Back Shelf Review: The Colossus of Maroussi

March 20, 2009

The Colossus of Maroussi

040315_colossus1By Henry Miller

Published 1941, reprinted June 1975

New Directions

244 pp.

ISBN 0-811-20109-0

Reviewed March 19, 2009

To paraphrase Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, in his essay on Led Zeppelin and heavy metal: modern literature would not exist without Henry Miller, and if it did, it would suck. With novels such as “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn,” Miller was perhaps more than any other author responsible for the development of autobiographical work, mixing self-study and philosophy with surrealism and often graphically honest depictions of sex. His writing became a cornerstone of the censorship debate in America – copies actually had to be smuggled into the country until 1964 – and inspired authors from William S. Burroughs to Harvey Pekar.

“Cancer” and “Capricorn” are surely Miller’s most influential works, but also have the consequence of making Miller seem like a seedy character, dwelling on his poverty and random sexual encounters. He may have lived in such conditions, but as a writer he was capable of depicting so much more, as is evident in his novel “The Colossus of Maroussi.” Published in 1941 – seven years after “Cancer” and two after “Capricorn” – “Maroussui” is less a memoir than it is a celebration, both of the beauty of Greece and the personal revelations he undergoes.

At first glance, the book could be seen as a travel book on the Grecian experience. Unemployed and living off the kindness of a variety of friends, Miller crosses the Mediterranean nation with stops at historical sites such as the ruined city of Knossos and the purported burial site of Agamemnon at Mycenae. Along the way he meets a variety of expatriates and Greek writers, enjoying many nights of wine and conversation and determining his travel plans based on convenience and how long his travel visa will last.

But Miller quickly shatters any traditional travel format, characterizing Greece right away as a “sacred precinct” under God’s personal protection. The overall experience of Greece seems to be as much an awakening for him as mescaline was for Aldous Huxley in “The Doors of Perception,” as he feels he is tapping into a primordial mood and is determined to express all the feelings stirred in him by the location. Every section of the book praises Greece, from the late-night walks in little villages to the brilliant conversation inspired by the Greek writers Katsimbalis and Seferiades.

The tonal shift between these and the Tropics books is a noticeable one – no sex scenes, no dwelling on the dirtiness of his condition beyond passing words on his hotel room and no scraping for money to pay expenses. Miller himself characterizes the difference in settings as a motivation, with Athens “a violet-blue reality which envelops you with a caress” and New York “a trop-hammer vitality which drives you insane with restlessness.” There is a constant sense of stopping to take a breath here, and in doing so the air is found cleaner and cheaper to breathe.

Miller is also helped along in his writing by current events. At the time of writing, World War II was wracking the majority of the European continent, but Greece was neither a battleground nor a major participant, filling it with expatriates and a sense of security. In this context Miller gets to view it as an oasis, visiting the ancient sites of Knossos and Mycenae and looking upon them as areas that will feel the same long after the war is over and all involved have turned to dust. He’s putting the country on a pedestal, an Ionic column that will keep the country stable through any man-made calamity.

His celebration and description are enough to motivate any traveler, but it is when he gets into a contemplative mood that there is a true soul to “Colossus.” Many of his revelations would work as philosophy essays, musing on human nature and how a visit to Greece would do all some good. When walking through a village and hearing radio news of the war from various points, he sees the folly of the industrial world bringing death where there should be celebration; and at Agamemnon’s tomb he touches the idea of becoming a spiritual nomad, free of the “spawn of cultured souls.” The best of these passages comes at the amphitheatre of Epidaurus, when he realizes what humanity is truly in need of is a revolution – not of government and war but a worldwide revolution of internal thought, realizing the inexhaustibility of the human spirit and eradicating its darker side.

The only real issue in the book comes up in that Miller’s love for Greece is so overwhelmingly positive, his feelings tend to overwhelm at times. He seems incapable of criticizing the country and its people, only marking against them when they keep expressing a desire to go to America he gently tries to dissuade them from. Quick to dismiss the other expatriates he meets as vulgar and unrefined, he even goes so far as to hope the Englishmen he met there will “consider me an enemy of their kind” after reading the book.

“Colossus” should certainly not be read as a guide to touring in Greece or Greek landmarks – there are plenty of locations mentioned, but a more formal guidebook would need to be paired with it to make sense of them. Instead, it is a book to read for the emotional side of the country, an example of just what can be experienced when you take a moment and take in exactly where you are. It is a well-crafted book filled with a sense of joy, and that sense makes it one of Miller’s most worthy efforts.

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Back Shelf Review: The Wilco Book

December 30, 2008

The Wilco Book

the-wilco-bookBy Wilco, Dan Nadel, Peter Buchanan-Smith, Rick Moody and Fred Tomaselli

Published November 2, 2004

PictureBox, Inc.

160 pp.

ISBN 0-971-36703-5

Reviewed January 4, 2009

Originally reviewed at: Helium

If you have to pick a favorite independent music group from the last decade, your safest choice is probably Chicago-based band Wilco. Their music is a laid-back blend of alternative/country/rock, their songs rarely move from catchy to harsh, and their outfit of T-shirts and jeans mixed with horn-rims and outdated suits fits the archetype of hipster. Their albums have achieved enough success to move them into mainstream, and their continually evolving songs keep them planted in the alternative side of music.

Wilco is a band that attracts casual fans and devotees in equal measure, which makes 2004’s “The Wilco Book” a bit of an outlier to their catalog as it’s a book only the latter will find accessible. To casual fans it will likely read as an exercise in pretension, modern art-style photo collages mixed with disordered interviews. More devout Wilco listeners, however, will find buried tidbits on the group’s creative process and a few interesting curiosities.

Described as “a collaborative picture book about music,” “The Wilco Book” is essentially a coffee table scrapbook, following the group as they work in their Chicago studio and backstage at a September 2003 concert. Each member of the band has a chance to talk about what shapes their musical style, their feelings on touring and creating an album, and what – if anything – drives their band’s identity.

The Chicago natives have apparently been spending too much time walking around the Art Institute’s Modern Art wing, as the entire book is filled with esoteric photos and drawings. Early pages are filled with collections of stamp-sized photos, ranging from guitars and graffiti to pumpkins and medical diagrams, as if they were snapped of whatever caught the band’s interest. As an aesthetic choice they are interesting, but anyone who wants to read about music will wonder why they bothered.

On that subject, the band-focused photos are far more interesting. A section on instruments has some terrific war stories associated, identifying what instrument goes to what track, naming the origins and battle scars on certain guitars, and offering some interesting trivia like using different colored guitar picks to code different days as the tour removes the ability to know what day it is. Backstage photos of the group before a show offer a candid view, but could have used better selection: does anyone really need to see a photo of the power supply to the band’s Chicago recording studio, the backstage food spread or rows of empty chairs before the show?

When it comes to written content, this is more consistent but still hit-or-miss. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy has a long essay discussing his theories on rock music, making an album and writing lyrics, and his thoughts are probably the most interesting part of the book. Each of the other musicians chimes in as well with varying success (drummer Glenn Kotche and his hypothetical drumming devices are the most interesting) and a more technical perspective comes from their sound engineers and live show engineers.

Outside of the band, author Rick Moody (“The Black Veil”) takes a scholarly look at Wilco’s evolution, a surprisingly interesting essay that breaks the group down album by album and song by song. Less useful is an interlude of Henry Miller’s essay “The Angel is My Watermark,” which may have some insight into how the group thinks but in the set context just adds to the mood of literary pretentiousness.

And for a third medium, the book also includes an eponymous album. According to the liner notes these are various extracts of after-hours recording sessions, played with an eye towards concept experimentation and bashing out song ideas. Thematically, it matches the book’s modern art style, opening with a dark instrumental piece called “Pure Bug Beauty” that feels like Explosions in the Sky on morphine.

The other tracks of The Wilco Book are a mix of success and throw-away. Few of the songs (with the exception of “The High Heat”) feel like proper Wilco songs, and some (“Doubt”) sound like the band is literally throwing things around the studio. More interesting ones include “Diamond Claw,” which has Wilco’s trademark low-key quasi-country tone, and the loose rambling guitar of “Barnyard Pimp.” It works well if you’re looking for ambient sound in a coffee shop, but don’t play it expecting a proper Wilco record.

In that way, the album is an apt summary of the whole “Wilco Book” project: it will satisfy and even keenly interest some fans, but would need far more editing to appeal to the casual Wilco follower. If you listen to them closely check it out, but if you’re looking for an introduction to the group a better idea is to buy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and hang around your local coffee shop until a musical conversation inevitably brings them up.