I’m sitting in a Barcelona internet cafe in the completely empty non-smoking section… The smoking section is packed. It’s only noon though, so it seems like most of the city isn’t really awake yet. We are staying about four blocks from Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It is under construction as it has been for decades, and it is a bizarre building to look upon. Over the next couple of days we will see some of Gaudi’s other work. Today: art museums and La Boqueria, Barcelona’s massive open air food market. I had hoped to get a lot of reading done on the plane, but the trip was so grueling that I didn’t accomplish much. I worked my way through the first issue of The Believer, McSweeney’s magazine about books and other fluff. Heidi Julavits’ article about the lost art of book reviewing is the high point, after that it’s mostly uneven to dull. But, hey, at least the folks on Valencia keep churning out new and interesting projects. Til next time…
Arts and Letters Daily recently linked an article from the National Journal that takes stock of an interesting development at the New York Times. In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a good amount of internal and external strife about wavering journalistic standards, the Times has appointed an ombudsman, a position more commonly found at campus newspapers than at the world’s most important dailies. This ombudsman happens to be an author and journalist, Daniel Okrent, whom I admire for his baseball book Nine Innings and who was recently named a Pulitzer finalist for his book, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center. His columns bring an impressive amount of transparency to a very powerful newsroom, and I suggest everyone read them before Okrent’s fellow employees stage a coup and kick him out. The most recent column can be found here.
A row (as they say over there) has erupted over the filming of a movie based on Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane, spurring protests and threats of a book burning. The anger has arisen from the portrayal of Bangladeshis in the book. So far a number of notable authors have come out in support of Ali, including Salman Rushdie, Hari Kunzru and Lisa Appignanesi, as discussed in the Guardian. Now a few weeks old, the dispute is sparking secondary disputes amongst the British literati, who are taking sides. The Independent goes into detail about how “Rushdie has launched an outspoken attack on fellow literary heavyweight Germaine Greer.”
Sometimes I think Mrs. Millions prefers to ignore my blogging obsession – I do get the occasional eye roll – but then she goes and surprises me. Ain’t she the greatest? So, yesterday, thanks to our car being in the shop, Mrs. Millions was stuck with a long bus ride from near downtown to our neighborhood on the north side. I was going about my business when this text message arrived on my cell phone: “Sighting. The ultimate book on how to draw robots.”Hilarious. But now, of course, it must go on the blog. Mrs. Millions tells me you couldn’t miss the guy because how often do you see an Ignatius J. Reilly type reading a robot art book on public transit. Well, probably more often than you’d guess. Of course being obsessive about these things, I had to quiz Mrs. Millions so we could determine exactly what the book was. Turns out it’s called You Can Draw Transforming Robots (You Can!). Those are the best kind of robots. I’m mostly working from home these days, which doesn’t afford me much opportunity to engage in my favorite Chicago hobby, public transit bookspotting, luckily, Mrs. Millions is picking up my slack. As usual.
A few weeks back, Reuters reported on a new website called Daily Lit, which blasts short clips of classic literature to subscribers’ email addresses every day. Readers can take in Anna Karenina via Blackberry, in five-minute chunks disbursed over fourteen months. “Our audience includes people like us, who spend hours each day on e-mail but can’t find the time to read a book,” Albert Wenger, a founder of DailyLit, told the press.Now, far be it from me to denigrate any effort to make literature more accessible. I used to be a regular reader of the Samuel Pepys blog, and probably made more of a dent in the digital Diary than I would have in the hard copy. But Daily Lit seems to represent the unexamined costs of the information age’s promises of convenience. Is yet another daily email really the solution to too much email? What does it mean to click from Paris of Troy to Paris Hilton. (OMG, Achilles is sooo hot.) Does one find time, or does one make it?Already 50,000 people have enrolled in Daily Lit, which currently offers 370 titles from the public domain, free of charge. Soon the site will expand to charge for daily excerpts of newer work. No doubt certain texts – Lydia Davis stories, poems by Basho – might lend themselves to the DailyLit treatment, providing a short liberation from the drudgeries of the day. But big novels aren’t meant to be noshed on like an energy bar, wedged in between breakfast and dinner. At their best, they open up vistas of freedom beyond our daily habits and obligations. Opt for the bite-sized version if you like. But God forbid I come to look forward to Tolstoy with the same dread with which I approach my inbox.And so, book in hand, to bed.
I’m in the early stages of War and Peace and last night read a battle scene in which the Russian troops are retreating from the advancing French army. The chapter follows Nicholas Rostov, as he and his company try to cross the Danube in time to destroy the bridge behind them. The scene is written with a sort of detached, tableau quality that reminded me a lot of the evacuation of Dunkirk section in Atonement. I went back to McEwan’s book to look for passages that compared directly with Tolstoy’s writing and found a couple:The crush of men.From War and PeaceThe soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvitski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying around the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.From AtonementThe crowds were bunching up again. In front of the canal bridge was a junction and from the Dunkirk direction, on the road that ran along the canal, came a convoy of three-ton lorries which the military police were trying to direct into a field beyond where the horses were. But troops swarming across the road forced the convoy to a halt. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted insults. The crowd pressed on. Men tired of waiting scrambled off the backs of the lorries. There was a shout of ‘Take cover!’Observing nature in the thick of the retreat.From AtonementAs they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of gray and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun.From War and PeaceNicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in mists to their summits.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.”
No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence — but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass.
First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow — as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God.
“The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories — like Joyce’s — that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him.
“Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home.
Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess.
Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid — the on the way to their home.
Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See — see — what did I tell you — snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow.
They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45.
They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen.
Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.”
“The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.