October 31, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

He wrote the novel whose title evokes for everyone the nightmare it would be to live in a world which has banned all books, and his favourite holiday was Hallowe’en. So October is a good time to remember Ray Bradbury, who died this year at the age of 91, by passing on a letter he wrote to an American librarian about composing that very novel, Fahrenheit 451, in the basement of the Powell Library at UCLA.

Powell Library is that Italian Renaissance-style brick building (I can make this architectural call because it strongly resembles a Brunelleschi rotonda in Florence I remember very clearly, from having once driven my boyfriend's brand new Vespa smack into it) which you will have seen if you have ever watched a Hollywood movie with a scene which takes place at a University, no matter what state or city it is purported to be located in. In fact, I remember seeing it stand in for Berkeley just recently when The Graduate was on TV.

And this of course is perfect for Ray Bradbury, who always used to say that libraries had been his University, just as Prof. Jim Flynn says can be true for everyone in the book he presented at Auckland Libraries for last year's New Zealand Book Month, The torchlight list. The inspiration for Prof. Flynn’s book was the family story of his uncles reading by torchlight on the troopships carrying them to Europe, but it could just as well have been Ray Bradbury, who did at one point apply to attend City College in Los Angeles, but, when the only answer he could come up with when a ‘little elf’ inside him asked him why he would want to was “Girls, women and sex”, decided he wouldn’t go there after all, but devote himself straight away to being a writer.

Here's the letter he sent the Fayetteville Public Library fifty odd years later, when the book he then went and wrote was chosen for their "Big Read", about how that had gone. I came across it on a website called Letters of Note (where you can also see a scan of the actual letter), a site featuring "correspondence deserving of a wider audience (fakes will be sneered at)", and this it certainly is.

September 15, 2006
Dear Shawna Thorup:
I'm glad to hear that you good people will be celebrating my book, "Fahrenheit 451." I thought you might want to hear how the first version of it, 25,000 words and which appeared in a magazine, got done.
I needed an office and had no money for one. Then one day I was wandering around U.C.L.A. and I heard typing down below in the basement of the library. I discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for ten cents a half hour. I moved into the typing room along with a bunch of students and my bag of dimes, which totaled $9.80, which I spent and created the 25,000 word version of "The Fireman" in nine days. How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones, were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative. So I ran up and down the stairs, finding books and quotes to put in my "Fireman" novella. You can imagine how exciting it was to do a book about book burning in the very presence of the hundreds of my beloveds on the shelves. It was the perfect way to be creative; that's what the library does.
I hope you enjoy reading my passionate output, which became larger a few years later and became popular, thank God, with a lot of people.
I send you all my good wishes,

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Bradbury wrote a longer version of this story for UCLA magazine, where you can see a photo of Powell Library, the place my sister, who went to UCLA, remembers as the best place to daydream on the whole campus.

Someone named Sam Weller, believe it or not, as if he were one of the exiles from the society which had outlawed books in Fahrenheit 451, the ones who had each memorised a book to keep it alive, and his would have been The Pickwick Papers, has written a book about Ray Bradbury called The Bradbury chronicles : the life of Ray Bradbury. I haven't read it myself, but the reviews on the library catalogue for it are good, although I need to remark on this odd line in the one from Publishers Weekly:  "If Weller places Bradbury in a pantheon occupied by Shakespeare, Melville, Dickens and Poe, he also mentions more than one extramarital affair and his hero's poor eating habits.”

Am I reading this correctly? Is this saying that extramarital affairs are in contrast with inclusion in this exalted pantheon? Shakespeare’s love life may still be anyone’s guess, but Jay Parini’s book The passages of HM convinced even dubious me of the married Melville’s "unambiguous attraction in thought and deed to men"; the married Charles Dickens’s behavior after meeting and falling in love with the actress Ellen Ternan was described by his daughter Kate like this: "He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home"; and while Edgar Allan Poe's reputation is not besmirched by marital infidelity, there is that fact that he married a 13 year old. Maybe it was more the poor eating habits which threaten to take Bradbury out of the pantheon -- you've got to watch that Campbell's tomato soup, one of his more frequent meals, as I recall.

By far my favourite works by Ray Bradbury are his short stories, which, mistakenly apprehensive that they would be too science-fictiony for me, I was only inspired to read when my daughter's Intermediate School English teacher assigned them to her class (forever grateful, Miss Chambers!). Of all the short stories my favourite is "The Fog Horn", a wondrous mixture of the mythic, the sorrowful, and the shivery, in which a sea monster is lured from the deep by the call of a Fog Horn -- I picture the long neck of an aquatic, brontosaurus-type animal rising out of the water, draped with algae.

"One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll make me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.

The Fog Horn blew."

You can read the entire story online at grammarpunk.com.

The stories of Ray Bradbury is an Everyman edition of 100 of Bradbury's best stories, including "The Fog Horn". You can read the early stories which eventually became Fahrenheit 451 in A pleasure to burn: Fahrenheit 451 stories.

Ray Bradbury always said he didn't think of himself as a science fiction writer, because he wasn't interested in getting the science straight. Or maybe because he didn't write stuff like this parody of science fiction which I also found on the Letters of Note website, in a letter by one of my favourite authors, the crime writer Raymond Chandler, sent from the seaside home in La Jolla where he had moved to get away from Hollywood and its parties where people were always mistaking his wife for his mother (according to Billy Wilder) and its abundance of alcohol, although in the end the move only solved one of these two problems. He is writing to his agent, lamenting the consequent drying-up of his creative powers, which must be one of the most horrible curses which can come down on a man, witness F. Scott Fitzgerald's suicide in slow motion, and Hemingway's abrupt and violent one. So we can forgive him a bit of bitchiness, and would anyway, I hope, because it is so funny.

6005 Camino de la Costa La Jolla, California
Mar 14 1953
Dear Swanie:
Playback is getting a bit tired. I have 36,000 words of doodling and not yet a stiff. That is terrible. I am suffering from a very uncommon disease called (by me) atrophy of the inventive powers. I can write like a streak but I bore myself. That being so, I could hardly fail to bore others worse. I can't help thinking of that beautiful piece of Sid Perelman's entitled "I'm Sorry I Made Me Cry."
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It's a scream. It is written like this: "I checked out with K19 on Aldabaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn't enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn't enough. He was right."
They pay brisk money for this crap?

(On view at the Letters of Note website edited by Shaun Usher. The homepage says a book collection of its contents will be published next month. I'm looking forward to it.)

October 06, 2012

Celebrating the books that cause dangerous thoughts

It's Banned Books Week, time to celebrate the freedom to read, as the traditional slogan goes, and the right to read, as a newer one I saw this year for the first time goes. We celebrate the fact that books make people think dangerous thoughts about questioning authority and rebelling against conformity, and above all, we celebrate the fact that when organisations ban books to keep that from happening, the books always outlive the bans.

Nowadays in the Western world the out-and-out banning of books by government or religious authorities is not very frequent, but narrow-minded community groups have stepped into the breach with insidious campaigns to get books "cleaned up", ie censored, to render them fit for consumption by young people. Or maybe more than "fit" they just mean "easy". Easy and undistinguished, like fast food.

Matt Bors is a cartoonist and editor at Cartoon Movement whom you may have heard of from his having collaborated with war correspondent David Axe on his talked-about graphic novel memoir about war in the 21st century, War is boring: bored stiff, scared to death in the world's worst war zones. Here is a great cartoon he drew which lampoons this new practice of book-sanitising, from a post called "White wash" on his blog Bors Blog ("comics, politics and ridicule"):

The first panel is true: a sanitised edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn really was published for use in schools where an understanding of the past, including its evils, is evidently not among the lessons children are supposed to learn. The others, well, I'd like to say clearly not, but I wouldn't swear to it!

Read about Banned Books Week, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, on the American Library Association website.

October 01, 2012

War comics

Special guest blogger Kelly Sheehan writes comics and, also, interesting things about comics, such as this:

Born too late for personal recollections of the Second World War my generation still managed to inherit a strong cultural memory of that great conflict. Games of war were a normal way of passing the time and small plastic soldiers, tanks and planes were a staple part of any boy’s toy box. Comics, which were then a more integrated part of a child’s life, featured a host of characters still fighting the war decades after it ended. Any New Zealand comics fan in his 30s or 40s would have vivid memories of Commando comics and Battle Picture Weekly, not to mention sundry characters such as Captain Hurricane who would routinely tie knots in the gun barrels of Nazi panzers without breaking a sweat.

One of the more bitter experiences of my childhood was going to hospital for a couple of days. I have no idea why I went but I have a very clear memory of the intense disappointment and sadness I felt when I discovered the huge cache of war comics, generously given to me by my older cousins, had disappeared from the locker next to my bed during the night. After that being in hospital kind of sucked.

(Picture from Sir George Grey Photograph Collection, 7-A13520)

There is part of me that wonders if my father was responsible for those comics vanishing. Certainly, he would have felt I should not be reading anything that glorified war. If it was Dad, he was mistaken. While the Commando’s featured pretty straight forward tales of Tommy fighting Jerry, Battle Picture Weekly was a subversive little rag that undermined those simplistic conventions and threw a whole new light on what goes on during war. Written by such luminaries as Pat Mills and John Wagner these were stories that dealt with the unfairness and inhumanity of war, not to mention class, wayward authority, fear and the brutalising effect of violence. Anyone who was ten when they read the episode of Charly’s War featured below did not walk away thinking the First World War was in any way glamorous:

The library carries a number of recently republished comics from Battle Picture Weekly, most notably Johnny Red and Charley’s War. Each volume is lovingly put together, with introductions and afterword material that give the strips, and the historic events featured in the stories, context. The Johnny Red volume features an introduction by Garth Ennis, the Irish writer responsible for comics such as Preacher, Hitman and The Boys.

Ennis has always been effusive in his praise of Battle Picture Weekly. He was a fan growing up, indeed he had a letter published in those hallowed pages:

It is hardly surprising that Ennis is one of the few of his generation to put his own mark on the genre of war comics. Reading interviews with him it is clear that this is where his heart lies. Published under the umbrella titles of War Stories and Battlefields each of the stories covers different characters, circumstances and theatres of war.

A number of Ennis’s stories are undoubtedly responses to various strips featured in his beloved Battle Picture Weekly. Johann’s Tiger featured in War Stories Volume 1 bares a strong resemblance to Hellman of Hammer Force, Nightingale in the same volume can be yoked with H.M.S Nightshade, and the recent Night Witches and Motherland draw heavy inspiration from Johnny Red and his struggles on the Eastern Front during the Great Patriotic War. These are not Boy’s Own narratives. War is shown as brutal and chaotic. If there is there is sentimentality it is hard earned and the price paid for survival is high.
I like to think that Ennis has a secret plan. That, at the end of his career, he will have completed a vast novel composed in parts over the years. An epic novel in pictures that will document the gigantic, tragic history of the Second World War.

- Kelly

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