(Considered below: Hermann Hesse, Mark Leibovich, Anthony Powell, Douglas Adams, Charles Willeford, Ernest Cline, Lee Child, Lawrence Block)
My wife finally convinced me to look at The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Better late than never.
A fair number of jazz musicians have dealt with Glass Bead Game over the years. For Tetragon, Joe Henderson recorded a significant piece of free jazz called “The Bead Game.” One of Clifford Jordan’s best albums is Glass Bead Games. When I asked Keith Jarrett to word-associate about Andrew Hill, he responded, “Glass Bead Game. I dunno. Something like that.” Last week I texted Mark Turner what I was reading and he responded, “Love that book. Western spirituality at its best.”
The Glass Bead Game breaks down into essentially three parts: An introduction to the future world and the game, the story of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht, and an appendix of Knecht’s own writings.
For me, the most revelatory section was the slightly pompous and comic introduction. Not only does Hesse predict the internet and the postmodern age with uncanny precision, but the description of the Game, which combines art, math, science, music, and sociology, also could be helpful for those interested in the best American music. At the least, the following paragraph is relevant for anyone attempting to interface with an older jazz master:
We stress that this introduction is intended only for popular consumption and makes no claim whatsoever to clarifying the questions being discussed within the Order itself on the problems and history of the game. The time for an objective account of that subject is still far in the future. Let no one, therefore, expect from us a complete history and theory of the Glass Bead Game. Even authors of higher rank and competence than ourself would not be capable of providing that at the present time. That task must remain reserved to later ages, if the sources and the intellectual prerequisites for the task have not previously been lost. Still less is our essay intended as a text book of the Glass Bead Game; indeed, no such thing will ever be written. The only way to learn the rules of this Game of games is to take the usual prescribed course, which requires many years; and none of the initiates could ever possibly have any interest in making those rules easier to learn.
Clifford Jordan cared about history and society and how things really work on a macro scale. Musically, he was a master craftsman of straight-ahead tenor but also appreciated the avant-garde; in other areas, he was master of the hang and top-level weed dealer.
Jordan’s first leader dates like Spellbound and Bearcat are brilliant but reasonably conventional. 1966’s tribute to Leadbelly, These Are My Roots, changes it up by becoming superbly surreal. (Tootie Heath told me, “We had to rehearse a lot for that one.”) For the first Afro-centric record label, Strata-East, Jordan offered a curated set of sessions called “The Dolphy series.” While the late Eric Dolphy was a serious intellectual, much of those sessions' groovy space-outs are only that much better when in an altered state of consciousness.
Billy Hart calls the jazz tradition, “A sociological experiment manifested through music.” Glass Bead Games, Jordan’s best Strata-East session, offers the full exertion of a community that is the product of a sociological experiment.
Hesse explains in terms a jazz master might endorse about their own art:
These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content including conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual property — on all this immense body of intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ.
To make his point about the community of “noble thoughts and works of art” extra clear, Jordan programs several pieces that explicitly honor musicians not present at the session: Paul Robeson, Eddie Harris, John Coltrane, Cal Massey.
Back to my own opinion about Hesse: I joked to Sarah that the main story of Joseph Knecht was a bit of a sentimental slog, something akin to Tolkien. She was rightfully furious: “Tolkien is so bad and Hesse is so good.”
I defer to all those that love this book unreservedly. It may be that I am just a bit old for the big bildungsroman; I’ve heard before that Hesse is really for teenagers, so I regret not reading him much earlier. At any rate, I’m very impressed with the Game, and a puzzle piece about that “sociological experiment manifested through music” has definitely clicked into place.
(DTM review of Mosaic box The Complete Strata-East Clifford Jordan Sessions.)
Much of The Glass Bead Game is connected to the question, “How much should the pure artist interface with politics?”
For myself, I don’t really follow politics. I just vote as liberal as I can, and occasionally read something that comes highly recommended from a trustworthy source.
Vince Keenan tweeted Mark Leibovich’s recent profile of Larry King. I was seriously impressed with the voice of author. Vince then told me that This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! - in America’s Gilded Capital had changed the way he viewed politics.
I got This Town and was blown away. Just an amazing document: A Washington reporter and anointed insider dishes on the way it all really works.
A work of non-fictional reportage is inevitably episodic, so I am particularly impressed with This Town’s large-scale structure. We begin at Tim Russert’s funeral and end at the “Last Party” of Ben Bradlee. In between, each chapter flows seamlessly into one another. Just one exceptionally brilliant link: When Leibovich profiles Harry Reid and Tom Coburn in sequence, the transition is the former hanging up on the latter.
This Town is scathing and hilarious. I want to quote the whole damn book, but here are just two tidbits. The first one is short description of, “Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, known as ‘the Macker.’”
McAuliffe made his mark as one of the most irrepressible money men in political history, or better. “The greatest fund-raiser in the history of the universe,” Al Gore dubbed him….So committed is the Macker to his art that he even stopped off at a fund raiser on the way home from the hospital with his wife, Dorothy, after she gave birth to their newborn son, Peter. Dorothy stayed in the car, crying, while the baby slept and the Macker did his thing. “I felt bad for Dorothy,” he would later write. “But it was a million bucks for the Democratic party.”
If McAuliffe’s signature is fund-raising, his principal identity is as professional best friend to Bill Clinton. The title of McAuliffe’s memoir What a Party! might as well be Let Me Tell You Another Story about Me and Bill Clinton….To deprive McAuliffe of the words “Bill Clinton” would be like depriving a mathematician of numbers.
And the second is a self-contained parenthetical bouncing off what “cordial” means in Washington:
Here is an example of how two senators with a “cordial” relationship deal with each other: In 2005, when Rick Santorum was still in the Senate, I wrote a profile of the brash Pennsylvania Republican, who had managed to claw his way into his party’s leadership despite being disliked by many of his colleagues. Santorum’s unpopularity was common knowledge on Capitol Hill. As a reporter, however, getting a senator to disparage a colleague on the record can be next to impossible, given protocol against even the mildest slander of fellow members. I tried. And I turned up the predictably limp platitudes from senators who plainly could not stand Santorum — which is “Latin for asshole,” as Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska once helpfully translated. Finally, I encountered Democrat Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, just off the Senate floor. As she walked by, I asked her, “What do you think of Rick Santorum?” To which Landrieu grimaced and replied, “You couldn’t quote what I’d have to say about him.” That was good enough for me. I quoted Landrieu saying exactly that. Sure enough, next time they were on the floor together, Santorum made a beeline for Landrieu, saying in so many words that his feelings were hurt. In turn, Landrieu did what most self-respecting lawmakers do when cornered about saying something objectionable: she blamed her staff; specifically, she blamed her communications director, Adam Sharp, who by any reading of the situation had nothing to do with it. But Landrieu reamed him out anyway demanded he craft a letter of apology to Santorum. He did; Landrieu reviewed it and then refused to sign it herself, apparently not wishing to authenticate this travesty with her pristine signature. The office autopen had to suffice.
This Town climaxes with three sections about Obama’s re-election campaign, after which Leibovich drily notes, “By ten p.m. on November 6, the results were sealed for POTUS and the $2 billion cacophony was officially in the books.”
Now that the current monstrously expensive cacophony is underway, I expect to be frequently clutching at my memories of This Town. The truth hurts, but the truth also sets you free.
It’s best for artists to be politically aware, but I’m also suspicious of art that seeks approval through political correctness, a topic at the forefront of the epic 12-volume cycle A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell.
Somehow, Powell’s conservative and Tory perspective never ceases to not bother me.
This is unusual. Mostly when I sniff out that kind of atmosphere I give up on the author. A lot was explained when both P.D. James and Ruth Rendell died recently. After learning from the obituaries that James was conservative and Rendell liberal, the penny dropped and suddenly I understood why Rendell was so much more compelling than James.
At the conclusion of my fourth go-around with Dance, I had a minor revelation about Powell's politics. If "reactionary" means "closed to discussion," then there is nothing reactionary about Powell. Powell is always interested in the internal dialogues of every single character. In his underdone and ironic way, Nick Jenkins is willing to believe nearly everybody is just trying to live the life they want the best they can while pursued by furies. This is a liberal sentiment I identify with.
There is one caveat, however: You must be interested in art. All is forgiven if you can make an intelligent comment about a painting, a book, or a piece of music. Widmerpool, the big villain of the series, fails in the end almost because he has essentially no critical faculties about art.
Powell repeatedly makes fun of those who march under the banner of the Left, in particular those that see a kind of mid-century political correctness as the final arbiter of worth.
I myself dislike the narcissistic self-righteousness of some lefties these days: It was a revelation when I realized that Powell’s comic characters eager for Communism in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50's might find an echo in our contemporary culture of finger pointing and internet outrage.
This is not to say Powell is without failings politically. But I suspect a certain class of liberal will always find ways to excuse Powell just as easily Nick Jenkins excuses, say, Mark Members. Recently I discovered two long essays by Christopher Hitchens that are well worth knowing for Powell fans: "Powell’s Way" and "An Omnivorous Curiosity."
(DTM overview of A Dance to the Music of Time has been updated with the above.)
I was not only exactly the correct age when I discovered Douglas Adams, I was fed him in a perfect sequence of incremental amounts. Step one: The first few years of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and serious SF like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein (the latter’s Double Star foreshadows Adams). Step two: The comic years of Tom Baker culminating in the Adams-penned "City of Death." Step three: The BBC television adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. Step four: The first four books by Douglas Adams.
I was about 15 when the cycle was complete.
At first I enjoyed all the books rather uncritically. (“Enjoyed” undersells the transaction, frankly: “memorized” is more accurate.) However even as a teen I was rather disappointed by So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Years later when Mostly Harmless came out I was even more disappointed.
Paging through the texts now I can confirm that the first two books The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe are the genuine article. The imagination is incandescent and the tone is consistent. (Apparently the publisher, anxious to capitalize on the success of the BBC versions, rudely took away what was done of the first manuscript to publish. This is why the ending of Hitchhiker’s is so abrupt and also why Restaurant is so smoothly connected: They were not initially planned as separate books.)
Life, the Universe, and Everything is frequently hilarious but falters when Adams gets involved in a heroic/action plot.
Mostly set in modern England, So Long and All the Fish shows the biggest indebtedness to P.G. Wodehouse. There are some great scenes but Fish is essentially a romantic comedy that might have been more successful as a standalone. Is this really the same Arthur Dent as from the first three books?
Finally, Mostly Harmless is nearly unreadable, a truculent and bitter missive determined to end the series on the darkest note imaginable.
Now that I know Charles Willeford’s famous unpublished book Grimhaven I see Mostly Harmless in a more sophisticated light. A few years ago, I wrote up Grimhaven for "Nothing is Inchoate":
[The second Hoke Moseley thriller] New Hope for the Dead has a remarkable history. Willeford intended Miami Blues as a standalone. When it was a hit, his agent asked for a series. Willeford didn’t turn in New Hope for the Dead right away, he turned in Grimhaven instead….After his agent rejected the transgressive manuscript, Willeford tried again.
Grimhaven has detective Moseley killing his daughters and ending up in prison. This was Willeford’s truculent and bitter missive determined to end the series on the darkest note imaginable.
Willeford’s agent refused Grimhaven, but no agent could refuse a book by Douglas Adams. Adams was too powerful and famous. Mostly Harmless was published and Adams had some kind of obscure revenge on his fans.
Looking at Mostly Harmless again has lowered my opinion of Grimhaven a bit. I still enjoy Grimhaven because it was a unique and transgressive and remains a terrific anecdote about Charles Willeford. However, it’s good to remember that I have the luxury of enjoying that opinion because there were three more Moseley books.
If an agent had brusquely returned the manuscript of Mostly Harmless to Adams, if Adams had slept on it and called it off, we might have had a much more tolerable ending to the Hitchhiker canon.
Sometimes you should really listen to your agent.
(DTM overview of Willeford has been updated with the above.)
Like so many others, I was transfixed by Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Regrettably, like so many others, I have found Armada to be a serious sophomore slump.
There’s no need to discuss further, really, except that Armada did certainly hold my attention. Possibly if I hadn’t known Ready Player One I would have enjoyed Armada much more.
Since he wasn’t working with a series, Cline had to invent a new world. Those in genre fiction using a personalized template from a previous effort have a much better chance of getting the tone of a new book right.
Make Me is the 20th volume by Lee Child exploring the violent investigative adventures of ex-MP Jack Reacher. The books are all the same, and that’s a good thing. Make Me has the giant Reacher striding wherever he wants. Along the journey are impeccable descriptions of middle-of-nowhere American vastness and humorously precise accounts of fist fights and gun battles.
Child might be the biggest name in the thriller genre these days. He deserves the success. The twenty books are all ideal escapism. They are all very good, and all exactly the same. As soon as the next Reacher book comes out in a year I'll immediately buy that one, too.
A genre writer who has made sure to not write the same book over and over is Lawrence Block, who surprises with his brand-new The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes. The graphic sex scene starting on page three must be why Girl has been called, “James Cain on Viagra.”
Not all the book is sex, and indeed the book’s real strength is Block’s informed assessment of a long tradition. He tweaks the conventional Gold Medal noir pulp situation into something really meta and sophisticated. The conclusion of The Girl With the Deep Blue Eyes is singularly impressive. I’d write more about it but can’t afford to give anything else away…