‘The Moviegoer’ – Walker Percy

photoIt is salient to point out that The Moviegoer is not about movies. At least not entirely. There are a few cameos, some allusions to then-contemporary films from the 50’s like Fort Dobbs. But cinema is certainly not the intent of Walker Percy’s debut novel. Published in 1961, Percy’s Southern gothic would beat out Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Heller’s Catch-22, and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road for the National Book Award. Living with Lit seeks to understand this considered upset and, once again, verify if The Moviegoer is still relevant.

The Moviegoer follows the humbly complacent Lousianan named Binx Bolling. Mister Bolling is on a quest for purpose. Chronicling the week up to his 30th birthday, the New Orleans resident has an itch to ‘discover’ a yet-to-be-named ‘something’. His aunt believes a formal pursuit of medical schooling would satisfy Binx’s sought after life-path. Binx, on the other hand, believes women or God may be the answer. Or, maybe, there is no answer at all.

Percy slowly constructs the mysterious Binx Bollig throughout The Moviegoer. Fragmented pieces and morbidly-poetic strands from his oblique past work to form a the protagonist. Percy achieves this technique by indulging in unexpected moments of reflection.These irreverent reveals are coupled with the contemporary Binx, in which every interaction is slightly cockeyed and rather intense. Readers begin to wonder: is it Binx that is oft-kilter or the zany world around him?:

“We talk, my aunt and I, in our old way of talking, during pauses in the music. She is playing Chopin. She does not play very well; her fingernails click against the keys. But she is playing one of our favorite pieces, the E flat Etude. In recent years I have become suspicious of music. When she comes to a phrase which once united us in a special bond and to which once I opened myself as meltingly as a young girl, I harden myself.”

An obvious characteristic of The Moviegoer is the slow drawl in Percy’s actual voice. The prose reads heavy and paced, with no intent of conforming to a succinct style. This is not necessarily enjoyable for all readers. However, those who finish the (admittedly short) book, understand that the forced patience with the writing is necessary for the Southern portrait:

“Here is the public service truck with its tower, measuring the clearance under the oak limbs and cutting some wet drooping branches. We wait to see the flambeaux bearers and now here they come, a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes, each bearing aloft a brace of pink and white flares. The flambeaux create a sensation. The bearers stride swiftly along the very edge of the crowd, showering sparks on everyone. They look angrily at each other to keep abreast, their fierce black faces peeping sidewise from their soiled hoods. Kate laughs at them. The Negro onlookers find them funny, but their bold manner, their contemptuous treatment of the crowd, excites them too. “Ah now!”, they cry. “Look at him! Aint he something though!”

Being a character-driven novel, what makes The Moviegoer so notable is Binx’s transformation. This is best displayed textually. Speed increases and the writing style evolves as our main character departs from his emotionally stolid New Orleans for a business trip to the North. Like Hemingway’s irreverent translations (or ‘Papa’s prose‘) in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the conclusion of the novel utilizes an eccentric style with infections precision:

The delegates are very decent fellows. I find myself talking to half a dozen young men from the West Coast and liking them very much – one in particular, a big shy fellow from Spokane named Stanley Kinchen, and his wife, a fine-looking woman, yellow-haired and bigger than Sharon, lips curling like a rose petal, head thrown back like a queen and a tremendous sparkle in the eye. What good people they are. It is not at all bad being a businessman. There is a spirit of trust and cooperation here. Everyone jokes about such things, but if businessmen were not trusting of each other and could not set their great projects going on credit, the country would collapse tomorrow and be no better off than Saudi Arabia. It strikes me that Stanley Kinchen[business associate] would actually do anything for me. I know I would for him. I introduce Kate as my fiancee and she pulls down her mouth. I can’t tell whether it is me she is disgusted with or my business colleagues. But these fellows: friends and-? What, dejected? I can’t be sure.”

The Moviegoer is a novel of self-discovery that attracts young souls. It is one of those books that will ‘find you’. In my case, a Texan thrust it into my hands, proclaiming it was his favorite novel – ever. While Percy isn”t explicit – and is ‘contradictory‘, apparently – in his intentions for The Moviegoer, to quote Robert Burton, “Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli.*”

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Percy would go on to write five more novels and many essays. When The Moviegoer won the Best Fiction Novel in 1961, few had read it – at least relative to the aforementioned contenders. Does that mean the Award and the novel’s place on the Time’s Top Novels of the 20th century are a fluke? Whatever Percy’s debut novel may lack in 21st century relevancy, The Moviegoer makes up for in reminding readers that Southern literature does exist.

 

 

*“According to the capabilities of the reader, books have their own destiny.

Stained Glass – William F. Buckley Jr.

stainedglassNo Conservative thinker of last century struck more ire and fear into the heart of the American left than William F. Buckley Jr. Author of a dozen Right-leaning books – with titles like Up From Liberalism – and his monthly periodical National Review, the fiercely anti-communist ideologue was one of the principal characters in 20th-century Conservative thinking. Alongside non-fiction, Buckley produced a number of novels about fictionalized C.I.A. officer Blackford Oakes. Like fellow contemporary and arch-nemesis Gore Vidal, the opinion is divided on whether Buckley was a better novelist or political columnist. So, using Stained Glass, the second entry in the Blackford Oakes series, we’ll try and come to a consensus.

The time is the early 1950’s. Relations between the West and Soviet East have soured, leaving Germany cracked in half by the concrete Berlin wall. A young German count, Alex Wintergrin, has called for his people to unite and overthrow their Communist oppressors. The Soviet press, in response, sounds the alarm that Wintegrin is another Hitler. The West is hesitant before making their next move. On one hand, booting out Russian troops in the name of democracy is not only supported in theory, but in policy ala the Truman Doctrine. However, prodding the nuclear holding Soviets – who already assume Wintegrin is funded by Western forces – could bring about the apocalypse. What to do? Keep a watchful eye on Wintergrin with the ace C.I.A. operative, Blackford Oakes.

Buckley once said, “We must confront the World as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Thus, Stained Glass is heavily grounded in the tense Cold War atmosphere of the 1950’s. Many actual American political characters, German parliamentary parties, and post-war situations exist freely and frequently throughout the novel. To even basic followers of Cold War history, this could be a challenge. However, these nuanced inclusions fail to curb any entertainment. On the contrary, readers receive a glimpse of  the awesomely consequential internal conflicts of Germany and the World at play:

“When he rose at his alma mater to announce that if the Occupation Forces would not deliver an ultimatum to the Russian to reopen the road to Berlin, the German people should do so, he was suddenly a conspicuous figure on the European scene, a man not yet thirty years old. Until then no national notice of him had been taken, only here and there a character piece in a local newspaper about the aristocratic curio who dreamed of irredentism and talked as if he would smash the Red Army with the might of his left fist, trained at the gymnasium at Heidelberg. These efforts at caricature failed when undertaken by reporters who went to hear him talk. They could no longer bring off conventional ideological denigration. (‘Count Wintergrin seems to have forgotten the horrors of war…’) But after Heidelberg, all the major papers in Europe suddenly began to take notice of Axel Wintergrin and his – his what? they asked themselves. Here was someone who, biologically could have been the grandson of Adenauer, the de factor leader of the country (with his Christian Democrat Union, serving as chancellor under the authority of the joint occupation command.) And when direct elections came in November 1952, Adenauer would surely win – with the Social Democrats under Erich Ollenhauer talking perhaps one-third of the seats. Germany’s future would be a generation’s oscillation of power between these two parties, the analysis joined in predicting. There was no room for the so-called ‘Reunification’ Party of this Wintergin. Why so much fuss over a quixotic Heidelberg Manifesto? Why had groups in every major city in Germany suddenly invited the young count to address them: elated veterans’ organizations, cynical student associations, inquisitive business associations, wary labor unions – even, here and there, always discreetly, organizations of civil servants…why the fascination with him?”

Buckley, contrary to his conservative nature, does not conform to traditional literary styles. Rather his prose is closer to Modernist detail and description; albeit with espionage-novel suspense. T.S. Eliot labels this style ‘mythical’ rather than narrative. The author presumably chose this approach of lengthy dialogue and description to convey a personal essence so characteristic in his writing and speech. While it certainly requires some adjustment, Buckley’s winding execution of the narrative in Stained Glass reads necessary to the tense post-war atmosphere:

“Blackford left his car in the courtyard, and as he walked into the huge archway, the small door embedded in the gate swung open, releasing a shaft of yellow light in to the late-summer dusk. Someone had been waiting for him. He followed a creaky old man wearing a green vest over a white shirt, and an apron over his pants, through a cold hallway into a warm, chintzy living room, the fireplace crackling, over which a single crystal chandelier, its dozen candles lit, hung, illuminating the eight painted panels depicting the Borghese Gardens in midsummer. The countess was there in her drawing room and rose to greet him, a warm but formal smilie on her high-boned face.”

Followers of Buckley will recount that his fierce anti-Soviet nature was matched only by a devout faith in Catholicism. This religiosity ran so deep that the author even condemned the liberal views adopted by the Catholic Church in Vatican II. Naturally, this strong sentiment for the divine seeped into Stained Glass. As a cover while tailing Wintegrin, the C.I.A. assigns Oakes to facilitate the rebuilding of the local church at St. Anslem. This assignment turns into an aesthetically and soulful pet project for Oakes, as well the perfect vehicle to transmute the author’s faith:

“And then, at the eastern end, a hundred meters from the castle, the chapel. It was the Catholic church for the whole village, the churchgoing members of which came the two and one-half kilometers on foot, by bicycle, and increasingly by car and bus to attend Sunday services, weddings, funerals, and baptisms. During the final western offensive, the Nazis had installed a heavy mortar unit on the northern wall of the courtyard. On the first of April 1945, this outpost was manned by three remaining soldiers – the rest of the squad, seeing the end only a few days, had deserted. The Americans, misreckoning it as a massive resistance point, ordered up heavy artillery. The very first shell perforated the seven-hundred-year-old roof of the chapel and passed through a wooden trapdoor to the crypt, exploding beneath the level of the stone floor…And after six weeks spent removing rubble – and segregating lovingly anything that might prove useful if ever the good Lord, having attended to more urgent matters such as Berlin and the cathedral of Cologne, got around to the painstaking job of piecing back together their beloved St. Anselm’s chapel – the parishioners were attending divine services again, sitting on makeshift benches, and using a borrowed table from the castle as an alter.”

Presumably, Stained Glass and the novels of Bill Buckley should be an extension of his outright Conservative views. This is not so. Though full of quips about Soviet policy (‘The Five-Year Plan will have to be postponed, once again’) the second Blackford Oakes novel is more an investigation of politics post-1945. Not only are readers privy to what covert intelligence operatives and Washington officers were probably thinking – and undoubtedly doing – but also the complexity of these decisions:

“‘What we cannot know is exactly when or how the Soviets would move. We know what they are in a position to do on the ground. We’re fighting a war in Korea, where we’ve concentrated practically everything we have. We all but demobilized the army during the panic to get home after the war. We wrote a treaty that forbade West German participation in a joint military command. The French economy is on the floor, and the French military is completely absorbed all to hell and gone, off in Indochina. The British are exhausted, and engaged in full-time decolonization. We put up a good front about NATO, and Ike made some nice speeches over here but here are the facts. The Russians have three million men on their western border, comprising one hundred and seventy-five divisions facing west; East Europe has sixty to seventy divisions under arms. We have ten divisions in West Germany – most of them under strength, backed by commitments for twenty divisions. The Russians presence in Korea is negligible. So they have available to fight in Europe the whole of their military machine.'”

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Published in 1978, the 1980 paperback edition of Stained Glass would win the National Book Award for Mystery. Buckley would continue ‘Blackford Oakes’ (which started with Saving the Queen in 1967) until 2005, the year before his death. The following novels, predictably, confront further Cold War exigencies that affected the American public and policy makers. While a committed Conservative, the writer famously lambasted the War on Drugs and famously derided fellow Right-leaning thinkers like Ayn Rand.

Having also read Buckley’s memoir Overdrive, it is easy to see why readers have a divided literary preference. For this reviewer, however, the consensus remains unanswerable, so my only contribution is to edify.

 

‘The Sheltering Sky’ – Paul Bowles

jacketPaul Bowles seems destined more for celebrity fame than a literary legacy. There is little contemporary discussion of his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky — but here’s a video of his meeting with the Rolling Stones in Morocco(starts at 5:30). In 1990, also, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci adapted the novel for the screen. Yet why is this Moroccan expat and follower of Gertrude Stein’s words not mentioned with his then contemporaries?

Bowles opens Sheltering Sky in a style similar to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night: An unhappy American couple, Port and Kit, are traveling in a foreign land after the second world war. In this case, the land is North Africa. Tension is added to this already ailing couple by their friend Tunner, who neither remember inviting. The love triangle in Part I manages to raises our intrigue better than average late 40’s melodrama. In Part II, though, conventional narrative is replaced with a metaphysical shift in tone, which sets the stage for the outright surreal Part III. And like British writer Lawrence Durrell’s Middle East in the Alexandria Quartet, Bowles’ narrative and voice is rife with the erosion of Colonialism in Africa.

This perception of the rapidly changing Africa is evident in atmospheric exposition. Bowles’ achieves this by maintaining a conscience and then contemporary narrative while exploring a relatively untouched location. The setting of the novel is certainly mysterious to the untraveled Western reader, but the personalities of Kit, Port, and Tunner are not. This style allows for lucid storytelling of the narrative as well as an illustrative portrait of the post-war continent:

“‘The war has certainly left its mark here.’ Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained.”

Less than a decade after Sheltering Sky was published, Franz Fanon would publish his anti-colonial work Black Skin, White Masks. Bowles’ observes in the novel that this movement for liberation was on the march, and fast. As mentioned before, in 1957 Durrell would invoke a similar structure for his ‘Alexandria’, except with World War II looming on the horizon. These interim works allow for an intimate view into the aftereffects of conflict – and what the future portends:

“‘In Lagos I bought a command car and drove it through to Casamance. We were the only whites ever to have penetrated that region. They wanted me to be cameraman for one expedition, but there was no one in Cape Town I could trust to keep the studios running properly, and we were making four films at the time.’ Port began to resent his not knowing better how far to go with his listener,  but he let it all pass, and was delighted with the ghoulish pleasure the young man took in describing the dead bodies in the river at Douala, the murders in Takoradi, the self-immolating madman in the market at Gao. Finally the talker leaned back, signaled to the barman to bring him another liqueur, and said: ‘Ah yes, Africa’s a great place. I wouldn’t live anywhere else these days.'”

By Part III, Sheltering Sky has disregarded many of the conventions of popular fiction and drifted into coherent surrealism. While the existential label is certainly deserved, the novel was not only admired by cult followers. The novel spent eleven weeks on the NYT Best Seller list, and found praise from writers such as Tennessee Williams. The appeal, in this writer’s opinion, is largely due to Bowles’ ability to conceive pop and pensive entertainment. While the author does question unanswerable metaphysics, readers can also delight in surface level insights:

“They engaged in three smelly rooms, all giving out onto a small court whose wall were right blue. In the center of the court was a dead fig tree with masses of barbed wire looped from its branches. As Kit peered from the windows a hungry-looking cat with a tiny head and huge ears walked carefully across the court. She sat down on the great brass bed, which besides the jackal skin on the floor by it, was the only furnishing in the room. She could scarcely blame Tuner for having refused at first even to look at the rooms. But, as Port said, one always ends by getting used to anything, and although at the moment Tunner was inclined to be a little unpleasant about it, by night he would probably have grown accustomed to the whole gamut of incredible odors.”

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It was Gertrude Stein who “advised” Bowles at 37 to ship off to North Africa, specifically Morocco. He would stay on the continent for the remaining 52 years of his life. The Sheltering Sky was not the only portrait the author would make of Africa, or of a couple embroiled in domestic conflict. Let It Come Down and The Spider’s House share the same setting, while Up Above the World follows a couple in, you guessed it, the foreign landscape of South America.

So why is Paul Bowles a mystery man in the literary community? He isn’t really. I came across the author through the 2012 documentary The Cage Door is Always Open. The film includes interviews with Gore Vidal, John Waters, and Bertolucci. In William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, too, there is a quasi-fictionalized encounter with Bowles and his wife Jane(another story, completely). These mentions, though, focus primarily on the man – while we should focus on his seminal and highly recommended debut The Sheltering Sky.