Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sanctuary: A Great Writer's Hometown

I visited Mississippi in January 1987, so I must've written this soon afterward. Travel & Leisure didn't publish it until late 1994, with atmospheric black-and-white photographs by Alen MacWeeney, who was not there at the same time as I was. (This tremendous delay is normal in magazines.)

William Faulkner spent most of his life in the small university town of Oxford, Mississippi, which became the center of his imaginative life and the seat of his many-storied Yoknapatawpha County.  It fed Faulkner as London fed Dickens and as India nourished Kipling.  Intimate with local families in which ruin, pride and at times violence flourished, he saw in this remote corner of the South all the material he needed to create, in fiction, a personal territory and language.  And despite changes in the town since Faulkner’s death in 1962 (when it had already embarked on the decharacterizing route of much of the South), Oxford still carries the atmosphere of the author and his work.

The countryside has not changed much.  All the backgrounds of Faulkner’s land-rooted fiction are here:  the thick woods, the fields punctuated by worn shacks, the Delta and the river.  Oxford, like many small Southern towns, is governed by a courthouse square from which wide avenues and their tributary streets emanate.  The square is still the heart of the town, of the commerce of daily life: low buildings that in Faulkner’s day had balconies and a central tiny park.  Faulkner described it memorably in Requiem for a Nun:

“...a Square, the courthouse in its grove the center; quadrangular around it, the stores...school and church and tavern and bank and jail each in its ordered place....  But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference...musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all....”

Founded in 1837 in Chickasaw Indian territory, Oxford was soon incorporated as the county seat.  The name was chosen to encourage the state legislature to establish the University of Mississippi there, and Ole Miss went on to become famous for its belles and its football team.  The Union Army burned the town totally in 1864.  Up until the war it had been a boomtown in cotton country, which accounts for its sense of grace, order, and prosperity.

It is impossible to account for Faulkner.  Born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897, he began school at eight in Oxford and left high school to work odd jobs (in one stint as bookkeeper at his grandfather’s bank).  During World War I he joined Canada’s Royal Flying Corps, then returned to study briefly at Ole Miss.  His writing, with its idiosyncratic punctuation, was blessed by being entirely self-taught and unformed by academic staleness.

A succession of jobs followed, until Sherwood Anderson, in New Orleans, promised to help get Faulkner’s first novel published if the young man would promise not to make him read it.  Back in Oxford, Faulkner kept at the odd jobs:  he was a house painter, the university’s post-master, deckhand on a shrimp trawler, boiler fireman and, for most of his life, a farmer.  By the time he was forty, he had written Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936).

From the 1930s to mid-1950s he visited Hollywood annually, writing such screenplays as To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and hurrying back to Oxford as soon as he’d made enough to keep the farm running.  It is often forgotten that he wrote the script, for example, of Land of the Pharaohs  (with Joan Collins, 1955) five years after he won the Nobel Prize.  Hollywood worsened Faulkner’s depressive moods and bouts of heavy drinking; the heart attack that killed him in 1962 came at a Mississippi sanatorium where he’d gone to dry out.

Oxford’s mayor, John Leslie, knew Faulkner from the 1940s.  Since politicians, especially local ones, are usually shrewd judges of character, even from afar, I asked what sort of fellow Faulkner had seemed.

“He was often in a kind of daze,” said Leslie.  “His post-office box was near mine, so we’d run into each other when the mail came.  I kept to a rule that if he spoke first I’d talk to him.  Sometimes he’d walk past without noticing.  You could generally see there was something going on in his mind.  He wasn’t a large man; he was very graceful the way a moderate or slightly small man can be.

“I don’t know how many times I saw him in the square, leaning back against a building, propped up on one leg, just listening to people’s conversation.  He could spend hours that way.  In those days you saw horses and wagons filling the square.  He liked particularly to listen to—or talk with—blacks.  He was fascinated by their conversation; he had a look when you could tell he was following several conversations at once.  I never saw him taking notes, though.  I guess he remembered all he needed.”

“How did you meet him?”  I asked.

“It really was through my brother,” Leslie explained.  “This would’ve been in the 1940s.  At that time Intruder in the Dust had just been published.  My brother, who studied at Duke—the first American university where you read Faulkner’s books—knew his work and admired it greatly.  That was during a lull in his reputation, so my brother was a bit of a rarity.  I thought I’d try to get Faulkner to autograph a copy of Intruder so I could give it as a present.  I was a student here at Ole Miss at the time.

“Sure enough, there was Faulkner leaning up against the department store, one foot on the wall.  (To be truthful, sometimes I wasn’t too sure it was Bill and not his brother, who looked an awful lot like him.)  But I went up to him with my copy of the book and I explained what I wanted.  Faulkner looked me over and said, ‘Well, I’ve got an agreement with the publisher that I sign a number of books for him and that’s all.’  I guess he thought the value of his signed books would go up if he didn’t sign too many.  Or maybe he couldn’t be bothered.

“Anyway, I thanked him and turned away, a little disappointed, and he gave a little laugh and said, ‘Come on, of course I’ll sign that book for you.’  And he did, and put the date right there, in his tiny hen-scratch handwriting.

“He was a funny man.  I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but Mississippians are among the craziest people you can find anywhere.  They’ll shoot at anything that moves.  Faulkner had trouble with people in his woods—he had more than thirty acres there.  Full of squirrels and people trying to shoot them.  One of the funniest things that Bill ever wrote was that notice in the Oxford Eagle.”

This was the paid advertisement, published October 15, 1959, which reads:


       The posted woods on my property inside the city limits of Oxford contain
       several tame squirrels.  Any hunter who feels himself too lacking in woodcraft
       and marksmanship to approach a dangerous wild squirrel might feel safe with
       these.  These woods are a part of the pasture used by my horses and milk cow; also,
       the late arrival will find them already full of other hunters.  He is kindly
       requested not to shoot either of these.  
                                                              William Faulkner

“Another time,” Leslie went on, “there was all sorts of trouble with a minister in Memphis who was trying to keep people from drinking beer and seeing films like The Outlaw, which had Jane Russell in it.  This kind of thing—censorship of any kind, I suppose—made Faulkner hopping mad.  He had a whole hilarious pamphlet printed up defending the right to drink beer.  And in the novels Sanctuary and The Reivers, his last book, he gave the minister’s name to the head of a Memphis bordello.  So Faulkner had the last laugh.

“I think Faulkner had real money problems nearly all the time.  Once he had a bill at a local store and he sent the owner a handwritten letter that said essentially, ‘One day this piece of paper will be worth much more than I owe you.’  He had to take out an ad in the Eagle saying he wasn’t responsible for charges incurred at local stores by his wife.  I believe he had as many as nineteen people living off him at one time or another, and he had to go out to Hollywood periodically and write films to pay his debts.”

My next stop, just off the square, was the former office of Phil Stone, the lawyer who had befriended Faulkner, lending him books and encouraging his writing.  Most of Faulkner’s first half-dozen books were typed and retyped by Stone’s secretary until they filled half a filing cabinet.  (The Snopes trilogy is dedicated to Stone.)

I was welcomed into the modest shaded brick building by Tom Freeland, a young lawyer who was a fund of stories about Faulkner and Stone and the people who come in search of a writer’s mystique.  “Shoney’s, the burger place out on the highway, produces these stories all the time.  I had a lady from New York come  in the other day to look at Phil Stone’s office, and she said her waitress had never met Faulkner.  She said, 'A writer?  Does he live around here?'  So he’s not as famous as all that, maybe.”

He also told me about a visit from Gabriel García Márquez, who'd gone unrecognized.

At the Ole Miss library, I wandered through an exhibit of Faulkneriania—first and foreign editions of his books, many awards, including the Nobel Prize—enough to make you conclude that Faulkner’s time of relative obscurity in this country wasn’t, as obscurity goes, all that considerable: even if most of his work wasn’t in print here at this low ebb; around World War II, his books were still being published.  But America is hard on its originals, and one looks at the size of the achievement and wonders:  How many more books if he hadn’t had to go to Hollywood?

On the way out to Rowan Oak, the Faulkner home (a ten-minute walk along South Lamar Boulevard from the square), I slipped in a detour to the enormous house on Buchanan Avenue at 13th Street that was the model for the Compson place in The Sound and the Fury.  Understandably,  it gives an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, for no writer bettered Faulkner at conveying a sense of place, once he’d realized that his “little postage stamp of native soil” was worth writing about.

On Old Taylor Road I walked down a path to the great house, aloof at the end of a colonnade of cedar trees, magisterial with its white columns and classic antebellum grace.  When Faulkner bought the house it was in great disrepair; he added brick galleries and a stable.  Inside, Rowan Oak has a comfortable pipe-smoke feel to it, like the home of a country doctor with an interest in riding and reading.  The rooms have fireplaces, and there is a modest library, which contains mostly Great Books, Cervantes and Shakespeare and such.

The downstairs office, which Faulkner built in 1950, remains as it was:  the old Underwood portable typewriter sitting in its case on a small table by the room’s only window, which looks out on a stable and back lawn and woods—a good empty view for a writer.  On one side of the typewriter a lamp, on the other an ashtray.  Here is a day bed, a  half-filled bookcase, and pencilled carefully across the walls, day by day, the plan for A Fable (1956 Pulitzer Prize).

With characteristic independence, he approached each novel as if it were a technical problem no one had ever solved before, and found experimental solutions on which two later generations of writers have fed.  No one can read his books without feeling that the mansion of the novel form is having its wall pushed outward and several extravagant wings added by a master carpenter, while a number of resisting old doors are being firmly kicked in.

He wrote unsentimentally about blacks, and time has made his achievement in this regard even greater.  Faulkner was among the very first to use blacks as characters rather than caricatures.  Though Faulkner’s experimentalism is always cited as the reason he was more popular abroad than at home, the reason might be more a social than a literary judgment.

Most delightful of all is his humor—to which no essay can ever do justice—in “Spotted Horses,” say, or The Reivers.  His best books tend to be the most widely read, which is all any writer can hope from posterity.  They are so persuasive that they constitute a serious problem for the novelist who wishes to write about the South—an act that no one wants to follow.  As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

Whatever occasional reservations one may have about Faulkner’s writing, his books are difficult to forget, and they have a grip, an imaginative pressure in the mind, that only the greatest writers achieve.  And—such is the force of Faulkner’s personality—in his books the rough spots can come to seem less like faults than like the mark of a lovingly handmade thing.  In an age of minimalist dandies whose sentences regard themselves endlessly in a succession of mirrors, Faulkner’s writing, even at its moments of metaphysical groping, carries enormous force and sober poetry.  Like the country that produced him, it is always vivid, eccentric and full of beautiful contrarieties.  Like Faulkner, it goes quite contentedly its own way.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Happy Birthday, 007: James Bond at Forty

Written for Forbes-FYI in 1993.

Forty years have passed since Ian Fleming’s James Bond first put on evening dress and strode into the casino of our collective imagination.  In 1953 a lucky British public first glimpsed 007 standing alone by a roulette wheel (where else?) amid the elegant baroque of the casino at Royale-Les-Eaux, observing the enemy:

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.  James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired.  He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge…”

From the opening pages of Casino Royale, 007 had it all: the sophistication we envied, the danger we dreamed of, the girls we desired, the life we wanted.  The fingerprints of Fleming’s style—an apparent worldliness, a precise sense of physical sensation, the urgency of the man alone—were already there.  By the time Fleming died in 1964, he’d created in fourteen books a mythological hero, one of the greats of the century, for Bond is part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones.  And though the Bond films will probably go on forever and a series of book sequels has already gone on too long, we should celebrate his anniversary by looking fondly back at the original: the British secret agent licensed not only to kill but virtually print money.  How, after all this time and nearly a hundred million copies sold, do Ian Fleming’s novels measure up?  Can an outdated book-Bond ever hope to withstand an up-to-date film-Bond?

There is an enormous difference, of course.  The films, which started as faithful adaptations of the books, became excursions into literally outer space.  (Over half the earth’s population has seen at least one Bond movie, for those who are keeping track.)  Film-Bond turned into a secret agent version of Superman, wearing a tux instead of a cape and destroying his enemies with quips and gadgetry.  Sean Connery’s finesse aside, book-Bond—the archetype—remains a more complex character, and his exploits human and attainable.

What stuns the most, going back to the Fleming canon, is the books’ hypnotic power—a sheer drive and compelling readability that overcome the dull patches, Bond’s total lack of humor, and many implausibilities.  (M. always seems to send our man into the teeth of an enemy who know every detail of his movements.)  This headlong tension may partly be the result of the novels always being written quickly; they often seem less planned than vividly dreamt.

Eric Ambler, arguably the finest thriller writer of all, told me a couple of years ago that he thought the Bond books “definitely deserve to be read as literature.”  Anthony Burgess went further: he called Goldfinger one of the 99 best novels in English since 1939, describing Bond as a “patriotic lecher with a tinge of Scottish puritanism in him, a gourmand and amateur of vodka martinis, a smoker of strong tobacco who does not lose his wind…against…megalomaniacs.”

Who, then, is James Bond?  A civil servant, probably born 1924; entered the employ of the Ministry of Defence at age seventeen, went to work for the Secret Service (M.I. 6) after the war.  He performs his duties, according to M., “with outstanding bravery and distinction” though “with a streak of foolhardy.”  He likes his eggs boiled for precisely three and a third minutes, and definitely smokes too much, a blend of Balkan and Turkish tobaccos custom-made for him; each cigarette bears three gold bands.  (At three packs a day, they must crowd his suitcase on long assignments.)  He stands a little over six feet, weighs about 167 pounds; he lives in a comfortable flat in a square off the King’s Road in Chelsea, London, on an income (mid-Fifties) of about $4,200 a year.  He has few friends.  Several women notice a resemblance to Hoagy Carmichael, though it’s hard to see this in “the dark, rather cruel good looks” or “the thin vertical scar down his right cheek” or the “coldness and hint of anger in his grey-blue eyes.”

He is, however, emphatically not a spy: his job never involves stealing state secrets, blueprints for weapons, plans of invasion, etc.   (The closest he comes to traditional espionage is receiving a stolen Russian cipher machine.)  He is a secret agent, a loaded gun sent out to enact the will of his government without being caught.  His ancestors are neither the actual Sigmund Rosemblum (“Reilly, Ace of Spies”) or John Buchan’s fictional Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps), but Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden.

Despite some tentative passages—Fleming grew considerably as a writer in the first few books—Casino Royale still stands up as one of the best 007 novels.  Bond has been sent to the slightly faded French casino by M. to win a 50 million franc game of baccarat against Le Chiffre, paymaster of Smersh, the Soviet organization for counterespionage abroad (Fleming’s version of one sector of the KGB).  The prose is uneven but always vividly detailed; scene after scene are imprinted on the memory: Le Chiffre’s “obscene” benzedrine inhaler and the carpet-beater which he used to torture Bond genitally.  The precise gestures of the card-games—no one has ever bettered Fleming at conveying the mano-a-mano drama of “polite” competitions like golf, bridge, vingt-et-un.  The two Bulgar assassins blown up by a camera bomb (based on a real event from the war.)  And cool, dark-haired Vesper Lynd, first of the Bond heroines, “with a touch of ironical disinterest which, to his annoyance, he found he would like to shatter roughly.”

The book, published by Jonathan Cape with a first printing of 4,750, was generally applauded by the British critics and sold well enough for a second printing.  The Listener hailed it as “supersonic John Buchan,” the Sunday Times called it “an extremely engaging affair” and said Fleming could become the best new English thriller writer since Ambler if he could make his work more probable.  The Spectator found it “lively, most ingenious in detail…except for a too ingeniously sadistic bout of brutality…”  A year later, when the novel came out in the USA, it fared worse, and sales were poor.  Anthony Boucher, who never cared much for Bond, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Fleming “pads the book out to novel length, leading to an ending which surprises no one but Bond himself.”  He did, however, admire the gambling scenes. 

Thereafter a new Bond book appeared each spring—at the tail-end of the British Empire and the beginning of the British welfare state.  Bond would prove a welcome antidote to both conditions.  An independent, powerful Everyman who often sweats at the idea of his plane crashing, he is tied down to neither one setting, nor one woman, though he remains selflessly loyal to his country and gallant toward the heroine of each book.  (The film formula of three lovelies per adventure, with one discarded or dead, one definitely dead, and one prize in his arms at the end, does not occur in the novels.  Likewise, the gadgetry:  the only sophisticated toys in the books are a few minor modifications to Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger, and Nash’s lethal copy of Tolstoy in From Russia, With Love.) 

The world of the books, then, is not that of John Le Carré, who crested the sixties’ 007 wave with his complex heightened realism, nor of Ambler’s cold, neutral political savvy.  We are far from Philby’s treason or Graham Greene’s drab truths, and much closer to a romantic era of the Scarlet Pimpernel and even Gilbert & Sullivan.  Bond is, no doubt, our last hero burdened with the weighty myth of empire.

Fleming himself, well after success arrived in spades, defended his creation thus: “Bond is not a hero, nor is he depicted as being very likeable or admirable…He’s not a bad man, but he is ruthless and self-indulgent.  He enjoys the fight—he also enjoys the prizes.  In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins.  Nowadays they have pond water.  My books are just out of step.  But then so are all the people who read them…intelligent, uninhibited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes and beds….”

As the poet Phillip Larkin points out, what strikes one first about the novels today is “their unambiguous archaic decency.  So far from being orgies of sex and sadism, as some outraged academics protested at the time, the books are nostalgic excursions…England is always right, foreigners are always wrong…Girls are treated with kindness and consideration, lust coming a decorous third.  Life’s virtues are courage and loyalty, and its good things a traditional aristocracy of powerful cars, vintage wines, exclusive clubs, the old Times, the old five-pound note, the old Player’s packet.” 

Indeed, the only double agent I can find is Vesper Lynd, who obliges the secret service and Bond by committing suicide.  (“The bitch is dead now.”)  Villains are always foreign: Russians, Bulgars, Germans, Koreans, Mexicans, Corsicans, Chinese, Yugoslavs.  And they are always memorable: Doctor No with his metal hands and a heart on the wrong side of his body, Auric Goldfinger with his flaming red hair and mania for gold, Blofeld with his clinical love of death in all its forms, Sir Hugo Drax with his courtly manners and his cheating at cards.  Sometimes, of course, these foreign villains try to pass themselves off as British.  They always fail.

When Ian Lancaster Fleming (1908-1964) built a simple house called Goldeneye above a private cove near the tiny banana port of Oracabessa on Jamaica’s north coast, he was hardly a writer.  After a respectable war career in Naval Intelligence (his duties resembled M.’s rather than 007’s), he settled down to the London world of journalism, with the proviso that he be given two months' leave each winter.  He would spend every winter at Goldeneye from 1946 until his death.  “Would these books have been born if I had not been living in the gorgeous vacuum of a Jamaican holiday?  I doubt it.”  It was on his seventh sojourn that Fleming conjured his secret agent, the man of action who was really a vicarious dream-self.

Of Scot ancestry (like Bond) Fleming had been a top athlete on the playing fields of Eton (like Bond) but never graduated (ditto).  Without his father around—killed in WWI—and outshone by his elder brother Peter (the explorer who wrote one of the great travel books of the thirties, Brazilian Adventure), Ian already had a reputation for women and cars by the time he dismissed himself from Sandhurst, England’s West Point, after only one term.  Like many writers in the process of forming, there was a good deal of the actor in him.  In the Austrian Tyrol, then Geneva and Munich, he skied and played at being a young intellectual on the way to a career in the Foreign Office—but failed the exam.  He saw Moscow as a young Reuters correspondent.  By 1933 he was back in London at one of the better brokerage houses.  There he stayed until the war.

Despite claims Fleming made after the Bond wave hit, his war career in Naval Intelligence, as assistant to Admiral Godfrey, was mainly administrative.  (Fleming apparently came to believe—or at least convinced a few very close friends—that he’d actually had to kill an enemy agent on a secret mission, either by sandbagging him, or with a concealed revolver, or a mysterious black hat, or by drowning.  This acting went too far to be mere play; he had authorial photos taken posing with a gun like Bond’s while vaguely claiming the books were based on his own experiences—“my autobiography” he half-joked.)  A colleague recalled him in the war years as a “young fashionable man about town…fastidious about dress, which the old salts of the Admiralty viewed with scorn.”  After the war he landed a plum job, as Foreign Manager for The Sunday Times

That same fastidiousness flavors the novels; part of their early success was due to their cultivated veneer of sophisticated knowledge.  This was Fleming the journalist at work, going to expert sources for his information, for as many friends pointed out, it was hard to think of a single subject on which he was truly expert.

All this time he was known for his philandering ways: he was far less protective towards women than Bond.  His brother’s success and his own past as something of a black sheep still followed him.  If he could not quite be a successful man of action, he could invent one.  As John Pearson puts it in his perceptive biography of Fleming, “when [Bond] looks at himself in the mirror…we see just how closely Fleming identifies himself…James Bond is simply Ian Fleming daydreaming in the third person.”  Pearson makes the point firmly: Bond is essentially “this odd man’s weird obsession with himself.”

When Fleming finally fell it was for another man’s wife, Lady Anne Rothermere.  Soon Fleming was nicknamed “Lady Rothermere’s fan” in Fleet Street circles; her husband was a newspaper magnate.  And in late January 1952, with ten weeks of Jamaican sunshine before marriage at the end of his bachelorhood, he sat down in front of a battered Royal portable and brought James Bond to life.  Can it be mere coincidence that, just as Bond dreams of asking the book’s heroine, Vesper, to marry him, she frees him by committing suicide?  For that matter, the novels’ villains (usually physically repugnant, as if seen through a child’s eyes) often treat Bond in a fatherly way—and Fleming, as a boy, called his authoritative mother “M.”

Casino Royale, utterly unplanned, took Fleming barely two months.  At forty-three he had written fictionally not so much as a short story.  The hero’s name was appropriated from “one of my Jamaican bibles, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, an ornithological classic,” he once wrote.  “I wanted the simples, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find.  James Bond seemed perfect.”

Despite strong British reviews, the first few novels sold only moderately well in England and struggled in the States.  But following the 1956 Suez Crisis, the visit of soon-to-be Prime Minister Anthony Eden to Goldeneye for a rest brought a flurry of attention to Fleming and Bond in the U.K., and the snowball began rolling.  A similar exposure occurred when President Kennedy named From Russia, With Love as one his ten favorite books in 1961.

In our violent times it’s difficult to see how the books could have shocked: they pall beside the vindictive sadism of, say, Mickey Spillane, and Bond takes his fair share of the suffering.  A list of 007’s injuries includes nerve poisoning, having his genitals mangled, his hand carved up, his little finger broken, a shoulder gnawed by a barracuda, and his spine rubberized by a traction machine, plus assorted knife wounds, burns, and the odd bullet.  Unlike today’s screen heros, when Bond gets hurt he goes to hospital.

In the course of the novels he is hurt so repeatedly it’s a wonder he can manage to please women at all, much less those as demanding as Pussy Galore, Solitaire Latrelle, Tiffany Case, Honeychile Rider, and Tatiana Romanova.  The books’ heroines are always integral to the plot, not a mere adjunct; several times they save Bond’s life.  Though beautiful, they usually have a qualifying flaw: a broken nose, a limp, a difficult past, which arouses Bond’s sympathy alongside his lust.  (His behavior is invariably gallant and gentlemanly.)  They are of a type: usually a “bird with one wing down,” often semi-naked on first encounter, outdoor girls or elegant dressers, independent-minded yet needful of Bond’s protection, and aware he is not a man they can hold.  He is almost always either the first real man in their lives or, unfortunately for them, the last. 

After the first seven books Fleming began to “run out of puff.”  This was part ennui and part ill health; Bond’s smoking and drinking justified his creator’s excessive habits.  But it was no coincidence that the books’ decline in energy followed the first Bond films.  Fleming had dreamed of best-sellerdom; in real life, fame exhausted and rankled.  In interviews and letters he referred to Bond as his “cardboard dummy” or “a blunt instrument” and his books as “piffle.”

Fleming had long had his eye on the big film money, and for years offers came and went; Casino Royale was initially filmed as an hour-long American TV program.  In 1961 Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli formed Eon Productions and acquired options on all but two of the books for a guaranteed minimum payment of $100,000 per film plus 5% of the producer’s profits.  It was, for them, a steal.

Shortly before Fleming’s death, film-Bond began to replace book-Bond, in the powerful image of Sean Connery, as 007 became Britain’s most successful sixties export alongside the Beatles and the miniskirt.  (Fleming saw only the first two, Dr. No and From Russia, With Love.)  It is difficult to exaggerate the phenomenon of these movies, the most popular film series ever, and not just as financial blockbusters.  In every man born after 1930, there surely still exists a part of his psyche which dreams of being James Bond.

Fleming died of a second heart attack in August, 1964, just before the release of Goldfinger, when the Bond boom exploded and paperback sales began to multiply many times over.  For years he’d scrupulously neglected doctors’ advice to cut down on alcohol and tobacco; his words to the ambulance attendants were:  “I’m awfully sorry to trouble you chaps.”  (Fleming had also been weakened and embittered by continuing litigation over Thunderball, whose plot resembled a joint concoction with a film producer from years earlier.)  It was estimated at his death that he had earned close to three million dollars off the books.  The sale earlier that year of a controlling interest in his private company, Glidrose Productions, for a tenth that figure meant that his heirs would miss much of the really big money over the next three decades.

Fleming didn’t live to see 007 toiletries, bubble-gum cards, lunchboxes, board games, action dolls, spy kits, decoder rings, and a cartoon series for children.  What he achieved temporarily within the thriller genre was to kill off (Bond’s greatest victim) the knowing detective as popular hero.  Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey were now replaced by 007, the amateur sleuth by the professional secret agent, as the new magic formula was copied endlessly.

The Fleming Empire at first tried to satisfy readers’ lust for more Bond.  By far the most successful Bond sequel appeared in 1968, four years after Fleming’s demise.  Colonel Sun by “Robert Markham” was really written by Kingsley Amis, a fan whose James Bond Dossier (1965) remains the liveliest barnacle on the Fleming reef.

Despite a certain success, no other Bond appeared until 1981, when (with Glidrose Productions behind him) the British mystery novelist John Gardner took up the mantle with License Renewed.  This effort has been followed, at last count, by eleven others, which threaten to equal the Flemings with library shelf-space; sure-fire bestsellers, they demonstrate a reading public’s hunger for Bond—or at least the familiar.  One doesn’t have to read far in bloodless Gardner to miss the original.  His Bond really is a cardboard dummy, and his books owe more to the late films, verging on self-parody, than to Fleming.  Though Fleming’s confessed concern from the start was to make money, his books never read that way; Gardner’s do.

Often today the popular myth of a writer’s life comes to overshadow his work.  But Bond has almost totally erased Fleming: it is thanks to the films, rather than the books, that the 007 saga provides a worldwide image of the man of action.  (Perhaps after a suitable time has passed, the films will have aged like Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes series, and as with Holmes, we may live to see them nostalgically re-filmed for new generations.)  Still, all the books remain in print in many languages, and 007 is now virtually in the public domain; in a Bulgarian bestseller of a decade ago, an east-bloc bludgeon bests Bond.

What, in the end, makes the 007 of the books more compelling than his screen double?  Can it be simply that he is more like us, even while up against overwhelming odds—that like Sherlock Holmes, despite his many victories, he always carries with him the possibility of failure?  Let the last word belong to the man himself:

“Bond had always been a gambler…he liked it that everything was one’s own fault.  There was only oneself to praise or blame.  Luck was a servant and not a master.  Luck had to be accepted with a shrug or taken advantage of up to the hilt.  But it had to be understood and recognized for what it was and not confused with a faulty appreciation of the odds, for, at gambling, the deadly sin is to mistake bad play for bad luck.  And luck in all its moods had to be loved and not feared.”


Casino Royale (1953).  Baccarat superb; ditto tragic heroine (Vesper Lynd); most violent tortures.  The perfect martini, 007-style.  Le Chiffre the first of Fleming’s outsize father-figure villains.

Live and Let Die (1954).  Bad Harlem, good Jamaican voodoo atmosphere.  Strong, sultry clairvoyante Solitaire; Felix Leiter (CIA) as shark bait.  “Negro genius” Mr. Big.  Pirate treasure.  Uneven.

Moonraker (1955).  Only all-England setting.  Fine villain in Hugo Drax, outplayed by Bond at bridge in Blades, M.’s exclusive club; otherwise dull.  Gala Brand defends her feminine honor to the end.

Diamonds Are Forever (1956).  Hot rock smuggling, from Africa to Las Vegas.  Settings and villains (mobsters) too diffuse, though gem lore shines.  A lovely Tiffany Case loses her virginity to 007.

From Russia, With Love (1957).  Radical, persuasive structure; severe Moscow and aromatic Istanbul; well thought-out plot earned admiration of Raymond Chandler.  Perhaps finest Bond.  Who can forget Tatiana Romanova on the Orient Express, Red Grant’s deadly book, Rosa Klebb’s poisoned knitting needles, the gypsy fight, a loyal Kerim?

Doctor No (1958) Evocative Caribbean settings, Jamaica and Crab Key.  Extremist villain (half Chinese, great aquarium) and delectable shell-collector Honeychile Rider.  Most inventive torture (obstacle course ending in giant squid); intense, measured pace nearly equals its illustrious predecessor.  Oddly lyrical and touching.

Goldfinger (1959).  A crock equal to Drax; attention to detail makes plot (knock off Fort Knox) go down.  Great canasta and golf games.  Two blonde Masterton sisters perished by Odd job, the strong silent type, but Pussy Galore survives.  Settings a snooze, though.

For Your Eyes Only (1960).  Five uneven stories.  Relieves the novels’ standard pattern; aptly divides the Bond canon.  Paris, Vermont, Bermuda, Venice, the Indian Ocean.  For fans’ eyes only.

Thunderball (1961).  007 at a health spa?  Fleming’s fatigue shows, but technique masterly and steady.  Nassau beautifully rendered, Domino’s poisoned foot well worth sucking.  SPECTRE the new bad guys.  Underwater scenes more vivid and persuasive than ever.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962).  Short, told convincingly from female viewpoint (Vivienne Michel).  Bond to the rescue against Spillane-esque hoods in the Adirondacks.  Guns and knives.  Only fair.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963).  SPECTRE’s Blofeld plots to infect British livestock; 007 infiltrates Alpine Hideout posing as genealogist.  Saves Italian countess Tracy from herself, only to doom her to death as Mrs. James Bond.  Now he’s really bitter.

You Only Live Twice (1964).  Most fantastic elements: Bond in Japan braves a garden of death run by Blofeld, slays him, escapes in a balloon.  Kissy Suzuki dives naked for pearls and has to resort to aphrodisiacs to restore 007.  Henderson, Bond’s guide to the Orient, based on Fleming’s old friend, legendary Aussie journalist Richard Hughes, also used by John le Carré in The Honorable Schoolboy.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1965).  Left unrevised at Fleming’s death.  London and Jamaica; a Soviet-brainwashed 007 tries to murder M.  Rehabilitated, he is sent after Scaramanga, fastest gun in the world.  Even Felix Leiter can’t salvage it as a weak end to series.

Octopussy (1966).  Posthumous; two novellas; paperback contains a third story.  Jamaica, Berlin, London.  A last attempt to mine the Fleming mother lode.  Finished work, at least, rather Maughamesque.

Dates given above are for British editions.  U.S. editions may be a year later or nearly identical.

Staunch fans will want to try Kingsley Amis’ Colonel Sun (1968), publishing pseudonymously as “Robert Markham”).  Also Amis’ The James Bond Dossier.  Best all-round appreciation is Raymond Benson’s The James Bond Bedside Companion (1984).

Among first-edition biffs, Ian Fleming remains the most collected 20th century author.  British first editions of the 007 books runs from, say $25 for the last to $1200 for the early ones.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Van Gogh

Written for Travel & Leisure in early 1986.

One January morning in Amsterdam, when an uncustomary snowstorm was adding a layer of meringue to the gingerbread-and-chocolate canal town, I went up a few wide steps before a glass-and-concrete building with a tall Christmas tree still standing in the lobby.  I shook snow from my jacket, handed it over, and walked into a glorious summer: golden cornfields vibrant with the fullness of the harvest, Mediterranean-blue seasides with boats lazed and cafés busy at dusk, trees exploding into blossom, bare luminous midnights, the eager faces of sunflowers and a turbulent sky raining daggers of color on a garden for young lovers.  I walked into a season finer, more lasting than my own, and put myself in Vincent’s hands.

Van Gogh is one of those rare artists now seemingly beyond reproach, presumably beyond fashion, almost beyond consideration or opinion.  He simply is, like Bach or Shakespeare, and he is so much a part of our culture—who comes more quickly to mind as a painter?—that it is a shock to see as many of his paintings as the Dutch National Museum Van Gogh has, there in one place, in the flesh. At the museum, on four floors, you have a comprehensive selection from 200 paintings and three times that many drawings and prints, the largest and most representative collection anywhere.  This is one of the easiest museums in the world:  you simply give in and let Van Gogh do it all.

What is difficult with Van Gogh is to consider him apart from the legend that surrounds and obscures him.  Van Gogh is the cliché of the painter’s life just as Bix Beiderbecke is of the jazz musician’s, and he is usually treated as a freak, though his instability had little to do with his painting.  One needs a comprehensive museum to see the constant impulse, the compelling unbroken themes in his work that lie with great calm beneath the bouts of mania.

He was always paradoxical.  He got started painting fairly late, he died at 37, and he produced a huge body of work in a short time.  Yet most of the paintings that we think of as supremely “his” came out of only the last two or three  years.  He took his cue from painters who were his inferior, like Millet, and learned (like many painters of his day) a great deal from copying—except Van Gogh copied from postcards.

Nor does he fit a convenient niche.  Is he Post-Impressionist? Expressionist?  One imagines him somewhere off to the side in Heaven. His paintings never flatter.  He found the celestial in the menial: though he wasn’t (as is sometimes written) the first to paint people at work, he was the first to paint “working people.”  He painted the night like no one else before or since, and in color he is thought of as something of a fabulist.  Yet at times he is eerily accurate, as any painter will tell you:  for example, if he paints a light bulb, he will paint with precision the halo around it.

A series of plaques at the museum entrance, basking in snowy light from the great windows, gave me glimpses of Van Gogh’s life. Born March 30, 1853, in southern Holland, a minister’s son.  Educated at boarding and secondary schools; by 1869 a clerk at Goupil, art dealers in the Hague. (As an art dealer Van Gogh was as unsuccessful at selling other people’s paintings as he was to be at selling his own.)  1873-5, at Goupil’s London offices; in 1876 to their Paris branch—a premonition, since it was in France that his painter’s destiny lay. But he was dismissed by April. All these years Van Gogh was worrying his family.  Already the manic depressive mood swings, the troubled withdrawals into himself were evident.  He began the voluminous, almost daily correspondence with his brother Theo, that would last until his death.  Vincent had shown little real interest in learning the art dealer’s profession; he did show deep religious leanings, but of a highly personal sort.  In England he became a teacher and assistant preacher.  He took the Gospel at its word and gave away what he had to the poor, living by choice as they did out of necessity. It would prove good training.

For the next three years he worked at a bookstore in Holland (the owner remembered him as being immensely strong, unsociable, always doing silly little drawings or translating the Bible into French, German, and English) and trained in Belgium as a minister. And then, in 1869, at the age of 26, having moved to southern Belgium to preach, he decided to become a painter.

I got quickly drawn away from biography by paintings on the walls. These were from his “early” years, meaning all but the last three.  On the ground floor you see what he was doing at 30—his brooding, his copying, his casting about for the right subject and tone.  Even five years before the end he had not found the right stylistic path for himself, had not yet created his own language; he was still borrowing the tongues of others. No wonder so many of his later canvases will show an allegorical path through fields.

Most of these early paintings are somber, innocent of human experience, restrained in feeling, completely unliberated and imprisoned not by lack of technique but by delberate artifice—where is the Van Gogh we expect?  Not to be found here; Vincent the late starter, then, bringing it all home just before the end.

Looked at from a distance you would never guess these paintings were by Van Gogh.  They are all brown and black, faces melancholy in shadows, mostly ill-lit still lifes and a moody house on a rise or in trees. Most are just plain dull. (Interesting, though, to see Van Gogh without his colors.)  Occasionally he finds his stride—a view over Paris in pale light, that makes you want to cheer—but usually he misses.

To put Vincent’s work in some kind of perspective, I decided to head up to the fourth floor, which holds some of his later paintings along with many by his contemporaries.  The museum’s airy open center holds an exposed staircase, and walking up you see the ingenuity of the design—as much rest area, with black curling metal sofas (suggesting Mondrian) as viewing area.  Because it was winter and morning there was nearly no one else in the museum, only a couple of blond boys with earrings who might’ve been art dealers.

The Van Gogh museum is rare in several ways.  To start with, there are no guided tours allowed.  And you are permitted quite close to the paintings—indeed, they look almost impregnable:  Van Gogh used so much paint that some of his canvases have a literal three-dimensional aspect. But the museum is so spacious and uncluttered that you can also see what the paintings look like from, say, fifty yards away.  This is not only relaxing, it is quite revealing, and because the rooms are not vast cathedrally caverns, but low-ceilinged and open, with masked fluorescent lights, you feel the real source of light and all color in the place is Vincent himself.

It is amazing, too, how effective Van Gogh is even at a distance.  In some ways you can even see the paintings better.  The whirlpool of sunflowers doesn’t drown you, for instance, and the boats pulled up on the beach look as if they are really there—and it makes you appreciate anew one of the greatest color-senses of all time, so much raw horsepower in that one brush.

On the top floor were several Caribbean and Polynesian scenes of Gaughin, plenty of Bernard, and several by an Italian named Monticelli who slathered it on like house-paint. How unkind it is simply to live in the present!  For the world has plumped for Van Gogh, not the lesser others, and apart from Gaughin they look dismal and (unfairly, perhaps) drab and workmanlike.

One painting was particularly fascinating, though:  the portrait of  Vincent by John Russell (1858-1931). Russell, an Australian, was at heart a realist, and the portrait shows Vincent as he probably was:  glancing over his shoulder at the world with the same baleful, suspicious eye as in his own self-portraits, paintbrush held delicately in one hand like a scalpel.  At this time (1883) Vincent was to write in a letter to Theo, who supported him:

“One wants to be an honest man, one is so, one works as hard as a slave, but still one cannot make both ends meet; one must give up the work, there is no chance of carrying it out without spending more on it than one gets back for it, one gets a feeling of guilt, of shortcoming, of not keeping one’s promises, one is not honest as one would be if the work were paid for at its natural reasonable price.  One is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving, like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people:  Don’t come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss; with all that great load of care on one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, live one’s ordinary life, get along with the models, with the man who comes for the rent, with everybody in fact. With a cool head, one must keep one hand on the rudder to continue the work, and with the other hand try to do no harm to others.  And then storms arise, things one had not foreseen, one doesn’t know what to do, and one has a feeling that one may strike a rock at any moment….”

There was also a Toulouse-Lautrec that looks more like a Van Gogh than some of Van Gogh’s do, showing a confident, slightly severe young woman seated at a table with her arms folded. Bernard, younger than Vincent, is almost uniformly dull, respectably of his time and no more.  In life he was encouraged by Vincent, as was Gaughin (who shared Vincent’s quarters in Brittany before the cutting-off of the ear).  It is a measure of Van Gogh’s soundness and control as an artist that, a year before his death, he could write to Theo, “I have written to Bernard and Gaughin too that I considered that to think, not to dream, was our duty, so that I was astonished looking at their work that they had let themselves go so far.”

This is what is so rarely talked of in Van Gogh’s work:  his solidity, his structure.  Stand ten yards away from a painting by one of his contemporaries and it seems to vacillate on the wall; Van Gogh’s are like Gibraltar. The portraits spin a face at you from a whorl of centrifugal color, the landscapes all have a solid center, and some (like his house at Arles or his bedroom or the boats on the beach) are so strong that the museum seems to have been constructed around them.  You notice this especially when you see one of Van Gogh’s copies (usually of Millet farm scenes—there’s a whole wall of them) and sense Vincent slightly uncomfortable in someone ele’s format.

I went downstairs to the third floor, where Van Gogh’s sketches, which demonstrate how carefully his paintings were planned, are usually on display.  But there was a special Munch show being hung, so I headed down to the second floor, one wall of which, for initial impact, I will back against any wall of any museum in the world.

What I saw first brought me up short—two huge Japanese paintings, after Hokusai or Hiroshige, but done by Vincent.  I’d known of his being influenced by Japanese painters, and certain beliefs they shared—the essential rightness of nature, their truthfulness in painting its effects, their sense of human life small against a landscape, their deep religious feeling without resorting to icons.  But I’d never seen his attempts at Japonaiserie. One was garish—I mean that unpejoratively, as a geisha is garish—and showed a courtesan.  The other, more effective, showed a bridge in pelting rain, the wood pilings slanting one way, the driving rain another, and blown against a blue sky, two human figures squirming amid the wet. The painting had caught, in a Japanese tone, the exact weight and feel of such a storm—a bridge inconsequential against a world teeming with water.  Beside the Japonaiseries were a self-portrait, staring at world with fishy eye, and a still life of fruit that may have given Cezanne a nudge.

Spoiled by having had the museum virtually to myself, I was startled to find a man (tweedy, professorial) and a woman (redhead, military kit) on either side of me.  Why do women in museums always look available, and men either bored or boring?  I felt surrounded, so I moved on to the main part of the floor, which holds only paintings from Van Gogh’s last years, 1887 - 90.

The banks of fluorescent light abetted by daylight from above, the blue-flecked gray carpet, the dozing guard in the corner, all gave the museum a tidy Dutch unobtrusiveness. This is why so many people come to Amsterdam:  it never says no to anyone, and yet a stranger will ask if  he is disturbing you before he strikes up a conversation.

This guard looked exactly like Goldfinger, and his ease made me think this must be a particularly pleasant museum to be a guard in.  And who, looking at one of those tranquil uniformed men seated on a wooden stool in a corner, watching everyone and no one, half-asleep, has not wondered what it would be like to have that job?  I always imagine it to be like sleepwalking, but I have found museum guards on the whole to be extremely knowledgeable people, with exotic hobbies and a meditative turn of mind. Certainly Van Gogh doesn’t ever grate—this same man would go out of his mind at the Whitney.  I decided to interrogate Goldfinger.

“What’s it like to be surrounded by Van Gogh all day?”

He looked as if no one had ever asked him that question before—at least not that morning.  Like most Dutch he spoke English perfectly.  He made a bubble-blowing expression, and said in a soft accent, “Well, I’ve been here nearly seven years now.  You have to have something to think about. Working here, seeing Van Gogh (he pronounced it Van Hohckh) and his handwriting all the time, I became very interested in graphology.  His letters are beautiful, noble, some of the most wonderful ever written. You can see the man’s whole soul in his handwriting—it varies wildly even in a single line or word.  You see the intuition and the intelligence and how hard he was trying to live with himself, knowing the difficulties.”

I said, “What happens to you after seven years here?”

He made an assessing gesture with one hand, as if talking of someone else.  “What happens when you stay here, even though you move around many times in the day, is you start to think of all the paintings as yours.  In a way, they are.  But they’re yours, too.  Anyway, you feel there’s a certain spot in the room, an area on this or that floor that you prefer, in which you feel more at home.  Maybe the four paintings nearest to you in one corner happen to sum up all the different flows in your life.  And then one day you realize, after many months, that there is one painting which is absolutely yours.  And you can’t say why.  It may not even be the best. But it just is a part of you, in a way that no other painting here is.  I knew an old guard who retired and never told me which painting was his.  He thought it was too great a secret to give away. Myself, I didn’t realize until one day I happened to look up, and there were some Italians talking away, and I thought, ‘Look at those Italians in front of my painting.’”  He gave a little ho-ho-ho laugh.  “I didn’t mind, but there it was.”

“Which painting is it?”  I asked.

“I’ll tell you,” he said.  “The one over there, of the almond blossoms in bloom.  The one with Americans in front of it.  That’s mine.”

I thanked him for his honesty (“Well, I am an honest man, ho-ho-ho.”) and went over to have a look at the snowflake petals splurging on frail fingering branches.  There were two middle-aged couples who looked, in rumpled sweaters, as if they’d flown in that very morning.

One husband, rumbling, shifting his glasses authoritatively, said, “Stand away from this and it’s ten times prettier.  Ten times, Corinne.”

His wife ignored him and moved closer.  He blinked and drifted off with the other husband. When the ladies were alone, Corinne said to her friend, “Did you see what Vincent did?  You can’t see from there, Martha.  Put your nose right up to the canvas.”

Martha said, “Why, he just left a lot of the canvas blank!  And put in creamy splotches for the almond blossoms.  They’re so thick you think he’s covered everything up.  Damn, here comes the guard.”

I caught just a hint of twinkle in Goldfinger’s eye.  “Back off,” he said amiably in Dutch, and indicated a line a foot back from the wall that  the American ladies had overstepped. Their husbands, triumphant again, were now discussing the implications of jet-lag. I moved on to the famous sunflowers, exuberant in a great vase with one of Vincent’s largest signatures across its belly.  In front of it stood two Frenchmen in berets, needlessly playing at trenchcoats—there is a free cloakroom downstairs.  One made that French sound of throaty delight that sounds like a dying fish gasping at air.  I moved on, trying not to let the wall drown me.  “I want to make decorations for the studio,”  Vincent had written his brother. “Nothing but big flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.”

There was a view over Monmartre, one of those stately landscapes in which Vincent gives us a long sweep of hills and fields and sky, a hymn of human and natural life spread easily before our gaze. And a still life of piles of books, that remind one of what a great reader Van Gogh was, what a literary man, in fact: unusual in a painter.  And also a reminder of how often Vincent sought his subject matter in what lay simply close at hand—unlike Gaughin, who sought it a world away.

“As far as I know there isn’t a single academy where one learns to draw and paint a digger, a sower, a woman putting the kettle over a fire or a seamstress…The figures in the pictures of the old master(s) do not work.”  Van Gogh felt close to the people he painted, and he felt this sympathy unnecessary.  All this time, all these years brother Theo, working at a gallery, not a wealthy man, kept supporting him. Vincent, in Arles in 1888, would write to him, “My debt is so great that when I have paid it, which all the time I hope to succeed in doing, the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived.”

Van Gogh wrote Theo sometimes twice a day, and Theo’s replies carried with them, twenty,
fifty, a hundred francs.  Never was art made so cheaply, nor at such a high human cost.  Van Gogh never lived past the level of a labourer, and often, strapped for cash, he would go several days living on coffee until the next hundred francs arrived.  Yet in his letters he never complains about insufficient money; if anything, it is for insufficient affection. Anxious, ablaze, alone, he received little of woman’s love either—though for a time he supported and sketched a prostitute and her child.  For at heart Vincent always remained the preacher, going among the people, trying to find out what their lives could teach him; his pictures, never iconographically religious, still communicate a feeling which is fundamentally religious.

In part this is because of his embracing honesty—“The man who damn well refuses to love what he loves dooms himself.”  Through these apprentice years he was learning to shed his skin, not to hide. After Vincent finds his style, he can communicate so directly because he seems in a painting to be revealing all his feelings about a scene (while concealing the artifice that allows him to portray them.)  He does not approach you delicately, on tiptoe, hoping you will like his work and have something nice to say about it.  He butts you in the stomach, he claps his hands on your shoulders and spins you round and conjures something miraculous and unexpected before you—a turbulent field wavering in a turning autumn wind of riotous color, a lone crow rising from the corn sheaves standing like a squadron of sentries, shoulder to shoulder in that season of memory.  Van Gogh is not asking for discussion, or explaining his sentiments of a landscape:  he simply offers himself to you, in nakedness, much as someone shares his daily bread.

It is this furious candor that is so appealing, especially in our age, in which self-proclaimed artists cower behind “theories” and peacock their lack of ideas before a gullible public waiting to die, instead of getting on with the job: to look with new eyes, to see an ever-renewed, ever unexplored world as it has never been seen before. That might suffice as a definition of the artist’s duty, in any age, and no painter did it more than Vincent.

He has so many strengths as a painter that it may seem a little absurd to list them as if he were a baseball player, but nevertheless worth trying.  First, an instinctive sense of subtle but constant surprise.  A color sense that still seems wholly original, of boundless vigor and flexibility and range.  A subject matter that is both daring and traditional, and a humility before it.  The ability to communicate, in a brushstroke, any passion—exultation, pity, repose, and (most difficult in a painting) danger.

That famous painting, near the end, of forty black crows rising against a tumultuous sky from a waving, whiskery cornfield with a path tortuously heaving around and through then vanishing, ending in the standing sheaves, conveys a sense of threat so great that there is no compromise to looking at it.  You either get as close as possible, trying to locate the source of danger, or you back away almost immediately, and move on to the next painting—a delighted empty landscape with a squiggle of cloud across an easy blue sky.  I spent ten minutes watching people back away from the crows, retreating as if singed.

“It’s getting closer,” muttered an Austrian girl.  She meant his death.

A curious absence in his work: virtually no nudes.

It was noon, and the museum was starting to fill up with businessmen on lunch breaks.  I went on to a late painting of the garden of the hospital where Vincent spent his last two years. An ethereal glow tranced the sky, just beyond the sanatorium wall, like the promise of a cure.  And then I came to one of my favorites:  Vincent’s house in Arles,  the Maison Jaune. Let me be foolhardy enough to try to describe it, since this is one of those paintings everyone knows which has more and more going on in it the more you look; and the apparent unrelatedness of everything in the scene is what gives its feeling of true life, of existence happening before one’s eyes.

Beneath a dark blue sky we are looking at a town corner.  A wide, tan street hugs a house with great green trees, left, and comes forward to meet another street extending away toward a railroad bridge in the distance, right.  A huffing locomotive is pulling black cars across.

In the center of the canvas stands a pale yellow house with a larger building behind it, four stories.  A couple of stories boast blue doors and balconies.  On the ground floor is a café, with figures clustered around a table. A gate leads (we suppose) into a courtyard.  An awning signals a bar or bakery inside.

Out front a man is sitting with his back to us, a plump woman in a long dress near him.  A man in gray trousers is walking fast, about to pass them.  In the long street to the right are a young woman and two children, holding hands.  Dirt is piled in the road. Look closely: a man watches from the upper story of the larger house, between chimneys.  As your eye goes down the street you see arched doors, a hanging sign, and another stone bridge just visible beyond the first.  Laundry is hanging from the little yellow house at the front, and a balcony is lined with plants.

The painting next to it is of Vincent’s bedroom in that house, and it holds all the details—washbasin and hat and towel and his own paintings on the walls—that let you reconstruct his life.  The ideal way to reveal anything is to invite; and Vincent is always offering his hand.

But time was running out for him.  In these months he was producing nearly a painting a day, working happily.  He invited Gauguin to join him.  They did not get along at all, there was the attack inflicted on his ear. Gauguin left, and Vincent went into hospital over Christmas Eve, 1888. By May 1889 he was in a mental home at Saint-Remy-en-Provence.  He would have about fourteen months more, including a final three under the sympathetic eye of the good Dr. Gachet in Auvers, before his suicide with a revolver in July, 1890.

His moods, of course, were swinging wildly, but he kept painting. In this time he would write, in his determination to keep working, “My sorrow will be stronger than my madness,” and “I think of it as a shipwreck, this journey.”  And in the final letter to Theo, that strange sense of reconciliation in the closing phrase:  “I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be more than a simple dealer in Corots, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which will retain their calm even in the catastrophe.”  Calm even in the catastrophe:  the artist’s mission.

Theo would be dead six months later, leaving a son, Vincent, who twenty years ago would set up the museum and the Van Gogh Foundation.

And amid all this tragedy—the great stormclouds hurtling across an urgent sky, as if the brain at its busiest were breaking down—why does one come out of the museum feeling so exalted, feeling the triumph in Vincent’s life?  To be touched so greatly and with such generosity, to be shown so much: it makes his suffering mortal. His boats are the idle boats of any childhood, his grand view of a harvest across swelling hazed fields a view we might have and forget but which, in retrospect, seems like pure happiness. It is the joy we remember that is immortal.

I kept returning to his painting of the two couples in the garden, that shaded peace at the end of a hot day.  Four young lovers, two seated, two standing, amid so much fervent blooming: a generation of love withheld from Vincent, beneath a falling sky.  So much sense of possibility in this canvas, you feel, Vincent the eavesdropping sharer of those private endearments; but not for him, never for him.

“I have a lover’s insight or a lover’s blindness for work just now.”  Vincent wrote his brother in September, 1888.  “I know quite well that I have already written you once today, but it has been such a lovely day again.  My great regret is that you cannot see what I am seeing here.”

But I could; I had been looking over his shoulder all day; and his greater vision persisted long after I left the museum and walked among the overcoated people, sharing a path through fields of weeping snow.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Aphrodisiacs of the East

Written for U.S. Gentlemen's Quarterly in early 1991. 

Having recently recovered from a sojourn in the Levant investigating the current status of belly dancing, and with some time on my hands, I decided to undertake a journey of considerably greater duration, scope, and scientific magnitude, a voyage deep into the very navel of Oriental wisdom:  those potions and pellets devoted to inspiring the bedroom arts.  Envisaging a selfless quest that would take me through the seedy alleys and steamy fleshpots of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, I wired ahead to my man in Calcutta to pack my steamer trunks and prepare letters of credit, letters of transit, and letters of introduction.  I then took passage east in full tropical kit and settled down to the prospect of several months’ arduous research.

As Aristotle remarks somewhere, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.  Let us begin by defining broadly what we mean by aphrodisiacs, those of Southeast Asia in particular.  I will not speak here of the sudsy pleasures of the wriggling Bangkok masseuses, nor of any other live specimens.  As Aristotle might’ve added had he been better travelled, the first quality of a good aphrodisiac is that, once located, you can conveniently bring it home without violating any customs regulations.

Now you might well argue (as the Chinese have for centuries) the sexual virtues of shark’s fin soup.  You might equally argue the similar properties of an expensive soup made from rare birds’ nests plucked, at great danger, from the dizzying heights of Thai island caves by daring men scaling rotten lianas.  But what good are such delicacies if you have to fly a woman ten thousand miles to find them reliably on a menu?  And then run the risk of her not ordering them?  No, a good aphrodisiac should fit in an effective quantity into one’s vest pocket.  My own personal rule of thumb is that it should at the very least be more portable than the person for whom it is intended.

I hope I may be permitted, in the interests of scholarly discussion, to include in this modest study not only those items of seduction, but also those of mutual enhancement, and finally, those of self-reinforcement.  Lest this latter category embarrass a few readers, let us remember that even the luscious Kissy Suzuki had to use a cunning Japanese mixture of electrocuted frog’s sweat and powder of dried lizard to revive an inactive James Bond in You Only Live Twice.

Prior to embarking for the Orient, I took the trouble to call upon an old school chum who has worked for some years in the arcane corners of the legitimate pharmaceuticals industry.  Before tracking down some aged apothecary in Hua Hin, I reasoned, why not see what Western medicine had to offer in the way of aphrodisiacs?  It is all very well (I pointed out to my friend) to be able to put a man on the moon, but what good is modern technology if it can’t come up with a foolproof elixir, a few drops of which will instantly turn the person of choice into a willing, even eager, sexual slave?

“Precious little use, bub,” was his quick reply.  “There is one item we’ve come up with called MDA.  For a few years it was a recreational drug of choice, especially among yuppies.  It’s about a hundred times more powerful than valium—we use it to ease the pain of terminal patients.  Supposedly it has aphrodisiacal qualities as well, but you’d probably be just as happy to roll around on the carpet with the dog.  Personally, I’d head east.” 

Steamer trunks in hand, I began my investigations in Singapore.  On infamous Decker Road, I decided to confine myself geographically and passed up the opportunity to buy kangaroo-hair ticklers imported from Australia.  The next morning, however, in the rickety Chinese quarter, my eye was caught by a promising street-side stand.  Piled high with boxed powders, there was also a crude carved wooden man, whose healthy protuberance could not be misinterpreted.  Had I struck paydirt already?  The mustachioed stallkeeper assured me profusely that he purveyed “only best powder, sir,”  and recommended a golden box with two dragons and Chinese characters on the front.  “One teaspoon in boiling water, twice a day,” he intoned.  “Better you take ten box.  Special price for you, only eighteen Singapore dollar for one box.”

I peered closely at the back, where an English translation was thoughtfully provided.  It promised to cure “overfatigue, poor memory, maldevelopment of sexual organs, sexual debility, aches in loin, night emissions, etc.”  Well, I thought, I do have a bad memory.  I peered closer.  The ingredients were the classic Chinese restoratives: herbs, wild ginseng, sea horse, hedgehog skin.  More to the point, the powder also contained deer penis, spotted deer antler, donkey penis, dog penis, ox penis, sheep penis, and for a little flavor, snow frog.

Tempting as this concoction was, I decided to experiment several days with one box before investing heavily.  In water its taste was unexpectedly bland; it had no ill side effects.  In fact, it seemed to have no effects whatsoever.  At least that I can recall.

Somewhat chastened, and unable to locate the unscrupulous tradesman, I flew south to Indonesia.  Because that archipelago contains thirty thousand islands, and life is short, I decided to pass up Borneo, Bali, or Sumatra, and made for Java.  Traditionally, an Indonesian girl hides her underwear in the clothing of the man she wants to seduce; I was unable to confirm if this still occurs.  In Jogjakarta I saw a shadow puppet show caught in an untimely monsoon, but otherwise came up high and dry.

My extensive readings had suggested, however, the attractions of a smaller town called Solo, whose lovely women are said “to prowl the streets like hungry tigers.”  Figuring some secret recipe might lie behind their feline insatiability, I explored the very busy Solo night market but turned up no tigresses.  Solitary, I sampled a so-called “male virility tonic”  called Susu Itb.  Perhaps, had I stayed longer, I might’ve had positive results, but, unable to buy the stuff by the bottle for more rigorous scientific trials, I  headed north to Malaysia.

At this point it struck me as highly possible I was being followed, so I disembarked the train by night and proceeded by horse cart to Malacca, that charming ex-Portuguese, ex-British town of the fabled straits and the enchanted name.  Its sleepy waterfront was as soothing as ever, but I came up with no magic serums.

A haggard, elderly shopkeeper did try to assure me that in his selection of handsome canes for which that seaport is justly famous, several could easily be put to aphrodisiacal purpose.  I could not agree with him on this, but I conceded that his well-carved canes were admirable works of art.

In Kuala Lumpur, I tried that fabulously repulsive and smelly fruit, the durian, on the basis of a Malay proverb which states, “When the durians are down, the sarongs are up.”  This may be so, but I found it difficult to get close enough to a durian to get one down in the first place.

In Penang—that island oasis of preserved colonial-era calm—on a sweltering Christmas Day I celebrated by making the rounds of Chinese medicine men and their immaculate shops.  One wizened patriarch’s unadorned cabinets held stretched snakeskins, dried spiders, porcupine quills, immobilized lizards like tiny dragons, and at least a hundred different insects in a kind of taxidermist’s nightmare.  I asked about aphrodisiacs; he merely grunted and offered me a sprig of betel to chew, then opened his jaw like a whale to show a mouthful of the stuff.

Undaunted by this failure to communicate, a little farther up the street I found a younger and seedier version of the same Chinese gentleman.  Seated in the shady recesses of his narrow shop with his wife, at first he said, “That against the law in Malaysia.”  When I started to leave, however, he darted out of the shadows and pulled me back in.  With a serious expression he extracted a small ring of knotted catgut, pushed it over the counter, and said brokenly, “Happy ring.”  He then indicated its purpose, which I had by that time divined, and he pointed out the deviousness of minute individual knots around its circumference.

For such a test I would, of course, need a female assistant, and fortunately such labor is easy to hire in this part of the world.  The tight little ring certainly seemed all that the doctor had ordered, but I realized that, rather thoughtlessly, even though he had made it clear to me when to put it on, I had neglected to ask him the more crucial question of when to take it off.  After wearing it for several days I felt my gait had become a trifle bowlegged, a problem resulting, in fact, from poor circulation.  In the end, to extricate myself from the fearsome contraption, I was forced to sever it with my Swiss Army knife.

Going back to lodge a complaint with the merchant, he was gentleman enough to offer me “at a very special price” four tablets he'd made, he assured me, “from all kinds of herbs.”  I must admit I was losing heart by this time, so I pocketed them somewhat moodily and headed for Burma.  In that remote country I hoped to purchase some of the love philtres mentioned by George Orwell in Burmese Days—“aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills.”  In the Rangoon market I did purchase a number of large pills, but they turned out to be soap.

I had better luck in Mandalay, however, after a jolting nineteen-hour ride seated bolt upright in a pre-war railway carriage.  At the Mahamuni Pagoda I saw the reverence with which the local population treats two superb bronze statues of warriors pilfered from Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia five centuries ago.  The Burmese believe that rubbing a spot on the statues blesses their own health in the same body part.  Judging from this, the Burmese have quite a few headaches and belly aches; but for my own purposes, I was satisfied to note that one warrior’s codpiece had actually rubbed away, while the other’s belt region had been polished to a shine over the centuries.

Heading south to Thailand, in Chiang Mai I was fortunate to meet an American expatriate named Daniel Reid—author, translator, longtime resident in Asia and an expert in local herbs and medicines.  I was not astonished to learn that he imbibes daily his own elixir—for general health purposes as well—and that, mixed with rum and smelling of a dozen herbs, it also contains most of the unusual ingredients my useless Singapore powder had claimed to.  Daniel assured me that his mix contained only the finest dried and powdered animal members, and that any Oriental aphrodisiac worth quaffing was based on this recipe.  (Daniel’s is detailed in his book, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, Simon & Schuster).  He poured me a glass, mixed with a little cognac.  It rolled smokily, vaporously, down the throat, but otherwise seemed to do little else.  In a cynical abandonment of scientific principles, that night I downed the Penang pills that had been jangling in my pocket for many days and lay down to sleep my last sleep before leaving Asia.

But it was not to be.  I got no sleep that night; nor did my assistant.  Whether it was Daniel Reid’s revived ancient formula, or those pills, I cannot say; perhaps it was even a delayed reaction to the Singapore powder.  For anyone who wants to find out, I still have two pills left with which I am prepared to part for a very special price.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


Written for Travel-Holiday in 1992.

“A wild place, Dominica.  Savage and lost.”  Thus the remarkable writer Jean Rhys (1890-1979) described her Antillean island birthplace.  Spiked with mountains, Dominica rises precipitously from the Caribbean Sea, its undulant valleys dense with rain forests, waterfalls, and primeval rivers.  Mists drift among the ghostly summits of the lush mountains; the few roads are rugged and empty save for an occasional rattling truck or a solitary figure trudging through the fervent landscape, a “cutlass” dangling from one hand.  Columbus christened the island on his second voyage, in 1493, and sailed on without ever setting foot.  Today the few villages that pepper the coast, and even Roseau, the small, innocent capital, give the impression that time moves more slowly here.  Jean Rhys would still recognize Dominica; a local saying claims Columbus would too.

No other island has stunned or penetrated me—or still in Lafcadio Hearn’s phrase, “so far surpasses imagination as to paralyze it.”  I first visited in 1982, to report on the last Carib Indians, the once-cannibal race who’d been annihilated by the millions on all other islands by the European invasion and survived on Dominica, their refuge for three centuries.  It remains an island for lost things, for ways of life vanished elsewhere in the Caribbean—the national symbol is a parrot unique to Dominica.  There is even a Boiling Lake and a Valley of Desolation.  Only sugar-white beaches are missing, and this has kept away the resort developers, the casino operators and the big hotels.  As Jean Rhys wrote, “Dominica will protect itself from vulgar loves.”

Once again I fell hard for Dominica:  for its sense of nature run riot, its sweet-tempered and independent people, its tumbling capital.  Roseau reveals itself like a fresh sepia image from the Thirties: intimate, poor, preserved, and lovely.  The balconied houses with carved fretwork, jalousied shutters flung open; the immaculate Botanical Gardens, a gift of the British during 215 years of colonial rule; the languid Créole patois more French than English.  Some narrow streets are still cobblestoned; all bear names like Cork Street, King George V Street, Old Street, Bath Road, Love Lane.  Roseau houses characteristically are stone below and wood above, and subtly audacious in color; reds and blues and subtle yellows and a blinding white.  Many still have the family shop at street-level and the home on the second-story. 

One morning I walked along the waterfront to the market for fresh fruits and vegetables.  (People here say, “Dominica could feed the entire Caribbean easily if everyone would just be organizing themselves.”)  Set along the sea and the estuary, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas, limes, coffee, grapefruit, wild strawberries, cabbages, and fresh fish were spread on plastic sheets.  Women squatted like Rodin’s Thinker on overturned boxes beneath shade umbrellas, and sprinkled water on the produce.  Mounds of coconuts were being split expertly by men wielding machetes (“cutlasses”).  It was so hot the Caribbean looked grey, and a boy was sculling in to market in a small skiff.  Up the tall coast clouds wreathed the mountains.

On the filigreed balcony of the Guiyave Café I drank soursop juice mixed with milk and looked across gleaming tin roofs.  An old lady was hanging out her washing on a balcony of Kings Lane.  On the corner of Cork and Queen Mary Street I found the house where Jean Rhys grew up, described in Voyage In the Dark (1934) and in her autobiography Smile Please (1979).  Though Rhys left Dominica in 1907 at sixteen, and only came back once, in 1936, the island haunts her novels and short stories like a remembered dream.  The family dwelling is now a converted guest house, and the interior much divided, though the mango tree still remains “so big that all the garden was in its shadow.”

I’d chosen to stay several miles from Roseau at Papillote, a place I remembered fondly:  two large bungalows perched against a steep hillside of steaming vegetation.  Run by an American, Anne Baptiste, and her Dominican husband Cuthbert, Papillote has its own hot springs, extravagant tropical gardens with enormous exotic flowers and ferns, wandering geese and peacocks, magnificent food, and simple rooms with vines painted around the walls.  Two days there can leave you in a delirium of serenity and good health. 

Dominica is said to have a river for every day of the year.  You can bathe nearly anywhere in the island and locals do.  From Papillote I walked to Trafalgar Falls, two high chutes of water that begin way up the “morne” and run as rivers to Roseau.  A young engineering student helped me across slippery rocks and we swam to where the water thundered down into a pool.  A permanent rainbow arced across the rock face twenty feet away.  I swam through the rainbow and sat beneath a course of hot water streaming down beside the cool falls.  Later I languished in a hot tributary at Papillote.

Another day I hiked muddy trails up several mornes on the island’s high interior, passing through glades of sunlight, paths of towering growths, and tropical tempests that came and went in ten minutes.  (In Dominica your right arm can be rained on while the left arm is getting sunburned.)  I walked through clouds and through jungle until I was overlooking the vast, many-fingered Freshwater Lake:  a sullen sea set among green peaks, whose sheen changed constantly as mists blew across.  The lake lay at the sleeping center of a volcano, and it was extraordinary to be at water level 3000 feet up.  And in the Tri Tro Gorge, I swam from a small pool between narrow overgrown cliffs through gorges of mystical light to a titanic waterfall.  I am not much of a swimmer; working against the current, pulling myself along the gorge walls, I barely reached the next innermost chamber, where the echoes flew and the spray blew about like smoke.  No words can do justice to that brief swim:  the fractured verdant light above, the current turning below, the sense of navigating a secret passage through forested cliffs to an eternal roar of water.

One day I followed the coast south from Roseau toward the end of the island.  Pointe Michel was a village built around a small bay and the grey ruins of an old lime factory and a red church.  There a man with a mouthful of gold teeth sang to me that “Pointe Michel girls are the best / Sweet sweet sweet in the face”.  Farther down the coast, at Soufriere, beside a stone wall I asked a friendly woman named Isabelle if she’d gone to market that day.

“I don’t have to.  My husband’s a farmer.”

“Didn’t you buy any fish?”

“I don’t have to.  My husband’s a fisherman.”

“What about fuel?”

“My husband makes coal also.”  She smiled.  “Things is easy.”

An elderly gentleman, Mr. Birmingham, walking with a cane, said, “I do nothing.  My eyes no see, me legs no walk.”  He looked fit, made of cast iron, at 74.  “God give you something, you know he had it after he take it away.  I go shave now for mass tomorrow.” 

From Scot’s Head, the southernmost hook of the island, I could faintly glimpse Martinique.  I thought:  On a clear day you can see France.  On one side of a tiny spit of land was the Caribbean, on the other the more aggressive Atlantic.  The tan beach at Scot’s Head, among coconut palms, had blue and yellow and red canoes pulled up and children playing; their houses were just across the little road.  Fish traps woven from bamboo lay waiting to be mended.  Men were arguing over dominoes, emphatically slapping down each tile.

In a shanty bar a patient and persuasive proprietor, Bernard, got me to try three local concoctions, all made by pouring cask rum (as strong as jet fuel) into a jar and leaving an herb or root to soak for several days.  The most popular are nani (made with aniset leaf), puev (spelled “poivre”, with a pepper flavor) and l’absinthe (made with wormwood), a first cousin of the infamous drink illegal throughout Europe since WWI.  “I consider puev to be the strongest,” said Bernard.  “Some of these fishermen drink four or five in a flash.  Maybe twelve a day.”  One vaporous absinthe—it tasted like smoke rolling through my mouth—was plenty for me.

At Portsmouth, the sleepy second largest town after Roseau, I met with Lennox Holychurch.  At 36 Lennox is the island’s historian and well-known as writer and consultant throughout the Caribbean.  Recently he pulled together “Lavi Dominik”, a museum in an old sugar mill, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independence in 1988.  He’s spent the last six years restoring an enormous 18th century fort, retaking it from jungle on the twin headlands known as the Cabrits that overlook the great curve of Portsmouth’s bay.

Lennox talked of the friendship (by letter) between Jean Rhys and another Dominican writer, Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1915-1986).  Like Rhys, Allfrey spent time in England, though she returned to the island to run a newspaper.  Active in West Indian politics, she wrote a good deal of poetry and one superb novel, The Orchid House (1953), set in Dominica, republished by the Virago Press and soon to be a mini-series in the U.K.  In some ways Jean Rhys’ 1966 masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, echoes Allfrey’s earlier book.  Lennox pointed out that the tonal similarities in their writing were strong.  “I think it would be difficult to grow up on Dominica in that era and not end up writing as they did.” 

Then Lennox said, “You remember the honeymoon house in the hills in Wide Sargasso Sea?  It’s still standing.  Up a trail from Mahaut village.  You keep going up, up, up.  It’s called Curry’s Rest.  Ask anybody.”

It was an exhausting walk; in Jean Rhys’s day one was carried up by donkey.  But it was satisfying to stand on the same high veranda where “…there had been a telescope…through which we could see distant Roseau Bay and the ships, the Royal Mail, Canadian and French steamers, and sometimes a stranger flying the yellow flag which meant there was an infectious disease aboard.”

I sensed in Dominica a verbal energy, a love of words for words’ sake, that is special even in the talkative Caribbean.  This is an island that produces originals, from Rhys and Allfrey to the popular and eloquent Prime Minister, Eugenia Charles (who has prohibited package tours).  It is a daily delight to ride the metaphors in the West Indian cricket reports in the Chronicle; on a tin house in the jungle I saw painted an epic poem, a proclamation that began, “Doctor Fixit the Stern King Has Arrived.”  And on the radio a man with a preacher’s voice intoned:  “Women love the power.  When he drive she feel the power and since it is a question of quality not price—since they all same price—give her Texaco, 'cause women love the power….”

Dominica could take months or lifetimes to explore.  Its size (29 miles by 15) tells nothing of its complexity:  it is a vast place squeezed into a small space.  To cross the island from Roseau to the golden meadows of palms at Castle Bruce takes an hour and brings you to another island, a more dazzling light.  On the rough Atlantic the Caribs have a reserve, land ceded them forever by Queen Victoria, and here the last indigenous race of the West Indies has made its final home.  Gradually dying out through inter-marriage, the Caribs still are distinct in appearance:  copper-skinned, with blue-black hair, a delicacy of face that surpasses even the fine features of most Dominicans.  It was the Caribs who gave us the words hammock and canoe and hurricane.  I walked their tumultuous coast, among their neat, wide-planked houses on stilts, saw once again the Carib church of Sainte-Marie with its gommier canoes as altar—and remembered my happy stay with them years before.  Since those days the roads had improved, electricity and in places running water had come to these remote villages, even a telephone or two; but they were still Caribs.  Dominica’s wildness saved them. 

That wildness had an otherworldly quality, too, a passionate strangeness that may be why the island has haunted me so.  To travel up the Indian River by canoe is to float quietly into some past long before man appeared, through ruined metropoli of twisted mangrove trees, their limbs braided and half-grown, doubled by the reflecting water.  Dominica changes you deeply.

My last morning in Roseau I went for an early stroll through the Botanical Gardens.  Little girls in navy and white uniforms were on their way through to the convent school.  An elderly woman was painstakingly brushing around a tree and singing in a high caroling voice.  A breeze carried her hymn through the gardens:

La da di, la da dum, He is calling
Tomorrow will be too late….

Near us a magisterial tree, impossibly tall, was blooming like a blue cloud, an island levitating itself.  I asked one of the gardeners the name of the tree.  He pronounced a name like “pouier” and saw it was unfamiliar to me.  And what he said then was all Dominica.  “You can’t see it from down here.  You go on up high, up the morne, and look down.  It is so beautiful it will amaze you.”