Doppelgängers, Evil And Otherwise

“Meeting your doppelgänger is never a good thing,” I told an audience a few weeks back, my prelude into a long digression about a recent reading obsession, Shūsaku Endō’s novel Scandal. In the book a writer named Suguro, a Catholic public intellectual with a reputation for moral rectitude, finds his steps dogged by a man who looks just like him — apart from the evil sneer. The lookalike frequents the red light district, leading people to believe that Suguro himself is living a double life.

John Gardner once described the method by which fiction goes after truth: characters subtly embody values which are test through action. Endō’s story could have been written to that formula. In a speech in the opening chapter, a longtime friend of Suguro’s describes the great theme of his literary work: the belief that “a yearning for rebirth lies concealed within each act of sin.” The question is whether the theme delivered at the outset has any hope of reaching the book’s end unscathed. (It doesn’t.)

As Suguro hunts down his doppelgänger, psychologists and sadists weigh in on the question. “There’s magma inside people’s hearts,” the masochist Motoko explains to a journalist determined to expose Suguro. “You can’t see it on the surface, but suddenly the magma will erupt. There’s magma buried inside every person at the time they’re born. It’s in every child …. even elementary school kids will gang up on a helpless child and beat him up. They do that … because it’s fun. Because there’s magma in their hearts.”

Eventually Suguro’s second self (the subject, incidentally, of a Dorian Gray-ish portrait) accuses the novelist of having stopped short of depicting the real world. He has written about sin, yes, but he has ignored evil. And he has done this by ignoring the magma inside himself all along. Suguro is a moralist, a good man living a tidy life untouched by scandal. He is Jekyll to his double’s Hyde. Whatever his notion of the fall, he stands apart from it, essentially untainted. The hunt for his doppelgänger draws him into an underworld — actually, that’s not quite right: the quest has more to do with realizing that this world is the underworld.

“During his long writing career, Suguro had always felt that a token of salvation could be discerned within every base act of man. He had believed that a rejuvenating energy beat faintly within every sin. It was for that reason that he had been able to believe, however shakily, that he was a Christian. But after today he had to accept this filthiness as a part of himself. He had to begin searching for evidence of salvation even within this filthiness …. There could be no doubt that a darkness he had never depicted in his fiction was concealed inside his own heart.”

What makes all this so fascinating to me is that Suguro the novelist is a kind of doppelgänger himself. His biography — his bibliography — suggests a close identification between Shūsaku Endō and his protagonist. Like Suguro, Endō is a Catholic, best known for his novel of seventeenth century martyrdom Silence (which is being filmed by Martin Scorsese). So Endō is writing about how own double confronted by … his own double. And he seems to be doing so not out of a desire to be clever, but in order to come to grips with something difficult that can’t be approached any other way. James Wood says that the vitality of characters in fiction derives from “our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.” Suguro is nothing if not a protagonist who’s been brooded over.

François Mauriac, another Catholic novelist, told The Paris Review back in the fifties that:

“… for the novelist who has remained Christian, like myself, man is someone creating himself or destroying himself. He is not an immobile being, fixed, cast in a mold once and for all. This is what makes the traditional psychological novel so different from what I did or thought I was doing. The human being as I conceive him in the novel is a being caught up in the drama of human salvation, even if he doesn’t know it.”

In this case, Suguro knows it.

Case Closed on Jack the Ripper?


I’m no Ripperologist, but it would be hard to to have gone online the past week without discovering that, once again, the identity of the world’s most notorious serial killer has been scientifically revealed. This time the Polish hairdresser Aaron Kosminski is the culprit, his DNA having been positively identified on a shawl belonging to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The evidence comes out in a new book by Russell Edwards, and while we’ve been here before — Patricia Cornwell, anyone? — perhaps the case really has been cracked.

Out of curiosity I went down to the basement late last night and dug out Philip Sudgen’s monumental The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, which happens to be the only book I own on the subject, and re-read his chapter on Kosminski. For years following his retirement, Sir Robert Anderson, formerly Assistant Commissioner of the Met, dropped broad hints in his memoirs and elsewhere that the case had been solved and the Polish Jew responsible for the crimes had died in an insane asylum. While he stopped short of naming Kosminski, there is little doubt who he meant.

That  seems to make the latest revelation seem anti-climatic. Everybody on the force knew it was Kosminski, if Anderson is to be believed. But Sudgen doesn’t think Anderson is to be believed. He goes to great lengths dismantling the supposed case against Kosminski, even enlisting Winston Churchill (who savaged Anderson’s memoirs in the House of Commons, characterizing the Assistant Commissioner as a self-aggrandizing blowhard). By the time Sudgen is done it’s hard to take Aaron Kosminski seriously as a Ripper suspect. And yet, perhaps Anderson was right all along, despite Churchill, Abberline, Macnaghten — and for that matter Sudgen.

The advantage of being a reader and writer of crime fiction is not needing to rely on anything as pedestrian as scientific testing to arrive at a verdict. The Ripper case, as far as I’m concerned, has been solved ever since the publication of Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in which Dr. Watson catches the celebrated consulting detective in the very act at Miller’s Court. (At least, I think he does. It’s been awhile since I read the book. What I do recall is that Dibdin’s pastiche made an awful lot of sense.)

You may object that Sherlock Holmes cannot have been the killer. He is, after all, made up. He’s just a fictional character. True enough. The thing is, after a hundred and twenty-odd years, not to mention countless books and movies, can’t the same thing be said more or less of Jack the Ripper himself?

Pick Yourself a Marsh Reed


I mentioned Robert Farrar Capon’s advice about walking yesterday, which comes from his excellent 1969 book An Offering of Uncles (awesome first edition cover art above). Not being much of a foodie, I’ve never gotten into his most famous book, The Supper of the Lamb, but my friend Luke wooed me with Uncles and now I’m hooked. Over at Relief Journal, I’ve written in a bit more detail about the significance of walking to Capon, in particular his advice that as you go, you pick yourself a marsh reed.

Our spaces are becoming more ephemeral as they become more virtual. We travel them without feet and without cars, too. Without bodies of any kind, we find ourselves “present” in places which have no actual location or landscape, places that exist nowhere but the server farm, where they are as apparent to the eye as thoughts are when you gaze at a brain.

You can read the whole post here: “Envy of Angels.”


The Life Peripatetic

Ferris Jabr writes in The New Yorker about “Why Walking Helps Us Think”:

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.

My years of walking to think, of constant pacing, came to a close while I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t remember when I stopped or why. A treadmill was probably involved. A few months ago I started walking again, not an easy thing to do. What had once come naturally now felt artificial, forced. (It didn’t help that I had misgivings about the quantified self.) Still, I kept it up and now every day for an hour or two I find myself in “precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight,” though the ideas and insight have followed only grudgingly. So far.

Robert Farrar Capon recommended walking as an antidote to the physical dislocation of the modern world, a place whose manufactured landscapes are traveled by car, flattening hills and conveying us over meaningless distance in a climate-controlled cocoon. Whenever I find myself puffing halfway up a steep incline, baking in the sun, I remind myself that in addition to priming my mind for strokes of genius, I am combating disembodied modernity. It feels good.

What struck me most about Jabr’s piece, though, is the opening, in which he quotes Nabokov’s advice to the effect that Ulysses scholars ought to be plotting Bloom’s walks. In the early 90s, I did exactly that, never realizing I was following the great man’s advice. Reading (and finishing) Ulysses was a requirement for my grad course on Modernist British Lit, and I figured if I managed that, there was no way I’d write a term paper on anything else. But Joyce’s masterpiece is nothing if not written about. Finding a fresh angle seemed near impossible. So I used some maps of Dublin and mention of a blind man both Bloom and Stephen Dedalus notice as they walk to reconstruct their probably paths, with approximate time of day duly noted. I turned this in believing it was likely an original contribution to Joyce scholarship, then thought better and was satisfied with a passing grade. Now apparently the whole perambulation has been mapped via Google. Whether the blind man is on the chart, I don’t know.

A Failed Pilgrimage

This country doesn’t honor its literary greats. Those sirens would never have sounded in France.”

That was my thought listening to a police car race by during a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” aloud to a 1950s audience. I’m a francophile at heart, and as a writer prone to feeling under appreciated (most of us do), it’s pleasant to daydream about Gallic accolades, especially when I’m out of sorts following an eye-opening pilgrimage attempt at Andalusia, O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about the experience and my subsequent distemper for Relief Journal. You can find the piece here: “Angry at Andalusia.”

The real beginning is carefully suppressed

Robert Farrar Capon reveals every novelist’s dirty little secret:

Books may begin well; authors do not. When an author sets out, he is only vaguely in possession of what he wants to say. [...] The real beginning of a book, therefore, is always carefully suppressed.

“What is writing for?” My latest post at Relief


Every month in 2014 I’ve written a short piece for the blog of Relief Journal, a literary mag I had a hand in starting a few years ago (I was the original fiction editor). This month I tried to work out why two common ideas about the goal of writing — that it should communicate clearly, and that it should awe the reader with its profundity — aren’t satisfying explanations of the process I love, and what a better (albeit metaphysical) description might sound like. The result: “What is writing for?”

Here’s the gist:

To me an unread story is a gesture of love left unconsummated.

Unrequited might seem a better word, but it’s not: there are books you haven’t read but for which you still feel affection. (Consider the American love affair with the Bible.) In some cases not having read the story keeps the love alive. The pages do not always contain what we’ve been led to believe.

As a reader I don’t seek consummation for reasons of clarity or mystification, although both sensations are part of the experience. What I look for is something closer to communion.”

And here are some of my earlier posts, in case you missed them:

The Good Apocalypse. A meditation on the paradoxical hope in our seemingly hopeless dreams about the end of the world.

Horror and Resurrection. One era’s glory becomes another’s fright. How a work of art, out of context, conjures all the wrong thoughts.

Reading Milton. Out Loud. In the Car. Poetry makes more sense when it’s read aloud … just don’t tell the kids.

My Kind of Clever. If you’re too subtle people walk right by without seeing the layers underneath. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Nothing in writing

Remember, young man, there are some things which should be done which it would not do for superiors to order done.”

–Abraham Lincoln, speaking to cavalry officer Lewis Merrill, whose decision to execute Confederate guerrillas in reprisal for the murder of a pro-Union man Lincoln condoned after the fact, though he had declined to approve the order in writing.

And here’s Joyce Cary’s narrator in Not Honour More, Captain Latter, explaining why one’s superiors (in this case Lord Nimmo) never put such orders in writing:

My God,” I said to Varney, “Don’t you see the racket? Who’s going to carry the can? … It’s the old game they played on us in Africa — the everlasting Nimmo game. The everlasting game they always have played — nothing in writing. Nothing definite — nothing you can pin on them afterwards. The verbal instructions gambit specifically invented for mugs like Tommies and coppers. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs to take it in the neck both ways.”

I picked out some Horween leather and had this journal cover made overnight.

For weeks I’d had the website of Springfield Leather Company open in my browser, since it’s one of the few sources online for Horween leather. Then I found myself in Springfield, Missouri and started wondering if there was any connection. Turns out I was literally down the street from the leather supplier, so I raced over for a look. It was worth it.


Rolls of Horween Chromexcel, Dublin, Essex, and more.

Rolls of Horween Chromexcel, Dublin, Essex, and more.

The problem is, I’m going to be on the road for the next few weeks. Carrying a rolled hide with me across country would be inconvenient to say the least. Plus, while I’m obsessed with quality leather goods, I have pretty much given up on trying to make them myself, even as a pastime. I wanted to buy some Horween leather … but what would I use it for?

Then inspiration struck. My writing journal is a Seven Seas Writer from Nanami Paper, and because I use the thing day in and day out, I bought a Gfeller skirting leather cover for the notebook. As luck would have it, though, I left home with only a few pages left in my journal, so I packed a new one for the pending switchover. I began the old journal in late October, and its 400+ pages include a lot of notes and outlines for Cartago, my most recent novel. Toward the end, it also includes the start of what may very well turn out to be my next book. In between are essential outlines I need while traveling.

Meanwhile the new journal is filling, and moving the leather cover back and forth between the notebooks got to be a pain almost immediately. Solution? Buy some leather to have a new cover made!

Pre-cut leather pieces for wallets, notebooks, etc. The large tan piece is Horween Essex.

Pre-cut leather pieces for wallets, notebooks, etc. The large tan piece is Horween Essex.

A few doors down from Springfield Leather is a shop called Norseman Custom Leather. When I walked in with four square feet of Horween latigo, I found Joe Ridinger hard at work reupholstering a limousine interior. Could he make me a journal cover? No problem. In fact, it was  ready for pick-up the next day.


While the fit and finish on the Gfeller cover is superior, the job cost just $30 — and did I mention it was finished overnight? We don’t really live in a world where you can choose leather, walk a few doors down, and have leather goods made to your specs. At least, I thought we didn’t. If you happen to be in Springfield, things work differently.

DSCF6334 DSCF6337Both of my notebooks now have a leather cover, and I look forward to comparing the way each one ages. My wife was so impressed with the result that she bought some golden-tan Horween Essex and is having a cover made for her own Seven Seas journal. I can’t wait to see how that one turns out.