Thursday, August 28, 2014

George Orwell: A Life

At one time I worshipped George Orwell. I had read all his books, and on long winter trips near the Arctic Circle I took with me a volume of his letters, essays and journalism. When I read at night, his lucid prose resonated with the endless miles of snowy immaculate scenery beyond the tent’s canvas walls.

Later when I became a bureaucrat, I placed his picture in a dimestore frame and sat it on my desk. I wrote a poem about him and sent it to a literary magazine, but the response I got was odd. One of the editors referred to Orwell as "sometimes a badtempered narrow sonovabitch." The comment bothered me more than the poem’s rejection. The editor in question was not old enough to have met Orwell, so his opinion was based solely on hearsay, or something he read.

His comment was at the back of my mind as I read this bio of Orwell. It's a rather intimidating book, 400 pages of eye-watering 10-pt type, not counting the 60 pages of footnotes and index. The author, Bernard Crick, was the first to have access to Orwell's papers, and sifted many other sources, including unpublished correspondence and such farflung sources as the files of the Rangoon Gazette, the Burma Police Manual for 1899, and the Civil Pension Books in India.

He corrects an error of fact repeated in a number of books about the date of Orwell's arrival in England (1904 not 1907), and about the school where he taught. These are relatively minor matters, but illustrate the degree of scholarship involved.


The picture of Orwell I now have in my mind is that of a man whose life was shaped by oppression. He experienced it at St. Cyprian's, a prep school he was sent to at the age of eight, and he inflicted it on others in Burma, where he spent five years as a policeman. The guilt he felt after Burma made him seek the company of the downtrodden, as described in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

In the Spanish Civil War he was shot through the neck by a fascist sniper, and narrowly escaped imprisonment or worse due to falsehoods spread by pro-Soviet communists.

When WW2 broke out he tried repeatedly to enlist but due to his health was only able to join the Home Guard. His wife Eileen worked (ironically) in the Censorship department, and her brother (a doctor who had treated Orwell) was killed at Dunkirk. Their London home was wrecked by a bomb. In the final months of the war Orwell got the chance to go to Europe as a war correspondent.

A Melancholy End

He was in Germany when he learned of his wife's death during a "routine operation" in England. His own health, which had been undermined by numerous bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, grew steadily worse until he was hospitalized for seven months in 1948. Treatment included collapsing one of his lungs and he was not allowed to type.

Even when allowed out of hospital he was in such a weakened condition that he had to spend half the day in bed. Unable to find a typist, he resumed smoking as he typed the revised manuscript of Nineteen Eight-Four himself. As a result he suffered a relapse at the end of 1948 and was taken to a sanatorium.

It was clear that he was destined to be a permanent invalid, but he thought he might live longer if he were married. He proposed to several women, and finally succeeded in marrying Sonia Brownell. The ceremony took place in a hospital in October of 1949. Plans were made for him to be relocated to a sanatorium in Switzerland in January of 1950, but about a week before departure his lung haemorrhaged for a final time. He was 46.

His Legacy

Animal Farm was finished in 1944, but refused by several publishers due to its political content. It finally came out in 1945 just after WW2 ended. It made Orwell famous, although in America it was widely misinterpreted as being anti-socialist. Tyranny and oppression were what he hated, and he found it in imperialism, fascism, communism, capitalism, and Catholicism. He was also against pacifism.

He wrote that "every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."

His fame was solidified by another political book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, once again misunderstood in America, where it was seen as anti-Soviet when in fact it was a warning about totalitarian tendencies in modern states.

However, Bernard Crick, the author of this biology and founder of the Orwell Prize for political writing, says that "much critical opinion now locates his genius in his essays."

This is because what Orwell is most famous for is "that colloquial easy plain style that became his genius." He made a "connection between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language." His writings are often used in teaching ESL.

In his will he asked that no biography of him be written. He also wished two of his novels, A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, not to be reprinted.

The Man

Orwell was six foot three inches in height and wore size twelve shoes, which he had difficulty in finding. His clothes were "famously casual." His voice was weak and monotonous due to the wound he'd received in Spain.

A friend said there was "something very innocent and terribly simple about him. He wasn’t a very good judge of character... But he tolerated in others faults he did not possess himself."

He "made a virtue of ordinariness and common decency." He was tenacious, and hard-working, but he was also prickly, had a morbid streak, and was "aggressively anti-hypochondriac."

A comrade in Spain described him as "a slightly comic figure," yet "absolutely fearless."

He loved cats and birds, nature and fishing, but had a phobia about rats, and nightmares from which he'd awaken screaming.

E.M. Forster remarked on his "peculiar mixture of gaiety and grimness."

There was "his strange mixture of personal gentleness and ferocious writing."


Other pseudonyms that Orwell considered: Kenneth Miles, H. Lewis Allways, and P.S Burton (a name he’d used whilst tramping).

Alternate titles for Down and Out in Paris and London: Lady Poverty, Confessions of a Dishwasher.

Nineteen Eighty-Four: alternate title, The Last Man in Europe. The hero Winston was named after Churchill, and Julia was modelled on Sonia.

He had a dog named Marx.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Cola

A Manual of Etiquette for Ladies Crossing Canada by Train

An American woman boards a train in Vancouver for a mock-noir excursion into metafiction. She's wearing a pillbox hat with a veil, and is on the lam for paperhanging in Seattle. "Call her, Our Heroine."

Hot on her heels (and other parts of her anatomy) is a skip-tracer masquerading as a railroad dick. He wears a fedora and boards the train at China Bar, an unscheduled stop in the Fraser Canyon. "Why has the train stopped for this man? For the plot, of course."

He walks into the club car, "and there she is: Sitting in the Club Car Drinking Rum and Karma-Cola, like a book title. Is this a detective novel or what?"

They occupy adjacent compartments like "two different frames of a love comic," and travel across Canada in chapters as brief as this one:

His address is, at this point, nothing but train. On a stretch of bad track his entire past falls out of the overhead rack and spills on the floor like underwear or playing cards.

"Drop something in there sir?" says the porter, who was passing by out in the aisle.

"Yes but it's alright," says the Man from China Bar. Lying on the carpet is his identification, the real one, and his purposes, which are large and high-calibre. He shoves it all back into the suitcase. He looks at his shoelaces, which cross each other like two single-minded arguments, and wonders how he got here, wearing feet like this.

The novel's point of view jumps around, and at times Our Heroine addresses the reader directly. ("Remember that.") The writing is playfully existential, and as imaginative as one would expect from a winner of the G-G for poetry.

American money is long and narrow like Virginia Woolf’s feet.

The train is going through evening like a detective through someone’s drawers.

Her hair falls down her back like a lot of wilderness resisting agriculture.

The train is pulling him forward like a zipper...

Author Paulette Jiles called the book a "mini-novel." It came out in 1986, weighs in at 105 pages, and ends - like a famous noirish film - at an airport.

Could Iqaluit be the Canadian equivalent of Casablanca?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Heat and Dust

The novel’s opening sentence tells us immediately that Olivia, the wife of an English colonial official named Douglas Rivers, ran away with the Nawab of Khatm.

What follows is an account of the events leading up to this scandal in 1923, based on letters that Olivia wrote to her sister. These letters have come into the possession of the grand-daughter of Rivers and his second wife. She has come to India is to learn what happened to Olivia after she ran away with the Nawab.

The stories of these two women weave back and forth as the grand-daughter acquaints herself with India, and although she says Olivia "was everything I'm not," she ends up replicating many of Olivia’s experiences. She too has two lovers, one English and one Indian. She too becomes pregnant, seeks an abortion, and finally follows Olivia into oblivion.

This double narrative is packed with other ironies, many of them subtle. Olivia for instance refuses to go into the mountains during the hot season with other English wives, whom she finds dull. She insists on remaining with her husband, but since he is away at work all day, she falls into company with the Nawab as a way of avoiding boredom. Thus her desire to remain with her husband sets up the circumstances for leaving him. And where does she end up? In the mountains where the Nawab buys her a house, and where she remains for the rest of her life.


She "longed to be pregnant; everything would be all right then – he [her husband] would not change, she would not change, they would be as planned." She finally conceives but only after her affair with the Nawab has begun. Both men are delighted, their reactions virtually identical: "You’re not afraid? You’ll really do this for me? How brave you are." Then she has an abortion.

The Nawab

He is a minor prince, handsome and dashing, "a strong forceful character." But by the time he is 50 he has grown fat and womanly, and divides his time between his wife, his mother in Bombay, and Olivia in the mountains. When he comes to London he does not bring Olivia. He dies in New York City, and the palace is inherited by his nephew, Karim, who lives in London.

Inder Lal

He is the modern counterpart of a minor prince - a government official. His office is located in the house where the grand-daughter's great-aunt Beth (one of the women that Olivia found so dull) once lived. He sublets a room to the grand-daughter and has an affair with her. Like the Nawab he has a wife who is mentally ill.

The Grand-Daughter

She initiates her affair with Inder Lal at the same place (a shrine) after following the same custom (involving red string) as Olivia with the Nawab. Her abortion attempt begins in exactly the same fashion as Olivia's, although she changes her mind and stops the procedure. After visiting Olivia's house in the mountains, she heads for an ashram to have her baby.


Before going to India the grand-daughter meets Karim in London. He is as handsome and charming as the Nawab, and has the same admiration for their violent ancestor Amanullah Khan. He is just as interested in looting India as the Nawab, and is in partnership with a British couple who are described in terms similar to the Nawab's dacoits.


The Nawab and the grand-daughter/narrator remain nameless throughout the book. The Nawab’s Indian wife is nicknamed Sandy, while the grand-daughter's English lover, who has come to India seeking enlightenment, is known only by his Indian name, Chidananda.


The grand-daughter says, "India always changes you." Major Minnies says, "India always finds out the weak spot and presses on it."

The Nawab says, "These people will never learn. Whatever we do, they will still cling to their barbaric customs."

Inder Lal says of his co-workers, "You don't know what people are like or what is in their hearts even when they are smiling with friendly faces."

Dr. Gopal enumerates the diseases of India and concludes by saying, "I think perhaps God never meant that human beings should live in such a place."

Chidananda returns from a pilgrimage a changed person. "All he will ever say - the only explanation he gives for his changed feelings toward India - is how he can't stand the smell."

The Book

Heat and Dust won the Booker in 1975. Its title reflects the squalor of India. Its brevity (181 pages) and personal tone belie its density.

I particularly liked the ironies, the ambiguities, the inconclusive ending. I also liked the twin timelines with the mirroring of events and characters - devices that are essential to the book's message.

But how palatable is that message? Perhaps the grand-daughter's departure from Olivia's path (deciding to have her baby) is an effort to blunt the book's negativity and end on a hopeful note.

In 2008 a retrospective review of Booker winners by Sam Jordison in The Guardian offered a damning verdict, calling the book "pedestrian...dull and pointless...literature for people who hate literature."

Monday, May 5, 2014

Ijon Tichy

The Star Diaries (321 pages)

Ijon Tichy is the hero of this collection of absurd, fantastic, playful, and satirical tales. Many are as cartoonish as the Jetsons or anything on Saturday morning TV. Indeed, one of Tichy's forbears has his head flattened by a steam roller.

Tichy flies about in a jalopy of a rocketship. It has a rudder, and needs new brakes and a paint job. He cooks his meals on the atomic pile, and when he passes too close to a star he climbs into the refrigerator to cool off. When he runs out of fuel he dives his ship into a volcano, causing an eruption which propels him back into space. Someone goes by riding on a meteor.

Some of the supporting cast are robot friars, feral furniture, intelligent potatoes, edible space ships, dogs in spacesuits, and "interstellar vagabonds known as Gypsonians" who hire themselves out for the cleaning of moons, and whose children throw stones at comets.

Time Travel

Voyage 7 – The ship becomes packed with so many versions of Tichy they have to form committees in order to make decisions.

Voyage 12 – He uses a time machine to speed up evolution on a primitive planet, but breaks off a knob and sets it in reverse, causing him to revert to a baby.

Voyage 20 - He is recruited by his future self to head up a project to improve history with disastrous results. Mars is burnt to a crisp.

Strange Societies

Voyage 13 – A political allegory about a repressive regime that convinces people they are fish, and another where everyone wears an identical mask and individualism is forbidden. People are interchangeable right down to the family level, with mothers, fathers, and children trading places every day.

Voyage 23 – The planet of the Whds is so crowded its people reduce themselves to their constituent atoms to order to get some sleep at night, and to travel by mailing themselves in a cassette. "Look out, you’re spilling my daddy," Tichy is warned by a youngster. When he tries the process, there is an error of some sort and he is reconstituted as Napoleon.

Memoirs of a Space Traveller
Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy
(153 pages)

The rather convoluted publishing history of these stories is mentioned in a note at the end of Star Diaries, which appeared in English in two volumes, the second being this one, Memoirs of a Space Traveller. It contains two further voyages as well as several stories of the mad scientist variety.

Voyage 18 - Tichy creates the universe using a chronocannon. Two of the members of his team are Lou Cipher and Eve Addams. The universe, a scientist declares, "is an illegal loan of matter and energy." It is a "Debtor to Nothingness."

Voyage 24 – A planet runs into a multitude of civic problems when machines put people out of work. A Governing Machine is created to restore harmony, which it does by transforming people into "solid beautiful durable forms" and arranging them into "pleasing symmetrical designs."

Mad Scientists

Denser and more serious in tone, these stories are rather like thought experiments about the nature of perception and reality. Tichy visits a number of scientists whose misshapen appearance is representative of their unbalanced attempts at playing god. One creates a synthetic soul, another electronic brains in boxes ("Leibnizian monads") unaware of the true nature of their existence. A third has secretly been replaced by his own clone, and a fourth creates a fungoid creature that begins experimenting on the scientist.

The Washing Machine Tragedy

This story appeared in The New Yorker and describes the development of advanced washing machines. They mend and iron clothes, then progress to doing the children’s homework, interpreting dreams, singing lullabies, eventually becoming less capable of performing their original duties. Some are weaponized and associate with criminal elements. Others end up on the streets panhandling. Illegal parts factories spring up, and self-defence courses teach people how to defend themselves using a canopener or a pair of pliers.

Let Us Save the Universe
Ijon Tichy decries the ill-effects of cosmic tourism -- billboards and space garbage, graffiti on asteroids, comets without tails. Women exceed speed limit because they will age slower. The impact on fauna in a Preserve is particularly harmful, and the story morphs into an illustrated bestiary of weird creatures whose lives have been disrupted by human contact. One is a bird called the sribblemock:

...the counterpart of the terrestrial parrot, except that it writes instead of talks. Often, alas, it writes on fences the obscenities it picks up from tourists from Earth. Some people deliberately infuriate this bird by taunting it with spelling errors.

The Futurological Congress (142 pages)

According to the translator's note at the end of Star Diaries, this novella was also part of that original collection.

It takes place on Earth and begins in Costa Rica where Tichy is attending a futurological congress. There is much unrest, which is combated by the use of a calming drug in the water of the hotel where he is staying, and which results in a hallucinatory experience involving giant rats.

When he comes to his senses he finds that he has been cryogenically preserved and resuscitated in the future where society has solved its problems chemically. It is a pharmocracy in which people vote on the weather and eat books instead of reading them. Poets use sonnetol and "children learn their reading and writing from orthographic sodas." Tichy is told, "We keep this civilization narcotized, for otherwise it could not endure itself."

Ijon Tichy appears in at least one other book: Peace on Earth.


Tichy's adventures became the subject of a German TV series loosely based on Star Diaries. If you go to Youtube and do a search for Ijon Tichy, you'll find a few episodes with English subtitles. His rocket ship is a coffee press.

Lem's Official Site
Ijon Tichy Raumpilot

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Enormous Room

In 1917 Edward Estlin Cummings, whose name is better known in lower case, ee cummings, joined a voluntary ambulance corps in France. He and a close friend, William Slater Brown, ran afoul of their American section chief for, among other things, associating with "them dirty Frenchmen."

Unbeknownst to them, they also ran afoul of censors for expressing anti-war sentiments in their letters home, and as a result were incarcerated in a military detention camp for suspected spies. It was an ordeal that Cummings could easily have avoided by saying he hated Germans. This he refused to do, in part because he felt it would be a violation of his friendship with Brown.

Cummings recorded his experiences in this autobiographical novel, named after the pillared high-ceilinged room in which some 60 men were confined. Many he came to regard as "some of the finest people in the world," and despite the brutish conditions, foul food, and bullying officials, he looked back on his time there as one of the happiest in his life.

Cummings of course went on to become one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century, and the energy of his language is evident throughout. He spices every page with French phrases, and takes great joy in deriding the French government, the prison officials, and authority in general. His descriptions of people are particularly fine, and in the latter portion of the book he devotes a chapter each to four he especially liked.

The Wanderer
His wife and children were held in the women's quarters of the camp, save his little son who stayed with him and the other men in the Enormous Room. The Wanderer's quiet stoicism, his deep love for his family, and the child's reckless energy make a moving portrait indeed.

The Zulu
A Polish farmer exceedingly generous with money that he conjured up out of thin air. Though he could not write and spoke only Polish, he was capable of communicating on any subject with the greatest of ease and the finest nuance of meaning, without speaking a word.

Religious and hard-working, yet ignorant and vilified by all, he embraced his position at the bottom of the pecking order in the Enormous Room. "To be made a fool of was, to this otherwise completely neglected individual, a mark of distinction; something to take pleasure in; to be proud of."

Jean le Nègre
The most remarkable character in the book: vain, irrepressible, full of laughter, energy, and nonsense. He arrived at the camp after being caught impersonating an English officer, at which he...

...announced that he was a Lord of the Admiralty, that he had committed robberies in Paris to the tune of sees meel-i-own franc, that he was a son of the Lord Mayor of London by the Queen, that he had lost a leg in Algeria, and that the French were cochons.

Cummings suffered a "mental catastrophe" when his friend Brown was removed from the camp. Other prisoners recognized his "disordered mind" and treated him kindly, "kinder than I can possibly say." When informed that he was to be released, he astonished the camp director by saying, "I should rather have gone to prison with my friend."

Final Notes & Links

The Enormous Room is a not-quite-forgotten classic. It's been in print ever since it was first published in 1922 and can be found online in a number of places.

Strangely there appear to have been at least three different editions, but how much they differ I cannot say. The most recent seems to be from Liveright/Norton. It "restores to the work much material that was deleted from the manuscript for the book's 1922 publication and is illustrated with drawings Cummings made while imprisoned in France."

The Poetry Foundation's entry on Cummings
Literary ambulance drivers

Friday, March 21, 2014

Henry Miller

Henry Miller befriended Erica Jong when Fear of Flying came out, referring to the novel as "the female counterpart" to Tropic of Cancer.

He became Jong's mentor and "literary benefactor," setting her on a path that culminated in this "paradox of biography."

It became a search for a contradictory and divisive figure who remained "maddeningly elusive," in part due to the "blurred boundaries between fiction and autobiography" in his writing.

But it also became a search for Erica Jong herself, for how could she reconcile his chauvinism, his blatant sexism, with her own feminism?

Thus this 1993 book is "part memoir, part critical study, party biography, part exploration of sexual politics in our time."

It includes a 36-page section of letters they exchanged in 1974, as well an outrageous anecdote related by Miller about pissing his pants in a French courtroom. There is also an imaginary dialogue between the two authors. ("Make it all up!" Miller had advised her. "That's the only way to get it right.")

The book was slagged by many reviewers for its hyperbole, blurred boundaries, and suggestive title (Erica Jong on Henry Miller), criticism that seems rather narrow-minded and might be construed, perhaps, as a confirmation what Jong is saying.

Personally I found the book well-written, insightful, provocative, and full of quotable nuggets.

His Life

Born and raised in New York with "a raging mother, a retarded sister, a drunken father." Spoke German at home and was named Heinrich after his father.

"He gave off heat like a roaring fire. He was more alive than most people ever are, and when you were near him, he shed his light and life force on you."

"It is Henry's lifelong habit of letting it all hang out that often makes him appear bigoted."

"Henry's financial life reads like a surrealist farce."

Some descriptors used: scribomaniac, primal force, eternal vagabond, cock-eyed optimist.

Loved painting and playing the piano.

His Writing

"Miller's works are confrontations, not evasions. For his life force alone, Miller is unique."

"'The truth can also be a lie.' This is critical to Henry's whole concept of life and writing."

He "used the word sex in a cosmic, not a genital sense."

He was "a trancendentalist in the indigenous American tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson and Whitman." His style "as revolutionary in its own way as Joyce's or Hemingway's or Stein's."

He "predicted the art of our age--and even our journalism, film, television, and visual arts--all based on the exploration of personality and the blurring of the line between fiction and fact."

"If we have trouble categorizing Miller's 'novels' and consequently underrate them, it is because we judge them according to some unspoken notion of 'the well-wrought novel.' And Miller's novels seem not wrought at all. In fact, they are rants---undisciplined and wild. But they are full of wisdom, and they have that 'eternal and irrepressible freshness' Ezra Pound called the mark of the true classic."

"His best work was so far ahead of its time--and his worst work, as with many writers, was horrendous self-parody."

His "sexism does not annihilate his contribution to literature."

His Painting

It was only after his return to America and living on the West Coast that "he began to paint as demonically as he once had written."

The title for Jong's book came from a small work that Miller wrote and illustrated, Insomnia, or the Devil at Large.

Erica Jong

"Sexual censorship is always used to mask political goals. Frequently it is not about sex at all."

"I believe I belong to the last literary generation, the last generation, that is, for whom books are religion...for whom reading and writing are sacraments."

"For the most part, the 'fictional' novels we read today belong to a dead genre, a genre that somnolizes rather than awakens. People read mysteries, romances, and thrillers to anesthetize themselves, not to alert their souls."

"Film absorbed the lessons of surrealism. The novel speeded up its scenes to match the dwindling attention span of the contemporary reader. Fiction writers learned to cut and edit like filmmakers. But, for the most part, they ignored the lessons of Miller, Joyce, Woolf, and Stein, and continued to write nineteenth-century Dickensian or Dostoyevskian novels in the age of visual media."

"Writing problems are always psychological problems."

Henry Miller--The Paintings: A Centennial Retrospective

The three paintings shown above come from this book published in 1991.

It has nearly 100 reproductions, each with a comment by Miller himself, his former wife Lepska, his son Tony, his daughter Valentine, or a number of other acquaintances, plus a foreword by Miller's longtime pal, Lawrence Durrell. By the end of his life he'd had 70 exhibitions all over the world.

Durrell: Miller's paintings convey "the feeling of abundance and vivacity that characterised his mind and heart."

Lepska: "I remember he loved the pinks. He was intoxicated with those colors, with the names of the paints. They were like the titles of books or names of great wines to him. They would excite him so, he would literally dance about."

Valentine: "Pablo Picasso visited us once at our home..."

Tony: "My father was the most generous person I have ever known."

Tony Miller maintains a website where you can see more of his father's work. Some pieces are going for as much as $35,000.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Lower River

"All news out of Africa is bad," Paul Theroux says at the beginning of Dark Star Safari (2003), and in Malawi he takes the news personally.

He taught school there as a young man with the Peace Corps, and now 35 years later he finds a betrayal of that hopeful time. Things have only gotten worse.

The country is poorer, the people more venal, his old school a shambles. He decides that international aid is the chief culprit, and discards a cherished desire to "spend a week or so teaching, helping out, doing something useful." He vows never to send another book to Malawi and concludes that "only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa."

That visit fuelled a recent novel, The Lower River (2012), whose protagonist, like Theroux, grew up in Medford and taught in the Lower River district of Malawi.

For Ellis Hock, those were "the happiest years of his life." He "craved that simple, older world he’d known as a young teacher, which was also a place in which hope still existed, because it was a work in progress." And so at the age of 62 Hock returns to Malawi hoping to recapture those magical years which still "cast a green glow in his memory."

Instead the trip goes from bad to worse with terrifying inevitability. The tension does not let up until the final page, and fulfills the promise of Theroux's picture on the dustjacket. He never smiles in these photos, but in this one he looks positively menacing. His glare is a challenge delivered from a blurry tropical river, as though warning the reader he means to exact full revenge for the mess the world has made of Africa.

Fiction vs Non-Fiction

I usually prefer Theroux's travel books to his novels, but the way in which Dark Star and Lower River overlap gave the novel an added dimension that I really enjoyed. For example, Theroux travels by dugout canoe down the Shire and Zambesi Rivers and into Mozambique, during which he hears vague mention of "bad people" on the river. When Hock makes the same journey, these "bad people" are brought to life in the novel's most chilling episode.

In Dark Star Theroux writes, "I seldom saw relief workers who did not in some way remind me of people herding animals and throwing food to them, much as rangers did to the animals in stricken game parks." In Lower River he dramatizes this observation.

In Dark Star Theroux notices a "small ugly man" with a "hideous face, bumpy with boils and growths and seeping wounds, and withered fingers." He was like "the Fool in a Shakespeare play, the court jester who is licenced to do or say anything he likes." He is the model for a Lower River dwarf named Snowdon, who plays a key role at the novel's climax.

Some reviewers have found echoes of Heart of Darkness (and Handful of Dust) in Lower River. Any such resemblances strike me as rather superficial, though they did remind me of that dustjacket photo, and the observation of an old friend in Dark Star, who is surprised by Theroux's griping: "He suspected that I had turned into Mister Kurtz."

Medford and Malabo

Malabo is the name of the village that Hock travels to, but before he gets there Theroux sets up several sly scenes that foreshadow Africa.

Hock meets a flaky New Ager who attends a Witch Camp and takes part in a Mud Ritual. She also owns a python that's been acting strangely. Hock's warning is similar to the one he himself receives in Malabo: "They will eat your money and then they will eat you."

Hock and his wife have several sessions with a marriage counselor named Doctor Bob, whose effectiveness is on a par with that of a snake doctor in Malabo.

In a delicious irony, Hock throws his cellphone into the Mystic River flowing though Medford.

A Nest of Snakes

The most obvious culprits in Lower River are a relief organization patronized by celebrities, and a former employee, now a village headman, who mulcts Hock of his last cent through artful fawning and appeals to tribal custom.

But Hock is also complicit, for he considers himself an expert on Malawi despite his decades-long absence. In fact, his delusions extend back to his first visit when, motivated by local superstition, he gets the loopy idea of catching snakes as a way of impressing villagers. It earns him the dubious name of Snake Man.

In America his knowledge seems impressive, but in Africa it becomes suspect. He refers to puff adders as "not especially venomous," when in fact they are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other snake. And the casual way in which other deadly snakes are handled, or referred to -- mambas, boomslangs, the innocent-sounding twig snake -- exposes him as a chump.

His interest in snakes scuttles a couple of cherished dreams -- as a teacher, attaining a woman he loves ("Snakes are afraid of me," he tells her); and on his return, restoring his old school, which has fallen into ruin and become a "nest of snakes." Finding a black mamba there...

...he prodded it, let it whip and coil, and pressed its head with the end of the stick, quickly snatched, keeping its frothy mouth just above his fist. Then he brought it outside to show the boys, a trophy they'd remember.

The boys, who were sent by the headman to help clean up the school, flee with good reason, for the black mamba is one of the fastest and most lethal snakes in Africa.

It should be no surprise that Hock's hobby is viewed with suspicion by the villagers. A snake doctor is sent for and a snake dance performed. When the headman shows Hock the protective scars around his wrist, he says, "You see, we are not fearing you."

Perhaps even more interesting are the hands of the 16-year-old girl who risks her life for Hock. They are "scaly, slick...almost reptilian."

Further Reading

It is worth remembering that Theroux is a crafty and provocative writer who enjoys confounding readers with, as he puts it in Hotel Honolulu, "autobiographical fantasies."

Chapters 14-16 are the relevant ones in Dark Star.

An early excerpt from Lower River appeared in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux's alter ego is named Altman.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Travels in Siberia

The five journeys described here took place over a period of 16 years, with a third of the book devoted to a 2001 road trip from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Bankrolled by a $22,000 advance from The New Yorker magazine, the author bought a van and hired a couple of tough and resourceful Russians as guides. It took them just over five weeks to complete the trip.

Of the other trips to Siberia, the first was to Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal in 1993 and the next in 1999 to Chukotka just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

The third took place in the winter of 2005 when the core of the journey was by rail from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude via the Trans-Siberian, then by BAM from Severobaikalsk to Yakutsk.

The final visit was in 2009 to Novosibirsk and Akademgorodok.

When asked what kind of style he wrote in, the author's understated reply was "factual." This is true up to a point, for he writes in a quiet and easy-going manner with a multitude of closely-observed details, but the book is also leavened with humour and the author is not afraid to show himself in an unflattering light. He also weaves a vast amount of historical and literary information into the text, but so expertly that it's never dry or overwhelming.

The Road Trip

Before crossing the Urals they encountered a wedding party that was blocking traffic in both directions. They coughed up ten rubles for the newlyweds, refused the offer of vodka, and managed to cajole their way through. One of the guides, Volodya, observed that he had once been forced by a wedding party to drink for an entire afternoon, and had heard of others who had been detained for days.

They paid $200 to cross a roadless stretch in a private boxcar. Soon after they encountered a gauntlet of watermelon sellers, who after a while became so numerous that free watermelons were being thrust through the vehicle's windows.

Names of villages they passed through: Puddle, Free, Noisy, Smokes, Jellies, Luxury, Merry Cliff, Devil Bread, Unhappyville.


...the remarkable ability possessed by all Russians, even the sweetest and gentlest, to make their faces rock hard instantly...

"Some people here in Russia refer to the events of the last ten years as the Third World War," he explained. "They say that Russia lost the war, and you Americans won. And if you just look around you anywhere in Russia, except in the biggest cities, it's obvious that this country lost a war."

Russians have long been proud to claim that by absorbing the worst the Mongols could do they saved Western Europe, and maybe civilization, from destruction.

My attempt to join the Great Patriotic War conversation was met with silence. America lost four hundred thousand people in the war, a frightening number; but Russia’s dead numbered about twenty million. To many Russians, America’s participation in the war was that of a bystander who holds the combatants' coats and steps in at the end to finish off the loser.


The Russia word for Siberia is Sibir’ with the final syllable pronounced like a shiver: brrr.

The most popular American in Russia appears to be Sylvester Stallone, and the the most popular recent English-language writer is Farley Mowat. "Everyone there seems to know Ne Kri Volki."

Pushkin eating cherries out of a cap before fighting a duel.

The charming practice of Aeroflot to name its jetliners after writers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

David Copperfield

So there's the Game Chicken in Dombey and Son, and Mealy Potatoes in this one, but Dickens missed a great opportunity for a similar name by not providing the Peggottys with a chicken coop.

Collecting the eggs, you see, would have fallen to Em'ly and given her an oval nickname that foreshadowed her betrothal. How Mr. Peggotty would have chortled over his beloved Ham and Eggy!

The Sea

Silliness aside, there is already plenty of foreshadowing, and it begins on the very first page when we learn that David was born without a caul, an item prized by sailors as protection against drowning

In chapter 2 he visits the Peggottys, a family of fisherfolk that includes two orphans, Em'ly and Ham, whose fathers were drowned. Em'ly herself has seen a boat torn to pieces, and trembles during storms because she seems to hear Ham and her uncle crying out for help. Yet her fear of the sea does not prevent her from flirting with danger as she walks along a jagged timber jutting out from a pier.

These events foreshadow not only the arrival of Steerforth, who uses a boat to seduce Em'ly, but also the tempest at the end of the novel, a good 50 chapters away, in which a ship is torn to pieces, and Steerforth and Ham drown.


The marriage of Murdstone and David’s mother foreshadows David's first marriage. The similarity of the names, Clara and Dora, signal the similarity of their childish natures. "A very Baby" is how Aunt Betsey describes Clara when they first meet, and in chapter 4 Clara sounds exactly like Dora when she exclaims, "Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature!" Dora, a self-acknowledged "silly little thing," asks David to refer to her as his "child-wife."

David tries to "form Dora’s mind" and teach her some useful homemaking skills, but in so doing nearly emulates Murdstone's attempt to instill "firmness" in David's mother. "I didn’t marry to be reasoned with," Dora tells David, and faints when he encourages her to read a cookbook and learn how to keep household accounts. The best she can do is hold David’s pens while he writes. She is more pet than wife.


At home David takes refuge from the Murdstones in his father's books, and at school recounts them to Steerforth in "a simple earnest narrative style of narrating." Later, while working at Murdstone's warehouse in London, he amuses himself by inventing histories for people he sees in the street. By the end of the book he has become a famous author.

David Copperfield

David is an impulsive and credulous naif. For most of the novel he is routinely cheated and gulled and taken advantage of by just about everyone he meets. As a young boy he's an easy mark for a waiter at a Yarmouth hotel, a young man with a donkey cart, a disreputable dealer in second-hand clothes, and a brutal tinker.

At school he happily hands over money and food to Steerforth, and when boarding with the Wickfields he is gutted for information by Heep and his mother. He is cowed by his landlady Mrs. Crupp and inconvenienced by a long line of servants who are incompetent, thieving, or both.

His "pliant nature" is signified by the number of names that are applied to him. Four that he happily accepts are Davy, Daisy, Doady, and Trotwood (sometimes shortened to Trot). Occasionally he is referred to as Master Murdstone, Mr. Copperfull, Young Innocence, and Brooks of Sheffield.

The Murdstones

In the early chapters Dickens uses simple declarative sentences to reflect David's viewpoint as a powerless young child. It's a touch that magnifies the menace of the Murdstones, and makes them among Dickens's most convincing villains. Thanks in no small part to them the novel gets off to a rivetting start, and one of most satisfying lines in the book belongs to Aunt Betsey when she threatens to knock off Jane Murdstone's bonnet.


Steerforth is one of Dickens's finest creations. David idolizes him for his charm and accomplishments while remaining blind to his less likable characteristics. Such loyalty is both foolish and admirable. Others try to warn David, and the acidic comment of Rosa Dartle is particularly apt: "He thinks you young and innocent, and so you are his friend? Well, that’s quite delightful."

Steerforth's occasional moments of honesty are what make him credible in a way that many other characters are not. His last words to David are a superb touch. When he and the Murdstones sink out of sight, the novel becomes much less interesting, and begins to sag under an increasing load of sentimentality and pointless subplots.

Uriah Heep

The red-headed Heep is one of Dickens's most picturesque villains, yet much less believable than Steerforth. Fawning and slimy, he writhes like an eel and has clammy hands and "damp fishy fingers." His favourite word is "umble."


A comic figure always in debt and just a step ahead of his creditors, yet "never so happy as when he was busy about something that could never be of any profit to him." He loves writing letters and excels at making punch. He doesn't speak, he perorates. His favourite word is "pecuniary."

Despite their difficulties, his wife is devoted to him. Her signature line is: "I will never desert you, Micawber."

Agnes Wickfield

David's failure to recognize her as an ideal mate mirrors his blindness to Steerforth's true nature. Unfortunately Agnes is just another in a long line of bland and selfless heroines, and one of the most derided.


Dickens called David Copperfield his "favourite child." Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to it as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy."

Like David, Dickens mastered shorthand well enough to become a skilled parliamentary reporter, and became famous when he branched out into fiction. The character of Micawber is based on his own improvident father, who, like Micawber, spent time in debtor's prison.

More important is David's stint at Murdstone's warehouse. His shame, his heartfelt anguish and "secret agony of the soul," have the deep ring of truth, drawn from Dickens's own childhood experience in a blacking factory:

The remembrance of that life is fraught with so much pain to me, and so much mental suffering and want of hope, that I have never had the courage even to examine how long I was doomed to lead it. Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know.

The book began serial publication in 1849, after Dickens had experienced 13 years of a slowly disintegrating marriage, which was likely the inspiration for Annie's comment: "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose."

Ironically there was something of Murdstone in Dickens, for he was a "perfectionist who dominated the life of the household that left little room for [his wife]." (Kaplan)

Favourite Scenes

Two of the scenes I enjoyed most were humorous ones. The waiter in chapter 5 not only drinks David's ale and eats most of his dinner, but cons him out of a shilling and sends him on his way with a joke: "Take care of that child or he'll burst."

Equally funny is David's account, in chapter 44, of how he and Dora are cheated by every servant and tradesman they come in contact with. One line sounds straight out of Monty Python:

As to the washerwoman pawning the clothes, and coming in a state of penitent intoxication to apologize, I suppose that might have happened several times to anybody.


In chapter 1, Aunt Betsey scoffs at the name that David's father gave to the Copperfield home -- the Rookery. "Cookery would have been more to the purpose," she says to Clara, "if you had any practical ideas about life, either of you." This comment introduces a topic that crops up later.

As for food mentioned in the book, we have Mrs. Micawber making a little jug of egg-hot to revive herself after fainting, and Aunt Betsey drinking warm ale with a teaspoon and soaking strips of toast in it. Other delights:

cold boiled bacon
hot kidney pudding
a saveloy and a penny-loaf
a basin of mutton broth dimpled all over with fat
mushroom ketchup
porter and oysters
warm sherry negus
very hot port

Ironically, Catherine Dickens, whatever her deficiencies, was not the helpless idiot that Dora is. She published a cookbook entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? under the name Lady Maria Clutterbuck. It went through several editions.


How many Betsey Trotwoods are there?
a) two
b) three
c) four
d) five

What is the original name of the boat Steerforth buys?
a) Blue Noddy
b) Sooty Tern
c) Stormy Petrel
d) Little Shearwater

a) Tungay..............1) a dwarf
b) Mortimer............2) a servant
c) Traddles............3) has a wooden leg
d) Mealy Potatoes......4) has a scarred lip
e) the Orfling.........5) Annie's mother
f) the Old Soldier.....6) Micawber's alias
g) Miss Mowcher........7) Mr. Dick's real name
h) Rosa Dartle.........8) draws skeletons
i) Richard Babley......9) works in a warehouse


Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Universe in a Nutshell

A less daunting read than A Brief History of Time (1988) due to the many full-colour illustrations -- at least one on every page and many of them gorgeous -- plus Hawking's chatty approach and puckish sense of humour.

At one point he mentions giving a seminar on black holes in Paris. It did not go over well, in part because the literal translation of black hole, trou noir, had "dubious sexual connotations."

Still, many of the concepts are beyond easy understanding, and remind one of medieval debates about the number of angels that can tread upon the head of a pin. Some of the terminology reflects this: imaginary numbers, virtual particles, shadow galaxies, dark radiation, vacuum energy. Imaginary time, for example, is measured by imaginary numbers and runs at right angles to normal time.

A few interesting quotes:

Our past is pear-shaped.

The first discussion of black holes appeared in 1783.

One can think of the universe as being like a giant casino.

The universe has multiple histories, each of which is determined by a tiny nut.

You might wonder if this chapter is part of a government coverup on time travel. You might be right.

The anthropic principle says that the universe has to be more or less as we see it, because if it were different, there wouldn’t be anyone here to observe it.

A typical snazzy illustration: Could an advanced civilization build a time machine?
The book's final chapter begins with this intriguing thought: do we live on a brane or are we just holograms? And it concludes by mentioning the Large Hadron Collider that was still under construction in Europe when the book came out in 2001.

It may, Hawking says, help us learn whether or not we live on a brane:

If we do, it will presumably be because the anthropic principle picks out brane models from the vast zoo of universes allowed by M-theory. We could well paraphrase Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest:

O Brane new world
that has such creatures in't.

That is the universe in a nutshell.