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The epic adventures of a bold but hypochondriac Viking across the length and breadth of 11th century Europe in a tale written with great verve, spirit, and humor — if that sounds like a good book to you (and if it doesn’t, what the hell is wrong with you?), then The Long Ships should be on your list of must-reads. Written in the 1940s by Frans Bengtsson, a Swede, it has been revived in a New York Review of Books edition. To sell the book to potential readers, it would be hard to beat the NYRB edition’s short introductory essay by Michael Chabon. You should go read it here. I will only add that one of the joys of this book is its immersion in the particular prejudices and logic of the Viking mind.  The characters hold an idiosyncratic and adaptable sense of honor, and they are all obsessed with luck. They discuss and analyze many varieties and gradations of luck, and they judge the various religions competing in Europe in terms of the luck that that they bring. The result is both high social commentary and hilarious, and if you pick up this book I am sure that it will also bring you only good luck.

Things it is like: The Odyssey, Don Quixote (Book Two; w/r/t Don Quixote, my advice, skip Book One), and the Up Helly Aa Festival.

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Things it is not like: The Very Virile Viking. (Admittedly, I haven’t read this book. I am judging it by its cover.) And this guy and his cat.

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Vikings love cats

Bonus fact: There’s little-to-no evidence that actual Vikings wore horned helmets.

And while you’re reading about Vikings, it’s interesting to compare The Long Ships with The Voyage of the Short Serpent, which I wrote about here.

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220px-True_GritCharles Portis and his novel True Grit have been heaped with praise, and the book has been adapted into two movie versions, in 1969 (with John Wayne) and 2010 (by the Coen Brothers). I have little to add to the praise, which is entirely deserved. This is a short, tight Western, hard-eyed but funny, centering on the gunslinging adventures of two very tough characters. The fact that one of the toughs is a 14 year old girl, and believably so, is what makes the book unusually compelling. Reviewers have compared the writing and themes to Cormac McCarthy and the humor to Mark Twain, which, yes, I agree.

Katiniss Everdeen in Hunger Games

Katniss

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Mattie

I’ll only add that until now I had the vague idea that the story about a teenage girl who embarks on a series of violent adventures is a phenomenon of the last decade or so (for example, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Merida in the movie Brave, various others not springing to mind at the moment, help me in comments?). I was happy to have my vague idea gut-shot by True Grit, published in 1968, and featuring Mattie Ross, the grittiest 14 year old I’ve seen in the pages of a book. In a cagefight of grit, I’d put money on Mattie Ross against Katniss Everdeen any day. And if you’re looking for a book to hand to your high schooler, I’d suggest True Grit over The Hunger Games any day, too.

Like this, but with cannibalism, incest, and worse.

Horror and noir writers should note this book and steal from it. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” offers a thousand horrors, perversities, and abominations, any one of which another writer might put at the center of an entire novel. Cannibalism and incest are only the tip of the iceberg, and in this book the icebergs kill people, too.

I was talking with a friend recently about a type of fiction that could be called the “genre of unremittingly bleak,” i.e., books like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Nelson Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” books that relentlessly present a world without hope or redemption. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” may be the world champion in the genre of unremittingly bleak.

It is the story of a medieval expedition sent by the Catholic church to make contact with the colonies on Greenland, who no one had heard from in many decades. The tone is set by the orders from the church to the leader of the expedition, which include this litany:

For every offence you will determine the proper manner of death: the stake, the wheel, the head vise, drawing and quartering, the slow hanging, suspension from the feet or carnal parts (only for men, since the female constitution does not lend itself to it), immersion in oil, or stoning… You will disdain, as too expeditious or indeed too gentle, the use of poison, fit only for politics; the sword, which turns the criminal into a gentleman; drowning, which, in those climes, will cause the condemned to expire of the cold ere he can experience the suffocation; or the beer funnel, for not only will intoxication muffle the pain, but it is also a waste of a scarce commodity and abases the executioner to the vile office of a common inn keeper.

The journey to Greenland is terrible. When the voyagers arrive they find, and become part of, a tiny group of people driven by famine, disease, and unremitting cold into a sordid condition where unthinkable acts have become commonplace. All of it is described in a quick style, with exceedingly elegant prose.

You also can see in the section quoted above the book’s dark humor, which many reviewers have commented on in glowing terms and is the book’s saving grace. Is the saving grace enough to save the book? My feelings about this are…mixed. The Voyage of the Short Serpent offers no light of decency or love amid the darkness, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and not even much attempt is made to develop characters. But if you accept the book on its own terms, it is fairly extraordinary. Arguably, the book’s main character and interest is its own relentless expression of a certain tone and voice of horror and black (like, black hole black) humor. The first encounter with Greenland’s native people goes like this:

It was on the fifth day of Lent that, in the freezing cold, we caught sight of two gnomes clad in oilskins which seemed somehow to attach them to small skiffs, which they maneuvered with paddles through the labyrinths of ice. They were clearly not our Christians, and we killed them with a couple of well-aimed arrows.

No more is said of the two unfortunate gnomes. You might need night vision goggles to detect the humor in this. The humor it has arises from the narrator’s breezy tone, which contrasts uncomfortably with the grand treatment we might expect to be granted to the first encounter with an alien culture. And also from the narrator’s (most of the book is written in the form of a letter from the expedition leader) medieval Catholic morality. It’s a kind of morality that doesn’t sit well with modern expectations anyway (the flippant murder of the native people is only the beginning), and then it becomes increasingly twisted and convoluted in the extreme circumstances of the Greenland colonies. (Accustomed to burning sinners at the stake, the book’s narrator finds there’s no wood available on Greenland, and so he has to “employ a mixture of peat and seal-oil to burn the accused.”)

I wasn’t able to find much comment on the historical accuracy of the book; maybe someone with better French and/or Googling skills can help. But I’d guess that a great deal of the book is taken directly from history, because so much of what happens is so ludicrously awful that it’s hard to imagine anyone making it up whole cloth. It’s a powerful reminder that human life and human pain were, by necessity, measured differently in medieval times. And also that you don’t have to imagine a sci-fi post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario to find conditions where society will degenerate abominably.

“The Voyage of the Short Serpent” won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise. It was Bernard du Boucheron’s first novel. He is described as “a major figure in French and international aeronautics and engineering.”

This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of short interviews with authors with new books out that are worth your attention.

Jeremy Jackson has written three books of fiction; two young adult novels under the pseudonum Alex Bradley; and a pair of cookbooks, one of which, The Cornbread Book, was a finalist for the James Beard Award. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (graduating in 1997; I met him in Iowa City when I arrived there a couple of years later).

I Will Not Leave You Comfortless is Jackson’s first memoir. “The eleventh year of life brings Jeremy Jackson his first love, the loss of his grandmother, and his sister’s departure for collegeseemingly ordinary events that erode his innocence in a way that will never be fully repaired. With storytelling informed by a profound sense of place and an emotional memory startlingly vivid, readers young and old will be transported and transformed by this coming-of-age tale.”

Interview!

Q1. The level of detail in this book is extraordinary, and it creates a deep sense of a very particular time and place. The reader can see that this isn’t just a few memories that you dashed off; you researched this book. It includes any number of quotes from family letters, notes, and journals. How did you go about that research process, and what did it feel like to research your own life?

JJ: First off, thanks for asking these great questions, Nick.
The amount of documentation that my parents have kept from the time period is, well, somewhat preposterous. In addition journals and letters, they kept meticulously labelled and dated photographs, the family calendars that hung on our bulletin board (you know, the calendar with all our dentist appointments and PTA meetings on it), my school papers, cancelled checks, hand-drawn maps of our garden from each year, records of what my parents gave us for Christmas each year, and so on and so forth. I also interviewed my parents at length, and they were tremendous resources.
So, yes, it was a bit odd to be researching my own life, but it was also fascinating, because I discovered things I wouldn’t have remembered on my own, and I also discovered “intersections” between my ten-year-old-boy life and the lives of my other family members. For instance, the night I went on a raccoon hunt with my fellow Cub Scouts turned out to also be the night my grandmother had so much pain from her yet-undiagnosed disease that she got out of bed very early. My friend Craig and I stayed up super-late at the post-coon-hunt sleepover, so probably my grandmother and I overlapped—me up late, she up early. Additionally, my mother and eldest sister had a big fight that night and my sister also got up very early the next morning to drive an hour to go take the SAT test. So I was able to write this big multiple-POV chapter about this night, thanks to the sources I had. I wasn’t guessing or speculating about things based on memories, I had documentation. If this book were an academic book, it would have five or ten footnotes on many pages.

Q2. Was there a particular moment when you knew you needed to write this book?

JJ: In 2003, my mom emailed me a transcript of about three decades of our family calendars; this got me thinking about 1983 and 1984 and how our family changed that year. I started writing, exploring that year. But I had no experience in writing memoir, so I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing, so I took the chapters I’d written (which are indeed the first three chapters of the book) and showed them to Frank Conroy, the late director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, because he’d been an important teacher for me, a fan of mine, and because he’d written a famous childhood memoir of his own.
I asked Frank, What is this I’ve written? Where is it going?
He said, It is what it is, it’s going where it’s going, and you have to write this book.
I took that as a commandment.

Q3. You are a successful novelist and, now, a memoirist — you must know the strengths and weaknesses of each genre very well. If you locked fiction and memoir together in a cage in your mind and made them fight, which one would win?

JJ: It’s a draw! Boring, but true. Though perhaps the prevailing view is that memoir has been ascendant in the past couple of decades and fiction is in a bit of a holding pattern, I don’t see that either genre has any objective advantage. It’s a bit of a muddle anyway: memoir can contain a lot of fiction, and fiction can contain a lot of fact.
I personally like to read fiction more than memoir, and I also happen to think that there are many more “great” works of fiction in the world than “great” works of memoir. Or is this just me? I can easily name twenty amazing novels from the past hundred years, but I’m hard pressed to name five amazing memoirs….

Cave paintings at Chauvet

Werner Herzog in his beautiful documentary film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” shows two Neolithic cave paintings that are located just feet apart on the same cave wall. They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.

In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” J.M.Coetzee approaches a similar idea from the opposite direction. The book’s narrator writes:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

The narrator is the aging magistrate of a frontier town on the remote edge of an unnamed empire. It has been a peaceful place for many years, but the secret police have now come to investigate the activities of the barbarians that live beyond the town, in the desert and mountains. The magistrate observes, “Once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.” The secret police treat the barbarians with brutality and torture, generating a cycle of conflict. The magistrate feels morally compelled to resist and eventually is accused of aiding the barbarians and subjected to torture himself.

The strength of the narrative is in the consciousness and conscience of the magistrate. The magistrate is physical (many writers tend to ignore the needs of the body, but Coetzee’s characters — in this book and others — are often dealing with physical urges and pains, aches and needs) and impetuous, but also self-aware, and even as he proceeds down the righteous path of resisting the secret police and enduring terrible pain for doing so, he is doubtful of his own motives. He suspects that he is acting from vanity, and although he despises the secret police, he worries that they and their methods may be necessary to the life of the empire that is his home and represents civilization.

The book poses questions as relevant to the American empire as any other: How does one live in an empire that engages in brutality and torture at the fringes in order to sustain itself? What is your culpability? If you feel you must resist, what is the moral way to do so? These are questions often raised by war novels, but they take a different shape here, where we can see the war itself being manufactured and the action takes place in a curious margin between the battlefield and the home front. “Waiting for the Barbarians” finally suggests no simple answers; it suggests only that no simple answers exist. And by the end of the novel the magistrate achieves something like the wisdom of the open-hearted fool who has no answers, only questions.

Coetzee was born in South Africa, and now lives in Australia. “Waiting for the Barbarians” was published in 1980. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Due to my catastrophic lack of knowledge of Biblical studies and Biblical history, I’m not qualified to say much about how this novel plays against the Biblical story on which it is based. Or how accurately it portrays the Biblical times in which it is set. It is one of the strengths of this book that it is very Biblical, but my own lack of Biblical background doesn’t much mar my appreciation of it. It springboards off the Biblical story of Barabbas, a prisoner who had been convicted to a death sentence, but was then acquitted in order to free up a crucifix for Jesus of Nazareth. (I think the book’s account of how this happens differs from the Biblical account, but I’ll leave that to others to discuss.) Barabbas first sees Jesus briefly when he is freed, and then he sees Jesus die on the cross. For a moment, as Jesus dies, Barabbas sees a darkness descend.

Afterward, for the rest of his life, Barabbas struggles with his relationship to this man Jesus and the strange religion that he left behind. It is, to my mind, a drama of agnosticism. Agnosticism would seem to be a difficult topic to dramatize, but the circumstances of Barabbas’ life make it vivid. He saw the darkness as Jesus died, but no other miracles, so he is doubtful of Jesus’ divinity. The circumstances of his life have been cruel, so Jesus’ message (distilled in the novel as “love one another”) is puzzling to him. He’s drawn to Jesus’ message and his followers, but can never quite understand or embrace them. And he lives in a time when the difference between wanting to believe and actually believing matters a great deal — in the course of the novel Barabbas watches as two different followers of Jesus who Barabbas has grown close with are martyred for their belief. Barabbas, because he does not believe, lives, but with guilt.

The novel is short and written in starkly simple language, but it raises a great number of complicated questions and troubling feelings. You should read it.

It contains things like this:

–And you? Do you also believe in this loving god?
Barabbas made no reply.
–Tell me. Do you?
Barabbas shook his head.
–You don’t? Why do you bear his name on your disk then?
Barabbas was silent as before.
–Is he not your god? Isn’t that what the inscription means?
–I have no god, Barabbas answered at last, so softly that it could barely be heard. But Sahak and the Roman both heard it. And Sahak gave him a look so full of despair, pain and amazement at his incredible words that Barabbas felt it pass right through him, right into his inmost being, even though he did not meet the other’s eyes.
The Roman too was surprised.
–But I don’t understand, he said. Why then do you bear this “Christos Iesus” carved on your disk?
–Because I want to believe, Barabbas said, without looking up at either of them.

Barabbas was published in 1950. Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.

See this on Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf. See also the Instant Librarian on Barabbas.

I have a new short story in the new issue of Noir Nation. It’s a very short, dialog-heavy piece of fiction set in the Denver International Airport and inspired, loosely, by some thoughts about architecture and the DIA conspiracy theories.

The story, titled “Architecture Is a Mind Control Device,” begins like this:

“What do you see?” he asked.

“I…” She trailed off. “Well… It’s an airport, obviously… The main terminal, I guess, looks like a bunch of posts with a big sheet dropped over. So it’s got all these white peaks pointing up. Maybe it’s supposed to look like the mountains. But it’s more like a lot of sailing ships bunched together… Or a meringue… The fabric stretches out from the sides. Like wings. To get to Departures we’re going to be making a big turn… Then up a ramp under one wing.”

“What else is around here?”

“It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere. Some parking lots. A big blue horse sculpture.  Solar panels… Miscellaneous buildings.”

“Low, small stuff. This thing is out here all by itself, and they’ve made it monumental, like a cathedral in a medieval city.”

“Way off in the distance there’s the mountains. They go in a line as far as you can see north and south.”

“A cathedral. The embodiment of the power and the glory. It’s supposed to impress the hell out of you and make you feel your smallness, to make you modest and compliant as you enter into its grip.”

“I… I don’t know about that.”

Read the rest in Noir Nation #2. (Available at AmazonB&N, or Kobo. E-book only.)

The Dwarf was published in 1945 (the author, Pär Lagerkvist, a Swede, went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951), and it is the story of — you guessed it — a dwarf. He is a court dwarf for a prince in medieval Italy, and he’s one of the most unique characters I’ve ever found in the pages of a book.

As a dwarf he considers himself to be of a race separate from and much older than the human race. He watches the human goings-on with a certain detachment and a great deal of disgust. He professes to hate humans generally, with the exception of the Prince who employs him. He admires the Prince, though he is often baffled by him. One way to interpret the book is to see the Dwarf as a symbol for the ruthless and bellicose spirit that a medieval prince would be required to possess at times, but to do so would be to deny the full humanity of the Dwarf himself (a humanity that the Dwarf, in turn, would deny).

The Dwarf is a prideful and fundamentally evil character. His mother sold him to the Prince, and since then he has been literally spit upon and kicked all of his life. As a consequence he does not have any direct experience of love or sympathy — these feeling move in him in a subterranean way that he can hardly access, much less understand. The book is written in the form of Dwarf’s journal or diary entries, and much of the power of the book comes in the form of his idiosyncratic observations and commentary. He writes things like this:

It is difficult to understand those whom one does not hate, for then one is unarmed, and one has nothing with which to penetrate into their being.

And this:

I have noticed that sometimes I frighten people; what they really fear is themselves. They think it is I who scare them, but it is the dwarf within them, the ape-faced manlike being who sticks up its head from the depths of their souls.

And this:

What would life be like if it were not futile? Futility is the foundation upon which it rests. On what other foundation could it have been based which would have held and never given way?

“Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C.
1970,” by Diane Arbus

The Dwarf is a short novel, but it moves swiftly and deeply. It flirts with allegory; it deals explicitly in religious and Christian themes; and it progresses by an inevitable logic toward terrible destruction and a kind of apocalypse.  The Dwarf plays his role in encouraging the downward spiral. At times I had the instinct to fling the book away, as if it were a photo making me look at something I didn’t want to look at. But, having come to the end of the book, I found the feeling that great literature sometimes creates, of having gone through a change, as if the book could reach inside and alter the reader’s very DNA. (I think of the complicated feelings created by the photography of Diane Arbus, who often worked with circus performers.) It is a strange, spiritually demanding book, and undeniably a work of art.

By the end of the book the Dwarf himself has achieved an almost mystical power of spiritual violence, similar in ways to the character of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s great novel, “Blood Meridian.” But, for my money, the Dwarf is the more interesting character of the two. The Judge offers a pure, inexplicable expression of the spirit of war and chaos. The Dwarf comes to the same place, but comes to it by a process of human tragedy. And the power he achieves arises, paradoxically, directly, from his dwarfish weakness and impotence.

P.S.-ish thing: “The Dwarf” is one of four novels included in my reading class, “Housewives and Evildoers,” this fall at the Lighthouse.

P.P.S. bonus lit nerd thing!: Readers of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” will find it alludes to “The Dwarf” with this line, “Upstairs in the Lagerkvist Taproom [Edith] and Sylvia were served by a dwarf in a horned helmet and leather jerkin…”

There’s an anecdote somewhere in one of Robert Pirsig’s books (this is a blog post, not an academic article, so I’m not going to take the time to dig it out and get it exactly right) where a white man is talking to a Native American, and there’s a dog running around them. The white man thinks it’s an odd looking dog. He says, “What kind of a dog is that?”

And the Native American says, “That’s a good dog.”

“Train Dreams” is a middle-ish length that confuses people. What kind of story is “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson? Is it a long short story? A novella? A short novel?

It’s a good story.

There’s a bit of “Train Dreams” that goes like this:

The town of Noxon lay on the south side of the Clark Fork River and the widow’s house lay on the north, so they didn’t get a chance even to stop over at the store for a soda, but pulled up into Claire’s front yard and emptied the house and loaded as many of her worldly possessions onto the wagon as the horses would pull, mostly heavy locked trunks, tools, and kitchen gear, heaping the rest aboard the Model T and creating a pile as high up as a man could reach with a hoe, and at the pinnacle two mattresses and two children, also a little dog. By the time Grainier noticed them, the children were too far above him to distinguish their age or sexual type.

I love the gentle exaggeration of this passage and the way it causes you to really see this towering pile of stuff in the Model T and the indistinguishable children high above. It reminded me, just a bit, of the introduction of Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

“Train Dreams” is the story of Robert Grainer’s life from the late 1800’s through the first half of the 20th century. It is set in the American West, and in Grainer’s life he works in bridge building and logging, flies in a biplane, comes near Elvis without seeing him. After he loses his wife and daughter, he becomes a kind of hermit, and as he becomes increasingly isolated his life becomes increasingly odd. The sample above is an example of this, of the curious passages that the hermit life is opening in Grainer’s mind. Later he sees his wife as a ghost, and then he sees his daughter as something even stranger.

The hermit is an exceptionally difficult character for fiction, since the hermit’s life deliberately avoids the kind of conflict between characters that powers most stories. When it’s done well, the conflict turns inward, and the landscape often takes on an important role. Two books that do this well and that I have long admired are “The Works of Love,” by Wright Morris, and “The Life and Times of Michael K,” by JM Coetzee. And “Train Dreams,” too, does it very well.

I’m going to try to start putting up a quick thought or two about the books I’m reading on this blog, from time to time. Please, let me know what you think.

Theory: Writing is a device for making a person appear smarter than he or she usually is.

Substantiation: We know from experience that smartness is not a constant quality. Sometimes we are smarter than we usually are, as when a sudden insight arrives, or a burst of creativity, or a moment of sustained focus. These smarter than usual moments can occur at any time.

On the other hand, even the smartest person is sometimes less smart than usual.

So, smartness varies over time. If we graph smartness vs. time, it might look like this.

Ideally, we would like to use only the peaks of the graph, when we are smarter than usual.

Fortunately, writing allows us to do that. It does so through two processes: (1) if we can immediately recognize that a thought is less smart than usual, we discard the thought and don’t write it down, and (2) if we do write down something that’s less smart than usual, the processes of revision, rewriting, and editing allow us to trim away the stuff that’s less smart than usual and replace it with stuff that’s more smart.

So, writing (including the crucial revision process) is a handy device that you can use for creating a version of yourself who is smarter than you usually are. Please use it for good, not evil.

Note: The vertical axes of these graphs can be replaced with any other quality you might want to exhibit in your writing, such as honesty, compassion, wisdom, creativity, sexiness, awesomeness, etc. The creation of a multidimensional graph showing the simultaneous variation of all of these qualities is an exercise left to the reader.