A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!

A toast to … corona lit

Cafe Katja.

This week I gingerly returned to the fray with an update on what I’m doing these days and, more importantly, what my wife is doing these days.

While the light at the end of the tunnel still appears as a pinprick at the end of the near-bottomless abyss, some thoughts have been turning to the post-pandemic world — what its art will look like, particularly, how the theatre and the plastic arts and music will ultimately respond to this experience. Nothing fills me with more dread than this. Every creative writing MFA candidate has no doubt already started their novel or, more likely, their “thematically related cycle of short stories,” and I shudder at the thought of reading about wan, isolated individuals engaging in internal monologues or maudlin dialogues with spouses, family, and friends, perhaps with Central Park or western Connecticut in the background. In truth, the only genuine chronicler of these times would need to combine the nihilistic irony of a Robert Musil with the caustic misanthropy of a Louis-Ferdinand Céline to give us a truly accurate picture of the age. I’m not holding my breath. (On the other hand, perhaps the powers-that-be will finally outlaw talking, so there’s always that silver lining.)

Ordinarily I’d be raising my glass for the end of the week at Cafe Katja, but for the past several weeks it’s been closed. It still is. But I’m glad to report that Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase have decided to unshutter the place for pickup and delivery beginning yesterday, so tonight I’ll be raising my glass of zweigelt along with a proper schnitzel or bratwurst. Their menu is available here; if you’re in the neighborhood, I do hope that you’ll partake.

Until next week.

 

A toast to … misanthropy

Cafe Katja.

Well, folks, for the past 58 years I’ve been self-isolating from most of the rest of the human race and expressed both pessimism and cynicism about the race itself. Welcome to my world. I’m not necessarily delighted to be proven right, but these days I’ll take what I can get.

During these home-bound days, I’m re-reading a few of the books that led me to these conclusions: “comfort fiction,” let’s call it. Here are only three that I highly recommend:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: By the end of Swift’s novel, Gulliver is self-isolating from human stupidity too. It’s an extreme but, once you get to the end, understandable conclusion.

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek: During World War I, Hasek’s simpleton Svejk demonstrates that you can easily prove the incompetence and stupidity of your leaders by doing exactly what they tell you to do.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: More than an anti-war novel, it’s an anti-stupidity novel, offering only the thinnest of hopes at the end (though hope, I believe, it is).

Alas in these trying times, Cafe Katja is closed for regular business, so you won’t find me at the bar there this afternoon. But fortunately for all of us, the owners have instituted a take-out and delivery service so your Austrian food needs can be met during this difficult disruption. Follow their Instagram feed for details. I also recommend that you help out the staff at Katja by tiding them over until the doors can formally open again.

Until next time, prost! The liquor stores will remain open indefinitely (and, I understand, are doing just fine).

A toast to … self-isolating

Cafe Katja.

I was happy to write about an upcoming anthology of Shary Flenniken’s fine comic strip for the National Lampoon, Trots and Bonnie, earlier this week.

Self-quarantine and self-isolation are not new to me; I’ve been self-isolating since 1962, but instead of prudent caution I do it more because I hate people. Not that these are mutually exclusive. It could be that stupidity is even more contagious than the coronavirus, and we all must take steps to protect ourselves from infection. (Not to mention panic. Stress and anxiety will probably sicken more people than Covad-19 over the next few months.) But that’s the world we live in; the novelist Bruce Jay Friedman in the foreword to his 1965 anthology Black Humor put it best:

You hear an awful lot about the “fading line between fantasy and reality” in the modern world and I had better put that in fast or else I am not going to get to do any more Forewords. So here it comes. I agree. There is a fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line … Then, too, if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind. …

What has happened is that the satirist has had his ground usurped by the newspaper reporter. The journalist, who, in the year 1964, must cover the ecumenical debate on whether Jews, on the one hand, are still to be known as Christ-killers, or, on the other hand are to be let off the hook, is certainly today’s satirist. The novelist-satirist, with no real territory of his own to roam, has had to discover new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters, has had to sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire and I think this is what is meant by black humor.

And that was before we started carrying around our own portable anxiety-delivery systems like the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter. (Today the New York Times even invites you to, as they put it on their home page, “play with a model of coronavirus in the U.S.“)

Friedman’s “new set of filters” is perhaps what is lacking in our satire now — the breadth of stylistic imagination and daring that you simply don’t find on The Daily Show and in The Onion, which can be very funny indeed, but limited by their narrowness of parodic form: the news show or the newspaper. To get into those darker waters beyond satire — and the art of our own age requires no less than that — you need to get beyond television and the internet.

There are still a few practitioners of black humor out there. Gary Shteyngart is one; to get beyond him, however, will require a bit of thought. So if you find yourself behind the closed doors of your apartment over the next few months, you might try to sail those waters. The novels of William Gaddis are a good place to start; maybe Catch-22 deserves another go; Terry Southern never disappoints; there’s Friedman’s own Stern; and, if you want to get all French about it, why not Journey to the End of the Night?

Me? As usual, I’ll be isolating myself at Cafe Katja later this afternoon; you’re welcome to isolate yourself with me. Prost! And wash your hands before you come. I may be misanthropic, but I’m not stupid.

A toast to … March

Cafe Katja.

This week we welcomed the return of William Gaddis’s first two novels to print, carefully placed a portfolio by Christoph Mueller in a prominent position on our coffee table, and relaxed to a rag by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. (The new display font on this and other pages is “Mom’s Typewriter,” a typeface developed by Mr. Mueller.)

Not a bad week overall for the first week of March: the first month of spring (even if its official beginning is a few weeks away) and my birthday month besides. So I’ll end the week as I began it by lifting a glass of Austrian wine to the month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb — although opinions differ, as you’ll see below. I’ll be toasting the month with my fellow barfly Gabe at Cafe Katja, where particular people congregate, later today. In the meantime, a favorite bit of comedy from forty-four years ago.