Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Robert Trumbull : The Raft



I just finished reading a French translation of Robert Trumbull’s book The Raft.

It recounts the miraculous survival of an American aviator crew, who, during the Pacific war, lose their bearings in the sky and fail to return to their aircraft. Running out of petrol, the pilot Harold Dixon successfully ditches their plane in the Pacific just before nightfall. As he and his crew, radioman Gene Aldrich and gunner Tony Pastula, are preparing their life raft and scramble to collect the emergency necessities they can lay their hands on, the plane suddenly sinks away under them, leaving the three men in the water in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a ridiculous small, half inflated raft.

The book I read is a cheap 1953 edition with a foreword by the famous Alain Bombard, the adventurer who crossed the Atlantic on an inflatable raft in 1952.

Bombard had willingly put himself in an emergency situation in order to proof several of his survival theories. He did cross the Ocean and survived without water or food rations for at least 53 days.  While the general public embraced his sympathetic odyssey and his book “The voyage of the Hérétique” became an overnight bestseller, his crude theories, notably on drinking sea-water and his media exposure had turned the professional sea-people, the very people he wanted to reach, away from him.

It does not come as a surprise then, that he accepted to scribble a foreword for a book that was attempting to cash in on his own success. Bombard needed more real stories to confirm that what he had done was possible and that his conclusions could save people.

The story of the survival of the airplane crew was written ten year earlier, in 1942, during the War in the Pacific and is understandably heavily censored. There are practically no geographic or navigational details as to where the plane ditched and how the raft drifted during the 34 days at sea. The post-war French edition however mentions in a footnote that “it is now save to say that the wrecked crew landed on the Pukapuka atoll on the South seas, approximately 10 degrees south of the equator and 166 degrees west".

The writer Robert Trumbull was a young war correspondent covering the war in the Pacific. I suppose he interviewed the three men but he wrote the story solely from Harry Dixon’s (the officer) point of view. Without doubt commissioned by the Us Army, the 200 page story offered the troops an inspiring survival story with true heroics, a respect for military hierarchy and fear of God.

Struggling in the dark in the ocean, the three men succeed after half an hour of intense efforts to inflate, righten ( it opened upside-down ) and crawl into the tiny rubber boat of 1.2 by 2.4 m. With the plane sinking so fast, no food, water, navigational tools or anything that could have helped them, could be saved and embarked on board. The three men are virtually strangers of each other. The rotation of crews have put the forty year professional military sailor in the boat with two twenty year old boys.

Together, during 34 days they survive strong winds and heavy seas, they fight of sharks with their bare hands, they starve and are dehydrated, they are burned alive by the tropical sun, scorched by the salt and blinded by the piercing light.

Still they survive and are finally washed upon the shore of a tropical island. The story ends with a warship collecting the three men a few weeks later.

There is no reason to doubt the details described in the story and it is concern of how much these heroic men can take that keeps you reading about their ordeal.

Still, it is a pity that the story is censored. One can’t help wondering about the debriefing of the crew once they were back at their base. How did they lose their way ? Whose fault was it ? Did they discuss it in the raft ? Did they agree on a common story. Fact is that despite the loss of the plane, the three men were decorated and mentioned for their bravery.

The survival lessons from the ordeal were quick to be implemented.

The navigational issues, that is to say how to estimate your position with nothing but your senses was addressed already the next year with Harold Gatty’s groundbreaking work The Raft Book ( 1943 ), a collection of Polynesian techniques of non-instrument navigation. Gatty was an experienced Tasmanian mariner who had written down and used all kind’s of techniques still used by wayfarers in Polynesia. The Raft Book would turn out to be the kernel out of which the Polynesian cultural revival as masters of navigation would sprout.

I don’t know how fast improvements to the raft were made but inflatable rafts nowadays are fully equipped to avoid most of the issues described in The Raft : An inflatable canopy for protection against the weather elements, with an outside light for easy detection at night. There is a boarding ramp and grab handle for easy embarking, There are water and food canisters on board, flares, a knife, fishing kit, rain catching systems, first aid kit, signaling mirrors and even a torch.

Despite the book’s spare information, it remains an interesting read and a poignant story. It was recently retold in a motion picture under the apt title “Against The Sun”.

The truth however is that the three men survive by sheer luck. This is not to belittle their exploit, but without the regular shower of rain and the clemency of the weather they would not have made it. The fact that they are not ripped apart on the coral reef when finally reaching land and that they do so a few days before a cyclone batters the area where they drifted for so long time, are miracles on their own right.

The men's true heroism lies in their perseverance.


Maybe the sea is not that cruel after all…

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Pound Era : Introduction



When the French literary frontmen, Pierre Boncenne and Bernard Pivot shoved a collection of the 2500 most important literary works into their cleverly imagined Bibliotheque Idéale (1988), they reserved a full shelf for literary criticism. 

They tagged that shelf "Le livre comme miroir", the book as a mirror, or in other words books reflecting on themselves. Literary criticism they stated had earned its shelves in any ideal library for the works presented were of such interest and wit that these books should not be reserved only for a secluded Academic environment, but offered to the common reader too. 

Browsing through the tomes on that shelf, the interested reader would find Aristoteles’ Poetica and Auerbach’s Mimesis, Bakhtin of course and Barthes, Borges with his book of introductions, Broch, Calvino and Eco, Sartre, Nabokov and Musil. Not surprisingly French authors would fill the biggest part of the shelf, Proust for instance with his Contre Saint-Beuve, Alain with his Propos, Gourmont with his Promenades...

Still, Northrop Frye’s The Great Code received a spot but Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode were missing or had already tumbled from the shelves. For Bloom, who in 1988 hadn’t dropped his canonical bomb yet, fifteen minutes of evanescing fame should not have come as a surprise for he knew like no other that books on literary criticism had a very short shelf-life. 

The infernal academic cadence op publishing and the competitiveness of literary critics then as today were constantly jostling erudite works from the shelf and away from the reader’s attention. The tragedy being that for every new unproven masterpiece presented, a proven one was dumped. 

A book that is certainly missing in any ideal library of literary criticism is Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971).

It so happened that while reading Guy Davenport, another critic on the bank of the Lethe, I was made aware of Kenner's book. Davenport's appreciation of his friend’s work was so positive as to be nearly suspicious : “The Pound Era is a book to be read and reread and studied. For the student of modern letters it is a treasure, for the general reader it is one of the most interesting books he will ever pick-up in a lifetime of reading”. 

Hugh Kenner (1923 – 2003), a Canadian scholar, critic and professor and one of the great literary critics of the 20th century (now forgotten), wrote his masterpiece, a seminal text on the poet Ezra Pound in 1971 after numerous meetings and interviews with the Master himself and with the last witnesses of the Modernist era. 

As a literary text, The Pound Era is one of a kind. It is an extremely well written blend of  biography, intellectual history and literary analysis. Kenner succeeded with this work in raising Ezra Pound's profile among critics and readers of poetry. His work on the Modernists is so important that his archives are, exceptionally for a literary critic, kept at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin Texas.

Guy Davenport said that the Pound Era, more than just a book, was a library in which one, in the words of Bernard Bergonsi, could endlessly dip in…

I too was mesmerized by Kenner’s Pound Era, the kind of book that rather than passing information, recreates and opens a world. I took up the challenge of making this world my own. It was a feat that without the help of modern research possibilities would have been impossible, Kenner wrote his book in a world as far distanced from mine, as was Toronto of the sixties separated from the Londen of the interbellum. 

As I proceed, I’ll post reviews of each chapter as I understand them.



Expect this to be a long voyage…

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bertrand chiado


Stop !

This lousy picture (not worth of this blog anyway) depicts partially (very partially) a building façade made of beautiful blue glazed tiles. Imagine this building three stories high, a few buildings wide and completely covered this way. Now look closer, could this building be a library? In the windows books are presented left and right. The white arrow on the blue sign points to the name of the shop. Horizontally you can imagine a name written in a handsome letter type whose only aim is to be unreadable : Livraria Bertrand. 

Now read vertically on the corner piece: fundado em 1732. Seventeen hundred thirty-two, that makes this library 284 years old!

It is indeed a lousy picture of the oldest, Guiness - certified, still operating library in the world, Bertrand Chiado, Rua Garrett, 73-75 –Lisboa, visited on 17 July.

On the other side of the street is the life-size statue of Fernando Pessoa having his coffee. An ideal place to muse one's photographic talents.

Mateus osé

The archetype of a beautiful private library

Mateus is famous for its world -renowned rosé wine. The solar of Mateus, a magnificent 18th century baroque mansion, depicted on the label of the bottle, seems therefore to be a compulsory stop when on a wine-tour in Portugal. Especially when they also advertise wine tasting and purchase possibilities.

Well it is a tourist trap if you come for the wine.

I should have been warned when the young man at the entrance (who spoke English well enough) did not seem to understand what I meant when I asked if the 15 € (!) ticket included the wine tasting and a visit of the vineyards and cellars. I paid the whopping entrance fee nevertheless, booked the 12 o’clock visit-slot and in the meantime visited the sumptuous gardens, alleyways and the tiny vineyard in the back garden.

The visit of the superb mansion is worthwhile if you are interested in that kind of things, but it is basically the house of a very rich family that made their fortune in Brazil in the 18th century. At the end of the tour, I asked when we would see the wine cellars or the wine production or the tasting of the rosé.

There was none, the visit was over. The guide explained that the only link between the house and the famous rosé wine nowadays is the fact that the winery which is situated elsewhere, has bought the permission to use the picture of the Manor on their labels. There is no wine making at the Solar of Mateus since many years…

This clarified, I must then conclude that the library in the house, boasting 6000 volumes, is the main attraction for any book-lover. Not only is it a beautiful room, but it is also crammed with readable stuff, Dickens for instance and Alexandre Dumas and many other classic writers which are still read nowadays, all bound in magnificent unique, hard cover leather editions.

How I would have enjoyed lingering in that library for a few hours all by myself. There must be more treasures hidden on the bookshelves beside the Os Lusiadas by one-eyed Camoes.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A bookshop with a vengeance

Lello & Irmão 07/07/2017


Lello & Irmão on the rua das Carmelitas in the city of Porto is arguably the most beautiful bookshop in the world. Or second most beautiful…or third, whatever. A confirmation of its status as a cultural landmark is that the bookshop is even mentioned in Hachette's famous blue guide.

It is without doubt a compulsory place to visit and mentioned on the bucket list of many bibliophile.

The bookstore is easy to find with its conspicuous build-up and nice neo-gothic façade, but imagine my surprise to see that my entrance is prohibited without ticket and without my turn at the back of a long line of people waiting on the sidewalk to enter the famous bookshop. A bouncer at the door, disguised as a I don’t know who, with round glasses, black tophat and coat, regulates the entrances and exits. The entrance fee is 4 euro and tickets should be bought at a booth a few houses further on, where another queue is standing in line to purchase an entrance ticket.

 ….to enter a bookshop ?

There was no way, I would stand in line for something as ridicule as that. I cut my losses and decided frustrated and fuming to visit other more worthwile sites in Porto, like the world – heritage church of Saint Franciscus ( no queue there ) and Palace da Bolsa which tourists do not seem so eager to see as Lello & Irmao.

By the end of our day, my wife suspecting a life – time frustration ushers us back to Lello & Irmão, where wonder oh wonder, there is no queue anymore in front of the shop. I rush to the ticket shop, stand in line a few minutes with one of my sons to buy our entrance -voucher and then rush into the shop…to find it crammed with picture taking tourists.

The explanation of all this circus is that J.K. Rowling, who lived ten years in Porto, got her inspiration at Lello & Irmão for a few of the props and scenes used in her Harry Potter industry : the library, the bookcases and the uniforms of the students.( The university is nearby ).

Lello & Irmão has since been overcrowded by tourists seeking to make a snapshot of the interior, but without buying any books. A nuisance, we can imagine, for the regular book-buyer.

It is then understandable that they charge their 4 euro, which they discount when you buy a book, in an act of self-protection. It is a fair deal. A very fair deal especially, if you see that the books that are on display cater to all tastes : The Potters ofcourse, but also Ivanka Trump’s “women who work”, a book about the Go Pro camera, guru books and “Economia com todos”.

Lello is not forcefeeding Literature or Portugese writers to the hordes of visitors. They should. Bookish people and especially Portugese bookish people are way to kind.


So I bought two books of José Saramago to make my point, claimed my discount and a stamp on the title page to proof that yeah, ...

I was here too.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Summer reading 2017


Another year has flown by. Time for trolleys and tickets, backpack and boots, sunscreen and shades. Holiday time. Roth’s Radetzky March will join the swimming trunks as well as Grass’s Tin Drum, Ajtmatov's Dzjamilja and Mann's Holy Sinner. A bit of Elena Ferante on the other side of the towel completes the packing.