West with the Night

I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham until a few weeks ago, when her name showed up in an article in conjunction with Hemingway, who was apparently a fan. Her memoir, West with the Night, would have certainly been of topical interest to Papa Hemingway, but the prose styling is also squarely in that mode that has been defined by his work. Markham writes with a directness that is not softened by the touches of aristocracy or privilege that are present in the work. There is little obfuscation or posturing -the only aspect of her writing that might be considered an act of narrative self-preservation is her tendency toward personal understatement. Markham herself is sometimes less revealed than a contemporary reader might wish, but the strength of the other characters populating her life make up for that.

While Markham’s prose lacks ostentation and extravagance as a rule, there is a certain kind of Colonial philosophical authority that grates a bit, especially within our contemporary world of postcolonial theory. The romantic attribution of racial character is much more liberal and evolved than that of her contemporaries, but it still can cause a wince or two. Notably, this sort of thing only really occurs outside of Markham’s personal narrative accounts, and is perhaps best understood as her attempts to ape the conventions of serious men writers, resulting in both the aesthetically weakest and the most culturally and morally problematic writing in the book. Narrative episodes lack these problems almost entirely.

And when Markham is just telling the stories that comprise her life, this book kicks. This is a woman who hunted boar with grown native men as a small girl, killing a leopard to save her beloved and ambitious dog, who bred and trained racehorses, who flew a small bush plane in colonial Africa well before the second world war. The book opens with her delivering an oxygen tank to a sick miner and then sitting with another man dying of malaria, confronting her own irrational phobias regarding g the sickness of others, and after this episode, the story begins to unfold in a rough chronology. Markham is a creature set at a remove, both in her literal human isolation and in her narrative position. This does not prevent incredible scenes from being told with such a sense of involvement and urgency that the book down. West with the Night is another one of those happy intermeshings of lyrical prose chops and amazing events. While the pacing and rhythm of her stories sometimes feel incomplete, the stories themselves are enthralling.


Tender is the Night and Re-reading Gatsby, or “Yes, Francis, We Know You Want to be Old Money”

I almost didn’t make it through Tender is the Night. I think I only pushed through the god-awful first act because the book is considered Fitzgerald’s best, and I wanted to be able to castigate the damn thing from a position of authority. Happily, the thing got much better after that insufferable kickoff.

I have this problem with Fitzgerald. Notice I did not say I have a problem with his writing -although I suppose I do, by extension. But his particular obsessions and carnivorous social aspirations seem to have left the man with an alarming lack of self-awareness, which he is able to overcome only by the virtue of being a really fucking good writer. As I reader, this entire situation is incredibly frustrating -I keep getting distracted by Fitzgerald’s desperate inner child, hungering for acceptance and recognition as it tugs on my sleeve and makes it impossible for me to appreciate more than a few of those wonderful sentences at a time.

Part of this has to do with the stakes -for the majority of these two novels, there isn’t anything at risk. None of this shit matters. I have no issue with reading about bad people behaving badly, (see my list of favorite books) but I have no interest if their bad behavior is completely meaningless, absent of consequence and lasting effect. There is only the most petty kind of drama in that, and both of these books require a lot of slogging to get to anything like an action of consequence (and I’m not using “consequence” in its moral sense here, but in the sense of one thing leading to some other result).

But I noticed how much more I preferred the act of reading Gatsby compared to Tender is the Night, which I found surprising, since I can subjectively say that Tender is the Night is the superior book. I think the act of re-reading a book flawed in this particular way is a bit more redeeming, because all of the previously unimportant interactions -while still completely without interesting consequence- provide a more codified system of behavior that inform those later moments of genuine consequence. Maybe people with my particular sensitivities just aren’t going to enjoy Fitzgerald on the first read. Since there are a few of his books out there that I have yet to read, I’m sure I will be able to test this hypothesis.

Recommendation: Read one. While Gatsby is more culturally relevant, Tender is the Night is a better book -if you can hang in through the first act. (Also, all of the covers for Gatsby look like shit for some reason. I have literally never seen a cover of The Great Gatsby I did not immediately dislike. If any of you are familiar with one, please show it to me.)

Great Gatsby (Scribner Classics)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”: Noir and Homophobia and Slapping Hysterical Women, Oh My…

Ah, the other major detective noir. After reading “The Maltese Falcon,” I rather quickly set my sights on reading Chandler’s pulpy-not-pulp Magnum Opus. I had fun. It’s not my normal read, but it’s a wonderful bit of fun. And unlike much of the “fun” reading out there, it’s not distractingly bad on a sentence-by-sentence level examination of the prose itself (although it’s certainly a bit dated).

The elephant in the room here, as with Hammett, is the caveman-level portrayals of women. I have no doubt that the likes of Chandler and Hammett depict women in a far better light than their pulp magazine contemporaries, but it still stands out rather badly -specifically the passing justifications of casual violence against “hysterical” women. Male homosexuals don’t fare particularly well here, either, both in the general sense of their depiction and in the specific violence directed against them.

It’s a damn shame, because the rest of the work holds up surprisingly well. Whenever one reads literature of the past, one has to come to terms with the realities of the systemic oppression and abuse of that era, whether it be based in gender, race, or sexuality. Of course, there is a difference between authors who wrote within the greater cultural context of their time and authors who advocated for or glorified that oppression and abuse (one of the reasons I cannot stand Kipling). My problem with “The Big Sleep” is that I can’t seem to make up my mind on where exactly Chandler falls on this spectrum.

Recommendation: This one is gonna come down to your personal preference, but if you have even a passing interest in noir, you can’t really pass it up.


Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler