June 28, 2012
Lafcadio Hearn: born on a Greek island in 1850 to an Irish father and Greek mother, raised in Dublin, sent to live in Cincinnati at 19, moved to New Orleans at 27, finally decamped for Japan about a decade later. One of our great chroniclers and observers, and an amazing craftsman. The following is from "Mosquitoes," collected in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904).
With a view to self-protection I have been reading Dr. Howard's book, "Mosquitoes." I am persecuted by mosquitoes. There are several species in my neighborhood; but only one of them is a serious torment,—a tiny needly thing, all silver-speckled and silver-streaked. The puncture of it is sharp as an electric burn; and the mere hum of it has a lancinating quality of tone which foretells the quality of the pain about to come,—much in the same way that a particular smell suggests a particular taste. I find that this mosquito much resembles the creature which Dr. Howard calls Stegomyia fasciata, or Culex fasciatus: and that its habits are the same as those of the Stegomyia. For example, it is diurnal rather than nocturnal, and becomes most troublesome during the afternoon. And I have discovered that it comes from the Buddhist cemetery,—a very old cemetery,—in the rear of my garden.
Dr. Howard's book declares that, in order to rid a neighborhood of mosquitoes, it is only necessary to pour a little petroleum, or kerosene oil, into the stagnant water where they breed. Once a week the oil should be used, "at the rate of one ounce for every fifteen square feet of water surface, and a proportionate quantity for any less surface." ... But please to consider the conditions of my neighborhood.
I have said that my tormentors come from the Buddhist cemetery. Before nearly every tomb in that old cemetery there is a water-receptacle, or cistern, called mizutame. In the majority of cases this mizutame is simply an oblong cavity chiselled in the broad pedestal supporting the monument; but before tombs of a costly kind, having no pedestal-tank, a larger separate tank is placed, cut out of a single block of stone, and decorated with a family crest, or with symbolic carvings. In front of a tomb of the humblest class, having no mizutame, water is placed in cups or other vessels,—for the dead must have water. Flowers must also be offered to them; and before every tomb you will find a pair of bamboo cups, or other flower-vessels; and these, of course, contain water. There is a well in the cemetery to supply water for the graves. Whenever the tombs are visited by relatives and friends of the dead, fresh water is poured into the tanks and cups. But as an old cemetery of this kind contains thousands of mizutame, and tens of thousands of flower-vessels, the water in all of these cannot be renewed every day. It becomes stagnant and populous. The deeper tanks seldom get dry;—the rainfall at Tokyo being heavy enough to keep them partly filled during nine months of the twelve.
Well, it is in these tanks and flower-vessels that mine enemies are born: they rise by the millions from the water of the dead;—and, according to the Buddhist doctrine, some of them may be reincarnations of those very dead, condemned by the error of the former lives to the condition of Jiki-ketsu-gaki, or blood-drinking pretas ... Anyhow, the malevolence of the Culex fasciatus would justify the suspicion that some wicked soul had been compressed into that wailing speck of a body ...
October 29, 2011
Here are the opening paragraphs of Is There No Place on Earth for Me? (1982), Susan Sheehan's portrait of a young woman with intractable schizophrenia. It's one of the best books of immersive long-form journalism I've ever read. Sheehan makes her acknowledgements at the front of the book, and she is most grateful to her subject, Sylvia Frumkin, and Frumkin's family, for their uncommon cooperation. "As a result," she writes, "I was on the [psychiatric] ward taking shorthand notes of Miss Frumkin's monologues. I was at the Frumkins' dinner table on the Jewish New Year. I was sleeping in the bed next to Sylvia Frumkin's at the Creedmoor Hotel the snowy night she decided to run away."
Shortly after midnight on Friday, June 16, 1978, Sylvia Frumkin decided to take a bath. Miss Frumkin, a heavy, ungainly young woman who lived in a two-story yellow brick building in Queens Village, New York, walked from her bedroom on the second floor to the bathroom next door and filled the tub with warm water. A few days earlier, she had had her hair cut and shaped in a bowl style, which she found especially becoming, and her spirits were high. She washed her brown hair with shampoo and also with red mouthwash. Some years earlier, she had tinted her hair red and had liked the way it looked. She had given up wearing her hair red only because she had found coloring it every six weeks too much of a bother. She imagined that the red mouthwash would somehow be absorbed into her scalp and make her hair red permanently. Miss Frumkin felt so cheerful about her new haircut that she suddenly thought she was Lori Lemaris, the mermaid whom Clark Kent had met in college and fallen in love with in the old "Superman" comics. She blew bubbles into the water.
After a few minutes of contented frolicking, Miss Frumkin stepped out of the tub. She slipped on the bathroom floor—it was wet from her bubble-blowing and splashing—and cut the back of her head as she fell. The cut began to bleed. She attempted to stop the bleeding by applying pressure to cut, then wrapped her head in a large towel and walked back to her bedroom. On the dresser was an expensive bottle of perfume that an aunt and uncle had given her in May as a thirtieth-birthday present. She poured the contents of the bottle on her cut, partly because she knew that perfume contained alcohol and that alcohol was an antiseptic (in 1972, Miss Frumkin had completed a ten-month course qualifying her as a medical secretary), and partly because she suddenly thought she was Jesus Christ and that her bleeding cut was the beginning of a crown of thorns. She also thought that she was Mary Magdalene, who had poured ointment on Christ. Looking back on the incident six months later, Miss Frumkin was exasperated with herself for having wasted the perfume, which the aunt and uncle had bought in Israel, and which she couldn't replace. "It was the one perfume I've ever had that people complemented me on," she said. "So many people told me I smelled nice when I wore it. I'm sorry I wasted it."
Miss Frumkin's head burned when the perfume came in contact with the open cut, and the bleeding subsided but didn't altogether stop. By then, it was after one o'clock. She put on an old nightgown and went downstairs to tell the night supervisor, Dwight Miller, who was on duty from midnight until eight-thirty, what had happened. Miller looked at the cut, told Miss Frumkin to get dressed, and said he would drive her to the emergency room at Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center, a voluntary hospital in New Hyde Park, a short distance away. The cut didn't look bad, and Miss Frumkin appeared calm about it—calmer than Miller thought he would have been if their situations had been reversed—but he knew that any head injury was potentially serious and should be examined by a doctor. In her room, Miss Frumkin put on her underclothes, a pink-and-white print blouse and matching pink-and-white striped skirt, a pair of brown sandals, a Timex watch she had borrowed from her mother after losing her own watch, a pair of glasses with octagonal frames (Miss Frumkin is very nearsighted), and a beige poncho with colorful designs, which her sister had brought her as a gift from a recent trip to Peru. She took with her a large tan pocketbook that bulged with notebooks, a bankbook, makeup, and other paraphenalia, and walked downstairs.
As Miller started the car, turned on the car radio, and began to drive toward the hospital, Miss Frumkin seemed to get excited. The radio was playing Paul McCartney's "The Lovely Linda," and he was singing the words "La, la, la, la, la, the lovely Linda." Unknown to Miller, Miss Frumkin thought that McCartney was singing the lyrics sarcastically, because he had fallen in love with her and was no longer in love with Linda, his wife. Miss Frumkin began to talk fervently to the radio. For a time, Miller was afraid she might jump out of the car. Miss Frumkin and Miller arrived at the emergency room at two o'clock. Miss Frumkin was first interviewed and examined by a nurse. For a few minutes, she was in sufficient control of herself to let the nurse take her vital signs, test her neurological responses, and look at her cut, and to answer the questions that the nurse asked. She correctly gave her name and address, an account of her fall, and the names and addresses of her next of kin—her parents, Irving and Harriet Frumkin, who also live in Queens. She became upset while she was waiting to see a doctor and an X-ray technician (she began to speak rapidly, and what she said concerned suffering from hypoglycemia and Wilson's disease and being Cinderella, and didn't make much sense); more upset when the X-ray technician took X rays of her skull and the doctor sewed up the cut (Miss Frumkin was so agitated that the doctor succeeded in putting in only three of five silk sutures he had intended to put in); and still more upset when it turned out that there would be a fairly long wait for the skull X rays to be read. Miss Frumkin got so obstreperous while she and Miller were waiting in the main area of the emergency room that they were shown into one of the small treatment rooms off to one side that the hospital uses to give people privacy, where they were joined by a hospital security guard. Miss Frumkin had made so many difficulties for the doctor who had stitched her cut—by flaunting her medical knowledge, caling him names, and threatening to sue him and the hospital—that he had called for the psychiatric resident on duty to examine her. In the small treatment room, Miss Frumkin's conduct became increasingly bizarre. She took off all her clothes, accused Miller of kidnapping her and making sexual advances, and then asked Miller and the security guard to have sexual relations with her, saying she hadn't had sex with a man in five years. The minute the two men would cover Miss Frumkin with a hospital gown, she would disrobe again.
May 6, 2011
In 1962, Ryszard Kapuscinski went to work for the Polish Press Agency and soon became its only foreign correspondent—"responsible," he said, "for fifty countries." In four decades of reporting, he witnessed twenty-seven revolutions and coups in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Somehow, plunging ceaselessly through states of chaos, he was able to fashion impeccable narrative after impeccable narrative.
From The Soccer War (1991):
Victoriano Gomez died on 8 February in the small town of San Miguel, El Salvador. He was shot under the afternoon sun, in the football stadium. People had been sitting in the grandstand of the stadium since morning. Television and radio vans had arrived. The cameramen set up. Some press photographers stood on the green playing field, grouped around one of the goals. It looked as if a match was about to begin.
His mother was brought out first. The worn-out, modestly dressed woman sat facing the place where her son was to die, and the people in the grandstand fell silent. But after a while, they began talking again, swapping comments, buying ice cream and cold drinks. The children made most of the noise. Those who could not find seats in the grandstand climbed a nearby tree for the view.
An army truck drove on to the field. First, the soldiers who would be in the firing squad got out. Victoriano Gomez jumped down lightly onto the grass after them. He looked around the grandstand, and said loudly, so loudly that many people heard him: 'I am innocent, my friends.'
The stadium became quiet again, although whistles of disapproval could be heard from the places of honor where the local dignitaries sat.
The cameras went into action: the transmission was due to begin. All over El Salvador, people were watching the execution of Victoriano Gomez on television.
Victoriano stood near the running track, facing the grandstand. But the cameramen shouted at him to go to the middle of the stadium, so that they could have better light and a better picture. He understood and walked back into the middle of the field where he stood at attention—swarthy, tall, twenty-four years old. Now only a small figure could be seen from the grandstand and that was good. Death loses its literalness at that distance: it stops being death and becomes the spectacle of death. The cameramen had Victoriano in close-up, however; they had his face filling the screen; people watching television saw more than the crowd gathered in the stadium.
After the firing squad's volley, Victoriano fell and the cameras showed the soldiers surrounding his body to count the hits. They counted thirteen. The leader of the squad nodded and slid his pistol into his holster.
It was all over. The grandstand began to empty. The transmission came to an end. Victoriano and the soldiers left in the truck. His mother stayed a while longer, not moving, surrounded by a group of curious people who stared at her in silence.
I do not know what to add. Victoriano was a guerrilla in the San Miguel forests. He was a Salvadoran Robin Hood. He urged the peasants to seize land. All of El Salvador is the property of fourteen latifundista families. A million landless peasants live there too. Victoriano organized ambushes of Guardia Rural patrols. The Guardia is the latifundistas' private army, recruited from criminal elements, and the terror of every village. Victoriano declared war on these people.
The police caught him when he came to San Miguel at night to visit his mother. The news was celebrated on every hacienda. Unending fiestas were organized. The police chief was promoted and received congratulations from the president.
Victoriano was sentenced to death.
The government decided to promote his death. There are many dissatisfied, mutinous people in El Salvador. The peasants are demanding land and the students are crying for justice. The opposition should be treated to a show. Thus: they televised the execution. Before a standing-room-only crowd, in close-up. Let the whole nation watch. Let them watch, and let them think.
January 18, 2011
From The Earl of Louisiana (1961):
New Orleans resembles Genoa or Marseilles, or Beirut or the Egyptian Alexandria more than it does New York, although all seaports resemple one another more than they can resemble any place in the interior. Like Havana and Port-au-Prince, New Orleans is within the orbit of a Hellenistic world that never touched the North Atlantic. The Mediterranean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico form a homogeneous, though interrupted, sea. New York and Cherbourg and Bergen are in a separate thalassic system.
Hellenism followed the Mediterranean littoral; it spread to the shores of the Caribbean and Gulf. The Hellenistic world stopped short of the Atlantic edge of Europe, but its Roman conquerers got there with a version in Reader's Digest form, like Irish missionaries of a Jewish religion. Culture on both shores of the North Atlantic is therefore a paraphrase, as if Choctaws had learned English from Cherokees.
The Mediterraneans who settled the shores of the interrupted sea scurried across the gap between the Azores and Puerto Rico like a woman crossing a drafty hall in a sheer nightgown to get to a warm bed with a man in it. Old, they carried with them a culture that had ripened properly, on the tree. Being sensible people, they never went far inland. All, or almost all, the interior of North America was therefore filled in from the North Atlantic Coast, by the weakest elements in that incompletely civilized population—those who would move away from salt water.
The middle of Louisiana is where the culture of one great thalassic littoral impinges on the other, and a fellow running for Governor has got to straddle the line between them.
November 13, 2010
Below are the first paragraphs of Janet Malcolm's lacerating assessment of the relationship between journalist and subject, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990). It was controversial when it appeared, but I think most nonfiction writers knew instinctively that Malcolm was right. Journalists depend entirely on their subjects for the essence of their work, and they expect to get it unconditionally. Whatever social or artistic value the writer creates is independent of that exchange: it can't alter the exploitative contract to which the subject is generally an unwitting party. The best you can do as a journalist is acknowledge the damage you may be doing and limit it when possible. That's a pretty anemic, ignoble remedy, but it's a lot better than claiming moral exemptions you don't have.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous young widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.
The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist—who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things—never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him but always intended to write a story of his own.
September 30, 2010
Exasperatingly, Jane Kramer writes very well about everything. She's been The New Yorker's European correspondent for twenty years; in her most recent book, Lone Patriot (2002), she walks right into the middle of the American militia movement. The character sketch below is from The Last Cowboy (1978).
Henry Blanton turned forty on an April day when the first warm winds of spring crossed the Texas Panhandle and the diamondback rattlers, fresh and venomous from their winter's sleep, came slipping out from under the cap rock of the Canadian River breaks. It was a day full of treachery and promise, the kind of day that Henry would have expected for the showdown in a good Western. Henry was particular about Westerns. When he was a boy and hired out in the summer—for fifty cents a day and the privilege of keeping a local rancher's thirsty cows from ambling downriver from their summer pasture—he saved his pay in a rusty tin bank shaped like a bull and planned a winter's worth of Westerns at Amarillo's movie houses. At night, summers, with the covers pulled tight above his head, Henry braved the moaning ghosts who rode the river breeze past the old stone line camp where he slept alone—and the way he did it was by fixing his thoughts on calm, courageous movie cowboys. He never summoned up the image of his father, who once had been as fine a cowboy as any man in the Panhandle, or the image of his Grandaddy Abel, who had made the long cattle drive to Wyoming back when Indians were still marauding and a rustler with a long rope would as often as not shoot a trail boss who rode out looking for his strays. Henry, deep in his bedroll, shoring up courage against the river's dead, called on John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Glenn Ford. Especially Glenn Ford. He was convinced then that for "expressin' right," as he put it, there had never been a cowboy to equal Glenn Ford—and he was still convinced of this at forty.
"Expressin' right" was important to the man I call Henry Blanton. It was a gift that he had lost, and he did not know why and was ashamed of himself anyway for wondering, since part of expressing right as a cowboy had to do with the kind of quiet certainty that sustained a man when times were bad. Henry believed that other men might talk to themselves too much, like women, or fret and complain, but a proper cowboy did not. When he watched a Western now, on the big television console he had bought on credit the day the electric lines reached his house on the Willow Ranch, it was less for pleasure or amusement, or even courage, than to find a key to the composure that eluded him. Henry never doubted his abilities as a cowboy. He was the foreman of ninety thousand acres, and he ran them well, considering that he had to take his orders from a rancher who had moved to Eaton Square, in London, and that those orders came to him through a college-boy ranch manager who knew more about juggling account books than raising cattle and was so terrified of cows anyway that he did most of his managing from the driver's seat of a locked, air-conditioned Buick. Henry was a good rider and a fine roper. He could pull a calf with considerable skill, and when he had to he could cut a dogie from the belly of its dying mother. He could account for every one of the twenty-two hundred cows in his charge as if they were his own. He knew which cows delivered strong, healthy calves each spring, which cows needed help calving, which ones tended to miss a year or deliver stillborn. He knew by instinct when a fence was down or a pole had rotted. He could put his ear to the pump pipe of a windmill well that was drawing poorly and tell whether the checks were broken or the water, three hundred and fifty feet underground, was drying up. He had all those skills, but somehow he was not the sort of cowboy who inspired admiration or respect.
People regarded Henry with exasperation or indulgence. There was something unsettled about his character—something that made him restless and a little out of control. He could not quite manage that economy of gesture and person which was appropriate in a cowboy. Some frustration drove him to a kind of inept excess. He drank too much in town, and worked with a bottle of bourbon in his Ford pickup truck and another bottle in his saddlebag. His stunts were famous—people still talked about the time Henry and his brother, Tom, backed a wild mare into a Pampa funeral parlor—but lately they had turned ugly and immodest. He was hard on his wife, Betsy, and neighbors had begun to remark that he was getting hard on his animals, too. He moved his cows a little too fast for their placidity, drove his yearlings a little too fast for their daily gain. When he worked cattle these days, he was apt to forget to keep his knife sharpened. Sometimes, dehorning, he sawed too deep into a calf's horns, and the creature's lowing turned mad with pain.
August 12, 2010
The eerily pretty final paragraph of Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell is just returning from reporting on, and then fighting in, the Spanish Civil War.
And then England—southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes worry that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
June 30, 2010
Joseph Mitchell is the best writer of feature-length literary nonfiction maybe ever. One of his most ridiculous attributes was his ear. He elicited crazily arresting quotes from his subjects, and missed nothing. The virtuosity below is from "Hit on the Head with a Cow," first published in The New Yorker in 1938 and collected (much later) in Up in the Old Hotel (1992).
When I have time to kill, I sometimes go to the basement of a brownstone tenement on Fifty-ninth Street, three-quarters of a block west of Columbus Circle, and sit on a rat-gnawed Egyptian mummy and cut up touches with Charles Eugene Cassell, an old Yankee for whose bitter and disorderly mind I have great respect. Mr. Cassell has Negro, French, Portuguese, and English blood. He calls himself Captain Charlie because he had charge of an ammunition barge for a brief period during the First World War and saw no reason why he shouldn't have a title. About fifteen years ago, after he got too contrary to hold down a steady job, he took out some of his savings and opened a museum — Captain Charlie's Private Museum for Intelligent People ...
The last time I went to see him I took a notebook along, and while he rummaged through the museum — he was searching for a bone which he said he had hacked off an Arab around 9 p.m. one full-moon night in 1907 after the Arab had been murdered for signing a treaty – I wrote down everything he said ...
"Look at this lunch bucket. Used to belong to Al Smith when he was in Fulton Fish Market. Never used such a common thing myself. Always had money, never broke; had the chicken pox, had the sleeping sickness, had the dropsy, had the yellow johnnies, had the walking, talking pneumonia. Didn't miss a thing in the medical line. My old man was a big man with shoulders like a mule, born on a farm in Nova Scotia, lived most of his life in Boston. He was born in a barn. When he went in a place he always left the door wide open. People would yell at him, 'Shut the door! Were you born in a barn?' and he'd say, 'That's right. How'd you guess it?' He was biggity as sin. What you call a beachcomber. He did odd jobs on the fish docks, and he fed us fish until the bones stuck out of our ears. Comb my hair in the morning, I'd comb out a handful of bones. It got so my stomach rose and fell with the tide. Fish! Fish! I was almost grown before I found out people ate anything else. Used to take me with him to saloons when I was just a little teeny baby. He'd set me on the bar beside his glass of whiskey. When he wasn't watching, I'd sneak me a drink of his whiskey, then I'd crawl down on the sawdust and pick a fight with the saloon cats. My old man would tuck me under his arm like I was a bag of groceries and tote me home and throw me on the bed and I'd sleep it off. I'd grunt and snore like a full-grown man. People said I was the prettiest boy baby ever born in Boston."
May 25, 2010
This inaugural appreciation goes to James Agee. Encountering Agee's prose when I was young was like being dared to write. In 1933, when he was twenty-four, Agee wrote a feature for Fortune about the dams and power stations of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity to much of Appalachia for the first time. The opening lines below are a young writer's lines, but they killed me when I was young and they still kill me.
The Tennessee River system begins on the worn magnificent crests of the southern Appalachians, among the earth's oldest mountains, and the Tennessee River shapes its valley into the form of a boomerang, bowing it to its sweep through seven states. Near Knoxville the streams still fresh from the mountains are linked and thence the master stream spreads the valley most richly southward, swims past Chattanooga and bends down into Alabama to roar like blown smoke through the floodgates of Wilson Dam, to slide becalmed along the crop-cleansed fields of Shiloh, to march due north across the high diminished plains of Tennessee and through Kentucky spreading marshes toward the valley's end where finally, at the toes of Paducah, in one wide glass golden swarm the water stoops forward and continuously dies into the Ohio.