Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses

Originally posted April, 2012:

Writing

As an American who has spent most of his life in England I have dual nationality by way of experience if not by legal right, not that the latter would make any real difference. As a writer I have and use both voices – often together; often separately – and as a reader I make a varying preferential choice for either of these two voices.

I feel that my best writing comes from my American voice and it is when it is conversational and attains a natural rhythm and sound. My English voice – though this is going to be quite simplistic – is when I impose structures/form on that writing, for example in my sonnets when I use rhyme in quite an obvious way. As I’ve said above, there are times when these are kept quite separate. It’s more complex than this, and I have explained more comprehensively elsewhere – though not in this blog – but this shorthand will do for now.

For those few following this blog you will know that I have been reading the American voice of late: quite a bit of Steinbeck, always Ray Carver, Patrick deWitt [I know he’s Canadian, but…] and most recently Cormac McCarthy. In trying out my next new read I thought I’d have a go at McEwan’s Atonement. I couldn’t get into it: far too English. Brilliantly so, a luxuriant prose in many respects, and so tuned into representation of character, thoughts and feelings, and sense of place, especially inside and interiors and what these too represent. I made about five pages.

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Then I found I actually had McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and hadn’t read yet [as I’ve said, I’m catching up]. Hooked immediately. I love the simple flow – deceptively so, of course – of the narrative and dialogue. And as I continue to make simplistic claims, another appeal at the moment is his ability to write about the exterior. By this I mean the expanse of land and open spaces McCarthy can write about because of where his stories are set. But it is more than this and below is a particular example of that American voice I want to celebrate. I’m trying to not make this sound like a lesson, but that’s difficult, so you can either listen or chat amongst yourselves. Here’s the passage, the fifth paragraph into the opening chapter:

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes creating out of the night the endless faceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

It’s that long, wonderful sentence. And it’s because it follows the first three short ones – the most brilliant set-up. I think Raymond Chandler is one of America’s finest modern writers, and apart from his unique talent with similes, he is master of the long compound sentence. He is also master of mixing up his sentence lengths. But McCarthy’s takes this further. It is in the richness of the grammatical make-up of that long gaze, represented by the sentence, and how we as readers try to take in all the detail too, detail heightened by the weightiness of verbs, surprise naming [nouns yes, but it is more than this] and the succession of ‘and’ connectives that should jar but don’t because where they lead is too demanding of our attention.

Hey, I said you could chat – I didn’t say you could do that! If you’re not interested, I apologise, but do me the courtesy. Your homework is to turn to the third page and read the even longer paragraph beginning In the evening he settled his horse and rode…. The example of the meandering compound sentence is even more elaborate here. And it isn’t a style that McCarthy labours to produce. It happens here at the beginning and then tends to disappear. But you keep hoping to hear more.

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Cormac McCarthy – No Country for Old Men

A reminder that these re-postings – mainly reviews of prose and poetry – are from recent years but a music blog, so placing here in the hope of reaching a new audience. Originally from April, 2012:

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Never For A Lazy Sunday

After reading DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, I began his first novel Ablutions, having ordered on the strength of his superlative sophomore book. Its dark bartender narrative, however, didn’t engage me and I soon gave up. That much observed ennui and despair without any sense of a comic or even sardonic overview just didn’t have the capacity to maintain my interest. It could be that the brilliance of The Sisters Brothers cast too daunting an expectation.

So I turned to my recent charity shop purchace of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, my first McCarthy read [I am behind the times, this book itself published in 2005, though like many I’d seen the Coen brothers’ film]. If Ablutions appears saloon dark and dirty, No Country… is the blackest and bleakest of universal presentations, though pointedly set in 1980s America, Texas to be precise, so it is best to see it as socio-historically and culturally a Western universalising, even a modernised Wild West metaphor.

What it does possess is a dark humour to counter-balance its nihilism. Sheriff Bell has a homespun philosophical wit that allows him to observe wryly on the things that abhor, frighten and disappoint him about the world as it is. Even the evil Chigurh has his comic assessments, either through internal narrative or dialogue when thinking about or relaying directly to the person he is about to kill.

The themes of honour and duty are prevalent ones, and McCarthy presents them with an amazing insight into their complexities. Sheriff Bell has an ‘old-fashioned’ commitment to serve and protect the citizens who fall within his jurisdiction, though he would extend this to anyone in genuine need because that is the way he was brought up. These ‘old-fashioned’ values are for Bell the ones upon which his country/county [an important symbolism as well as linguistic similarity] have been built and which are now under absolute threat by the modern world, or the world of the 80s when the story is set. The ostensible threat comes from narcotics in every aspect of its grip on the country/county/[world]: the effects of the drug itself, the criminals who buy and sell it, the ‘dopes’ who take it, the horrific consequences of this, and ultimately the greed and dispassion which underpins and grows from it. The main consequence of this in the novel is a multitude of killings. McCarthy’s detailed description of these and the guns that facilitate it provide an astonishingly informed and clinical narrative.

The relentless, remorseless Chigurh has his own code of honour which is to carry out his commitment to a job whatever the cost. The cost is usually killing someone or many people and he is unstoppable in this commitment. The only iota of escape offered to occasional imminent victims – if they even have a moment of such opportunity – is the flip of a coin, which in the two cases it is offered doesn’t even work in their favour. Chigurh’s world and control over it is that certain – even chance has no chance of changing the inevitable.

Other key characters are Moss, somewhere in the middle of good-guy Bell and bad-guy Chigurh, a Vietnam vet and welder who stumbles on that very nightmare consequence of this drug-corrupted modern world and in being tempted to benefit from this, essentially launches the story with its multiple escapes and chases, his own existential greed tempered by not having been directly involved in the existence of the money he decides to take as well as wanting mainly to improve his and his wife’s quality of life; his wife Carla Jean whose Christian beliefs are frankly not up to competing with what is going on at this time, and Bell’s wife Loretta who loves her husband unconditionally and provides him with stoical support as well as a colossal wisdom: the closing scenes of these two reflecting on and talking about what their life and the world in general has become provide the book’s most perceptive philosophy

There is so much more that I have left out – like Bell’s wartime secret – but that’s for you to read, and also the fact that for all of its simple narrative, driven by hypnotically realistic and/or surreal dialogue, it is packed with depths and complex tangents. I don’t know if the following Times recommendation on the back cover blurb is taken out of context, but it is so woefully bereft of touching on this book’s impact and significance that it is genuinely hilarious:

A Western thriller with a racy plot and punchy dialogue. Perfect for a lazy Sunday.

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The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

Originally posted March, 2012:

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Fraternal Fighters

This is a wonderfully comic and enriching story about the brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, killers on a job-related quest. Their lives and sustained survival are underscored by menace and mendacity, but the telling of the siblings’ mean and murderous journey is delivered with an opposing calm and honesty by Eli – and the simple but wholly absorbing narrative and dialogue of writer Patrick deWitt.

Their story encompasses brotherly love and hate, greed, frontier existentialism, drinking, weight worries, teeth hygiene [every dentist should have these extracts printed in pamphlets replacing irrelevant surgery magazines], killing with aplomb, the work ethic, commitment, altruism, and, of course, the journey through which this and so much more is variously embraced and rejected.

Care and concern for horses has a place in this tale too. Eli’s horse Tub features strongly throughout and is both absurdly and metaphorically central to the themes of friendship, reliance and pragmatism.

Eli is the younger brother, and though less coldly clinical in killing than Charlie, his temper makes him no less effective – however, fraternal love will always make them a deadly duo because there is such an instinctive bond when it comes to either hunting out their prey or dealing immediately with unforeseen interference in this. But it is Eli who ruminates on the killings afterwards and yearns for a different life.

Both serve the Commodore, their mysterious but powerful employer, and his retributive, murderous instructions are theirs to carry out without question and however far it takes them – in this story across gold-rush California in search of Herman Kermit Warm who has offended their brutal boss. At first we don’t know what this offense was, and it isn’t meant to matter to the brothers whose fame is based on their relentless expertise in fulfilling such duties. But we do find out and this is where the story begins its shifts and presents uncertainty into the Sisters Brothers’ world – well, at least initially into Eli’s thinking.

There is a redemptive ending yet at a considerable cost, but I won’t spoil the story by saying anything further on this. Needless to say, the reading journey following theirs is a delightful and rewarding experience. Thanks to J for recommending this book to me, and to the sun for coming out so I could read and finish so quickly.

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Alternative Valentine – ‘Lovehearts’

When she’d announced our relationship was
going down the pan, I still didn’t expect to find
those Lovehearts at the bottom of the toilet bowl,
not yet flushed away – and that took some time
as they nestled into the nadir of the bend. Love Bug,
Hold Me and Just Us, expressions of affection
dissolving into mixed messages before finally
having nothing more to say and romance at an end.

With Valentine’s Day only weeks away, this has
been the most final of lavatorial executions, love’s
farewell repeating as a watery neologism in the
surprise of a fluid reminder further down the line.
Like lifting the lid on a once-lovers’ exposé
here is the real dishing of dirt as it all washes away.

 

[a found poem – not based on my experience [!] – but one for those not bathed in chocolate and roses and other metaphors today…]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Eolian Harp

In my recent re-posting of a review of Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown [here], I made reference to ST Coleridge and his own brand of pantheism, expressed with such paradoxical impact in The Eolian Harp, so I am now re-posting a short piece on this, originally presented in March, 2012:

(Composed at Clevedon, Somersetshire)

 

My pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our Cot, our Cot o’ergrown
With white-flower’d Jasmin, and the broad-leav’d Myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve
Serenely brilliant (such should Wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatch’d from yon bean-field! and the world is hushed!
The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence.

And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-ways in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caress’d,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Fairy-Land,
Where Melodies round honey-dripping flowers,
Footless and wild, like birds of Paradise,
Nor pause, nor perch, hovering on untam’d wing!
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos’d eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?
But thy more serious eye a mild reproof
Darts, O belovéd Woman! nor such thoughts
Dim and unhallow’d dost thou not reject,
And biddest me walk humbly with my God.
Meek Daughter in the family of Christ!
Well hast thou said and holily disprais’d
These shapings of the unregenerate mind;
Bubbles that glitter as they rise and break
On vain Philosophy’s aye-babbling spring.
For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels;
Who with his saving mercies healéd me,
A sinful and most miserable man,
Wilder’d and dark, and gave me to possess
Peace, and this Cot, and thee, heart-honour’d Maid!

I am currently involved in some work on Coleridge though my contributions are informed more by my enthusiasms than detailed knowledge. I studied his poetry at ‘A’ level and regarded him then, and now, as one of the first hippies, so cultivated that affinity – the communing with nature and dabbling in drugs as requisites for his membership of the club.

It wasn’t until my own teaching of ‘A’ level English Literature that I chose his poem The Eolian Harp to include in a self-selected anthology I comprised to teach for a coursework component. I do genuinely feel this poem has such startling contradictory qualities: the exalted expression of his oneness with god – a communing I cannot share but fully empathise with through the mimesis of his language which captures that moment,

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;

The sound-balance of that first line is stunning. I can relate to this pantheistic moment, although, as I’ve already said, not make its leap.

The opposing expression in the poem is of course the orthodox and pious stance Coleridge is forced to take near the end when Sara reminds and bullies him to be humble before the god with whom he had dared to share that remarkable moment of coalescence. The dirge of those dreadful closing lines is such a stark contrast with the joy and celebration of his transient sound-like power in light.

No Disgrace

The meanings that only lie
when questioning hyperbole

are more than a mood,
an urge to try simplicity.

And it comes along
to hold a moment,

a hope of finding the words
and then again.

Simplicities are not disgraced
when wanting to know

habitual things
whose harmonies are misplaced,

of those deeper
small details.