- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

BRADBURY SPEAKS: TOO SOON FROM THE CAVE, TOO FAR FROM THE STARS

By Ray Bradbury

William Morrow, $25.95, 256 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

In a recent face-to-face conversation at his home in Los Angeles, Ray Bradbury shared with me the secret of his success as a writer of novels, short stories and screenplays: “I followed my love: my love of adventure stories and comics and the possibilities of space travel and movies and dinosaurs and magic. You see, you need to follow what you love. And if you follow it faithfully, and give it your everything, it’ll pay off. Maybe not in money or fame, but it’ll bring you immense satisfaction.”

In “Bradbury Speaks” — a collection of 37 short, ruminative essays, some of them previously unpublished — Mr. Bradbury brings immense satisfaction. In tones alternately comic, sarcastically reproachful, warmly grateful, disappointed, hopeful, reverent, exasperated and almost vengeful, he speaks about the craft of writing, the world of science fiction, people he has known, life in general and the two cities he seems to love the most: Paris and Los Angeles.

Readers unaccustomed to Mr. Bradbury’s allusive, freewheeling style may find some of these essays a bit hard sledding. But for the most part these pieces will prove more than rewarding to those who admire the literary accomplishment of the man who brought the world “The Martian Chronicles,” “Dandelion Wine” and “Fahrenheit 451,” as well as the moral imagination that informs these and Mr. Bradbury’s other works.

Life is a mystery and a miracle, Mr. Bradbury believes, as is the universe itself, “and we have been born here to witness and celebrate.” He adds, “We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience? We are that audience.”

Someday someone will write a book on Mr. Bradbury’s theology, which seems to have been formed in equal parts from the moral doctrines of the Baptist church, the mysticism of Aldous Huxley and the humane naturalism of Loren Eiseley, author of “The Immense Journey” (1957). (It is no accident that Mr. Bradbury dedicated “Bradbury Speaks” to the memory of Huxley and Eiseley.)

The titles of the essays alone make for intriguing reading. In “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog’s Butterfly,” Mr. Bradbury recounts the way several of his best-known novels and short stories came into being — and how they suffered in their transition to film at the hands of clueless screenwriters and boneheaded directors.

In “Lord Russell and the Pipsqueak” (a title that might have been conceived by the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse for one of his Bertie-and-Jeeves stories), the author recalls a single meeting with philosopher Bertrand Russell and his wife, Edith Finch Russell, in 1954.

Impressed by Mr. Bradbury’s having recently written the screenplay for director John Huston’s “Moby Dick,” Lord Russell had invited the young American to his home in England for a visit. And there, Mr. Bradbury — overcome by awe in the presence of a great man he deeply admired — proceeded to blather helplessly and with self-important humility about the creative process, while his host listened politely and asked questions. At one point Lady Russell, bothered by her young guest’s aw-shucks assertions, admonished Mr. Bradbury “not to be too nave, shall we?”

Looking back upon how foolish he must have looked, Mr. Bradbury writes about lessons learned: “And so we behave from one age to another, from thirty to forty, forty to fifty, in successions like the chambered nautilus sealing a cell to move on to yet another, leaving one arrogance but to encompass its twin, blind to the new fatness about the ears until time allow a glance back to the abandoned cell to see an ego parboiled, babbling in a semblance of intelligence while friends roll their eyeballs and summon drinks.” Alas, ‘tis true.

Elsewhere he writes of taking in the major exhibits in the Louvre in 60 minutes flat (don’t ask, just read it), the glories of L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books, his love of architecture and train travel, how he overcame a lifelong fear of flying, his friendship with Walt Disney and respect for the man’s vision, and a rich grab bag of other topics.

One of the strongest and most pointed essays in this volume is titled “The Affluence of Despair: America Through the Looking Glass.” Here Mr. Bradbury takes to task American television viewers and their death-spiral-towards-despair tastes in entertainment. He writes, “The bottom line is, if you stare like a stunned deer in midroad, blinded by the lights that rush to run you down, you must expect that a thousand and one such nights in such a brutal harem will convince you that the end of the world is at hand, that America is bestial, and that suicide, murder, rape, and AIDS are the fashion of the day.”

He adds, “We don’t ask for Pollyanna reruns, but just a tad of balance. Some spearmint gum with the arsenic. Some rejuvenating trampoline with the roadkill. Some hang glider with the deadfall.” What to do? “We have condemned ourselves. Now we must save ourselves. No one else can. Shut off the set. Write your local TV newspeople. Tell them to go to hell. Take a shower. Go sit on the lawn with friends.” All practical suggestions, though the last one had better wait till springtime.

If we have indeed been born to witness and celebrate the miracle of life and the universe, how does the recurrent theme of space travel fit into Mr. Bradbury’s vision? The author writes, “We have been given the gift of life but have forgotten to say thanks. Perhaps because we are confused about to whom or to what we should give this thanks. We know that we should pay back but can find no recognizable recipient for our gratitude, which leaves us with the unease of guilt; Christmas children who late on the Yuletide afternoon, think all the presents have been opened … . Too soon from the cave, too far from the stars.

“We yearn to step free of the cave, we long to conquer space and deliver ourselves to the cosmos. So the next present to be opened on a never-ending Christmas is Mars” — that bright red object in the night sky which the author of “The Martian Chronicles” has long loved and celebrated, bringing him much fame and immense satisfaction. Here and in the other essays, “Bradbury Speaks” sends off cascading sparks of ideas, some offbeat, most colorfully worded and commonsensical, in tribute to the miracle and mystery of life.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the recently published biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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