A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan

It was during the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness.  A. P. Hill’s brave but exhausted confederate troops had been hit at daybreak by Union General Hancock’s II Corps of 30,000 men.  A. P. Hill’s troops were shattered by the attack and fell back in defeat and confusion along the Orange Plank Road.

Twenty-eight-year-old Colonel William Poague, the South’s fine artillery man, waited with sixteen guns in one of the few clearings in the Wilderness, Widow Tapp’s farm.  Colonel Poague had his guns loaded with antipersonnel ammunition and opened fire as soon as A. P. Hill’s men had barely fled the Orange Plank Road.

The Union assault funneled itself right into a vision of scupltured artillery fire, and the Union troops suddenly found pieces of flying marble breaking their centers and breaking their edges.  At the instant of contact, history transformed their bodies into statues.  They didn’t like it, and the assault began to back up along the Orange Plank Road.  What a nice name for a road.

On title alone this book had me.  I’d never read Brautigan, cult hero of the age when the Army was giving LSD to draftees.  This one came out in 1964.

Most of the book tells the story of the narrator living rough in Big Sur with Lee Mellon, who is convinced he’s descended from a Confederate general.

I met Mellon five years ago in San Francisco.  It was spring.  He had just “hitch-hiked” up from Big Sur.  Along the way a rich queer stopped and picked Lee Mellon up in a sports car.  The rich queer offered Lee Mellon ten dollars to commit an act of oral outrage.

Lee Mellon said all right and they stopped at some lonely place where there were trees leading back into the mountains, joining up with a forest way back in there, and then the forest went over the top of the mountains.

“After you,” Lee Mellon said, and they walked back into the trees, the rich queer leading the way.  Lee Mellon picked up a rock and bashed the rich queer in the head with it.

 

At times reading this book felt like talking to a person who is on drugs when you yourself are not on drugs.  By the end of this short book it felt little tedious.  The semi-jokes seemed more like dodges.

Still, Brautigan has an infectious style.

Mallley says:

Like much of Brautigan’s work, Confederate General belongs, at least partly, to a broad category of American literature – stories dealing with a man going off alone (or two men going off together), away from the complex problems and frustrations of society into a simpler world closer to nature, whether in the woods, in the mountains, on the river, wherever.

For a more satisfying read on men going off away from the complex problems and frustrations of society in the same region, I might recommend:

or

but it’s short and alive.  The few short passages about the Civil War were my favorite.

We left with the muscatel and went up to the Ina Coolbrith Park on Vallejo Street. She was a poet contemporary of Mark Twain and Brett Harte during that great San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1860s.

Then Ina Coolbrith was an Oakland librarian for thirty-two years and first delivered books into the hands of the child Jack London.  She was born in 1841 and died in 1928: “Loved Laurel-Crowned Poet of California,” and she was the same woman whose husband took a shot at her with a rifle in 1861.  He missed.

“Here’s to General Augustus Mellon, Flower of Southern Chivalry and Lion of the Battlefield!” Lee Mellon said, taking the cap off four pounds of muscatel.

We drank the four pounds of muscatel in the Ina Coolbrith Park, looking down Vallejo Street to San Francisco Bay and how the sunny morning was upon it and a barge of railroad cars going across to Marin County.

“What a warrior,” Lee Mellon said, putting the last 1/3 ounce of muscatel, “the corner,” in his mouth.

As for Brautigan:

According to Michael Caines, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, the story that Brautigan left a suicide note that simply read: “Messy, isn’t it?” is apocryphal.


Skiing

There were no ski lifts from Schruns and no funiculars; but there were logging trails and cattle trails that led up different mountain valleys to the high mountain country.  You climbed on foot carrying your skis and higher up, where the snow was too deep, you climbed on seal skins that you attached to the bottoms of the skis.  At the tops of mountain valleys there were the big Alpine Club huts for summer climbers where you could sleep and leave payment for any wood you used.  In some you had to pack up your own wood, or if you were going on a long tour in the high mountains and the glaciers, you hired someone to pack wood and supplies up with you, and established a base.  The most famous of these high base huts were the Lindauer-Hütte, the Madlener-Hause and the Wiesbadener-Hütte.

So says Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “Winters in Schruns”

Skiing was not the way it is now, the spiral fracture had not become common then, and no one could afford a broken leg.  There were no ski patrols.  Anything you ran down from, you had to climb up to first, and you could run down only as often as you could climb up.  That made you have legs that were fit to run down with.

And what did you eat, Hemingway?

We were always hungry and every meal time was a great event.  We drank light or dark beer and new wines and wines that were a year old sometimes.  The white wines were the best.  For other drinks there was wonderful kirsch made in the valley and Enzian Schnapps distilled from mountain gentian.  Sometimes for dinner there would be jugged hare with a rich red wine sauce, and sometimes venison with chestnut sauce.  We would drink red wine with these even though it was more expensive than white wine, and the very best cost twenty cents a liter.  Ordinary red wine was much cheaper and we packed it up in kegs to the Madlener-Haus.

What was the worst thing you remember?

The worst thing I remember of that avalanche winter was one man who was dug out.  He had squatted down and made a box with his arms in front of his head, as we had been taught to do, so that there would be air to breathe as the snow rose up over you.  It was a huge avalanche and it took a long time to dig everyone out, and this man was the last to be found.  He had not been dead long and his neck was worn through so that the tendons and the bones were visible.  He had been turning his head from side to side against the pressure of the snow.  In this avalanche there must have been some old, packed snow mixed in with the new light snow that had slipped.  We could not decide whether he had done it on purpose or if he had been out of his head.  But there was no problem because he was refused burial in consecrated ground by the local priest anyway; since there was no proof he was a Catholic.

What else do you remember?

I remember the smell of the pines and the sleeping on the mattresses of beech leaves in the woodcutters’ huts and the skiing through the forest following the tracks of hares and of foxes.  In the high mountains above the tree line I remember following the track of a fox until I came in sight of him and watching him stand with his forefoot raised and then go on carefully to sop and then pounce, and the whiteness and the clutter of a ptarmigan bursting out of the snow and flying away and over the ridge.

And, did you, btw, sleep with your wife’s best friend?

The last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives and nothing was ever the same again.  The winter of the avalanches was like a happy and innocent winter in childhood compared to that winter and the murderous summer that was to follow.  Hadley and I had become too confident in each other and careless in our confidence and pride.  In the mechanics of how this was penetrated I have never tried to apportion the blame, except my own part, and that was clearer all my life.  The bulldozing of three people’s hearts to destroy one happiness and build another and the love and the good work and all that came out of it is not part of this book.  I wrote it and left it out.  It is a complicated, valuable, instructive story.  How it all ended, finally, has nothing to do with this either.  Any blame in that was mine to take and possess and understand.  The only one, Hadley, who had no possible blame, ever, came well out of it finally and married a much finer man that I ever was or could hope to be and is happy and deserves it and that was one good and lasting thing that came out of that year.

Google, show me Schruns:

 

 


PTA

Liked this quote from PTA’s AMA where he says the script is “just a temporary thing”


Hemingway Writing Advice

one of the descendants of Hemingway’s messed-up, inbred, extra-toe cats in Key West

In a 1935 Esquire piece, Hemingway, already playing the preening dickhead, gives some writing advice that I think is clear-eyed and well-expressed.

Writing room in Hem house in Key West

The setup is a young man has come to visit him in Key West, and Hemingway has given him the nickname Maestro because he played the violin.

MICE: How can a writer train himself?

Y.C.: Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exact it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise. Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Then get in somebody elseʼs head for a change If I bawl you out try to figure out what Iʼm thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Donʼt just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldnʼt be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.

Mice: All right.

Y.C.: Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Donʼt be thinking what youʼre going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.

Mice: Do you think I will be a writer?

Y.C.: How the hell should I know? Maybe youʼve got no talent. Maybe you canʼt feel for other people. Youʼve got some good stories if you can write them. Mice: How can I tell?

Y.C.: Write. If you work at it five years and you find youʼre no good you can just as well shoot yourself then as now.

Mice: I wouldnʼt shoot myself.

Y.C.: Come around then and Iʼll shoot you.

Mice: Thanks.

This article is behind a paywall at Esquire but I found it reprinted on the website of Diana Drake, who has story by credit on the film What Women Want.


Boston (England)

There’s a lot of crime fiction about Boston, America, but is there any about Boston, UK?  I went looking and was directed to the works of Colin Watson, who writes about a fictional town, Flaxborough, which is based on Boston (UK version)?

I can’t say it was totally compelling to me but cheers to Colin Watson.

Watson was the first person to successfully sue Private Eye for libel, for an article in issue 25 when he objected to being described as: “the little-known author who . . . was writing a novel, very Wodehouse but without the jokes”. He was awarded £750.


Critics on critics on critics

This review in the New York Times, by Vivan Gornick of Adam Gopnik’s “At The Strangers’ Gate” caught my attention.

Critics have taken aim on Adam Gopnik before.  To which New Yorker editor David Remnick says:

‘The day any of these people write anything even remotely as fine and intelligent as Adam Gopnik will be a cold day in hell.'”

The key to this memoir might be when the author reveals he graduated high school at age fourteen.  He’s a boy genius.

This is kind of Young Sheldon the book.

The book has some good stories in it.  Adam Gopnik tells about how a guy who came to one of his lectures on Van Gogh.  This guy had an axe to grind and it was this: why did Vincent never paint his brother Theo?

My favorite part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of Jeff Koons.  Gopnik is illuminating on the topic of Jeff Koons.  Here is Koons talking to Gopnik at a party.

(I added the potato because while it may not be strictly legal to electronically reproduce pages of books, if I include them in an original work of art, that’s gotta be allowed, right?)


When you lied on your CV

The source of that photo is Tasmanian sheep farmer Charlie Mackinnon, who said of the dog:

She was an absolute legend, worked all day.

Funny story told in Jay McInerney Paris Review interview:

MCINERNEY

I felt like I had really arrived because—well, it was The New Yorker. But it was the fact-checking department. I wanted to be in the fiction pages, but still. It actually paid pretty well, and I was seeing great writers like John McPhee and John Updike coming to visit William Shawn. J. D. Salinger was still calling on the phone. There was a terrific buzz about the place. But it was also a little depressing. There were all these unwritten rules. Like, for instance, if you were a fact-checker, you didn’t speak to an editor or writer in the hall—it just wasn’t done. Also, it turned out I wasn’t very good at it. And ten months after I got there, I was fired, and left ingloriously with my tail between my legs.

INTERVIEWER

How bad were you?

MCINERNEY

My biggest mistake was to have lied on my résumé and said that I was fluent in French, which I wasn’t. So when the time came to check a Jane Kramer piece on the French elections, it was assigned to me, and I had to call France and talk to a lot of people who didn’t speak English. That was really my downfall. And of course I couldn’t admit to anyone that I had this problem. Jane Kramer discovered factual errors just before publication. Nothing earth shattering, but you would think that I had . . .