27 February 2005

James Sallis at The Boston Globe

I seldom see references to one of the most pleasurable newspaper columns I know: Jim Sallis's "A Reading Life" at The Boston Globe. Sallis is a writer who deserves a lot more notice than he tends to get, a writer who has been published in the littlest of literary magazines at the same time as major science fiction and mystery magazines (and was even, for a little while, an editor of New Worlds). He's published poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and biographies. The joy of his Globe column is how ecumenical it is -- he's written about such writers as Jim Harrison, Blaise Cendrars, Leigh Brackett, and John Sladek.

On Lovecraft:
Like Hammett and Chandler, so much has he become an element of the very air we breathe and the ground upon which we tread that we take his innovations for granted, failing to recognize and to honor them.
On Larry Gonick:
Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, Santayana said. Those who do know it, those like Larry Gonick, may be similarly doomed, driven to try to make some sense of it all [and to prove its relevance]: the sprawl and endless reiterations, the loopiness, lunacy and cruelty, lacunae and longueurs alike.
On Robert Sheckley:
Has Sheckley's work changed for me over all these years? Absolutely. As an adolescent and young adult I was much taken with the ideas of his work, with its cleverness. Years later that cleverness came to seem to me a burden, a freight that sometimes set the story to groaning on its supports; but at the same time I'd reached a perspective from which I was able to appreciate the surety and subtlety of the writing, to admire the abandon, the absolute freedom, of it. Nowadays I tend to perceive him as our Voltaire.
This week, Sallis writes about rereading and teaching a favorite novel of mine, Camus's The Stranger:
So as I speak of antiheros, of Camus's debt to the language and form of the American detective novel and of this recent translation by Matthew Ward that I'm encountering for the first time, the multiple interpretations offered by my students echo the many faces this novel has had for me over the years, reaffirming what I say again and again: that only the finest writing can suspend and support at once so many ''meanings." There is no string. There's just one complex knot after another. And that (class dismissed) is the art of it.
Sallis's columns have a personal, informal voice, one which allows him to convey a tremendously broad knowledge of fiction's histories and possibilities without sounding pedantic, and each paragraph moves toward the conclusion without feeling either irrelevant or mechanical. He is a master of the final paragraph -- his conclusions wrap up the discussion while also providing somewhere for the reader's mind to wander next.

I am most grateful to Sallis for his mentioning Calder Willingham, a novelist and screenwriter whom I knew at the end of his life, a man who both inspired and frustrated me, and some of whose novels (particularly Rambling Rose and Eternal Fire) don't deserve to be entirely forgotten. Sallis proves himself an insightful reader of Willingham's work:
Like that of O'Hara, whose name deserves to top the list of underrated American writers, Willingham's work clove close to the surface of his time. It's only when he breaks out of the hardcast realist mode -- certain passages in Reach to the Stars, the whole of Eternal Fire [--] that we begin to hear the thrum of something eternal and disturbing come up beneath his words. Otherwise we read his work today much as though peering into rear-view mirrors. Maybe we should have stopped back there for food or gas. The supposed sexiness of Geraldine Bradshaw, with its portrait of a "liberated woman," is little more than a Fifties domestic fantasy; we read it today marveling that it ever got written and published. Yet in each of Calder Willingham's books there are these amazing moments.
(A bit of literary trivia: William Styron once noted that in William Faulkner's study he found a copy of Willingham's Geraldine Bradshaw, a novel thought at the time to border on pornography. Willingham once told me he considered Faulkner "a glorified pulp writer", which was not at all praise -- and is, it seems to me, a term that fits Willingham's novels better than Faulkner's. Eternal Fire reads quite well as a parody of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, but this reading infuriated the author himself, who was convinced he had written a novel that could rival the work of Dostoyevsky.)

In his column on George R. Stewart's masterpiece, Earth Abides, James Sallis says, "Art's mission is to make our lives large again, to dredge us out of this terrible dailyness." It's exactly that attitude that makes his "Reading Life" columns such a joy to read, and so valuable -- they show us ways to grow beyond our own daily details, and they do so without hectoring or lecturing, but through enthusiasm backed with knowledge and intelligence.

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