Monday, August 24, 2015

Powell and Fitzgerald

Though he never transformed it into fiction--saying in a 1975 Paris Review interview that "you really never know what things are going to be suitable material for books. And for some reason I've never thought it was suitable material"--Anthony Powell's brief sojourn in Hollywood in 1937 has long been an object of fascination for me. What might have happened had he managed to latch onto A Yank at Oxford and begin to make a name for himself as a reliable writer of screenplays? Would we have had no Dance? Without the war years--and the particularly English perspective on them--the sequence is hard to imagine. Could we somehow have had a US-focused version, inflected with the strange mix of Hollywood falseness, wartime boosterism, and almost unfathomable industrial growth that was Los Angeles in the 1940s?

Nowadays, to the extent that Powell's Hollywood period is known at all, it's for his brief meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Side note to those possessing a time machine: some of us would really appreciate a bit more detail about the time he met Douglas Fairbanks. Was Fairbanks wearing a shirt? Were his arms akimbo? Did he laugh with insouciance? (No, yes, no, I presume.)) Powell goes into it a bit in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling, an account that includes a brilliant aside that I've quoted before:
One could not fail to notice the tone in which people in Hollywood spoke of Fitzgerald. It was as if Lazarus, just risen from the dead, were to be looked on as of some doubtful promise as a screenwriter.
What I didn't realize until recently was that Powell had written about the encounter, and his Hollywood time in general, at much greater length. The piece, originally published in the Times Saturday Review on October 3, 1970, was included in the Hemingway-Fitzgerald Annual for 1971, and it's well worth seeking out if you have access to a good library.

Powell's account of his own experience is as droll as you'd expect:
Of efforts to become a Hollywood script writer there is little more to say than that they were unsuccessful. My American agent had died during our weeks on the high seas. The replacement was antipathetic. This was getting off to a bad start.
The meetings that followed, Powell, says, were "pursuing the mirage":
One became familiar not so much with the bum's rush, to use an old fashioned expression,as that stagnation of movement, total inanition where any action is concerned, to some extent characteristic of all theatrical administration, more especially when the art of the film is in question.
"To some extent characteristic" feels like the most fundamental Powellian phrase: he's categorizing, which is one of his essential modes, but at the same time he's leaving a gap--individuality, even as one necessarily sorts by type, is what matters.

What follows is a brief account of the accommodations, the lifestyle (as glimpsed by a more or less determined outsider), and the people--and then he gets to Fitzgerald:
He was smallish, neat, solidly built, wearing a light grey suit and lightish tie, all his tones essentially light. Photographs--seen for the most part years later--do not do justice to him. Possibly he was a person who at once became self-conscious when before a camera. Even snapshots tend to give him an air of swagger, a kind of cockiness, he did not at all possess. On the contrary, one was immediately aware of a sort of unassuming dignity. There was no hint at all of the cantankerousness that undoubtedly lay beneath the surface. His air could be thought a trifle sad, but not in the least broken down, as he has sometimes been described at this period. In a railway carriage or bar, one would have wondered who this man could be.
Powell and Fitzgerald seem to have hit it off, apparently monopolizing the conversation to such an extent that Fitzgerald eventually realized that neither Violet Powell, or their other luncheon companion, Elliott Morgan, had gotten a word in, a situation he good-naturedly tried to remedy.

What's of particular interest is Fitzgerald's assessment, at that moment, of his legacy. He was at low ebb, and knew it:
We talked of his own books. He dismissed any idea that they would ever be read in England. It certainly seemed unlikely then--a good example of the vicissitudes of authorship--that within 10 years and a world war everything Fitzgerald had written would be in print in a London edition.
In the Paris Review interview, Powell credits Cyril Connolly, who was for a time all but the sole champion of Fitzgerald in the UK, for insuring that he knew of--and admired--Fitzgerald's work.

In the original article, Powell notes something that he only alluded to in the his memoirs: this was a moment--in fact, the very day--when a lot was happening in Fitzgerald's life. That evening, he would have dinner, for the first time, with Sheilah Graham, the woman who would be his companion in the final years of his life. Despite the emotional upheaval that surely accompanied the success of that dinner, Fitzgerald followed through with a note of thanks to the Powells for a pleasant lunch, and the gift of some books.

Even late, rackety Fitzgerald could regularly come through with some class.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

On the books, read and unread, on my shelves

One of the first rules you learn if you work in food service is "First in, first out." When, bleary-eyed at 5 AM, you greet the truck that brings the racks of ready-to-boil bagels and vats of cream cheese and load them into the walk-in cooler, you have to rearrange everything, every day, pushing yesterday's supplies to the front and making space to wedge the new stuff in the back. (If you're like I was at twenty, you'll also eat about half a dozen pickles from the man-sized pickle bucket while you're at it. Yum.)

The first in, first out rule is often in the back of my mind when I'm looking over the shelves of my library. I certainly don't come close to practicing such an approach. Does anyone? Though I know there are diligent, focused readers, I have never been of their party, tending more to be in the camp Samuel Johnson describes here:
Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise rigorous adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.
Combine that with an inveterate habit of haunting bookstores and libraries, and the result is a situation where older books--good, interesting books, books that were brought into the house in the full intention that I would read them--get buried under newer books, and at least some of which will doubtless soon find themselves buried by specimens still more fresh.

Most days, I don't mind this. I'm no scholar; I have no duties to these books or any others. And while it's not wrong to say that there is at least some risk that a new novel left too long may transform, in a was not wholly dissimilar an aged vat of cream cheese, into something less appetizing, it seems far from unreasonable to think that a novel that can't patiently wait its turn is probably a novel that didn't need reading in the first place. If a new book buries a nearly new book, it's a small sin.

Yet there's no question that a pathology, however modest, underlies this. I do not, in any sense, need all these books in my house; I bring them home to read, but I also, no doubt, bring them home . . . simply because I like knowing they're at hand? I'll share one symptom, trusting that it will speak for the whole problem. This photo shows the bookshelves in my office, to which I recently carted all the books I currently have on loan from the University of Chicago Library.



Ahem. I trust I stand convicted. While I do hold to the belief that one's shelves should feature a large proportion of unread books--they are a to-do list and a wish list as much as they are a repository of personal knowledge--there are times when the situation in my library does seem a bit out of hand. Holbrook Jackson, in his Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950), offers citations for both the damning and the defending of a reader who finds his library in a state like mine:
That book-colletcors read not what they buy is a common observation. Every age furnishes evidence of those who hoard books without reading them. One such is reproached by Lucian: "Nobody who knows you," he complains, "would think you do it on account of their helfpfulness, or use, any more than a bald man would buy a comb, a blind man a mirror, a deaf-mute a flute-player, an eunuch a concubine, a landsman an ora, or a seaman a plough." There are many who insist that this is a prime symptom; others stoutly contest the view: "some books are to be read, others are to be collected" (A. Edward Newton); and [Sir Adam] Ferguson as boldly maintains that "the larger number of books are not for reading; their improtance does not depend upon their contents, but upon themselves."
Edmund Gosse, meanwhile, in an essay about his own library, asserts:
Books are not entirely valued or intimately loved unless they are ranged about us as we sit at home.
But then there are those days when by chance I turn away from the stacks of new books and walk my shelves. On those days, after I inevitably discover a forgotten volume that, on its initial entry into my life, brought a shiver of excitement, I resolve, however weakly, to curb my pathology and cut back on new books for a time.

I'm in the midst of one of those spells now, and I'm pleased to say that the first half of August has seen the balance between read and unread books in my house tip ever so slightly to the former. One of the books I dug up, which had been left in a partially read state for years, was Clive James's monumental, staggeringly learned Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. In his introduction, James writes,
It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.
In a lighter vein, Holbrook Jackson concludes The Anatomy of Bibliomania with:
Go then, choose your book and your time. There is no compulsion. Reading is not a virtue--unless the enjoyment be virtuous.
I agree with both, though I also hope they'll both forgive me if, for this brief late-summer span, I ascribe the tiniest bit of utilitarian virtue to my reading. The situation is still absurd, of course, the balance still deeply tilted to the unread side, but as with so many things in life, merely demonstrating to oneself that one's will can be imposed feels like a victory.

Friday, August 07, 2015

One last thought on utopias, with Ellis Peters

In last week's post about utopias, I quoted from Ellis Peters's Monk's-Hood, the third in her series of medieval mysteries starring Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century monk from Shrewsbury Abbey. In that post, I likened the appeal of Peters's novels to that of Rex Stout's: that they're less about a mystery to be solved than an opportunity to spend time in a familiar, congenial setting and atmosphere that, unlike the rest of our lives, is all but unchanging--that last being one of the characteristics of a utopia.

At the end of a lovely vacation week largely spent sitting on my porch reading, I find myself thinking of a passage from Monk's-Hood that considers a slightly different aspect of potential utopian ideals. An aged local noble has just deeded his estate to the Abbey in exchange, essentially, for a life tenancy just outside its walls, which sets Cadfael thinking:
Another curious theme intruded itself persistently into Cadfael's musings. This matter of the occasional guests of the abbey, so-called, the souls who chose to abandon the working world, sometimes in their prime, and hand over their inheritance to the abbey fora soft, shielded, inactive life in a house of retirement, with food, clothing, firing, all provided without the lifting of a finger! Did they dream of it for years while they were sweating over lambing ewes, or toiling in the harvest, or working hard at a trade? A little sub-paradise where meals dropped from the sky and there was nothing to do but bask, in the summer, and toast by the fire with mulled ale in the winter? And when they got to it, how long did the enchantment last? How soon did they sicken of doing nothing, and needing to do nothing? In a man blind, lame, sick, he could understand the act. But in those hale and busy, and used to exerting body and mind? No, that he could not understand. There must be other motives. Not all men could be deceived, or deceive themselves, into mistaking idleness for blessedness.
Though I genuinely love my job, time away from it, and from work, period, is always appreciated. And while I would never choose idleness--else why type this when I could be basking in the park?--the draw of a world where needs are supplied, and time is thus freed for non-remunerative pursuits, is strong.

Would the illusion last? Though I'm far from certain it wouldn't, I do think Peters is on to something here--a point that could be applied to her books, and which differentiates the pleasures they offer from the seductions of utopia. What such cozy mysteries, executed with the skill of Peters and Stout, offer is not a perfect world we can imagine moving into, but rather a retreat--a conventual realm, where we can briefly set aside the cares of the world and take up a new, ordered, reliable, unchanging life. They're less pernicious than true utopias both because they don't intend to hold us forever: we're to while away a few hours, then close the book and return to the everyday.

And with that, I'll close my week and start the weekend by opening some Rex Stout. You could do worse than join me . . . and Archie and Wolfe and Lily and Fritz and . . .

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Thinking more about utopias with Darran Anderson's Imaginary Cities

After I wrote last week's post on utopias--need I even append "failed," or does "utopia" imply that these days?--I began reading Darran Anderson's idiosyncratic, vertiginously referential, overstuffed, pleasantly oracular and fascinating new book Imaginary Cities, and I almost immediately encountered some reflections on utopias that seem like a necessary addendum.



{Photo by rocketlass.}

The impossibility of utopias could be reduced to the fact that it's impossible to describe--and therefore fully to plan--a real city. "Cities," Anderson writes, "are never entirely finished, knowable or singular." Planning can only ever get you so far. Life requires avenues for the unexpected, ability to cope with what emerges--good and bad--without intention from our deliberate actions. Just as no system is wholly self-sustaining, no system is wholly efficient. "It is," writes Anderson, "the by-products that undermine utopias, even unbuilt ones." Those by-products aren't merely the obvious ones--physical waste, dead matter--but the more insidious as well, the stray thoughts, the individuals who can't or won't play along, the unintended consequences of innocent decisions. I wrote last week that every utopia contains its doom; every utopia also is perpetually poised somewhere on the continuum between anarchy and totalitarianism, with the middle ground the hardest to hold. "The future not only has side-effects, it is side-effects," writes Anderson: the death of a utopia will almost always come not through dramatic action, but for simple want of a nail, or, perhaps more commonly, for refusal to accept that a nail is needed.

 Yet at the same time, the opening to Anderson's discussion of Plato's Republic offers a useful sketch of the appeal of utopia to a certain kind of mind:
One of the attractions of the utopian island city is that there need be no excess or dissent. . . . To the ominously ordered mind of the pedant, the urge to decide on everything is too much to resist. The all-too-human difficulties and complexities would be forced to yield.
Indeed, while my post last week focused primarily on the inevitability of failure in utopias, the question of their appeal is at least as interesting. I find myself thinking of something a friend's kid said a few years ago, a "fact" he stated built entirely on observing his parents: "Girls drink coffee. Boys drink Coke." The world, to a child, can be ordered, and neat, if only enough knowledge is accumulated. Categories apply.

And to some, the pull of order never lessens--the utopian vision is about believing in perfection, yes, but it's also about believing in categorization, and perfect information, and, ultimately, stasis. If, as Donald Pitzer argued in America's Communal Utopias, both adapting to change and failing to adapt to change can be deadly for utopian communities, that is specifically because both decisions reflect the presence of disorder and uncertainty--both cause questioning of one of the bedrocks of the utopian vision, the idea that control, of any sort, can be perfectly maintained. Perfection isn't a state of becoming; it has no past, no future. As Anderson writes, "the price of the future is that you leave the past, never to return." Though it may be unstated, the first thing utopians must banish from their perfect cities is time.

The draw, nonetheless, remains. Anderson quotes Oscar Wilde:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
"The journey and the direction, rather than the destination, are the key," Anderson writes. Knowing imperfection, and seeing it everywhere, should lead us to accept it, and halt out thoughts there. Instead, it shadows forth its opposite, perfection, and we obsess. Next time will be different, and next time, and next time . . .

All of which leads to the inevitable elusiveness of acceptance, and contentment, and brings to mind another passage from another book I read today, Monk's-Hood, the third in the series of Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. The Cadfael series, which I'm so happy to have embarked upon recently, is an example of the genre of book, and, specifically, of mystery, of which Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels are the exemplar: the comfort mystery, where, for all the crime and murder the books may contain, the point is that each one returns you to a setting, a group, an atmosphere that is reliable, congenial, and therefore, in its own largely unchanging way, even utopian. For Stout, it's the largely self-contained world of a brownstone in 1930s Manhattan; for Peters, it's a twelfth-century English monastery.

Yet neither makes a pretense to presenting an actual utopia, and in fact the first page of Monk's Hood specifically plumps for the virtues of good enough:
Men were variable, fallible, and to be humoured. And the year, so stormy in its earlier months, convulsed with siege and slaughter and disruptions, bade fair to end in calm and comparative plenty. The tied of civil war between King Stephen and the partisans of the Empress Maud had receded into the south-western borders, leaving Shrewsbury to recover cautiously from having backed the weaker side and paid a bloody price for it. And for all the hindrances to good husbandry, after a splendid summer the harvest had been successfully gathered in, the barns were full, the mills were busy, sheep and cattle thrived on pastures still green and lush, and the weather continued surprisingly mild, with only a hint of frost in the early mornings.No one was wilting with cold yer, no one yet was going hungry. It couldn't last much longer, but every day counted as blessing.
Acceptance, contentment, the slow turn of the calendar page. These imperfect glories are our lot. We could do worse.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On the twice-failed utopia of New Harmony, Indiana



With apologies for the longer-than-usual blogging hiatus (vacation, work, the usual), today I'll start with a Twitter essay I wrote a couple of weeks back on the eve of making my first visit to my parents' new home in New Harmony, Indiana.

I really enjoy the Twitter essay--pioneered by New Republic editor Jeet Heer--as a form because of the way it forces internal brevity on a piece of writing. As you'll see above, while thoughts do continue from line to line, the form works best when a line is self-contained, yet at the same time advances the argument or example. And, because of the way Twitter allows sharing and replies, the form can also be malleable, participatory: a reader, for example, canmake a good point about the topic and that point can be incorporated, more or less in real time, within the essay itself.

What you give up in the Twitter essay, of course, is the option of length--and particularly length of quotation. And when a reader of the Twitter essay, my friend Dan Visel, pointed me at Marguerite Young's odd, impressionistic 1945 book on New Harmony and its history, I was glad I had this platform available so I could share part of it.

Young's prose is marvelously strange, moving to a rhythm and patterns of thought that at times seem clear only to her, yet that leave behind them a sense of beauty and a willingness to be lavish with time. Here, for example, is Young on the New Harmony she saw on visiting in 1940:
New Harmony has a charm escaping these and other categories. In 1940, it seemed like a good place to spend one's old age in or visit one's old Aunt Mary, the nonexistent character. School did or did not keep, and nobody cared, and the teacher was pretty, presumably. People did or did not wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday. There were old-fashioned flowers in abandoned lots and gardens--dusty blue morning glories trailing among stinkweeds, spires of yellowing lilies that seemed to flourish in neglect. There was a feeling of both tedium and voluptuousness.

Gradually, in spite of the ten-cent store, which was cobwebbed and insubstantial, the present faded, became of a texture with the past, as if today were only the conglomerate of all our yesterdays. Every item implied, however, desolation, since nothing lingers so like the memory of failure, especially if it has sought the extreme perfection.
At times it feels as if Young is simply letting you in on a portion of a conversation she's long been having with herself, in which some references will always remain a bit obscure. But the style can win you over, and it seems to suit this attempt to explain the inexplicable: the urge to create a utopia, and the entropy and human failings that guarantee its end.

Young's account of the difference between the Rappites and the Owenites is succinct and helpful, fleshing out my thumbnail version above:
It is difficult to visualize this secluded area as once the scene of two Utopias, like the Cartesian split between body and soul--the Rappite, a Scriptural communism, founded by Father George Rapp, a German peasant, who believed his people to be future angels--the Owenite, founded by Robert Owen, an English cotton lord, who believed all men to be machines. The end result of Father Rapp's community, a celibate order, was heaven--and the end result of Robert Owen's, while also incalculable, was the British labor movement.
The Owenite presence is the one that remains most palpable in New Harmony today: in large part through the philanthropy of his descendants and a partnership with the nearby University of Southern Indiana, the town's character as an intellectual outpost remains, in a sense. It's not, by any stretch, the great center of learning that Owen envisioned, but compared to that of other Midwestern towns of its sub-1,000-person size, its liveliness and culture are impressive: there's an art gallery and studios, public sculptures and gardens, and live music, indoors and outdoors, throughout the year. It's sleepy, sure, especially under the enervating humidity of late summer, but it's also charming and odd; I meant what I said about visiting--if you're in Southern Indiana, it's worth a modest detour.

For the final word today on Utopia, I'll turn to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, my favorite of his books (and one best read alongside Marco Polo's remarkable Travels). After Calvino's Marco Polo has described for Kublai Khan countless bizarre and unlikely cities, we reach the end of his travels:
The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria.

Kublai asked Marco: "You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favoring winds are driving us."

"For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discotnniuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you can hunt for it, but only in the way I have said."
Polo continues, ending with a note of caution:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
A note of caution, yes. But also, even for this doubter of the utopian impulse, a note of hope.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Robert Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy, always relevant

As I headed home from the office Friday evening, feeling momentarily overwhelmed by the events of the day and the week and the fortnight, from the horrors of the shootings in Charleston to the century-late acknowledgment of the reprehensibility of the South's cause to the juxtaposition of the terror killings in Europe and Africa and the celebrations that followed the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage, I found myself thinking of Robert Burton, and the showiest, most memorable passage from his endlessly fecund Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters & preparations, & such-like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarums. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, etc. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, etc. Thus I daily hear, and such-like, both private and public news; amidst the gallantry and misery of the world—jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour, and integrity mutually mixed and offering themselves—I rub on, privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, status quo prius, left to a solitary life and mine own domestic discontents.
It's a "wonderful epitome of what life is like," as Anthony Powell put it. Life seen properly as a cascade, so vast as to be almost incomprehensible in the moment, barely less so in in retrospect, mingling the good and the bad, the important and the silly, the lasting and the fugitive. It's enough on the bad days to call to mind a line from Kafka's diaries:
With "Woe!" you greet the night, with "Woe!" the day.
But there's also Charles Lamb, who speaks I think for the odd mixture of--as Burton might have seen it--humors in many of us when he writes,
I cannot divest me of an unseasonable disposition to levity upon the most awful occasions.
Burton's rippling, rivering register of events reminds us that an admixture is all we're ever allowed.

As I read the Anatomy Friday night, I realized something further, and unexpected: surely this, this very passage from Burton, is where Antonin Scalia encountered the archaic word "mummeries" in proximity to "weddings," such that it stuck in his mind and ended up in his blistering dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges? Has Scalia, feeling the tides of history, this week at least, running against him, been seeking consolation in The Anatomy of Melancholy?

Burton offers countless consolations--he is, as Powell puts it, "never a bore," and "one of the first writers to grasp the innate oddness of human nature"--but I'd perhaps recommend that the good Justice, at the end of a long term closeted up with books of law, eager clerks, and crotchety colleagues, instead put the book down and seek some version of Burton's own remedy for melancholy, as related by Powell:
At Oxford, when plagued by melancholy, Burton, who seems always to have enjoyed a joke, used to go down to the bridge over the river, and listen to the bargemen swearing at each other. That would always make him laugh, and at once feel better.
As someone who spent most of his weekend (in, let's note, a much more cheerful and optimistic frame of mind than I'm ascribing to Justice Scalia) sitting on the porch admiring the chuntering nonsense of the local bird population around my feeder, I give such a prescription my heartiest support.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Balbec

After a lengthy period of what can only be described as dithering, summer seems finally to have settled on Chicago. So it's appropriate that the mail has brought me correspondence from a vacation getaway: my mysterious Texan correspondent has appeared again, this time with a postcard of the seaside.



The ascription to Calais locates it in place, and the other elements let us locate it in time: somewhere in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, definitely pre-war, when bathing tended to yield to strolling, and the costumes for either were full-coverage and heavy.

But Calais carries insufficient romance for my correspondent, who prefers to imagine it as elsewhere.



Balbec! The name Proust gave to Cabourg, the oceanfront town where he spent every summer from 1907 to 1914, and where his fictional alter ego, Marcel, first sets eyes on Albertine and her set. It is on the way to Balbec that he realizes he has become indifferent to his first love, Gilberte:
There are instances, albeit infrequent, in which, the passing days having been immobilized by a sedentary way of life, the best way to gain time is to change place. My journey to Balbec was like the first outing of a convalescent who has not noticed until that moment that he is completely cured.
To be well in that way, however, is not in Marcel's character, so the freedom from Gilberte only opens the door for his next obsession--one that he would alternately fight and embrace through the rest of his life: Albertine, whom he first sees with her set on the promenade in Balbec.

Balbec plays a part as well in A Dance to the Music of Time, its appearance Anthony Powell's most open acknowledgment (aside, perhaps, from the title) of his debt to Proust. Late in The Military Philosophers, the final volume of the war sequence, Nick Jenkins is traveling through recently liberated France with a contingent of English and foreign military officers, and an officer asks where they are:
"C-A-B-O-U-R-G, sir."

As I uttered the last letter, scales fell from my eyes. Everything was transformed. It all came back--like the tea-soaked madeleine itself--in a torrent of memory . . . Cabourg . . . We had just driven out of Cabourg . . . out of Proust's Balbec. Only a few minutes before, I had been standing on the esplanade along which, wearing her polo cap and accompanied by the little band of girls he had supposed the mistresses of professional bicyclists, Albertine had strolled into Marcel's life. Through the high windows of the Grand Hotel's dining-room--conveying to those without the sensation of staring into an aquarium, was to be seen Saint-Loup, at the same table Bloch, mendaciously claiming acquaintance with the Swanns. A little further along the promenade was the Casino, its walls still displaying tattered playbills, just like the one Charlus, wearing his black straw hat, had pretended to examine, after an attempt at long range to assess the Narrator's physical attractions and possibilities. Here Elstir had painted; Prince Odoacer played golf. Where was the little railway line that had carried them all to the Verdurin's villa? Perhaps it ran in another direction to that we were taking; more probably it was no more.
Jenkins's colleagues, unaware of the flood of literary memory that has swept over him, continue their practical inquiries, but Proust resurfaces as soon as his thoughts are his own once more:
Proustian musings still hung in the air when we came down to the edge of the water. It had been a notable adventure. True, an actual night passed in one of hte bdrooms of the Grand Hotel itself--especially, like Finn's an appropriately sleepless one--might have crowned the magic of the happening. At the same time, a faint sense of disappointment superimposed on an otherwise absorbing inner experience was in its way suitably Proustian too: a reminder of the eternal failure of human life to respond a hundred per cent; to rise to the greatest heights without allowing at the same time some suggestion, however slight, to take shape in indication that things could have been even better.
Or, as Howard Moss puts it in The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust,
Actuality contends with the haunted coastline of the imagination. . . . Place, then, is one of the first instigators of expectation and, therefore, one of the cornerstones of disenchantment.
In my reading of Dance, that scene also represents something larger: the moment when the strain and fear of war finally begin to ebb, and the possibilities of a normal life returning begin to seem less improbable. The war sequence of Dance is justly praised, but critics rarely note what I think is its most impressive quality: the sense Powell conveys of how disruptive the war was, even for those who came through it with relatively small losses. Even if you don't count the daily strain of the late 1930s, Nick Jenkins essentially lost six years of his life to forces beyond his control. Not only can he not find the time or emotional clarity to write, but he also can barely find anyone who is even slightly sympathetic to the world of books and ideas. The resulting deprivation is thrown into stark relief when he meets Pennistone, and the two talk books like men sharing a canteen while lost in a desert.

Thus, when Balbec breaks upon him, I see it as a release, a reminder that, despite the losses entailed by war, literature--and the whole world of books and culture that it signifies--remains, can be called up. And if it can remains, then it can be re-inhabited. V-E Day is in the offing; after some unquestionably doubtful moments, life, it turns out, will go on.

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Lewis had his enemies, but he had their measure."

One of the many pleasures of Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones is the thumbnail portraits she offers along the way of the people in Burne-Jones's orbit. In addition to fairly extensive accounts of major figures like William Morris, John Ruskin, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Fitzgerald presents countless quick sketches of fascinating Victorian and early Edwardian figures. This sizing up of the Gladstone family that accompanies Burne-Jones's first encounter with Mary Gladstone is a good example:
The sixth of Gladstone's children, she had been brought up in the huge brilliant rough-and-tumble of Gladstones, Lytteltons and Glynnes at Hawarden, where there were enough people in the family to sing the Messiah straight through, and where everyone was sympathetic, but no one listened to what anyone else was saying. At nearly twenty-eight she was only just beginning to feel that she was not a nonentity--not, in the peculiar language used by the Glynnes, a "phantod" or complete idiot.
The incidental character who most firmly arrested my attention, however, was prominent lawyer George Lewis:
Lewis really was, and chose to give the effect of being, like a character out of Dickens--probably Jagger in Great Expectations. He was born, like Ned, in 1833, but as Jew was not allowed to go to Oxford: he studied at the new University College and was articled at seventeen as his uncle's solicitors' clerk. He liked to recall his first client, a very large woman whose son was accused of robbing the till in a public house. In the years that followed he specialised in fraud and commercial libel, and became the defence solicitor, it seemed, for half the Victorian world. By maintaining a network of underworld contacts he got to know enough about all the adventurers and criminals in London to save many clients from blackmail. He was Parnell's solicitor, and Parnell trusted him; he prepared Whistler's petition in bankruptcy; he acted in the Balham case and was the only man to know who really poisoned Charles Bravo; he handled the difficult Baccarat case and helped to extricate the Prince of Wales. "Oh, he know everything about us all, and forgives us all," said Oscar Wilde, whose real collapse began after Lewis refused to act for him any further .Yet Lewis shared his father's reputation as a reformer and poor man's lawyer. He was proud of his Jewish ancestry and kept on the dark warren-like chambers in Holborn where he and his brothers and sisters had been born. Here visitors were sometimes admitted to the gas-lit strong-room where the great black deed-boxes were turned to the wall so that no names could be seen. Lewis had his enemies, but he had their measure. He committed nothing to paper--all his secrets would die with him--and a man who had no vices except a weakness for a good cigar could not be got at.
Could it be possible to read that paragraph and not want immediately to know more about this man? Fitzgerald's biography is only loosely annotated, offering sources for quotations, but not for general information, so I don't yet know where one might start in a quest to learn more about Lewis. But it has to be possible, no? Investigations will be underway shortly; I'll report back when I know more!

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Edward Burne-Jones and the associations and shared enthusiasms of youth

As a sidebar to my nascent efforts to see whether Penelope Fitzgerald's notebooks hold enough riches that a selected volume might be extracted, I'm finally reading the last couple of her books I'd not previously gotten to. This week, I began the final one, her biography of late Pre-Raphaelite artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones.

From the pages and pages of notes and letters and reference inquiries I found in her papers at the Harry Ransom Center, I know that the book is built on a huge amount of research and thought--it felt like she had gathered enough material that she could also have written a biography of Burne-Jones's friend William Morris, and possibly of John Ruskin as well. Part of Fitzgerald's genius, both as a novelist and as a biographer, is her ability to synthesize mountains of research and present it in a way that makes the story flow almost effortlessly. We know there's a supporting structure beneath the prose, but its presence is never distracting.

Edward Burne-Jones has that quality: it feels almost like a book we are being told, rather than reading. It's conversational and straightforward, with just the right amount of perceptive authorial interjection, like this one, which closes a paragraph on Ruskin:
Ned told Frances Graham [of the adult, but odd Ruskin], "He was a most difficult child." But this mattered nothing in comparison with the warmth of meeting another "scorner of the world." This was Ruskin's message as well as Newman's. It is to the credit of humanity that whenever it has been clearly put, there have always been people to attend to it.
I'm still in the early years of Burne-Jones's life, when he and Morris, at the edge of the successful circles that Ruskin inhabits, are trying to figure out what they're going to do with their futures. Whatever is is, they know they want to do it in tandem, and initially they consider founding a monastery. But they are young, and their sights shift to founding a magazine:
While the magazine was in the planning stages, Burne-Jones found, at Cornish's shop in New Street, the book which was to mean more to him than any other--Malory's Morte d'Arthur. It was the Southey edition, and since it was expensive he read a little every day and bought cheap books "to pacify the bookseller." But Morris, when he heard of it, bought it at once, and generously lent it to his friend while he dashed off on family visits.
What could be more enchanting than the image of Burne-Jones buying books he's not that interested in solely so he can continue with his discoveries in the one he is? This was at a time when, as Fitzgerald points out, "Arthurian legends were so little known that they formed a kind of secret bond." She continues:
It was, therefore, in the two-up, two-down house in Bristol Road that Burne-Jones confirmed his idea of life as a quest for something too sacred to be found, and ending with the death of a king and a friend betrayed, which would be the ultimate sadness (Morte Arthur saunz guerdon). In the city beyond, Joseph Chamberlain was just beginning operations in the firm which was to produce twice as many steel screws as the whole of the rest of Britain. Crom and Ned walked round the back-garden, reading in particular the story of Perceval's sister, who died giving her life-blood to heal another woman, and asked that her body should be put on a ship which departed without sail to the city of Sarras. Without the concept of the book as hero, Victorian idealism can hardly be understood. Morris returned, was enchanted immediately, and had the book bound in white vellum. It was the Quest without Tennyson, and it seems that at first they were embarrassed to speak about it to anyone but Crom, so deeply did they feel the spell of this lost world and its names and places. Yet Burne-Jones must also have noticed that Guinevere and the Haut Prince laughed so loudly that they might not sit at table, that Sir Lancelot went into a room as hot as any stew and found a lady naked as a needle, that the Queen, through Sir Ector, sharply demanded her money back from him, and that a gluttonous giant raped the Duchess of Brittany and slit her unto the navel. In fact Burne- Jones's letters show that he did notice this and that he could overlook in the Morte what he could not stomach in Chaucer. Malory's wandering landscape became in its entirety "the strange land that is more true than real," but not just as an escape, the refuge of the romantic without choice. He found what is of much more importance to the artist, a reflection of personal experience in the fixed world of images.
Fitzgerald accomplishes so much in that paragraph. She shows us the seductive romance of valorous medieval world these friends were conjuring into being among themselves. She draws from that an image of the late Victorian imagination itself--"the concept of the book as hero" an unforgettable way to put it. And she traces the ways Burne-Jones was influenced by, and drew on, the Morte in his art.

The Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements are the artistic moments that I find most personally enticing. I'm not one for utopias, and I don't believe there ever was a golden age anyone living in it would have recognized as such, but the combination of skill, hard work, attention to detail, care for craftsmanship, and brotherhood and idealism of that era are nonetheless powerfully compelling.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

More from Penelope Fitzgerald's Charlotte Mew and Her Friends

No time to offer much in the way of commentary today, but I thought you'd at least enjoy the following passage from Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of poet Charlotte Mew. Noting that the years just before World War I was a period of proliferating, successful poetry anthologies, Fitzgerald writes:
It was the great time for small, thin-paper, verse anthologies, with a ribbon for a bookmark, which went easily into the side-pocket, and were taken for long tramps in the fresh air, returning with grass and pressed flowers between the pages. The Golden Treasury (1897) was one of the first of these, and there was no sign of their running out. It was true that these little volumes, even when they were by the newer poets, were often not very demanding. John Drinkwater, for example, in Poems of Love and Earth (1912) thanks God for (1) sleep; (2) clear day through the little leaded panes; (3) shining well water; (4) warm golden light; (5) rain and wind (apparently at the same time) as (2); (6) swallows; (7) wallflowers, tulips, primroses and "crowded orchard boughs"; (8) good bread; (9) honey-comb; (10) brown-shelled eggs; (11) strong-thewed young men; (13) an old man bent over his scythe; (14) the great glad earth and "heaven's trackless ways." There was a great deal of this kind of thing at the lower and easier end of the repertoire, where eggs were always brown, the women always kind, and the earth always glad.
One of Fitzgerald's greatest qualities as a fiction writer, one she carries over to biography, is her sympathy with well-meaning folly and silliness. She takes an amused stance, but one that never leads to dismissal or condemnation. Looking back from a hundred years on, we see much that was silly about the Edwardians, but we have to admit that there is much to admire as well.

Fitzgerald's appreciation for good intentions gives the last lines of that paragraph special poignancy:
The poetry was meant to give pleasure and it was, after all, the last body of English poetry to be actually read, by ordinary people, for pleasure.
The Golden Treasury remains available today; I had a gilt-edged version when I was a boy, with, yes, a ribbon.