A Literary Coincidence

Eighteenth century literary scholars have always been a bit baffled by the similarities between Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Candide. Both are short philosophical novels; both were published in 1759, and neither author knew what the other was writing. Both Voltaire and Johnson were publishing, in different forms, views long held and often expressed. Both books were composed hastily; Candide in less than four weeks and Rasselas in seven evenings. Johnson claimed he wrote his novel to pay his mother’s funeral expenses. Johnson was 50 years old, Voltaire 65.

With Candide, Voltaire was responding to the philosophy of optimism, i.e. everything that happens is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Although it may not always seem so, Voltaire’s novel is hilariously funny, mostly because Candide remains obdurately optimistic despite the catastrophes constantly overwhelming him.

In Rasselas, Johnson explores various notions of happiness, its evanescence, and the preponderance of discontent, both in Prince Rasselas’ ‘happy valley,’ where his every whim is indulged, and in the outside world, to which the Prince escaped in an effort to satisfy the insatiable hunger of his imagination.

 

-Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

station 11 faulkner house books

Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel. Vintage.

When I recommend this book to customers, they are often wary when I describe it as a work of science fiction. Somehow, sci fi has become a dirty word among a certain literary set, signifying socially awkward middle schoolers and Star Trek conventions. I want to join a growing group of readers in making a case for sci fi as an essential literary genre, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a perfect example.

A 2015 National Book Award finalist and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, this novel is undeniably literary in its scope. Mandel tells the story of the Georgia Flu, a deadly pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the human population. The setting shifts among the weeks just before the pandemic, the days after, the years before, and twenty years afterwards. The tale follows Kristen, who was a child when the illness struck, and is now, twenty years later, a member of a traveling symphony, whose slogan, “Survival is insufficient,” comes from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. One of Kristen’s only memories of the time before the plague is from a production of King Lear, in which she was a child actor alongside the movie star Arthur Leander.

Leander, who is long-dead by the time of the novel’s present moment, links together a cast of unexpected characters who play roles of varying significance to the post-apocalyptic world: his best friend; his son; an ex-paparazzo; two ex-wives, one an actress, another an illustrator; and, of course, Kristen. As the story unfolds, the connections are revealed, while at the same time we learn more about the scope of this new world. Here, there is no electricity; no readily available medicine; no cities. People live in settlements, devoting their lives to the necessities of survival.

The traveling symphony is a light in this darkness, bringing performances of Shakespeare to inhabitants of the settlements, giving them a brief respite in the form of great art. This book, though post-apocalyptic, reminds the reader of the beauty and persevering spirit of humanity. Station Eleven gets at a fundamental truth of the human condition: the indomitable will not only to survive, but to thrive. This novel brings to mind a quote from Bertolt Brecht:

In the dark times,
will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books

Faulkner & Justice: Two Short Story Collections

“Smoke” in Knight’s Gambit

“Barn Burning” in Selected Short Stories

Is justice achievable? Or is justice an ideal that we aspire to but find contentedness with partial completion?

Justice is one of those big, atmospheric words like love and hate, good and evil, which we use colloquially to describe otherwise normal occurrences in daily life. Our sense of justice is part of the human condition; it is cross-cultural and flows freely through language barriers. Justice is rooted in the human heart, which—as William Faulkner said in his 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech—is “in conflict with itself.” Only such subjects dwelling in the human heart are “worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

I was already a third of the way through law school when I learned that literature could help define this ideal we call justice. Reading case law taught me to read actively, but not every judge writes with the eloquence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and judicial opinions are too narrow to define justice in a larger sense. Alternatively, literature is timeless, and helps us cope with problems for which there are no immediate solutions.

As a young boy, Faulkner attended courtroom proceedings and traveled around with his uncle, who was a practicing attorney. Faulkner, although not a lawyer, was a brilliant observer of the human condition and wrote about justice in many settings. Some great examples are found in a couple of Faulkner’s short story collections.

The Knight’s Gambit (Vintage, 2011) collection features six mystery stories based on Gavin Stevens, the Harvard-educated prosecuting attorney in Yoknapatawpha County. “Smoke” was the first of the six Gavin Stevens stories, originally published in Harper’s in 1932, about two brothers and a murder arising out of a land dispute. The narrator describes his uncle, Gavin Stevens, as:

“a loose-jointed man with a mop of untidy iron-gray hair, who could discuss Einstein with college professors and who spent whole afternoons among the squatting men against the walls of country stores, talking to them in their idiom.”

In “Smoke,” the young narrator reports on various opinions of justice in the community. Before Judge Dukinfield is murdered in the story, the trial audience sits for an “overlong time” while the judge validates the authenticity of “a simple enough document.” But the young narrator waits with deferential patience, as he explains:

“[Judge Dukinfield] was the one man among us who believed that justice is fifty per cent legal knowledge and fifty per cent unhaste and confidence in himself and in God…. So we watched him without impatience, knowing that what he finally did would be right, not because he did it, but because he would not permit himself or anyone else to do anything until it was right.”

The circumstances of Judge Dukinfield’s murder are what allow Gavin Stevens to see the brothers’ guilt. A skilled litigator, Stevens lures the brothers into confession while examining them on the witness stand. During questioning, the narrator emphasizes the county attorney’s thoughts on justice in a parenthetical aside:

“Ah…. But isn’t justice always unfair? Isn’t it always composed of injustice and luck and platitudes in unequal parts?”

Justice is the subject of other stories in Knight’s Gambit about Yoknapatawpha characters, townspeople and rural recluses, with Gavin Stevens leading the investigations and prosecutions. However, “Barn Burning” is perhaps one of Faulkner’s most famous short stories—first published in Harper’s in 1939 and now found in Faulkner’s Selected Short Stories (Modern Library, 2012)—that serves as a prequel to the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet; The Town; The Mansion).

“Barn Burning” is a story about justice and injustice, retribution, economic inequality, and fathers and sons. We see justice—and one’s reaction to injustice—less in the opening cheese-smelling courtroom scene, presided over by the Justice of the Peace, than we do in the actions of Abner Snopes, a sharecropper who is forced to move his family for the twelfth time in ten years. Abner is a man of “wolflike independence,” “courage,” and “ferocious conviction.” His habit is building small fires, neat and easy to control, but, in response to injustice, he shares the flame with the landowner’s barn and other property. Faulkner reveals through the thoughts of Abner’s son, Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, that:

“the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion.”

When the Snopes family arrives at their dilapidated tenant house, Abner goes to speak to the man who will “begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months.” He takes Sarty with him through a grove of oaks and cedars to a fence of honeysuckles and Cherokee roses enclosing the landowner’s brick-pillared home. Inside, Abner ruins a hundred-dollar imported rug by stomping horse manure on it and, thus, becomes further indebted to the landowner. Yet again, Sarty must decide among competing senses of justice—justice under the law or justice for blood, that of his father.

“Barn Burning” was the first of Faulkner’s works that taught me to look deeper into the fictional characters’ problems for help in answering my own, for help in considering societal questions posed in the newspapers and law school courses. Knight’s Gambit was a suggestion of Joe DeSalvo, the owner of Faulkner House Books, and although I do not agree with Gavin Stevens that justice is always unfair, I appreciate his honesty. Whether in literature or in the law, we need the reminder: justice is often an unequal composition of injustice, luck, and platitudes.

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

What About This: The Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

Frank Stanford has long been a kind of enigma in the poetry world: an underground legend, with a cult following, whose work has always been notoriously difficult to find. Though he died in 1978, at only 29 years old, this is the first time that his collected works have been available for purchase. What About This will hopefully usher in an era when Stanford’s work is rightfully regarded as seminal American poetry for generations to come.

Stanford is a writer unlike any other American poet of his time. His work is reminiscent in its scope and dialect of Whitman, but he was also heavily influenced by French and Latin American Surrealism. This collection includes not only all of Stanford’s published work (except for the epic The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, which is excerpted throughout the collection), but also his many unpublished manuscripts, one of which, titled Automatic Copilot, is composed entirely of poems written after the work of other artists. This manuscript is one of the great gifts of this book, as Stanford shows us the work that was most important to the creation of his own art. His poem “Cave of the Heart,” after Lorca, exemplifies that surreal, almost Romantic influence:

            Drenched in the lost blood of the moon, yawning

           In the furrows turned after dark, your thick legs long as feathers,

            Stout as brooms, the earth you sleep on

            Too young to call a grave.

Stanford was constantly in conversation with the work of other poets, while at the same time forging his own unique place in American poetics. He used local diction from his ancestral homes of Mississippi and Arkansas, illuminating a world often unseen by the majority of America. Throughout his collections Stanford writes “Blue Yodel” poems; for example, “Blue Yodel of Her Feet” in the collection You:

            Your chest gives ground

            Like an island on a river

            And as they yodel in the song of songs

            Your nipples taut as raisins

            Killdeers try to fly from your eyes

            I wish I could nail your shoes to the floor

            And lose your socks

Stanford combines, in poems like this, the surreal, the local, the beautiful, and the mundane, building it all up to create a narrative of love that seems something out of a dream. The poem is a “yodel,” a mountain song echoing, yet it is about a woman’s feet, literally her lowliest part. Stanford does not differentiate between the high and the low; rather, he sees the poetry in everything, and reveals it to the reader through inventive language and free-flowing form.

In Constant Stranger, perhaps the strongest of his published manuscripts, Stanford writes of love and death as equally strange and familiar, the two most inevitable aspects of life, which haunt his poetics in equal measure. This collection begins with “Death and the Arkansas River,” a long poem in which death is portrayed as a sort of local legend, who is simultaneously powerful and quotidian:

            Some say you can keep an eye

            Out for Death,

            But Death is one for fooling around.

            He might turn up working odd jobs

            At your favorite diner.

            He might be peeling spuds.

These poems are truly, in the words of the New York Times’ Dwight Garner, “death-haunted.” It is impossible to wholly separate the work from the life of the artist, whose death at 29 of three self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the heart, as well as his precocity and style, make him comparable to a sort of American Rimbaud. In the poem “Time Forks Perpetually toward Innumerable Futures in One of Them I Am Your Enemy,” Stanford begins with the line, “I am going to die.” He goes on,

            Death is an isthmus, you can get there on foot.

            But love had made its island.

            …

            Tell it:

 

            There is a fear without age or Christ

            That goes through us

            Like moonshine in a coil.

Stanford consistently takes those two most ancient poetic themes–love and death, that which is most feared and most desired–and infuses them with the freshness of his language and imagery. These poems are suffused with images of the Ozarks: the moon shining on water, boats, catfish and alligator gar, trucks and small-town bars. To read his figuration regarding the moon, in particular, is an almost transcendent experience. For example, in “Women Singing When Their Husbands Are Gone,” from Ladies From Hell:

            Flies wanting a warm place to stay

            And the threequarter moon

            Quieter than a child slicing a melon

            Like dirt smeared over with seeds

And in the titular “What About This,”

            Things are dying down, the moon spills its water.

            Dewhurst says he smells rain.

In these poems, the moon, like love and death, becomes more than a symbol; it is almost a character in itself. The poet constantly doubles back over and around the same themes and images, creating a kind of dreamscape of Southern mountain surreality. There is something undeniably sublime about the best of Stanford’s work. This is the kind of book to read before bed, so that his images may permeate your dreams.

-Jade Hurter, Faulkner House Books

Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King

Ever since reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, I’ve been an avid fan and collector of his work; I’ve read all of his books, some more than once. (Wasn’t it Somerset Maugham who said, “You truly read a book only the second time”?)

For two years after opening Faulkner House Books, we periodically published a newsletter. In one I wrote a retrospective review of Henderson and sent a copy of it to Saul Bellow with a letter thanking him for all the pleasure his writing had given me for years. Now, with the bookstore, I looked forward to sharing my pleasure with my customers. A few months later, I received his reply. Both follow.

My Review of Henderson

My ardent admiration for Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, a novel I have read often, is also a consciously expressed admission. I’m partial to Don Quixote tales where usually an aging idealist dissatisfied with things as they are seeks to change the world into something more noble. Alas, such a hero must ultimately confront reality and be either defeated or transformed and returned safely to the community of man.

And so, millionaire pig-farmer Eugene Henderson, like Don Quixote in his mid-fifties, tired of the chaos in his life, “mad as a horsefly on a window pane,” goes to Africa to quell the voice within him that repeats, “I want, I want, I want.” He also hopes to exchange what “civilization” has taught him for the more fundamental truths, he believes, primitive people still possess.

With his companion, the native Romilayu, he visits two tribes, the Arnewi and the Wariri. Both visits end disastrously. He blows up the Arnewi’s cistern while trying to rid it of an infestation of frogs. With the Wariri, he is unwittingly maneuvered into becoming the Rain King and the successor to Dahfu, their king. Dahfu is a former medical student forced to return home when his father died. He is out of favor with his elders for keeping a pet lioness in violation of tribal tradition. He befriends Henderson and insists that he can find “noble possibilities” by imitating the lioness, the way she walks and how she roars. Not long after Henderson becomes the Rain King, Dahfu is killed by another lion, perhaps not accidentally, on an obligatory hunt. Henderson succeeds to the Wariri throne, is imprisoned, but escapes and returns to the United States.

Since Henderson always believed that truth comes in blows, he is, by Dahfu’s death, redeemed, “called from non-existence into existence.” He has been moved, in his own words, “from states that I myself make into states that are of themselves. Like if I stopped making such a noise all the time, I might hear something nice. I might hear a bird.”

Henderson the Rain King was published in 1959, 18 years before Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for literature. It is truly a masterpiece, delightfully humorous and invariably intelligent. It is a novel for poets; a worthy scion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

January 26, 1993

Saul Bellow’s Response

Dear Mr. De Salvo,

It makes me happy to hear from members of what I consider to be an elite of readers, namely those who admire Henderson the Rain King. I am especially fond of, “I might hear a bird.” So, it’s turnabout and fair play. I write a book, you send me a kind note.

With Best Wishes,

Saul Bellow

You should infer from Bellow’s letter that Henderson was a favorite of his, even though he was critiqued for moving away from his urban Jewish theme; also for being uninformed about Africa and for using a minstrel-style Southern dialect for the natives. The novel is so thoughtful, so intelligent and funny, and Henderson the character is such a marvelous creation, that the criticisms pale.

Good reading to you.

Joe DeSalvo

An Old Newspaper

Rummaging through excess accumulated personal and bookstore papers with culling in mind, I found a New Orleans States newspaper dated August 14, 1945. Does the date ring a bell? The headline is a single 5-letter word in 9-inch type: PEACE. On that date, the Japanese, accepting defeat, surrendered unconditionally. World War II was over.

My memories of the celebration are still very vivid: in the late afternoon, my father driving the family—my mother, very young sister and brother, and me—downtown in our 1934 Chevrolet sedan. We joined a caravan of pre-war automobiles circling a divided Canal Street, horns honking and blaring without cease. People jammed the sidewalks and spilled into the streets and the area between where the electric streetcars (trolleys) ran. They were singing and dancing to music coming from everywhere. Gone at last the years of dread and war worries; in their place, a glorious and unbounded happiness. Their loved ones will be coming home.

Amid the crowd, newsboys were shouting “Extra! Extra! The Japanese have surrendered, read more about it.” I asked my father for a nickel to buy the copy that resurfaced a few weeks ago.

For me, the War began very early in the morning on December 4, 1941, the day before my 9th birthday. My mother’s 20-year-old brother, a favorite uncle, who lived with us and shared a bedroom with me, was leaving for the army induction center. When he hugged me goodbye with teary eyes, I cried. He assured me he would be home again for my 10th birthday. I believed him. A patriotic song with the refrain “Goodbye, dear, I’ll be back in a year, ‘cause the army needs me now” played often on the radio.

Three days later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on a portion of our Pacific fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When the war ended, three years, eight months and seven days later, my uncle was en route to Okinawa, an island a few hundred miles from Japan.

So an 83 year old man will keep the 13 year old boy’s newspaper a bit longer and will not forget the noisy, victorious day, 70 years ago, that he bought it.

Joe DeSalvo

Faulkner Society And Louisiana State Museum To Host Multi-Author Reception

The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society is proud to announce that four of the Gold Medal winners selected in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition have had their new novels published. The Society will join hands with the Louisiana State Museum to honor Frederick Barton, author of In the Wake of the Flagship; Moira Crone, author of The Ice Garden, Jennifer Steil, author of The Ambassador’s Wife, and J. Ryan Stradal, author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest.

The event will take place Sunday, August 9, 2015, from 2:30 to 4:30 p. m. at The Cabildo, the historic venue where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, located on Jackson Square.

All of their new novels are receiving exceptional reviews and are wonderful choices for your summer reading. All of the authors are interesting speakers and have had diverse and interesting careers. Each author will discuss his or her new work, read briefly from the work, and take questions from the audience.  There will be opportunities to socialize before and after the program, which will start at 3:00 p. m.  Their books will be available for purchase and signing. To reserve your books in advance, please call Faulkner House Books with credit card information at (504) 524-2940.

We hope you will joint us as we lift a glass to our exciting array of competition winners.
The event, which will feature complimentary refreshments, is free and open to the
public. We ask that you RSVP to faulkhouse@aol.com so that we can be prepared with food and drink.

Background on each of the authors and their work follows.

For additional information, Contact:
Rosemary James, faulkhouse@aol.com

AUTHOR BIOS

Rick PhotoFrederick Barton won the Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for Best Novel for his fourth novel, A House Divided, which examined the contemporary American soul with uncommon insight.  Barton’s new novel, In the Wake of the Flagship, is a blistering satire chronicling one man’s battle against bureaucracy and corruption. Basketball coach Richard Janus has found himself interim rector of Urban University, a woefully underfunded public college in Choctaw, Alkansea. After Hurricane Hosea devastates the city, Janus must go to war with the unscrupulous heads of Alkansea’s flagship university, facing down massive layoffs and rabid football fans. The absurdity of the American experience is on full display here as Metacom, the legendary Indian sachem, narrates Janus’s struggle, recounting academic intrigue and hypocrisy with searing humor.  Pulitzer Prize winnerRichard Ford says of the book: “Barton has a lot of important human business on his mind in this exceptional novel: race, history, the South, hurricanes, laughter, love, and much more. In the Wake of the Flagship is wonderfully inventive, and addictive to read.“  In addition to his achievements as a fiction writer, which include publication of numerous short stories, Barton is an award-winning essayist, journalist, and film critic Barton founded the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans where he served as Director for many years. He continues to teach in the program and lives in New Orleans, LA.

 

Moira_Crone_ SHAWL PORTRAIT-p19ro3se4ds671tvt8hari613rpMoira Crone, who is winner of the Faulkner Society’s Gold Medals for both Novella and Short Story, has published three novels and three books of stories, including What Gets Into Us. Her work appears in Oxford American,Triquarterly, Habitus, and New Orleans Review. Her stories have been selected forNew Stories From The South, five times. In 2009 she received the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction from the Southern Fellowship of Writers for her body of work. Moira Crone is a fable maker with a musical ear, a plentitude of nerve, and an epic heart for her beleaguered, if often witty, characters. Her previous novel, The Not Yet, is a foray into the not too distant future and what the social structure of New Orleans might easily become, as well as a warning of what lies ahead for New Orleans if the issues, of global warming, rising sea levels, and coastal erosion are not addressed head-on now. It was published in 2012 by Lavender Ink. Her new novel, The Ice Garden, was first a novella by the same name. It was this work which captured the Society’s Gold Medal for Best Novella. Ms. Crone later expanded it to novel length and it was  released by Carolina Wren Press recently. Among the creators and also long time director of the MFA program at LSU, Ms. Crone, also an accomplished painter, lives in New Orleans with her husband, bestselling poet and non-fiction writer Rodger Kamenetz.

 

jennifer-steilJennifer Steil, an award-winning American writer, journalist, and actor was first runner-up for the Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for Best Novel in Progress in 2012 for her work Chiaroscuro and then won the Gold Medal for the Best Novel in 2013 for the completed work, which has just been published by Doubleday under the new title, The Ambassador’s Wife. A harrowing story from a real-life diplomat’s wife of the kidnapping of the wife of an ambassador in an Arab country. Ms. Steil also is author of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth. Published by Broadway Books/Random House), it is a memoir of her experiences as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. The book received accolades in The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. It has been published in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.  Theatre was her first love. She has a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Oberlin College and worked for four years as a professional actor in Seattle, becoming increasingly frustrated with the limited roles available to women and the dearth of female voices in the theatre world at large. She began dedicating more time to her writing, eventually completing an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College and a second master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Since 1997, she has worked as a reporter, writer, and editor for newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and abroad. Recent work includes a long piece on Yemen in the World Policy Journal, a Yemen piece for the German paper Die Welt, and several London stories for the Washington Times. After spending four years in Yemen and two years in London, she has relocated to La Paz, Bolivia, where she is lives with her husband, a diplomat, and young daughter.

J.Ryan.Straydel_Novel Winner1J. Ryan Stradal won the 2014 Gold Medal for Best Novel for his highly entertaining debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. The story is about a definitive Midwestern dinner, with each chapter telling the stories behind the ingredients—and the folks that hunted, grew, gathered, or stole them—as they find their way to a once-in-a-lifetime five-course meal. Similar to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in structure, every chapter, including the final dinner itself, is tied together by the rise to infamy of a young chef named Margaret Thorvald. The orphaned daughter of a Swedish cook and a sommelier, Margaret becomes the mysterious chef behind the most exclusive pop-up supper club in the world, an object of romantic affection, and an elusive celebrity that one character spends nearly a decade trying to meet.

The novel was acquired last year, put on the fast track, and has just been released by Viking.  Stradal’s writing has appeared in Hobart, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Joyland, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. He’s the editor of the 2014 California Prose Directory anthology, associate editor atTrop Magazine, and co-fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. A native of Minnesota, he’s lived in Los Angeles for 16 years, but still misses “pine trees, freshwater fish, shamelessly heavy food, and Midwesterners, the nicest people in the world.”