Sep 042017
 

Near the start of his writing career, an impecunious Frank Herbert, the genius behind the epic science fiction novel Dune, lived in the town of Chapala for several months. It was September 1953 and Herbert was 32 years old and struggling to make a living as a writer.

Herbert would not have been in Chapala at all had he not met fantasy writer Jack Vance for the first time a year earlier. The two men were about the same age, but Vance was already a successful writer known for his science fiction “pulps” and was making decent money writing scripts for Captain Video, a popular TV show. Herbert was a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, had not yet found much success as a writer, and was struggling to pay the family bills.

As the two men got to know each other they talked of joint writing projects and of the two families traveling together to Mexico in search of new experiences and stimulation for their work.

This joint trip to Mexico, endearingly told by Herbert’s elder son, Brian, in Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, was the start of one of the greatest literary bromances related to Lake Chapala. Brian was only six years old at the time so much of what he writes is presumably based on notes written by his father and recollections shared by his mother, Beverly.

Vance and his wife Norma bought a new blue Jeep station wagon for the trip and the families shared driving, expenses and domestic tasks. After stopping briefly at a roadside monument marking the Tropic of Cancer, Norma accidentally left her purse on the car as they drove away. By the time they made a quick U-turn to recover the purse, which contained Jack’s favorite fountain pen (Vance was accustomed to writing long-hand whereas Herbert used a typewriter), it had been run over by another vehicle and the pen squashed.

A few days later they reached Chapala and rented a large house in the village. Brian Herbert describes the lake and surrounding farmland before writing that,

“A fishing and artists’ colony, Chapala was much favored by tourists, especially Americans. The town, while small, boasted one of the world’s great beer gardens – a large tavern by the lake that had outdoor seating under a shady, striped canvas roof. On hot days, my parents and the Vances could be found there, cooling themselves in the shade. Sunsets on the lake were spectacular.”

The “two-story adobe and white stucco house, which had been converted to a duplex” rental property was on the hillside a block from the lake. Strict silence was enforced during the mid-morning to mid-afternoon “writing hours”, so that both men could concentrate on developing plots and characters.

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (Jorgensen. 2014)

Frank Herbert, 1952. Photo by Jack Vance. (from Jorgensen, 2014)

While the writers did cooperate on some “joint ventures” while in Chapala, each of them also wrote short stories, hoping to sell some to magazines north of the border and thereby extend their stay in Mexico. Herbert was also working on a psychological thriller set in a submarine, serialized in Astounding magazine as “Under Pressure”, and later turned into the book The Dragon in the Sea (1956).

Herbert also completed a humorous short piece entitled “Life with Animalitos”, submitted to Reader’s Digest but never published.

After two months in Chapala, with funds running low, the Vances and Herberts decided to move to the larger, lower-cost city of Ciudad Guzmán in southern Jalisco. Shortly after arriving in the city, Herbert was invited to the home of a retired Mexican Army general. When sweet cookies were brought round, Herbert hungrily consumed two before discovering they were laced “with the most expensive North African hashish in the world” and experiencing hallucinations.

This was the initial experience that gave Herbert the idea for melange, the fictional spice found only on the planet Dune that was “the most important substance in the universe”. According to Herbert’s son, “Paul Atreides’s experiences with that drug [in the novel] mirror the author’s personal experiences.”

After about a month in Ciudad Guzmán, and almost out of funds, the group returned to the U.S. and then shared the Vances’ farmhouse in Kenwood, California, for several weeks.

Herbert eventually found his financial footing, in part by writing speeches for Republican senator Guy Cordon. In 1959 he began work on Dune (published as a hardback in 1965) which opened all kinds of literary doors and enabled him to achieve the success he had previously only dreamed about.

Dune, one of the most popular science fiction novels ever written, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1965 and was the first major ecological science fiction novel. The movie version of Dune in 1984, screenplay by David Lynch, was shot entirely in Mexico: at Churubusco Studios, Mexico City;  Samalayuca sand dunes in Chihuahua; and at Puerto Peñasco  and the nearby El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar in Sonora.

Many elements from Dune – including warring noble houses, “aura” spice and “moisture farming” – are evident in the later Star Wars movies. Herbert was the first to recognize this and formed, with a number of like-minded colleagues a lighthearted club called the “We’re Too Big to Sue George Lucas Society”.

Herbert wrote more than twenty other novels, including The Green Brain (1966), The Santaroga Barrier (1968), Hellstrom’s Hive (1973), The Dosadi Experiment(1977) and The White Plague (1982).

Science fiction fans everywhere should be eternally grateful that Frank Herbert accompanied his friend Jack Vance to Chapala, and that he then ate those two cookies at the General’s house in Ciudad Guzmán.

Frank Patrick Herbert, Jr., was born on 8 October 1920 in Tacoma, Washington, and died on 11 February 1986 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

 

Aug 032017
 

American novelist Barbara Bickmore was born in Freeport, New York, on 10 June 1927 and died in Anacortes, Washington, on 23 February 2015 at the age of 87. She lived and wrote in Ajijic from 1990 to 1997 and often described these seven years in later interviews as the happiest years of her life.

Bickmore grew up in a middle class family in the New York City suburb of Freeport on Long Island. She wrote her first short story at seven and saw her first Broadway theater play a few years later, beginning a life-long love affair with both literature and theater. At thirteen years of age, while attending Freeport High School, she won second place for oratory for her presentation of “Selections from President Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address”.

She completed an undergraduate degree in drama and then married a fellow teacher, Frank Clapp. Her husband taught in Morris, the town where they lived, in upstate New York and Barbara began to teach English and French at the high school in the nearby town of Laurens. Five years later, in about 1955, Barbara gave up this job in order to stay home and start a family. Three children – Debra, Lisa and Mark – arrived in quick succession. By then the family was living in Irondequoit, a suburb of Rochester, on the edge of Lake Ontario in upstate New York.

Barbara returned to teaching in about 1961, gaining a position teaching American literature and creative writing at Webster High School, a position she held for twelve years. During that time she also directed a musical “even though I have no musical ability whatsoever and can’t even carry a tune”.

After 16 years of marriage, Barbara and Frank Clapp divorced. Not long afterwards, in 1968, Barbara, who continued to live in Rochester, took a sabbatical from Thomas High School in Webster to do her masters degree at the State University of New York at Brockport. She turned down an offer to teach at that university because it paid less than her high school position.

Seeking a change of pace, Bickmore moved with her children to Eugene in Oregon in 1973 to teach writing at the University of Oregon and try her hand at farming. Whatever romantic notions the family had entertained about their life on the land quickly evaporated: “Here we went totally broke after our well dried up and coyotes ate the sheep and our cows proved sterile and even our rabbits didn’t breed.”

Three years later, forced to give up the farm, Bickmore opened a shop for knitting and crochet supplies. The family scraped by for several years but that venture also ended badly, mired in the economic downturn and banking crisis that led to many downtown stores in Eugene being boarded up.

Making things even more difficult for the family, Bickmore’s short-term teaching job at the University of Oregon was not renewed because she lacked a doctorate degree.

In 1985, Bickmore’s elder daughter, Debra, was working in China, teaching English to Chinese doctors at a university in Xian. Debra invited her mother to join her on a six-week trip, during which they got to know a South African couple who were both doctors. Bickmore was enthralled and, even before the trip ended, had started writing a novel about life in South Africa. (She would later write a novel set in China while living in Ajijic, Mexico!)

Back in Eugene, she completed her first novel and submitted it to an agent recommended by one of her former creative writing teachers. The agent was successful; the novel – East of the Sun – was published in 1988, and Bickmore never looked back. Within a few years, her financial future was secure and royalty payments were sufficient to allow her to live the rest of her life however and wherever she chose.

Shortly after the publication of her second novel – The Moon Below (1990), set partly in Australia – Bickmore visited Ajijic where she planned to stay for a couple of months to start writing her third novel: Distant Star (1993), set in China.

She liked the village so much she moved there in September 1990 and it became her home for the next seven years. These seven years were easily the most productive period of Bickmore’s writing career. During her time in Ajijijc, she completed Distant Star and four additional books: The Back of Beyond (1994), set in Australia; Homecoming (1995), set in the U.S. and reissued in 2012 as Oberon; Deep in the Heart (1996), set in Houston, Texas; and Beyond the Promise (1997), set in Oregon. Despite writing so many books while living in Ajijic, Bickmore never set any of her books in Mexico.Bickmore also wrote a sequel to East of the Sun, entitled West of the Moon (2003) and a book set in the U.K.: Stairway to the Stars (2007).

Interestingly, Bickmore found far more success with European publishers than with U.S. publishers. Her nine novels were translated into 16 languages and sold in 23 countries. Note that the titles used for translations often differed significantly from the original English language titles. Bickmore lamented the fact that U.S. publishers claimed many of her books were too long and lacked sufficient violence and action. Even so, at least two of her books made the New York Times bestseller lists.

In her later years events conspired to prevent Bickmore from completing her tenth novel. She lost her only son in a traffic accident in 2006, when a truck driver ran a red light, and, later that same year, was sidelined for months after breaking her arm.

Bickmore’s novels are light reading, aimed at a predominantly female audience. Their main characters are invariably women whose socially unconventional behavior enables them to overcome challenging situations while proving their humanity.

After she had become a successful novelist, Bickmore liked to tell interviewers that they were not interviewing her but Cinderella because from the time she had started to write she had lived a fairy tale existence. Ajijic’s very own Cinderella!

Sources:

  • Barbara Bickmore. Website.
  • Barbara Bickmore. 1992. “They Changed My Life”. Ojo del Lago (Chapala), July 1992.
  • The Nassau Daily Review-Star (Nassau County [Freeport], New York), 21 Feb 1941
  • Eugene Register-Guard. 2015. Barbara Bickmore Obituary. Eugene Register-Guard, 28 February 2015.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jul 202017
 

Novelist Oakley Hall was a professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and directed its creative writing program.

Hall and his wife Barbara Edinger Hall, a photographer, lived at Lake Chapala for about six months in 1952, during which time, according to Michael Hargraves in A literary Survey of Lake Chapala, Hall was working on his third novel, Corpus of Joe Bailey, published by Viking in New York the following year. Hall visited Mexico several times over the years and more than one of his novels is set in Mexico.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Hall. Credit: website of Al Young.

Oakley Maxwell Hall was born on 1 July 1920 in La Jolla (near San Diego), and died in Nevada City, California, on 12 May 2008.

After his parents divorced, Hall lived with his mother in Honolulu, Hawaii, but later returned to California to complete his high school education at San Diego’s Hoover High School. Hall then attended the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating from Berkeley in 1943, he served in the Marines during the second world war.

He married Barbara Edinger in 1944. The couple moved to New York so that Hall could study writing at Columbia University but Hall left as soon as he sold his first novel, Murder City, which he claimed to have written in only two weeks. They then spent 18 months in Europe where Hall studied in England, Switzerland, and at the University of Paris, aided by the G.I. Bill. In 1950 he earned a Masters degree in Fine Arts (creative writing) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Hargraves writes that Hall was at Lake Chapala for six months in 1952 and quotes him as saying that the British novelist Christopher Veiel was also living at Lake Chapala at that time. Little is known about Hall’s (or for that matter Veiel’s) time at Chapala beyond these scant details.

Hall’s distinguished teaching career included a spell at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop before he joined the University of California, Irvine, in 1968. In 1969 he co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer program linking published and unpublished writers. Hall and his wife divided their time each year between San Francisco and Squaw Valley.

Hall retired from UC Irvine in 1990. Through his teaching, Hall had a profound influence on California literature. His students included Michael Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan. Amy Tan, in particular, credits Hall with having given her the necessary support to become a well-known writer: “Oakley was the reason that I found my confidence as a writer… the Halls are a remarkable family. They are deep-hearted and stalwart, generous and kind and giving.”

Oakley Hall’s two best-known works are Warlock (1958) and The Downhill Racers (1963). Warlock, a western tale set in the fictional 19th century town of Warlock, was a finalist for the 1958 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted for a film of the same name, released in 1959. The Downhill Racers was the basis for the movie Downhill Racer (1969) starring Robert Redford.

Hall received numerous awards including lifetime achievement awards from the PEN Center USA and the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

California poet Al Young (who lived in Ajijic for several years in the 1960s and whose novel Who is Angelina? includes several scenes set at Lake Chapala) was a friend of Oakley Hall for more than thirty years. Following Hall’s death, Young was quoted as saying that, “Oakley Hall was a master storyteller who loved the West…. His novels and stories reflect the landscapes that he inhabited most of his life: the Pacific islands of his youth, the foothills and ski slopes of the Sierra and the streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco.”

Early in his career, Hall wrote several mystery novels using the pen name Jason Manor: Too Dead to Run (1953); The Red Jaguar (1954); The Pawns of Fear (1955); The Tramplers (1956).

Hall’s nonfiction books included The Art and Craft of Novel Writing (1994); Heroes Without Glory: Some Good Men of the Old West (with Jack Schaefer, 1987); and How Fiction Works (2000). He also had short stories published in numerous magazines, including Playboy, Tri-Quarterly, The Hawaii Review, and The Antioch Review.

Hall’s major works of fiction included Murder City (1949); So Many Doors (1950); Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953); Mardios Beach (1955); Warlock (1958); The Downhill Racers (1963); The Pleasure Garden (1966); A Game for Eagles (1970); Report from Beau Harbor (1971); The Adelita (1975); The Bad Lands (1978); The Children of the Sun (1983); The Coming of the Kid (1985); Apaches (1986); Separations (1997), about the discovery of the Colorado River; Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998); Ambrose Bierce and the Death of Kings (2001); Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks (2003); Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls (2004); Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Shoots (2005); and Love and War in California (2007).

Several of these books have links to Mexico. These include his Ambrose Bierce series of mysteries which had the legendary San Francisco newsman and satirist Ambrose Bierce as main protagonist. Bierce (author of The Devil’s Dictionary) had significant ties to Mexico. In December 1913, when he was in his seventies, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in mysterious circumstances. After allegedly joining Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, he was never seen again.

In his review of The Adelita (1975), blogger Steven Zoraster writes that:

“The narrator in this novel is Michael MacBean Palacio, son of an American father and a Mexican mother… a child of privilege, graduate of Andover, graduate of Harvard, and leader of a band of guerrilla cavalry during the war to overthrow the Mexican dictator Huerta. He is also the lover of Adelita, the woman of the title, the living symbol of the revolution, whose name is also that of the Mexican soldier’s wife in a famous and very real ballad of the Mexican Revolution.”
. . .
“Oakley Hall is unparalleled in the portrayal of the American frontier, where the law is distance and tenuous. Here it is up to the protagonists to establish their own law. To establish it with great difficulty and often with bloodshed, and always with uncertainty about the cost that must be paid. In “The Adelita” the necessity of establishing the rule of law is extended to an entire country, Mexico, a country Mr. Hall seems to have understood very well.”
. . .
“In 1968, witnessed by MacBean, the Mexican government, in which his son has an important role, orders the pre-Olympic massacre of protesting students at Tlatelolco in Mexico City. And thus MacBean is drawn back into the unfinished struggle for some sort of justice or righteousness or legality in Mexico.”

In Children of the Sun, Hall spins a story based on “The famous journey of Cabeza de Vaca through northern Mexico (1535-36), and its treasure-seeking aftermath–in an intelligently fictionalized version that turns the story into a morality play involving greed, religion, racism, and ambition.” (Kirkus Review). [That story is part of chapter 11 of my Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique]

After these two books on Mexico – The Adelita and Children of the Sun – Hall had begun a third book, provisionally entitled Independencial, an historical novel set during Mexico’s 1810-1821 War of Independence. In an interview late in life Hall recalled that his publishers had not displayed any enthusiasm for further books relating to Mexico since, “Books about Mexico don’t make enough money.”

Sadly, some things clearly haven’t changed!

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Jun 122017
 

As we saw in previous posts, Rubén M. Campos, though now largely forgotten, was one of the major figures in Mexican literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Campos spent several vacations at Lake Chapala and made good use of his knowledge of the area’s history and geography in his acclaimed novel Claudio Oronoz.

Sketch of Ruben Campos by Julio Ruelas.

Sketch of Ruben Campos by Julio Ruelas.

The parts of the novel that were set at Lake Chapala were, as Dulce Diana Aguirre López has shown, based on a straightforward, narrative account that Campos had originally published some years previously, as “En el Chapala”. “En el Chapala” was the second of three descriptive, factual pieces about Lake Chapala, published in La Patria in 1899, which we consider in this post. The first of his three short articles in 1899 was datelined “Chapala, 27 March”, the second “Chapala, 28 March”, and the third “Ocotlán, 28 March.”

The first piece describes the train ride from Mexico City to Tula, Irapuato (where the train remains for two hours allowing passengers to find an early breakfast) and La Barca, where  a “picturesque multitude” fills the station: two blind men playing guitars and singing, while fruit and vegetable sellers compete to sell their oranges, mameys, cucumbers and nopales, offering “the fruit at very low prices, without taking advantage of strangers of foreigners”.

The train then continued on to Ocotlán, arriving there by mid-day. There, Campos was met by his friend (and fellow poet)  Honorato Barrera and they took a streetcar across the town to the steamboat “Chapala”, which was moored in the River Santiago, awaiting the arrival of some important person from Mexico City and his family.

Within minutes, the steamboat was on Lake Chapala: “We entered the lake, amidst some of the most picturesque scenery imaginable, the largest lake in our beautiful country, and the lake whose horizons unite water and sky, surrounded by bluish-violet mountains with distant small fishing ports, barely distinguishable, even with a telescope: Jamay, Cojumatlán, Jocotepec, Tuxcueca, Tizapán – a parade of musical names that reach my ear on the fresh breeze…”

In the second article in the series – “En el Chapala” – Campos likens the movement of the steamboat to that of a serpent making its way through the water, and gives a lengthy, poetic description of the varied colors of the sky, lake and landscape, as seen from the steamboat. Campos expresses his emotions and marvels at his own feelings of enchantment as the sun goes down in the late afternoon, and the lake is bathed in moonlight as they reach the village of Chapala.

In his third article, Campos offers a much more detailed description of the village itself, starting with its position as a “small port, lost in a fold of the mountains that descends to kiss the surface of the lake”. Chapala, that has “a line of buildings that defends if from the lake breezes”, is only a small village at this time with “barely a fistful of houses on winding little streets that creep up the mountainside.”

The village does have some magnificent homes: “Suddenly, I find myself in a golden age. We wander up and down around the buildings that wealthy gentlemen have built here, starting with the English consul, Mr. Carden, who discovered this paradise.” Even though it is nighttime, Campos and his companions are invited to view several of these homes, clustered around a small bay. with their balconies, terraces and extensive gardens.

A few hours later, the party is ferried back out to the steamboat “Chapala”, lying at anchor some distance offshore, for the return journey to Ocotlán.

Notes :

  • All quotations are loose translations by the author of this post.

Sources

  • Rubén M. Campos. 1899. “Notas de viaje”, La Patria, 30 March 1899, p 1; 2 April 1899, pp 1, 2.
  • Rubén M. Campos. 1906. Claudio Oronoz. Mexico. J. Ballesca y ca.
  • Dulce Diana Aguirre López. 2015. Edición crítica de Claudio Oronoz, de Rubén M. Campos. Masters thesis, UNAM, 2015.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 222017
 

Rubén M. Campos‘s novel Claudio Oronoz includes dozens of pages relating to Lake Chapala. The lake is not only described (in all its glory) but also provides the setting for some memorable discussions between the main characters.

Campos utilizes Lake Chapala as a kind of antidote for, or counterbalance to, life in Mexico City. This is perfectly fitting, especially given the fact that the novel was written at the start of the twentieth century, precisely the time when many of the wealthier businessmen and residents of Mexico City established close ties to Lake Chapala, often setting up second homes there.

The protagonist of this novel is a young man, Claudio Oronoz, who considers himself an artist. (His poems appear at intervals in the novel). At the age of twenty-one, Claudio evades the obligations and responsibilities foisted on him by his family, who want him to enter business, turns his back on materialism, and heads for the capital city in search of like-minded bohemian individuals with whom he can share his thoughts, feelings and concerns. Thus begins his “odyssey of pleasure”, which subsequently involves trips to the theater, dinners, “parties and orgies”.

To quote Claudio: “I had imagined a distinct area for dreamers, for thinkers, a special neighborhood for musicians, painters, sculptors, poets …” He hoped to find “that blissful neighborhood which this Latin-American metropolis, like Paris, must have” but becomes increasingly disillusioned as he finds instead “the roar of the struggle for life in workshops, in factories, in warehouses, in the daily traffic of the streets, in the haste of passers-by.”

Eventually, Claudio does succeed in locating the “bohemian neighborhood and the fierce artists” he had dreamed of, and shares friendship and experiences with other young artists. But Claudio has a serious illness (consumption or tuberculosis) which is gradually sapping his energies. He is torn between a tendency to hedonistic debauchery and reveling in the pure love that he feels for Clara Rionda, the woman who cared for him during one of his serious relapses.

Two of Claudio’s other friends share Clara’s home with him: José Abreu, the narrator of the novel, and his lover Ana Belmar, Clara’s best friend, who was born in Jamay on the shores of Lake Chapala.

After some time enjoying themselves in Mexico City, the group decides to escape the city and go to Lake Chapala. (They return to the city for the final section of the book).

The trip to the lake via train from Mexico City to Ocotlán, and then by lake steam boat (vaporcito) from Ocotlán to Chapala is described at some length, and the text includes many details about the village of Chapala. For instance, the group stays on the second floor of a lakefront hotel: this is a clear reference to the historic Arzapalo hotel that first opened in 1898. The group arrived in early April, apparently well before Easter that particular year, since they are described as being among the first visitors that spring. Even the chalets (with verandas) that characterized the second homes of the wealthy in Chapala at that time are described.

These descriptive details owe nothing to coincidence or chance. As Dulce Diana Aguirre López has shown, the main section of the book about Chapala is based on a straightforward, narrative account that Campos had originally published many years previously, as “En el Chapala”. This was actually published twice – first in La Patria (1899) and then, with some variations, in Revista Moderna (1902) – before being suitably modified for the section in Claudio Oronoz: an interesting example of how a regular narrative or travel piece can be recycled as an integral part of a fictional work.

Claudio Oronoz is considered to be Campos’s master work in fiction. Campos’s portrayal of youthful artistic and intellectual ambitions which ultimately lead his protagonist to disillusionment helped move Mexican novels away from the realism of the end of the 19th century into new, emerging “modern” territory. Mexican literature would never be the same; later Mexican writers would never look back.

Notes :

  • All quotations are loose translations by the author of this post.
  • The text of the original novel is included in the thesis (downloadable as a pdf file) linked to below.

Sources

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 152017
 

Rubén Marcos Campos, though now largely forgotten, was one of the major figures in Mexican literature in the first half of the twentieth century. Campos, a poet, intellectual, novelist and folklorist, was born on 25 April 1871 in Ciudad Manuel Doblado, Guanajuato, and died in Mexico City on 7 June 1945.

Sketch of Ruben Campos by Julio Ruelas.

Sketch of Ruben Campos by Julio Ruelas.

His first novel, entitled Claudio Oronoz, was published in 1906 and is considered one of the gems of the so-called modernist prose that was then in vogue. Lake Chapala plays an important part in the novel, as the destination towards which the hedonistic protagonist gravitates.

Campos was well acquainted with Lake Chapala and vacationed there several times over the years. In 1906, for example, we know from contemporary newspapers that he spent the second half of December in Chapala in the company of poet Luis G. Urbina (1864-1934) and painter Leandro Izaguirre (1867-1941).

In 1899, Campos wrote several short travel pieces about the lake for La Patria. We will take a closer look at both Claudio Oronoz and these travel articles in later posts.

Campos lost his mother at an early age, and grew up in León, Guanajuato, before moving to Mexico City in about 1890 to try and make his way as a writer. He was soon accepted into the literary circles of the city which gave him the opportunity to have poems and articles published in many of the major publications of the time, including El Mundo Ilustrado, Nosotros, México, Vida Moderna, El Universal, El Centinela and Revista Moderna. The last named, Revista Moderna, published two of his poems – “Desnudos” and “Ruth” – in its second issue, adding Campos to its distinguished list of contributors alongside Amado Nervo, José Juan Tablada, Luis Gonzaga Urbina and Jesús E. Valenzuela.

His only published collection of poetry was La flauta de Pan (1900), where many verses suggest or explore eroticism and sensuality. However, Campos’s poetry is not very well known, mainly because his essays and studies of popular music and Mexican folklore were already gaining him an enviable reputation for non-fiction writing, based on sound research and skillful use of language.

His most important articles about music and folklore appeared in such specialist publications as Revista Musical de México, Gaceta Musical, México Musical and Boletín Latinoamericano de Música. Among the many books by Campos related to the fields of history, folklore and folk music are Chapultepec, su leyenda y su historia (1922); El folklore y la música mexicana (1928); El folklore literario de México (1929); El folklore musical de las ciudades (1930); La producción literaria de los aztecas (1936); and Tradiciones y leyendas mexicanas (1938).

His keen interest in folklore and its history did not prevent him from continuing to hone his skills as a reporter. Campos produced numerous, elegantly-written pieces about different parts of Mexico, and also wrote several short fictional stories, many of them for El Nacional. A collection of  travel pieces was published in 1922 as Las alas nómadas.

The publication of his first novel Claudio Oronoz in 1906 marked the start of an astonishingly productive period that lasted to his death. The novel was welcomed by critics, despite being quite unlike most of his previous work, and established Campos as an accomplished modernist, quickly hailed as one of Mexico’s finest writers of prose of the period.

His versatility knew few bounds and Campos also completed at least three operatic librettos: Zulema (1899); Tlahuicole (1925); and Quetzalcóatl (1928).

He employed pen names at various points in his career; these pen names included Rubén Martínez, R. Martínez Campos, Oro and Rudel.

Given his interest in all aspects of culture and in interpreting the human story, it is not surprising that many of Campos’s stories and novels examine the multifarious seedy undersides of life such as sexual abuse, imprisonment, alcoholism, prostitution, murder and abandonment.

Campos managed to combine this prodigious output with a teaching career. At one time or other, he inspired students in the Escuela Normal Preparatoria, the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Conservatorio Nacional de Ciudad de México, the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía, and in the Universidad Nacional de México (UNAM)) in a variety of subjects, including art, music, history and Mexican folklore.

In addition to Claudio Oronoz, widely regarded as his master work, Campos also completed two other important novels: Aztlán, tierra de garzas (1935) and El bar: la vida literaria de México, which remained unpublished during his lifetime, but was finally put in print by the Universidad Nacional de México (UNAM) in 2013.

El bar: la vida literaria de México is especially interesting. It explores the bohemian artistic and literary scene of Mexico towards the end of the Porfiriato. It is based on the experiences of Campos and the other members of his literary circles, as well as of artists such as Julio Ruelas and Germán Gedovius, and of musicians including Manuel M. Ponce and Ernesto Elorduy. All of these literary and artistic greats are given their real names in the novel, the only exceptions being the author himself and Alberto Leduc, whose fictitious names – respectively Benamor Cumps and Raúl Clebodet – are anagrams of their real names.

Several works by Rubén M. Campos have been re-released in recent years, making them more available to modern readers.

Sources

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

May 012017
 

Ireneo Paz, the paternal grandfather of Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz, was a respected writer, journalist and intellectual.

One of his novels, Guadalupe, first published in 1874, is an illustrated romance novel (in Spanish) with several descriptive passages relating to Lake Chapala. The story is set in an unnamed lakeshore village. The text includes several mentions of specific towns and villages around the lake, and one of the middle chapters is devoted to the events that arise from a storm on the lake.

While the style of the writing is “dated”, the story is clearly told. English speakers with an intermediate level of Spanish should find the plot and dialogue relatively easy to follow. The third edition of this book can be downloaded for free (as a pdf file or for ereaders) via Google Books:

Ireneo Paz Flores was born 3 July 1836, in Guadalajara, and died in Mexico City on 4 November 1924. A lawyer by background, he founded several literary magazines and was editor of the national magazine La Patria Ilustrada, which, in 1889, was the first major publication to regularly accept the often-startling cartoons and skeleton-like calaveras drawn by famed graphic designer and engraver José Guadalupe Posada.

In a prolific career, Ireneo Paz wrote more than 30 books, including poetry, plays comedy, memoirs and novels. His best-known works are a study of Malinche and a book about the famous Mexican (Californian) bandit Joaquin Murrieta. Among his works are: La piedra del sacrificio (1871); La manzana de la discordia (1871); Amor y suplicio (1873); Guadalupe (1874); Amor de viejo (1874); Doña Marina (1883); Leyendas históricas de la Independencia (1894); Vida y aventuras de Joaquín Murrieta, famoso bandolero mexicano (1908); Porfirio Díaz (1911); Leyendas históricas (1914).

Tragically, the political differences between La Patria (edited by Ireneo Paz) and La Libertad (edited by Santiago Sierra Méndez) led to a duel between the two men in April 1880, in which the latter was killed.

During the Mexican revolution, Mexico City was the scene of fighting between rival groups. In 1914 (the year his grandson was born), Ireneo Paz’s spacious, well-appointed house and printing shop in the heart of the old city were ransacked and Paz moved the family out of the then-city to live in Mixcoac.

Ireneo Paz’s own life and writing career are interesting, but his greatest contribution to Mexican literature is through the influence he exerted on his grandson, Octavio, who lived under the same roof throughout his childhood.

As British translator, journalist and non-fiction author Nick Caistor explains in his biography of Octavio Paz, Ireneo Paz was his grandson’s “direct link to the struggles for Mexican independence in the nineteenth century, in which he had personally played as significant role, and to Mexican history in general.”

However, despite supporting the liberal movement led by Benito Juárez in the 1850s, and fighting against the French, most notably in the city of Colima, Ireneo Paz had eventually become a staunch supporter of the modernization efforts of Mexico’s multi-term dictator President Porfirio Díaz.

Caistor justifiably argues that Ireneo Paz exerted an influence over his grandson that extended well beyond politics:

As a novelist he was one of the precursors of the ‘indigenista’ movement, which sought to make the indigenous inhabitants of Mexico protagonists of the national narrative for the first time. The awareness of the presence of the ‘other’, the silenced, marginalized voice of the country’s first inhabitants, fascinated Octavio from an early age.

At the same time, the Paz household was open to outside influences. Despite his opposition to the French invasion, by the 1880s Ireneo Paz saw France as the emblem for modernity. In 1889 he even travelled to Paris as an exhibitor at the Exposition Universelle where he displayed examples of his printing and binding.”

Illustration of a storm on Lake Chapala from Guadalupe (1882). Artist unknown.

Not surprisingly, the Paz household was full of books, including not only those written or printed by Ireneo but also a fine collection of Spanish and French literature, many of the volumes brought back from Paris. Growing up in such an atmosphere undoubtedly wove its spell over young Octavio who became one of Mexico’s most famous and revered poets.

Paz’s exploration of the Mexican identity, El laberinto de la soledad, first published in 1950, was elegantly translated by Lysander Kemp, and published in 1961 as The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Kemp, who later became chief editor of the University of Texas Press, had his own connections to Lake Chapala: he was a long-time resident (1953-1965) of Jocotepec, at the western end of the lake.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Mar 132017
 

James F. Kelly was a writer and novelist who lived in Ajijic for more than twenty years from the early 1960s. More usually referred to as Jim Kelly, James Frederick Kelly was born in 1912 (in Ohio?) and educated at Staunton Military Academy, Swarthmore College and Columbia University School of Journalism. He also studied at the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and at the US Maritime Diesel School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

During the second world war, he was a member of the Merchant Marine and remained in the US Naval Reserve after the war, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander by the time his service ended. Kelly’s naval career took him to ports-of-call ranging from New Zealand, New Guinea and the U.K. to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador; Peru and Chile.

kelly-james-insiderAfter the war, Kelly and his wife Gerda (a Danish-born model and circus performer) lived in Westport, where Kelly dedicated himself to writing while Gerda worked in the New York fashion industry. Kelly reviewed books regularly for The New York Times Book Review and The Saturday Review, wrote pieces for the New York Times Magazine and other publications and also undertook work, both creative and executive, for Compton and various other New York advertising agencies.

Kelly and Gerda, with their two children (Jill and James Jr.) moved to Ajijic at some point prior to October 1964. After moving to Mexico, he continued to write and to submit articles to U.S. publications. In October 1964, he took photographs of the piñatas at a party given for the 26th birthday of David Michael (son of Ajijic artist and boutique owner Gail Michael), “for an article he is doing for a New York publication.”

A few months later, “pretty, blond Jill Kelly”, is reported to have given a marionette show at La Quinta (Jocotepec’s best known hotel at the time), which “proved that talent runs in the family”.

In January 1966, Gerda and Jim Kelly purchased their own home in Ajijic: Casa Los Sueños (“House of Dreams”), the converted remnants of Ajijic’s former friary whose origins date back to the sixteenth century). They moved in to their new home, purchased from Ruth and Hunter Martin, the following month.

In the spring of 1966, the U.K. edition of Kelly’s novel On the Other Hand, Goodbye was published, and he was reported to be working on his next novel, which had a publisher’s deadline of August. (It is unclear which novel is being referred to here.)

In 1968 the couple founded and ran an Ajijic real estate venture, Servicios Unlimited. After eight months in temporary premises, the company moved into a building on Calle Independencia, opposite the Posada Ajijic, and next-door to Helen Kirtland’s looms (today, this is the store Mí México). In addition, Gerda Kelly worked as a columnist for the Guadalajara Reporter.

James Kelly continued to write the occasional piece for U.S. media into the 1970s, including an article about Dr Marcos Montaña Zavala and his wife Dra Soledad Ascensio de Montaña, who co-founded the Sanatorio de Santa Teresita, a health clinic in Jocotepec. This piece first appeared in Spanish in Selecciones (August 1970) and then in Reader’s Digest later that year.

James Kelly was the author of at least six novels: From A Hilltop (1941); The Insider (1958); On the Other Hand, Goodbye (1965); No Rest For The Dying (New York: Nordon Publications 1980); Music From Another Room (Dorchester Publishing, 1980) and Blind Passage (date unknown).

Music From Another Room is a murder mystery set in Michoacán, Mexico at the fictional hotel Hacienda de las Golondrinas. The characters and plot are eminently believable, testament to Kelly’s keen powers of observation and good knowledge of Mexico.

James Kelly passed away in December 1993; Gerda died five months later.

Acknowledgment:

  • My sincere thanks to Jill Kelly Velasco for her help in compiling this profile of her father.

Sources:

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 8 October 1964; 7 January 1965; 9 September 1965; 20 January 1966; 26 February 1966; 2 April 1966; 29 July 1967;  21 June 1969; 8 August 1970; 20 April 1974; 6 September 1975;
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A Literary Survey (Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Feb 202017
 

Novelist Ramón Rubín (1912-2000) lived much of his life in Jalisco and was a staunch defender of Lake Chapala. Rubín never actually lived on the shores of the lake but his novel, La Canoa Perdida: novela mestiza (“The Lost Canoe: a mestizo novel”), reveals an excellent understanding of the people and places that make the lake such a special place. Sadly, the novel has never been translated into English.

In the early 1950s, Lake Chapala was in serious trouble. The lake level was going down rapidly, year on year, mainly due to a prolonged period of lower-than-average rainfall throughout the basin of the River Lerma, the main river feeding the lake. At the same time, the Jalisco state government was seeking to channel more water from the lake to satisfy the thirst of the ever-growing city of Guadalajara and federal authorities were prepared to give permission for wealthy landowners to reclaim farmland by draining sections of the lake. (This scheme would have echoed that in the early part of the twentieth century when a massive area of the lake was reclaimed for agriculture).

The hydrology of Lake Chapala is discussed in more detail in chapters 6 and 7 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Rubín had grown up by the sea and loved the lake. He had traveled widely throughout Mexico and seen some of the adverse impacts of so-called “development” schemes. In about 1948 he had seen dredgers working near Ocotlán on the north-east shore of Lake Chapala. Local people had no idea what was going on, which caused Rubín to investigate further. That research became the basis for the excellent geographical understanding demonstrated in the early chapters of La Canoa Perdida, first published in 1951.

As the lake’s problems intensified, Rubín became more politically active and in 1952 presided over Comité Provisional para la Conservación del Lago de Chapala, a committee formed to defend the lake. This organization morphed into the Comité pro Defensa del Lago Chapala and played a decisive role in preventing the implementation of any further reclamation schemes and opposing greater use of the lake for the inhabitants of Guadalajara. Heavy rainfalls in the second half of the 1950s eventually restored the lake to its rightful level.

In addition to his novel, Rubín published several later articles designed to draw attention to the lake’s problems. The most interesting of these, from our perspective, is his 1959 story, “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos” {“The Dredger, an almost-real story in three acts and three times”).

The lake’s outflow powered hydro-power generators immediately below the Juanacatlán Falls that supplied electricity to Guadalajara. In “La Draga”, an “ecological” story, a worker at the Hydro Company tries to convince people of the benefits of draining the lake further, claiming it would help avoid depriving central Mexico of power [a smaller lake meant less evaporation, an increased average depth and a greater head of water] while simultaneously giving farmers a bonanza when the former lake bed was transformed into productive farmland. In the story, this creates three new millionaires in a single season at Jamay [a town on the northern shore, mid-way between Ocotlán and La Barca]. The story ends with an apocalyptic vision of the future in which the Lerma River is dry, only little meandering rivulets of water still flow, and most of the region now looks like the arid Chihuahua desert far to the north. The fact is, “we killed the lake, and now we’re paying for our crime.”

In La Canoa Perdida, as historian Wolfgang Vogt rightly points out, the extended descriptions of the lake in its early chapters are among “the best ever written about the lake”. But what about the book’s plot? The protagonist, Ramón Fortuna, comes from a ranch between Chapala and Ocotlán. Fortuna is an impoverished fisherman who supplements a meager income by hunting birds. He dreams of buying his own canoe.

One day he stumbles across two ringed birds (with tags from Winnipeg, Canada) and learns that each tag is worth the princely sum of 5 dollars. This unexpected good fortune gives him the chance to win the heart of “La Guera Hermelinda, the ambitious daughter of a neighbor and woman of his desires. Fortuna writes to claim his reward, but fails to include any return address, and therefore waits in vain for any money to arrive.

Incidentally, Rubín includes a wonderful line in his narrative comparing “gringos” to Mexicans, saying that the former write short letters but wage long wars, unlike the latter who do the opposite.

Fortuna decides to change career and goes to work at the hydro company at El Salto (giving Rubín the opportunity to explain the changes of rural life engendered by industrialization). Fortuna also turns his hand to clearing lirio (water hyacinth) and is part of a plan using dynamite to blow up the thick, clogged masses of aquatic weed.

At one point or another, Rubín introduces many of the famous Chapala legends and tales into his novel, including the story of El Señor del Guaje in Jocotepec, the history of Mezcala island, the sinking of the lake steamer at Ocotlán in the late nineteenth century and the presence of oil deposits in the lake.

Fortuna eventually saves enough money to buy a canoe named Amanda, but then discovers that it has gone missing from the shore where he left it. Did the waves come up the beach and float it away? Has it been stolen? Has it been taken by his rival in love? Fortuna searches desperately all over the lake for his canoe, allowing Rubín the chance to include detailed descriptions of many north shore settlements from Jocotepec to San Pedro Itzican, and all along the south shore, complete with their varied degrees of environmental damage. At one point, convinced he’s found it, he starts to row it away from a village, only to discover as the rightful owners pursue him, that it’s not really the right boat!

Eventually Fortuna finds his canoe on Mezcala Island (Isla del Presidio) where it has been hidden by a local. He steals his canoe back, almost sinks on his return trip to the shore, but finally gets home, only to find that his girlfriend has married his rival.

Like millions of Mexicans, Fortuna has had a constant struggle to make a living and to “be someone”, in a social and cultural environment that is hostile. This is a novel that can be read on so many different levels that it is worth reading and re-reading. It is one of the earliest novels in Mexico with an overtly ecological theme. At the same time, it is a sociological study of fishing communities that no longer exist. Rubín’s insightful narrative digs deep into the psyche of the many individuals – campesinos, engineers, technicians, hunters, mariachi musicians, traders, etc – that constitute the cast of characters in La Canoa Perdida.

This is a novel whose message resonates far beyond the immediate confines of Lake Chapala.

Sources:

  • Ramón Bustos, Luis. 2001. “Donde la sombra de Ramón Rubín“. Jornada Semanal, 16 de septiembre del 2001.
  • Rubín, Ramón. 1951. La canoa perdida: novela mestiza (Guadalajara: Ediciones Altiplano); illustrations by Víctor J. Reynoso. 483 pages. Reissued in 1993 by Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico, D.F.
  •  Rubín, Ramón. 1959. “La Draga, cuento casi real en tres actos y tres tiempos”, in Xallixtlico, 1, 1 November 1959, pp 28-36.
  • Vogt, Wolfgang. 1989. “El Lago de Chapala en la literatura”. Estudios Sociales. (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara), Año II, #5, 37-47.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Feb 132017
 

Mexican author Ramón Rubín Rivas (1912-2000) wrote a novel set at Lake Chapala: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza. He wrote more than a dozen novels and some 500 short stories over a lengthy career and this work, first published in 1951, is considered one of his finest, though it has never been translated into English.

Rubín was a particularly keen observer of the way of life, customs and beliefs of Mexico’s many indigenous groups. His writing is based on extensive travels throughout the country and prolonged periods of residence with several distinct indigenous groups including the Cora/Huichol in Nayarit and Jalisco, the Tarahumara (raramuri) in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, and the Tzotzil in Chiapas. His novel about Lake Chapala, which we will look at in more detail in a future post, is the story of an indigenous fisherman who wants to acquire a canoe, set against the background of a lake facing serious problems. During the 1950s, Rubín was an ardent campaigner for the protection of the lake when drought and overuse threatened its very existence.

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

Rubin Ramon. Credit: Archivo-CNL-INBA

The early history of Rubín’s life is hazy. His “official” biography states that he was born to Spanish immigrant parents in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on 11 June 1912, and that the family moved to Spain when Rubín was two years old. However, some researchers have found evidence suggesting that he was actually born on that date in San Vicente de la Barquera in northern Spain, and subsequently “adopted” Mazatlán as his birthplace as he became known as a Mexican writer. Rubín would apparently respond to questions about his birthplace by saying that his only source of information had been his parents, and they had said he was born in Mazatlán. The lack of a Mexican birth certificate is not surprising given that the public records in many parts of Mexico were destroyed during the early years of the Mexican Revolution, which erupted in 1910.

Wherever he was born, Rubín attended school in Spain until 1929 when, at the age of sixteen, he relocated to Mazatlán in Mexico. It was while taking typing classes in Mazatlán (as a means of earning a living) that he wrote his first stories, allegedly because he was sitting too far from the blackboard to copy what the teacher wrote as practice exercises. The teacher agreed that he could write whatever he wanted, provided there were no typing errors, and Rubín’s literary career was under way.

Working as a salesperson, Rubín traveled widely in Mexico. When he settled for a time in Mexico City, he had several short stories, based on his travels and experiences, published in Revista de Revistas. He later became a regular contributor to newspapers, especially to El Informador and El Occidental. Rubín’s direct approach to narrating stories owes much to his childhood, when he was entranced by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and by the adventure novels of Emilio Salgari.

In the Spanish Civil War (1938), Rubín enlisted as a merchant seaman on the side of the Republicans. While not formally a member of the International Brigades, he took a cargo of arms and ammunition to Spain and was lucky to escape alive. Franco’s forces dropped 72 bombs on his ship, none of which hit their intended target.

Rubín enjoyed a measure of literary success in 1942 with the publication of the first of an eventual five volumes of short stories, all entitled Cuentos mestizos (“Mestizo tales”). Later short story collections include Diez burbujas en el mar, sarta de cuentos salobres (1949), two volumes of Cuentos de indios (1954 y 1958), Los rezagados (1983), Navegantes sin ruta: relatos de mar y puerto (1983) and Cuentos de la ciudad (1991).

Rubín had traveled to Chiapas for the first time and lived among the Tzotzil in 1938. He put this knowledge to good use in his first novel, El callado dolor de los tzotziles {“The silent pain of the Tzotzil”) (1949). Literary critics consider this to be a seminal portrayal of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The novel goes far beyond mere description or adulation of indigenous lifestyles and is a genuine drama about the intolerance of an indigenous community towards a couple who are unable to have children. In line with tribal tradition, the woman is banished to the mountains, the man leaves the community to live for a time among the mestizos. When he returns, his mental state altered by his experiences, he spirals downwards and seeks refuge in alcohol.

In a later indigenous novel, entitled La bruma lo vuelve azul (“The smoke turns blue”) (1954), the main character is a Huichol Indian named Kanayame who is rejected by his father, stripped of his indigenous roots in a government school, and turns to banditry. Rubín’s other indigenous novels include El canto de la grilla (1952), La sombra del techincuagüe (1955) and Cuando el táguaro agoniza (1960).

In addition, Rubín wrote the novels La loca (1949), La canoa perdida (1951), El seno de la esperanza (1960) and Donde mi sombra se espanta (1964). Some of his work has been translated (into English, German French, Russian and Italian) and several stories have been adapted for the stage. Rubín also wrote a short autobiography – Rubinescas – and several screenplays, none of which was ever made into a film, though Hugo Argüelles’s 1965 film Los cuervos están de luto is a plagarized version of Rubín’s original story “El duelo”.

Given that Rubín’s books have a wide appeal – cited as valuable sources of information about people and landscapes by anthropologists, biologists, sociologists and geographers – and were acclaimed by famous contemporaries, including his good friend Juan Rulfo, and literary historians, including Emmanuel Carballo who saw fit to include him in his Protagonistas de la literatura mexicana – why is it that Rubín is not much better known?

First, many of his books had small print runs, and were often self-financed, not the work of major publishers. Many of his books are, therefore, very difficult to find.

Second, Rubín was very much an individualist and neither living in Mexico City nor a member of any mainstream literary group.

Third, according to the author himself, his public disagreements with another famous Jalisco novelist, Agustín Yáñez, who served as Governor of Jalisco during the crisis affecting Lake Chapala in the 1950s, led to him being denied support by any of Yáñez’s numerous friends. Rubín was a vigorous opponent, on ecological grounds, of many of the “development” (drainage) schemes proposed during Yáñez’s administration.

Indeed, when he was chosen as the recipient of the Jalisco Prize in 1954, he declined to accept it on both intellectual and moral grounds, not wanting anything to do with the Yáñez administration which he believed had failed to do enough to protect Lake Chapala. (He was eventually awarded the Prize in 1997).

Rubín was proud of the fact that his work was based on travel and first-hand research, and did not derive from library sources or from his imagination while sitting at his desk. His writing shows that action and plot are more important to him than relaying introspective thoughts or feelings. However, he disliked the suggestion, sometimes made by literary critics, that he was Mexico’s Hemingway.

Rubín lived the bulk of his creative years (1940-1970) in Guadalajara. He taught at the University of Guadalajara and owned two small shoe manufacturing companies in Jalisco, both of which he eventually gave to his employees. In the early 1970s, he spent three years in Autlán, in the southern part of the state, before moving to San Miguel Cuyutlán, near Tlajomulco, for a decade. He then lived in a seniors’ home in Guadalajara for two years. Notwithstanding the many websites that claim he died the year before, Ramón Rubín Rivas died in Guadalajara on 25 May 2000.

Rubín did not win as many awards as might be expected from the quality and originality of his work, but he was awarded the Sinaloa Prize for Arts and Sciences in 1996 and the Jalisco Literary Prize in 1997. Prior to either of those awards, he had been recognized in the U.S. by the award from the New Mexico Book Association in 1994 of their “Premio de las Americas”, as the writer “whose work best exemplifies the common humanity of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere” – a truly fitting tribute to this man of the people.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Dec 192016
 

Poet and writer Jim Levy lived for about a year in Ajijic from mid-1968 until May 1969. Many years later, he has started publishing some of his poems,  essays and stories.

Levy, whose father was a Freudian psychoanalyst, was born in Chicago in 1940 and raised in Los Angeles. As a child, he spent several summers in Taos, New Mexico, a town he would return to later in life.

Levy attended the Thacher School in Ojai, California, and studied two years at Pomona College before traveling through the Southwest and Mexico by (like the Beats) hitchhiking and riding freight trains. After a year in Europe, he started classes at the University of California at Berkeley. Levy graduated with a B.A. in English and History and a teaching certificate.

At Berkeley he met Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, a married woman with two children. The couple married in 1966. In 1968-69 they spent a year in Ajijic.

From Ajijic, Jim and Deirdre returned to the U.S. to live in Taos. In a memoir entitled “¿Paradise Lost?” published in Hakod in 2009, Levy recalls their arrival in Taos:

We — my wife Deirdre, her two children, and I — came to Taos in a VW van in May 1969 with a white rat named Fortunata smuggled in from Mexico rolled in a sleeping bag. We had been living for a year in Ajijic on Lake Chapala. The scene in Ajijic was crazy, but in a Mexican village there was only so much trouble you could get into. In Taos, we found more ways.”

They tried to live as close to the land as possible:

– Although Deirdre and I had BAs and teaching credentials from Berkeley, we didn’t mind living without indoor plumbing or a phone — in fact we thought it was glamorous. We used a two-seat outhouse and carried water in buckets from the Rio Hondo. Like our counterculture neighbors, we “returned” to the land — a purely hypothetical return because my family was Jewish from Los Angeles via Newark and Germany, and Deirdre’s was Catholic from New Jersey via Ireland. My father was a Freudian psychoanalyst and her father was middle management for Bendix Corporation.”

In Taos, Jim edited a local “hippie newspaper called The Fountain of Light” for a time, on which Phaedra Greenwood (who would later become his second wife) was the staff reporter.

Levy’s marriage with Deirdre Blomfield-Brown ended in 1971. Deirdre subsequently changed her name to Pema Chödrön and became a Tibetan Buddhist nun, whose teachings, such as When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape, have reached a very wide audience. She is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Also in 1971, Levy destroyed much of his previous writing, including several completed novels, because he did not deem them to good enough for publication. (He destroyed other works, on the same grounds, in 1985).

In 1972, Levy began living with Phaedra Greenwood and her son. Levy and Greenwood had a daughter two years later and married in 1977. In 1978 Levy embarked on a 35-year career directing non-profits, starting with the Harwood Foundation of the University of New Mexico.

Between his divorce from Phaedra Greenwood in 1994 and their eventual reconciliation in 2003, Levy lived and wrote in a variety of places, including Pátzcuaro and Oaxaca in Mexico, Montreal in Canada, Spain and California. Levy and Greenwood continue to make their home in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico.

Levy began publishing his writing and poetry at the age of 74. His published works include Corazón (and Merkle): A man, a dog, and another dog (2014), Cooler Than October Sunlight, selected poems 1959-2004 (2015); The Poems of Caius Herennius Felix (2015), an extraordinary work about the discovery and translation of an imaginary first century Roman Spanish poet; Joy To Come, Literary and Cultural Essays (2016); and The Fifth Season: A Journey Into Old Age (2016).

Acknowledgment:

  • My thanks to Jill Maldonado (daughter of Beverly Johnson, unofficial town photographer of Ajijic in the 1960s) for bringing Jim Levy and Deirdre Blomfield-Brown to my attention. Johnson herself will be profiled in a future post.

Source:

  • Jim Levy. 2009. ¿ PARADISE LOST ? in Hakod – “The Voice of the Taos Jewish Center”, Vol 8 #2, Winter 2009/5770.

Other Lake Chapala artists and authors associated with Berkeley

Several other Lake Chapala artists and authors have close associations with either U.C. Berkeley or the California College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley. They include the writers Ralph Leon Beals, Earle Birney, Witter Bynner, Willard “Spud” Johnson, Clement Woodward Meighan, Idella Purnell, and Al Young and the artists Tom Brudenell, Ray Cooper, Sylvia Fein, Gerald Collins Gleeson, Dorothy Goldner, Paul Hachten, John Langley Howard (1902-1999), Alfred Rogoway, Alice Jean Small, and Richard Yip.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Dec 122016
 

In my on-going quest to document the authors and artists associated with Lake Chapala, I occasionally come across individuals about whom very little is known. In most cases, diligent research eventually unearths a few savory tidbits, even if I sometimes still lack sufficient material to compile a formal biography.

zepeda-la-ondina-de-chapala

Salomón Zepeda is an exception. I have found absolutely nothing about this writer, beyond the fact that he is the author of La Ondina de Chapala (“The Water Nymph of Chapala”), a 149-page Spanish-language novel published in 1951 by Imprenta Ruíz in Mexico City. The cover art appears to be by “Magallón”.

I know there are a small number of copies in libraries in the U.S., including one in the “Southern Regional Library Facility” of the University of California Los Angeles. If you have a copy, or access to a copy, or know anything about this author, please get in touch!

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Dec 052016
 

The distinguished Black American poet, novelist and educator Al Young visited Lake Chapala sometime in the mid- to late-1960s. It was in Ajijic that he first met Black American artist Arthur Monroe, the beginning of a long artistic friendship.

Al Young subsequently published two works with a direct connection to the lake. “Moon Watching by Lake Chapala” is a prose poem first published in the Berkeley literary journal Aldebaran in 1968, and reprinted in The Song Turning Back Into Itself (1971). The poem was also chosen for the collection We speak as liberators: young Black poets; an anthology, compiled by Orde Coombs (1970).

In 1975, Young’s novel Who is Angelina? was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It includes several scenes set at Lake Chapala, with passages relating to Chapala, Ajijic and Jocotepec. (We will consider this novel more closely in a separate post).

Chapala is also mentioned in a 2011 poem, “Elegy for a Live-Loving Friend” written in memory of Edith Eddy (1919-2011), which opens with the lines:

Light-years ago: Chapala afternoons,
a lake-like feel and smell, the way we met,
three children California-born, full moons,
the world not yet as gone as it would get.”

Albert James Young was born 31 May 1939 in Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. His father, Albert James, was a professional musician and, after the family moved to Detroit, an autoworker. Young’s childhood in the rural south gave way to adolescence in urban, industrial Detroit.

young-al-poet-laureate-california-emeritusYoung attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1957-1960 and was co-editor of Generation, the campus literary magazine. In 1961 he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and proceeded to have a variety of jobs (folksinger, laboratory aide, disk jockey, medical photographer, clerk typist, employment counselor) before eventually completing an honors degree in Spanish at University of California, Berkeley, in 1969. In 1963, Young married Arline Belck, a freelance artist; the couple’s son, Michael James, was born in 1971.

Young’s academic life has been grounded in California. In addition to holding a a variety of editorial positions, he taught creative writing classes at Stanford University, 1969-1976, and was a visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, Seattle, 1981-1982. He has also taught at the University of California (at Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis branches), at Bowling Green State University, Foothill College, the Colorado College, Rice University, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, the University of Arkansas, and San José State University.

In the 1970s, Young worked as a screeenwriter, for Laser Films (New York) in 1972, Stigwood Corporation (London and New York) 1972, Verdon Productions (Hollywood) 1976, First Artists Ltd. (Burbank, California) 1976-77, and for Universal (Hollywood) 1979. His screenplays include Nigger (1972) and Sparkle (1972.)

Young has received numerous awards including National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1968, 1969, and 1974; a Guggenheim fellowship in 1974; two Pushcart prizes, two American Book Awards, a PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction and a Before Columbus Foundation award in 1982.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Young served as a cultural ambassador for the United States Information Agency, making trips on its behalf to South Asia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

Al Young’s novels include Snakes (1970); Who Is Angelina? (1975); Sitting Pretty (1976); Ask Me Now (1980); Seduction by Light (1988); and Straight No Chaser (1994). Among his short Stories are, “My Old Buddy Shakes, Alas, and Grandmama Claude,” published in Nexus (San Francisco), May-June 1965; and “The Question Man and Why I Dropped Out,” in Nexus, November-December 1965; “Chicken Hawk’s Dream,” in Stanford Short Stories 1968 (1968)

Poetry collections by Young, who was Poet Laureate of California 2005-2008, include Dancing (1969); The Song Turning Back into Itself (1971); Some Recent Fiction (1974); Geography of the Near Past (1976); The Blues Don’t Change: New and Selected Poems (1982); Heaven: Collected Poems 1958-1988 (1989); and Heaven: Collected Poems 1956-1990 (1992). His works have been translated into many languages, ranging from Spanish and Serbo-Croat to Urdu and Korean.

The distinguished poet and novelist has also published several “Musical Memoirs”, including Bodies and Soul (1981), Kinds of Blue (1984), Things Ain’t What They Used to Be (1987) and Drowning in the Sea of Love (1995).

In the words of William J. Harris in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Al Young’s art destroys “glib stereotypes of black Americans.” Harris adds that “His work illustrates the complexity and richness of contemporary Afro-American life through a cast of highly individualized black characters. Since he is a gifted stylist and a keen observer of the human comedy, he manages to be both a serious and an entertaining author.”

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 132016
 

A significant section of Al Young’s novel Who is Angelina?, first published in 1975, is set at Lake Chapala, where Young had spent some time in the mid- to late-1960s.

young-al-where-is-angelina-3The plot of Who is Angelina? is relatively simple. Angelina Green, an intelligent, 26-year-old, life-loving woman living in Berkeley, after the hippie phase, goes to Mexico to find herself. In Mexico City, she meets, and has an affair with, a tall, charismatic, enigmatic character named Watusi.

They then house-sit in Ajijic for a while (for friends of Watusi) before Angelina receives news that her father has been attacked in his home, in Detroit, and is hospitalized.

Angelina races north and is forced to reexamine old family ties and friendships. After her father recovers, Angelina returns to California, takes up transcendental meditation and finds a job at an “alternate” school. Unexpectedly, Watusi shows up, but their connection has inevitably and irrevocably changed.

The novel was generally well-received, though Roberta Palm, in a review for Black World (September 1975), writes that “Young is as alienated from his character [Angelina] as she is described to be from herself and her peers.” She thought that Angelina remained “an ambiguous shadow in the novel”, despite Young’s “perfect ear for dialogue” and the fact that his characters spoke “with realistic tone and in genuine cadence.”

Young’s writing shows that he is a keen observer of life in Mexico, with a good ear for Mexican Spanish. Leaving Mexico City, the couple travel to Guadalajara by overnight train and stay in the Hotel Francés for a day or two before taking a bus to Chapala, and then a taxi to Ajijic. As Watusi observes, this is a time when, “Bebop done played out. Beatniks done played out … Bomb shit done played out. Psychedelic shit done played out. Bullshit revolution done played out. Hippies done played out and, look here, I’ll tell you somethin–nigger shit done just about played out too!”

In passing, the novel offers some insights into what Ajijic and Chapala were like in the 1960s. As Watusi and Angelina arrive in town, “All the Mexican passengers who’d ooo’ed an ahhh’d at the sight of water as the bus wound around Lake Chapala a little ways back were now scrambling to line up for the grand central get-off. One Indian woman was carrying a live chicken under one arm.” (81)

Once in Ajijic, Angelina asks Watusi if there are many hippies in the village. “Use to”, comes the reply, “but the Mexican government done just about shut the door for good on that jive. They tolerate the native hippies cause all of em come from upper-class families that’s got a lotta power and pull, but long-haired freaks from Gringoland got to straighten up when they step cross that border cause these crazy people down here don’t be playin! It used to be a gang of em layin out round here in Chapala and Ajijic but… the local people got to where they couldnt put up with they shit no longer and teamed up with the law and run they doped-up boodies clean out the state.” (86-87)

The room in which the couple share a joint and make love has a “quaint hip poster left over from the Mexico City Olympics” which “rounded out the homey effect”. (91) This is a reference to one of the series of posters designed for the Olympics Committee by Austrian artist Georg Rauch, whose studio was in Jocotepec.

Among the many footloose characters that Angelina and Watusi encounter at Lake Chapala are two stereotypical foreigners: an elderly English couple writing travel articles for British and American magazines, and an American girl in her late 20s, a former New York junkie who married a Mexican traveling salesman and is writing her memoirs. Another character they meet is a middle-aged freelance photographer who works in Guadalajara but lives in Chapala. (97)

While Who is Angelina? may not be Al Young’s greatest ever novel, it is still an interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Book details: Who is Angelina? First edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975. First paperback edition: University of California Press, 1996.

Other twentieth century novels set largely, or entirely, at Lake Chapala include:

  • Charles Embree: A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900)
  • D. H. Lawrence: The Plumed Serpent (1926)
  • Arthur Davison Ficke: “Mrs. Morton of Mexico” (1939)
  • Ramón Rubín: La canoa perdida: Novela mestiza (1951)
  • Ross MacDonald: The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
  • Eileen Bassing: Where’s Annie? (1963)
  • Barbara Compton: “To The Isthmus” (1964)
  • Willard Marsh: Week with No Friday (1965)

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Nov 102016
 

The famous American writer, composer and translator Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was a frequent visitor to Mexico in the late 1930s and early 1940s prior to moving to live in Morocco in 1947. Bowles spent a few relaxing weeks in Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, in the first half of 1942.

Paul Bowles was born in New York on 30 December 1910 and displayed early talent for music and writing. After attending the University of Virginia, Bowles made several trips to Paris in the 1930s, and also visited French North Africa in 1931. During the late 1930s and most of the 1940s, Bowles was based in New York where he composed music (primarily for stage productions) while making frequent trips south to explore the sights and sounds of Mexico and elsewhere, trips which had a profound influence on his musical compositions.

Bowles’ interest in visiting Lake Chapala dates back to 1934, when he was considering accompanying Bruce Morrissette in traveling around Mexico. In March 1934, Bowles wrote to Morrissette that, “A while ago I made a list of what seemed to be the best places there: Campeche, Necaxa, Toluca, the baja part of Baja California, Mazatlán, Pátzcuaro, perhaps Lago Chapala, Morelia, which looks to be lovely, Tepatzlán, Cholula, Amecameca and Xochimilco …”

In 1937, Bowles met Jane Auer at a party. When they met again, accidentally, a few days later, Jane suggested to Bowles that he “take her to Mexico with him.” Auer and Bowles married 21 February 1938, and had a successful, if unconventional, marriage that lasted until her death in 1973.

[Jane Sydney Auer (1917-1973) was an American writer and playwright. Her novel, Two Serious Ladies, first published in 1943, may have been the catalyst that resulted in Bowles’ own novel-writing career. Jane Bowles suffered a stroke in 1957, from which she never fully recovered. She died in 1973 at a clinic in Spain.]

bowles-paul-autobiographyThey took a Greyhound bus to reach Mexico on their first trip together in 1937, with Bowles hiding 15,000 anti-Trotsky stickers in his luggage. In Mexico, he met the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas and attended a concert at which Revueltas conducted his Homage to García Lorca. Bowles took a second trip to Mexico later in 1937 in order to live for a short time in Tehuantepec (on the recommendation of Miguel Covarrubias, whom he had met in New York), where he worked on an opera about a slave rebellion.

On 23 February 1938, two days after their marriage, Bowles and his wife attended the first performance of Bowles’ Mediodia (Mexican dances for 11 players) in New York. The couple then left on a honeymoon, “with 27 suitcases, two wardrobe trunks, a typewriter and a record player”, aboard a Japanese freighter, the SS Kanu Maru, on a trip that took them to Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Barbados and Paris, France. They returned to New York in September.

They visited Mexico again in 1939 and stayed in Acapulco and Taxco (where Jane first met Helvetia Perkins, who would later became her lover). On this trip, they met a still unknown Tennessee Williams, and a young man named Ned Rorem, then only a teenager, who went on to become a composer and diarist, and win a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

bowles-paul-on-musicSome idea of the exalted literary and musical circles in which Bowles and his wife moved can be gained from a list of their roommates in the rented house they occupied in 1941. The house, at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, New York, was rented by the novelist and editor George Davis, who occupied the ground floor. Paul and Jane Bowles lived on the second floor, together with the theater set designer Oliver Smith. Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and W. H. Auden shared the third floor, while Golo Mann lived in the attic. It was in this house that Bowles composed Pastorela, a Mexican Indian ballet commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for American Ballet Caravan.

Early in 1942, when Bowles and his wife revisited Mexico, he was taken ill with jaundice and spent several weeks in a “British hospital in Mexico City” before going to Cuernavaca for convalescence. In Cuernavaca, Jane let him read and critique her manuscript of Two Serious Ladies, though it was greatly rewritten and edited prior to its publication the following year. Jane, accompanied by Helvetia Perkins, left for New York at the end of March, while Bowles remained in Mexico a few more weeks, staying at Casa Heuer, the small posada run by siblings Paul (Pablo) and Liesel Heuer in Ajijic.

In a letter to Virgil Thomson, Bowles wrote that, “As soon as she had gone I came to Chapala. Reasons for my not going with her were several.” During his stay in Ajijic, Bowles visited the house in Chapala where D.H. Lawrence had written the first draft of The Plumed Serpent in 1923; Bowles found it “depressing” and poorly ventilated, with the ambiance of a dead-end street. According to his autobiography, Bowles discovered a whole new world of “delightful” literature during his time in Ajijic. He started with García Lorca, then completed two novels by Bioy Cásares and the memoirs of Mario Alberti before turning his attention to Mexico’s early colonial times, and then to short stories by Jorge Luis Borges.

bowles-paul-and-janeBowles’ compositional creativity was in full flow during these years. In 1944, for example he composed the incidental music for the Broadway opening of Tennessee WilliamsThe Glass Menagerie. (The success of this work enabled Williams to spend the summer of 1945 at Lake Chapala).

In 1947, Bowles moved to Tangier, Morocco. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. Except for a series of winters spent in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and occasional trips elsewhere, Bowles lived the remaining 52 years of his life in Morocco. His fame was undiminished and a succession of famous writers and musicians made the pilgrimage to Morocco to visit him, including the most famous names of the Beat generation: Jack Kerouac, William S Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.

When Gregory Stephenson interviewed him in Morocco in 1979, he found that Bowles had mixed memories of Mexico:

“When I mention the Tarahumara, Bowles says that he once translated some Tarahumara myths for a surrealist magazine. He rummages in his bedroom and returns with a copy of View for May 1945, a special “Tropical Americana” number which he edited. There are black and white photographs, collages and translations, including sections of the Popul Vuh and the Chilam Balam, all done by Bowles. A myth titled “John Very Bad” has been rendered by him into English from the Tarahumara. There are also bizarre and gruesome news stories selected by Bowles from the Mexican press.

Bowles speaks of the extreme poverty and squalor he encountered in parts of Mexico when he visited that country in the 1930s. Mexico was a land of gloom and chaos, he says, but also poetry, mystery and great natural beauty. Places such as Acapulco and Tehuantepec were very pleasant in those days and living there was very cheap. Yet he was often very ill in Mexico, afflicted with diverse ailments.”

The astonishingly prolific writing and composing career of Paul Bowles was drawn to a close by his death in Morocco on 18 November 1999.

Bowles’ extensive musical output included Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet (1931); Horse Eats Hat, play (1936); Who Fights This Battle, play (1936); Doctor Faustus, play (1937); Yankee Clipper, ballet (1937); Music for a Farce (1938); Too Much Johnson, play (1938); Huapango – Cafe Sin Nombre – Huapango-El Sol, Latin American folk (1938); Twelfth Night, play (1940); Love Like Wildfire, play (1941); Pastorela, ballet (1941); South Pacific, play (1943); Sonata for Flute and Piano and Two Mexican Dances (1943); ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, play (1943);  The Glass Menagerie, play (1944); Jacobowsky and the Colonel, play (1944); Sentimental Colloquy, ballet (1944); Cyrano de Bergerac, play (1946); Concerto for Two Pianos (1947); Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds and Percussion (1948); Oedipus, play (1966); Black Star at the Point of Darkness (1992) and Salome, play (1993).

Novels by Bowles include The Sheltering Sky (1949); Let It Come Down (1952); The Spider’s House (1955); and Up Above the World (1966). His collections of short stories include A Little Stone (1950); The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950); A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962); Things Gone & Things Still Here (1977); Collected Stories, 1939–1976 (1979); and A Thousand Days for Mokhtar (1989). Poetry works by Bowles include Two Poems (1933); Scenes (1968); The Thicket of Spring (1972); Next to Nothing: Collected Poems, 1926–1977 (1981); and No Eye Looked Out from Any Crevice (1997).

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Nov 032016
 

David Dodge was already a successful author of plays, novels and travel books when he and his wife Elva settled in Ajijic in 1966.

David Francis Dodge was born in Berkeley, California, on 18 August 1910. When his father, an architect, was killed in an auto accident, the family moved to Southern California. After attending Lincoln High School (and leaving before he graduated), Dodge had a succession of jobs, as a bank messenger, marine fireman, stevedore, night watchman and in an accounting firm. He became a C.P.A. in 1937, a year after marrying Elva Keith who had worked as a publishing company representative. Their daughter, Kendal, was born in 1940.

dodge-david-coverDodge’s career as a writer dates back to 1936 when his play A Certain Man Had Two Sons, won the Northern California Drama Association’s Third Annual One Act Play Tournament. The play was later published by the Banner Play Bureau in San Francisco. Dodge co-wrote (with Loyall McLaren) a second play, Christmas Eve at the Mermaid, which was first performed as the Bohemian Club’s Christmas play of 1940.

Drawing on his experiences as a CPA, he then wrote Death and Taxes (1941), the happy result of a $5 bet with his wife that he could write a better detective story than the one she was reading. Death and Taxes introduced readers to James “Whit” Whitney, a San Francisco tax expert turned amateur detective. Whitney continued his investigations in Shear the Black Sheep (1942), Bullets for the Bridegroom (1944) and It Ain’t Hay (1946). These books were completed despite Dodge joining the U.S. Naval Reserve during the second world war, and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander by the end of his active service three years later.

Following his navy service, Dodge and Elva decided to drive to Guatemala. The family’s adventures in Mexico, Guatemala, and then in South America, became the subject matter for several travel books. They also provided Dodge with the raw material for another fictional tough-guy private investigator, Al Colby, who first appeared in The Long Escape (1948).

The novel Dodge completed the following year, Plunder of the Sun (1949), was turned by Warner Bros. in 1953 into the movie of the same name.

However, Dodge’s greatest success, beyond any doubt, was the novel To Catch a Thief (1952). In the Guadalajara Reporter in 1966, Anita Lomax explained that,

The way David came to write “To Catch a Thief” is a thriller in itself… the Dodges were living on the Riviera when the house next door was robbed of a fortune in jewels – they left early the next morning, before the robbery was discovered for a trip to the Far East and they were in Cambodia when they learned that they were the chief suspects and were being “hunted” by the French police! Fortunately, the real thief was caught by the time they returned to France to clear themselves.”

To Catch a Thief was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1955 Paramount film starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

His career established, Dodge spent the next decade alternating between novels and lighthearted travel books. His Poor Man’s Guide to Europe (1953) was revised annually and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. He also wrote travel articles for several magazines, and was a regular contributor to Holiday Magazine from 1948 to 1968.

dodge-hooliganIn 1966, David Dodge and his wife settled in Ajijic for a few months, while David worked on a travel article for Holiday and on his next novel. The novel is presumed to be Hooligan (1969), which features a Treasury Department agent named John Abraham Lincoln who “is sent to Hong Kong to investigate a series of insurance claims for U.S. dollars following a devastating typhoon.”

A reference in 1966 to the couple taking “their former home in the Neill James’ compound” suggests that they were already very familiar with Ajijic prior to this, though the precise timing and length of any previous visits is unclear.

During their stay in Ajijic, Elva (“Elvita”) Dodge took part in at least one group art show, held in the Posada Ajijic for Easter. The exhibition was held in the first half of April, and included works by Jack Rutherford; Carl Kerr; Sid Adler; Gail Michel; Allyn Hunt; Franz Duyz; Margarite Tibo; Elva Dodge; Mr and Mrs Moriaty; and Marigold Wandell.

While David and Elva Dodge were in Ajijic in 1966, their daughter, Kendal, flew down from her job in New York with CBS to visit them. Within a few weeks, she had met and married a Guadalajara portrait photographer named Joaquin Reynoso Escatell. They lived in Guadalajara, where Kendal worked in Joaquin’s studio and taught languages and American History part-time at The Butler Institute. Their daughter, “Kendalita”, was born in 1967. In order to be closer to their daughter and granddaughter, David and Elva “retired” to San Miguel de Allende in 1968, the last major move in their global wanderings. When Kendal and Joaquin separated a few years later, Kendal and her daughter returned to the U.S. More than a decade later, in December 1983, Kendal married Frank Butler, the founder of The Butler Institute and her former boss; the couple settled in California. The early years of the life of Kendal Dodge Butler (1940-2007) were portrayed by her father with great  charm, humor and sensitivity in How Green Was My Father (1947) and the subsequent travel accounts of the family’s adventures through Central and South America.

Dodge’s travel writing is exemplified by his Fly Down, Drive Mexico: A Practical Motorist’s Handbook For Travel South of the Border, published by Macmillan in 1968 with a Special Guide to the XIX Olympic Games in Mexico City (held 12-27 October 1968), which was reissued the following year as The Best of Mexico by Car. Dodge’s passion was travel and he viewed writing as a means to an end: he did not travel in order to write but wrote in order to travel.

Elva Dodge died on 17 October 1973; David’s own travels came to an end less than a year later on 8 August 1974. Both Elva and David Dodge are buried in San Miguel de Allende.

Dodge’s extensive bibliography includes fourteen novels published in his life time, with another novel published after his death, as well as several plays and nine travel books.

His novels are Death and Taxes (1941); Shear the Black Sheep (1943); Bullets for the Bridegroom (1944); It Ain’t Hay (1946); The Long Escape (1948); Plunder of the Sun (1949); The Red Tassel (1950); To Catch a Thief (1952); The Lights of Skaro (1954); Angel’s Ransom (1956); Loo Loo’s Legacy (1960); Carambola (1961); Hooligan (1969;) Troubleshooter (1971).

Dodge’s travel books are How Green Was My Father (1947); How Lost Was My Weekend (1948); The Crazy Glasspecker (1949); 20,000 Leagues Behind the 8-Ball (1951); The Poor Man’s Guide to Europe (1953); Time Out for Turkey (1955); The Rich Man’s Guide to the Riviera (1962); The Poor Man’s Guide to the Orient (1965); Fly Down, Drive Mexico (1968), revised as The Best of Mexico by Car (1969).

Several of Dodge’s books have been reissued in recent years, including Plunder of the Sun (2005), Death and Taxes (2010),  To Catch a Thief (2010) and The Long Escape (2011). In addition, a previously unpublished novel, The Last Match, was published posthumously in 2006.

Sources:

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Oct 312016
 

Help needed! I have managed to learn very little about the writer Arthur Brooke Caden (ca 1871-1906) beyond the fact that he accompanied American novelist Charles Fleming Embree and his wife on a multi-day boat trip on Lake Chapala in 1898, and wrote about their experiences in “Mascota’s Cruise”, published in The Mexican Herald on 13 September 1898.

embree-1The boat trip included visits to Tizapan and Mezcala Island, and gave Embree the opportunity to acquire the background knowledge of the lake’s geography that he employed so skillfully in his novel A Dream of a Throne, the Story of a Mexican Revolt (1900), set entirely at Lake Chapala.

Arthur Brooke Caden is listed as the author of a 239-page novel entitled An imaginary story, published in Chicago in 1903, but beyond that I have learned nothing about his upbringing, education or writing career. The available evidence suggests that Arthur Brooke Caden died in Manhattan, New York, on 31 March 1906 at the tragically young age of 35. Charles Embree himself had died the year before, following a short illness, at the even younger age of 31.

Who knows what these two talented young authors might have achieved had their lives not been cut short in their prime.

This post is a tribute to these two writers timed to coincide with Mexico’s annual Noche de Muertos (“Night of the Dead”), more popularly known as Day of the Dead – see Mexico’s Day of the Dead: nine of the best places to visit.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Sep 122016
 

In an earlier post, we looked at the somewhat adventurous life of actress, playwright and novelist George Rae Marsh (Williams), aka Georgia Cogswell (1925-1997), who lived for many years in Ajijic in the 1950s and 1960s with her first husband, the accomplished novelist Willard Marsh. Two years after her husband’s death in 1970, George Rae married the science fiction writer Theodore R. Cogswell.

marsh-george-as-georgia-cogswell-obsessionAs Georgia Cogswell, she published the mass market paperback novel Golden Obsession. (Zebra Books, 1979). While the book is not set at Lake Chapala, it is a mystery story completely set in Mexico and involving a wide cast of characters, some more disreputable than others. The author makes good use of her inside knowledge and experience of the country, its people, customs and beliefs.

The back cover blurb sets the scene:

It’s strictly illegal to take ancient artifacts out of a country, especially in Mexico. Archaeologist Brad Bradley knew and respected that law – only he got killed. It happened right after he notified the museum of the priceless pre-Columbian gold mask he uncovered at the Witches’ Mountain dig – but the mask was never found.

The authorities told his beautiful young wife Hally that it was an accident; that he was brutally attacked by a jaguar. She saw his mangled body and the jagged ripped flesh, yet somehow, she was not convinced. So she decided to stay in Mexico and decode Brad’s maps and notes to find out the truth about his death and discoveries.

Unfortunately, a lot of other people had the same idea. Was it a coincidence that she met a charming, attractive man who knew woo much about her late husband’s work? Was it unusual that her house was ransacked and Brad’s files completely searched? Hally knew only one thing: Brad had dug up more than a buried treasure – he had unleashed a corrupt and greedy murderer who was consumed by a raging GOLDEN OBSESSION.

This is not a prize-winning book, but is still a good read to while away a rainy day. It is not very easy to find, but used copies occasionally appear on sites such as abebooks.com.

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Aug 292016
 

The multi-talented African American poet, novelist and artist Clarence Major spent some time at Lake Chapala in 1968.

Major was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1936 and grew up in Chicago. In the early 1950s, Major studied drawing and painting under painter Gus Nall (1919–1995) and attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where his teachers included Addis Osborne (1914–2011). Coincidentally, the enigmatic African American artist Ernest Alexander, who lived for several years in Ajijic in the early 1950s, had also studied in Chicago and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago shortly before Major took classes there.

In 1966, after two marriages which both ended in divorce, Major moved to New York to begin a distinguished teaching career. Over the next 30 years, he taught creative writing and/or literature classes at Brooklyn College, Queens College, Sarah Lawrence College, University of Washington, Howard University, University of Maryland, University of Colorado, Temple University, and the State University of New York (Binghamton). In 1989, Major moved to California, where he taught until his retirement in 2007 at the University of California at Davis.

In 1968, Major left New York and visited Mexico for several months in the company of his then girlfriend Sheila Silverstone. During the trip, Major was revising his first novel, All Night Visitors, published in 1969. Major’s first collection of poems, Swallow the Lake, was published the following year and won a National Council on the Arts Award.

Clarence Major. Self-portrait. Image reproduced from wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

Clarence Major. Self-portrait. Image reproduced from wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

In Mexico, the couple spent some time in Puerto Vallarta but also visited Lake Chapala, which became the basis for at least two poems published in Symptoms & madness: poems (1971).

The first poem is entitled “IN CHAPALA, JAL” and describes them sitting, reading, in “a red mud / colored 30 pesos per day hotel room”.

The second poem, entitled “EIGHTEEN-DOLLAR TAXI TRIP TO TIZAPAN AND BACK TO CHAPALA” was later included in the collection Configurations: New & Selected Poems, 1958-1998, published in 1999 and a finalist for a 1999 National Book Award. This poem tells how their taxi driver (“with a good life / who has four children, / a pregnant wife, / and who lives in Guadalajara”) drives them, “radio going / cha-cha-cha” through a storm around the south side of the lake.

Major’s poetry and short stories have been published in dozens of literary magazines and anthologies. Major has won dozens of major awards and served as a judge for many important literary contests including the the PEN/Faulkner Award (1997-1998), the National Endowment for the Arts Awards (1987) and the National Book Awards (1991). Major helped edit several literary periodicals, including Caw! and The Journal of Black Poetry. He was a regular columnist for American Poetry Review and the first editor of American Book Review.

In 2015, Major was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts,” by The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Major’s novels include All-Night Visitors (1969); No (1973); Reflex and Bone Structure (1975; Emergency Exit (1979); My Amputations (1986); Such Was The Season (1987); Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar (1988); Dirty Bird Blues (1996); and One Flesh (2003).

His poetry works include Swallow The Lake (1970); Symptoms & Madness (1971); Private Line (1971); The Cotton Club (1972); The Syncopated Cakewalk (1974); Inside Diameter: The France Poems (1985); Surfaces and Masks (1988); Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in The Latter Part of The Century (1989); Parking Lots (1992); Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958–1998 (1999); Waiting for Sweet Betty (2002); Myself Painting (2008); Down and Up (2013); and From Now On: New and Selected Poems 1970–2015 (2015).

His nonfiction books include Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970); The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work (1974); Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994); Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism (2000); Come by Here: My Mother’s Life (2002); Configurations (2010) and Myself Painting (2011).

In his parallel career as a visual artist, Major’s first solo exhibition of paintings was at Sarah Lawrence College in 1974. Other galleries that have hosted one-person shows of Major’s art include First National Bank Gallery, Boulder, Colorad (1986); Kresge Art Museum, East Lansing, Michigan (2001); Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida (2003); Exploding Head Gallery, Sacramento CA (2003, 2004, 2006); Blue Hills Gallery, Winters, CA (2005); Phoenix Gallery, Sacramento CA (2006); Hamilton Club Gallery, Paterson, New Jersey (2007); Pierre Menard Gallery, Harvard Square, Cambridge (2010); and University Art Gallery, Indiana State University, Terre Haute (2011). His work has also featured in numerous group shows in New York, Los Angeles, and Davis, California.

His paintings now hang in many private and public collections, including those at Indiana State University, Terre Haute; Passaic County Community College Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art; the Schacknow Museum of Fine Art, Plantation, Florida; and The Linda Matthews MARBL Collection at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

The covers of several of Major’s books, including Myself Painting, Waiting for Sweet Betty, and Down and Up feature his own paintings.

Works about Clarence Major

His life, art and literature are described by Bernard Bell in Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist (1998), by Nancy Bunge in Conversations with Clarence Major (2002) and by Keith Eldon Byerman in The Art and Life of Clarence Major (2016).

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

Aug 012016
 

The distinguished Canadian poet Earle Alfred Birney (1904–1995) traveled in Mexico in the 1950s and wrote several poems based on his experiences, including one entitled “Ajijíċ”.

birney-ice-cod-bell-stoneBirney was born in Calgary, Alberta, on Friday 13 May 1904 and raised on a farm near Creston in British Columbia. After short stints working on a farm, in a bank and as a park ranger, he attended university to study chemical engineering.

By the time he graduated, his academic interests had changed. Birney graduated with a degree in English from the University of British Columbia (1926). He also later studied at the University of Toronto (1926-27); University of California, Berkeley (1927); and at the University of London in the U.K. (1934).

During the second world war, he was a personnel officer in the Canadian Army, the basis for his 1949 novel Turvey, which won the Leacock medal for humor in 1950. Immediately after the war, Birney took a post at the University of British Columbia, where he was instrumental in founding and directing Canada’s first creative writing program. He retired from that university in 1965 to become the first Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto.

His poetry was widely acclaimed, published in more than hundred journals and regularly featured in anthologies. It also resulted in him becoming a two-time recipient of the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary honor. Birney also wrote plays, novels and non-fiction, as well as working at different times as literary editor of Canadian Forum, editor of Canadian Poetry Magazine and supervisor of European foreign-language broadcasts for CBC.

Birney died of a heart attack on 3 September 1995 at the age of 91.

Birney’s poem “Ajijíċ” [sic] is one of a series of 12 Mexican poems that forms the second section of his Ice Cod Bell or Stone: A Collection of New Poems (1962). The other poems are entitled: “State of Sonora”, “Sinaloa”, “Njarit”, “Late Afternoon in Manzanillo”, “Irapuato”, “Pachucan Miners”, “Six-Sided Square: Actopan”, “Francisco Tresguerras”, “Beldams of Tepoztlán”, “Conducted Ritual: San Juan de Ulúa”, and “Sestina for Tehauntepec”. The place names in the titles clearly shows that Birney traveled quite widely during his time in Mexico, from Sonora and Sinaloa in the north to San Juan de Ulúa in Veracruz and Tehuantepec in the southern state of Oaxaca.

In Ajijíċ, Birney describes a “hip gringo” who, while enjoying a morning tequila, brings out “from under the bar”, “his six feet of representational nonart.”

The poem’s final section includes a description of sundown when,

“Outside the fishermen will pass /
and the blobs of pescada blanca in the nets /
swaying over their shoulders will flake /
their bare shanks with mica as they trudge” …

[Note that the correct Spanish spelling for Lake Chapala’s whitefish is pescado blanco.]

Birney’s Mexican poems were very favorably reviewed by other noted Canadian poets and literary figures. A.J.M. Smith, in his “A Unified Personality – Birney’s Poems”, praised this “brilliant series of Mexican poems. I don’t know where you’ll find anything better in modern North American poetry than the combination of wit and sentiment, pertinent observation and auricular, almost ventriloquistic precision than “Sinaloa”, “Ajijic”, or “Six-Sided Square: Actopan”.”

Mexican literary analysis of Birney’s poetry has been more critical. For instance, Claudia Lucotti, an academic at UNAM (Mexico’s National University),  argues that Earle Birney describes a Mexico of cliches, a simplistic country, one seen only through tourist eyes. She regards Birney’s attempt to record the typical speech patterns of a Mexican speaking English as patronizing and stereotypical. Incidentally, in the same chapter, which examines how various Canadian poets have looked at Mexico, Lucotti considers the same to be true for Al Purdy, another Canadian poet associated with Lake Chapala.

Birney’s poetry collections include David and Other Poems (1942), Now Is Time (1945), The Strait of Anian (1948), Trial of a City and Other Verse (1952), Ice Cod Bell or Stone (1962), Near False Creek Mouth (1964), Memory No Servant (1968), pnomes jukollages & other stunzas (1969), Rag & Bone Shop (1970), what’s so big about GREEN? (1973), Alphabeings and Other Seasyours (1976), The Rugging and the Moving Times (1976), Copernican Fix (1985) and Last Makings: Poems (1991).

Birney’s fiction works include Turvey: a military picaresque (1949), Down the Long Table (1955) and Big Bird in the Bush: Selected stories and sketches (1978), while his non-fiction writing includes The Creative Writer (1966), The Cow Jumped Over the Moon: The writing and reading of poetry (1972), and Essays on Chaucerian Irony (1985).

Sources / references

  • Wailan Low. Undated. Earle Birney : Biography.
  • Claudia Lucotti. 2000. “Nosotros en los otros: visiones de México en la literatura canadiense contemporánea de lengua inflesa”, in Canadá un estado posmoderno, coordinated by Teresa Gutiérrez-Haces (Plaza y Valdes, 2000).
  • A.J. M. Smith. 1966. “A Unified Personality: Birney’s Poems,” in Canadian Literature. (Vancouver, British Columbia, 1966), 30, 4-13

Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please email us or use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts.

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