historians are still trying to untangle who Blaise Cendrars really was ó trying to separate the fact from the fiction.
John Berbrich: Interesting, yes. Iíve read only a little bit of the poetry of Cendrars. Henry Miller praised him highly. Hemingway mentions Cendrars several times in A Movable Feast, saying that he was always talking about the hand he lost in World War One. I seem to recall reading a poem in which he holds up his stump at night and sees the constellation Orion where his hand should be.
William Michaelian: Ah ó ďThe Stump of OrionĒ would make another good story title. The article says that Cendrarsís right arm was amputated after he was wounded in the assault on Navarin Farm in Champagne, after enlisting in the Foreign Legion in 1915. Before that he drove a tractor in Canada, and before that he lived in the Bronx and in Manhattan for about six months, during which time he met Caruso and adopted his nom de plume. Iím not sure what weíre to do with this information. But Henry Miller did say that Moravagine was his single biggest literary influence. Anyway, itís all fascinating ó and, Iím sure, extremely boring to some, or at least beside the point. That was then and this is now. Or is it?
John Berbrich: Willie, itís hard to tell. I understand that itís all a space-time continuum, by which I gather that all events, past now and future, exist simultaneously eternally. Which renders statements like ďthat was then and this is nowĒ somewhat redundant, or at least obscure. That was now and the future is so retro, know what I mean? I donít.
William Michaelian: Well, I could say I know what you mean, if you know what I mean, but it wouldnít really mean anything. So letís push on. In fact, letís turn the page and see what we can do about making a fresh start: