The Dark Comedy of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”

Until recently, if you had asked to me summarize the mood of George Orwell’s writings in one word, that word would be “terrifying.” In his two best-known works, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949),  Orwell’s depictions of totalitarian regimes are so plainly stated, with his prose possessing the bare minimum of ornament, that each spirit-crushing event in those novels comes across as inevitable. One leaves those books with a dull pain all around the heart, even if it’s accompanied by the urge to resist the coming catastrophe.

Homage to CataloniaRecently, though, I’ve started to revise that assessment, now that I’ve read through what is probably his third best-known book: Homage to Catalonia.

First published in the United Kingdom in 1938 and in the United States in 1952, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of his time spent fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Given the dire subject matter, I assumed that the mood of the work would match that of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, Homage to Catalonia often leaves me despondent and feeling brutalized by the progress of history.

But it also shows, somehow, that Orwell is also quite adept at dark comedy.

I don’t want to say that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are entirely devoid of humor. The former in particular has some nice comical moments—I mean, it is a satire, after all. In particular, I’m thinking of Squealer’s justifications for the privileges the pigs seize for themselves, which read as though he’s crossed Pravda with Pangloss. But that humor takes place on the level of language; there’s not much humor on the level of situation. And, one may ask, how can there be? Those situations are rather deathly.

Yet in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell finds exactly that: scenarios which, by their sheer absurdity, get the reader to chuckle, though perhaps with a deep, doubtful sigh right afterward. I first noticed this fairly early on, near the end of Chapter III, where Orwell recounts a few instances where, by carelessness or miscommunication, he and his comrades almost die from friendly fire. Each near-miss merits a muted trumpet in the mind’s ear. The last sentence of the chapter neatly summarizing things: “In this war everyone always did miss everyone else, when it was humanly possible” (p. 37).

Now, in a war narrative, the presence of dark comedy is not exactly a revelation; the literature of war is riddled with spots of black humor, with the jokes soldiers tell as temporary relief from the strain of duty. What makes Homage to Catalonia interesting, I think, is how it uses that humor for more than just comic relief or satiric commentary. These moments of dark comedy are pivotal to understanding Orwell’s personal journey in the book.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from near the midpoint of the work, just before the turning point of Orwell’s fortunes. In Chapter VII (or Chapter VI in later editions which turned Chapter V into Appendix I), Orwell recounts a significant military operation he participated in, a mission to attack and raid a Fascist redoubt as part of the effort to capture the city of Huesca. After Orwell’s party manages to break through, Orwell spots a “shadowy figure,” one of the Fascists, and gives chase:

I started after him, prodding my bayonet ineffectually into the darkness. As I rounded the corner of the hut I saw a man—I don’t know whether or not it was the same man I had seen before—fleeing up the communication-trench that led to the other Fascist position. I must have been very close to him, for I could see him clearly. He was bareheaded and seemed to have nothing on except a blanket which he was clutching round his shoulders. If I had fired I could have blown him to pieces. But for fear of shooting one another we had been ordered to use only bayonets once we were inside the parapet, and in any case I never even thought of firing. Instead, my mind leapt backwards twenty years, to our boxing instructor at school, showing me in vivid pantomime how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles. I gripped my rifle by the small of the butt and lunged at the man’s back. He was just out my reach. Another lunge: still out of reach. And for a little distance we proceeded like this, he rushing up the trench and I after him on the ground above, prodding at his shoulder-blades and never quite getting there—a comic memory for me to look back upon, though I suppose it seemed less comic to him. (p. 92)

First, let’s consider this passage in isolation. Even if you don’t find this scene especially humorous, one can still see the elements of solid farce here: Orwell bumbling about with his bayonet, the possibility of mistaken identity, and the fact that the man Orwell is chasing “seemed to have nothing on except a blanket.” And the chase itself, with the two men running on different levels as Orwell keeps coming oh-so-close to stabbing his target, wouldn’t feel out of place is a silent slapstick movie. Throw on the understatement at the very end of the paragraph—no kidding “it seemed less comic” to fleeing Fascist—and the result is a sustained moment of comic relief. It’s the sort of anecdote one could whip out at a party without causing much consternation in the audience.

Within the context of the narrative as a whole, though, the humor of this passage is less relieving than it is deflating. On multiple occasions leading up to this sequence, Orwell states that one of his desires in fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War is to kill a Fascist. In Chapter IV, after he realizes that in his first three weeks in Catalonia he’s fired a grand total of three shots, he remarks: “They say it takes a thousand bullets to kill a man, and at this rate it would be twenty years before I killed my first Fascist” (p. 41). He’s less contemplative there than impatient, an impatience that reappears near the end of Chapter V/Appendix I: “When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist—after all, if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct—and I had killed nobody yet, had hardly had the chance to do so” (p.70).

So here finally comes Orwell’s chance to do his part in the anti-Fascist cause: no more waiting around in the trenches, no more risking enemy fire just to gather firewood. He’s part of an assault on a Fascist redoubt, he finds an enemy combatant ripe for the gutting…and it’s a guy who appears to be fleeing from him half-naked. I obviously can’t know how exactly Orwell envisioned his first chance to kill a Fascist, but I’m fairly certain that running around like a farmer chasing a fox off his property with a pitchfork was not part of the fantasy.

But that implication of the passage is merely disappointing. There’s another aspect to it that strikes me foreboding, perhaps even tragic. Up to this point, I haven’t touched on that peculiar flashback Orwell has before he begins his thrusting campaign in earnest, the one where he remembers his boxing teacher telling war stories. On first read-through, I wasn’t sure what to make of that little diversion, but after thinking through the context some more, I think I have an angle on it.

First, there’s something trivializing about that flashback. At the moment Orwell has a chance to capture some military glory, his thoughts turn not to, say, the heroes of ancient mythologies, or to some iconography from war propaganda, but rather to a memory of schooling. Instead of going high and noble, he turns low and common. Further, the flashback represents how most people encounter combat: in abstractions, either secondhand through testimony (the war story), or in ritualized, rule-bound contests (the boxing lesson).

Second, the boxing instructor’s war story, while framed as a personal triumph, comes in the context of ultimate failure. The instructor tells (or rather, pantomimes) of “how he had bayoneted a Turk at the Dardanelles,” referring to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-1916, which was a notable exercise in futility for the Allied forces in World War I. They spent almost a year attempting to seize control of the Dardanelles, the strategically-important strait connecting the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, en route to capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, before giving up after having gained virtually no ground following the landing at Gallipoli. One can see a parallel between Orwell’s situation and the instructor’s: while the raid on the Fascist redoubt is a minor success, the greater anti-Fascist cause will prove a bloody calamity.

Bringing up the Gallipoli campaign also highlights the tragicomic irony of war. As Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected” (p.7). The Gallipoli campaign was supposed to be easy—aren’t all such operations?—as the battle would be waged against Ottoman forces that UK leadership believed were wildly inferior to British might. The result was a costly, diseased-ridden quagmire. By the same token, Orwell enters the Spanish Civil War with such simple purpose: he’s going to kill a Fascist and help defeat Fascism. Only after living with the conflict for some time, after enduring the bitter cold nights and the injuries of war and the Communist Party’s sabotage of the anti-Fascist effort, does Orwell learn the complexity beneath that simple purpose.

It is not for nothing that Chapter VIII, a summary reflection following the successful raid on the Fascist redoubt, ends with the bleak sentiment: “And after that the trouble began” (p. 107). In the subsequent chapters, Orwell will live through the street-war for the Telephone Exchange in Barcelona, the suppression of the P.O.U.M. and the mass arrests of its members, and a bullet through his throat that almost robs him of the ability to speak.

Yet for how bleak this all sounds—and is—the mere presence of dark comedy in Homage to Catalonia suggests one final thing about Orwell’s work here: there is still room for hope. This isn’t Nineteen Eighty-Four, where one suspects Newspeak is a language incapable of intentional comedy as well as political dissent. That Orwell can find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom. Indeed, while Orwell grows disillusioned with the Communist Party as an institution, his time spent in the P.O.U.M. camp makes his “desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before” (p. 105). Even when the fight is hopeless, a cause may still be worth pursuing.

If you enjoyed this look into the literature of war, you may also be interested in my analysis of Thomas Moore’s Irish melody, “The Minstrel Boy.”

Murder Mysteries and Relaxation

I don’t watch very much in the way of television, so I don’t know what it says about my taste that Father Brown is one of my favorite shows. Inspired by the detective stories of G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown follows the adventures of the parish priest of the fictional English town of Kembleford (played by Mark Williams). As someone who spends much of his day inside a confessional booth, Father Brown is well-versed what drives people to commit heinous crimes, and he uses that insight—along with some genre-requisite sleuthing—to crack the case and, hopefully, save the guilty party’s soul.

This being a detective show, Father Brown has meddled in a fair number of police investigations. As of 2018, there have been 70 episodes of Father Brown. That’s 70 crimes for the priest to solve, which is an absurdly high number for a village in the English countryside. And the majority of those crimes are murders, which means that on a “homicides per capita” basis, the Cotswolds of this universe might as well be a war zone.

Now, it’s a common joke among mystery fans that, if all the murders on these British detective shows happened in real life, the countryside would be completely depopulated within the year. That the premise for a show like Father Brown in ridiculous is neither a new observation nor an interesting one. Rather, I’m more interested in my emotional response to all this murder.

A murder mystery can elicit all sorts of emotions from the audience. For one thing, the whodunit arouses one’s curiosity—even the name of the genre is a question. For another, there’s some vicarious thrill-seeking in following the detective as they track down the killer, aware of the peril they potentially face. There’s even an element of escapist voyeurism to murder mysteries, as they tend to involve aristocratic families in very fancy houses. All these are reasonable sounding guesses for what I might get out of Father Brown, but none of them hit the mark. No, I just find the show relaxing. This demands the follow-up question: how can a murder plot be relaxing?

The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this. My mother, to name just one example, will binge through reruns of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit when she’s home sick from work, or she’s just finished unpacking and is tired from the trip. Why would my mother and I, when looking for a show to unwind to, pick, out of all possible subjects, murder?

A big reason, I suspect, relates to the form of a murder mystery. An episode of a show like Father Brown or Criminal Minds is a self-contained entity: it starts with a crime, ends with an arrest, no loose ends or hooks for the next episode. There’s no feeling of confusion going in or unsatisfied curiosity going out. These episodes will also follow a fairly set formula for getting from crime-to-arrest: a cold open showing or setting the stage for the crime, the detective or cops arriving on scene, the ups and downs of the investigation, the reveal, etc. If you watch one of these shows when it’s first broadcast, you can practically set your watch based on where you are in the narrative. That predictability may sound boring, but I think of it as more like the progression of rhymes in a sonnet: comforting in how it chimes.

Still, that only explains the appeal of formula television, not murder mysteries specifically. The same principles would apply to a medical procedural or a multi-camera domestic sitcom. What gives a murder show its particular soothing charm?

Brianna Rennix offers up a possible answer to that question. In a recent essay for Current Affairs, Rennix, who also finds murder mysteries relaxing, suggests that the appeal of a show like Poirot (her detective show of choice) lies in how it presents the act and effects of a murder:

[T]he Genteel Murder Mystery is about taking something horrific and making it charming, cushioning it in several layers of gauze, blunting all its sharp edges. It’s about shielding ourselves psychologically from a spectrum of human experience that, if we were fully conscious of it, would probably poison whatever sense of hope or pleasure we derive from our luckier experiences.

In Rennix’s view, when the audience for a Genteel Murder Mystery watches these sanitized depictions of murder, they can come to see the fact of murder as “an anodyne triviality,” which is much easier to deal with than, say, the six o’clock news. Why not unleash untold suffering upon the fictional Kembleford if it makes living in the actual world more bearable?

I like Rennix’s essay quite a bit, and I think that this “anodyne triviality” angle has some legs to it. One potential problem, though, is that it might be too generalizable to other genres of television. For example, might we say that a medical procedural does the same thing to life-threatening ailments that whodunits do to murder, making a certain “spectrum of human experience” more palatable? If there are people who turn to medical procedurals rather whodunits to relax, then I’m not sure Rennix has identified something inherent to murder mysteries, but rather to a particular style of storytelling.

We might be running up against a problem in philosophy known as the paradox of tragedy: why is it that we often derive from pleasure from representations of things we would find displeasurable is real life? It can be difficult to come up with a solution to the paradox of tragedy that isn’t applicable to art in general (e.g., we can draw pleasure from the skillful narrative craft of a tragedy, but that’s true of all stories and not just tragedies). A few years ago, Philosophy Tube made a video about this paradox as it applies to the horror genre, which frames the debate in an approachable way.

We’re not going to resolve the paradox in a casual blog post, so I’m going to leave this one open to you. Do you find murder mysteries and the like relaxing, and if so, why do you think that is? Let me know in the comments!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another post about Father Brown that I need to get around to writing.

If you liked this post, you might also like this older piece I wrote about the ethical experience questions I had while playing the idle game classic, A Dark Room.

Stealing from the Public: On the Carnegie Library’s Rare Books Theft

Back in April 2017, news broke that someone had stolen over 300 items from the rare books room at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, ranging from a 17th century map of New York and New England to a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The rare books room has been closed ever since the disclosure of the thefts, and the people responsible have not been identified—until, possibly, this past week.

As Paula Reed Ward reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two people have emerged as prime suspects in the case:

The former archivist of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare book collection told investigators he conspired with the owner of an Oakland [a neighborhood in Pittsburgh] bookseller since the 1990s to steal and resell items taken from there.

Gregory Priore, who was terminated from the library on June 28, 2017, and John Schulman, who co-owns Caliban Book Shop, are under investigation for theft, receiving stolen property and criminal mischief, according to hundreds of pages of documents unsealed Thursday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Recent estimates place the monetary value of the stolen items at over 8,000,000 USD. The cultural cost of the theft is, of course, incalculable.

As someone who spent about four years living in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh while an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, this was a surprising and disheartening turn. I didn’t go to Caliban very often, even though it was about a five minute walk from my dorm—I am, shall we say, a tightwad—but I do have some fond book-related memories of the place: finding a cheapo paperback of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, for instance, or discovering the work of Quebecois poet of Gatien Lapointe. And I’d get a faint feeling of civic pride whenever John Schulman would appear as an appraiser on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

Well, there goes that aura of positivity.

I suppose one might hope that a rare and used bookseller, while motivated by the bottom line, might share the library’s interest in making the literary past available to the public. Price is a significant barrier to access, certainly, but shops such as Caliban do provide the service of keeping what’s out-of-print and long-forgotten in circulation, something the likes of Barnes & Noble are less likely to do. But as this case would suggest, the books are merely the means to the end of profit, raw materials for the machine to churn through. How else to explain the allegations that Priore and Schulman cut maps and plates out of several books to sell separately? It’s the logic of the operation, it’s less like vandalism and more like processing.

I know attaching positive feelings to a profit-driven entity is somewhat foolish, as this case well illustrates, but to hear that this beloved institution was involved in some serious cultural theft—and that’s exactly what it is—has rather dampened my mood (and judging from the reaction of my friends from the Steel City, I’m not alone in this). Priore and Schulman took these items of historical and cultural significance, which belonged, however symbolically, to the people as a collective entity, and sold them off for purely private gain. More than the theft itself, it’s the public nature of the stolen goods that bothers me so.

I don’t really have a grander point beyond this. I’m just miffed.

If you’d like a thorough list of the items stolen from the Carnegie Library’s rare books room over the years, this earlier article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will have you covered.

Thomas Moore’s “The Minstrel Boy”: An Analysis

Thomas Moore (1779-1852)In my A-Z Bookish Survey, I mentioned my current project of reading through Kathleen Hoagland’s anthology 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present (Devin-Adair, 1947). Recently, I read through the book’s selection of Thomas Moore’s poetry, and though I had not heard the name, I discovered I was familiar with some his work. In popular culture, Moore’s most familiar piece is probably “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” whose tune appears at the beginning of “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and is part of a running gag used in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts.

However, I found myself more drawn to a different Moore poem, “The Minstrel Boy,” a ballad recounting a young musician’s death in battle. Let’s take a close look at it, shall we?

“The Minstrel Boy”

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel fell!—but the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”

First, some context. Born in 1779, Thomas Moore came of age during a period of turmoil in Irish history. He was nineteen-years-old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 broke out, and was friends with several prominent members of the Society of United Irishmen, such as Robert Emmet and Arthur O’Connor. Moore himself did not take part in the rebellion, instead focusing on his schooling and his literary pursuits.

However, as Kathleen Hoagland notes in the introduction to 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, “It has been the history of literature throughout the ages that in times of social, political, and national upheaval, of war and stress, new creative forces emerge” (p. xliii). Moore was no exception to this supposed trend, and in 1807—in the aftermath of the failed rebellion and the Acts of Union 1800, which brought Ireland into the United Kingdom—he began publishing his Irish Melodies, which, “in one respect at least, lifted the curtain of scorn by which all things native to Ireland were covered” (p. xliv).

“The Minstrel Boy” is one of those Irish Melodies, and it’s difficult not to see the lyrics as a response to the failed rebellion. The title figure calls his country “Land of Song,” which fits rather well with the conceit of Irish Melodies, and his primary instrument is a harp, which had long been a symbol of Ireland and was used in the United Irishmen’s iconography. That the minstrel boy destroys his harp before it falls into enemy hands is tragic, as it signifies a knowing surrender of Irish freedom, yet his final words to it are uplifting: that beautiful music so identified with his country “shall never sound in slavery.” Its return, the poem’s logic seems to imply, will signal the return of Irish liberty.

Granted, there is a metatextual irony here. The success of Moore’s lyrics meant that the music of Ireland, the sort the minstrel boy must mourn the loss of, gained its then-largest audience only after its homeland officially ceased to exist as an independent country. Perhaps we are better off seeing “The Minstrel Boy” as the voice of a subjugated people, rather than the clarion call of a nation. Or perhaps those final lines are not a statement of fact, but of intent—the people will make freedom theirs, and the harp shall be restored.

Beyond its stirring nationalist sentiment, I think “The Minstrel Boys” offers the reader some surprises in terms of form. Specifically, as the poem transitions from the first stanza to the second, it deviates from the established pattern of the ballad in some productive ways.

Now, in everyday usage, “ballad” generally refers to a melodic, slow-tempo song, usually about romantic love. (Back when I was an undergraduate instructor, this was the definition all my students immediately jumped to when I said the word.) However, in the context of literary history, a ballad is a narrative poem set to music, and often uses the structure of common meter: four-line stanzas (quatrains) that rhyme ABXB or ABAB and whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For a concrete example, consider the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “[Because I could not stop for Death – ]”:

Because | I could | not stop | for Death 
He kind | ly stopped | for me
The Car | riage held | but just | Ourselves
And Im | mortal | ity.

In practice, ballads often stray from a strictly iambic rhythm, inserting extra unstressed syllables to give the piece a more galloping beat. However, the number of stresses in each line generally remains constant, which is why “common meter” is often called 4343. The first four lines of “The Minstrel Boy” demonstrate this nicely:

The min | strel boy | to the war | is gone,
In the ranks | of death | you’ll find | him,
His fath | er’s sword | he has gird | ed on,
And his wild | harp slung | behind | him.

Here we see that while Moore includes some anapests and weak endings, the total number of stresses follows that 4343 pattern. The one possible wobble is in line 4, as we would normally want to stress “harp,” but “wild” is easy enough to elide into one syllable, and so “harp” would be demoted to an unstressed syllable between “wild” and “slung.”

But in the second half of that first stanza, the meter gets trickier. Lines 5-6 scan normally, but lines 7-8 get complicated because of the typography. Without the italics, we’d scan those lines like so:

“One sword, | at least, | thy rights | shall guard,
One faith | ful harp | shall praise | thee!”

Indeed, Moore or his editors could have presented the lines with no annotations, and they’d be among the most regular lines in the poem. But the italics used for One at the start of each line require the reader to stress that word, which would bump the stress totals to 5 and 4, respectively. It might be possible, though unnatural, to demote “sword” to unstressed for purposes of scansion, but the polysyllabic “faithful” needs a stressed syllable, so line 8 is definitely overloaded.

I’ve written about this strategic over-stressing of lines before, when I analyzed Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex,” but I think Moore’s poem offers an even more striking example of how it can be used effectively. Right as the speaker pledges his undying support for the cause, the line can no longer contain the emotion, and is instead overwhelmed with feeling.

And then—the come-down. The next stanza leaps, like all good ballads do, to the minstrel’s boys demise, and here the poem deviates from the established pattern in a different way. “The Minstrel fell” gets doubly punctuated, not only with an exclamation point, as might be expected, but also with a dash, which all but severs the line in two. It is the poem’s most dramatic pause, which only highlights the lack of a pause at the end of the line. Line 9 is the only instance of enjambment in “The Minstrel Boy,” the only place where the poem’s syntax overruns its lineation. As it happens, the image right before the line break is “the foeman’s chain,” which “Could not bring his proud soul under.” Forget about the minstrel’s soul—the oppressors can’t even hold down the verse!

What are your thoughts on Moore’s poem? Do you have any suggestions for other classic poems to tinker with? Let me know in the comments!

If you enjoyed this analysis of “The Minstrel Boy,” you may be interested in some of my other close readings. There’s the Charlotte Smith poem I linked above, or, for a slightly more recent post, a look at Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

The Hampden Horns: How Stephen King Finds the Uncomfortable in the Everyday

In an excerpt from America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King (NYU Press, 2018) recently reprinted over at Literary Hub, Douglas E. Cowan observes that King’s body of work, which encompasses a wide range of genres but not contemporary literary fiction, is often dismissed by the critical establishment a bit too easily. Setting aside simple matters of taste—critics are free not to enjoy King’s writing or his chosen genres—Cowan marvels that such critics don’t “seem to realize that many of King’s readers seek their escape in his sinister storyworlds precisely because of the plain, unremarkable, yet profoundly disturbing ‘us’ he presents.”

Let me begin with a confession: I’ve never read a Stephen King novel. He’s one of those writers I keep meaning to get to, and yet keep putting off. Still, I have little doubt regarding his ability to present the reader with a “plain, unremarkable, yet profoundly disturbing ‘us'” within the context of horror, fantasy, crime or what-have-you. Why? Because he manages to do just that in the one piece of his writing I have read, and that comes in the context of one of the most mundane subjects possible: youth baseball.

“Head Down,” originally published in the April 16, 1990 issue of The New Yorker (available, albeit paywalled, here) and later included in Nightmares and Dreamscapes (Viking, 1993), is an essay King wrote about the Bangor West Little League team—that is, his son’s team—which won the Maine state championship in 1989. It’s a well-written and empathetic piece about the 12-year-old boys who take the field and the middle-aged men who help organize the game. Indeed, as if to illustrate Cowan’s point about the reception of King’s work, when I mentioned “Head Down” to a former colleague a few weeks ago, he praised the essay and then cited it as evidence that King has “wasted his talent.”

So how does that haunting perceptiveness that Cowan finds in King’s work show up in an essay about middle-schoolers playing baseball?

Let’s set the scene.

Bangor West is on the road against Hampden, their arch-rival in the first half of the essay, the team they’ll later play against in the district final. It’s getting late in the game. Bangor West leads 2-0 in the fifth inning—Little League only plays six innings—when the wheels start coming off. Pitcher Matt Kinney hits a batter, and then second baseman Casey Kinney (no relation) boots what should be a double play ball, freezing up out of fear he’ll get stung in the face. The coaches try to calm the team down, but then this long passage happens:

Casey begins to relax, begins to get back into the game, and then, beyond the outfield fences, the Hampden Horns begin to blow. Some of them belong to late-model cars—Toyotas and Hondas and snappy little Dodge Colts with U.S. OUT OF CENTRAL AMERICA and SPLIT WOOD NOT ATOMS stickers on the bumpers. But most of the Hampden Horns reside within older cars and pick-up trucks. Many of the pick-ups have rusty doors, FM converters wired up beneath the dashboards, and Leer camper caps built over the truck beds. Who is inside these vehicles, blowing the horns? No one seems to know—not for sure. They are not the parents or relatives of the Hampden players; the parents and relatives (plus a generous complement of ice-cream-smeared little brothers and sisters) are filling the bleachers and lining the fence on the third-base side of the diamond, where the Hampden dugout is. They may be local guys just off work—guys who have stopped to watch some of the game before having a few brewskis at the VFW hall next door—or they may be the ghosts of Hampden Little Leaguers Past, hungry for that long-denied State Championship flag. It seems at least possible; there is something both eerie and inevitable about the Hampden Horns. They toot in harmony—high horns, low horns, a few foghorns powered by dying batteries. Several Bangor West players look uneasily back toward the sound.

For me, this paragraph is where “Head Down” goes from merely interesting to engrossing. Just considered in isolation, the prose here sparkles: the perfectly chosen details for the trucks, the dashed-off asides that stretch on and on, the question halfway through the reader didn’t know needed asking, etc. And to end the paragraph with the main kids looking on is just so ominous. If King applies this same level of craft to rabid dogs and rabid fans, then I want in.

The Hampden Horns, these mysterious and passionate fans, are a striking image in themselves, but when considered in context they approach the “profoundly disturbing.” After all, what kicks them into gear is a rally born of children suffering. There’s the hit batsman, which hurts the hitter’s body and the pitcher’s psyche, and the fielding error, which King describes as “an act of naked self-preservation.” The Hampden Horns sound like a fun group on paper, but are we comfortable with their antics when we know the source of inspiration? They’re really just an exaggerated example of how sports fandom works, right? I know the Yankees fan in me sure gets dark pleasure from watching that grounder skip beneath Bill Buckner’s glove.

What’s more, King doesn’t pass these people off as pure others. Their origins are unknown, sure, but King tries his best to imagine them within the local community, as familiar figures in an unfamiliar context. And the cultural signifiers he finds on their trucks are telling. The Hampden Horns are not reducible to a single stereotype, with the red-blooded sharing parking spaces with the latter-day hippies. Neither experiencing a war nor opposing it makes one immune to cheering children’s mistakes. The more I think about them, the more the Hampden Horns become both human, and menacing.

In sum: it may well be that Stephen King can find the uncomfortable aspects of humanity in a fantastical environment. But “Head Down” shows he’s capable of finding such darkness in the actual world as well.

If, instead of whetting your appetite for Stephen King, I’ve made you crave some more baseball writing, you may want to check out my recommended readings in sports literature, inspired by a short course I taught on the subject.

The A-Z Bookish Survey

Here’s a fun little survey of sorts that I discovered by way of Lauren Roland, the blogger behind Books are Only the Beginning, whose post you can read here. And you should read it: it’s fun, and I don’t think any of our answers overlap, so Lauren’s will be a different (and far less verbose) experience than mine.

Anyhow, that’s enough preamble. Onto the survey (which, for some reason, lacks prompts for the letters U and X. C’mon, mysterious originator of the meme…)!

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Author You’ve Read the Most Books From

A while back, I wrote up a list of my Top 5 most-read authors, so if you want the full details, you can go check that out. The late Ursula K. Le Guin remains in the top slot, with nine books. I’m hoping to start soon on The Complete Orsinia (ed. Brian Attebery, Library of America, 2017), a collection of lesser-known stories and songs set in a fictional Central European country, so she may perhaps hit double-digits in the near future.

I try to enforce a degree of variety into my reading habits, so I have a rule about returning to favorite authors: after finishing a book by Author X, I must read 15 books by other writers before reading another of Author X’s works. I think that helps prevent particular writers’ styles from getting stale for me. Maybe the whirlwind digressions in Larry Levis’s poetry, for instance, would get tiresome if I binged through his bibliography one collection after another. Since I space these readings out over months if not years, each revisit feels refreshing.

Best Sequel Ever

I’ll be returning to this below, but I’m not one for book series. For one thing, most of my readings in the past few years have been in contemporary poetry collections, so the notion of a book series may as well be a foreign concept to me. For another, I find that my patience for serialized storytelling is quite thin. I’ll take the small, self-contained story of one-and-done most any day.

Still, I have in fact read sequels. And in terms of improvement over the previous volumes, a good marker of a sequel’s quality, it’s hard to think of a better example than Richard III. The final installment of Shakespeare’s minor tetralogy, the play comes on the heels of the trio of Henry VI plays, and the jump in quality is vast. The Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s first, and boy, does it show. The plotting is aimless, the verse stiff, and the characters forgettable. As I write this I literally can’t remember a single event from 3 Henry VI, beyond what I know happened historically. That’s a horrible sign.

But then the cycle comes alive in its fourth and final production. Richard III may not be peak Shakespeare (it’s way too long, and Shakespeare hasn’t figured out the right way to use ghosts yet), but the title character is a solid variant on the Marlovian over-reacher, a scheming and rhetorically dextrous villain who completely owns the stage every second of the play. A forum poster once likened watching such a character to watching a Godzilla movie, because who doesn’t want to witness all the destruction they’re going to bring? I like that reading. A lot.

Currently Reading

I’m working my way through three books at the moment:

  • 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present, ed. Kathleen Hoagland (Devin-Adair, 1947)
  • Agee on Film, Vol. 1: Reviews and Comments by James Agee (Beacon, 1958)
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf, just in case one of them starts to drag. Generally I try to pull from a variety of forms: a poetry collection, a work of fiction, a non-fiction book, etc. Given that poetry collections are often under 100 pages, I end up cycling books out of the poetry slot much quicker than I do for the prose slots.

Although, given the sheer length of 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, and my insistence on reading all poetry aloud, that one’s going to be on my currently-reading shelf for some time. Someone in my dad’s girlfriend’s family, who are all Irish, found the book at a yard sale and remembered that I liked poetry, so that was a thoughtful gift. I will say, reading the intro was a trip. The anthology is so old that 1) William Butler Yeats had only recently died, and 2) James Joyce was still considered a controversial writer in some academic circles.

The other two books I’ve obliquely mentioned on this blog before, so I won’t prattle on about them here. I quoted some of James Agee’s columns in The Nation for my discussion of voice-over in book-to-film adaptations, and I mentioned seeing Alice McDermott discuss The Ninth Hour at the National Book Festival in my write-up of the event.

Drink of Choice While Reading

I imagine the originator of this survey had something cozy and comforting in mind, some semi-obscure flavor of tea, say. Or if you would rather adopt a hipster level of self-conscious performance: absinthe. For me, though, a bottle of Coke will do just fine. It’s what I drink on most occasions regardless, over the well-founded advice of the dentist and my body’s sleep system.

E-reader or Physical Book

I remember this being a much more contentious discussion several years ago, when e-readers were first bursting onto the market. I really don’t have a preference between the two when it comes to works of prose. The portability and lower cost of e-books is about worth the subjective experience of holding a physical work in my hands, so the format matters very little.

Poetry is another discussion altogether: hard copy all the way. Back in 2011, I made the mistake of purchasing The Complete Works of W. B. Yeats as an e-book from Amazon, and the formatting was abysmal. Infuriating. A foul rag-and-bone shop. It was so difficult, if not at times impossible, to tell when a line broke because Yeats intended for a hard enjambment, and when it broke because the e-reader’s dimensions were too narrow to fit the line as written. Perhaps things have gotten better for poetry e-books since 2011, but I’d rather not get burned again. Give me the fixed arrangement of the page, thank you very much.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated in High School

Me, dating in high school? Good one.

Glad You Gave This Book a Chance

This is a tough one for me to answer, because I take “giving a book a chance” to mean that I had negative expectations going in. Most books I read, especially poetry collections, I have no expectations when I start. I often just pull volumes semi-randomly from library shelves, just to overcome the weight of possibility overload. And when that’s not the case, I’m reading something that a friend or a critic has recommended, so there’s not much initial skepticism involved.

Looking over my “read” shelf on Goodreads (who needs a memory when we have social cataloging?), perhaps this one fits the spirit best: The War Is Over: Selected Poems by Evgeny Vinokurov (trans. Anthony Rudolf and Daniel Weissbort, International Writing Program, 1976). I found this volume secondhand, in a very coffee-stained quality, and had it not had the backing of the University of Iowa behind it, I’d have passed it over completely. (In fact, as of now I’m literally the only one on Goodreads to have rated the book.) It’s not a great volume, but I do admire Vinokurov’s poem “The Swans,” in which the speaker imagines birds emerging from his homework. “No one would ever guess they’d flown,” the final lines tell us, “From the pages of a mathematics textbook.” That sounds about true.

Hidden Gem Book

Again, a surprisingly difficult one to get a handle on. I suppose that, despite the reported growth in its readers of late, any contemporary poet not named Rupi Kaur would fit the bill. But most of my favorites, such as Brenda Shaughnessy and Andrew Hudgins, are somewhat sizeable names within the poetry community, so to call them “hidden gems” seems disingenuous.

If I have to stick my neck out on one hidden gem book, I’ll go with Labor by Jill Magi (Nightboat, 2014), a collection that blurs the lines between poetry, fiction, and archival employee handbook. It hooked me in a way that few works of that nature do, in part because its politics are simultaneously heartfelt and direct. I mean, the book is called Labor, after all. At the moment, it only has ten ratings on Goodreads, so I think that counts as obscure enough for present purposes.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life

After ninth-grade English, I’d convinced myself that I hated Shakespeare. We read Julius Caesar about halfway through the year, and the experience was beyond frustrating. Not because I couldn’t understand the text, but because I couldn’t see how anyone could enjoy the text. As it was taught, Julius Caesar was a series of literary devices stitched together: some anaphora there, a hamartia there, a few puns sprinkled in for flavor. Completely lost in all that: the intense personal and political drama of the story, and the aesthetic beauty of the language. You know, the parts that make Shakespeare transcendent instead of testable.

In tenth-grade, for reasons I can’t quite recall, I decided to give the Bard another go, and I picked up Hamlet. It was dense, certainly, but I powered through it, reading the text aloud just to get lost in the music of verse. (If you’re wondering where that insistence on reading poetry aloud that I mentioned above comes from, it’s here.) The tense atmosphere and Hamlet’s constant waffling drew me in, and the soliloquies were as gripping as I’d been promised. I don’t think a single work has changed my mind about an author so quickly as that first read-through of Hamlet did with the Bard.

Not long after I finished Act III or so, I had my wisdom teeth removed, and couldn’t speak clearly for about a week afterward. There were many problems with being in that state, of course, but the worst at the time? Having to postpone the play.

Seriously. If you haven’t read Hamlet, go read Hamlet. I made it unofficial homework in my sports literature class, for God’s sake.

Just Finished

The last book I polished off was Ms. Marvel Volume 3: Crushed (written primarily by G. Willow Wilson, Marvel, 2015). I liked it quite a bit, even if the trade’s last issue (S.H.I.E.L.D. #2) was a bit on the grossly absurd side: it involves monsters made of regurgitated pizza dough.

Ms. Marvel is a rarity for me: a comic book I’ve read outside of an academic context. I’m fairly certain that for more people, the exception and the rule would be reversed, but that’s me for you. My first semester of undergrad, my mandatory expository writing class was themed around whether comic books counted as art (answer: yes), so I’ve read an odd smattering of titles: some World War II propaganda, the last issue of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, etc. And in another class, we were assigned a graphic novel adaptation of (no joke) the 9/11 Commission Report. But Ms. Marvel is the first comic series that I’ve read for fun. Knowing me I’ll never catch up, but that’s fine by me.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read

Empirically, there are plenty of kinds of books that I don’t read. I haven’t read any romance novels, for example, or James Patterson-style thrillers. But I’m reluctant to categorically rule out a genre, both as a check on potential prejudices and as an admission that one’s tastes and identifications change over time.

That said: I’d probably rule out a book described as “New Age” or “spiritual.” At least at the moment, they about sound the opposite of my personality.

Longest Book You’ve Read

Having just said that: according to Goodreads, the longest book that I’ve read is the King James Bible, which comes in at around 1600 pages. I’m an atheist, but more importantly I love literature, and the Bible’s influence on Anglophone literature and the English language is, of course, enormous. Back in 2014 I made it a project to finish the KJV by the end of the year, which is manageable if you go 3-4 chapters per day.

I’d say the experience was worth it, although I’m not sure I’d recommend going to the Bible for an aesthetically complete experience. Books like Leviticus and Chronicles are famously dull, of course, but I’m also no fan of the Pauline epistles, which are also far too doctrine-heavy for my speed. But at the same, I still go back and read the parables, which remain masterworks of condensed, nuanced storytelling. How about a combined collection of Jesus’s parables and Aesop’s fables? That’d be subversively lovely.

Major Book Hangover Because of…

So, I had to look up what the phrase “book hangover” meant, and I can’t say I’ve experienced one. Perhaps I just have very fast book metabolism.

Number of Bookcases You Own

Me, owning furniture? Really, you ought to try stand-up.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times

The last book that I reread was Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf, 2011). It’s just a solid collection, and it demonstrates Smith’s comfort with both free verse and received forms. “Solstice,” for example, is a perfectly natural villanelle about reading the morning news. Actually, this book almost counts, in a spiritual sense, as a “Best Sequel.” My last semester of undergrad, we read two of Smith’s collections. First was Duende (Graywolf, 2007), which left me completely cold. Second was Life on Mars, which I fell in love with. Writing poems about David Bowie will make that happen, I suppose.

Preferred Place to Read

I can’t be there with any regularity, obviously, but I’ve realized my most productive reading comes on long distance trains, which is to say, Amtrak. I’m pretty sure I knocked out the entirety of Silas Marner that way. Not much else to say about that, so I’ll just note that the Amtrak magazine, The National, is actually quite entertaining. They even get major poets like Yusef Komunyakaa to contribute pieces to it.

Quote that Inspires You/Gives You All the Feels from a Book You’ve Read

I first came across Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” in his Collected Poems (ed. Anthony Thwaite, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), and the poem has haunted me since. In Larkin’s last masterpiece, he takes the poetic tradition of lovers parting at dawn and twists into a reflection on encroaching mortality. I once showed it to my students as an example of elegiac poetry, and the third stanza in particular caught everyone’s attention. I shall now quote that stanza in full:

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

That last line hits me about as hard as Hamlet’s “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.”

Reading Regret

I desperately wish I had read more contemporary poetry—hell, even just post-WWII poetry—before I fancied that I could write any. I wish it hadn’t taken me until junior year of undergrad for Larry Levis to open my eyes to how poetry could be written. Not even how it should be written, just the possibility. Because where I came from at least, you’d think poetry ended with Robert Frost.

Series You Started and Need to Finish (All Books are Out in Series)

As mentioned above, I don’t generally go in for book series. But as with many things, Le Guin is someone I make exceptions for. Curiously, while I’ve read the entirety of her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series, I’ve only read the first two books in her most famous world: Earthsea.

In my experience, at least, libraries are weird when it comes to the Earthsea books. Every one I’ve been to seems to have the later books in the series, but none of the original trilogy. You’d think it’d be the other way around. Hell, the reason I read Annals of the Western Shore in the first place was that my local library actually had all the books. Availability is  a limiting factor on what one can read, after all.

At a certain point, I’ll have to just buy The Farthest Shore and be done with it. I doubt it’ll fall into my lap, the way a cheapo paperback of The Tombs of Atuan did the one time I went to Caliban back in Pittsburgh.

Three of Your All-Time Favorite Books

This post is already short-story length, so I’m just going to list three without comment:

  • Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (Harvard University Press, 1982)
  • M-80 by Jim Daniels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993)
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Viking, 1962)

Very Excited for This Release More than All the Others

Honestly, I don’t really look forward to releases. I’ll get to a book when I get to it.

Worst Bookish Habit

I am really bad about taking notes when reading, whether that means underlining passages, scribbling out marginalia, even just making note of page numbers. That’s come back to haunt when, say, writing posts for this blog. “Wait, when did Agee complain about voice-over again? Which one of these scores of columns was that? Was he talking about literary adaptations or war propaganda? Or was it both? Why didn’t you mark it down, past me?”

Your Latest Book Purchase

The last time I was back in the New Jersey hinterlands, after losing to my younger brother in a bowling series for the first time ever, I consoled myself by finally picking up a copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Knopf, 1946). I’d been meaning to read this book ever since my first semester of undergrad. Remember that class where I had to read the 9/11 Commission Report rendered as a comic book? Well, we also covered By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age by Paul Boyer (University of North Carolina Press, 1985), which had a significant section on Hersey’s book. It’s less something I expect to be good, and more something I expect to be historically interesting.

Zzz-Snatcher Book (Last Book That Kept You Up Late)

Me, sleeping at a reasonable hour? You must understand the rule of three.

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So there you have it! Hopefully some of that was interesting to you. Certainly much more interesting for me than the Great Alphabet Poem Fiasco. But that’s a story for another time. I’m practically at 3200 words here.

If you liked this, you may also like this similarly reflective, similarly scattershot post: Four Fragments on Nothing.

Voice-Over Narration in Book-to-Film Adaptations

As a companion to PBS’s ongoing The Great American Read project, video essayist Lindsay Ellis will be presenting a series of short videos on literary topics for PBS Digital Studios. The first such piece, released on June 4, covers the evergreen topic of book-to-film adaptations:

If Ellis’s video has a central thesis, it’s that “adaptation isn’t just about changing a story. It is translating the story to a totally different language: the language of film.” Literary language and film language have different sets of advantages and disadvantages that make translating a narrative from the one language to the other difficult. For instance, a film can rely on an actor’s delivery to elevate the dialogue, while a book can set its story wherever it wants to without regard to cost.

One of the most difficult aspects of literary language to translate to film, according to Ellis, is interior monologue. In fact, I’d say interior monologue is an aspect of text that doesn’t translate to film at all, at least not directly. It may perhaps be rendered as dialogue, or better yet, its tone and meaning may be implied through the actor’s performance, the cinematography, the editing, etc. But whenever the interior monologue is simply recited through voice-over narration, I start groaning, and think less of the film for effectively cheating.

The Picture of Dorian Gray filmAn aversion to such narration has been a feature of film criticism for some time now. James Agee, for example, shares his frustrations with the use of voice-over narration in book-to-film treatments in his March 10, 1945 column for The Nation, wherein he reviews an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Albert Lewin, 1945). Now, voice-over narration drove Agee up the wall regardless of context—see his writings on World War II propaganda films for more examples of that—but his remarks on Lewin’s film feel like the culmination of his bile towards this thoroughly uncinematic technique:

I wish somebody would take book lovers like Mr. Lewin aside and explain to them, once for all, that to read from the text of a novel—not to mention interior monologues—when people are performing on the screen, while it may elevate the literary tone of the production, which I doubt, certainly and inescapably plays hell with it as a movie…I can understand least of all why Mr. Lewin and his associates passed up the best movie chance of all: to let the portrait change before your eyes, rather than bringing it on, changed, at set intervals.

In Agee’s view, films like Lewin’s err in using film as a medium for delivering a novel’s text, when they should be using the text as inspiration for playing with and advancing the emerging art of cinema. Case in point: perhaps rendering the portrait’s transformation in a convincing fashion would have been difficult given the film techniques available in 1945, but that is the very challenge a filmmaker should embrace when adapting such a story.

(A brief aside: Agee also identified the slavish recital of a novel’s words with the moralist’s preference for movies that are good-for-you rather than good. In a later column—September 14, 1946—he imagined that such people would love nothing more than “a good faithful adaptation of Adam Beade in sepia, with the entire text read offscreen by Herbert Marshall.” This is, of course, of no relevance to the discussion currently at hand; I just find that quote amusing.)

My Sister's Keeper filmOn a personal level, I can think of no more infuriating an example of a film abusing voice-over narration than My Sister’s Keeper (dir. Nick Cassavetes, 2009), based on Jodi Picoult’s novel of the same name. Cassavetes’s film not only inserts narration where it is not welcome, getting in the way of the actors’ attempts to convey the family’s many crises, but also early on attempts to simulate the novel’s use of multiple perspectives by just throwing establishing text with a character’s name onto the screen, before abruptly giving up on the idea about a third of the way through. Blessedly, when I saw the film in theaters, the sound at our screening was inaudible for the first few minutes, so I at least was spared the verbatim recitation of the novel’s prologue. (My poor grandmother thought she had finally gone deaf.)

Near the end of the video, Ellis notes that when reading a book, “your brain is essentially acting as director, casting agent, cinematographer.” This fact, as Ellis says, explains why any adaptation tends to prove disappointing—the filmmaker’s vision almost certainly differs a great deal from yours—but I think it also explains why the use of voice-over narration bothers me so. Just as readers exercise a large amount of control over their mental image of a novel’s events, filmmakers adapting novels for the screen have a large amount of control over their final products. To include voice-over narration of a book’s internal monologue is an artistic choice, sure. But I think it also represents a relinquishing of power back to the original author, an admission of defeat and a throwing up of hands. It’s the distressingly safe move.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest filmGranted, I’m also the sort of person who doesn’t place much value on an adaptation’s strict fidelity to the source material. For example, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite reads, and Chief Bromden’s scattered yet illuminating narration is at the heart of my enjoyment of it. The film version (dir. Miloš Forman, 1975), as it happens, is one of my all-time favorite watches, and it not only ditches Chief Bromden’s narration, but also greatly reduces his role in the story; he goes from the co-protagonist to at most a side character. Yet because of the film’s strong performances, cinematography, décor, and score, I don’t mind that change, or any of the other myriad alterations, one bit.

What do you all think? Do recitations of internal monologues enrage you or enliven you? Are there examples of films that use their source materials’ internal monologues in interesting or productive ways? Let me know in the comments.