Monday, March 23, 2009

Booze-Soaked Literature From Around The World

Woodcut by Averil Salmond Le Gros Clark for the prose-poetry of Su Tung-P'o.

A German realist, a Nigerian fantasist and a Chinese philosopher-poet walk into a bar…

There would be more than one punch line to that joke. A whole night’s worth in fact, as all three had a soft spot for alcoholic libations. The truly great thing about the writings of these three talents is that all of them maintain a light touch and maintain humor no matter how dark the situation they describe. Fallada’s (the German) is as dark a tale as there exists and yet you will find yourself laughing out loud throughout it.

The most striking thing about these writings (as to the month’s theme – each of them have more striking aspects from a artistic and social component) is the easy comparisons made to the other drinkers we’ve encountered this month. There is a common thread emerging and it is one where alcohol represents a bottled genie.

Wishing, apparently, is essential to the reflective drunk.

The Drinker by Hans Fallada. Translated by Charlotte and A.L. Lloyd. Afterword by John Willet. Melville House. ISBN: 9781933633657. 304 pp. $16.95. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

Hans Fallada is the nome de plume of Rudolph Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen. He took the name Fallada in order to insulate his respected father from the implications of his fiction’s matter-of-fact dealings with life on the down and out. The name Fallada is taken from the horse Falada of the classic German fairy tale, The Goose Girl (Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a definitive telling).

Falada is the name of the ill-fated but cherished horse of the young princess in the tale. On the way to marry a prince of a far off land the princess is betrayed by her waiting maid. The maid forces her to switch places with her and marries the prince, kills the princess’s loyal horse Falada for his indignant behavior towards her. The wretched maid then forces the real princess to become a simple goose girl (one who takes care of the geese). Falada’s head hangs in mute accusation of the maid’s deeds and in time it even begins to speak to the princess (now a goose girl) as she goes about her day. After a short while, and largely because of Falada’s supernatural speech, the treachery is unmasked and everything is set to right. This includes dragging behind horses the waiting maid while she is in a barrel spiked with nails (naked of course). She of course meets a bloody end.

Hans Fallada has only come back to English audiences recently. The Drinker is a darkly comic cautionary tale written by an author who was living the life he warns against. A successful literary career (with all the ups and downs that entails) was at its end. He had been censored and relegated to the side of the road by the rising power of the Nazi government. In his diminished state he turned to alcohol for solace.

Fallada was a person who understood his fellow man. He could see the inner workings so well that he read people perhaps better than he read himself. He could see the glimmer of humanity that yet lived in the most crooked of swindler or the light of knowledge (dark and carnal knowing) in the barmaids eyes when she recognized that the man before her was on the slide, and he could see reflected in her eyes the eventual pit where the slide led. Not that she knew that pit herself, but that she knew where it was and who was going there.

“All my life long I have fed on people,” a young Fallada wrote, “I have storied them in my mind with their ways of moving, speaking, feeling, and now I have them there, ready for instant use. Nothing has ever interested me so much as the realization why people behave as they do. My otherwise hopeless memory is excellent for each detail, the most trivial facts I learn about the habits of my fellow man.”

What is a man like Fallada to do when confronted with the fimbulvetr of Nazi Germany? Such wholesale destructiveness must have stopped the writer in his tracks. Indeed it did. Much of the time during the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of the National Socialist movement Fallada was crippled with apathy and horror. He had celebrated his ability to perceive his fellow man, cherished this ability above all and yet now he was confronted with a grotesque dehumanization of man. Like I said, he took up the bottle.

The Drinker was his final work, more or less, and wasn’t published until after his death. There are some misconceptions about how it was written. Many claim that it was written in code to hide it’s meaning from Nazi officials should they come knocking. This doesn’t really fit. The book contains no harsh criticism of the Nazi movement. It does contain a wonderfully accurate depiction on how the institutionalized meritocracy of psychology and concepts such as law and order can lead to a diminished appraisal of human worth. The fact is that what seems to some like code is in fact just page after page of crisscrossed writing. Fallada wrote The Drinker in just fourteen days while down and out. He wrote vertically and horizontally on each page to conserve paper. Front and back. No code, just a writer’s final manic attempt to preserve material so that he could get all of it down.

The Drinker
chronicles the fall (no rise here) of a solidly middle class merchant in prewar Germany. A lifelong devotee to the mundane running of his business, Herr Erwin Sommer has found himself in a slight pinch of late. His wife, Magda, who ran the business with him for years, has been maintaining the household for eight years since retiring from their work together. It is now his business.

In this time Herr Sommer has slowly run the business into the ground. On one crisp spring day he stops in at a small inn and has a beer. It is a rare treat, as he does not drink often. The cold, fresh beer invigorates him. He’s just lost the biggest contract his firm had. The beer calms him and soothes his worries. He relaxes. When the barmaid ignores him despite his being ready for another beer he makes a slight seen. Herr Sommer has a high opinion of himself and the barmaid’s insolence unmans him slightly. This time he orders the same drink as the young man she was talking to instead of taking his order. was drinking. Schnapps. Straight up. Full tumbler. Down the hatch…

Erwin Sommer is not a particularly bright man. He’s not good with numbers or with realizing the implications of actions. He is also incredibly vain, constantly shooting for something more than dignity, and thus perpetually conceiving himself as a superior to those around him. He wants more than mere respect and in a way, he would like all to possess a touch of admiration for him. These are not remarkable traits. Many share such arrogance. They are however, the groundwork for his eventual unraveling.

Herr Sommer’s greatest intellectual possession (and he possesses it in droves) is an aesthete’s ability to perceive the sensual and from this he gathers a treasure trove of insight about his fellow man. Insight based of aesthetics is flawed, however, and it leaves one without practical applications. The drink is a dimensional world for Erwin Sommer. In each imbibed potion his aesthetic inclinations find a whirling splendor to behold anew. His mentality is almost tailor made for alcoholism.

The fall is a quick one. Hard too, but luckily The Drinker is a very comic book. I laughed aloud a few times while reading it. The sheer drop-off of this once respected businessman into grimy, thieving, gutter-mad drunk happens so alarmingly quick and with such forceful totality that you can’t help but find it believably absurd (like any great joke). You never really like Erwin Sommer too, which is why you can watch him plummet with the detachedness of the voyeur. You don’t like him but you delight in his self-aware style and headlong charge into dysfunctional alcoholism. You’d drink with him, perhaps.

Sommer is eventually institutionalized and in this portion of the book we find a new application of his intense aesthetic perceptions, namely an indictment of the treatment and “care” provided to the mentally ill. Fallada fills the asylum with a rogue’s gallery of the mentally ill and in these characters we find ourselves once again laughing despite the awful situation. The Drinker is remarkable for its ability to juxtapose mirth and horrid tragedy.

In the end, Fallada’s final book is very autobiographical. The divorce Sommer endures as well as the oblivion seeking alcoholism mirror real-life events for Fallada. There is finally another theme that emerges, far too subtle for the Nazi goons to ever have picked up upon. It is a theme of cowardice and it is probably Fallada’s greatest confession.

Fallada’s early works were received by the Nazis as critiques of the Wiemar Republic. In reality Fallada described a poverty that exists in any place or time, and in his harsh treatment of communists the Nazis overlooked his equally critical comments on fascism. Joseph Goebbels forced him at one point to write an anti-Semitic (or at least anti-Weimar) tract. Fallada resisted, but in time he caved under the increasing pressure. Following this caving Fallada was never quite the same. The reliance on alcohol for escape and the admission of cowardice when confronted with a dire situation were things that Fallada perhaps shared with his drunkard, Erwin Sommer.

Admission of cowardice is no easy thing. Even harder is rendering it as a lesson. Like the horse in the old fairy tale, Fallada to the end lived to unmask treachery with his words.

I truly enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it. I can’t emphasize enough how awkwardly funny it is. Melville House has again done us all a favor and made this brilliant work available. It is a reissue of the English translation form the 50’s. I do not read German, but I can say that the clarity of the English must belie a solid translation.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard; And, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola. Grove Press. ISBN: 9780802133632. 256 pp. $17. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant.

My father got eight children and I was the eldest among them, all of the rest were hard workers, but I myself was an expert palm-wine drinkard. I was drinking palm-wine from morning till night and from night till morning. By that time I could not drink ordinary water at all except palm-wine.

Written in 1946 and published in the UK in 1952, The Palm-Wine Drinkard has enjoyed a good run since. Not the most obvious “classic” of world fantasy literature, The Palm-Wine Drinkard has yet been in print ever since its publication; a feat worth recognizing.

The book has been analyzed from several different vantage points. Some find it to be a masterwork of fantasy and imagination while others downgrade it to the status of being merely a representative work of a people’s stories and thus derivative. Personally, I subscribe to the more satirical assessment made by Tutuola’s countryman, Chinua Achebe.

Achebe sees a purpose in the novel that I can’t but help find easy comparisons to the previous work reviewed this Monday (The Drinker). Amos Tutuola was fairly fluent in French and could have written with more sophistication in that language, let alone in his native tongue. Instead Tutuola chose the English language to tell his lurid folktale about a somewhat lazy drinker whose palm-wine tapper (the man who climbs the tree and draws the sap to make the mild fermented drink) has died after falling. Tutuola had only a fifth grade education in English. He was aware of how limited and disorganized his English was and yet he stuck with it as the vessel of his tale.

Achebe has put forth the theory that Tutuola chose English and the subject of the adventures of a somewhat lazy, superstitious drunkard as an ultimate satire of British colonial perceptions of indigenous peoples (in this case Nigerians). The drunkard of Tutuola’s book is often taken to having high opinions of his abilities and yet is motivated by his stubborn pursuit of habitual drinking and dissipation. Told mind you, in the format of a fairy tale where exposition is shaved for a quickly moving plot.

You see, once his palm-wine tapper is dead, the young protagonist goes through something of a crisis. He doesn’t like doing the work of tapping it himself and finds the work of other tappers not as good as his now deceased man.

Then I started to find out another expert palm-wine tapster, but I could not get me one who could tap the palm-wine to my requirement. When there was no palm-wine for me to drink I started to drink ordinary water which I was unable to taste before, but I did not satisfy with it as palm-wine.

Heh. Water just ain’t as good, you see, and so what does our young hero resolve to do? Why, merely go to the land of the dead and bring back his deceased tapper so that he can once again tap palm-wine for him. Easy enough.

It’s like the story of Orpheus and Eurydice only told for drinking buddies instead of lovers.

On the journey he meets a dizzying and amazing cast of denizens in the wild. When threatened by some powerful spirit of the wild our man merely has to reflect on his greatness and thinks of how a powerful man of magic (which you only then become aware of) can wield his and his father’s juju (object oriented magic) and be victorious every time against such spirits.

Of course… I understand this completely. If you get me drunk enough I will fight eight-hundred giants for you because I am that powerful. Then you wake up with a headache, sore nose and bruised knuckles. Turns out mortality was yet preserved…

This is the common thread I find emerge between many of these books, from Bukowski’s Women, Frederick Exely’s A Fan’s Notes, John Berryman’s Recovery, and today’s offerings by Hans Fallada and Amos Tutuola: It’s the wonderfully destructive delusions of grandeur that alcohol bestows upon us. It’s that perfect drunkenness where you are capable of out loving Casanova and even when faced with a Sonny Liston, returned from his grave, would think twice before stepping toe to toe with you. Or perhaps it’s mademoiselle’s celebrated smile flashing brilliantly from behind a bottle of cabernet? Your hair looks perfect and this sweater is amazing! Don’t worry about the red stained teeth, Juliet. Nor the fact that your gallantry is blurry and sodden, Don Juan, and the only baroness in your future is the one whose equal drunkenness will tolerate a lout in her bed.

This is the version of Tutuola’s novel that I prefer: a snide comment on the external perception of a people by their governors. I like to imagine Tutuola laughing at the realities as much as the fantasies. Salman Rushdie called this form of reply the “Empire writing back.”

I see in Tutuola’s triumphant hero an ultimate questioning of colonial condescension. Do you see us this way? Do you honestly think us so perpetually backward by comparisons? Thus he chose the English language to offer up a funny, poignant work of broken syntax. That’s the real genius of the work. It is both a wonderful fantasy as well as a commentary on racial perceptions.

With a laugh Tutualo boasts to the world of Western hegemony that we are that way. It’s true, in many ways we are as you say, but what you need to know is that we are that and also much more.

The biggest joke is in the comparisons above. Drinking might be the greatest equalizer in the whole world. Eh, Herr Sommer?

The Selected Poems of Su Tung-P’o. Translated by Burton Watson. Copper Canyon Press. ISBN: 9781556590641. 80 pp. $14. Buy it here and support The Devil’s Accountant (this edition is still in print as far as I know). As of 04/05/09 The Devil's Accountant has partnered with ABE Books to bring you the world's largest selection of out-of-print and rare books. To purchase the out-of-print illustrated edition referred to in this post click this link: Le Gros Clark's Su Tung-P'o

Su Tung-P’o (known also as Su Shi) is different from many of the other drunkards this month. One major reason is that he was profoundly functional in his alcoholism. A minister of the Song Dynasty, the poet-philosopher Tung-P’o was born in 1037 and died in 1101. In his relatively long life he was considered the wisest man alive as well as a agitator given over to vice. Already I can tell you want to buy the man a drink.

One of the Accountant’s favorite stories about the learned Tung-P’o involves a rule of his while traveling. The story is a simple one and it concerns a folk legend that states that whenever he traveled Tung-P’o built wells. Wells, you ask? It seems that whenever he came to a point of thirst between two destinations he would build a well there (as he was a governor). His logic was simple: If I was thirsty at that point so too would another traveler be thirsty there. So the road would benefit from a well at that point. Simple yet brilliantly considerate.

I offer you today an individual piece from Selections from The Works of Su Tung-P'o as published by Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith in 1923. The translation is by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark. As mentioned above the woodcuts within this scarce edition are by the translator's wife, Averil Salmond Le Gros Clark.

It is a wonderful text collecting the prose-poetry (or travel-essays) of this wonderful and inspiring figure. Given the scarcity of the work I recommend you grab a copy if you come across one. Since the subject of the month is drinking I want to share a selection of profound drunkenness. It's like drinking Belgian ale on a bright sunny day and letting your thoughts wander as far and wide as they can go before the euphoric ale wears off.

In his formative days he was taught by a Taoist monk and many of his writings are colored by the philosophy of Lao Tzu. This one however, is purely him. Here we have a wise man enjoying strong drink with wisdom and grace.

Pine Wine of the Middle Mountains

When first I forded by night the cross-flowing Chang River, my carriage retainers waded across, their shouts piercing the darkness. The light of the pine torches marked the shallows and shattered the star reflections in the pools. The scented mists slowly rising with the breeze appeared as if to reproach me at this meeting.

How can it be that this wonderful product of a thousand years must perish at the blow of an axe, becoming as light as swansdown? It gives but the merest inch of light and in no way differs from a bundle of wormwood. The rotten veins are entangled and the knots, in danger of splitting in twain, still pour out resin. Alas! Though durable in the building of great mansions, one may yet turn to account its medicinal properties and, in its old age, receive its small services.

By making wine from the Pines of the Middle Mountains, I save you from the midst of ashes and rescue from the travail of the glowing torch. I take the clear sap from the gnarled and twisted bark and distill this oily liquid. When boiled and mixed with wheat and millet, the sound of its loud bubbling is very pleasant. Its taste is sweet with a slight lingering of bitterness. How I long for the sublime loneliness of its subtle fascination! Well do I know the ease with which its sweetness may turn into acidity, and laugh at the grapes of Liangchow. Though simulating the fat that rises in the mouth, may not be compared with the cooked lamb of the Imperial Palace which is served with a bumper of wine in the patterned goblet of arched rattan, and offered with the frosted claws of the Rock Crab.

How much have I already drunk to-day? Ah! I feel I can escape now from the fetters of mortality! I fling away my staff and arise! Away with all your worries and troubles, you lads! I gaze at the Western Hills - so close they seem, and long to raise my dress and wander afar. I soar over the running deer on the mountain peaks, and join the leaping monkeys on the overhanging cliffs. Thence do I plunge into the billowing clouds of a vast ocean - Heaven in tumult! I cause Chi and Yuan with their companions, and that band of heroes - the Eight Immortals - to ride upon the unicorn and hide behind the Phoenix, or to vie together for the Wine-cup and the Ladle. Upside down is the White Silken Cap, dripping with wine are those Court robes of brocade. They pursue after Tung-P'o but cannot catch him, and return to eat and sip the wine dregs and sediment.

Then do I rinse out the pine flavour from my teeth, and once again find it well to write a poem on my distant travels and continue my studies of the Li Sao.

If that doesn't make you want to drink to excess then there is simply no hope for you at all.

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