One Who Walked Alone – Robert E. Howard: The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis

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My very first impression of this book wasn’t too favorable: Novalyne Price starts off in a school-girlishly gushy manner (for example, she uses way more exclamation marks – seriously, and not humorously – than I can stomach without sarcastic remarks and irritated eye-rolls – “I met Bob Howard today! I’m so excited! Bob Howard is a real writer, and I met him, today!”), which made me wonder whether this was going to be 300 pages of fan-girling (which would have surprised me, knowing the friend who gifted me the book), but then the actual book started, Price cut down a bit on her exclamation mark usage, and even though I could never come to fully appreciate her style, the content more than made up for any possible stylistic deficiency or incompatibility, and soon I started to find this book thoroughly enjoyable, exhilarating, admirable, delightfully unruly and also heart-breaking.

And as I came to realize that there’s no way for me to write a coherent review, I decided to write one based on my random thoughts and feelings, separated by headings.

The blurb

I’d recommend skipping the sensationalist, trashy blurb altogether, because based on that, you might just think that this is a – well, a sensationalist and trashy memoir/biography, when in fact it’s anything but.

What is this made of?

The book mostly consists of the text of Price’s journals and diaries, from that roughly two-year period when she knew and dated Howard. I don’t know how heavily Price edited or revised her text, and how much she deleted from it when – more than 40 years later – she took her journals and turned them into this book, but in any case, the book still retains a lot of journal-like characteristics, which in itself is neither good nor bad. Price’s book is as intimate and vivid as any journal that is faithfully maintained by its author, but it’s also full of tiresome repetitions, flights of fancy and a certain monomania – it’s full of details which are probably very interesting for the author of the journal, but perhaps not so interesting for anyone else.

The “story”

In 1934, Novalyne Price gets a job as a teacher in Cross Plains, a small Texas town, where she soon manages to pick up Robert Howard. Price and Howard already knew each other briefly from earlier, and I’m not even sure what I mean here by “picking up”, because even though they go on to spend a lot of time together in the next several months, and even though Price sometimes thinks about Howard as a possible romantic interest, they just remains friends throughout their relationship – friends who spend their time driving up and down through the Texas countryside, reading books together, discussing writing, literature and the downfall of civilization, and also arguing a lot.

And even though in the beginning I briefly thought that perhaps Price is just a fan-girl, hanging on the words of Howard-the-Barbarian with fascination, I soon realized that she’s in fact a smart, determined, hard-willed, ambitious and self-confident young woman with a quirky sense of humor, who doesn’t give a damn about many of her environment’s conventions and expectations, while at the same time she’s an often clumsy, irritating, not-very-imaginative country girl who sometimes displays a frightful lack of empathy. In short – I realized that Novalyne Prize is a real human, a person with random moods, with good and bad moments and traits, with prejudices, biases, deeply held beliefs, with a lot of enthusiasm and lust for life, with all kinds of joys and sorrows. And though it’s possible to dislike her as a person, the real-ness of her own personal reality is indisputable.

What’s this about?

Theoretically, it’s about the last two years of Robert E. Howard, as witnessed by a close friend, but in reality, it’s much more about the friend herself. Yes, Novalyne Price wasn’t afraid to look closer and go closer to Howard, whom almost the whole town considered a lunatic, so it’s probable that she really got to know Howard better than anyone else. Still – Price’s main concern and interest was always her own life: she soon gave up the idea of getting into a closer, romantic relationship with Howard, she dated other men, too (and some of her journal entries concerning one of her regular dates, Truett, who was also Howard’s friend, really bring to mind the world of teenage-girl diaries), and she often got fully engrossed in her job and ignored everything else – therefore I sometimes felt that, after all, she probably didn’t see/understand Howard as well as she claims.

And about what else?

About so much more. The book contains the whole life of a small Texas town in the 1930s, and it’s is alive and vibrant with the whole era, environment and background – it’s just there, without any long descriptions, which is amazing; it’s also full of discussions about writing, literature and literary aspirations (and I’ll probably never again look down upon pulp writers paid by the word count, and definitely not on Howard); and (whenever Novalyne Price manages to put her ego aside) it’s also full of beautiful and sensitive descriptions about the things you cannot change, about all that’s fucking tragic in life, about the sense of living at the wrong time in the wrong place.

All in all, it’s a fascinating and nerve-racking book. (If Novalyne Price’s style didn’t get so much on my nerves as it did, it would be simply fascinating.)

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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I bought this book quite randomly, except, not really – I liked the title, the topic, and the fact that it’s set in New York, which is my favorite mythical city – and it turned out to be a good book. The Lonely City contains a bit of everything: there are autobiographical ruminations about loneliness, there’s a bit of art history, politics, psychology, a bit about the history of New York and so on.

The book grew out of Olivia Laing’s experiences when, in her mid-thirties, she moved to New York to be together with a man, except it turned out that the man didn’t want to be with her after all, which left Laing all alone – alone in more than one sense: in a strange city (and New York at that, the most archetypal alienated and alienating city), with the pain of a fresh breakup, without close friends.

What do you do in a situation like this? You drag yourself out to the street when you really must, but then you run back home as fast as you can, and then spend most of your time lying around in your bed, watching videos on YouTube, and searching online for the illusion of human warmth, without accepting the dangers inherent in real human contact.

Laing does exactly this, but fortunately her brain is still working, so in her case binge-watching videos, wasting time online, and thinking about her poisonous and stinking loneliness leads somewhere: to this book. Laing, just for something to do, starts to research loneliness, looks into the psychology of loneliness, and examines how this is a state/feeling that’s universal and yet weirdly impossible to share with others. Then she moves on to the loneliness of cities, then to artists who lived and worked in big and lonely cities and who were also themselves lonely and/or whose main artistic theme was loneliness.

The book is structured in the way that at the beginning of each chapter, Laing talks a bit about the stages of her own loneliness, and then she jumps into the life and art of one of her heroes (David Wojnarovicz, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger), constructs the biographies of their loneliness, and analyzes their work from the perspective of how they expressed or diminished the eternal loneliness of the given artist.

And then there are her digressions, of course. She talks about the AIDS epidemic and how inhumanly society treated those diagnosed with the illness when it first appeared; about sexual and other kinds of transgressions, about enlarging and changing the self; about abnormality and the inability to fit in; about the old and wild and dangerous New York, a city that despite its dangers still provided more opportunity for human contact than contemporary New York; about everything becoming uniform; about online relationships and the disappearance of privacy in this here age.

Even though she doesn’t get too deep into any of these topics (there are way too many topics here for that) and even though I didn’t have any major epiphanies while reading her thoughts about loneliness (maybe, just maybe, I have some experiences of my own with it, just like – probably – most everyone), Laing still inspired me and she made me want to read a whole lot of other books. For example, out of the four artists whose names I so casually dropped two paragraphs back, I only knew Andy Warhol’s name so far, but even knowing his name and some of his work, I had no idea about his loneliness, and as for the other three artists (and lots of others mentioned here), I’ve never heard about them before – and it was great to hear about them because their work seems very exciting, and anyway, everyone’s more interesting and more complex if you look closer. (For example, Valerie Solanas did other things in her life, too, didn’t just shoot Andy Warhol.)

And the gentle ambiguity and irony surrounding the „art of loneliness” in the title is beautiful. Being lonely is not an art – but creating art out of loneliness is an art, and that art might help others feels a little bit less lonely.

I must add, though, that Laing’s style irritates me from time to time: it’s a bit too didactic, a bit too gushingly nostalgic (I bet it was awesome when in the 1970s Times Square was the center of porn and prostitution, and I bet it was just great when during this same era everyone could go and pick up someone for some casual intimacy among the ruins of one of New York’s old ports, so at least the lonely and the dispossessed could find some human interaction, and so on – but I feel it’s a bit of a stretch to treat this era as a wonderful golden age), and a bit too pessimistic (or perhaps I’m the one who’s too optimistic – anyway, I don’t think everything’s becoming uniform, and I do think that in many places it’s easier today to be an outsider, a non-model citizen, or a person with „non-traditional” sexual preferences than it used to be in that supposedly golden age of the 70s that Laing describes with such tearful nostalgia).

And even though her biographies about others are very human, emotional, and often truly touching, the way she talks about her own experience of loneliness just isn’t that interesting. Seriously, who hasn’t yet had the experience of moving to another city because of a love interest that didn’t work out well? True, I haven’t, still, I know the feeling, and Laing’s loneliness in the face of this event (as much as she can or wants to express it) is not a bit more interesting or a bit more unique than the loneliness I also knew at some points of my life.

Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

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We all know or think we know something about William Shakespeare: everyone knows the titles of at least a couple of his works, everyone knows some basic biographical facts about him, and everyone knows his portrait which is featured not only on the cover of Burgess’ novel but also in probably every single high school textbook of literature.

The main character of Nothing Like the Sun is William Shakespeare, and the novel is about his life and artistic career. Just like a regular biography, the book features such details as Shakespeare’s birthplace, the name of his spouse, and the names of the theaters and companies he worked for after moving to London from Stratford-upon-Avon. However, all this is just background, and this novel is about everything which is usually left out from the regular biographies: what was Shakespeare like as a friend, lover, father? What were his passions and how did he live his everyday life? Where did he get the ideas for his plays and sonnets from? Who or what inspired him? What was he like as a person – honest, open, careful, corrupt?

400 years after his death, these questions, of course, cannot be answered with any kind of „scientific” accuracy and authenticity – and Burgess didn’t attempt to do this. What he wrote is not a biography proper, but rather an exceedingly clever and entertaining fictive biography in which he doesn’t write about the „real” Shakespeare but about the poet as he may-have-been.

The great playwright starts out as a true poet-in-the-making: during his teenage years, he should spend his time learning the basics of his father’s trade (glove-making), but his mind is occupied not with gloves and leather, but with puns and as yet immature and clumsy sonnets. And even though the young bard is not at all sure that he has any artistic talent whatsoever, he is definitely sure that he doesn’t want to spend his life working as a glover, so when he’s presented with the chance to join a playing company, he doesn’t think twice before leaving his family for London. After his escape, he spends most of his time in London where a lot of work, a lot of animosity and a lot of success lies a-waiting for him – and this is also where he meets his two muses: the golden man and the dark lady who inspire him to write his sonnets.

Shakespeare, as depicted/imagined by Burgess, is an intriguing and ambiguous character: he is very practical and businesslike, but his mind is just as full of fascinating ideas and free-floating lines of poems as we like to think about great poets; he enjoys the company of his lovers and his life in general, but he cannot for a moment forget the melancholy fact that he’s getting older; he seems to neglect his family and hardly ever pays them a visit, but he never forgets to send them enough money for their daily needs. And so on.

Reading about the (fictitious) course of the poet’s life is exciting in itself, but Burgess offers other thrills and games as well. For instance, he includes some famous lines from his plays in his conversations with others, or he mentions a seemingly unimportant episode in Shakespeare’s life in which you can recognize the basis or a crucial plot element of one of his later works. Just one example: Shakespeare once witnesses an execution which is carried out by the executioner cutting out the convict’s heart. And of course you never know how a real life event is actually transformed into the artistic output of a writer (or if it ever gets transformed into art), this episode may easily remind you of The Merchant of Venice, the plot of which, among other things, revolves around cutting out a pound of meat from a man’s body, and you may think that Shakespeare must have gotten this element of the play from the execution he saw several years earlier.

And the novel is full of literary games like this, so if you happen to enjoy thinking about topics such as the connections between reality and fiction, and their effects on each other, and if you’re prone to look for allusions and half-hidden references even in the most innocent lines of a novel, then you will quite probably enjoy this creative and marvelously witty book.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

I came across this novel on a blog somewhere, though I can’t recall exactly what I read about Frey’s book that made me want to read it immediately. Anyway, I asked my sister to get the book for me from the library – and not buying my own copy proved to be a good idea, as this novel (or memoir? who knows) is not as good as I expected. Before I begin, let me warn you that this post will contain spoilers – if there’s such a thing as a spoiler when talking about an autobiographical, supposedly non-fiction book.

A Million Little Pieces tells the story of how James Frey became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and then how he quit drinking and taking drugs. James was admitted to a world-famous rehabilitation center at the age of 23, when he was already in a life-threateningly dangerous bodily and mental condition. The institution where James was cured is one of the most successful such institute in the world, with a success rate of around 15%, meaning that approximately 15% percent of the patients treated there remain sober one year after the end of the treatment, which is a world record. James is, therefore, in good hands, and he has everything he needs in order to quit doing drugs, but this is not easy at all, given his decade-long substance-abusing habits, his rage and his self-hatred which all make it seem much easier for him to continue drinking and die. Finally, of course, James manages to quit drinking – otherwise this book wouldn’t have been written at all.

The book deals with the period James spent at the institution, but we get flashbacks about his past, and slowly get to know his family background, the roots of his deviant behavior and the worst deeds he committed during his decade of substance-abuse. This whole lot of background information is necessary because James needs to confront the memories of his past, and needs to face himself before he can even hope to attain sobriety and start a new life. By the way the motif of facing ourselves is the most beautiful and poetic image in the book, it surfaces again and again both in its literal and metaphoric sense, and finally becomes the symbol of James’s recovery.

As you might imagine, James’s life and the story of his recovery is full of horrible events, and the book contains several sufficiently dreadful, brutal and dramatic details of the suffering James went through before he attained sobriety. However, despite all the shocking and cruel scenes I consider this book a bit too much like a fairy tale, and it is far from being the most authentic book I’ve ever encountered in the topic of addiction.

Even though the credibility of the novel was questioned, and finally the author admitted to changing and over-emphasizing several elements in the story to make the book more dramatic, A Million Little Pieces is not inauthentic because it contains a number of fictitious elements, but because if paints too bright a picture of James’s wonderful recovery.

First, James poses as some kind of lone hero who manages to get through all the difficulties of giving up a drug habit because he is infinitely obstinate and has superhuman self-control – what’s more, he can tackle these obstacles even though he doesn’t give a damn about following the rules, in fact, he breaks all of them continuously. This in itself is a fiction of the most incredible order. James is by no means alone: he has a loving, caring, supporting family, and he undergoes the best possible treatment imaginable. Without these advantages, it would have been virtually impossible for him to recover, or simply to stay alive.

Second, despite the fact that James supposedly almost destroyed his body (there’s a detailed account in the book of the massive damage virtually all his vital organs suffered on account of his continuous alcohol and drug abuse), I think he recovers relatively easily. Of course, at the beginning of his rehabilitation, James feels rather bad, he could die for a drop of alcohol, and can hardly keep any food in his system, but suddenly, without any obvious transition he can eat and drink normally, his craving for alcohol disappears, and it’s sufficient for him if he can poison himself with coffee and cigarettes. I may have dozed off while reading certain passages and missed some vital information, but I still don’t consider James’s recovery credible. He simply recovers too quickly and too easily. It seems unimaginable to me (though may be true for all I know) that someone with a decade-long, serious drug habit gets up one day with the philosophy that „from now on I will simply say no” – and manages to live accordingly ever after.

It seems that this simple solution worked well enough for James – good for him. But this memoir is definitely not about the screwed up life of the average junkie. It’s a fictionalized personal success story, which is fine, but don’t expect too much authenticity and broader real-life relevance from it.

Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

Alexander Masters first met Stuart Shorter in Wintercomfort, a Cambridge institution for helping the homeless. Stuart was an ex-convict, a junkie and an alcoholic; he suffered from borderline personality disorder and muscular dystrophy; he was prone to self-mutilation and outbursts of anger; and earlier he lived the chaotic life of a homeless man. The Cambridge social workers considered Stuart’s case a great success story as they more or less managed to turn him into a ’normal’ person: they provided him with a council flat so that he could finally live a regular life free from the strains of homelessness, and Stuart even stopped doing drugs.

Alexander (whom I will mention by his first name, as he also appears in the book as Alexander) wanted to dig deeper into Stuart’s story and find out where his life went off the tracks, so he decided to write his biography. The book took him years to complete, and during this time he conducted countless interviews with Stuart and his family, and he also managed to become friends with Stu: he tasted Stuart’s famous prison curry; lent him some money every now and then; accompanied him to his court hearings; and based on Stuart’s idea he organized a big campaign in order to have the authorities release the leaders of Wintercomfort who were arrested on less than just charges.

After several years, Alexander finished the biography, which is in fact not only a biography as it also contains the story of its own creation, and the story of the friendship between Alexander and Stuart. Among the biographical chapters proper, we find the chronicle of the events of Stuart’s and Alexander’s present days, and we can also read about the difficulties Alexander faced while writing the book.

At the beginning of the book, Alexander admits that Stuart found the first version of the biography excessively boring and recommended that Alexander write the events in a reversed order, in the manner of a crime novel, so that the reader can keep guessing as to what might have happened in Stuart’s childhood which turned him into a dangerous misfit bound to live a chaotic life. Alexander listened to Stu’s advice and I’m glad he did. Even though the outcome (or rather: the beginning) is predictable, I was keeping my fingers crossed and kept anticipating what might surface in the subsequent chapter, and kept hoping that it wouldn’t be what I expected.

Despite the constant shifts between past and present and other such ’literary’ things in the book, Alexander doesn’t turn Stuart into a romantic hero. He writes about Stuart in an honest, often rather ironic way, doesn’t try to make his actions appear in a positive light, and doesn’t depict him as a poor misunderstood man. And even though Alexander considers himself to be a friend of Stuart, he readily admits that sometimes he is absolutely fed up with Stuart’s behavior, way of life, unpredictability and constant chattering, and that he often thinks that the best solution would be to lock up Stuart in some safe place where he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone – least of all himself.

By the way, it’s very interesting how Stuart himself withstands even the most feeble attempt on Alexander’s part to turn him into a tragic hero with a hard life. As I mentioned before, Alexander tries to pinpoint the event which turned the lively and happy little Stuart first into a teenager constantly running away from home and sniffing glue, and then into a thief and drug-abuser who was bound to end up in prison. And even though Stuart claims that his life changed forever the day he discovered violence, he immediately adds that a lot of kids with a similar background grew up to be normal adults. Therefore even though Alexander may think (and with every reason I’m sure) that a childhood such as Stuart’s can wreck someone’s life forever, Stuart himself is not willing to blame only others for ruining his life, he refuses to make a melodrama out of his life, and this indeed makes him rather special.

Finally I must mention that I had the misfortune to read the Hungarian edition of the book, which is of a very low quality. The translation is full of mistakes which often make it really hard to understand a sentence, and sometimes even suggest a meaning totally different from the real meaning of the sentence. So I wasn’t even surprised to see that the name of the author is three times written as ’Alexanders’ instead of ’Alexander’ on the book cover. It’s a pity that mistakes (or rather negligence) of this kind make this book seem a cheap pulp book, when in fact it is everything but cheap and pulpy.