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All That Is by James Salter

All That Is by James Salter

James Salter is one of few modern writers able to create equally compelling male and female characters. He says it’s because he has made a conscious “effort to nurture the feminine” in himself and in his responses to the world around him which “pure masculinity” often discounts. This very shrewdly cultivated skill is something one can clearly see in All That Is, rippling with atmospheric vitality and meticulously developed men and women vying for the reader’s attention. The story of Salter’s first novel in over 30 years revolves around former naval officer, now book editor, Philip Bowman and the people who drift in and out of his life. The book itself is primarily concerned with the nature of love, the hardship of relationships and the way in which people deal with both. After returning home from Okinawa and a stint at Harvard, Bowman meets and falls for a young woman by the name of Vivian Amussen. “He saw himself tumbled with her among the bedclothes and fragrance of married life,” Salter writes of Bowman’s daydreams, “the meals and holidays of it, the shared rooms, the glimpses of her half-dressed, her blondness, the pale hair where her legs met, the sexual riches that would be there forever.” Shortly after the couple tie the knot, however, Bowman learns that nothing lasts forever, especially marriage. Theirs sours rapidly as Vivian loses interested in her husband’s bookish whimsies, in his talk of high culture and his quixotic reveries.

With his marriage over, Bowman travels to London on business where he meets Enid Armour – a sultry South African English blonde with a chronic philanderer for a husband. The pair embark on an affair and following Bowman’s divorce travel to Spain to consummate their romance, to consolidate their fledgling love. It is here in his descriptions of cities and their poetry through the eyes of the lovers that Salter reveals himself to be a master of etymology and lyrical precision. His rolling sentences flow mellifluously from one page to the next, creating iridescent snapshots of García Lorca’s homeland, effortlessly integrating his story and the country’s history into the narrative. “He was…an angel of the re-awakening of Spain in the 1920s and ‘30s,” Slater writes, “[his] books and plays filled with a pure, fatal music, and poems rich in colors with fierce emotion and despairing love.”  Numerous historical elements and literary references are interwoven into the plot, adding to the wonderfully rich tapestry of Salter’s prose. Salter captures the glamorous milieu of Europe – Greece, France, Spain – in all its glory, through opulent literary ruminations over its present and its past. He goes from describing places to describing people in them with graceful fluency, connecting the two to create a larger, more vivid picture. “They went to Toledo for a day and then on to Seville, where summer lingered and the voice of the city, as the poet said, brought tears,” he writes of the two lovers in Spain, “They walked through walled alleyways, she in high heels, bare-shouldered, and sat in the silent darkness as deep chords of a guitar slowly began and the air itself stilled.”

This kind of tender evocation also extends to Salter’s images of the lovers in their most intimate moments. “The glory of her,” Bowman marvells looking at Enid, “England stood before him, naked in the darkness…He pulled her over him by her wrists, like a torn sheet.” But for all their passion, Bowman’s relationship with Enid eventually fizzles out and the two part.  Shortly after, he meets Christine Vassilaros and her young daughter. The pair fall in love and set up house, living in blissful domesticity or so Bowman thinks until one day Christine decides it’s over. Inexperienced, uncertain and self-doubting Bowman appears to be the very antithesis of a romantic lead and in many ways remains so until the end. He laments his incompetence with women from the start, blaming it on his absent father. There are nebulous questions over Bowman’s masculinity and there is but one moment in the book when he exercises its full force, revealing the truly chilling side of man. Wounded by Christine’s betrayal and humiliated by having to forgo the house they shared Bowman waits patiently to take his revenge, which comes as an unexpected twist in the otherwise linear plot. Salter brings the story to an equally unexpected close, which in many ways reflects the precariousness of life. “He had been married, once, wholeheartedly and been mistaken,” Salter writes of Bowman toward the end of the book‚ “He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed. He believed in love – all his life he had – but now it was likely to be too late”. This rather reductive view is relegated by Bowman himself just pages later as he realises that it is, in fact, never too.

All That Is is a lyrical meditation on the human condition, replete with languorously poetic turns cut with fastidious precision. The book’s key themes evoke universal interconnections, between love and death, loneliness and companionship drawing the conclusion that one’s fate depends almost entirely upon oneself. Yet the book is much more than a romantic allegory, All That Is also deals with a number of other topics such as identity, social exclusion and inclusive alienation. The latter are diligently rooted in the plot. Bowman feels an outsider, an interloper at Harvard and a stranger in his American-Jewish social circles despite being inexorably linked to his friends and acquaintances by a shared cultural heritage. Bowman is the vessel through which Slater channels the search for one’s identity, in and out of relationships. And in this Bowman is uncompromising, refusing to settle into a cosy existence by way marriage, electing to teeter on the peripheries of the in-crowd. “He might have married one [a Jewish woman] and become part of that world, slowly being accepted into it like a convert,” Salter writes of Bowman’s decision, “He might have lived among them in that practical family density that had been formed by the ages, been a familiar presence at seder tables, birthday gathering, funerals, wearing a hat and throwing a handful of earth into the grave. He felt some regret at not having done it, of not having had the chance. On the other hand, he could not really imagine it. He would never have belonged.”

This sense of otherness is a motif throughout the book. Bowman’s search for a place in the world is defined by his romantic failures, which continuously distort and destabilise his sense of self until he finds love once again. All That Is is characterised by Salter’s trademarks, his geometric prose, his tacit force, decisive authority and erotic realism. Sex lends the book much of its thematic unity both individually and in relation to Salter’s other works. On occasion, the amorous liaisons lack the poetry of the more commonplace scenes but Salter redeems himself through those. Speaking in a recent interview, the writer said that he “will never again write a book in which there’s a single sexual act”. This might prove to be an interesting exercise if, indeed, Salter decides to write another book. Certainly, his “energy and desire” seem to be intact as is his lifelong passion for flying. Like his protagonist, Salter was a military man, a US air force pilot, who gave it up to pursue a career in the literary world. This inevitably invites one to draw comparisons between the two men, but while Bowman often appears finite and fallible Salter does not. He commands attention with the inimitable certainty of a master storyteller, a literary  frotteur, a man who likes to “rub words in his hand”  but one who never minces them.

The Paris Review | James Salter 

Guardian | James Salter

Publisher: Picador
Publication Date: May 2013
Hardback:  304 pages
ISBN: 978-1447238249

Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona by Geoff Dyer

“Nothing that happens in Stalker is an accident,” Geoff Dyer tells us in the first couple of pages of Zona, “and yet, at the same time, it is full of accidents.” This is one of the ways in which Andrei Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film imitates life and its seemingly arbitrary nature, which is in fact mapped out with cartographic precision. This exquisite geometry is also mirrored in Dyer’s book, a paean to Tarkovsky’s work, boasting a swaggering array of facts, anecdotes, references and deviations beneath a consummately rigid structure. Zona is as much about Tarkovsky as it is about Stalker which, Dyer says, was partly responsible for shaping his perception and understanding of the world and without which it would be “radically diminished”. Dyer’s interest in Stalker has been compulsive, obsessive and longstanding – and is now well into several decades. “I’ve seen Stalker more times than any film except The Great Escape,”  he wrote in the Guardian a while back, “I’ve seen it when the projectionist got the reels in the wrong order (I was the only person who noticed), I’ve seen it on my own in Paris and dubbed into Italian in Rome, I’ve seen it on acid (remember that sequence when the solid ground begins to ripple?) and I’ve seen it on telly –  and it’s never quite as I remember. Like the Zone, it’s always changing. Like the Stalker, I feel quite at home in it, but whenever I see the film I try to imagine what it might be like, watching it for the first time when it seemed so weird.” Despite Dyer’s intimate familiarity with the film one gets the distinct impression that he still finds it weird. And the emphasis on weirdness is both implicit and explicit. It is, in fact, the film and its maker’s otherness, which transcends both cultural and aesthetic hegemonies, that Dyer finds strange and idiosyncratic. He ruminates over the nuanced complexities of Stalker with admirable erudition and finesse but with a quintessentially English sense of curiosity, ossified by ratiocination and intellectual liberalism, which is doggedly linear unlike its European counterparts.

In many ways, it is Dyer’s Englishness that prevents him immersing fully into Tarkovsky’s imagination, and identifying with the filmmaker and his work. And thus he always remains an analytical observer and a piqued voyeur, who finds his subject exoteric and esoteric, lucid and puzzling but altogether too remote from his own value system. There is a point in the book, for example, when Dyer ponders the Stalker’s sleeping raiment, finding himself perplexed by the irrationality of it. “To sleep without trousers but with a sweater does not make sense with regard to any system of convention,” he says thinking about a scene in the film when the Stalker gets out of bed, “It just seems weird and not terribly hygienic.”  This sentiment is echoed again and again whenever Dyer thinks on the Stalker and his two travelling companions.  One almost feels as though he cannot quite reconcile the idea of a “prophet ” with the obdurate physiognomy of the shaven-headed zek who is to lead his two equally gruff “clients” – the Professor and the Writer –  on a spiritual and metaphysical journey to “the Zone” at the crux of which lies “the Room” – a place where one’s deepest wishes are granted and ”ultimate truths are revealed”. Despite lacking an interpersonal affinity with the film’s characters and director, Dyer  feels the same desire to find fulfilment, peace, happiness. “I am as badly in need of the Zone and its wonder as any of the three men,” he writes, “The Zone is a place of uncompromising and unblemished value. It is one of the few territories left –  possibly the only one –  where the rights to Top Gear have not been sold: a place of refuge and sanctuary. A sanctuary, also, from cliché.” Dyer employs wry and acerbic humour throughout the book to make his subject –  a 163 minute long film “about three blokes drifting along the railroad to nowhere” – more palatable, more accessible, and in doing so sees the reader follow his irreverent, digressive and meandering voice avidly from page to page.

Some may find Dyer’s footnotes and interpositions self-indulgent and whimsical but they are in fact quite important to the rich tapestry of the narrative. Every anecdote and story contributes something to our understanding of the film, its director, its cast and crew and how Stalker was made after a hellish number of delays and logistical and technical difficulties. The film went through three different directors of photography, changed locations before and after shooting, encountered various faults with the experimental Kodak film, was marred by professional rivalries, directorial vicissitudes and had a serious problem with drinking on set. The cast and crew boozed heavily to alleviate boredom in between takes, spearheaded by Anatoliy Solonitsyn (the Writer) who was renowned for his two-week binges.  Despite all the problems, however, the film went ahead and was made but sadly “at the cost of a heap of corpses and triple retakes”. Several people involved in Stalker, including Tarkovsky and Solonitsyn, were believed to have died as a result of the arduous shooting schedule and the toxicity of the location, which was based around a half-functioning hydroelectric station in Tallinn. Ironically, it is the beautifully desolate landscape that gives Stalker it’s most memorable quality, framed by Tarkovsky’s unorthodox used of  long takes with slow, subtle camera movements, which make the film seem alive –  suspiring in tandem with the viewer.

Dyer pieces together a capital of information to provide a comprehensive overview of Tarkovsky and his cinematic vision; a sophisticated and original vision, which has made him one of the most innovative and brilliant directors of the last four decades. “Tarkovsky was not only a visionary, poet and mystic,” Dyer says, “he was also a prophet.”  Stalker is loaded with allusions to mankind’s immanent future; and it is a dire forecast. One of these portentous bolts seems to be forewarning of the looming disaster of Chernobyl, by way of the Professor’s impassioned speech about a meteorite which fell to earth, destroying lives and communities and creating the Zone. ”Tremors from the future can be felt throughout Stalker,” Dyer writes, “In less than a decade Professor’s summary  of how the Zone came into existence had taken on an aura of a premonition fulfilled, and Stalker acquired yet another dimension of suggestiveness in its foreshadowing of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.” Paradoxically, the oneiric terrain and scenic atmosphere of the Zone is where Tarkovksy’s poetic propensities come to the fore. “Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky,”  Dyer writes, “but…their beingess had not been seen in this way. Tarkovsky reconfigured the world, brought this landscape…into existence.” Dyer also stresses that we ought to pay close attention to the seemingly irrelevant objects on film because they too mean something in Tarkovsky’s world. Everything, a rock , a tuft of moss, a puddle, is imbued with a “breathing magic”. They’re all part of the human interaction with the landscape , Dyer explains, which Tarkovsky makes into a kind of poetry comparative to that of William Wordsworth’s. It is Tarkovsky’s Wordsworthian understanding of and interest in nature’s ”inward meaning,” says our literary tour guide that gives Stalker’s filmic archaeology that “special aura”.

This is one of the many and varied elements that make up Tarkovsky’s cinematic trajectory. Most of them are considered in the book through Dyer’s ruminations on Stalker, which he says is a literal journey as well as a “journey into cinematic space and in tandem into time”. This was one of Tarkovsky’s principal preoccupations, which Dyer contemplates in regard to this own life, conflating research and studious inquiry with humorous yarns and confessional annotations. We get to learn, for example, that Dyer could have had several threesomes but didn’t, that he used to spend his student days tripping on LSD, that he thinks there was a time when his wife looked uncannily like Natacha McElone in Solaris and that they’ve been debating getting a dog for over five years. Some of these might be immaterial to the topic at hand, but they’re fairly interesting and offer great insight into Dyer, the man. Throughout the course of the book we get to learn about both the writer and his subject as Dyer journeys into himself by recounting the journey of Stalker and his two clients. And this makes for some very interesting reading, but perhaps the most interesting (and important) of the nuggets of knowledge we acquire is the meaning of the Zone, a term which derives from prison jargon for the world outside. “[In] the 1950s when the Soviet Union was a vast prison camp…in prison camp-slang (as an Applebaum points out in Gulag) ‘the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as freedom, but as the ‘bolshyaa zona’,” Dyer explains, “the ‘big prison zone’ large and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Whenever asked about the symbolism of Stalker Tarkovsky always maintained that there wasn’t any, saying the Zone should be taken at face value rather than as a cinematographic treatise on freedom, and its dearth in the Soviet system. But that’s precisely how the film should be interpreted, as Tarkovsky’s (man’s) quest for personal freedom through his artistic realisations, which was the only time he felt he had any. This is something Dyer could have explored a little bit more perhaps for after all Tarkovksy’s artistic freedom was the linchpin of his work.

Guardian | Geoff Dyer 

Publisher: Canongate
Publication Date: March 2013
Paperback:  228 pages
ISBN: 9780857861672

Eduardo Halfon: A gifted storyteller

The writer of The Polish Boxer is also its narrator or at least the two men share the same name, the same experiences and the same history. Are they in fact the same man? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions as Eduardo Halfon fuses reality and fiction, mystery and memoir into one. The Polish Boxer is divided into ten chapters, which read like individual stories told by the same narrator who spends much of his time traveling, discussing literature and contemplating his ancestral past. From the outset the reader is alerted to the fact that The Polish Boxer has a dual structure. “The visible narrative always hides a secret tale,” Halfon asserts in the opening paragraph. He later consolidates this notion when identifying the qualities of a great writer which, according to him, rest on the ability to use “language as a means of accessing a sublime, ephemeral metalanguage”. This is something Halfon does himself as he embarks on a journey to unravel the story of his grandfather while also telling his own. The narrator, a young Guatemalan literature professor with an identical background as Halfon, is jaded, disillusioned with his job and his students. Halfon’s weariness is briefly dispelled when he meets a budding undergraduate poet. Juan Kalel is a summation of Halfon’s own literary ambitions, a well of potential which the narrator immediately recognises and aims to nurture, but Kalel is forced to drop out of university to support his mother and his three sisters after his father’s sudden passing. The narrator goes to the boy’s hometown of Tecpán to return his notebook and to ask him to come back but Kalel is bound by duty, which must come before his studies, his art. Leaving the town, Halfon asserts that someone like Kalel could never abandon poetry “because poetry would never abandon him,” bringing the story to a lovely conclusion.

The eponymous chapter and two others centred exclusively on Halfon’s grandfather are by far the best of the lot. Halfon relays his grandfather’s story of surviving Auschwitz with a certain tenderness and a certain curiosity, a universal curiosity, which the writer bravely yields to. It took Halfon’s grandfather nearly 60 years to reveal to him the origin of the mysterious five digit number on his forearm. “It was in Auschwitz,” he told his grandson one evening. “At first I wasn’t sure I heard him,” writes Halfon, “I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle poured against the roof tiles. This, he said rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said.” The chapter showcases Halfon’s prowess both as a writer and a storyteller. The startling images conveying the tragic events at Sachsenhausen concentration camp stick in the mind with uneasy, lingering, poignancy. The writer brings the story to an equally startling close“All I could imagine,” he writes , “was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.” Elsewhere in the book, however, Halfon doesn’t do so well. Often, his descriptions and analogies jar as they do, for example, when he says his friend Milan Rakić has the look of a “well meaning vampire,” or observes that “the air smelled clean, naked,” or refers to a pair of eyes as “sky blue” or describes a particular word falling “like a dead dragonfly into a bowl of warm lentil soup”.   

Halfon excels as a writer when dealing with intangible, abstract, themes such as memory, desire and identity but errs again with relentless name dropping. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway  Bob Dylan, Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Lee Marvin, Andrei Tarkovsky, e.e cummings, Woody Allen, Fred Astaire, Federico Fellini, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, Liv Ullman, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Amedeo Modigliani all get a mention. This list is not exhaustive either.  The 192 page book is inundated with mentions of the great and the famous, to a gratuitous degree akin to boastful perorations about one’s intelligence. And there is little doubt that Halfon is intelligent, certainly in the way he deals with difficult and contentious subjects,  intrepidly confronting his own fears, prejudices and insecurities. “I couldn’t get far enough away from Judaism,” he confesses, “while Milan would never be close enough to the Gypsies.”  Halfon makes no secret of his apostasy, of his distaste for organised religion, of his distaste for Judaism in particular, the faith of his father and his “glass house world”. On the other hand, the writer is very clearly passionate about and fascinated by his immediate heritage. Guatemala is a place of wonder for Halfon, who pays homage to its rich and varied cultural traditions throughout the book. “Guatemala place names never cease to amaze me,” Halfon writes, for example, “They can be like gentle waterfalls, or beautiful cats purring, erotically, or itinerant jokes – it all depends…I suppose Guatemalan place names are the same as Guatemalans, when it comes down to it: a mix of delicate indigenous breezes and coarse Spanish phrases used by equally coarse conquistadors whose draconian imperialism is imposed in a ludicrous, brutal way.”

As the story progresses Halfon’s attention shifts from his grandfather to Milan, whom the writer travels to Belgrade to find after his postcards cease arriving. “I felt seduced, I guess,” Halfon tells his girlfriend Lía when she asks what had prompted him to go in search of the Gypsy pianist, “seduced by his music, seduced by his postcards, seduced by his story, seduced by the revolutionary tremors of his spirit, seduced by a smokey, erotic image…” Contemplating his experiences, Halfon concludes that there is always “more than one truth to everything”.  Life, love, literature. This point is further fortified when Halfon’s grandfather changes details of his survival story, reshaping his own memories, his own history and his grandson’s telling of it. “A story is nothing but a lie. An illusion,” Halfon writes early in the book, “And that illusion only works if we trust in it.” But sadly we no longer do; the writer shatters it in order to show literature’s chimerical nature, its artifice and casuistry. Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a sorcerer might perform,” Halfon writes toward the end of the book, “making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing. Or perhaps literature needs to construct one reality by destroying another – something that in a very intuitive sense my Grandfather knew – that is, by destroying and resurrecting itself from its own debris.” Halfon’s examination of perception and reality, fact and fiction, is interesting and interestingly approached, but if a story is in fact false does it make it less beautiful, moving or engrossing? On the whole, The Polish Boxer lacks cohesion. The three chapters dedicated to Halfon’s grandfather read like an independent story integrated between other independent stories, loosely bound together by a singular narrator and a handful of reoccurring references.

The Polish Boxer is Halfon’s first book in English, his ninth overall. It was originally conceived as a collection of stories and perhaps this is the reason why the chapters read like episodic shorts, each one varying in matter and subject yet linked to the next by seemingly arbitrary yet correlated elements: Guatemala, history, religion, identity, literature. The interconnection is made seamless by Halfon’s expert hand; it’s clear he is a seasoned writer and a gifted storyteller capable of producing vivid and beautiful prose. But sometimes his aesthetic and value decisions show lapses in judgement. As they do, for example, when Halfon assert that he cannot image anyone being able to resist falling in love with a woman “who had come back from vacation with her pubis shaved smooth” or when he says he associates “acts of power with sexual acts” and it may have “something to do with being Jewish”. But these are trivial grievances, and one can easily see why Halfon has recently been named one of the best young Latin American writers by the Hay Festival of Bogotá and was awarded the prestigious José María de Pereda Prize. He has also received the Guggenheim Fellowship to work on continuing The Polish Boxer, which is a great story and one that makes the reader feel as if he’s being “dragged along in the author’s wake,” through Guatemala, Belgrade and Auschwitz, through literature and history, through death and love, through life.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publication Date: October 2012
Paperback: 192 pages
ISBN: 9781908968074

Hermann Hesse: For Mad People Only

“Man is never happy,” wrote Arthur Schopenhauer “but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so”. This could not be more true of Harry Haller, the protagonist of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Haller is a reclusive middle-aged German intellectual – an aesthete and a connoisseur of Goethe, Mozart, Dante and Socrates – undergoing a spiritual crisis fuelled by contempt for bourgeois respectability and new world order; a crisis which began after his wife suffered a mental breakdown and turned him out of their home, and in which “love and trust”, he recalls, “had suddenly turned into hatred and mortal combat…that had been the begging of my progressive isolation.” Originally published in 1927, Steppenwolf has recently been newly translated and reissued by Penguin Classics. It is said to be loosely based on Hesse’s own personal crisis of 1924-6, which commenced with the separation from his second wife of just few months, Ruth Wenger, and prompted a deep self-loathing, periodic seclusion and a suicidal predisposition. Steppenwolf is, therefore, largely viewed as an abstract transliteration of Hesse’s own traumatic experiences during this particular time. Not only that, the book’s protagonist reads like a nimbly fictionalised doppelganger of the writer, sharing similar childhood memories and upbringing; similar political views, beliefs, resolutions; and similar travails and psychological prostrations.

Set in a nameless German city in the Weimar Republic, Steppenwolf chronicles Haller’s “solitary, loveless, hectic, utterly disordered life,” his days as a man on the periphery of society and plenary reclusion. His narrative is a panorama of hallucinations, reveries and occasional confrontations with the innominate city’s bohemian denizens. Haller exhibits masochistic tendencies, derives pleasure from suffering and often contemplates suicide. “Contentment doesn’t agree with me”, he says. “After a short spell, finding it insufferably detestable and sickening, I have to seek refuge in other climes, possibly resorting to sensual pleasures, but if necessary even opting for the path of pain.” On the other hand, he also experiences sporadic upturns of mood, namely when listening to music, reading, or partaking in other intellectual pursuits. Yet for the most part, Haller longs to do daringly foolish things, such as “tear the wigs from the heads of a few revered idols, stand the fares of some rebellious schoolboys desperate to visit Hamburg, seduce a little girl, or twist the neck of the odd representative of the bourgeois powers that be”. He is a man at odds with himself, “partly human, partly wolfish”, conflicted about the physical and the spiritual, the cerebral and the sensual, the conscious and the subconscious sides of life – an entity of irreconcilable dichotomies.

For a time, however, Haller attempts to find solace in human contact after meeting the mysterious Hermione (a girl like “life itself, forever fickle as the moment, never predictable in advance”), the “good looking, young, cheerful, very good in bed and not always available” Maria, and the dubious jazz musician by the name of Pablo. He tries to immerse himself in the city’s nightlife, and its many tawdry integuments, but is unable to overcome his need for isolation, his aversion to the commonplace or his internal disharmony. It is not until the last stage of the book and the Magic Theater episode that Haller is able to reconcile his duality or gain real knowledge of his “true self”. The preternatural realm of the Theater, reached by means of subtropical chemicals, is a cartography of Haller’s own mind which he explores at will, meeting his idols and hyperbolic versions of the characters whom he encountered during his nocturnal adventures. This brings him closer to understanding himself and his plight, which emancipates him from his tormented existence and the approach of madness.

Madness is a running theme in Steppenwolf, as the narrator at the start of the book forewarns the reader it is intended “For Mad People Only”. This slogan later reappears to Haller in an epiphany, and as an exordium to his exploits at the Magic Theater. Time and again the idea surfaces, as when Haller, contemplating humanity while speaking to Hermione, whom he believes to be a kindred spirit, says: “The image of humankind , once a lofty ideal, is currently turning, into a cliché. Perhaps mad people like us will be the ones to restore its nobility.” And while Haller may have little luck with humanity, he succeeds in restoring a sense of inner equilibrium in himself,  which may or may not facilitate him becoming one with the world. Hesse once explained the meaning of Steppenwolf by saying he intended to show that one must be content with oneself and self-aware and thus bestow, by establishing an inner peace, harmony onto a world afflicted with moral aberration and discord. And in that Hesse succeeds, by writing exceptionally earnestly and with an extraordinary clarity about the quest for the meaning of life, and the difficulties in finding it. Shortly after Steppenwolf was published Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1946)  “for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style.”

These qualities continued to evolve until the end of his life in 1962. Born in Calw in the Black Forest on 2nd July 1877 to parents of a mixed Baltic, German and French Swiss heritage, Hesse spent most of his formative years in boarding schools in Wuerttemberg and in the theological seminary of the monastery at Maulbronn. “I was a good learner”, he recalled later: “good at Latin though only fair at Greek, but I was not a very manageable boy, and it was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality.” In truth, Hesse never did fit in and Steppenwolf is a testament to that: a towering and artistic – if stinging – excoriation of European culture and values, lamenting its lack of spiritual and humanist dimensions; an intriguing and controversial book for “For Mad People Only”; a book, in other words, for most of us.

Phil Baker: The skilful biographer

In his eponymous study of William S. Burroughs (published by Reaktion Books in their Critical Lives series) Phil Baker skilfully chronicles this most controversial and illustrious counterculture figure’s life from his boyhood in Show-Me-State St Louis, Missouri; through to his galliard years in Europe; his days as a junky on the streets of New York; his spell in Mexico City; his nomadic roving in Morocco and South America; to his senescence and eventual death in Kansas in 1997. Burroughs died a cult icon, a figure of worldwide acclaim with a status akin to that of a rock star. And almost two decades after his death, he still remains as fascinating as his auctorial prose, which shifted nebulous boundaries between fact and fiction. The fescennine nature of his work, and the attempts to censor it, has also generated considerable interest in the man himself. Chronicling the early years, Baker notes that Burroughs was almost exclusively attracted by the unorthodox and the occult. Excited by the sight of a maid smoking opiates young Burroughs said to himself: “I will smoke opium when I grow up.” True to his word he first tried drugs (chloral hydrate) while still at school. Burroughs didn’t like school, preferring to spend time on Market Street, “the skid row” of his adolescent youth.

Burroughs’ early experience of “tattoo parlours, novelty stores [and] hock shops” came to constitute the ambiance of much of his prose. But his chief impetus to write was actually literature. Baker notes that aged 13 Burroughs “encountered the book that was to have the greatest effect on his writing… the autobiography of a criminal, Jack Black’s 1925 You Can’t Win.” Speaking of it later, Burroughs remembered being “fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming house, pool parlours, cat houses and opium dens.” Due to his idiosyncratic interests, Burroughs came to be viewed as an outsider and this sense of exclusion not only characterised his early life but also followed him when he went to Harvard in 1932 to study English Literature. Despite the odds firmly stacked against him, he received “a good education.” Baker explains: “He attended George Lyman Kittredge’s then famous Shakespeare lectures, learned a great deal of Shakespeare by heart, and took a course on Coleridge’s imagination with John Livingstone Lowes, author of the classis study The Road to Xandau.” He even “saw T.S Eliot give one of his Charles Eliot Norton lectures”. And yet despite complete immersion in academia, Burroughs felt compelled to explore the underground subculture of New York City, Harlem nightclubs and sex. Burroughs was unpopular at Harvard; he kept a ferret in his room and a “gun, against regulations” once narrowly escaping a lethal accident.

After leaving Harvard in 1936, Burroughs travelled to New York where he was introduced to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Joan Vollmer. Burroughs and Vollmer became lovers in 1945 and were soon living together as common-law husband and wife. Joan was later famously a victim of one of Burroughs’ most notorious capers. “I guess it’s about time for out William Tell act,” Burroughs reportedly said to Vollmer after an evening out in Mexico City. “Joan was fairly drunk and she giggled as she balanced a glass on her head,” Baker writes, “Burroughs took aim at the top of the glass and fired, with the shocking sound of the gun indoors. A moment later the glass was one the floor but still unbroken…There was a small blue hole in Joan’s forehead, four or five centremetres to the left of the centre. Joan died on the way to the hospital. Burroughs was detained by the police and later sentenced to two years suspended, minus 13 days. According to Baker “Burroughs never stopped turning the event in his mind. He even thought of trying to write something about it but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was afraid…not so much of finding the ‘unconscious intent’ but something altogether wider.” Burroughs recorded his own feelings in a journal, saying: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I never should have become a writer but for Joan’s death. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control.”  This need was indeed evident both in his life and in his work. During this period Burroughs was travelling a lot, he “was changing. His politics were mellowing; he stopped using the word ‘Liberal’ as a term of abuse…His comic talents were sharpening.” Not only that, Burroughs was also experimenting with yage, a drug that made everything “writhe with a peculiar furtive life.” He later recalled that it was like “space-time travel,” something he had longed for but hadn’t previously found.

In 1953, Burroughs returned to Mexico City but unable to settle went back to St Louis and later to stay with Ginsberg in New York. The two became embroiled in a sexual relationship, which ended abruptly and saw Burroughs leave for Tangiers, a place where “fact merges into dream, and dreams erupt into real world.”  Burroughs was missing Ginsberg and in a letter to Kerouac wrote that “the withdrawal symptoms are worse than the Marker habit. One letter would fix me.” In absence of the epistolary panacea, Burroughs was getting fixed on Eucodol and a young Spaniard, who was to become his lover for the next several years. Quietly dissatisfied with his new life, lonely and sequestered, Burroughs felt old (now in his 40s) and just as alone as he had done in his teenage years. He saw himself move through the world “like a ghost” who would end up as a “crazy old bore somewhere in a bar”.  Burroughs’ addiction to Eucodol was also spiralling out of control. He was injecting every two hours and “could now spend eight hours staring at his shoe, periodically sticking a needle into his grey fibrous flesh.” These details of an addict’s lifestyle later made it into his work, which had come to a halt until he fled to London in 1956 to seek help. Clean, he went back to Tangiers and began writing, fuelled by inspiration that came like a “great black wind through the bones.”

Two years later, Burroughs followed Ginsberg and his new lover Peter Orlovsky to Paris. By February 1958, Burroughs was once again developing a drug habit by way of Codethyline. While in Paris, Ginsberg and Burroughs went on a pilgrimage to meet Louis-Ferdinand Céline and “walked straight into a Celine novel”. It was from him and his “style telegraphique” that the Beats “took their free use of dots” to capture the spoken word effect. Among other notables, Burroughs also met Jaques Stern, “a millionaire, French junky intellectual, crippled by polio” whose prose fragments were later inosculated with Burroughs’ cut-up prose most notably in The Soft Machine. Burroughs also became better acquainted with Brion Gysin, a “regally smooth artist” whom he first met in Tangiers. His interest in the “irrational occult” deepened due to Gysin, who replaced Ginsberg in Burroughs affections, and the new lover fortified for Burroughs the belief in “super-surreal consolidation of reality and dream.” The following year, Burroughs began to experience numinous visions and “paranormal occurrences were coming so thick and fast he could barely get them down on paper.” At one point he reportedly saw “his own hand turn completely inhuman, thick, black-pink, with white tendrils growing out where the fingertips had been.” He also took to crystal ball gazing and saw “flying saucers like flat fish full of black fuzz”. Burroughs was writing Naked Lunch and Ginsberg was trying to get it published, which he did. The work made Burroughs both famous and infamous. He later recalled seeing a review in which “they had a picture of me in a suit, saying ‘He has the appearance of a Protestant minister or a banker, but actually he’s very subversive, dedicated to subverting all decent values.” Oppugning rather than subverting, perhaps, but Burroughs’ prose is so multidimensional, so full of anacolutha and fragmentations that it is often susceptible to misinterpretation. Naked Lunch is hostile and brutish yet it is also a considered and intricate study of the human condition.

Not long after, Gysin came up with the cut up technique which “would dominate Burroughs’ work for the next decade.” By 1960, the cut up method produced two collaborative efforts. One between the key Beats, Minutes to God, and the other between Burroughs and Gysin called The Exterminator. Around this time Burroughs took to travelling again, and while in Paris met Samuel Beckett. Although interested in Burroughs, Beckett was less enthused about the cut-ups, remarking of the method: “That’s not writing, that’s merely plumbing.” He did, however, compliment Naked Lunch, telling Burroughs: “Our despair is total. Total! That’s what I felt in Naked Lunch and why I like it.” Later, Burroughs travelled to London where he became involved in barmecidal spiritualism and new mind-altering-substances, including pilocybin and DMT which resulted in grotesque visions of “green boys with purple fungoid gills” and “white ovens”. Burroughs was well received in Britain but his reputation and the sales of Naked Lunch were going agley in New York. By 1963, the book was deemed obscene by the courts due to too “many baboons” and insurrectionary ideas. It was perhaps Burroughs’ provocative lifestyle as well as prose – the drugs, the ostentatious degradation, contempt for convention and law – that many middle class Americans found an effrontery. As Baker says, Burroughs’ prose landscape was “an unmistakable place, with its penny arcades and vacant lots, China blue skies, 1920s movies, a smell of woodsmoke and piano music down a city street, train whistles, frayed light from a distant star, rose wallpaper and brass bedsteads, ginger haired boys with red gums, deformed fish snapping lazily at jissom on the surface of a black lagoon, and lesbian agents with penises grafted on to their faces, sitting outside a cafe in white trench coats, drinking spinal fluids from alabaster cups.” That was Burroughs and it was decidedly not America.

By 1966, after a stint in New York Burroughs was back in London. He was growing stranger and more paranoid as the decade went on, becoming increasingly superstitious and developing an interest in Scientology, which he later abandoned for politics. By 1968, Burroughs was metamorphosing into “a revolutionary thinker, dreaming up left-field guerrilla tactics for the overthrow of society.” He became more erratic during his public appearances talking about: killer whistles, camel endorphins as painkillers and the abandonment of one’s biological brain. Burroughs’ time in London was rather troubled and “he hated the licensing laws and the British class system.” For him, London was a grey city full of bad service. Depressed and largely alone except for an occasional “dilly boy,” Burroughs was visited by Ginsberg. Dismayed by the state of affairs, Ginsberg arranged a teaching post for him in New York City Collage and Burroughs left London in 1974. He found New York to be “one of the most polite cities” he had ever inhabited. While there, he met a young man called James Grauerholz. The two became lovers, but soon the affair dissipated and Grauerholz took on a role as Burroughs’ manager, using his experience of “organising rock gigs to give Burroughs a financially viable career in live performances.” By now in his 60s Burroughs was “becoming one of the world’s foremost celebrities, lionised by rock stars,” hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Joe Strummer and Mick Jagger. But he was also surrounded by parasites and sycophants, and fed up with the lifestyle decided to move to Kansas in 1981.

With London, New York and Paris behind him Burroughs preoccupied himself with his interest in firearms and spent many an afternoon “blasting away at targets and refreshing himself with vodka and Coke.” His emotional coenaesthesis was finally dispelled by a new found love for animals, cats in particular. “Burroughs’ cats reminded him of people he had known,” writes Baker, “He felt them as autonomous, struggling, mortal beings, and he found again the sense of essential contact that he had always sought in relationships.” He even had a sticker on his front door in case of emergencies, alerting people that there were cats inside that must be saved. This paints a very different picture of “the sheep killing dog” and the “insane German philosopher in exile” that Burroughs was often portrayed as. Most of his later work revolved around his renewed interest in “occult style astral travel” and mystical devices, documented in Bodies of Light, Western Lands and Education: A Book of Dreams. Some thought the old man was going senile, but Baker says “many of Burroughs’ beliefs are easily paraphrased in psychic terms, but this doesn’t explain their cultural significance or why varieties of the same paranoia were central to the work of several American writers in the same era, including Hunter S Thompson, Thomas Pynchon and Philip K Dick.” Perhaps they were all onto something. In the last couple of decades, Burroughs remained en vogue, appearing on television and in film as “filth flder par excellence”. Highly cherished in his adopted home-town as a lovable “old gink” he trudged on into old age, wryly attributing his longevity to “healthy living.” He also said he no longer felt lonely or unloved because he had “his familiars,” his friends and his cats. So in the end the most unpopular boy from St Louis had actually found something he had been looking all his life, the “most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE.”

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