My Name Is Aram

William Saroyan

1940

(An open and curious boy growing up in an Armenian community in California encounters the rich quirkiness of his family and neighbors.)

Crop of Future Master Builder (1972), by Armenian artist Ashot Melkonian (1930-2009). Visible at sputnikimages.com, and along with Melkonian’s other paintings at Por amor al arte.

 

Writing from the spirit of memory.

Not a record of specific memories, but effortless intuitive writing that naturally conjures the ethos, tinged with wistfulness, that can accompany the distant remembrance of simpler times.

This was the inspiration of William Saroyan as he sat down, and boom, suddenly there appears what would become his best loved book of stories. With all the intense effort I put into my other books, this one (I’m imagining he thought), the one that practically wrote itself, the one in which I warned readers that nothing extraordinary would happen, this is the one?! In his own incredulous (or perhaps disingenuous) words, he “does not believe this manner of writing is the way to get a message to go high-rolling down the ages”. Its greatest value, he thought (not without satire), would be to disqualify him for membership in prestigious literary societies. One can understand why he was thinking this way. In the second half of the 1930s, having risen to the top of the charts, so to speak, with his debut collection of stories including “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”, all eyes were on William Saroyan. Surrounded by the effervescing produce of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, the pressure was on Saroyan to be likewise that great writer. And he did have such ambitions for himself. Yet, something drove him when starting My Name Is Aram to leave society’s gauntlet where it was thrown… or else maybe to find a different way to pick it up. My hunch (with hardly any evidence to back it up) is that he looked at this literary world he had entered, and decided that one helpful thing he could do right away is to center or root himself—to ask himself what had been important in making him who he is. Then, to search that out, or to convey it, he sat back and reminisced (pen in hand) about his humble early life in the immigrant Armenian fruit-growing community of the San Joaquin Valley, California. His goal was not to expose the suffering of the poor or rail eloquently against social ills, not to decry materialism or the threat of fascism, not to create a work of stylistic genious. Rather, his goal was simply to paint vignettes of the sorts of characters that were his family and neighbors in pre-Depression Fresno—to smile at them, to paint them in a sympathetic light, and to draw gently from them what practical wisdom and wit influenced his own development and might be worth preserving for others. Thus we have the young Aram Garoghlanian. And as the author says of himself, though he might not be Aram, he is certainly not not Aram.

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The Honorary Consul

Graham Greene

1973

(Argentinian revolutionaries abduct the wrong political figure by mistake, and one cynical acquaintance is the only one who cares… perhaps not even he does.)

 Film and TelevisionStill from the 1983 John Mackenzie film The Honorary Consul (later changed inscrutably to Beyond the Limit); Bob Hoskins plays the Argentinian Colonel Perez, who is suspicious of Eduardo Plarr (played by Richard Gere) of being too close to the revolutionaries. This image featured on Metro UK when Bob Hoskins died in 2014.

 

Graham Greene, though a writer of great variety, is known for his “seedy” settings (he popularized the adjective, much to his regret) and the moral dimension of his very human characters. In these respects The Honorary Consul is an enduring and typical example of Greene’s style. Early in the book the protagonist Eduardo Plarr criticizes the romantic novelist Saavedra by saying that “life isn’t like” the way that author writes. Here Greene crafts a novel according to the alternative strategy; to show what life is like, with real people encountering real difficulties. The characters’ frail humanity and the ambivalence of their commitments will encourage us imperfect readers to relate honestly to them. The author refuses to vault skyward into heroism, idealism, wonder, or joy, perhaps as these are short-lived and usually confused in the real world. The good guys are bad enough to prevent us from admiring them, and the bad guys are good enough to prevent us from demonizing them. No character has an entirely appetizing mixture of traits, but no character is thoroughly distasteful either.

Like many readers, my gut draws me towards works whose moral distinctions rise into sharper relief—I enjoy esteeming my protagonists. If we insist on this criterion, Greene will not fare well. After meeting the main characters and following them around for a while, we might question whether they are likable enough company. Such readers must take a step of faith throughout the first 100 pages or so, that Greene is telling us a story that we will really care to read. Embarking on the book was for me like hearing the first few sentences of a party yarn that we fear might not be worth the patience. However, may no reader give up before realizing Greene’s purpose! The first impression fades and becomes irrelevant as one reads onward. The grayscale characterization is not due to neglect or apathy on the part of the author. Far from it—the ambiguity represents a strategy conceived for a distinct moral purpose, as paradoxical as this seems. A novel need not be moralizing to be morally interesting.

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“On Fairy-stories”

J. R. R. Tolkien

1938

(The realm of Faërie is no frivolity, but a place of profound enchantment, offering glimpses into deep mysteries and addressing fundamental human desires.)

Crop of The Gardens of the Merking’s Palace, by J. R. R. Tolkien (1927), an illustration for Roverandom. (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

 

“Lies, though breathed through silver”. It was September 1931. Little could J. R. R. Tolkien have guessed that this insult of myth, from the mouth of his hard-headed friend C. S. Lewis, would spur him to a rebuttal that would blossom into the most sustained and thoughtful argument for the value of fiction in the history of literature. And, while we’re at it, little could Lewis have guessed that Tollers’ argument, as they walked in a park behind Magdalen College, Oxford, would plant a mustard seed that would eventually transform Lewis into a myth-maker himself, not to mention the most celebrated writer on God (that myth of all myths) in the twentieth century. What was that argument? What path could possibly carry a wayfarer from the valley where myths are childish propaganda, to the hilltop where they are powerful elicitors of fleeting joy and hint at truths beyond our comprehension?

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The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1943

(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)

ExuperyIllustration

Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan LibraryNew York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.

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The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells

1910

(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

 John Mills stars in the 1949 film version of the History of Mr Polly.John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive

 

“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

Arthur Conan Doyle

1902

(The scientific minds of Holmes and Watson are tested by howls on the moor, the legend of a fiery hell-hound, and a giant pawprint next to a dead nobleman.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles bCrop of The Hound of the Baskervilles, an illustration by Matthew Stewart commissioned for the Easton Press edition of Doyle’s novel.  It is accompanied by the following quote from the book: “Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined with a flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face.”

 

A novel-length Sherlock Holmes mystery!  The readers of the Strand Magazine must have been delighted.  They must have vigorously discussed with each other the prospects of the case between installments.  Releasing a detective story by degrees has got to be risky, since the readers have so much time to figure everything out.  There are enough threads interwoven in this story, though, and enough minor details that must be incorporated into a solution, that I suspect almost everyone will be surprised at something in the denouement.  Besides, we would need a healthy dose of luck to solve the riddle ourselves, for there are crucial elements about which we can only guess during the narration.  These are revealed to us only after Holmes has discovered them and solved the case in his mind.  In this way, Doyle all but ensures that competition with the sleuth is beyond our grasp.

Although the most haunting aspect of the typical Sherlock Holmes case is nothing more than the dense fog of pipe smoke around the detective’s chair, Doyle did have an interest in spiritualism, and wrote a few books on the subject. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he combines these two interests by infusing the tale with a strong atmosphere of macabre otherworldliness. Probably more than the facts of the case or its solution, the damp darkness and chilling moans of the moor are likely to remain with us long after we have finished reading the book.

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Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste… or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his “lesser”, although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot’s ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one’s tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

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Cimarron

Edna Ferber

1930

(The Oklahoma land rush of 1889 gives Yancey Cravat an opportunity to rescue his wife from civilized mediocrity, and head west for the untamed life of the pioneer.)

XiangZhangOklahomaLandRush1893Oklahoma Land Rush 1893, by contemporary Chinese-American painter Xiang Zhang.  This painting can be found in his online gallery.

Yancey Cravat is the Cimarron—the wild one, like an aimless river or a jousting bighorn sheep. He may tote legal volumes as easily as a gun, and be as quick with a Shakespeare quote as with a trigger; and yes, he’s a lawyer and the editor of a socially active newspaper… but this is no milktoast city boy. This is Buffalo-Head, the tall, gruff, steel-eyed pioneer for whom three years in the same place or a single day without some sort of risk or conflict is evidently his idea of hell. And, no doubt, the wife of such a one is bound to be some kind of woman: Sabra, a sharp, spirited, strong, self-sufficient saber of a woman. In fact, although most assessments of this book will tell you that its permanence lies in its presentation to the world of the unforgettable Yancey Cravat, who is it that ties the book together? Whom does the narrative follow, when Yancey’s itchy traveling bone takes him to Alaska or the Spanish-American war? Not him, but the determined, toiling Sabra. Granted, she lacks the explosive flash of her husband–her way is much too pragmatic to put her in much danger or make her many enemies.  But she is really the central character of the book, the one who grows, the one who succeeds in adapting herself to the various jolting cultural shifts that get thrown into her path by the errant Yancey, or by her son, or by the discovery of oil.  At first entry into the fledgling land rush town of Osage, Oklahoma, fresh from the overprotection of her family the proper Venables of Wichita, she breaks into sobs when kissed by a stranger on the street. But give her eight or nine years, and she’s riding in the middle of the night into an Indian reservation during a mescal ceremony and demanding that her unconscious son be thrown onto her cart so she can bring him home. But of course, yes, we do want to hear about Yancey, despite… or maybe partly because of… his refusal to stick around. He’s idealistic, imposing, and indomitable. Take one particular tent meeting, for instance: in the course of giving a sermon, he manages to work in a self-defense killing—yes, the actual killing, not the story of a killing. And when warned that his pro-Indian editorials are going to get him killed, his reply is simply the unearthly death-scream of the Cherokee.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel

Baroness Emmuska Orczy

1905

(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)

ScarletPimpernel_IanMcKellenIan McKellen as the French inspector Chauvelin in the 1982 London Films production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, which also starred Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour.  This and other stills can be found at the blog Of Trims and Frills and Furbelows.  

 

Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you.  This is no Austen or Brontë novel.  It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson.  What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks!  Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere.  Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society.  The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity.  But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.

A Sand County Almanac

 Aldo Leopold

1948

(An ecologist contemplates and celebrates the land, and recommends an expansion of our moral world.)

 LeopoldArcherAldo Leopold in Mexico, 1938.  Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin

Today it is routine in courses on ecology, forestry, conservation, environmental philosophy or land use, to introduce three personalities as the fathers of modern concern for nature, the three voices that first and most strongly urged us to enlarge our conception of what in this world is a proper object of moral consideration:  Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.  Contemporary American (and to some extent world) culture has been impacted by A Sand County Almanac, as by Thoreau’s Walden, to such an extent that we cannot yet begin to assess it.  Nevertheless, I would argue that we as a culture have still not attended to the two main lessons A Sand County Almanac would teach us.

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