A Spark of Genius, Quenched in Misery

Early in his biography, “Poe: A Life Cut Short,” Peter Ackroyd relates that, a few weeks before his death, Poe had admitted “I do believe that God gave me a spark of genius, but He quenched it in misery.” After reading this short biography (only 140 pages), I would have to agree.

Ackroyd has also written a well-received biography of Charles Dickens, and it was actually that book I was looking for when I stumbled upon this Poe biography. I went ahead and read it first, as I’ll admit I like to follow “the hand of fate” whenever it presents itself to influence what i’ll read next. I’m so glad I did, as I learned a lot about this famous author (1809-1849). I was surprised and saddened to discover what a struggle his life had been, not knowing he had spent most of it destitute (and I mean REALLY destitute) and had actually earned most of the little money he did earn through his work as an editor rather than a writer. The estimated total amount he had actually earned from his books – in his entire life – was less than I earn in average day. Admittedly, this does not allow for the change in the relative value of the 19th century dollar to that of the 21st century one, but we could change it from a day to two or three months and it remains a pitiable fact.

I had known, for example, that Poe had been at West Point but was dismissed (he had come to realize he didn’t want to “waste the prime of (his) life in service” and had thus tried to resign but wasn’t allowed. Ackroyd humorously relates that later Poe’s “plan to leave the Academy, through dereliction of duty, succeeded admirably.” (& reading – even just briefly – about Poe’s time at West Point also served to rekindle an interest of mine in a temporarily abandoned read, “The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomatox” which I have once again picked up and am making good progress again now. Thank you, Mr. Poe and Mr. Ackroyd.)

Another common thread in the biography was that Poe’s life was strewn with women he lost to (often premature) death. His own mother, his de facto adopted mother, and his young wife later in his life. Echoes of these losses reverberate through his work, and in all likelihood greatly influenced the morbidity and horror that suffuses his most famous tales and poems.

I was reminded also of Poe’s great influence over subsequent literature. His stories, The Purloined Letter, and Murders in the Rue Morgue are universally acknowledged as the birth of the detective story in literature. His stories of fantasy are thought to also have influenced those patriarchs of science fiction, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. And his poetry remains influential to this day. Quite a legacy for one man, wouldn’t you agree? Particularly one who died when he was only forty years old!

Like so many great artists, though, Poe wrestled with the demon of alcohol abuse. It was repeated by many that knew him that he didn’t necessarily drink often, but when he did, he couldn’t stop. His inability to control his demons led him to his premature death in somewhat mysterious (how fitting) circumstances. Baudelaire wrote once that Poe’s death was “almost a suicide – a suicide prepared for a long time.”

My old book club once devoted a meeting to several of his short stories and poems, and it remains one of my favorite meetings that we ever had. What are your thoughts about Poe? Are you also a fan, or is he too macabre for your tastes?

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(Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849; in this biography, the author commented several times on Poe’s phsyiognomy, and on how one side of his face was quite different from the other.  I had never really thought about that until now, but I can see what he’s talking about in most photographs or portraits)

Buddhist Catnaps

Any regular visitor to Bibliophilopolis will already know that I am a big fan of the short story form. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that the June meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club will be covering his collection, “Bagombo Snuff Box.” Twenty-four new morsels for me to feast upon!

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An even greater delight was Vonnegut’s own introduction to the book, where he repeats his eight rules for “Creative Writing 101” which I’d seen before but was nonetheless happy to encounter again. (I’ll quote them for you at the end of this post).

What I enjoyed most in the introduction was his speculation that reading short stories can often have kind of a therapeutic effect, relating how in high school “While I am reading, my pulse and breathing slow down. My high school troubles drop away. I am in a pleasant state somewhere between sleep and restfulness.” He then describes that he would often recommend a particularly good story to his father who, upon returning home from work, would be “tired and blue” and that Kurt would tell him, “I have just read this story I think you might enjoy.” He then observes the same impact on his father, “Dad starts to read. His pulse and breathing slow down. His troubles drop away, and so on.”

This doesn’t necessarily, technically prove anything, although Vonnegut believes it does:

“It proves that a short story, because of its physiological and psychological effects on a human being, is more closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation than it is to any other form of narrative entertainment. What you have in this volume, then, and in every other collection of short stories, is a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.”

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I did read the first story, “Thanasphere”*, from this book last night and enjoyed it. Written in 1952, it’s a creepy speculation about what humanity might discover when they eventually reach “outer space.” Also shocking was the similarity between this story and a failed NaNoWriMo project I attempted last year(!) My story was set about ten years later, but also involved an unpleasant surprise for an early astronaut. (*Thanasphere is the fictional name suggested in the book as a name for he “outer shell” of the atmosphere where the atmosphere ends and “dead space” begins. Those familiar with Greek will appreciate the appropriateness of that term…)

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Have I forgotten about Vonnegut’s eight rules? No. Here they for your perusal:

“1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Sounds like pretty reasonable advice, don’t you think?

June Reading – The Month Ahead

As always, it’s hard to believe a new month is upon me “already,” but it is a fact I must deal with. 🙂

I had a likely record-breaking reading month in May, finishing ten books. True, many were shorter than my usual reads, and I had started a couple the month before, but nonetheless I consider it a good month, at least by my humble standards.

So, does this mean I can slack off in June? Hardly! I have many books I want to read this month. Two are for book club meetings so I’ll start with them:

1. The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

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I’ve actually already started this one and passed the halfway point this morning. Is been on my TBR list for quite awhile, and since I learned that the Carmel (north Indianapolis) Library book discussion group was meeting next week on it, I finally took the plunge. Liking it a lot so far, and not sure how it will end…

2. Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut

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The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library will be meeting on June 28th to discuss this short story collection which was published in 1999. Most of the stories were written in the 1950s and I hear he even re-wrote or re-worked three of em for this book. Another collection of Vonnegut stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, was my favorite book of those I read in 2010, so I’m really looking forward to working my way through these.

3. Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

Yes, it’s time I picked up this series again – especially since my friend Edie is putting me to shame by tearing through the first four and a half books in just a few weeks. 🙂 In fact, it’s funny to ponder how often I have been led to read something due to “peer pressure” like this. Probably happens more than I’d initially guess… Anyway, I sometimes miss the direwolves and the compelling young characters in this series and look forward to rejoining them.

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4. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomatox by John C. Waugh

This is a “leftover” from my 2010 Civil War Reading Project that I’ve always wanted to get back to. I read the first 25 pages or so this morning and will see it through to its finish this time.

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Other contenders: Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom (I admit to being a little daunted by the length of this book, BUT if I can read George R.R. Martin…); American Gods by Neil Gaiman (been on my TBR list for quite awhile now – this could be the month); A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (kind of listening to this on audio off an on at work, but can’t usually pay it enough attention that way, unless I’m doing really routine, drudgery-laden tasks, which I don’t have enough of at the office); finally, a book I just read about this morning on Jade’s blog, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (outside of my normal reading pattern, but very popular among book bloggers, and I trust Jade, who liked it. Might be one of those, “let’s see what all the fuss is about” reads)

Well, that’s about it for me. What about YOU?? Have you read any of the above books (or authors) and did you like them? Most importantly, what will you be reading in June???

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