martes, 31 de diciembre de 2019

The Sweet Science

The Sweet Science (The Library of America, 2009)
by A.J. Liebling
USA, 1956

It is through Jack O'Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands.  He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906.  Jack had a scar to show for it.  Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace.  It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose.  I wonder if Professor Toynbee is as intimately attuned to his sources.  The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder.
(The Sweet Science, 5)

It's a pleasure to end the blogging year with A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, easily the funniest book I read in all of 2019 and a volume imbued with passion for and knowledge about its subject: the world of boxing and all those who are associated with it.  For those so inclined, it's easy to surrender to the fight reporter's charms: boxing analysis, ring history, great anecdote after great anecdote, and of course jeers overheard in the crowd all unfurl in a Bayeux tapestry of crackerjack prose and vintage smack talk.  For example, how could you not have a good time when confronted with Chandleresque quips like this one about the ex-featherweight champ Abe Attell and then trainer for Rocky Marciano, "who looks at you with cold eyes around his huge beak that is like a toucan's with a twisted septum" (34) or this one which harpoons M.B.A. publicity director Maurie Waxman as "a hyperthyroid fellow who is happiest when strangling with rage" (142-143) or this nugget about Archie Moore and a tough Madison Square Garden opponent--"Both fighters looked tired, but Moore looked mean-tired behind his whiskers, like Mephistopheles on a hot night" (160)?  Impossible!  Similarly, it was difficult not to thrill to Liebling's running gag about boxing writing legend Pierce Egan (1772-1849), blandly championed as "the greatest writer about the ring who ever lived" early on (10) and then waggishly celebrated as "the Froissart of the London prize ring" (89), "the Sire de Joinville of the London prize ring" (94) and "the Edward Gibbon and Sir Thomas Malory of the old London prize ring" (211) at regular intervals throughout (for variation, Egan's magazine gets its own homage from the respectful Liebling, 1904-1963, on page 135: "I quote from Boxiana, the Mille et Une Nuits of the London prize ring").  Of course, for those looking for heavyweight punching power rather than these style points of the jab, The Sweet Science also has some memorable bits on the psychology of fandom ("When Louis knocked Savold out, I came away singularly revived--as if I, rather than Louis, had demonstrated resistance to the erosion of time.  As long as Joe could get by, I felt, I had a link with an era when we were both a lot younger.  Only the great champions give their fellow citizens time to feel that way about them, because only the great ones win the title young and hold on to it" [26]) and, speaking about the erosion of time, a superb closing piece pitting Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano as the Ahab and Nemesis of '50s ring culture in which Camus, Melville, and Marciano's "natural prehistoric style" (212-213) all have a part to play in the elegant Moore's mini-tragedy underneath the lights at the old Yankee Stadium.  Loved this book.  Look forward to revisiting it down the road.

Marciano vs. Moore, 1955

Quotes from Liebling's personality-laden The Sweet Science come from The Sweet Science and Other Writings (New York: The Library of America, 2009, 1-225).

martes, 24 de diciembre de 2019

All the Pretty Horses

All the Pretty Horses (Everyman's Library, 1999)
by Cormac McCarthy
USA, 1992

A coming of age story set in 1949, All the Pretty Horses follows sixteen year old John Grady Cole and his seventeen year old childhood friend Lacey Rawlins on a horse ride out of small town Texas and across the river into Mexico in search of work as cowboys in Coahuila state.  Along the way, trouble finds them in the person of an even younger boy named Jimmy Blevins, whose propensity for not thinking, bad luck and maybe more than a little touch of evil will play out with tragic consequences for both the riders and some of the people who cross their path.  While I'd wondered what it'd be like to read a McCarthy novel that was more conventional than Blood Meridian, I found All the Pretty Horses just as absorbing and gritty as its in-your-face predecessor.  Of course, I was wowed once again by the novelist's descriptive flair.  This Juan Rulfo-like bit, live from a Mexican holding cell, is typical of McCarthy's ability to paint a scene with a minimum of well-chosen brushstrokes: "They could hear sounds from the distant village.  Dogs.  A mother calling.  Ranchero music with its falsetto cries almost like an agony played out of a cheap radio somewhere in the nameless night" (161).  I was also smitten by the very cadences of the prose: "She looked up at him and her face was pale and austere in the uplight and her eyes lost in their darkly shadowed hollows save only for the glint of them and he could see her throat move in the light and he saw in her face and in her figure something he'd not seen before and the name of that thing was sorrow" (140).  Finally, in a novel dominated by and large by laconic figures attempting to make some sense out of loss, I appreciated the space McCarthy afforded his characters to engage in philosophical digressions on subjects as varied as the souls of horses and the ubiquity of violence in Mexican history--"In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments.  Those whom life does not cure death will.  The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even when we will not" (238)--not to mention the virtuoso dream sequences and the naked emotion of this scene where John Grady realizes that the end of his love affair with the seventeen year old Alejandra is just another life lesson in the apparent randomness of things: "He lay listening to the horse crop the grass at his stakerope and he listened to the wind in the emptiness and watched stars trace the arc of the hemisphere and die in the darkness at the edge of the world and as he lay there the agony in his heart was like a stake.  He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations.  What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits" (256-257).  An understandable fear and not only for a sixteen or seventeen year old, no?  Ace.

Cormac McCarthy

domingo, 15 de diciembre de 2019

The Balkan Trilogy: 3, Friends and Heroes

The Balkan Trilogy: 3, Friends and Heroes (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Olivia Manning
England, 1965

Unlike many other novels I've taken a fancy to, I spent much of The Balkan Trilogy trying to isolate what it was that made Olivia Manning's writing so appealing to me beyond the vagaries of plot.  If you'll permit a silly analogy, just what was the mystery ingredient in her page-turning curry?  Unfortunately, I have to admit I've failed.  In Friends and Heroes alone, for example, Manning displays a flair for description in her evocation of the flood-lit Parthenon as "a temple of white fire hanging upon the blackness of the sky" (675); an unexpected Flaubertian turn when Harriet Pringle and a would-be lover consider the romantic possibilities open to them during a lull in the war: "As they looked at each other, a voice said 'Love me.'  Harriet did not know whether he had spoken or whether the words had formed themselves in her mind, but there they were, hanging in the air between them, and conscious of them, they were moved and disquieted" (742); and near the end, with Greece about to fall to the Germans, even some trenchant war reporting-like insight into the fortunes of war in a scene in which we read that two English soldiers with muddy bandages on their heads are "exhausted, but it was not only that.  A smell of defeat came from them like a smell of gangrene" (884).  Although this is all fine writing in my book, I'm as aware as you that it's a major cop-out on my part to label Manning "a versatile writer" just because I was too engrossed in Friends and Heroes' plot, characterizations and its spectacle of a marriage embarked on and then deteriorating in excruciating slow motion "under the shadow of war" (692) to be able to identify the one secret weapon amidst Manning's formidable bag of tricks.  I surrender.

Olivia Manning (1908-1980)

domingo, 1 de diciembre de 2019

The Street Kids

The Street Kids [Ragazzi di vita] (Europa Editions, 2016)
by Pier Paolo Pasolini [translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]
Italy, 1955

I knew this was going to be a tough slog in a way when, near the end of the first chapter, Marcello gives Riccetto a hard time for rescuing a swallow that'd been drowning in the river during their swim: "'Why'd you save it,' Marcello said to him.  'It was fun to watch it die!'"  What I didn't know going in was how unpredictable and vital the young Pasolini's prose would turn out to be.  The faces of two older neighborhood boys, for example, are likened to "exhibits from a museum of criminals, preserved in oil" (39); a fat woman and her companion are described in terms of two different types of cooked fish--"her face like a boiled fish, and beside her an ugly little nobody, maybe her husband, with a face like a fried fish, poor devil, who was sobering up" (112); and elsewhere, this slice of life from the Via Taranto where "the fresh breeze, which would make a face go white and blue, like fennel, every so often shook the rows of sleepy, consumptive trees that, on either side of the street, rose with the façades toward the sky over San Giovanni" (141).  In short, I loved taking in all of Pasolini's painterly exuberance even if The Street Kids' Rome, or at least the poverty-ridden "apartment blocks, the evacuees' houses, or the skyscrapers" on the city's postwar periphery (182) = more the canvas for a crucifixion than such loving brushstrokes might lead you to believe.  An Old Master in the age of Italian neorealism!

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975)

The 2020 Argentinean Literature of Doom

Since my on-again, off-again blogging schedule doesn't allow much room for error and there hasn't been a single ALoD event that went the distance in about four or five years, I've decided that 2020 might be an OK to subpar year to experiment with the 2020 Argentinean Literature of Doom for a full year or while supplies last.  You're, as usual, invited.  As those new to the event might not yet know, "the ALoD was originally inspired by two great posts by Tom of Wuthering Expectations that you can read about here and here and was at least partly dedicated to testing Roberto Bolaño's thesis that a 'strain of doom' evident in post-Borges Argentinean belles-lettres was due to the noxious influence of one Osvaldo Lamborghini and his art terrorist pals (César Aira, take a bow)."  While that original idea still amuses me enough to recycle the pertinent boilerplate, all you would need to do to participate in the 2020 Doom experience is to read and review at least one piece of fiction written by an Argentinean author, read and review at least one nonfiction work on Argentina, or watch and review one film that falls under the same general criteria at some point either this month or in any of next year.  I'll post links to your reviews, if there are any, each month or to mine, if there are any, at the same time although I naturally reserve the right to lose interest in the event or blogging at any time as occasionally happens.  Until then, glad we talked!

Amanda, Simpler Pastimes
Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations
Caroline, Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat
JacquiWine, JacquiWine's Journal
Juliana Brina, the [ ] garden
lizzysiddal, Lizzy's Literary Life
Silvia, Silvia Cachia