Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Great Writers Roundtable

Seated at a café table outside, we find a trio huddled against the cold, peering out at the dying day from under a cloud of tobacco smoke. Albert Camus poses "No man is an island?" His The Stranger is a must-read for anyone who has had doubts about the truth of that observation. The effect of reading the detached doings of the alienated Mersault is hard to describe — disconcerting, horrifying, freeing? It might be said that much of who you are could be judged on what you ultimately make of this absurdist masterwork, so re-read it down the road to see who you've become. If this seems a bit daunting, The Fall, which looks at who is guilty and who, if anyone, is not, is a great place to start with Camus, who maintained that the only real question of philosophy is whether or not we should kill ourselves. Think about it. Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea is the complementary read. In the story of Roquentin, a scholar who suddenly finds his life coming loose of its conventional moorings, Sartre grapples with profound doubts such as "Is this all there is? What if life doesn't mean anything? What if there is no God?" and reaches unsettling but ultimately liberating conclusions. Stepping beyond all those writers whose main point seems to be that life is absurd, Sartre and Camus both seem to say "Let's assume it is absurd. Now what?" If you've ever wondered what "existentialist" or "absurdist" means, these books go a long way toward explaining, as will Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins, a novel based on the lives of Camus, Sartre, and other French intellectuals reassessing the world in the wake of WWII. Beauvoir — who wrote the unvarnished roman à clef right after finishing her pre-feminist landmark The Second Sex — brings a welcome social and political dimension to the postwar intellectual ferment, as well as an all-too-rare woman's perspective to the philosophic boys' club.

At another table, a tight little knot of men in black coats chain smoke, read the papers, and comment to one another on the state of the world. Joseph Roth shows Thomas Mann an article on the next big war, saying "I ask you!" Robert Musil holds up an op-ed piece on the decline of civilization, saying "What's more . . .", and Milan Kundera shrugs expressively, indicating he's not at liberty to comment. Between The Radetzky March, The Magic Mountain, The Man Without Qualities, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, these fellows have seen it all, thought it all, and said it all, and yet the world goes careening madly onward. Eventually these four join the existentialists to listen in on the intense exchange of a motley trio of derelict-looking fellows at the next table over.

Some say it all starts here: Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Written in 1864, the unforgettable disjointed observations of the self-despising, desperately human Underground Man seem way ahead of their time, anticipating the existentialists' rejection of reason, sentiment and story. "I think, therefore I am?" Yeah, right. Readers who catch Dostoyevsky's vital fever will want to proceed immediately to Crime and Punishment, the ultimate story of one man's daring, horrible transgression of man's primal law, and a riveting psychological thriller to boot. Dostoyevsky is lending a book to the eager young man glaring intently at the Master over a glass of aquavit, Knut Hamsun, whose 1895 debut novel — Hunger — tells of a literally starving artist wandering the streets of the indifferent city, impulsively giving away what little he has, and giving in to bouts of manic irrationality in quest of a clearer vision and some kind of truth. Generations of writers and readers have followed along with Hamsun's unnamed narrator on his strange interior journey along the borderlines of death, through seething brain, humming nerves, pulsing blood, and pleading flesh and bone. Oh, and the book changing hands between the two? It is a dog-eared copy of Nikolai Gogol's 1835 story, The Diary of a Madman. The third gentleman at the table, rather more put together than the other two, is diverted by a newspaper. With his musings on the fate of man in a world where God is Dead — or hadn't you heard? — André Malraux is often described as a precursor to the existentialists nearby, and his 1933 novel Man’s Fate is a prime example of his work. In fact, Malraux's newspaper is really a blind, as he's actually eavesdropping on the talk one table down, between Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, whose discussion — alas — we can't quite make out given the animated argument at the table just to our left.

Better known for his thought-provoking plays, Bertolt Brecht wrote short stories also notable for their ability to undermine our sympathetic involvement in the text, while confronting us with underlying questions about our social, political and personal lives. In both theater and prose, Brecht loves to confound our expectations, coaxing us into laughing at our habitual pieties and facing our unacknowledged beliefs. Across from him, fending off one of Brecht's leftist barbs with some observation about the "banality of evil," is Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, whose best-known work, 1984, put a name to such sadly familiar concepts as doublespeak, sexcrime, and a whole species of obfuscations and downright lies that the media now treat with the affectionate soubriquet, "spin." Orwell is a wide-ranging critic and thinking-man's thinker; just when you think you've got him pinned down he'll turn and surprise you with some incisive critique of the very thing you thought he was defending. Orwell's autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London offers a great, irreverent view of life on the skids, among the downtrodden, and his collected essays are deeply thought-provoking. The conversation abruptly halts when a couple of dissipated toughs unceremoniously plop themselves down with their coffee. Jean Genet's autobiographical The Thief’s Journal offers us another view of the artist as a young ne'er-do-well, in and out of prison, consorting with beggars, thieves and whores, "hot for crime." The one thing he can't steal is the affection of a one-armed crook named Stilitano, who claims to prefer women, and so he solaces himself with a motley assortment of lovers, and even with the brutal caresses of the jailhouse. His compatriot Boris Vian listens to these bold confessions with rapt attention. Vian's Heartsnatcher is a darkly humorous, absurdist fable about a soul-stealing psychiatrist who preys on a town that auctions its senior citizens off as slaves and crucifies horses on account of their sinful natures. Orwell and Brecht are attracted yet repelled, and decide to head indoors, but not before Genet has discretely boosted copies of Rimbaud and Baudelaire from Brecht's rucksack. It's getting cold out here — shall we go inside and warm up by the fire?

Ordering ourselves some Darjeeling, we join the group by the fire where the air almost pulses with a vital, spiritual energy as some sort of soulful symposium seems to be in full swing. In intense murmurs laced with Hindu gods and Jungian archetypes, Aldous Huxley and Hermann Hesse are fully engaged in riddling out the mysteries of existence. Huxley's most famous book is Brave New World, but true aficionados may be more drawn to his intellectual satire After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, in which Huxley anatomizes American mores and culture through the absurd personage of millionaire Jo Stotyte, obsessed with evading death and courting youth. Jim Morrison was more interested in Huxley's non-fiction look at mind-altering drugs The Doors of Perception, after which he named his band, a fate not unfamiliar to Hesse, whose great novel Steppenwolf tells of a the angst-ridden, middle-aged writer Harry Haller, a man at odds with the complacent, repressive society around him, and with repressed urges of his own which eventually send him well beyond the bounds of propriety into a drug-fueled orgy of transgression. Whether or not they were born to be wild, both Hesse and Huxley broke on through to the other side, enjoying posthumous cult followings starting in the 60s and still going strong today. Carlos Castaneda, listening in with sagacious quietude, is being eyed suspiciously by a darkly handsome fellow obscured in the flickering half-light. "What a phony," thinks J. D. Salinger from his Zenlike retreat in the shadows. The infamously reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, arguably the great American cult novel and a rite of passage for generations of young and not-so-young readers, and of the more explicitly spiritual Franny and Zooey, catches us staring at him, and so we turn away.

Daniel Quinn is discussing the fundamental nature of civilization and its discontents with Robert Pirsig and Edward Abbey. Quinn's series of books starting with Ishmael — the title character of which is a gorilla who telepathically helps humans to understand how far outside the natural order of things our pompous, megalomaniacal species has strayed — has garnered him a growing readership of those with an interest in saving the world, or the planet, at any rate. The maverick Pirsig is prepared to enter the dialogue, but only on his own terms, as anyone who's read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will understand. Pirsig seems to be playing the Devil's advocate. "So we're destroying the planet! Are you so positive that's a bad thing?" he poses. This is the last straw for Abbey, who hurls down his copy of Thoreau's Walden, rises in exasperation muttering something about "Words words words," and heads for the door, off to join The Monkey Wrench Gang in some new act of environmental sabotage. One of the spiritual fathers of the earth-first (or eco-terrorist) movement, Abbey easily out-prickles the other two, who look abashed, and are drawn into a hushed knot of followers gathered nearby where Paulo Coelho is telling Richard Bach the one about The Alchemist. Acolytes Dan Millman and James Redfield nod silently as Coelho intones in a mellifluous Portuguese accent the concluding moral to his deceptively simple fable about a shepherd looking for treasure when he finds the real alchemy behind human happiness. Bach then lights into a tale of his own, the one about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, an oddball among scavengers for his tendency to fly for the sheer joy of flying. However, Bach breaks off and the crowd all turns to follow his eye as a dashing stranger in a leather flight jacket enters from the cold. Beckoning him over, Bach asks the charismatic young Frenchman to tell them of his daring exploits, but in keeping with the tenor of the evening, Antoine de Saint Exupéry tells them instead of the fantastic journeys of another pilot, The Little Prince. Now even Huxley and Hesse are listening as little children while with understated authority Saint Exupéry tells of the little aviator who crashes in the desert, comes face to face with an overpowering mystery, and travels through a galaxy of diverting illusions in search of wisdom.

Nature calls, and we go to find a restroom, but rather than the usual two doors we find one, labeled simply Room 23. Cracking the door and peering inside, we interrupt some sort of curious ritual being performed by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Certain arcane symbols scratched on the floor remind us of The Illuminatus Trilogy, and we begin to make out figures in the shadows — Aleister Crowley and Tom Cruise and David Duchovny and, wait — who is that shadowy figure over there rolling dice with the peripatetic Luke Rhinehart (aka The Dice Man)!? Dan Brown slams the door shut before we can see more. Some things we were just not meant to know.

Still seeking the restroom, we wander into a hospitable nook where a book group meeting is in full swing. Several copies of the proto-feminist novella Marianne, by George Sand, can be seen scattered around the table, and Virginia Woolf seems to be making an impassioned plea in defense of Sand's last work, set exactly one century before Woolf's own modernist masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway. Sylvia Plath strongly agrees — maybe a bit too strongly, her passion and candor disconcerting the others until Shirley Jackson steps in to cast a little oil on the waters. No stranger to the silent horrors and noonday demons of domesticity herself, as reflected in her unnerving story collections The Lottery and Come Along With Me, Jackson is frankly concerned for Plath's equilibrium, having recently read her candid novel of suicidal depression, The Bell Jar. The mood lightens somewhat when Dorothy Parker mutters "We look like a road company of the Last Supper!" No stranger to suicide attempts herself, the famous wit and author of stunningly droll short stories follows up this quip with one of her little verses: "Guns aren't lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful — might as well live," but this does not have the desired effect — quite the reverse, in fact, as Woolf slips into a brown study and the angel of death seems to flit over the gathering. Masters of the macabre Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes both hold their breath, eyes wide, almost relishing the sudden morbidity that has swept the table, and no doubt taking a few mental notes for forthcoming projects, Highsmith for an installment in her Tom Ripley books, and Hughes for something along the lines of her harrowing In a Lonely Place. From her commanding perch at the head of the table, Colette regards them all with an almost sublime compassion, the wise and wistful humor peering from her feline eye, suggesting that this too — this dreadful sense of death — is a part of life. Who knows? Perhaps even the best part. Colette's Claudine novels are classic embodiments of the life force, depicting the adventures, exultations and defeats of a spirited young woman discovering life and love at the dawn of the twentieth century. Speaking of nature's call, there’s the restroom.

Shortly thereafter, we hear a voice call out "Ayn Rand, table for one," and a striking, self-possessed woman steps forward, takes a seat, and orders coffee, strong, black, no milk, no sugar. When it arrives, she is lighting up a cigarette in a long holder, and the waiter seems about to protest but Rand silences him with one devastating glance. The great libertarian's star power is undeniable, and legions of fans have followed her message of individualism and self-reliance through the thousand-plus pages of her masterwork, Atlas Shrugged, though readers seeking a more contained introduction to her objectivist philosophy might try the anti-totalitarian dystopia, Anthem, in which the majesty and power of the I is held captive to the belittling, insidious commands of the We.

Unbeknownst to Ayn, whose full attention is on transcripts of the latest Greenspan report, there's a hangdog figure gazing at her from across the way. Leonard Cohen is jotting wistful lyrics about this lone woman in the margin of a paperback book — oh, it's his own novel, Beautiful Losers. His intent: to sex up this magisterial dame, taking her unawares by handing her a copy of this deeply intimate craziness, a frank sonnet to her jotted in the flyleaf. "Come on, Ayn, we're none of us getting any younger — I know you prefer supermen, but make an exception just this once." It just might work, but we'll never know, as suddenly, a gale of herb-tinged wind, song and wild yawping erupts as the door swings wide and a party of revelers takes the floor.

Taking the lead is Beat god Jack Kerouac, author of The Subterraneans, On the Road and many other freewheeling cult classics, doing free-form blues haiku, with his buddy John Clellon Holmes accompanying on the bongos, and shouting Go, Man, Go! A bemused, bespectacled Richard Brautigan lightly chants along some trip-hippy tune about Trout Fishing in America (he's really pretty good, if he could be heard over the uproar), while Richard Farina adds his sweet young voice to the cacophony, wailing Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me, little suspecting that tomorrow he'll be as dead as James Dean. Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey and Terry Southern laugh so hard they gasp for air; they laugh 'til they're weak and weepy, when suddenly Jack yells "Hey, where's Bill?" "Out in the alley," says Paul Bowles in a curiously detached undertone that somehow creates its own little pocket of silence amidst the mayhem, and the whole mad crew abruptly changes direction and heads back out the door, leaving Paul sipping espresso with Kurt Vonnegut and T. C. Boyle. "Don't know what I see in them," comments Paul, whose stark and strange The Sheltering Sky depicts the dark side of the great American quest for self-realization. "Well, they're good for a laugh," rejoins Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse-Five confronts mankind's worst outrages and finds a peace, of a sort. "Life's a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think, and for the rest of us, well . . ." shrugs Boyle, and looks up past his snakeskin boots to see some celebrity walking in the door, a couple of reporters in tow.

Oh, its Jacqueline Susann, author of the celebrated, magnificently trashy sex and drug exposé Valley of the Dolls, and right now looking around for the hippest gathering at which to alight. And the reporters at her heels? Great Hollywood novelists Gavin Lambert, whose Inside Daisy Clover depicts the misadventures of a sweet young ingénue finding her way in the meat market of show biz, and Nathanael West, whose bleak and biting The Day of the Locust presents a similarly sordid view of the dark side of America's dream factory. Susann makes up her mind, heading for a table of stylishly-dressed men, all laughing, chortling and giggling at the remarks of an elegant giant in their center: Oscar Wilde is holding court. At his right hand is a cult writer's cult writer, Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the 1884 novel A Rebours, or Against Nature, that tells of a wealthy aristocrat who turns his back on the sordid, ugly world and shuts himself away in a private world of ever more lush aesthetic amusements. Huysmans' tale was made even more infamous by its role in seducing the title character of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the unforgettable tale of a young man who retains his youthful demeanor while a closeted portrait takes on all the ill-effects of his debauched life. Wilde describes the strange yellow book as poisonous and intoxicating; it is certainly a masterpiece of fin de siecle decadence. Also laughing from behind a lightly masked countenance is Ronald Firbank, one of Wilde's aesthetic disciples, whose delightfully eccentric novels present artfully constructed worlds of whimsy and sly subversion of bourgeois tastes and morals. Mervyn Peake and Lord Dunsany look up from the napkin where they are sketching some elaborate neverwhere to ask the wan fellow across from them "Why so blue, Marcel?" Proust, gazing at the wall opposite and absentmindedly dipping a small cookie into his tea, mutters "Don't get me started . . .". More sudden laughter, this from the other end of the table, as Truman Capote tells a story that has Patrick Dennis dissolving into fits of raucous mirth. Known to the greater world as the creator of the whimsical adventures of Auntie Mame, Dennis's cult status rests more firmly on that pinnacle of camp humor: Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine. The infamous Mr. Capote is perhaps best known for his riveting true crime work In Cold Blood, but here at the café he's better known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and not the movie version, which hardly captures the charming eccentricities of the free spirited Holly Golightly. Ofcourse in truth, like some others at this table, Capote is best known for being Capote, a fact not lost on the odd figure to his right, flipping a cassette into a portable recorder. "What do you think you're doing?" Truman asks, and Andy Warhol replies "I'm writing a novel." Emitting a withering laugh, Capote rises and invites everyone except Warhol to the Cocktail Bar next door. "I hear the next round's on Tennessee."

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