Charles Portis, Norwood
Arkansas’s Charles Portis, most famous as the author of True Grit, died on February 17. Also in February, COVID-19 was spreading around the world.
Of these two facts, the first calls for memorialization. The second calls for therapeutic laughter. The best way of meeting both needs at once is to read Portis’s first novel, Norwood (1966; also serialized with some minor differences in The Saturday Evening Post). The book is an American Odyssey, as are also, in different ways, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For that reason, though the Coen brothers brought Portis’s True Grit to the screen (for the second time), you hear almost as much of Portis in the Coens’ own Odyssey, otherwise known as O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Readers and viewers will notice this particularly in the dialogue, which sparkles with hilarity in both Norwood and O Brother, and brings to life regional dialects of American English for the edification of a perhaps largely unfamiliar audience. One wonders (or, at least, I do) if the Coens already had Portis on the brain long before True Grit.
No spoilers—but there is canned meat (“It’s all meat. Meat is meat. Have you ever eat any squirrel brains?” “No, how are they?” “About like calf brains. They’re not bad if you don’t think about it.”); there is a midget (“I told you a lie a minute ago. I am not actually the world’s smallest perfect man. Not any more. I do have reason to believe I am the world’s smallest perfect fat man.” What happened? “I let my appetite run away with me…. Well, the upshot was, they took away my billing as World’s Smallest Perfect Man and gave it to a little goon who calls himself Bumblebee Billy. I ask you! Bumblebee Billy! All his fingers are like toes.”); and there is a chicken (“This ain’t a regular chicken. I wouldn’t be carrying just a plain chicken around.”). Augustine says that no one easily laughs when he is alone; it takes something especially funny to make him do so. That is true enough. This book does the trick.
Isaac Asimov, Foundation
After Norwood, I decided I wanted something that would engage the imagination in a different—and, admittedly, more escapist—way. I’d long heard about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series from fans of science fiction. I don’t read much sci-fi, but thought I would give the first book (Foundation, 1951, most of it having appeared already as short stories in Astounding Science Fiction) a try. I’m glad I did. Asimov said that he was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Gibbon-as-Muse is palpable. Indeed, the book is Gibbon in outer space, but with more nuclear power. Political intrigue and conspiratorial machinations combined with the ability to travel through hyperspace—what’s not to like? Read this novel to see how civilizations decline and are born again. As a bonus, get a glimpse of early versions of the smartphone.
The series started as a trilogy, and Asimov later added further sequels and prequels. I intend, on the recommendation of a physicist friend, at least to read the rest of the original trilogy, and perhaps also Asimov’s I, Robot.
George and Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody
After finishing Foundation, I wanted something funny again. (The world is collapsing, after all.) I had put out a request on Twitter for comic novels, and Anthony Sacramone suggested several. I hope eventually to get to some of the others, but the one to which I had easiest access, because it is in the public domain, was George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892; previously serialized in Punch), which Evelyn Waugh in 1930 called “the funniest book in the world.… Nobody wants to read other people’s reflections on life and religion and politics, but the routine of their day, properly recorded, is always interesting, and will become more so as conditions change with the years.” Waugh liked the book enough for it to show up in Brideshead Revisited.
But enough about Waugh, and more about Nobody.
The Diary of a Nobody recounts the haps and mishaps of an arriviste middle-class London family called the “Pooters” (yes, that is their name) in the late nineteenth century, many of which involve their friends Cummings and Gowing. A very different social milieu, then, from that of Jeeves and Wooster, but hilarious in its own way all the same. This gently satirical account of middle-class climbers is the deep ancestor of many sitcoms, such as the delightful Keeping Up Appearances. Indeed, despite its form as a diary, The Diary of a Nobody often feels like a sitcom, in the best possible way.
Pat Barker, Regeneration
A few years ago I discovered a latent love for historical fiction. I don’t know why it took me so long. “Late have I loved thee,” etc., I suppose. But during our current period of stop-motion life, I read Pat Barker’s Regeneration, of which I had picked up a used copy in January while the buzz about 1917 was still buzzing. I saw 1917, as well as finally getting around to They Shall Not Grow Old (the latter in particular was stunning). But I didn’t sit down to read the book—until now.
My favorite piece of twentieth-century historical fiction about the twentieth century (though I am in every respect a neophyte) is Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. After finishing Regeneration, that remains the case.
But that is not because Regeneration is a bad book. Far from it. Regeneration is, like All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel—sort of. “Sort of,” because unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, all of the action takes place in England and Scotland in 1917, away from the war. But the war is nevertheless experienced as it is remembered by the patients in Craiglockhart War Hospital, which used during the war for the treatment of psychiatric patients, that is, those suffering from “shell-shock” and other neuroses. The novel mostly revolves around the relationship between soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, who both fought in and protested against the war, and anthropologist-cum-psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers, who treated him. (Robert Graves also has a notable role in the story.) One gets a good sense of the way in which Freudian analysis was used at the time to treat mental trauma, as well as more physically intrusive measures such as electric shock.
A distinctly modern progressive agenda pokes through from time to time, often in ways that are not as subtle and unobtrusive as seems to have been intended by the author. These, however, are only a minor distraction. And sometimes they are salutary: I think particularly of the way in which stiff-upper-lip ideals of masculinity are put underneath the surgical light to anatomize the consequences that result from the repression of painful emotional experiences. Here, a broader historical perspective is useful. For there is nothing inherently “manly” about the stifling of the emotions. Achilles wept. So did Jesus. The book, therefore, provides opportunity for reflection on how social expectations shape our conceptions of the essence of manhood, and how they might be distorting. Barker deserves credit for doing this with deftness. For she never subjects the notions of honor and duty—also crucial to masculine ideals in the same period—to mockery, but rather treats them (as they should be treated) with respect. Honor and duty are not incompatible with deep emotional experience.
The most enjoyable part of the book deals with the (not fictitious) collaboration between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in revising Owen’s poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Lovers of poetry will find it both gratifying and illuminating.
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
The Martian Chronicles is Bradbury’s first novel—although it’s not really a novel, as Bradbury himself noted.
What is it, then? Well, it is a collection of stories, many of which had been published previously. But it is not just a grab-bag; it is more than that. I was having a hard time determing what, exactly, I thought it was, though, as I was reading it to my kids. (It’s not really a children’s book, so this was perhaps an error in judgment on my part, though they seemed to like it well enough.) As I was saying, I was having a hard time classifying it, until I went back, once I had almost finished the book, and read Bradbury’s own introduction, written decades after the book’s publication. Discussing his early difficulty in writing “future tales,” he says:
“It was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio that set me free. Sometime in my twentieth-fourth year, I was stunned by its dozen characters living their lives on half-lit porches and in sunless attics of that always autumn town. ‘Oh, Lord,’ I cried. ‘If I could write a book half as fine as this, but set it on Mars, how incredible that would be!’”
That gave me the key I needed. I have long loved Winesburg, Ohio, and as soon as I read Bradbury’s comparison, the “novel”— both in terms of genre and of “feel”—clicked into place: Bradbury as another—doubtless very different—Sherwood Anderson.
The Martian Chronicles is stylistically sui generis, and includes numerous “long night visions, predawn half-dreams.” There are passages of astounding lyrical beauty, the loveliness of which one can grasp only by reading them out loud. As Bradbury comments, The Martian Chronicles has instances of the “half-poem, half-prose paragraph,” though not infrequently the balance tilts toward the poetic.
Perceptive early readers—though there weren’t many of them— recognized the book’s poetry. One such reader was Christopher Isherwood, who introduced Bradbury to Aldous Huxley. Huxley asked him, “Do you know what you are? You are a poet.” Bradbury said, “I’ll be damned.” Huxley replied, “No, blessed.”
The book is usually classed as “science fiction,” though that’s not what it is, as Bradbury himself noted. It has sometimes been called “anti-science-fiction,” though I don’t think it is that, either. I suppose one could lazily describe it as a Luddite anti-technology screed, but that would make one, well, lazy, as well as wrong. Are machines misused in the book? Absolutely, and with disastrous results. But the problem is always the people more than it is the machines. And that, it seems to me, is what The Martian Chronicles is really about: human nature, whether on this planet or any other.
That’s all for now. Depending on how long this keeps up, there may be more. It is true, of course, that at some point quarantine must end. But books are a good companion in the meantime.
So if you can’t go anywhere, let anywhere come to you. That’s what books are for.
Eric Hutchinson is associate professor of classics and chairman of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College.