Thursday, January 22, 2015

Response to an e-mail from Pat Bohnet in Niagara Falls, NY

Who asked me (referring to the very brief excerpt from "The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff" I had posted on New Year's Eve) why Olson was so desperate, and also asking (referring to the previous post): Why is "Moby Dick" so important. What follows is my edited response to her queries.

Olson imagined Frances Boldereff to be the great love of his life (though in my opinion, if they had gotten together for more than the very occasional fling it may not have worked (she wanted it to at first, but he wouldn't leave his wife).  Olson was quite lonely the last years of his life after his second wife  (both common law marriages) died in a car accident outside of Wyoming, N.Y. (about 40 miles from Buffalo) where they were living.  Some think it was suicide, but there is no evidence of that.  He was fortunate enough to have one child from each of the marriages, but after the death of Betty, his second wife, he was not able to look after them and they went to live with relatives.  He was never "himself" so to speak after 1965, and pretty much lived alone in his apartment at Stage Fort in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a working-class district of that city.  2 volumes of letters to Frances, the 1st volume embarrassing and does his reputation no good at all - just sentimental wallowing, but the later letters are much better, when he realized they were never going to get together (though she was a bit of a tease).  But simply he was very lonely.  "Charles Olson in Connecticut" by the late scholar Charles Boer, deals with some of Olson's compulsive behavior during a few of these latter years.

re: Melville.  Although Moby Dick can be boring and hard slog, it is more a work of philosphy and cosmology than it is a novel, really.  I recommend you buy Olson's "Call Me Ishmael" and only read Moby Dick when you have the psychological time and space, preferably on or looking at an ocean, though Niagara Falls will do nicely.  I'm sure you have read Billy Budd.  It is worth reading the best exegesis I know on Budd, a chapter in Andrew Del Banco's biography of Melville, which you can get at your library.  An excellent good read, but he skims over much too lightly Melville's quite formative years in the South Seas.

There is what I think is a major vision change in his writing after Moby Dick to a very dark pessimsim after he realized (as I too have realized in my own life - though I am not in any way comparing myself except in this respect) he would never be able to return to the South Seas.  In fact his wife wanted to commit him to an insane asylum and went so far as to ask Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., to sign the commitment papers. Melville took off for the Middle East ("The Holy Land" as he put it) and except for Budd, wrote only poetry the last decades of his life.  In Moby Dick, the only Polynesian character is Queequeg, whereas in his first three books, Typee, Omoo (set mainly on Moorea then called Aimeo), and Mardi, there is Polynesian Romance to the nth degree.  

I would put Moby Dick favorably up against any other text, the Russian novelists, Marquez, even Shakespeare.  Melville was the greatest writer America has produced, and Moby Dick is his masterwork.   

Saturday, January 10, 2015

John le Carre

Because of the cloak-and-dagger nature of his subject matter, his novels do not receive the praise of tastemakers and academics; however, his books investigate moral ambiguity in all of its deepest aspects. The protagonists, some of whom, like Melville's Bulkington, begin by being good men, and naive men, in a world of shadows. Melville disappears him from the Pequod and Moby Dick early on; le Carre makes him someone whose illusions are stripped bare, so that he cannot even utter "The horror!" as Conrad's Marlowe does since he is not looking into the abyss but is inside of it.  Nations as entities, imperialist entities, and men seeking power within these structures, cause chaos, downfall, and death.  His language is so precise in his novels that the noir-ness impales the reader in a web of conflict, a spider's web of confusion for the characters in his novels who are pawns, wittingly and unwittingly, willingly and unwillingly, for the forces which control the world and our lives in it.

His protagonists, like the haunted characters in the novels of David Goodis, for example, commit, in the end, to honorable action and even to love, but it destroys them.  Right from the beginning, from his first novel, Call For The Dead, le Carre is certain of his direction, and the character of George Smiley is introduced, and the figure of Mundt, who features prominently in his taut masterpiece, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  A friend had told me this novel was even better than the film, which I found hard to believe, but it is true. The characters played in the film by Richard Burton and Claire Bloom are portrayed in the novel in a way which make their transformations doomed, and, in the end Alex Leamas, counter-intelligence agent, opts for a humanity, despite the plea of Smiley, the head of "the circus" - MI5, and MI6, the British domestic and foreign spy networks, so called because the headquarters are in Cambridge Circus, a street near London's West End.  But this is no James Bond world; it is a black-and-white nightmare, where nothing is clear, only grey, where goodness is betrayed in the name of national security.      

Smiley suffers personal betrayal in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the le Carre tale adapted into the extraordinary TV series with Alec Guiness as Smiley, and in Smiley's People as well, for which LeCarre wrote the screenplay. (Both these brilliant and engrossing TV program series feature Beryl Reid as "Connie" the Sovietologist who first brought the double agent activities of the "Cambridge five" to light, and who was the first to name Philby as a traitor.) Smiley's deep analytic intelligence and careful commitments allow him to rise above his masters and contemporaries, even if his coldness, his calculating nature and investigative mind and cynical disposition deprive him of his emotions due to love lost (in spite of his maintained loyalty to his country).

Absolute Friends is an exceptionally ambitious novel attempting a kind of overview of what the world is really like when all illusions are shattered. It is a novel reminiscent of Fitzgerald in its precience - the knowledge that the wealthy phillistines have emerged victorious and have left a waste land behind them. Published in 2003, one of the two protagonists, Sacha, le Carre names him, was also the code nickname of Litvinenko, the secret agent who was the first victim of private nuclear terrorism, murdered in London via the ingestion of Polonium 210, in 2006.  An odd literary co-incidence or even a literary misprision (as Harold Bloom might say), but the world created by le Carre, seemingly old fashioned cold war and post cold war, is almost Burroughsian under the surface - a world where, as Burroughs had said (first to Eric Mottram): "A paranoid is a man in possession of all of the facts."  A world where Dr. Benway calls the shots.  A world where politics is for the naive, where people and nations are no longer in control of their destinies, where "no good deed goes unpunished" (Wilde), and where loyalty and friendship and family are consistently undermined, where the male bonding, a kind of Greek agape, between Sacha and the British recruit to the Secret Services, Ted Mundy, must be destroyed, inevitably.  le Carre, despite his distaste for what Britain has become, a nation steeped in secret hypocrisy,  reserves his greatest disdain for the CIA, picturing the shoot first ask questions later attitude of the American empire, as the most extreme form of coarse anti-intellectualism which the author despises, yet never denying its effectivness in the struggle to maintain a kind of "freedom" against overtly dictatorial regimes, and their servants, represented more often than not by the governments behind the old iron curtain.
le Carre was employed as a spy for a time by British intelligence, and a biography is due out in October. Long after Kim Philby was exposed, le Carre was offered a meeting with him by the British secret service, but le Carre (whose cover Philby had blown resulting in le Carre's early retirement from British Intellgience) declined.  In his eighties now, his last two novels, A Perfect Spy (said to be his most autobiographical) and the most recent text, A Delicate Truth, reinforce and further explore earlier obsessions and continue to leave no doubt that to meet betrayal and desperation with a sense of fatalism is the most honest course of action.  Like Hawthorne, there is little light in his books, only a sounding of the darkness of man's heart, and the belated striving of his protagonists to understand and to transcend it.