Boogie-toed prankster: Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo

Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo. Faber and Faber, 2006. First published 1994

I took this novel with me on a long journey recently. I nearly gave up after 30 pages, because the style and subject-matter were so implausible and grating. I had no other reading matter to hand, so persevered. Although the later parts of the novel showed sporadic signs of improvement, I was still left unimpressed by the end.

Paul Auster Mr Vertigo cover The central character is the whimsically named orphan Walter Rawley, just nine years old at the start of the narrative, and a wise-cracking street-smart hustler in St Louis in the 1920s. He’s taken under the wing of Master Yehudi, a theatrically flamboyant Brooklyn-Hungarian Jewish showman, and another unrealistic figure in a novel in which none of the characters bears any resemblance to a flesh-and-blood human.

Yehudi sees potential in this scruffy kid – he says he’ll teach him to fly. So the first third or so of the novel describes the gruelling ‘training’ process to which he subjects Walt. Not surprisingly, he does learn to levitate, and then to perform aerial acrobatics, developing his skills under his enigmatic master’s tutelage. Yehudi himself seems to possess preternatural powers, either satanic or shamanic (is that a word?)

Their plan is to take Walt’s act on the road. He’s to perform in country fairs in backwoods mid-America. Disaster strikes early on, and their plans change. As Walt becomes famous, playing ever larger venues, another catastrophe alters the direction of his life, and the plot veers off in even more implausible directions.

I’ve nothing against magic in fiction. Barbara Comyns employs levitation as a central feature in The Vet’s Daughter (link to my post HERE), but her idiosyncratic approach creates her own kind of surreal suburban gothic that works more successfully than Paul Auster’s novel because it has an air of almost childlike naivety that counterpoints the weirder stuff.

The tangy vernacular style Auster deploys in Walt’s dialogue is intended I think to endear him to the reader; he’s a sort of potty-mouthed Huck Finn, wiser than his years in one sense, but childlike and vulnerable in others. But this doesn’t convince me. He is often callous and cruel (although much of this behaviour, like his casual racism, is a product of his background and era). Unlike my response to Comyns’ heroine, I didn’t really care what happened to him, because he never truly became a fully rounded character.

Here’s a fairly typical random sample of Walt’s narrative voice (for we learn near the end that it is indeed supposed to be Walt himself who’s writing this book), just after he’d arrived at Yehudi’s remote country shack early in the novel:

I was a city boy who had grown up with jazz in his blood, a street kid with his eye on the main chance, and I loved the hurly-burly of crowds, the screech of trolley cars and the throb of neon, the stink of bootleg whiskey trickling in the gutters. I was a boogie-toed prankster, a midget scatman with a quick tongue and a hundred angles, and there I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, living under a sky that brought only weather – nearly all of it bad.

Walt is just too sassy and cynical to ring true. He’s only nine at this point, remember, yet he comes across like a Raymond Chandler PI. I concede that the convention is that this is the voice of Walt 68 years later, writing his own life story, so he’s projecting his mature sensibility into that of himself as a kid. Auster has always been fond of this kind of postmodern playfulness, but did it so much more interestingly in, say, the excellent New York Trilogy (1987).

I read most of his novels pre-blog, and have to say that the quality was decidedly patchy. He never again matched the quality of that trilogy. I enjoyed the first two films based on or scripted by him, however: ‘Smoke’ and ‘Blue in the Face’ (both 1995).

I daresay the Artful Dodger could be described as a cockney forerunner of Walt, but to my mind Dickens is far more skilful in conveying the faults, motivation, inner vulnerability and charm of his character than Auster is with Walt.

Another more successful literary depiction of magic and the supernatural is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. In my post about it I cited Robert McCrum’s description of it in his ‘Hundred Best Novels’ series of articles. He emphasised how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution. (Link to my post HERE).






Dalmatian adventure

In my previous post I mentioned that I’d been on holiday in Croatia at the start of this month. Mrs TD’s sister and her husband have a yacht and had invited us to join them for eight days’ sailing down part of the Dalmatian coast.

Boat Kastel marina

That’s the boat we lived in for over a week

They’d been sailing for some time up and across the Adriatic before we arrived. We joined them at a marina just outside Split (we’d flown to Split airport). It was my first visit to Croatia, but Mrs TD had been many years ago in the days of Yugoslavia. It was also our first experience of sailing, so we were a bit apprehensive as well as excited.

It took some time to get used to boarding the boat from the quay via a narrow plank (BIL tried to instil some nautical terminology into us: it’s called a passerelle!) I don’t know why yachty types insist on making boarding and disembarking so precarious; why can’t they provide a nice, wide, safe method, with handrails?

Leaving Split table mountainThe view back towards the mainland on leaving the marina was magnificent. The mountain range that looms over Split reminded us of Table Mountain in Cape Town.

Our first stop was the island of Solta. We anchored in a small bay and enjoyed swimming and paddle-boarding. Cicadas on shore chirped enthusiastically all day.

From there we sailed to Hvar island. The Croat (or is it Serbo-Croat?) for island is otok. It’s a strange language. Like Turkish, its vocabulary bears almost no relation to other European languages. The small marina supermarket bore the word ‘ulaz’ next to its English equivalent, ‘entrance’.

We moored near the pretty harbour of Stari Grad, which simply means ‘old town’. Which it is. It was founded around 385 BC as a Greek colony called Pharos. In the town centre is Tvrdalj Castle, the impressive stone fortress-house that belonged to the 15-16C local poet Petar Hektorović. Like most of the honey-coloured buildings in the town, it looks Venetian, but inside there’s a cloistered courtyard with a pool in its middle that looks quite Moorish. It’s a beautiful, cool haven of peace in what would have been a turbulent place during all the centuries since it was built.

Next day we sailed to the island of Vis. Much of the time there was almost no wind, so we had to motor, but when the wind got up and we had the main sail and a smaller one in front (BIL insists it’s called a ‘genoa’ – I think that’s right) unfurled (I’m sure that’s not the right word) it was a magical experience. We even saw a small pod of dolphins at one point.

It was my birthday that day. We had a wonderful meal in a thatched, open-sided beach restaurant that we had to access by dinghy. The view was amazing; it was like I imagine the Caribbean to be: coral pink sunset, then inky blue-black night sky, with the sea shimmering and blinking with the lights reflected from the anchored boats and from the restaurant’s lights. The Serbian waiter (almost all the waiters we met seemed to be Serbian) brought out a surprise dessert bowl for me with a sparkler fizzing in its centre. The whole restaurant sang happy birthday – in English!

Bobovišća harbour

Bobovišća harbour

The next island stop was Brač, and a pretty harbour in a sheltered bay. This village was called Bobovišća. Like most of the harbours we saw, this too looked Venetian. As we ate outdoors on the harbour that night a full moon rose above the cypress trees that line the slopes above: huge and pale orange, a harvest moon I suppose.

Next day strong winds were forecast, so we returned to the marina for our last two days. Caught a taxi from there to Trogir. This was another ancient fortified harbour town, with imposing defensive walls around the old town, bristling with fortress-towers at key points.

The Romanesque-gothic cathedral of St Lawrence dominates the central square. Its accretions as a Christian building mirror the history of the country: it was destroyed in the 12C by Saracens, and rebuilding continued for the next five centuries. It survived the various invasions and occupations during this time, from the Turks and Venetians to the Austrians and Hungarians. No wonder they built so many fortresses and walls around the town.

Possible St Mary of Egypt, Trogir

Possible St Mary of Egypt, Trogir

It’s a picturesque place, full of narrow alleys in which churches and monasteries rub shoulders with shops and houses. Outside a 14C Dominican church-monastery I noticed over the main door this carving of three figures. The one on the right is striking: she’s covered head-to-foot with flowing long hair. I’d like to think this is another image of my favourite saint, Mary of Egypt. This is how she’s often depicted, as I’ve written several times here before. The Latin inscription simply gives the name of the sculptor, Niccolo Dente, known as Cervo.

And those were the highlights of our first time as proper sailors. I now know how to use a roving fender…


Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A history of walking. Granta, 2014. First published 2001

This is a scholarly, well-researched and readable account of walking – its history, and how and why humans go for walks, often with no particular goal in mind.

Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust cover She explores the archaeology and anthropology of bipedalism, and the consequences of our ancient ancestors’ rising from all fours to an upright position that enabled perambulation, and the evolutionary and cultural developments that followed.

Then she has a section on that particularly focused kind of walking: pilgrimages, from those in the Americas, to Compostela and the medieval and later European pilgrim destinations (but I don’t recall a mention of Chaucer and Canterbury, and there’s no such entry in the index; maybe I missed it). She’s astute in summing up the essence of why people feel the impulse to set off on such gruelling trips: often, unlike sturdy hikers, these are walkers who are infirm or frail. Many go on pilgrimage in quest of healing or solace.

Labyrinths are the subject of the next section. She sees these as a means of undertaking pilgrimage in a confined space, a sort of symbolic pilgrimage. I don’t recall any mention of Borges here.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the one that deals with the rise of landscape gardening. In medieval and early modern times, nature was seen by civilised people (ie wealthy urbanites) as chaotic, savage and hostile. Solnit doesn’t mention that our word ‘savage’ derives from the Latin ‘silva’, meaning wood, forest, or by extension any wild, uncultivated (and therefore potentially dangerous) place. It’s the opposite of civilised (a word derived from the Latin for ‘relating to a citizen’, ie a dweller in a city).

Gardens, and then country estates of the gentry, were developed as oases of ordered tranquillity; ‘nature needs to be dressed and adorned, at least in the garden.’ By the 18C this had become a pre-Romantic fashion for more natural-looking (less geometrically sculpted) gardens, and the era of the famous landscape gardeners like Capability Brown arrived.

I’d have liked a bit more on Jane Austen’s contribution to the literature of this period. When her heroines ‘take a turn’ round the park of their own estate, or more often that of the wealthier young man on whom they’d set their sights, they set out on what was to be an opportunity to flirt and escape the watchful eyes of chaperones. The gentlemen could show off the ostentation of their wealth; the ladies could legitimately display how well they looked when flushed by exertion and the country air. Solnit astutely quotes Mr Darcy saying (playfully but also meanly) to the young ladies vying for his attention and suggesting a walk: ‘Your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking’.

Although she writes interestingly about the importance and frequency of walks in Austen’s fiction, especially in Pride and Prejudice, she could have made far more of the symbolic, literary and cultural significance of her characters’ ventures out into the natural (and cultivated to look natural) world of gardens, country estates and beauty spots like Lyme Regis.

Behind all this was a concept of nature as being in need of human intervention to remove its imperfections, to enhance and improve it. The garden should look like a landscape painting, something to be aesthetically appreciated by the tourist or visitor.

Then we come to Wordsworth and the rest of the serious walkers of the Romantic era. They went beyond the cosy confines of the country estate: all of nature was their garden, and they thought nothing of walking hundreds of miles on a tour. WW clocked up thousands of miles of pedestrianism in his lifetime.

He broadened the educated person’s appreciation of walking to include pleasure as well as suffering, ‘politics and scenery’:

He had taken the walk out of the garden, with its refined and restricted possibilities, but most of his successors wanted the world in which they walked to nothing but a larger garden.

The concept of urban walking forms another of the most interesting sections of this book. I’d read studies by Solnit and others of the rise of the Parisian (and other cities’) flâneur (and flâneuses – women walking alone in the city were sadly usually associated with street walkers, aka prostitutes, lorettes, and so on). I’ve posted on this topic before, on Walter Benjamin, psychogeography, Breton, and so on; links HERE). I must read Lauren Elkin’s full-length study of this subject.

Unlike Rousseau, who avoided crowds, Baudelaire and other gentlemanly urban strollers were ‘men of the crowd’; they sought out crowded places, even while indulging in their dérives, or drifting, aimless wanderings through the thronged city. Dickens is another famous literary figure who was a prodigious walker, and Solnit perceptively assesses his motives for and accounts of walking.

There is a brief section on the literature of walking, but Solnit sees this as mostly in essay and other non-fiction forms. The likes of Hazlitt and RL Stevenson see walking as a sort of circumscribed activity: ‘the walking essay and the kind of walking described in it have much in common: however much they meander, they must come home at the end essentially unchanged.’ Walking offers an uplifting opportunity to reflect, collect one’s thoughts. ‘And then moralizing sneaks in…Few of the canonical essayists can resist telling us that we should walk because it is good for us, nor from providing directions on how to walk.’

(She’s less stringent and dismissive of Rousseau, in an earlier part of the book. His take on (usually solitary) walking represents what she calls the philosophical kind. Her assessment sums it up as a cross between meditation and escape from the rigours and stresses of urban life, a flight into simplicity, away from crowds.)

Then this intriguing history started, for me, to fizzle out, apart from the section on mountaineering. I found most of the final sections a drag. There was too much digression into Solnit’s experience of demos and street events. Here she veered dangerously close to a kind of right-on Californian pretentiousness. She touches on other modes of transport in the modern age – but not, strangely, sailing; I read most of this book while on a sailing holiday with family on the Croatian-Dalmatian coast. Sailing seems to go beyond the confines of her area of study. There’s also far too much for my taste on the lurid phenomenon of Las Vegas.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Solnit’s writing is mostly elegantly and intelligently done (apart from an annoying habit of starting sentences with ‘Too’). I may have been a bit unfair for wanting to see more of the aspects of this subject that interest me than she was prepared to provide.