Notes on The Illustrious House of Ramires

Quarter done with The Illustrious House of Ramires, another great Eca de Queiros novel, this one published in 1900 the year he died (not sure if it is posthumous or not.)

  • Decay is again front and center, decay and rot of a family called Ramires that has been in Portugal since the 12th century. Eca opens with a brief but lively retelling of our modern hero Goncalo Ramires’ ancestors, all of whom are comic heroes or fools or villains.
  • Goncalo is a young man with literary ambitions; his friends publish journals, all of which seek to raise Portugal’s profile in the world, all with pompous titles. There’s a sense of insignificance of place; Portugal is itself annexed and overshadowed by Spain and the rest of Europe, sort of a western outpost easily ignored. This maddens the drunk young students.
  • Goncalo has land that he must lease to stay afloat. This is another spin on fading empire, the turning over of land to lesser men in order to support a decadent lifestyle.  Goncalo is idle and simple minded and takes to transcribing a dead relative’s epic poem into a new story for publication. Of course, he is distracted by gluttonous drunk friends and his own laziness.
  • The politics and political allusions aren’t known to me in 2014, but the bluster and rancor is familiar to anyone who has ever read a political discussion on the Internet. Lots of hot air and phony outrage.

Important books

There are no important books.

Paul Krugman concludes his review of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by stating:

So Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.

I wouldn’t let Paul Krugman advise me on a deli sandwich or a barbershop, yet the editors at the New York Review of Books suggest I listen to him regarding a $40 hardcover book on economics, something I wouldn’t read unless you paid me, or unless you transported me back to the dorms and gave me a bushel of the best marijuana known to man. Reviews like Krugman’s remind one of how boring and square the Review is today.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a best-seller, made so by hype and silly comments from people like Krugman. This is not a book that has come to life by the word-of-mouth of keen readers, but rather it has flourished because of advertising dollars.

How does one deal with important books? I don’t buy them, but I often get them as gifts, so I put them on the shelf, unread, and they usually wind up in the Goodwill pile when it comes time to cull the library. Other times I might try to read these books years later, to see if they are interesting beyond the hype that influenced a friend to buy me a copy.

I have been surprised by popular “important” books.  The Looming Tower and 1491 are terrific and I am glad I read these books and discovered these authors. Do I feel bad about not reading them when they were popular? Of course not. Good books outlast their hype. Will Piketty’s book last? I don’t know, but given the history of books, it is doubtful.

Only a fundamentalist would call a book important. Ignore fundamentalists and you will live a good life.

There are no important books.

Garcia Marquez and Influence at Work

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in my early twenties, and like many who read that book in their early twenties, I loved it. I thought it was unique and original, and that voice of his was awesome, grand and humble at the same time. Here was a new type of narration, unlike anything I read in college.

Then I read Faulkner and discovered where Garcia Marquez’s narration came from. What happened soon after is that Faulkner became important to me, and Garcia Marquez became less relevant. I no longer cared about One Hundred Years of Solitude because I had Light in August, and Light in August appeared to be the inspiration for Garcia Marquez, nearly all of his work.

I wanted to figure out how I came to Garcia Marquez without knowing Faulkner, so I poked around and I came upon a book review written by William Kennedy that said “One Hundred Years of Solitude is the best book since Genesis” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude should be required reading like Genesis.” All very boomy and biblical.

I decided to check Kennedy out, see what he had written, see what other silly statements about books he might have made. He was the author of novels set in Albany NY, and some of them had a hint of that magical realism that one finds in Genesis if one looks hard enough. But the more Kennedy I read, the more I loved his books, and now when asked my favorite novel I answer without hesitation Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. I have read Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game more times than any other novel, and tonight I know I can pick it up and get in tune with those nighttime gamblers and scrappers and be enthralled.

So today is a good day to thank Garcia Marquez, for his influence, and for many other reasons besides the obvious.


Notes on 2 short novels

Farmer — Jim Harrison’s Farmer came out in 1976, a short novel about a high school teacher seduced by a student. Joseph is an amiable sort, 43 and of hardscrabble northern Michigan. He lives on his family farm with his dying-yet-knowing mother, and for 20 years has taught at the local two-room school, which is to be closed down at the end of the year. Joseph has no college, and is declared unqualified, so he has to decide what to do with his life. Rosealee, his fellow teacher and the woman everyone in town expects him to marry, hangs together with Joey out of comfort and history. Doc provides grand insight into the town’s and Joseph’s past–he’s a good comic historian, half-drunk half-smart. Joseph’s affair with Catherine, 17, is done well, especially once everyone in town figures it out. Middle-aged angst, but none of the contemporary immature adult nonsense that ruins novels. Here’s the slight original NY Times review.

Hadji Murat — a tale of suspense and Caucasus warring politics, with great asides off the main story that make it whole. Fleeing from Shamil, with whom he has had both a blood feud and a blood allegiance to, Hadji becomes a favorite of the Russians he once tried to kill. He is feted and feared and analyzed in many quarters, by men of various standing; boobs and buffoons, and kind friends. Women tend to swoon over him, but also make sound judgments. All the time, Hadji is watching them, figuring them out–they speak different languages–and he gets the upper hand by knowing them better. Lots of palace intrigue as the Russians plan out how to best use Hadji for their side against the Chechen troublemakers. The tributary stories–a soldier is shot and dies and we learn of how he became a soldier, his family; Nicholas I, a lumbering boob emperor, has no idea how to govern–are damn good and vital to the whole. The ending of Hadji (and of the story) is so nonchalant that it is disappointing, hardly a hero’s death. But nobody gets a hero’s death, not even heroes.

Terrific Tolstoy paragraph

The detachment sent on the raid consisted of four infantry battalions, two hundred Cossacks, and eight guns. The column marched along the road. On both sides of the column, in an unbroken line, descending into and climbing out of the gullies, marched chasseurs in high boots, fur jackets, and papakhas, with muskets on their shoulders and cartridges in bandoliers. As always, the detachment moved through enemy territory keeping as silent as possible. Only the guns clanked now and then, jolting over ditches, or an artillery horse, not understanding the order for silence, snorted or neighed, or an angered commander yelled in a hoarse, restrained voice at his subordinates because the line was too strung out, or moved too close or too far from the column. Only once the silence was broken by a she-goat with a white belly and rump and a gray back and a similar billy goat with short, back-bent horns, who leaped from a small bramble patch between the line and the column. The beautiful, frightened animals, making big leaps and tucking up their front legs, came flying so close to the column that some of the soldiers ran after them with shouts and guffaws, intending to stick them with their bayonets, but the goats turned back, leaped through the line, and, pursued by several horsemen and the company dogs, sped off like birds into the mountains.

from Hadji Murat, Chapter 16, Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. 

The 75th Anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath

15659289443In America, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a novel read by high school students, by children inept at work and the American worker, work and the American worker being the story of The Grapes of Wrath. This young readership was not the publisher’s desired market in April 1939, when adults first bought the novel. Did adults in 1939 encourage children to read the book? If so, what did those children make of Tom Joad saying to the Reverend Jim Casy, “Pa’ll be glad to see you. He always said you got too long a pecker for a preacher.”?

Another grown-up consideration of The Grapes of Wrath is whether it is responsible for one to consider small details of a novel that explicitly deals with large subjects like dignity, fellowship, hunger, and death. These themes—and it is a novel of heavy punctuated themes and very little ambiguity—are what once made novels. Now, it seems novels are about simpler, lower-to-the-ground struggles. Or perhaps that is the novelists themselves.
Linked to its themes is the permanence of The Grapes of Wrath, a book, like the bible, Americans know whether they have read it or not. One supposes all are aware of the book’s often-referenced occurrences; the Joads travel west, Grampa gets buried on the side of the road, Granma dies crossing the desert, Tom Joad kills a man and flees, and Rose of Sharon nurses a starving man at the novel’s conclusion. These are national memories, or national occurrences, depending on one’s age.
And lastly, one reading The Grapes of Wrath today does so with the unavoidable notion that it might have something to say about these contemporary times, financially troublesome for all but the wealthiest, a notion that proves false. Despite some broad financial correlations to times past and present, there is little of our now in the novel’s then. There is only the novel itself.
Steinbeck employs two narratives in The Grapes of Wrath, one the well-known tale of the destitute Joad family, the foreclosure of their land in Oklahoma and their jalopy-journey west to California, where more trouble lurks, and the second narrative, the one I had forgotten, the alternate chapters of misery and heartbreak of various nameless stragglers and malcontents, men and women and children that Steinbeck uses to illustrate the harsh American condition of the 1930s, the poverty, indignation, and suffering of people, and those lucky few who have meager employment, and thus sneer at and bully those less fortunate.
Early on in the novel, there are wonderful descriptions of devastation and hardship. Chapter 1 is a parody of Genesis, of land ruined by drought and wind and dust, of crops felled and broken and terrorized by nature. Steinbeck rings Old Testament:

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Chapter 5 brings us a goggled tractor driver hired by the banks—faceless banks now own the land—who, astride his machine, plows the useless dirt and knocks homes off their foundations, leaving families both hungry and homeless. Steinbeck describes the tractor driver as a science fiction monster:

The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration.

The farmers are confused; their children toe the earth and keep quiet, keep nervous, while the wife watches the husband for signs that he might break—something no man can do if he is to keep his family—and the man, the husband, watches out to see what hell might be coming next. He knows only misery comes, for he once had his acres and his horses to plow and food enough for all, and then came the banks who had paper that gave them rights to the acres, and machines came that supplanted the slow work of beasts—(“But this tractor does two things—it turns the land and turns us off the land”)—and suddenly forty acres and a homestead means nothing in the world, nothing to everyone except the farmer and his family that lost it.
A quarter of The Grapes of Wrath passes before the Joads leave Oklahoma for California, and in that fist section the Joad chapters limp compared to the alternate chapters, which are much more lively with descriptions of hardship and loss. Members of the Joad clan—true family and hangers-on—seem to function purely as extensions of Steinbeck’s moralizing until they hit the road, all except for Ma Joad, who comes alive in quiet moments when a righteousness takes hold of her. Early on we get a glimpse of Ma that betrays the fierce behavior to come:

Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.

Pa Joad and Tom comment on her sudden changes, admiring and fearing her. But Ma is wiser still; she knows her son Tom is one rage away from another spell in prison, and that Pa is weak from his endless losses, and that the others in the traveling party are various degrees of useless, but vital as one, as a family.
Steinbeck’s prose in The Grapes of Wrath varies from terrific to terrible. At times he turns phrases so bad and so syrupy that one turns away from the page, embarrassed. Here is a paragraph of gloom and doom thunder sentences:

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

Yet in the dialogue, especially between Tom and Casy, Tom and Al, and Ma and anyone who tries to get one over on her, Steinbeck’s prose is humorous and spry, and he leads a reader to unpredictable resolutions. He also has a great ability to effortlessly switch character perspective, such as in this dialogue with a strange religious woman worried over the ill Granma:

The woman looked reproachfully at Ma. “Ain’t you believers, ma’am?”
“We always been Holiness,” Ma said, “but Granma’s tar’d, an’ we been a-goin’ all night. We won’t trouble you.”
“It ain’t no trouble, an’ if it was, we’d want ta do it for a soul a-soarin’ to the Lamb.”
Ma arose to her knees. “We thank ya,” she said coldly. “We ain’t gonna have no meetin’ in this here tent.”
The woman looked at her for a long time. “Well, we ain’t a-gonna let a sister go away ’thout a little praisin’. We’ll git the meetin’ goin’ in our own tent, ma’am. An’ we’ll forgive ya for your hard heart.”
Ma settled back again and turned her face to Granma, and her face was still set and hard. “She’s tar’d,” Ma said. “She’s on’y tar’d.” Granma swung her head back and forth and muttered under her breath.
The woman walked stiffly out of the tent. Ma continued to look down at the old face.
Rose of Sharon fanned her cardboard and moved the hot air in a stream. She said, “Ma!”
“Whyn’t ya let ’em hol’ a meetin’?”
“I dunno,” said Ma. “Jehovites is good people. They’re howlers an’ jumpers. I dunno. Somepin jus’ come over me. I didn’ think I could stan’ it. I’d jus’fly all apart.”

The best writing in The Grapes of Wrath is from an incident in the Hooverville, when Tom trips a deputy and the deputy draws his gun:

The deputy staggered and Tom put out his foot for him to trip over. The deputy fell heavily and rolled, reaching for his gun. Floyd dodged in and out of sight down the line. The deputy fired from the ground. A woman in front of a tent screamed and then looked at a hand which had no knuckles. The fingers hung on strings against her palm, and the torn flesh was white and bloodless. Far down the line Floyd came in sight, sprinting for the willows. The deputy, sitting on the ground, raised his gun again and then, suddenly, from the group of men, the Reverend Casy stepped. He kicked the deputy in the neck and then stood back as the heavy man crumpled into unconsciousness.


A woman is shot through the hand, “fingers hung on strings against her palm.” That is Steinbeck at his best, clear and concrete. There are many vivid lines like this in the novel that sneak up on a reader, as though Steinbeck considered them slight or disposable. They do not fit with the grand themes of the book—perhaps that makes them all the better.

There are moments each character in The Grapes of Wrath experiences a contemplative epiphany: Tom argues with a fat service station manager until he notices the manager’s shop is bare, and the manger is only a few days removed from failure himself; the Reverend Casy talks himself into seeing to a new flock, hungry, secular, and moving east to west; Ma runs her fingers over the cool white porcelain of a newer bathroom in a government work camp, amazed by the newness and the dignity of indoor plumbing; and Uncle John goes on a bender to keep real and imagined demons at bay, if only for one night. These small personal events, not the artful crescendos, make the novel great.

Steinbeck never lets a reader get comfortable, as he keeps his outcast people in motion, in or nearby trouble, roiling above floodwater, and rarely at peace in elusive hard-times humanity. His uneven writing, his complicated multiple-character scenes, and his wonderful nature imagery, make up the entirety of The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath is a mess, and it endures because of that messiness, which Steinbeck writes so well.