A Streetcar Named Slothrop

Displaced Person’s Song

If you see a train this evening,
Far away, against the sky,
Lie down in your woolen blanket,
Sleep and let the train go by.

Trains have called us, every midnight,
From a thousand miles away,
Trains that pass through empty cities,
Trains that have no place to stay.

No one drives the locomotive,
No one tends the staring light,
Trains have never needed riders,
Trains belong to bitter night.

Railway stations stand deserted,
Rights-of-way lie clear and cold,
What we left them, trains inherit,
Trains go on, and we grow old.

Let them cry like cheated lovers,
Let their cries find only wind,
Trains are meant for night and ruin,
And we are meant for song and sin.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Dallas Streetcar

 

I enjoyed the initial meeting of the group that was to read Gravity’s Rainbow. My only problem was the distance. The drive, on a Wednesday evening, from my work, across town, fighting traffic all the way and back – was no fun at all. It made me doubt my commitment. Plus, one of my goals for the year was to reduce my (for me) already low driving mileage. A there-and-back-again trip across town every week would add to (maybe double) my driving.

But after thinking about it and then a good consultation of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit website I realized that I could leave from the LBJ/Central DART train station near my work, ride downtown on the Red line, and then after walking a couple short blocks, ride the new Dallas Streetcar across the Trinity River Bottoms to Bishop Arts – only a couple more blocks to my destination – The Wild Detectives.

So that’s what I did – I filled my book bag with my tabbed copy of Gravity’s Rainbow and my copy of Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow (for reference and grins) and headed for the station.

LBJ Central DART Train Station, looking at my book while waiting for the train.

The ride was enjoyable – or at least better than fighting the million other cars that are going somewhere at the same time as I was. Something about sitting in a train, relaxed, looking out the window at the miles of cars sitting still, on freeway and cross streets, all the white lights lines up on the left and the red ones on the right.

Woodall Rogers Expressway, Dallas, Texas

The streetcar is pretty cool. It crosses the river where there are no overhead power lines, so it is the first streetcar to rely on batteries to bridge an unelectrified stretch.

The trip isn’t fast – it took an hour each way… mostly spent waiting on a train or streetcar. The walks at each end or between stations weren’t bad at all, though.

Oh, and the discussion was enjoyable and cool. And someone brought banana bread.

A Screaming Comes Across the Sky

Gravity’s Rainbow fractured literature, which previously had been fractured only by Ulysses and which no book has so fractured since. Pynchon’s novel transcends assessment: whatever you think of it, whatever you can even begin to think of it, you can’t resist it, it’s inexorable, the event horizon of contemporary literature.

—-Steve Erickson, introduction to One Picture for Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, 2004, by Zac Smith

 

A few days ago, some of us were getting together for the holidays and wanted to eat somewhere in the Bishop Arts District. Everybody met at one of my favorite haunts – The Wild Detectives – a bookstore with coffee and beer (right?) and then walked out together to find some vittles.

As we were walking down the front steps, I saw this sign:

Sign at The Wild Detectives bookstore, Dallas, Texas

Wednesday, January 2, Gravity’s Rainbow Reading? What is that?

Then this morning, I received an email inviting me to a three month group reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh hell yea.

I’ve read the book, starting in, say, 1976 – only a few years after it came out. I finished it twenty five years later. I think it’s time to read it again. We’ll be reading about ten pages a day – which doesn’t sound like a lot – but Gravity’s Rainbow is no easy read. We’ll get together every Wednesday at Wild Detectives at 7:30 to discuss what we have read that week. I’ll have to postpone my reading of Zola for the duration, but I wanted a break anyway. It will be a haul to get down to the Bishop Arts District after work on Wednesdays – but I’m already working on mass transit options.

I drove down there tonight for the introduction. There were a good number (maybe 25?) folks ready to dig in. We’ll see how many make it to the end.

What fun!

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

—-First Line, Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Swedish Edition of Gravity’s Rainbow

The Dream (Le Reve) by Zola

Le Reve, by Emile Zola

“The vision that had emerged from the invisible was returning to the invisible. It was no more an appearance that was fading away, having created an illusion. All is but a dream. And, at the peak of happiness, Angélique had vanished, in the faint breath of a kiss.”
― Émile Zola, The Dream

Ok, for awhile now I’ve been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Marquat 20 novel series of French life in the Second Empire – Reading them not in the order that they were written, but in the recommended reading order.

Next is Le Rêve (The Dream). It is a complete departure from the other books in the Rougon-Marquat series. Instead of complex, realistic stories – it is the simple, yet fantastic, romantic tale of an orphan girl Angélique, that falls in love with a wealthy nobleman. She is a descendant of the Rougon family – providing the tenuous connection with the rest of the books. Angélique does suffer from the mental instability of her kin, which provides a window into her obsession with the saints and the idea of a perfect romance.

I have to admit, though, I didn’t like the book very much. It starts out with a lot of promise, the young girl abandoned in the snow near a great cathedral in rural France – it’s a powerful image. But the story spends too many words in cataloging a parade of saints and the stories of The Golden Legend. It become tedious and not very interesting to a modern reader.

In doing research about the book, I did find something I really liked. There are a series of amazing illustrations for the novel by Carlos Schwabe. I was not familiar with the artist and looking around the web there are some really interesting stuff he’s done. I especially like the drawings he did for Baudelaire’s book of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal. Have to look into these some more.

Illustration for Zola’s Le Reve, by Carlos Schwabe

 

 

Carlos Schwabe, Spleen et Idéal (1896)
from Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

Carlos Schwabe, from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal

 

Money (L’Argent) by Zola

Money (L’Argent) by Emile Zola

“In love as as in speculation there is much filth; in love also, people think only of their own gratification; yet without love there would be no life, and the world would come to an end.”
― Émile Zola, L’Argent

 

Ok, for awhile now I’ve been working my way through Zola’s Rougon-Marquat 20 novel series of French life in the Second Empire – Reading them not in the order that they were written, but in the recommended reading order.

Money (L’Argent) is the eighteenth book written, but it is a sequel to La Curée, the 3rd book in the recommended order, so I read Money as the fourth. It has the same cast of characters – a little older but definitely no wiser.

I really enjoyed the book. It is a tale of rivers of money, oceans of gold, all stolen, gambled, speculated on. It is, of course, more relevant today than it was when it was written. I couldn’t help but do some re-research into the latest financial crisis and how similar the disaster was to the greed and insanity described in the novel.

In La Curée Aristide Saccard (he changed his last name from Rougon to avoid embarrassment to his powerful politician brother) rose and fell on naked ambition and audacious financial manipulations. In the sequel he finds himself broke, but with the same greed, reckless daring, and collection of equally devious connections. He sets out to turn the world on its head. The story of speculation and deceit is fascinating and engrossing and worth the careful reading it takes.

The whole adventure comes down to a final cataclysmic battle between Saccard’s bulls and the bears that oppose him. I still don’t completely understand how the bears make money – other than the destruction of Saccard and his allies – I didn’t read much about how they went about short selling for example – but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

So now it’s on the the next, The Dream (Le Rêve). I have already taken a look, started it, and it seems to be completely different in style and theme from the rest of the series. We’ll see.

 

La Curée

“This was the time when the rush for the spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and women.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

La Curée (The Kill), Emile Zola

A couple days ago I finished the next book in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series,  La Curée – or The Kill in English. It was the 2nd book written but the 3rd in the suggested reading order, which I am following.

The Kill in the title refers to the way the hunting dogs fall upon the remains after a hunt. It’s a good description of a book that describes the corrosive damage of unbridled and unprincipled greed, lust, and decadence set free in a city like Paris. During this time of France’s Second Empire Paris is being torn up and rebuilt with an unlimited opportunity for corruption and graft.

The story concerns the “career” of Aristide Saccard, the brother of Eugene Rougon who was the protagonist of the book before this, Son Excellence Eugène RougonSaccard changed his name from Rougon to avoid dragging his powerful brother down into his own scandals and to disguise the relationship between the two ambitious kinsmen.

It is a story of a certain sort of wealth – wealth born of speculation and borrowing, where the appearance of decadent affluence is more important than actual prosperity. The people in this story live in incredible luxury while having to scramble constantly to maintain the illusion, never sure where the next sous is coming from or when their creditors are going to call their debts in and ruin them.

It is also a story of promiscuity and sex – of debauchery and incest. Surprisingly racy for something written a century and a half ago. It is not pornographic in the modern sense – the actually moment is never described exactly, but there is no doubt about what is going on. It contains pages of description that skirt a little bit around… and that makes it even more effective.

“Endless love and voluptuous appetite pervaded this stifling nave in which settled the ardent sap of the tropics. Renée was wrapped in the powerful bridals of the earth that gave birth to these dark growths, these colossal stamina; and the acrid birth-throes of this hotbed, of this forest growth, of this mass of vegetation aglow with the entrails that nourished it, surrounded her with disturbing odours. At her feet was the steaming tank, its tepid water thickened by the sap from the floating roots, enveloping her shoulders with a mantle of heavy vapours, forming a mist that warmed her skin like the touch of a hand moist with desire. Overhead she could smell the palm trees, whose tall leaves shook down their aroma. And more than the stifling heat, more than the brilliant light, more than the great dazzling flowers, like faces laughing or grimacing between the leaves, it was the odours that overwhelmed her. An indescribable perfume, potent, exciting, composed of a thousand different perfumes, hung about her; human exudation, the breath of women, the scent of hair; and breezes sweet and swooningly faint were blended with breezes coarse and pestilential, laden with poison. But amid this strange music of odours, the dominant melody that constantly returned, stifling the sweetness of the vanilla and the orchids’ pungency, was the penetrating, sensual smell of flesh, the smell of lovemaking escaping in the early morning from the bedroom of newlyweds.”
― Émile Zola, La Curée

Strong stuff. A portrait of a time not unlike our own. Despite the fact there is no character in the book that could be described as sympathetic and the downfall of poor Renée is obvious from the start (though she does have a lot of wicked fun along the way) the book is still worth the read.

I was able to find a modern translation and I wonder how much different the bowdlerized contemporaneous English version was (the English weren’t as open to salacious and shocking prose as the French) – but I still have a lot of books to go in the series.

So next it is on to  L’Argent (Money) – one of the last books in the series written, but the next in the recommended order as it is a direct sequel to La Curée.

 

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon

“He [Eugène Rougon] believed exclusively in himself; where another saw reasons, Rougon possessed convictions; he subordinated everything to the incessant aggrandisement of his own ego. Despite being utterly devoid of real self-indulgence, he nevertheless indulged in secret orgies of supreme power.”
― Émile Zola, His Excellency

Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, real life basis for Clorinde Balbi, from the book His Excellency, by Emile Zola

I just finished another book in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one was Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (His Excellency, in English). This was the sixth book written, but the second one in the recommended order – that I am following. The book was excellent (even though I was reading an inferior translation) although I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book The Fortune of the Rougons.

The book is a finely-drawn portrait of the highest reaches of power during France’s Second Empire. It follows the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Eugène Rougon – a power mad politician and one of the branches of the Rougon trunk of the Rougon-Macquart family that spreads across the twenty novels. Rougon has a diverse crew of hangers-on that depend on his influence for their ill-gotten gains – but are more than ready to throw him under the bus at any time.

His main rival is Clorinde Balbi – a young, beautiful ambitious woman that is forced to depend on her own skills and machinations – all behind the scenes – to advance her own cause and bring her revenge upon Rougon – who rejects her and marries her off to one of his friends. She is by far the most interesting character in the novel – a woman before her time doing the best she can. Still, the novel is more of a portrait of an age and place than a gripping story – its one weakness is that none of the characters are really worth caring about. I am glad I read it, though – it does a great job of transporting the reader to an exotic time and place – one that in its corruption and grubbing for power is still frighteningly familiar.

I finished the book on vacation, on a Caribbean cruise. The last few pages were turned (more accurately clicked – I was reading on a Kindle) lounging on a remote uncrowded deck, while the turquoise waves rumbled past. Reading on vacation seems like a waste of precious leisure time, but I enjoy it immensely. What could be better than being in one exotic location (on a ship at sea) and being transported to another – Paris in the Second Empire?

Now, on the the next, La Curée (The Kill). This one looks especially good.

The Fortune of the Rougons

“They again kissed each other and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, that stared wildly and fixedly upon the pale, slumbering couple who reeked with crime beneath their very sheets, and dreamt they could see a rain of blood falling in big drops, which turned into golden coins as they plashed upon the floor.”
― Émile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Let’s see – I started reading La Fortune des Rougon – the first book of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle on September 19. I finished it today – so that’s thirteen days. I had hoped to finish in ten… but that’s close.

So, one down, nineteen to go.

What did I think about it?

Well, it’s the introductory work of a twenty-book cycle. Considering that, it crams in a lot of introductory material. Zola’s 20 Rougon-Macquart novels are a sweeping account of one family during the Second French Empire. There are over 300 characters in the complete series, many of whom are introduced in first book. Also, the social and political aspects of this age are covered in all their complexity.

So there is a lot of information here. A lot of the story is an encyclopedic recitation of facts and relationships as the spotlight moves around different branches of the family tree. This gets a little confusing – I did benefit from some advice I read recently, “Don’t read lying down; always have a pen and some index cards handy, take notes.”

That isn’t really meant as a criticism, merely a statement of fact. This is a huge, rambling story and it takes a bit of effort to get the snowball rolling down the hill. The books are a statement of Zola’s belief in heredity and madness – but there is more than that.

In the final analysis, the judgement of a novel like this is whether or not you give a damn. There aren’t a lot of heroes in this kaleidoscope of selfishness and dysfunction… but there are two. The two young lovers, Silvere and Miette, are quiet innocent saints. They, alone in all the characters deserve something better, and your heart goes out to them. When they are on the page – you give a damn.

Unfortunately, they are doomed.

When I put down the book I had to sit and think for a few minutes – I felt like I had just returned from a long journey and had to digest all that I had seen and learned. And that – I think – is the sign a book had been worth reading.

Now on to the next – Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)

AUTHOR’S PREFACE

I wish to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, conducts
itself in a given social system after blossoming forth and giving birth
to ten or twenty members, who, though they may appear, at the first
glance, profoundly dissimilar one from the other, are, as analysis
demonstrates, most closely linked together from the point of view of
affinity. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.

By resolving the duplex question of temperament and environment, I shall
endeavour to discover and follow the thread of connection which leads
mathematically from one man to another. And when I have possession of
every thread, and hold a complete social group in my hands, I shall
show this group at work, participating in an historical period; I shall
depict it in action, with all its varied energies, and I shall analyse
both the will power of each member, and the general tendency of the
whole.

The great characteristic of the Rougon-Macquarts, the group or family
which I propose to study, is their ravenous appetite, the great
outburst of our age which rushes upon enjoyment. Physiologically the
Rougon-Macquarts represent the slow succession of accidents pertaining
to the nerves or the blood, which befall a race after the first organic
lesion, and, according to environment, determine in each individual
member of the race those feelings, desires and passions–briefly, all
the natural and instinctive manifestations peculiar to humanity–whose
outcome assumes the conventional name of virtue or vice. Historically
the Rougon-Macquarts proceed from the masses, radiate throughout the
whole of contemporary society, and ascend to all sorts of positions by
the force of that impulsion of essentially modern origin, which sets the
lower classes marching through the social system. And thus the dramas of
their individual lives recount the story of the Second Empire, from the
ambuscade of the Coup d’Etat to the treachery of Sedan.

For three years I had been collecting the necessary documents for this
long work, and the present volume was even written, when the fall of the
Bonapartes, which I needed artistically, and with, as if by fate, I
ever found at the end of the drama, without daring to hope that it
would prove so near at hand, suddenly occurred and furnished me with
the terrible but necessary denouement for my work. My scheme is, at
this date, completed; the circle in which my characters will revolve
is perfected; and my work becomes a picture of a departed reign, of a
strange period of human madness and shame.

This work, which will comprise several episodes, is therefore, in
my mind, the natural and social history of a family under the Second
Empire. And the first episode, here called “The Fortune of the Rougons,”
should scientifically be entitled “The Origin.”

EMILE ZOLA PARIS, July 1, 1871.