Before Christy and I left California (not strictly this week, I admit), I thought it might be good to anticipate the haunted old Mid-West that we would traverse on our way to Pennsylvania. I also thought it would be a pleasure to re-read a book I loved the first time. The novel is So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980), by Robert Maxwell, and conveniently enough for a reader who is packing up a house’s contents into boxes, it is very short, not 150 pages.
If you haven’t heard of it, beware: this book will cut you to pieces. Knowing this well, though, I still wouldn’t consider mine a masochistic decision to take up the book for a second time. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a lesson in emotional mechanics for any aspiring writer. The gradually revealed story of a brief relationship between two young boys (one of whom ruefully narrates the story late in life) set in Maxwell’s native rural Illinois, So Long is a simple, shocking narrative related by a master.
When I first read this book maybe five or six years ago, several pieces of it took deep root in my memory. If you know So Long you’ll know this pain: I never stopped thinking of the scenes written from the dog’s view. And then there is the topper: a parallel that Maxwell draws between Alberto Giacometti’s unearthly sculpture The Palace at 4 a.m. (1932) and the last afternoons the narrator spent with his friend Cletus Smith as a child, balancing across the bare beams of a house being built, that illustrates the fragility of innocence. The image shook me so hard I changed my laptop home-screen background to a photograph of the sculpture, and kept it that way until I got rid of the computer. I would see The Palace every day and think about this book. Just now, I googled the sculpture to check the date of its construction and I saw it again on a museum website. And I can tell you that the trembling effect of The Palace on me has not abated.
I hardly read a printed word on the five days of our trip across America. I knew ahead of time that any opportunity to read along the way would be brief, my attention span smoked by hours spent overtaking lorries on endlessly straight two-lane highways, so I took a book of essays. The first hundred pages or so of Pulphead (2011), by John Jeremiah Sullivan, were excellent. Sullivan takes for subjects such oddities as a visit to the largest Christian rock festival in the world, his brother’s near-death experience as a minor band’s lead singer, and the year he spent as the (very) personal assistant to a dying writer, a relic of the Old South. Each of these examples is taken from the first few essays in the book because that is as far as i got before I presumably left the book for a custodian to pick up and flick through, perhaps in the red River Inn in Silt, Colorado. All I know for certain is that I don’t have the book any more, and shame on me for that.
Since we found an unfurnished new place to live, we have been shopping for furniture, crockery and kitchen utensils at Goodwill, the all-purpose second-hand shop. Of course such places carry shelves of cheap books too, and the compulsion to browse through them made our long, hot days longer still.
There was a pay-off. I found a pristine hard-back copy of Studs Terkel’s The Great Divide (1988) for $1.99. It’s an artfully compiled book of interviews (Terkel’s signature mode) that I have raced through in the last couple of days. To use the hackneyed phrase, Terkel takes America’s temperature between 1985 and ‘87.
The citizens he speaks to have a lot to say, and while every voice is worth listening to for anthropology’s sake, some are bound to call through clearer. The particular excellence of the book lies I think in Terkel’s construction of oppositions: three interviewees will express the concern that the history-less youth know nothing, while on the next page a young person will speak with incredible clarity about what ails the nation; or else a devoted police chief will explain at length his devotion to law and order, before his wife’s voice is heard, telling of how she has come to be arrested six times for acts of civil disobedience.
Few of the opinions expressed in the book are mean-spirited. That’s the difficulty. I want to judge these people, but I struggle. So many people in it admit that they voted for Reagan in ’84, but they promise they did it with they eyes averted. The owner of a bar in Chicago is less coy about it: while he’s bitter that the new-money yuppie crowd has driven away his old regulars, he says, “I have to like Reagan because I’m one of those who feel you should live within your means. . . I voted for Reagan because I felt spending should be cut down. You can’t just be giving and giving and giving.” Never mind that Reaganomics only increased the country’s annual deficit, or that Reagan siphoned money away from all sorts of domestic allocation in favour of nuclear weapon development, or that he cut the taxes of the very customers who are now invading this man’s bar and left the less affluent to fend for themselves. The interviewee is being honest, and he expects as much from the man he looks up to in Washington. In this, he is being let down and lied to. Apart from the saintly souls from whom we hear in this book, those who have realised their estrangement and stood up to do something about it, we find that the majority of people in the ‘80s have been sold a false product. In hindsight, this is obvious. If we have gained any sense of history, from Terkel or anybody else, it will not take thirty years and that same benefit of hindsight for my generation to realise as much. I think I see the change coming.
I will mention as well a small novel that I bought in a lovely old book shop in the shadow of the Colorado State Capitol Building in downtown Denver. (It was on the way to something or other essential. No detour was made, I swear.) Junichiro Tanizaki’s mid-career novel Some Prefer Nettles (first serialised in Japanese, 1928; first appeared in English, 1955) is one I would describe as uncommonly thoughtful or even digressive if I were new to Japanese writing. In its pacing and in other significant ways, however, Some Prefer Nettles is archetypal of the writing by major male Japanese authors of the twentieth century who have been translated for an Anglophone audience—pared down, ruminative, and deeply concerned with what the translator Edward G. Seidensticker, in his introduction to the Berkley edition, calls “the clash between the new and the old, the imported and the domestic.” (Isn’t it strange to commission a critical introduction from the translator of that same text? If we admit what is plainly true—that translation, while adhering to the text, is an act of creation and craft in itself—then in commenting upon the novel the translator must quote him- or herself, and not the original author. Critical perspective upon one’s own work is hard to draw.)
The tragic figure in this book is Kaname and Misako’s son, Hiroshi. While his parents dither and prevaricate about their withered marriage, a beloved uncle is left to break the news of their impending divorce. The only succour he is offered comes in the form of an imported Chinese greyhound by the name of Lindbergh, a dog with a particularly silky (yes) throat. Hiroshi is absent from most scenes in the novel by his parents’ design, making the little we hear from him in a chapter or two all the more vibrant and sad. In truth, he might be the best adjusted of anybody in his family to the new world that is coming. I’d love to know what became of him.
I’m never able to imagine the Japanese home clearly. I’ll see a photograph, a film by Ozu, or read a description by any of the authors I’ve come to like so much (Ōe, Mishima, Tanizaki), and try to cobble something up in my head. But then I’ll read, as one does in Some Prefer Nettles, that the bathtub in this particular house is made of metal and that a muslin bag of scenting cloves bobs up around the body washing in the water; that the bathroom itself is lit only by a small latticed window near the ceiling; that the whole house is split into “foreign” and Japanese wings by a sliding door panelled with paper; and the whole picture turns back to mud. Is it a pure failure of imagination? Or is it that, in perceiving for the most part only minor differences between the Japanese home and the European in their essentials, my image of both reverts always back to the mean of my perception, that is, to all the homes I’ve known? Unfamiliar details then, like the sodden clove perfume or the bifurcation of the building caught between tradition and fashion, will jolt a realisation that what I cannot help but picture is all, I’m afraid, wrong. I’ll read more, and I’ll keep trying.
In the truest new flat fashion, there was a wait for wi-fi installation, hence the two day’s delay in uploading this week’s Reading Diary. But settled, now, into a pine-bound loft home to a race of mega ants, and with time again to spend on reading and writing, the proper timetable will resume next week.
Image: Author’s own photograph of Colorado State Capitol in Denver