Sunshine Recorder

All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Link: A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Literature

In order to guide English-speakers towards the authors best suited for specific tastes, has put together an exclusive guide offering historical context and tailor-made recommendations.

Polish literature, from its sheer quantity and innovative quality, undoubtedly deserves a place alongside the greatest, yet it has remained significantly less mainstream than its Russian or French counterparts, perhaps on account of the language barrier. However, outstanding translations of classics and contemporary successes have been steadily appearing over the last few years, offering book lovers a newfound chance to discover hidden treasures.  Simply select the statement that applies best, and you will be redirected to the information you need to take to your local bookstore.

Where did it all begin?

The earliest pieces of literature in the Polish language emerged in the 14th century.  Of these early works – which developed a literary tradition outside that of the works being written in Latin –Bogurodzica, a hymn invoking the Mother of God, is most significant. 

With the relative political stability that resulted from the formation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the nation saw increasing opportunities for contact with the rest of Europe.  16th Century Polish arts reflect the impact of the Renaissance – particularly the influence of Italian artists and writers.  The oeuvre of Jan Kochanowski honed the poetic language integral to later Polish literature and stands as an exemplar of the pinnacle of Polish Renaissance literature.  Kochanowski’sLaments – written after the death of his daughter, Urszula – stand out in his diverse and prolific work as a piece of enduringly beautiful and heartbreaking verse. 

Poland remained engaged with the arts of Europe and followed its cultural trajectoy through the Baroque and Enlightenment. 

Romanticism sets the tone for what’s to come…

The first half of the 19th century saw Poland largely reject Enlightenment values of the previous generation and embrace a Romantic spirit, in both literature and political action.  The spirit of Romanticism has proven to have an enduring effect on Polish thought, and the greatest name of the period – Adam Mickiewicz – retains a prominent place in contemporary Polish culture.  As “the bard of Poland,” Mickiewicz might be likened to Pushkin, Byron, Goethe, or Shevchenko.  The opening lines of Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, a novel in verse, can be recited by many Poles; and the work – set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars – is a Polish national epic.  His drama Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) refers to Slavic pagan tradition and is a fascinating example of Romanticism’s engagement with mysticism and the Absolute.

Mickiewicz and his contemporaries, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński, have become known as poet-prophets (wieszcze), as their work elevated the reflection of Poland’s political struggles to a spiritual plane.

If you like vast, historical epics…

The literary scene at the turn of the 19th century produced two masters of the novel.  The work of both Henryk Sienkiewicz and Bolesław Prus turned toward historical detail and clear, accessible prose.

Winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, Sienkiewicz is best known for Quo Vadis and hisTrilogy – comprised of With Fire and SwordThe Deluge, and Fire on the Steppe.  The Trilogy is set in the 17th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while Quo Vadis takes place in Nero’s Rome.  Sienkiewicz’s work – filled with adventure and acts of heroism – is often cited as having played a vital role in preserving Polish national spirit in the era of partition. 

Eschewing Sienkiewicz’s dramatic portrays of historical struggles, the literary worlds of Prus’s fiction are remarkable in their accuracy – both of tone and geography.  Those who enjoy the social realism of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will appreciate Prus’s masterpiece, The Doll, which brilliantly presents a vision of late 19th century society in Warsaw.  Prus’s innovative variation in narrative perspective and tone were unmatched in his time and are not to be missed.

“Young Poland” at the dawn of the 20th Century

In the first decades of the 20th century, Poland’s arts flourished in the era of “Young Poland.”  The literature of this period developed through a number of stages and produced great works byStanisław Przybyszewski, Leopold Staff, Bolesław Leśmian, and Stefan Żeromski.

In this period Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding stands out as an essential work of the period.  The symbolist drama – densely packed with allusions to Polish history and culture – tells the story of a wedding that brings together not only peasants and urban intelligentsia, but also a host of spirits and ghosts.  Ultimately a critique of both political stagnation and earlier theories of “art for art’s sake,” this rich drama remains one of the most influential works in Polish literature.

Searching for Direction in the Interwar Years

Having regained independence in 1918, interests in Poland found themselves at odds regarding the future of the nation.  Similarly, the interwar period in literature is characterized by diversity in aesthesis and influences.  Zofia Nałkowska’s The Romance of Theresa Hennert offers an illuminating picture of the conflicting perspectives and personalities looking to shape the identity of the newly independent nation. 

The futurist movement that developed across Europe in the 1920s found its way to Poland in the works Bruno Jasieński and Aleksander Wat.  Those who enjoy the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti or Vladimir Mayakovsky of Russia will delight in the Polish take on this dynamic and urban style.  Rejecting tradition and embracing a technological future, Polish futurists envisioned a Poland radically divorced from its past.  Though Wat’s work later moved away from futurism, his 1927Lucifer Unemployed is a biting and darkly comic take on a changing world in which Lucifer finds a career in cinema – having otherwise found himself superfluous in atheistic modern society.

In contrast to the futurists’ radical break from the past, poets associated with the Skamander group looked back to classical images and traditional literary forms.  Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Julian Tuwim were among the founders of the Skamander group, and their poetry of the time endures in its simple beauty and accessibility. 

Looking for Something Both Brilliant and Strange?

Alongside the diverse literary schools of the interwar, there emerged three authors who defy labels.  These “great innovators” – Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz – addressed issues of form and social relations, though each approached their subjects in very different ways. 

Witkacy’s dramas – both brilliant and bizarre – are considered a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd associated with Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jean Genet.  His work often engaged with the desire to break free from social conventions and expectations.  His The Madman and the Nun is a play in which character types – more so that actual characters – come together in an asylum.  Though it is the poet character who is committed to the institution, Witkacy explores how the ideologies underlining the actions of all the characters (psychoanalysis, scientific positivism, etc.) are their own kind of madness.  Witkacy’s The Shoemakers offers an allegorical look at conflicting political ideologies of the time as a fascist, a communist, and an aristocrat are pitted against one another. 

Learn more about Witkacy here

Like Witkacy, Gombrowicz explored the relationship of the individual with the various “masks” offered by social relations.  His Ferdydurke is a brilliant satire of the simultaneous desires for individuality and belonging – presented through the story of a man who wakes to find himself returned to his days as a schoolboy.  The convoluted Cosmos details one man’s search for meaning in a seemingly random series of events and observations.  In this engaging and unsettling novel, as his protagonist begins to form increasingly unexpected associations within his environment, Gombrowicz lays bare the absurdity in our search for meaning and connection. 

The poetic beauty of the worlds Schulz creates in his stories is the basis for his meditations on the relationship of physical reality to a metaphysical universal.  His tales of inaccessible time and lost homes exist in the interaction between imagination and experience.  Though his life was tragically cut short when he was murdered during the Nazi occupation of his hometown of Drohobycz, the collections he left behind – Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and Street of Crocodiles– remain and are not to be missed.

If you’re interested in the Polish experience of, and response to, WWII, consider…

As a central battleground of the Second World War, Poland – and her literature – was deeply affected by the trauma of the war.  The literature of the period and the years that followed address the experience of a people whose country not only was invaded from both sides, but also was to become the territory in which the Nazis carried out their genocidal policies. 

A member of the Polish underground, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was killed in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  The poetry he left behind expresses the fears and passions of a young man facing an uncertain and violent future.   Poets Anna Świrszczyńska, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Miron Białoszewski survived the Warsaw Uprising, and their work reflects the trauma of the event in various ways.  Białoszewski spent much of his life after the war writing and editing a memoir of the Uprising.  In his A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, he looks to strip his memories of a retrospectively imposed narrative thread, instead presenting a densely detailed account of life in the besieged city. 

Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen offers a brutal portrait of life in Auschwitz.  Himself a survivor of the camp, Borowski’s frank prose and clipped details present the world in which kindness is shocking and no one is a hero.  Also addressing the horrors of Nazi policy,Nałkowska’s Medallions, published shortly after the war, is a collection of short stories assembled around chilling accounts Nałkowska collected as part of an investigative committee on Nazi war crimes. 

More recently, a new generation of Poles – whose experience of the war comes only through the memories of others – has addressed the legacy of trauma in their work.  Marek Bieńczyk’s Tworki, set in a psychiatric hospital near Warsaw, explores the relationship between memory and imagination as the musings of the contemporary narrator meld with a narrative of life in occupied Poland.  Piotr Paziński also confronts echoes of the past in his two novels, Pensjonat and Ptasie ulice.  Paziński’s is a world of spirits – both a poignant meditation on loss and a carefully crafted celebration of the vanishing language of Poland’s Jewish population.

Looking for something a little lighter? 

Amongst the rather dark literature that emerged out of a Poland that endured the Nazi occupation only to find itself under the shadow of Soviet power, there remain examples of delightfully quirky and darkly comic fiction. 

Lovers of science fiction will delight in the works of Stanisław Lem, whose novels and collections of stories include SolarisThe Star Diaries, and The Cyberiad.  Though in his stories Lem’s characters often find themselves confronted with beings and settings alien to them, there is simultaneously a feeling that these worlds are grounded in reality.  His work is as much philosophy as it is science fiction.   Lem’s playful and inventive use of language, along with his thoughtful and engaging narratives, make him a great choice both for those looking for a charming adventure and absurd humor, as well as readers searching for a creative philosophy of encounter with an other.

Sławomir Mrożek similarly used his writing creatively to comment on contemporary social conditions.  His 1957 collection of short stories, Elephant, offers a satire of life in communist Poland.  He highlights the absurdity of the authorities and conditions of life in what Spectator describes as “brief fables…something like Kafka’s stories, but funnier.”  Mrożek’s drama Tangoreturns to some of the themes of Witkacy’s The Shoemakers, though his work grounds the political conflict within a story of familial dysfunction. A joy to read, Mrożek’s prose can be enjoyed both as immensely humorous tales, as well as texts that illuminate the environment in which they were composed.

If you’re only going to know a few names, know these…

No survey of Polish literature would be complete without the three most prominent Polish poets of the 20th century – Czesław MiłoszWisława Szymborska, and Zbigniew Herbert.  Easily the most recognized name of Polish letters around the world, Miłosz’s rich and philosophical poetry vividly reflects upon the spiritual and scientific in the world around him.   Also a gifted and prolific scholar, translator, and prose writer, the collected essays in his 1953 The Captive Mind remain a classic of literature on totalitarianism, and his The History of Polish Literature was invaluable in fostering an awareness of Polish literature in the English speaking world.  Szymborska, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, might well be understood as a poet of scale.  Her work frequently approaches the particularity of its subject from a macro level or zooms out to reveal the vastness of one’s environment.  Herbert’s cerebral verse is deeply engaged in questions of ethics and history; it is both moral and ironic. 

Born after WWII, a “New Wave” of Polish poets found prominence in the late 1960s.  Of this “Generation of ’68,” the work Adam Zagajewski and Stanisław Barańczak is of particular note.  Both poets masterfully represent social reality with clear language and a dose of irony.  Along with their collections of poetry, Zagajewski and Barańczak have published collections of essays and criticism.  Barańczak’s 1990 Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays offers a particular engaging examination of the experience of the Polish writer in exile and the transformations that were shaping Eastern Europe.

Looking to get a sense of the diverse voices of contemporary Polish literature? Check out…

For those interested in Poland’s future, there are perhaps few better signs of her promise than the thriving and diverse creativity on display in contemporary literature.  Though the world of contemporary Polish literature is vast, the follow are but a few of the outstanding artists whose work has found acclaim in translation. 

Andrzej Stasiuk’s stunning prose depicts the environment in the collapse of Communism.  His 1994Tales of Galicia captures the fading past and uncertain future of rural communities, while 2005’sOn the Road to Babadag details his journey through oft neglected “other Europe.”

Olga Tokarczuk, a gifted storyteller and stylist, is one of the most critically acclaimed authors of contemporary Polish literature.  Her 1996 novel, Primeval and Other Times, offers a microcosm of mankind steep in myth and psychological subtlety. 

Michał Witkowski’s Lovetown (2004) portrays both a transitional period from communism and the frequently overlooked subject of homosexuality with sharp wit and a keen ear for spoken language.

Dorota Masłowska burst onto the scene with the 2002 publication of Snow White and Russian Red.  A sort of Polish Trainspotting, the novel depicts the exploits of a group of aimless youth in pitch perfect narrative attuned to the rhythm and style of its protagonists.  Masłowska’s gift for capturing the language of the street  also is evident in her 2005 novel, The Queen’s Peacock, which employs a hip-hop idiom to cast a critical lens on media and pop culture. 

Alcohol and women provided me, I admit, the only solace of which I was worthy. I’ll reveal this secret to you, cher ami, don’t fear to make use of it. Then you’ll see that true debauchery is liberating because it creates no obligations. In it you possess only yourself; hence it remains the favorite pastime of the great lovers of their own person. It is a jungle without past or future, without any promise above all, nor any immediate penalty. The places where it is practiced are separated from the world. On entering, one leaves behind fear and hope. Conversation is not obligatory there; what one comes for can be had without words, and often indeed without money. Ah, I beg you, let me pay honor to the unknown and forgotten women who helped me then! Even today, my recollection of them contains something resembling respect.
— Albert Camus, The Fall
Perhaps there is some consolation, however, in having pierced the veil of this terrible paradox of freedom. The citizens of Bouville, whom Roquentin watches going about their everyday business, are still veiled in ignorance of their arbitrariness. They are as unfree as Roquentin, yet they hide the terrible imprisonment of their existence by unthinkably getting up, going out to work, relaxing on Sundays, and so on. They wrongly imagine that they have chosen this form of life, when of course it has chosen them.
— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
He awoke each morning with the desire to do right, to be a good and meaningful person, to be, as simple as it sounded and as impossible as it actually was, happy. And during the course of each day his heart would descend from his chest into his stomach. By early afternoon he was overcome by the feeling that nothing was right, or nothing was right for him, and by the desire to be alone. By evening he was fulfilled: alone in the magnitude of his grief, alone in his aimless guilt, alone even in his loneliness. I am not sad, he would repeat to himself over and over, I am not sad. As if he might one day convince himself. Or fool himself. Or convince others—the only thing worse than being sad is for others to know that you are sad. I am not sad. I am not sad. Because his life had unlimited potential for happiness, insofar as it was an empty white room. He would fall asleep with his heart at the foot of his bed, like some domesticated animal that was no part of him at all. And each morning he would wake with it again in the cupboard of his rib cage, having become a little heavier, a little weaker, but still pumping. And by the midafternoon he was again overcome with the desire to be somewhere else, someone else, someone else somewhere else. I am not sad.
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
Your dislike of politics, your despondence of the parties and the press, your despair over war, over all that people nowadays think, read and build, over the music they play, the celebrations they hold, the education they carry on. You are right Steppenwolf, right a thousand times, and yet you must perish. You are too exacting for this simple easily contended world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy life today must not be like you.
Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.
— Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Link: Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King

… I am hardly the first person to identify Stephen King as holding some claim to the title of America’s chief scribe. Nearly twenty years ago, Jonathan P. Davis wrote Stephen King’s America, an extended academic love poem to Stephen King as an author who “understood the human condition on all levels…who stood on the sacred ground of America…whose feelings about his country resonated throughout his fiction…” As with any attempt to distill the most somethingest traits of a given nation, the attributes typically end up being about things that are actually universal — among Davis’s areas of inquiry are “Technology,” “Childhood and Rites of Passage,” and “Survival in a Despairing World.” But I responded, as someone who has alternately fetishized and scorned my country of origin throughout my life, to Davis’s instinct to celebrate King as the great American writer of the late twentieth century.

The success of a novelist has to do with the extent to which his work allows the reader to lose herself in the story, but the novels that really resonate are the ones that also invite the reader to apply them to her particular circumstances. In my case, Stephen King books appealed to my lingering sense, even in high school, of America’s fundamental glamour, that feeling impelled both by the act of circumnavigating the globe broadly in the service of America’s aims, and the foreignness imparted by its distance. And they achieved several things besides scaring and entertaining the hell out of me. At some level, Stephen King novels issued a necessary corrective to my wanton teenage materialism and overweening belief in American goodness. They did their own kind of national myth-making.

In America and Americans, John Steinbeck’s dated, elegiac snapshot of American life in 1966, a book that in some ways encapsulates in non-fiction the portrait of America we find in Stephen King’s corpus, Steinbeck writes: “One of the characteristics most puzzling to a foreign observer is the strong and imperishable dream the American carries. On inspection, it is found that the dream has little to do with reality in American life. Consider the dream of and the hunger for home. The very word can reduce nearly all of my compatriots to tears.”

In The Stand, Larry Underwood looks around at the Maine coast, cleansed of people:

On either side of them the essence of honky-tonk beach resort had now enclosed them: gas stations, fried clam stands, Dairy Treets, motels painted in feverish pastel colors, mini-golf. Larry was drawn two painful ways by these things. Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups — never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their prosaic-arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine.

In my adult grumpiness and the cold light of day, there are plenty of groups of Americans that I can take in without any pervading sense of their compelling romance, dirty or otherwise. But you can bet your ass I was receptive to this notion in my tender youth. Stephen King himself writes such a dirty, compelling romance that even now he breathes new life into that faded old vision of my homeland.

I would wager that most people who have heard of Stephen King know that he is from Maine; he grew up in Maine, he is a product of its schools, and little Maine towns, real or fictional, are where many of his worlds are built. (And Stephen King novels are all about world-building — although the publishers initially forced him to cut The Stand down to a reasonable size, the magisterial Complete and Uncut edition is one of his best books because it makes so much room for so many people, so many vignettes and backstories.) And even though Derry, à la It or Insomnia, or ‘Salem’s Lot from the novel of the same name, are characterized as being host to some enduring, elemental evil, this has an odd way of privileging place. These places are special.

Imagine knowing a place so well that you can write all of its inhabitants and landscape and make it feel so much like home, even home with something terrible lurking underneath. I think Stephen King books manage to appeal both to people who have experienced the tyranny and joy of the small town, as well as people who have known rootlessness in its many forms (not, of course, that the two are mutually exclusive). People in Stephen King novels are forever coming back to their hometowns after years away; no matter how long they are gone, they still know their physical and emotional topography.

The recurring characters and places, Mike Hanlon the librarian or the Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes store, or even the Crimson King, contribute to that feeling that the world is just one big American town with all the same points of reference, where people read Misery Chastain novels and remember, or willfully forget, the fire at the Black Spot. (Even apart from the fast food chains springing up like toadstools across the globe, the nature of the Foreign Service, with its far-flung points of insularity, recalls a similar feeling. This will sound like Working It, but I once walked past a man on the street in Yangon whose wedding I had attended in Yerevan a decade before.)

I love the Real Talk that comes out of the characters residing in these towns, things like “[he] looked and acted like the kind of man who would ride his help and bullyrag them around but lick up to his superiors like an egg-suck dog.” They remind me of things that my beloved grandpa said or was said to have said, how he might describe someone as looking like “forty miles of bad road.”

Stephen King’s novels transmit deeper things than hometown nostalgia. As Johathan P. Davis points out in his book, much of King’s work is concerned with the American devotion, in theory at any rate, to individual liberty. When King isn’t being gross, with his bone splinters and clots of blood and patented semantic move of creating an appalling noun just by adding the word “meat” to the back of another one — e.g., “boymeat” or “greymeat” — he spends a lot of time on the freedoms of the individual. Glenn Bateman, the retired sociology professor of The Stand, spends most of the novel talking about the formation of society and the tension between freedom and social cohesion. When, at the end of that novel, spunky Fran and Stu, a laconic badass from East Texas, make the choice to leave the crowding and rules of the Boulder Free Zone for the rugged, dangerous liberty of the Maine coast, this is posited as a sensible choice, one that only a couple of badasses would make.

In Insomnia, when the yuppie, city-living children of Lois Chasse try to pry her out of her hometown and install her in a retirement community with “a Red Diet Plan, a Blue Diet Plan, a Green Diet Plan, and a Yellow Diet Plan,” her beau Ralph “thought of eating three scientifically balanced meals a day for the rest of his life — no more sausage pizzas from Gambino’s, no more Coffee Pot sandwiches, no more chiliburgers from Mexico Mike’s — and found the prospect almost unbearably grim” (sometimes, freedom has a little bit to do with a Big Bite). Ralph prefers to die like his friend Jimmy V., without having to “show anyone either his driver’s license or his Blue Cross Major Medical card.” And then there are the abused women Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder, who declare their independence through a vale of blood.

Ostensibly, every person spends his or her days in the exercise of whatever freedoms are afforded them, but America is famously a place where this individual liberty is (ostensibly) enshrined in founding documents meant to govern a collective whole — it’s a nation of people living out their manifest destiny. Nobody understands, and in a sense reifies, this paradox like Stephen King. King disdains in his books the smug and unshakeable belief in personal rightness (he really has it in for yuppies), but he allows for a specialness that in many cases is literally divine — Dick Hallorann or Danny Torrance in The Shining, or Tom Cullen in The Stand, or any number of other characters endowed with exceptional ability, typically a clarity of vision, by some higher power. This is the kind of thing that really appeals to a child, especially an only child. I think it also resonates for good and ill with someone in a Foreign Service environment, which embodies a kind of exceptionalism, with its security doors and special badges and Fourth of July parties and commissaries filled with imported goods.

Stephen King believes in the individual; while his work battles what Steinbeck called “the screwball organizations which teach hatred and revenge to the ignorant and fearful people, using race or religion as the enemy,” he devotes a lot of pages to what Steinbeck likewise calls “the pleasant, benign, and interesting screwballs…poets in flowing robes, inventors of new religions…” without whom we would be “a duller nation.” King recognizes all of these screwballs as the real nobility of America. Often, they are teachers: in Insomnia, a character opines, ”I think this country is full of geniuses, guys and gals so bright they make your average card-carrying MENSA member look like Fucko the Clown. And I think most of them are teachers, living and working in small-town obscurity because that’s the way they like it.”

That’s American Dream talk, but I think a lot of Americans have a person like this somewhere up in their family tree. Isn’t King himself the best testament? For all the pompous literary types he tears down in his work (like the Creative Writing Honors Seminar instructor in It, who calls the writer Bill Denbrough’s horror stories “PULP” and “CRAP”), King sprinkles good teachers all over his work, along with other varieties of “benign screwballs” who, we suspect with folksy assurance, would do a sight better job of running the country than the people we pay to do the job.

The best patriots are always the most fiercely critical of their countries, and the critical difference between Stephen King and the big-gun schlock that he often shares space with in airport newsstands, is that Stephen King’s writing is a sustained exercise in pointing out the crappy and the horrifying things we all subscribe to by living out our American, and human, existence. Steinbeck wrote that in America, “Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.” Stephen King uses his stortytelling talents to counter this silence, to show us the worst things about the folks next door and, by extension, ourselves. King has hard words for the government, which does things like wipe out civilization with a series of evil fuckups, but many of his monsters and things that go bump in the night are actually the residents of ordinary little towns, which shelter wifebeaters and molesters and racists and complacent assholes. These characters aren’t always bad because they’re evil; sometimes they are weak and stupid, uncharitable, feeling sorry for themselves over a slight from a woman or a group. Sometimes they’re just the beneficiaries of a hard row without the gumption and can-do to hoe it.

Link: The Books We’ve Lost

Used-book stores are disappearing in our day at an even greater rate than regular book stores. Until ten years ago or so, there used to be a good number of them in every city and even in some smaller towns, catering to a clientele of book lovers who paid them a visit in search of some rare or out-of-print book, or merely to pass the time poking around. Even in their heyday, how their owners made a living was always a puzzle to me, since typically their infrequent customers bought nothing, or very little, and when they did, their purchase didn’t amount to more than a few dollars. Years ago, in a store in New York that specialized in Alchemy, Eastern Religions, Theosophy, Mysticism, Magic, and Witchcraft, I remember coming across a book called How to Become Invisible that I realized would make a perfect birthday present for a friend who was on the run from a collection agency trying to repossess his car. It cost fifteen cents, which struck me as a pretty steep price considering the quality of the contents.

What made these stores, stocked with unwanted libraries of dead people, attractive to someone like me is that they were more indiscriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure. Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins. How delightful to find some unknown reader commenting in pencil on a Victorian love poem: “Shit,” or coming across this inscription in a beautiful edition of one of the French classics:

For my daughter,
make beauty, humanity and wisdom
your lifelong objectives; and in all circumstances
you will know what to do. Happiness will be
the reward for your efforts.

One would either restore the volume on the shelf, or continue lingering over it and delaying the verdict. Of course, every now and then, there would come along some trashy book that one could not resist having, like the biography of Rudolph Valentino, the silent movie heartthrob, I bought last fall, which advertised itself as the sensational, never-before-published truth about the most fiery sex god of our time, and promised to reveal why his first wife left him before dawn on their wedding night.

However, other times there’d be a book I’d start reading and couldn’t put down. Here, for example, is the opening of one called Business be Damned—not a very promising title—by someone called Elijah Jordan, published in 1952 by Henry Schuman, New York, and presented at some unknown date to the library of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas by its original owner, Dr. Joe Colwell, and subsequently removed from their collection:

There have always been businessmen and business in the world. But never in history till today was business accepted as a morally honorable activity for men; never before was the businessman permitted to dominate the affairs of men. Today the rule of the businessman, accepted, justified and glorified, has become undisputed and absolute.
Until lately, however, the activity of the businessman has always been questioned as to its moral rightness. The formulation of this doubt has been the negative or critical premise upon which every developed moral system and every cultured religious system has been founded. The new fact, therefore, in what is called modern civilization, is the acceptance of business activity as morally honorable, the approval of the capacities and the characteristics of the businessman, and the assumption that these capacities are appropriate for rule and control of human affairs.

This is extraordinary, I said to myself. Jordan (1875-1953), who was a professor of philosophy at Butler University for many years, saw the writing on the wall, pointing out already back then that business had become the dominant force in our lives with all other human interests in this country subservient to it. Religion, politics, government, morality, art were all being asked to acknowledge its absolute right and absolute power to be the final arbiter.

If he came back from the dead today, Jordan would be surprised that his fellow Americans still haven’t caught on that they are being taken to the cleaners. On the contrary, many of them now believe that the solution to all our problems, be it failing schools or expensive healthcare, is to hand over every publicly run institution to profit-seeking private companies, which, thanks to their knowhow and the magic of the free market, will save tons of money for the tax payers. This is what is known as “privatization” today, the scam that makes everything from private prisons, the vast growth of our surveillance state, and our global military presence, a hugely lucrative enterprise. Voters, one can’t help but conclude, no longer seem to have any problem with fortunes acquired dishonestly and at their expense, some of them even going into huge debt to send their sons and daughters to prestigious business schools so they can go to work for these hucksters and emulate their success.

After the demise of used-book stores and libraries, what are the chances that someone will come across a book like Jordan’s? That there are others like him—a few known and others completely unknown—I have no doubt. Not that he and these other truth-tellers made much of an impression on their contemporaries, or on later generations of Americans who’d rather hear fairy tales about us being the envy of all creation, unique as a nation, a country of unlimited potential and opportunity, best in everything, rather than have some loser tell them otherwise. No wonder their books are doomed to perish in the coming years. The fate of these forgotten writers is a sad reminder that this will also happen to many serious works of philosophy, history, fiction, poetry, and all the other books collecting dust on their shelves. As long as they were there, some browser with plenty of time on her hands would have a chance to find a phrase, a bit of description or some little story in one of them, that enriches her life and does her soul good.

It’s a mystery. A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.
— Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Link: "My Dear Little Grandfather"

Marcel Proust was undoubtedly a gifted author, known largely for his classic multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, a mammoth piece of work believed by some to be one of the greatest books ever written. More importantly, he was also, it is said, obsessed with masturbation. As a teenager this caused problems for his family, not least his father, a professor of hygiene, who like many of the day believed that such a worrying habit could cause homosexuality if left unchecked. And so, in May of 1888, in an effort to cure him of this “problem” having recently walked in on him “on the job,” Dr. Proust gave his 16-year-old son 10 francs and sent him off to a local brothel. As evidenced by the following letter to his grandfather, and possibly due to the fact that Marcel was in fact homosexual, the visit didn’t go to plan.

18 May 1888

Thursday evening.

My dear little grandfather,

I appeal to your kindness for the sum of 13 francs that I wished to ask Mr. Nathan for, but which Mama prefers I request from you. Here is why. I so needed to see if a woman could stop my awful masturbation habit that Papa gave me 10 francs to go to a brothel. But first, in my agitation, I broke a chamber pot: 3 francs; then, still agitated, I was unable to screw. So here I am, still in need of 10 francs to relieve myself, plus 3 francs for the vase. But I dare not ask Papa for more money so soon and so I hoped you could come to my aid in a circumstance which, as you know, is not merely exceptional but also unique. It cannot happen twice in one lifetime that a person is too flustered to screw.

I kiss you a thousand times and dare to thank you in advance.

I will be home tomorrow morning at 11am. If you are moved by my situation and can answer my prayers, I will hopefully find you with the amount. Regardless, thank you for your decision which I know will come from a place of friendship.


May I at least carry, to the boundless possibility contained in the abyss of everything, the glory of my disillusion like that of a great dream, and the splendor of not believing like a banner of defeat; a banner in feeble hands, but still and all a banner, dragged through mud and the blood of the weak but raised high for who knows what reason—whether in defiance, or as a challenge, or in mere desperation—as we vanish into quicksand. No one knows for what reason, because no one knows anything, and the sand swallows those with banners as it swallows those without. And the sand covers everything: my life, my prose, my eternity. I carry my awareness of defeat like a banner of victory.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Link: George Orwell's Letter On Why He Wrote "1984"

In 1944, three years before writing and five years before publishing 1984, George Orwell penned a letter detailing the thesis of his great novel. The letter, warning of the rise of totalitarian police states that will ‘say that two and two are five,’ is reprinted from George Orwell: A Life in Letters, edited by Peter Davison and published today by Liveright.

To Noel Willmett

18 May 1944
10a Mortimer Crescent NW 6

Dear Mr Willmett,

Many thanks for your letter. You ask whether totalitarianism, leader-worship etc. are really on the up-grade and instance the fact that they are not apparently growing in this country and the USA.

I must say I believe, or fear, that taking the world as a whole these things are on the increase. Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the national movements everywhere, even those that originate in resistance to German domination, seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means. Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system. With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it.1 That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.

As to the comparative immunity of Britain and the USA. Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book The Lion and the Unicorn, in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so. But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don’t give a damn for this? Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history2 etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side. Indeed the statement that we haven’t a Fascist movement in England largely means that the young, at this moment, look for their fuhrer elsewhere. One can’t be sure that that won’t change, nor can one be sure that the common people won’t think ten years hence as the intellectuals do now. I hope 3 they won’t, I even trust they won’t, but if so it will be at the cost of a struggle. If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.

You also ask, if I think the world tendency is towards Fascism, why do I support the war. It is a choice of evils—I fancy nearly every war is that. I know enough of British imperialism not to like it, but I would support it against Nazism or Japanese imperialism, as the lesser evil. Similarly I would support the USSR against Germany because I think the USSR cannot altogether escape its past and retains enough of the original ideas of the Revolution to make it a more hopeful phenomenon than Nazi Germany. I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism.

Yours sincerely,
Geo. Orwell

O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorrow sits well upon your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say, ‘I alone am alive – behold!’ even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun .. like snow .. and perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to think that there is nothing you will not do: it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose. Each of us feels most deeply convinced that he has been too prodigal of his gifts – that he has a right to cry, ‘Oh, what could I not have done, if only I had not wasted my time.
— Ivan Turgenev, First Love
The day-by-day experience of a managed existence leads us all to take a world of fictitious substances for granted… . The verbal amoebas by which we designate the management-bred phantoms thus connote self-important enlightenment, social concern and rationality without however denoting anything which we could ourselves taste, smell or experience. In this semantic desert full of muddled echoes we need a Linus blanket, some prestigious fetish that we can drag around to feel like decent defenders of sacred values.
— Ivan Ilich