[Poe] Writers with the last name Ish—.

It would seem that I have a certain proclivity for other writers with a last name starting Ish—. Thinking that Christopher Isherwood as the ubiquitous subject of poe had finally been exhausted, I came back to the beginning and stumbled upon another writer with the same first three letters in his surname, begging comparison to Isherwood and swirling about in my mind recently. This literary mind-quest starts with an account mentioned previously, a few years ago when I was sitting in the Muddy Waters and picked up a tattered copy of Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. I acquired the book that started my passion for Isherwood’s writing, and ultimately the life he lived which informed so much of his work. Somewhere in this initial reading of Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin the old, down and out copy I had found got misplaced, prompting a trip to the library so I could finish these stories. In finding the appropriate area of the fiction section, I found a replacement copy for The Berlin Stories and learned the titles of Isherwood’s other works, yet also noticed his neighbor on the alphabetically aligned shelves: Kazuo Ishiguro.

It turns out that most libraries and bookstores conveniently arrange their books alphabetically, and with my habit of always checking out the Isherwood scene in any library or bookstore in which I find myself (having long since become a devotee of his writings), I find myself saying hello to Ishiguro as well, who is usually sitting just on Isherwood’s left (our right.)

Never having read a hint of his prose, nor having much of an impression beyond having absorbed at some point that The Remains of the Day, a common presence in the otherwise Isherwood-inspired interlude at the shelves, had been morphed into a cinematic adaptation (a process that has sparked my incredulity), I did not keep Ishiguro in mind as a writer to invest reading time in. In no way was this a negative judgment; seeing him regularly next to Isherwood took whatever place Ishiguro might otherwise have occupied on my nebulous, internal list of writings to be read.

With the affordances of a friend’s commode library of leftish magazines, I stumbled upon a review of a similar Ishiguro-to-film transference in Never Let Me Go; and I learned for the first time of the story’s nuanced sinisterness amongst the banality of English schooling. What I now see as Ishiguro’s talent for mixing tropes from across prose forms, which I have come to enjoy as I read more of his work, initially caught my attention for the mixture of science-fiction themes with the realistic and mundane setting. Often feeling satisfied with reading a review of a film over actually viewing it, I did find a place for Never Let Me Go on the grand, above-mentioned list.

Before getting to that reading, a Master’s program exploded all over my life and fully consumed my temporal assets, which allowed little if no personal reading space. However, a literature course on short stories as a global form, taken this past semester, did give me the chance to read my first Ishiguro, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (simply Nocturnes from here on out.) While not loving all of the stories in that collection, I did enjoy two in particular which shared a certain haunting weirdness I have found to be sticking with me in my thoughts, Nocturne (the singular title refers to the collection’s fourth story) and Come Rain or Come Shine. In finally getting to the public library’s copy of Never Let Me Go, I have uncovered for myself more of Ishiguro’s affinity for musical references and styling in his prose, and I feel as though I am gaining a stronger sense of him as a writer and artist. The centrality of music to his work is all the more evident in reading Never Let Me Go after Nocturnes, as they have many striking similarities. There’s a simpler level where names such as Come Rain or Come Shine and Never Let Me Go are the titles of songs which play prominently in their respective narratives. Yet a more nuanced scene is framed with Ishiguro’s twin images of ladies losing themselves in the musical moment. First, Kathy is the subject of the following from Never Let Me Go,

“Maybe the volume had been turned right up by whoever had been using it last, I don’t know. But it was much louder than I usually had it and that was probably why I didn’t hear her before I did. Or maybe I’d just got complacent by then. Anyway, what I was doing was swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast. In fact, to make it all the more embarrassing, it was one of those times I’d grabbed a pillow to stand in for the baby, and I was doing this slow dance, my eyes closed, singing along softly each time those lines came around again: / ‘Oh baby, baby, never let me go…’” (Ishiguro, “Never Let Me Go” 71)

This scene is mirrored in the story Nocturne by Lindy Gardner’s moment of nonlucidness, as she processes her separation from her now ex-husband Tony and goes into a different space with the narrating protagonist actually watching, “After a while, though, I’d stopped paying much attention to the music because there was Lindy in front of me, gone into a kind of dream, dancing slowly to the [Tony’s] song” (Ishiguro, “Nocturnes” 142). Each lady is dancing slowly by herself with different levels of voyeurism going on by another presence, unknown in the first and seemingly known in the second. Both are expressing some sort of disregard for their surroundings in their absorption with their respective music, the first with the inattention to volume and the second with the blatant check out. By reading more of Ishiguro’s work I hope to encounter more of his women characters and their music, in an effort to shed more light on what he is up to with these tropes.

Whereas Ishiguro often invokes music in his writing, Isherwood takes the role of the indifferent camera, having written in his highly autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed” (Isherwood 1). In this mode, we get the vivid prose portraits which Isherwood made a hallmark of his work, and about which I have written about extensively on Octopoe so will not gush over now.

While these two men diverge in their writing around whether music or photography influences their prose style, there is a strange connection to be made between Kathy in Never Let Me Go and the later events of Goodbye to Berlin when a post-abortion Sally Bowles says:

“You know, Chris, in some ways I wish I’d had that kid… It would have been rather marvellous to have had it. The last day or two, I’ve been sort of feeling what it would be like to be a mother. Do you know, last night, I sat here for a long time by myself and held this cushion in my arms and imagined it was my baby? And I felt a most marvellous sort of shut-off feeling from all the rest of the world. I imagined how it’d grow up and how I’d work for it, and how, after I’d put it to bed at nights, I’d go out and make love to filthy old men to get money to pay for its food and clothes… It’s all very well for you to grin like that, Chris… I did really!” (Isherwood 55)

Isherwood and Ishiguro provide us with two young ladies, each lost in a moment of cradling a cushion to her breast as an imaginary baby, neither of them able to have children themselves, Kathy due to her biological preconditions (no spoilers this time around) and Sally because of a metaphorical immaturity and unpreparedness to cope with the actual reality of rearing progeny. Still recovering from the operation which satisfied her desire not to have the child, Sally fickly daydreams about motherhood. She loses herself in the moment, shutting everything out as Kathy did in her own pseudo-maternal slow dance, yet follows up with a quick distancing from this personal tone by impersonalizing her own imagined offspring with the genderless pronoun it. Sally’s description of motherly life does not convey confidence that she actually knows what being a mother would be like.

These young women from the worlds of Ishiguro and Isherwood are losing themselves in the fleeting moments of music, or solitude, which might make one slow down and dance, or mutter the most delicate fantasies. Or sing out the wildest dream. I love the humanity these two writers bring to their prose, and having fallen for Isherwood hope to continue exploring Ishiguro’s works for more of the same. Distractingly, however, I feel my appreciation for Isherwood extends into a complex realm where I have found odd little commonalities between us and have read extensively of his works, crowding out other writers. I now increasingly read the work of his peers as well, namely W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Paul Bowles and Gore Vidal. Upon the release of Tom Ford’s adaptation of Isherwood’s seminal A Single Man, I braced myself emotionally for the worst. However, I absolved Mr. Ford upon seeing the film. Further processing had to occur when I was hanging out in the Park Branch public library down from my apartment on Page Street. I read an interview by The Advocate magazine of Ford, who spoke of his affinity for Isherwood and – the catalyst for crazy – spoke to an experience of having met Isherwood in southern California in his youth. Knowing that Isherwood died in 1986, I will never meet my most revered artistic predecessor. Simply, I was jealous of Ford, yet feeling this allowed for his adoption of Isherwood’s text to spark my own mental disengagement from Isherwood’s literary world, in which I had become enmeshed.

Slowly I am moving away from exclusively reading Isherwood & Friends, even if it is only down the library shelf at Ishiguro. Yet what I have read up to this point is promising, and hope that the recently checked out An Artist of the Floating World, and When We Were Orphans contribute to a new pocket of knowledge in the literary solar system in my head.

Works Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. New York: New Directions, 1935. Print

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. New York: Vintage International, 2009. Print.

A pleasant surprise in film adaptation

As mentioned in a previous post, I often feel a slight twinge of disgust when I learn that literature I treasure is going to be morphed into a film adaptation. It’s not that I dislike the act of doing so as a concept; it’s just that the current body of film adaptations does not instill any hope that new ones will be any good. So imagine the horror and despair I felt when I learned that a former fashion designer (a field for which I do not have much respect) had adapted the most accomplished novel from my most revered writer into a new film?

To my pleasant surprise however, Tom Ford’s rendition of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man was highly enjoyable to watch. And while I reserve some criticism around his choices in bringing this devastating story to the screen, I would recommend it overall, particularly for those of you who enjoy Isherwood’s work. It was refreshing to finally see Colin Firth as George break out of those interminable tethers to his famous presentation of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, which he seemingly represents in nearly all of his roles. Julianne Moore, as George’s boozy British best friend, is also a delight, but that is nothing new.

Ford manages to convey the power of Isherwood’s story: the ordinariness of George’s pain in losing his long time lover, suffocated underneath the cultural conservatism and fear rampant in mid-century America. In doing this, Ford seems to have done just fine with his film. What more can we ask? As originally determined from the film’s trailer, the visuals are stunning. Sometimes it almost reaches the point where I was not sure if I was watching a commercial for high end luxury products or a film. We can forgive Ford his indulgences, for he does give us imagery that is astounding overall and coaxes his actors into fine performances. I thought the New York Times review of the film did very well in comparing Ford’s work to that of Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-Wai.

This adaptation was tastefully done: any changes made to the story seemed natural in the transition from written word to moving screen image. Adding the gun and George’s desire to commit suicide gave the movie some dramatic impetus, which is needed in a film but can be left out of a piece of literature. My one main criticism has to do with the hyper-stylization of the film, even though I did find it gorgeous. Art directed to the maximum effect, Ford seems to pander to the materialistic and consumptive side of our culture in needing to make everything beautiful. The characters seem to be wealthier than represented in the novel, and everyone is so fashionable! But perhaps this is what audiences want to see, why would we want to be reminded of our drab lives? It just rings a little false in comparison to Isherwood’s original story, which was not glamorous. It seems like Ford did a great job of adapting the novel, but in bringing it to the screen put the entire thing before his personal fashion panel: anything that could be made pretty was done up, the whole tableau of visuals fit together too perfectly.

Overall though, the film was a very pleasant surprise from an untested filmmaker, who managed not to crap all over a seminal work in modern queer literature. For this alone, Ford deserves praise. It will certainly be interesting to see what he does next with his new found path. Hopefully this wonderful novel will get a bit more attention now that the publishers have slapped Colin Firth’s mug on the cover for a re-print.

[Poe] Christopher Isherwood on New Year’s Eve

Misfit friends ring in the New Year from a 1930s Berlin nightclub.

Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935)*

[On New Year’s Eve I had supper with my landlady and the other lodgers. I must have been already drunk when I arrived at the Troika, because I remember getting a shock when I looked into the cloakroom mirror and found that I was wearing a false nose. The place was crammed. It was difficult to say who was dancing and who was merely standing up. After hunting about for some time, I came upon Arthur in a corner. He was sitting at a table with another, rather younger gentleman who wore an eyeglass and had sleek dark hair.

“Ah, here you are, William. We were beginning to fear that you’d deserted us. May I introduce two of my most valued friends to each other? Mr. Bradshaw—Baron von Pregnitz.”

The Baron, who was fishy and suave, inclined his head. Leaning towards me, like a cod swimming up through water, he asked:

“Excuse me. Do you know Naples?”

“No. I’ve never been there.”

“Forgive me. I’m sorry. I had the feeling that we’d met each other before.”

“Perhaps so,” I said politely, wondering how he could smile without dropping his eyeglass. It was rimless and ribbonless and looked as though it had been screwed into his pink well-shaved face by means of some horrible surgical operation.

“Perhaps you were at Juan-les-Pins last year?”

“No, I’m afraid I wasn’t.”

“Yes, I see.” He smiled in polite regret. “In that case I must beg your pardon.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said. We both laughed very heartily. Arthur, evidently pleased that I was making a good impression on the Baron, laughed too. I drank a glass of champagne off at a gulp. A three-man band was playing: Gruss’ mir mein Hawai, ich bleib’ Dir treu, ich hab’ Dich gerne. The dancers, locked frigidly together, swayed in partial-paralytic rhythms under a huge sunshade suspended from the ceiling and oscillating gently through cigarette smoke and hot rising air.

“Don’t you find it a trifle stuffy in here?” Arthur asked anxiously.

In the windows were bottles filled with coloured liquids brilliantly illuminated from beneath, magenta, emerald, vermilion. They seemed to be lighting up the whole room. The cigarette smoke made my eyes smart until the tears ran down my face. The music kept dying away, then surging up fearfully loud. I passed my hand down the shiny black oil-cloth curtains in the alcove behind my chair. Oddly enough, they were quite cold. The lamps were like alpine cowbells. And there was a fluffy white monkey perched above the bar. In another moment, when I had drunk exactly the right amount of champagne, I should have a vision. I took a sip. And now, with extreme clarity, without passion or malice, I saw what Life really is. It had something, I remember, to do with the revolving sunshade. Yes, I murmured to myself, let them dance. They are dancing. I am glad.

“You know, I like this place. Extraordinarily,” I told the Baron with enthusiasm. He did not seem surprised.

Arthur was solemnly stifling a belch.

“Dear Arthur, don’t look so sad. Are you tired?”

“No, not tired, William. Only a little contemplative, perhaps. Such an occasion as this is not without its solemn aspect. You young people are quite right to enjoy yourselves. I don’t blame you for a moment. One has one’s memories.”

“Memories are the most precious things we have,” said the Baron with approval. As intoxication proceeded, his face seemed slowly to disintegrate. A rigid area of paralysis formed round the monocle. The monocle was holding his face together. He gripped it desperately with his facial muscles, cocking his disengaged eyebrow, his mouth sagging slightly at the corners, minute beads of perspiration appearing along the parting of his thin, satin-smooth dark hair. Catching my eye, he swam up towards me, to the surface of the element which seemed to separate us.

“Excuse me, please. May I ask you something?”

“By all means.”

“Have you read Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne?”

“Yes, I have.”

“And tell me, please, how did you like it?”

“Very much indeed.”

“Then I am very glad. Yes, so did I. Very much.”

And now we were all standing up. What had happened? It was midnight. Our glasses touched.

“Cheerio,” said the Baron, with the air of one who makes a particularly felicitous quotation.

“Allow me,” said Arthur, “to wish you both every success and happiness in nineteen thirty-one. Every success…” His voice trailed off uneasily into silence. Nervously he fingered his heavy fringe of hair. A tremendous crash exploded from the band. Like a car which has slowly, laboriously reached the summit of the mountain railway, we plunged headlong downwards into the New Year.]

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Christopher Isherwood will not be the overbearing subject of poe continuously, but due to my mild infatuation with his writings, there is a wide range of material from which to draw. As the Gregorian New Year is upon us, this selection is rather apt. On the first reading of Mr. Norris Changes Trains, this passage stood out. For my holiday vacation reading selection**, I had chosen to indulge the above mentioned infatuation by rereading Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and came across this familiar passage and delighted in its symmetry with the time of year and whimsical imagery.

This scene of New Year’s revelry takes place early in the novel, and we have only just met Arthur Norris, a character who develops fascinatingly throughout the narrative. This is also our first glimpse of Baron von Pregnitz, who goes by Kuno for much of the novel, and it is one of our first animal-referenced physical descriptions which Isherwood employs so well in his vivid character portraits. Kuno is fishy and suave, like a cod, often “swimming” through his surroundings. My favorite brief moment in this excerpt is,

“Catching my eye, he swam up towards me, to the surface of the element which seemed to separate us.”

The image is so simple but evocative in my mind, I can just picture the man oozing in to ask William his question. (William is in fact supposed to be Isherwood himself.) The slow degradation of their evening is also very humourous, and gives us other silly descriptions of the Baron, most amusingly in reference to that monocle! It practically holds his otherwise drooping and drunk face together. Even in a drunken stupor, Kuno can muster the strength of will to hold that glass to his eye.

As we all move into our New Year’s Eve celebrations, we can draw parallels to Isherwood’s experience described here. In a drunken moment of clarity, he realizes some sort of epiphany on the meaning of it all, only to have us realize his drunken visions are quite silly. We may have all been in a place where drink or other intoxicants deliver truth to us, no? There is the sentimentality of the New Year as well, which we sometimes feel on this auspicious time of year, just like Arthur. And we are reminded that time will keep on chugging, just like that train steaming over the hill into Isherwood’s new year. We can pause, celebrate and reflect, but that dive into the future is inevitable.

*Mr. Norris Changes Trains was published in the United States as The Last of Mr. Norris, due to a recommendation from Isherwood’s publisher, who assumed Americans would not understand the concept of changing trains, as we used the terminology to transfer trains. Isherwood tells us in one of his autobiographies that this was a grave mistake as it only led to confusion amongst his readers and a lifetime of having to clarify this point. Usually, this story is combined with Goodbye to Berlin in the collected volume commonly known as The Berlin Stories.

**In relation to my previous post, I also brought along the collected works of Paul Bowles, amongst several other items which realistically will not be read due to the rough realities of time.

[Travelogue] Get on the train

When having to move from here to there with the distance not being practical for your own two feet to carry you, trains are a delightful alternative. More passive than piloting your own automobile through the cosmos of spacey drivers out on the endless roads, riding the train can lend some quiet meditative space. Unlike the droning, stale-aired tube that is modern air travel, one can often move more freely on a railed vessel, not to mention exit entirely. Waiting for the next stop is usually the best option for getting off, but if one simply must exit with haste – let us say due to being chased amidst intrigue, attempting survival in light of burning or exploding carriage, et cetera – the likelihood of landing in one piece is better when jumping from a train than an airplane. You are afforded the experience of sensing the progression in movement of your journey across the landscape when you ride a train as well. Underground lines can be a little noisy, crowded, and potentially stiflingly hot; but subways are often fast and convenient, being located in dense urban centers which suffuse them with practical use and influence over lifestyle and terrain, both in formation and identity.

It is certainly much easier to engage in conversation when riding on a train, as you are not focused on navigating your individual wheeled metal box. Riding trains in France brought many delightful encounters and different contexts in which to practice the language. I met a young woman who watched my friends and I play cards, claiming she had no idea what our game was, asking to have the rules explained and to be included on the next round. After a brief tutorial, this young lady was dealt a hand of cards, and she proceeded to trounce us all within a single round of cards, behaving most politely and modestly the entire time. We knew a ringer, and stopped playing. My friend met a charming music performer on one of our trips through France, and his promotional posters adorned our future apartment windows in Santa Cruz. The past few years I have celebrated the winter holiday season by splitting time between the Los Angeles and the San Diego areas, and I have been making an enjoyed and anticipated tradition of taking the train from Union Station. This past year I unexpectedly ran into one of my own ESL students from San Francisco in my compartment, and we ended up sitting in the same quadrant of seats and conversing about our travels.

Some very interesting written representations occur on trains, getting us into the field of travel narratives. Christopher Isherwood opens his novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains with the meeting between his neutral protagonist and the infamous Arthur Norris while they are sharing a compartment crossing Europe. Isherwood and his close friend and writing peer W.H. Auden, a poet, left a record of a very interesting conversation shared while riding a train. They had been commissioned to write a travelogue and journalistic account of the war between China and Japan during the 1930s, which gave us their combined work, Journey to a War.  We get this image of them sharing a train journey in this excerpt:

“Thrown back upon each other’s well-worn company, we got through the long hours as we could best contrive—emptying out our heads like waste-paper baskets for the least scrap of amusement or interest. We told the old anecdotes, each secretly hoping that the other would remember or invent some new detail, however palpably untrue. We improvised parodies and limericks. We lost ourselves in interminable arguments and speculations: ‘What would happen if the world ran out of oil?’ ‘What would you describe as the unhappiest day of your life?’ ‘Does a man become a different person in a different place?”

The time and space the train travel gives us is a good time for conversation, and can yield interesting material in allowing so much space for discourse as you may only have conversation or sleep between you and a long journey. The speculations above are definitely interesting. Is it not absolutely disconcerting that a pair of intellectuals were casually discussing the ramifications of reaching peak oil in the 1930s? Are we different people when we travel? Who are we when we lose the surroundings, routine and acquiantances who help define who we are in our space? It is interesting to consider the conversation above, our own social place riding on trains contemporarily, and the potential future place of trains as we attempt to mitigate the affects of climate change, let alone game changers like peak oil.

The book to movie cringe

To be truthful, I usually frown upon most literary narratives transitioned into film, as I feel that in their essence the two media are not capable of telling stories satisfactorily in a mutual way. Of course, each is enjoyed thoroughly by many people and independently of one another in their own contexts. Apparently having demonstrated our appetite for these adaptation films, numerous examples have been produced and actually make up a sizable portion of the overall mainstream film output. But gawd, aren’t most of them absolutely terrible?

Do you remember when they tried to make Philip Pullman’s interesting and severe His Dark Materials into a film franchise with lots of lights, money and beautiful hollywood faces? (And rightly failed to do so) Zzz. Not all productions from literature to film are so hideous. Peter Jackson allegedly scraped by with his rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings. But in the wise words of the character Val Goldman from the film The Birdcage — “Don’t add, just subtract.” — Jackson’s film seems replete with images that could have been spent on more accurately transitioning Tolkien’s detailed and simple narrative. But even the sage advice above does not always hold, demonstrated by the adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, made by Clint Eastwood, of all people. He embellished the role of The Lady Chablis, enriching and poking the story into interesting places, a rare example of a filmmaker adding some queerness to one’s work. Overall, it seems to be varied on how well the transition is made, depending on who does the work.

So I will admit that a cringe was elicited upon realization that the previously seen but unidentified film poster at the Kabuki theater* in San Francisco was in fact an advertisement for an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. My evidence was found in this article from the NY Times. My love for Isherwood’s written works led me to masochistically devour the article and rush to the web for the trailer. The former designer turned film auteur Tom Ford gives us a version featuring credible performers, if clearly altered (clear from the article and online trailer) and looking to lean towards high drama. Isherwood’s novel is subtle as it is emotional and devastating; it will be interesting to see if Mr. Ford can stew these down into a visual and moving cinematic experience without serving us something overcooked, drowned in a flavor of Ford’s own publicity and ego. I hope to be proven utterly wrong**, and see the delightful balance that can exist between two executions in form of a single original story. Here’s to optimism.

What will certainly be interesting to see is how much attention Isherwood the writer and his collective works receive in the release and attention around Ford’s film. Sometimes this can actually be the undoing of a piece of literature, at least in its mass-produced and marketed life. We have all seen the paperback transposed with movie poster at our local box bookstore. They have the ability to drain a lot of goodness from what would otherwise be a pleasant book experience, but should one complain if more people are reading said book? More people reading Isherwood’s writings is a great step in itself as they tend to be underread.

*I was there seeing another book to movie transition, the Wes Anderson directed spin on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I found to be wonderful. But I have the benefit of not having read Dahl’s original (to be rectified soon thanks to the San Francisco Public Library), so did not have to suffer the burden of comparing.

**I feel my interest in Isherwood will compel me to see Ford’s film. At least it will be worth comparing to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, which is based on Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

[Poe] Paul Bowles from the desert

Reflexive cultural expressions stoke the Franco-American flame.

Excerpt from: Paul BOWLES, The Sheltering Sky (1949)

[She was late that noon, and when she arrived she was in a breathless state because Corporal Dupeyrier had stopped her near the Zaouia and given her a very important message for him. It was a matter of a foreigner, an American, who had lost his passport.

“An American?” echoed the lieutenant. “In Bou Noura?” Yes, said Jacqueline. He was here with his wife, they were at Abdelkader’s pension (which was the only place they could have been, since it was the only hostelry of any sort in the region), and they had already been in Bou Noura several days. She had even seen the gentleman: a young man.

“Well,” said the lieutenant, “I’m hungry. How about a little rice today? Have you time to prepare it?”

“Ah, yes, monsieur. But he told me to tell you that it is important you see the American today.”

“What are you talking about? Why should I see him? I can’t find his passport for him. When you go back to the Mission, pass by the Poste and tell Corporal Dupeyrier to tell the American he must go to Algiers, to his consul. If he doesn’t already know it,” he added.

Ah, ce n’est pas pour ça! It’s because he accused Monsieur Abdelkader of stealing the passport.”

“What?” roared the lieutenant, sitting up.

“Yes. He went yesterday to file a complaint. And Monsieur Abdelkader says that you will oblige him to retract it. That’s why you must see him today.” Jacqueline, obviously delighted with the degree of reaction, went into the kitchen and began to rattle the utensils loudly. She was carried away by the idea of her importance.

The lieutenant slumped back into his bed and fell to worrying. It was imperative that the American be induced to withdraw his accusation, not only because Abdelkader was an old friend of his, and was quite incapable of stealing anything whatever, but particularly because he was one of the best known and highly esteemed men of Bou Noura. As proprietor of the inn he maintained close friendships with the chauffeurs of all the buses and trucks that passed through the territory; in the Sahara these are important people. Assuredly there was not one of them who at one time or another had not asked for, and received, credit from Abdelkader on his meals and lodgings; most of them had even borrowed money from him. For an Arab he was amazingly trusting and easy-going about money, both with Europeans and with his compatriots, and everyone liked him for it. Not only was it unthinkable that he should have stolen the passport—it was just as unthinkable that he should be formally accused of such a thing. For that reason the corporal was right. The complaint must be retracted immediately. “Another stroke of bad luck,” he thought. “Why must he be an American?” With a Frenchman he would have known how to go about persuading him to do it without any unpleasantness. But with an American! Already he could see him: a gorilla-like brute with a fierce frown on his face, a cigar in the corner of his mouth, and probably an automatic in his hip pocket. Doubtless no complete sentences would pass between them because neither one would be able to understand enough of the other’s language. He began trying to recall his English: “Sir, I must to you, to pray that you will—” “My dear sir, please I would make to you remark—” Then he remembered having heard that Americans did not speak English in any case, that they had a patois which only they could understand among themselves. The most unpleasant part of the situation to him was the fact that he would be in bed, while the American would be free to roam about the room, would enjoy all the advantages, physical and moral.

He groaned a little as he sat up to eat the soup Jacqueline had brought him. Outside the wind was blowing and the dogs of the nomad encampment up the road were barking; if the sun had not been shining so brightly that the moving palm branches by the window gleamed like glass, for a moment he would have said it was the middle of the night—the sounds of the wind and the dogs would have been exactly the same. He ate his lunch; when Jacqueline was ready to leave he said to her: “You will go to the Poste and tell Corporate Dupeyrier to bring the American here at three o’clock. He himself is to bring him, remember.”

Oui, oui,” she said, still in a state of acute pleasure. If she had missed out on the infanticide, at least she was in on the new scandal at the start.]

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Paul Bowles gives us a haunting narrative with The Sheltering Sky, and his nimble prose conveys an alluring sense of time and place, one which sort of ends up with misunderstandings and despair.* Aiming for a lighter slice of the novel, we will reflect on the scene above, in which Bowles gives us his representation of the French colonial administrator meeting the American tourist. Inevitably the familiar coals of the long smoldering Franco-American fire are stirred, and we get the American Bowles writing a Frenchman thinking of an American—to amusing affects.

This excerpt comes in the middle of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, when the three American protagonists – Port and Kit Moresby, married, and the so-called third wheel Tunner – are well along their portentous journey into the Sahara. Historically and geographically speaking, the text alludes to Tangier, a city where Port, “heard all three of the town’s tongues: Arabic, Spanish and French,” in what now constitutes the modern state of Morocco. A giant swathe of north, west, and central Africa was certainly politically and militarily administered by France for much of the past two centuries in an imperial context, explaining the presence there of any French people and assorted westerners at all. Tangier itself was technically considered an international zone, administered by France and several other European colonizers, giving the city a very interesting vibe with international émigrés—much like Bowles himself, who lived in Tangier for many years of his life.** The desert, and not to mention Africa, has certainly been a source of mystery, misunderstanding and misplaced romance for much of the Western experience. Interestingly, Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky on location in Morocco.

Bowles’ Lieutenant d’Armagnac, the character speaking to Jacqueline in the above scene, is the commander of Bou Noura, a small regional post in the desert along traditional transportation routes. He is the typical French colonial, abroad as gendarme, doctor, missionary or teacher. The above excerpt is actually just a portion of the brief eighteenth chapter of The Sheltering Sky, in which we meet this young Frenchman living a comfortable lifestyle, relatively benevolent and ambivalent (at least in his own view) about the indigenous peoples: the Arabs, the Berbers and the many other transitory desert peoples of North Africa. We meet Lieutenant d’Armagnac as the formerly popular, bed-ridden and scandalized big fish in the pond; he is demoralized due to the scandal causing transgressions and their repercussions earlier in the chapter. When American tourists arrive in Bou Noura and subsequently manage to ruffle local feathers of more than one plumage, we have Bowles’ humorous and somewhat conventional French perception on American travelers in response.

Having missed the earlier scandal, Jacqueline is eager to be the bearer of relative misfortune to a calmly dismissive lieutenant. It is not until Jacqueline informs the lieutenant of the Port’s faux pas against Monsieur Abdelkader, and thus the demonstration of his American lack of savoir-vivre as tourist to these parts of the world (as opposed to colonial ruler?), that the sparks truly start to fly. Soon Lieutenant d’Armagnac is considering his confrontation with the American, with that exaggerated gulf between Gallic reason and Anglo-Saxon barbarity a clear sign of ill luck.

The image the lieutenant gives us is comic, but tinges with relevancy on the reference to, “an automatic in his hip pocket,” as the possession of weapons exasperatingly remains in our contemporary American discourse. The most delight comes with his discouragement around being able to communicate at all, and the attempt to recall his own English. The traditional antagonism flares most brightly with the hilarious,

“Then he remembered having heard that Americans did not speak English in any case, that they had a patois which only they could understand among themselves.”

Class distinctions are embedded in the term patois, and the thought around how this weaves into Bowles’ larger narrative of cross cultural ignorance is quite fun. The story has many westerners journeying into the desert looking for a lacking element to their lives, but come across an empty void in their own vapid misunderstanding of place and context. Bowles layers in characters and their corresponding prejudices to enrich the narrative, giving us this familiar Franco-American tinder. Bowles gently stokes this long running fire between cultural cousins to perhaps call out both as joined in their profound otherness in a place so foreign and understandably, if passively, hostile to them as exploiters.

Lieutenant d’Armagnac frets over his adversarial disadvantage, and eventually sends Jacqueline – delighted with involvement – to retrieve the American. Overall, the short glimpse we have of the lieutenant’s expressions around American tourists is one of several intertwined cross-cultural misunderstandings that Bowles uses to demonstrate the power and severity of that lack of comprehension while inevitably one is joined with all under the sheltering sky. This single example is a humorous reminder of the similarities and conceptualizations that people in both France and America share, and one American’s play on those ideas to add to his overall affect in writing. There is a fine line between mutual cultural questioning and antagonism, but Bowles certainly gives us a tame example. Nobody is being branded a complete coward, or an uncouth beast; certainly no foods are being renamed.

The entirety of The Sheltering Sky is highly interesting and makes for an intense overall read. It is obviously recommended here, and should be available at your local public library branch.

Camels have nothing to do with this post, but do feature in Bowles’ narrative, so are appropriate.

*Michael Ondaatje also gives us a doomed pair of westerners in the romantic and tragic deserts of North Africa, in The English Patient.

**Christopher Isherwood was a friend of Paul Bowles, and he gives a brief account in Christopher and His Kind (subject of the 11/20/09, [Litpoe]) of visiting Bowles in Tangier with hashish inspired infamy. The incident is elaborated upon in the contemporary film, Chris & Don: A Love Story. Gore Vidal was also a friend of Bowles, and visited him in Tangier, as described in Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest.

A zaouia is the Maghrebi and West African term for an Islamic religious school and/or monastery, roughly corresponding with the word madrassa.

[Poe] Christopher Isherwood on New York

Impressions of New York from a literary émigré.

Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939 (1976)

[At the end of Christopher’s brief visit in 1938, he had felt absolutely confident of one thing, at least. If he did decide to settle in America – and, by America, he meant New York – he would be able to make himself at home there. This, he said to himself, was a setting in which his public personality would function more freely, more successfully than it could ever have functioned in London. Oh, he’d talk faster and louder than any of the natives. He’d pick up their slang and their accent. He’d learn all their tricks. Someone had repeated to him a saying about the city: “Here you’ll find sympathy in the dictionary and everything else at the nearest drugstore.” This delighted him. He had accepted it as a challenge to be tough.

But now New York, on that bitter winter morning, appeared totally, shockingly transformed from the place he had waved goodbye to, the previous July. Christopher experienced a sudden panicky loss of confidence.

There they stood in the driving snow – the made-in-France Giantess with her liberty torch, which now seemed to threaten, not welcome, the newcomer; and the Red Indian island with its appalling towers. There was the Citadel–stark, vertical, gigantic, crammed with the millions who had already managed to struggle ashore and find a foothold. You would have to fight your way inland from your very first step onto the pier. Already, it was threatening you with its tooting tugboats, daring you to combat.

God, what a terrifying place this suddenly seemed! You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World, aggressively flaunting its rude steel nudity. We’re Americans here–and we keep at it, twenty-four hours a day, being Americans. We scream, we grab, we jostle. We’ve no time for what’s slow, what’s gracious, what’s nice, quiet, modest. Don’t you come snooting us with your European traditions–we know the mess they’ve got you into. Do things our way or take the next boat back–back to your Europe that’s falling apart at the seams. Well, make up your mind. Are you quitting or staying? It’s no skin off our nose. We promise nothing. Here, you’ll be on your own.

Christopher, trying hard to think positive thoughts, declared that he was staying. But the Giantess wasn’t impressed. The towers didn’t care. Okay, Buster, suit yourself.]

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The New Directions first edition paperback.

I came across my first copy of Christopher Isherwood’s combined narrative, The Berlin Stories, in what had been Muddy Waters, on Valencia at Twenty-Fourth. I grabbed it because it was extremely weathered; much of the binding was crumbling apart, the pages were well worn, and mysterious greenish blue splotches had soaked across various surfaces of the book—the New Directions first edition paperback. I was living in the Mission studio at the time, and it sat on my bookshelf for a long time. Many books tend to get picked up, many go on the shelf, and they are slowly read. Isherwood’s name surely appeared on some list somewhere, in the words of some critic elsewhere, or off the lips of some teaching assistant or professor whereby my notion of having him on the long list of works to be read originated in the first place. My friend Laura had occasion to be at the studio, pick up the book, and read enough to tell me about some alternative sex mentioned in the text, bringing an immediate peak in interest. Starting The Berlin Stories, I quickly felt engaged with the first of the composite narratives, Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood’s self-proclaimed parlour socialism, characters, and charming prose fed this initial enthusiasm. Not long after this, I put the book down in a waiting room and forgot to pick it back up, perhaps appropriately. Upon returning the next week, it was gone. Desperate to press on, I turned to the public library. Finishing The Berlin Stories, I have since read my way down the shelf of Isherwood’s books, and found his works to be delightful to read, well-written, and inspiring ever since.

Having long thought about Isherwood’s writings, and my own journey as a writer, I have noticed clear rousers of this predilection for Christopher Isherwood. He is often noted and celebrated as a prominent gay writer. He was a student of languages; travelling frequently and with relish, Isherwood eventually lived more of his life out of his home country than in it. His political tones tinged perfectly in my aspirant leftist ears. He blends the autobiographical details and moments with fictional storytelling in his prose, creating a sense of intimacy as you grow familiar with him as mere vessel for his cast of misfit characters. I find myself having much affinity for Isherwood himself, and his model as writer. His autobiographies are excellent too, and he had many interesting peers whom I have grown to appreciate as well.

Reading Christopher and His Kind was a great experience, as my love for Isherwood’s work had long since developed. Upon visiting friends in New York and walking through Manhattan, I came upon a $4.55 first edition hardcover copy of Christopher and His Kind at Housing Works. Snatching it up, I burned through it over the course of the long weekend, and came upon the excerpt above en route back to San Francisco. What can I say; I love New York as only one raised in the northern suburban sprawl of Los Angeles can do. New York is noise while the sprawl is silence. I love Isherwood’s quick image of New York: one that begins with confidence, but fades in the face of the city. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time on the same trip, and felt for the first time that I saw the city, in that grand visual where the city is unfathomably large and seething with action, regardless of you, your thoughts, your intentions or needs. His description becomes cold and alarming, just as the stark wall of the city is cold and alarming in its sheer scale and rigidness. Sometimes I feel similar feelings, to a lesser degree, passing from either the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. But New York feels alive, whereas San Francisco feels quaint once over that bridge. (To qualify, San Francisco does have a very special place in my heart.) I love when Isherwood says,

“You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World…”

as I enjoy the pulse and energy of the denser urban center, and identify with these words in particular.  The subways of New York, while sometimes decrepit and rotting, convey a time and usage to me that speaks to its value as space and art in itself. When you are walking the tunnels (so delightfully reminiscent of the passages in subway systems like the Parisian Métro) or waiting at the platform, you can sense the city humming, feel the heat from the metropolis radiating over you in the yellowish subterranean electric light.

In the end, it turns out Isherwood ended up choosing the coast of southern California, and not New York, as his home in this country. He lived, taught writing, and wrote many of his later works while living in that Los Angeles sprawl mentioned above—including most notably the poetic representations of mid-century Los Angeles in A Single Man.* I have thought myself confident and bold enough to pick my life up and continue it in New York. I too would throw myself into the throng, elbow into the stream of the city’s life, and be present for all that the city could throw me. However, against the reality of moving to a new place that possesses much harsher weather and a frightful cost of living, my own confidence ebbs as well. At this point, I certainly hope that I myself do not live out my days in Los Angeles, merely because I have already spent eighteen years worth of them in that one place. As Isherwood was born and lived his early life in England but moved west to finish it in Los Angeles, maybe I can do the opposite and work my way gradually eastward from a childhood spent in outer Los Angeles, through San Francisco and onto New York, and eventually to London?

*A novel dedicated to the spectacular Gore Vidal, another writer whose work I admire highly. Vidal is also the author of a particularly good essay on Christopher and His Kind, in his collection: Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings.