Thursday, January 28, 2016

Henry James meets Thackeray, Trollope, Tennyson, and, best of all, Browning.

I'm midway through the one-volume condensation of Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, and it's everything I'd hoped it would be. Edel has a great eye for a quote, and the James family, copious writers of letters and notebooks and diaries, has so, so many to offer.

One of the passages I've enjoyed most thus far is this, from when Henry was a boy:
Henry remembered Mr. Emerson seated on the sofa in the rear parlor, "elegantly slim, benevolently aquiline." In the library one day he saw Mr. Thackeray who had come to America to lecture on the English humorists of the eighteenth century. Henry was dressed after the fashion of the time in a tight jacket adorned in front with a row of brass buttons; hovering near the door of the sun-filled room, he heard himself summoned by the enormous English gentleman. "Come here, little boy, and show me your extraordinary jacket." Thackeray peered through and over his spectacles alike at garment and boy. He then carefully explained to Henry that if he were to go to England he would be addressed as "Buttons."
The description of Emerson, if a bit unclear (the "benevolent" more sonorous than meaningful), is memorable, but it's of course Thackeray's gentle poking of fun at Henry that's the wonder. "Buttons"!

A few years later, in the fall of 1875, when James was thirty-three, he met Anthony Trollope during an Atlantic crossing. James was not impressed:
He was struck by his "plain persistence" in writing every day, no matter how much the ship rocked. Trollope had "a gross and repulsive face and manner, but appears bon enfant when you talk with him. But he is the dullest Briton of them all."
Not surprising that James took note of Trollope's dogged commitment to writing, given his own later ability to focus reliably on the task; still less surprising that Trollope himself cared not how much the boat rocked, if there was work to be done. I am surprised, however, to hear James describe Trollope's face as "repulsive." Not that you get a sense from photographs that Trollope was handsome, but James's adjective suggests something far worse than that.

Fortunately, James would encounter Trollope again two years later, a meeting that caused him to revise his impression:
A very good genial ordinary fellow--much better than he seemed on the steamer when I crossed with him.
That does make me want to leap to Trollope's defense: as romantic as the idea of taking a leisurely ten-day trip across the Atlantic seems any time I fold myself into an airline seat for the London flight, I do think the society--and the presumption that passengers would participate--would have driven me insane. Just when I would have been looking forward for a nice, long spell of deckside reading, suddenly I'd have to talk with the Smiths of Boston or the Joneses of Saratoga. If I were Trollope, that alone would be enough to make me a less than sparkling companion on the steamer.

James also offers an amusing portrait of Tennyson, whom he met around the same time in 1877. Edel writes, of the dinner party where the meeting took place:
James sat next but one to Tennyson, whom he described as swarthy and scraggy and less handsome than he appeared in his photograph. The Bard talked exclusively of port wine and tobacco; "he seems to know much about them, and can drink a whole bottle of port at a sitting with no incommodity."
Blimey. A few years later, James would write to his good friend Charles Eliot Norton about lunching with Tennyson,
who personally is less agreeable than his works--having a manner that is rather bad than good. But when I feel disposed to reflect that Tennyson is not personally Tennysonian, I summon up the image of Browning, and this has the effect of making me check my complaints.
Ah, Browning--that's where James is at his best in Edel's careful mosaic of his impressions. Browning, James wrote, was "loud, sound, normal, hearty," and "bustling with prompt responses and expected opinions and usual views." It's when he reads his work aloud, James explains, that he's really distinctive:
One of my latest sensations was going one day to Lady Airlie's to hear Browning read his own poems--with the comfort of finding that, at least, if you don't understand them, he himself apparently understands them even less. He read them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.
For all his circumlocution and endless hedging, when James cuts to the chase--as he does more often in his letters than elsewhere--he has an almost unparalleled ability to summon up a striking description. Can't you just see Browning reading now? It makes me wish James had been around to meet Byron . . .

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Dodie Smith's novels

Among the piles of books I return with from my London trips are almost always a couple of paperbacks of novels that are out of print in the States. Most often they're relatively domestic novels by women from the early to mid-twentieth century, doomed to US obscurity through some combination of sexism and a sense that they're too English in their focus and outlook. In recent years, I've completed my Barbara Pym collection, added to my Alice Thomas Ellis, and introduced myself to Barbara Comyns in that way. This time, it was Dodie Smith's novel The Town in Bloom (1965) that drew me in.

I first encountered Smith the way most folks do these days: not through the book that was the most successful in her lifetime, The 101 Dalmations (which her biographer, Valerie Grove, says she wrote "out of sheer irritation at Enid Blyton's success"), but via her charming, funny, beautiful, moving first novel, I Capture the Castle (1949). Often classed as a young adult novel, it tells of a girl coming of age amid genteel (but very real) poverty and English eccentricity. I wrote about it way back in 2007:
Without disrupting the verisimilitude of her young narrator's perspective, Dodie Smith's perceptiveness and intelligent attention shine through, and though I Capture the Castle is a gentle book at heart, with little of the darkness of the world, there's at the same time a palpable sense of reality to it. Its gentleness and humor are not created through avoiding or denying life's dangers but through enthusiastically embracing the world as it is--imperfect, yet still able to take your breath away with its shimmering beauty. Smith is not talking down to anyone, and she's not limiting the insights her story can generate: she's simply showing us a young woman learning about herself, her family, and the differences that make us who we are.
While I've not read all of Smith's books, it's hard to imagine another one topping I Capture the Castle: it has that feeling that great first books often carry of a lifetime of energy and perception finally finding a release, brilliantly.

The first volume of her memoirs, Look Back with Love (1974), however, does come close. It, too, is concerned with English eccentrics, primarily Smith's three bachelor uncles, all of whom worked at the Exchange by day, but gave their hearts to amateur theatre at night. Groves, in her foreword to the Slightly Foxed edition of Look Back with Love, praises Smith for being able to convey vividly "the feeling of enjoyment from the distant past," and she's right: the book brims with innocent pleasure and distinctive, appreciative character sketches. Here's an account of Smith's Aunt Bertha, for example:
She had a most original personality, in fact it bordered on eccentricity. She could not, for instance, tell her right hand from her left unless she hopped; and she insisted that if she was left alone for more than three hours her teeth went soft. But she was a shrewdly intelligent woman. She was also a very humble one and never ceased to be surprised when people liked her, as they invariably did. She had come out even worse than my mother over education and would look terrified if any historical character was mentioned--both she and my mother seemed to think that not to know history was the lowest depths of degradation. And though Auntie Bertha wrote excellent letters, her fear that the spelling and punctuation might be faulty always caused her to add a postscript saying--"Burn this."
It's a wonderful book, through and through, one I'd recommend to any Anglophile.

The fact that those two books are so good has left me a bit at sixes and sevens about the two other Smith novels I've read, The Town in Bloom and the one that followed it, It Ends with Revelations (1967). They're . . . fine? Smith never writes less than well, and there's unquestionable pleasure to be had simply sinking into her prose: her conversational sentences never step wrong, and the female narrative voice in The Town in Bloom is satisfyingly self-confident and congenial. Yet both feel a bit slight rather than minor--a fine distinction, I'll acknowledge, but one that I think exists: rather than setting a limited compass and ambition and making it work, they seem to be lacking some crucial element that would make them come to life. Though both have relatively small casts, few characters are distinctive; there's little of the quick grasp of personality Smith offers us in her memoir. And the plots--extravagant to the border of melodrama in Revelations (secret homosexuality; blackmail; an affair), slight to the point of nothingness in Town (young woman begins to make her way in theatrical London)--aren't convincing or compelling enough to offer much compensation.

And yet . . . I wouldn't say they're bad books, and would even recommend Town to the right reader. If you can reconcile yourself to the fact that Smith is interested in her heroine almost to the exclusion of all other characters, then the introspection and self-questioning and pondering over major life decisions that they both undertake can become quite interesting. What choices, at mid-century, did an educated woman who needed an income have? How was she best served in work and in love? What does it mean to look back on past choices with regret, but also to know that you wouldn't do differently even if it were possible? Here's a sample, from late in Town:
Was there in me a frozen immaturity? Bits and pieces were all I could look back on, bits of love, bits of talent for acting, writing, even music. (I had been taught music as a child, and very well taught, but for years I had only played by ear--how like me.) And now the boot of the car houses a collection of oil paints! A nonsense was all my life would ever add up to, the nonsense life of a nonsense woman. Eve's life of devotion amounted to something far more worth while than my ragbag of experience.

She had once said I suffered from an excess of individualism and I had always thought of this as a compliment. But if the individualism remained that of a precocious child, what then?
What I ultimately appreciate in these novels--and, again, much more so in Town--is that presence of thought. One of the qualities I most admire in a Dance to the Music of Time is Anthony Powell's willingness to allow Nick Jenkins space for reflection: he's not afraid to let Nick's thoughts on and reactions to an event break up and delay the actual account of it; what we care about in that book isn't so much what happens as what Nick draws from what happens. What will stay with me from Smith's novels, and what keeps me from saying they're unsuccessful, is exactly that, the sense she conveys of a character mulling it all over, just as we, the readers, are always doing as a book unfolds itself before us.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mapp and Lucia

One of the highlights of my and rocketlass's holiday in England last fall was a trip to Rye to see Lamb House, where Henry James settled happily (at least in Jamesian terms) for the final years of his life. It turned out to be a lovely, fairly modest house with a large, beautiful garden hiding behind it, walled off from prying eyes and feeling both welcoming and secretive.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

What I'd forgotten until we arrived at the house was that it also later was the home of E. F. Benson. I knew Benson through his ghost stories, classic old-style ghost stories that carried the feel of Victorian England into the Edwardian era and beyond. Lamb House, however, is known not for being haunted, but for being repurposed by Benson as Mallards in his much-loved Lucia novels.

As I discovered in reading my first of those, Mapp and Lucia (1935), this weekend, having been to Rye helps. Oh, I'm sure readers who haven't can imagine both Mallards and the town of Tilling into being with sufficient clarity, but having walked the steep, narrow, cobbled streets, I took particular pleasure in the many instances of Rolls Royces being forced to back and fill multiple times in order to convey people to and return them from a destination a hundred yards or so away. And when Mapp spied into the secret garden from the top of the church tower, I could easily imagine her sense of illicit access, having availed myself of the very same view.

Mapp and Lucia tells the story of an invasion and conquest--a social one. Lucia, bored with life in her own town, decamps for the summer to Tilling. Within days, she's launched an all-out assault on the social primacy of the woman from whom she's rented Mallards, Mrs. Mapp, and the book follows their battle over the course of several months. It's gentle comedy, more rooted in situations and characters than in, say, Compton-Burnett–style cutting lines, or Wauvian perfection of prose, but Benson nonetheless turns in some memorable lines:
She loves being ridiculous, dear thing; it's a complex with her.

There comes a tide in the affairs of men which, if you don't nip it in the bud, leads on to boredom.

It was always wise to be polite to mimics. . . . the dreadful gift of mimicry, which was a very low weapon, but formidable.

Well, I feel like the fourth of August, 1914.

With a view to being more manly he poured himself out a very small whisky and soda.

Elizabeth carried up to bed with her quantities of food for thought and lay munching it till a very late hour.
What makes the book a great pleasure, even at times enchanting, however, is Benson's light, borderline whimsical inventiveness. Take this exchange, between Lucia and Quaint Irene, the local artist:
Irene rose to more daring conceptions yet. One night she had dined on a pot of strawberry jam and half a pint of very potent cocktails, because she wanted her eye for colour to be at its keenest round about eleven o'clock when the moon would rise over the marsh, and she hoped to put the lid forever on Whistler's naive old-fashioned attempts to paint moonlight. After this salubrious meal she had come round to Mallards, waiting for the moon to rise and sat for half an hour at Lucia's piano, striking random chords, and asking Lucia what colour they were. These musical rainbows suggested a wonderful idea, and she shut down the piano with a splendid purple bang.

"Darling, I've got a new scheme for Grebe," she said. "I want you to furnish a room sideways, if you know what I mean."

"I don't think I do," said Lucia.

"Why, like this," said Irene very thoughtfully. "You would open the door of the room and find you were walking about on wallpaper with pictures hanging on it. (I'll do the pictures for you.) Then one side of the room where the window is would be whitewashed as if it was a ceiling and the window would be the skylight. The opposite side would be the floor; and you would have the furniture screwed on to it. The other walls, including the one that would be the ceiling in an ordinary room, would be covered with wallpaper and more pictures and a bookcase. It would all be sideways, you see: you'd enter through the wall, and the room would be at right angles to you; ceiling on the left, floor on the right, or vice versa. It would give you a perfectly new perception of the world. You would see everything from a new angle, which is what we want so much in life nowadays. Don't you think so?"

Irene's speech was distinct and clear cut, she walked up and down the garden-room with a firm unwavering step, and Lucia put from her the uneasy suspicion that her dinner had gone to her head.

"It would be most delightful," she said, "but slightly too experimental for me."

"And then, you see," continued Irene, "how useful it would be if somebody tipsy came in. It would make him sober at once, for tipsy people see everything crooked, and so your sideways room, being crooked, would appear to him straight, and so he would be himself again. Just like that."

"That would be splendid," said Lucia, "but I can't provide a room where tipsy people could be sober again. The house isn't big enough."
Beyond the basic concept, a couple of moments make that passage for me. It's the "splendid purple bang," casually thrown in; the fact that as Irene lays out her idea, she does so "thoughtfully"; and that Lucia midway through convinces herself drink isn't the problem, only to have Irene immediately turn to the room's beneficial effects on the drunk. (Which we all agree to eye with skepticism, surely?)

If that passage amuses you, it's worth giving Mapp and Lucia a try. Benson's account of this all-out war for the smallest of social stakes was the perfect novel for bridging my week in London and the subsequent long weekend with tomorrow's re-entry into humdrum office life. I recommend you gather your lapcats and tea and settle in.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Charles Lamb

As I mentioned in my best-of-the-year-post, I've been slowly making my way through Everybody's Lamb, a 550-page collection of Charles Lamb's writings, accompanied by E. H. Shepard drawings. It was published by Harcourt Brace in 1923, and it's hard for me to imagine even then that Lamb's writing could have been thought to be in any way for "everybody."

Lamb's essays are thoroughly approachable and written in a conversational and witty prose style, yet they're also clearly of another time. Montaigne, for example, would on the surface appear more clearly dated and inaccessible, what you soon discover in reading him is that his themes are for the most part universal, his essays attempts to come to terms with problems of human character. Lamb, on the other hand, tends more to the observational and the modest--and while he marshals far, far fewer classical and literary references than Montaigne, he ties his thinking much more to the moment of his writing, to the clerks of the India House where he worked, the milieu of the playhouse and theater, the odd qualities of ladies playing cards. It's a late Georgian and Regency world, and while Lamb's sensibility retains its familiarity all these centuries later, it's nonetheless hard to imagine it attracting an audience at the scale of even a marketing person's extension of the term "everybody."

That said, I'm certainly part of that more modest everybody, and I'm grateful for the existence of the book, in particular because it mixes in a number of Lamb's letters, which are wonderful examples of the art. He achieves the difficult feat of maintaining a light, amused touch even as he allows his letters, frequently, to convey genuine feeling. You quickly realize, reading them, that his correspondence with Hazlitt and Coleridge and Wordsworth was a lifeline to him, a way for him to escape his workaday world of clerks and figures, and also his home life, which was bound to his poor mad sister. He never asks for our (or his correspondents') pity, but we feel it nonetheless, mixed with admiration for his cheer and fortitude.

This letter, to Miss Fryer, a family friend, lays bare Lamb's struggle a bit more clearly than most, but at the same time it is suffused with love, a love that clearly makes possible the doing of his duty to his sister:
Your letter found me just returned from keeping my birthday (pretty innocent!) at Dover-street. I see them pretty often. I have since had letters of business to write, or should have replied earlier. In one word, be less uneasy about me; I bear my privations very well; I am not in the depths of desolation, as heretofore. Your admonitions are not lost upon me! It is no new thing for me to be left to my sister. When she is not violent, her rambling chat is better to me than the sense and sanity of this world. Her heart is obscured, not buried; it breaks out occasionally; and one can discern a strong mind struggling with the billows that have gone over it. I could be nowhere happier than under the same roof with her. Her memory is unnaturally strong; and from ages past, if we may so call the earliest records of our poor life, she fetches thousands of names and things from the ten years she lived before me. What took place from early girlhood to her coming of age principally lives again (every important thing and every trifle) in her brain with the vividness of real presence. For twelve hours incessantly she will pour out without intermission all her past life, forgetting nothing, pouring out name after name to the Waldens as a dream; sense and nonsense; truths and errors huddled together; a medley between inspiration and possession. What things we are!
"Her heart is obscured, not buried." Patience, love, fortitude. If you've not tried Lamb, and this intrigues you at all, I heartily suggest seeking him out. You could start with his oddly backward-looking, even death-obsessed plaint about New Year's, "New Year's Eve," from 1821; its insouciant humor reflects the other side of Lamb:
I care not to be carried with the tide, that smoothly bears human life to eternity, and reluct at the inevitable course of destiny. I am in love with this green earth; the face of town & country; the unspeakable rural solitudes, & the sweet security of streets. . . . Any alteration, on this earth of mine, in diet or in lodging, puzzles and discomposes me. My household-gods plant a terrible fixed foot, and are not rooted up without blood. . . . I conceive disgust at those impertinent and misbecoming familiarities, inscribed upon your ordinary tombstones. Every dead man must take upon himself to be lecturing me with his odious truism, that 'such as he now is, I must shortly be.' Not so shortly, friend, perhaps, as thou imaginest. In the meantime, I am alive. I move about. I am worth 20 of thee. Know thy betters!
"The sweet security of streets." Two hundred years later, this urbanite, looking out on snow and quiet on his own residential street, from which nothing short of death will uproot him, knows whereof Lamb speaks.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The best of the year

This has, I'll admit up front, not been my best year as a blogger. In fact, in ten years of blogging, it's been easily my weakest, both in amount and quality of output. In the neverending struggle to divide the day, blogging this year lost out time and again to piano practice and work. When I do make time to turn to it, however, I still enjoy writing in this space, and I remain grateful to everyone who continues to visit. I do aim to write more, and better, posts next year; until then, I'll leave you my thanks--but also, my best-of-the-year list!

There's no real order to this list, and it's about as far from scientific as it's possible to get: I cast my eyes over my shelves, thought back through the year, and herewith is the list. I do, however, think it legitimately represents most of the highest points of my year as a reader. It's a mix, you'll see, of old and new--my day job may require me to constantly attend to the new, but outside of that I'm like all serious readers, constantly shifting between past and present, and an old book can easily alter the complexion of a reading year as much as a new one.

The Other Paris, by Luc Sante
A new book by Luc Sante is sort of like a Terence Malick film (which I've further heard compared to a dog--stay with me here): you're only going to get so many in your life, because he's not a quick worker, but when they come, they're wonderful things. The Other Paris is no exception. I've not even been to Paris, but you don't need to have: the book is so rich in description and detail that you never feel lost, and it's at the same time so much about urban life in general, the pleasures of the shaggy, un-sanitized city, that any urbanite will find echoes in their local experience. I quoted extensively from the book on Twitter as I read it, but the line that will stay with me longest isn't even in the book: it's something that Luc said at his reading at the Book Cellar. "I feel an obligation to the dead," he said. "Especially to the unmemorialized dead." The book is about what's been lost, both actual urban figures and ways of being and the potential they represent.

Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson
Another book about cities, and while Anderson's book has affinities with Luc Sante's work, it's distinctive: Sante's is an expedition afoot, whereas Anderson's is a journey of the mind--and, crucially, the library. It's about cities as they have been, but also as they've been imagined, through utopias or fascist dreams or capitalist redevelopment schemes; it's also about our imagined cities, how living amid so many people alters your thinking and opens up possibilities that the countryside never can. And it's full of compressed gems of thought and insight:
We begin relationships in raucous bars and clubs and end them in stations and airports.
With time, horror becomes heritage.
It's a huge, ambitious book, and it was one of the most exciting reading experiences of the year.

John Aubrey: My Life, by Ruth Scurr
I praised this book when I was a mere 100 pages into it, and it only got better. In the face of Aubrey's "tumultuarily" organized papers, and the relative lack of detailed information about his life, Ruth Scurr took the daring step of writing the book as if it were Aubrey's own journal--and she did so almost entirely using his own words, jigsawing them together with minor bits of her own integument and wrapping the whole around the skeleton of what is known of where he was and what he was doing at any given moment in his life. The result is hard to believe: it really does feel as if we're reading a book built by Aubrey, and the emotional weight Scurr generates through that device, the extent to which we empathize with Aubrey's struggles, goes beyond all but the very best biographies I've ever read. It's a masterpiece.

The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
This was the last unread Dickens novel for me, and I'd left it this long because it has such a bad reputation. No one can stand Little Nell. But it turns out to be quite fun, and while not an example of Dickens at his best, it offers so many of the charms that are found only in his works. It's rambling almost to the point of being a picaresque, but for the most part Dickens is able to hold it together, and the cast of characters include a number of typically unforgettable Dickensian types.

Then there are passages like this, a throwaway chapter opener:
The throng of people hurried by, in two opposite streams, with no symptom of cessation or exhaustion; intent upon their own affairs; and undisturbed in their business speculations, by the roar of carts and waggons laden with clashing wares, the slipping of horses' feet upon the wet and greasy pavement, the rattling of the rain on windows and umbrella-tops, the jostling of the more impatient passengers, and all the noise and tumult of a crowded street in the high tide of its occupation: while the two poor strangers, stunned and bewildered by the hurry they beheld but had no part in, looked mournfully on; feeling amidst the crowd a solitude which has no parallel but in the thirst of the shipwrecked mariner, who, tossed to and fro upon the billows of a mighty ocean, his red eyes blinded by looking on the water which hems him in on every side, has not one drop to cool his burning tongue.
Keeping with the urban theme: no one understood cities at that moment like Dickens, and no one, then or now, wrote prose like him. There's a reason they called him The Inimitable.

The Brother Cadfael series, by Ellis Peters
This was easily my extended reading find of the year. It's a series of twenty very cozy historical mysteries, published between 1977 and the author's death in 1995, starring a lay brother in a monastery on the border between England and Wales in the twelfth century. The basics of Cadfael's character, and the feel and tone of the series, are laid out in the opening paragraph of the first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones:
On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensational affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime, pricking out cabbage seedlings before the day was aired, and his thoughts were all on birth, growth and fertility, not at all on graves and reliquaries and violent deaths, whether of saints, sinners or ordinary decent, fallible men like himself. Nothing troubled his peace but the necessity to take himself indoors for Mass, and the succeeding half-hour of chapter, which was always liable to stray over by an extra ten minutes. He grudged the time from his more congenial labours out here among the vegetables, but there was no evading his duty. He had, after all, chosen this cloistered life with his eyes open, he could not complain even of those parts of it he found unattractive, when the whole suited him very well, and gave him the kind of satisfaction he felt now, as he straightened his back and looked about him.
Mysteries, and particularly cozy mysteries, have always been designed to appeal to our sense of order--that while things will go wrong in the world, they will ultimately be put right. The Brother Cadfael books are like the Nero Wolfe books in that they offer a self-contained world that welcomes the reader back each time--but they differ from Stout's books in that the world they describe is explicitly one of removal from everyday cares. Wolfe may in his odd way be a sort of monk, but Brother Cadfael actually is one, and the contrast between the order of the Order and the disorder of the world is explicit. Cadfael, like the reader, has seen a bit of the world, and, as with us as readers, the mysteries he solves are a bit of an escape, a way of participating in lives other than the one  he's chosen. I've taken to carrying a Cadfael on any extended trip, and I've been grateful for it every time.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell This is another novel where I just want to quote the opening, which is what sold me:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
Mary Doria Russell seems to get Doc Holliday like perhaps no one but Val Kilmer, whose portrayal of him in Tombstone is a masterpiece. Her prose is delicate and distanced and calm, but its effect is moving, even devastating: Doc Holliday emerges from wisps of truth and legend to be a real, achingly believable person. I read Doc by chance right before Russell's sequel, Epitaph, was published. In Epitaph, at the point when the Earps and Holliday started walking to the OK Corral, I had to put the book down and go for a walk before I continued. I had lived too long with Holliday and his friends to watch them walk into that life-changing, life-destroying moment without pausing first.

Everybody's Lamb, by Charles Lamb
My friend Steve Donoghue sent this to me when I expressed surprise on learning that there had been a volume of Lamb's writing with illustrations by E. H. Shepard. I'd long been a fan of Lamb, whose generosity of spirit and ability to rise--with at least a facade of lightness--above despair I found winning and admirable. But this book, which jumbles his essays, letters, articles, and miscellany under the (surely even dubious in the 1920s?) idea that this is a Lamb for all readers, is the perfect way to experience him: his voice is consistent throughout, but the varying shades of style and thought, and the shifting masks of essayist and letter writer, together gave me a sense of Lamb as a more accomplished, more varied, more exciting writer than I'd previously realized. And there are so many good lines!
We dealt about the wit, or what passes for it after midnight, jovially.

Write, and all your friends will hate you--all will suspect you. He sets himself up prima facie as something different from his brethren, and they never forgive him.

What a dead thing is a clock.

Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever lays one down without a feeling of disappointment.

A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us that we know the topography of its blots.
And then there are the Shepard illustrations . . .

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Nearly ever year, there's a novel I buy multiple copies of to give to friends--and it's always the novel I've already lent out the most. This year, that book was Scott Hawkins's debut novel, The Library at Mount Char. I wrote about it in October a bit, but it seems to have largely passed under the radar in the general book world; I only spied it because a staffer at 57th Street Books dubbed it "the book you wanted American Gods to be."

And she's right. This book, like Gaiman's, deals with ancient knowledge and magic, and a secret other world of power that lives invisibly alongside ours, but it does so in a way that feels like an organic whole, fully thought through and understood. It's creepy and surprising and violent and dark, but also surprisingly powerful, even moving, by the end. It's an incredibly good book, and one that leaves me excitedly looking forward to what Hawkins might do next.


And that's it. You? What were your favorites this year? What will you be lending?

Thanks for reading, folks. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving thoughts

To take us into the Thanksgiving holiday, in this, one of those Novembers when the ever-parlous state of the world seems more juddery than usual, some thoughts from Stefan Zweig's book on Montaigne, written in the middle of World War II:
It is vital to understand that ample proof exists to show man can always be free, whatever the epoch. When Calvin encourages the witch trials and has an adversary slowly burnt alive, when Torquemada condemns hundreds of men to the stake, their eulogizers put forward the plea that they could not have acted otherwise, being yoked to the held opinions of their epoch. But the human being is resolute. Even in those times of fanaticism, in the period of the Malleus Maleficarum, of the Chambre Ardente of the Inquisition, it was always possible for humane people to persist; not a single moment of all that horror could muddy the clarity of spirit and the humanity of an Erasmus, a Montaigne, a Castellio. And while the rest, the Sorbonne professors, the counsellors, the legates, the Zwinglis, the Calvins proclaim: "We know the truth," the response of Montaigne is: "What do I know?" While, through the Catherine wheel and banishment, they want to impose their "This is how you must live!" his counsel is: "Think your own thoughts, not mine! Live your life! Do not follow me blindly, but remain free!"

He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom.
Go hug your families, folks, and tell and re-tell all your stories. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Heart of the Order

Now that the skies have crumbled into gray and the late-autumn storms have finally stripped the trees of most of their beauty, I'm finally forced to admit that winter is coming. Alas.

Really, though, winter came on November 1, when the Royals beat the Mets to claim the championship and end the baseball season. But even October, as much as our household watches its baseball with enthusiasm, is at best a fake summer, its games wonderful for their drama but lacking the casual pleasures of the regular season. Every year, Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk laments the transition from the everyday grind of the regular season to the intensity of the playoffs; here he is from this year:
And with that another regular season is in the books. Another season of 8, 12, or (usually) 15-game days. Of flipping TV channels or radio stations or clicking between websites and between games. Games which, compared to the other 2,400 or so that happen during a season, mean nothing. But mean everything. Games which can be enjoyed and savored for a bit if your team won and enjoyed and easily forgotten if your team lost. The easy listening soundtrack of the past six months now fades away and in its place comes a 30-day burst of hardcore intensity.
That's why I love baseball: because for six months of the year, it's always there, humming along in the background, idly occupying an inessential corner of your mind, like a friend you know well enough just to sit with in contented quiet.

That feeling is captured beautifully in Theo Schell-Lambert's baseball novel, The Heart of the Order (2015), and spending a few minutes with it today seems like a good way to say goodbye to summer and autumn. The book is the first-person account from an MLB outfielder who is rehabbing a knee injury in Florida through the heart of the season. Every day, he's got some exercises he needs to do, maybe an appointment with his doctor or physical therapist or nurse, and . . . well, that's about it. He keeps an eye on his teammates (and, worried about being Wally Pipped, pays particular attention to his replacement in the lineup), and he watches some games here and there. But mostly he's got free time. As he puts it early on:
My entire life as an employee right now is dedicated to the incremental mending of my own body, which becomes a stranger notion the more you dwell on it.
And, unlike pretty much every other moment of his life to this point, he's not surrounded by teammates. Which leaves a lot of space for thinking.

That's what leads to the book we're reading. Day by day, when he has an idle thought, he puts it down, and then he follows it where it leads. Here, for example, is the opening of an early entry:
You might be wondering why ballplayers are such suckers for routines. I think it goes to the whole boredom thing. Baseball is boredom, if you want to think of it that way. Boredom cut up into shapes and sizes, summer evenings of boredom beginning at appointed hours, staged on fields of specific dimensions. Boredom reclaimed from the gods via the sale of hot dogs. Go to enough ballgames and you start to realize that the plays aren't the real game, they're just the organizing principle. The real game is the stretching for the plays.

So the thing you have to do, to make all those buckets of boredom make any sense at all, is use the powers of superstition. You surround the game with activities and get obsessive about them.
Or here he is on arriving a bit late for rehab:
The PARC team didn't look thrilled when I appeared, but I couldn't tell if it was because I was late, or because I hadn't been late often enough. When you're a pro athlete, people assume you have other important things to be doing. They can't believe that the thing you're scheduled to do with them is actually all you've got on your calendar. And I've gotten used to the look you receive when you were supposed to be famous, and then you arrived at the restaurant at 7 sharp. There's always a startled little "Oh . . . " emitted by the host, who had been told to set aside a fine table, and you can see the wheels turning in his head, he 's now wondering whether to give it to someone else. It frankly embarrasses people when a celebrity arrives on time.
Or his reaction to being told to take a walk:
I'm sure taking a walk seemed like a simple enough instruction to a rangy Scandinavian born with Vibram rubber on his feet, but I've been having some trouble finding my rhythm. The issue is, there are so many kinds of walks, once you start thinking about it, and I have had a hard time deciding which applies to me. . . . So it sounds like a crazy problem to have, because what's more natural than ambling, but its' like being a ballplayer at this moment in history kind of messes up your instincts. Motions that are athletic but also part of a lifestyle--when are they which? You exist in a sort of Los Angeles of the mind, in which you lose sight of how and when to use your body as a source of horsepower. Only those Manhattan athletes seem to keep it together. They stroll to the bagel shop on Saturday morning. The jog around the scenic Central Park reservoir, even if they do have a Town Car drop them off. They are New Yorkers of a certain standing whose job happens to be baseball. I seriously feel that if I were on the Mets, I wouldn't be giving this a second thought.
That style of meandering thought, on baseball and other subjects, characterizes the book, all related in a voice that feels convincing, like we're watching a believable combination of an actual on-the-fly thought process and an unexpected undamming of a river of observations that has hitherto had nowhere to flow. The prose isn't as perfectly polished as that of Nicholson Baker, but the attention to and love of the quotidian calls him to mind--as if, say, Baker had written Ball Four. It's funny and companionable, and every once in a while it flashes with surprise or insight, much like everyday regular-season baseball itself. If you're missing the game right now, The Heart of the Order is a good way to get that easygoing summery feeling back, no matter what the calendar says.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anthony Powell and the occult

In an otherwise very appreciative and insightful short essay on A Dance to the Music of Time in his new book, Latest Readings, Clive James writes:
New readers should be warned, however, that there is the occasional dull stretch. At the opening of volume 6 (The Kindly Ones) there is far too much about servants, ghosts, and the occult. Defending himself against charges that he was too interested in Burke's Peerage, Powell said that he would have been equally interested in a book called Burke's Workers* But the truth was that the toffs, or would-be toffs, were what he was best at. And no writer dedicated to showing life as it is should give even fleeting acknowledgment to the occult. The real reason why Scorpio Murtlock, the sinister, hippie-ish cult leader in the last volume, is such an unlikely figure is that Powell gives him a measure of the telepathic power that he claims, whereas in fact the typical counterculture hero was fake. Evelyn Waugh would not have been fooled for a minute. Nor, probably, would Olivia Manning.
Though I think James is wrong, I'll start by saying that a man who is openly, publicly facing his own impending death is allowed to be a bit dogmatic about whichever side of the spiritual divide he comes down on. How one harrows or hallows one's own soul--or determined lack thereof--in the face of oblivion is a personal decision, and I could see how a determination in one direction or the other could easily inflect other areas of analysis. (All of which, of course, is the rankest speculation. It's entirely possible, even likely, that James has always found Powell's occult subjects objectionable.)

But I think James is wrong here, not just about Powell, but in general, when he says there is any specific way that a writer "dedicated to showing life as it is" must handle the occult. For the reality is that occult interests, feelings, ideas, and tendencies are all around us--and were far more so in Powell's youth and young adulthood, as the post-WWI spiritualist craze rippled through society. By presenting people engaging in fortune telling, playing planchette, or hinting at telepathic powers, Powell is very much presenting "life as it is."

What seems to rankle James isn't so much that Powell includes these elements--though one senses that he'd prefer Powell hadn't--but that he seems to lend them credence. Mrs. Erdleigh is most likely a fraud, but she does say one or two things that stick, and, interpreted broadly, seem to come true. Billson, the parlourmaid, has a breakdown after seeing a ghost. And, yes, Murtlock does appear to have, if not telepathy, some sort of psychic magnetism.

In none of those situations, however, is Powell (or his narrative stand-in, Nick Jenkins) definitive. All these are interpretations that could be put on events--but their opposites remain entirely in play. The ambiguity is deliberate, and is of a piece with the ambiguity that Powell allows to shroud so many of the important moments in Dance: while we see some crucial events directly, through Jenkins's eyes, we more often are the recipients of stories retailed at second or third hand, with the lacunae and hazy interpretations of motive and outcome that such distance engenders. Powell is using the occult in the same way he uses coincidence, or patterning, or repetition: it's a fact of our world that events present themselves in these ways, and while we tell ourselves we can plumb them, we rarely achieve anything like certainty. We live in a fog that we interpret as best we can. You can view these instances as James does, with disapproval of Powell's seeming approval of an occult interpretation, or you can see them as simply more furniture in the mostly realistic fictional mansion that Powell is kitting out.

Or, to put it another way, by bringing it back to coincidence, that kin of the occult that is one of Powell's favorite tools, and one that also has earned him complaints about unlikeliness or the tax it levies on our credulity, we can take what James himself writes in that same essay:
He is sometimes accused of overdoing the device of coincidence, but life does, too.
You can interpret the string of coincidences (or the occult moments) in the books as having meaning, as Powell himself certainly seems to do at times--making it, as Marvel Comics hero Doctor Strange once put it, a sign that "the universe is tugging at our subconscious." Or you can see them as yet another attempt by our pattern-making brains to impose order on the universe, in which case, we can let E. F. Benson have the last word: "The nature of coincidence is to be odd. . . . Unless coincidences are startling they escape observation altogether."

Monday, October 26, 2015

The ghosts? Oh, they all moved out long ago.

In my October wanderings, I've drawn before from A. Roger Ekirch's history of nighttime, At Day's Close, because of course when there is darkness there are ghosts. But their number, it seems, varies with time.

Though 1762 was the year of the celebrated Cock Lane Ghost, Ekirch notes that the same year, nonetheless, also brought a bit of rationalist cheerleading from the Public Advertiser:
We experience every day, that as science and learning increases, the vulgar notions of spirits, apparitions, witches and demons decrease and die of themselves.
By 1788, the Daily Universal Register was ready to take it a step further, making the bold claim that
Not a single building in all London is perhaps now to be heard of, which bears the repute of being a haunted house.
Methinks the editors of the Daily Universal Register, even granting that they were accurate at that moment, may have been extrapolating too much into the future. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his introduction to The English Ghost, the best, ghost-wise, was yet to come:
Nineteenth-century England was perhaps the golden age of the ghost. It may have ceased to have any messages or any advice for the living, but it was everywhere. The yearnings associated with the Romantic movement of English poetry found fruition in the spectacle of the melancholy ghosts. There as much popular interest in spirit-rappings and in spirit-tappings. The fashion for mesmerism, in the middle of the century [Which, let's not forget, swept up Dickens!--ed.], provoked belief in some form of plasma or magnetic fluid that might harbour the forms of spirits. Technological progress also seemed to affirm the existence of spectral bodies, with the appearance of photographs intending to reveal the ghostly occupants of rooms and chairs. The Society of Psychical Research, founding in 1882, lent seriousness and credibility to the quest for spirits. A questionnaire sent out by the society in 1894 revealed that out of seventeen thousand people, 673 claimed that they had seen a ghost in one form or another. It is perhaps curious, however, that the majority of them did not know the identity of the spirit in question. The manifestation appeared arbitrary and purposeless.
Beyond that--and setting science, rationalism, and facts aside--the Daily Universal Register's assertion seems questionable. Has there ever been a human settlement of more than about 100 souls where someone wasn't claiming to be haunted? It seems a basic condition of a species that lives with the awareness of mortality. I can't think of any haunted houses in my small hometown, but I know second-hand of such a claim in London (to say nothing of the many post-1788 accounts found in Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts), and third-and-beyond-hand of countless claims in Chicago. And, on this autumn evening, blessed with the full moon: what about you and your hometown?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Add The Library at Mount Char to your October library

I've committed what must be one of the cardinal sins for a blogger: I lent away a great book before I got a chance to write about it. In most circumstances, I would deal with the problem by putting off posting about it, but this book is so well suited for October reading that I can't bring myself to wait. So, with apologies, a post built around memory and Google Book Search. There'll be less quoting and more vagueness than is ideal, but I hope I'll at least be able to give you enough of a sense of the book to convince you to give it a try.

The book is The Library at Mount Char, a debut novel that reads nothing like one. When I reached the acknowledgments and learned that its author, Scott Hawkins, had written and thrown out multiple books before this one, I wasn't surprised; it has the feel of something thought through extensively, its convincing account of a distinct imagined world earned through time and labor. I picked it up after reading a staff pick shelf talker at 57th Street Books, my much-loved local, in which the bookseller called The Library at Mount Char "the great book that you wanted American Gods to be." That's a big claim, as the bookseller acknowledged. American Gods, like all of Neil Gaiman's books, has a staggering number of passionate fans. But I was sold: I've always felt that Gaiman's book was more exciting in its conception than its execution, a book of great ideas that doesn't quite fulfill its promise.

The Library at Mount Char does. Like American Gods, it presents a world of ancient knowledge and power hidden behind the ordinary American life we know, and from its very first pages, it plunges the reader into a surprising, almost wholly convincing story of the latter days of that power. Here's the first paragraph:
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the predawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.

She was smiling.
Compelling, no? Hawkins plants so many little seeds in a few short sentences. The combination of quotidian detail and ordinary, almost slangy language--the guacamole, the Path of Tacos, "Mexican joint"--balances the elements that signal something strange, starting with the blood; then "the Americans, phrased so oddly that it makes us pause, if not stumble; then the "obsidian knife," and the murder.This is our world, he's saying, but with a twist. It's intriguing without being off-putting, effective and propulsive while still being just a tiny bit showy.

All that's set up in that paragraph, and much, much more afterwards, ends up paid off in the book. As Hawkins unveils his invention, we meet the librarians, and we slowly figure out that they're students of a nearly omnipotent tyrant whom they call Father, a force who acts with all the violence, if a bit less of the capriciousness, of the Old Testament god. His disappearance, and presumed murder, has set off a chain of events that, it quickly becomes clear, could destroy the librarians, and possibly even the world.

If this all sounds a bit airy, blame my failure to have the book to hand rather than Hawkins's writing. His scene-setting and revelations of the history and backstories of his characters are incredibly skillful, enabling him to maintain suspense and surprise the reader without ever having us feel that we're being manipulated. The combat, overt and covert, among the various forces (including the American military) vying for power is dramatic and exciting, its outcome feeling genuinely in doubt for long stretches. And the whole book is full of creative ideas and unforgettable details, from the casualness with which the librarians dismantle the grave of one of their fellows and, without explanation, begin to dig up her corpse to the plethora of lore and spells, which feel convincingly ancient in their names and effects. Here's my favorite example of the latter, from late in the book. Carolyn is remembering a time in the past when Father cast a spell, alshaq shabboleth, which changes the relationship of people to time, enabling them, essentially, to move with super speed, which in this case would allow Carolyn to escape disaster:
She looked at [name redacted to avoid spoiler]. He was saying something, or his lips were moving, but she could hear nothing. We were too fast, she realized now. The alshaq shabboleth made us too fast for sound.
A few paragraphs later, Hawkins develops the idea still further:
When she moved, the parts of her skin that were exposed to the air felt hot, like the time she had held her fingers over the outflow nozzle on a hair dryer and had burned her fingers.

Now, today, she understood what was happening. Friction with the air. Under the influence of the alshaq, her speed was such that even the air burned.
It's a small detail, but an effective one, instantly making the impossible spell seem grounded in actual reality. Then Hawkins gives the alshaq another twist:
Later, when she learned to make the alshaq shabboleth for herself she understood why it worked on her but not him. The effects of the alshaq are felt first by the dead, then by the young, and last by the old.
Why? No reason is given, but we don't really want one: it just feels right that such a disordering of the known universe would have its own logic, and it makes the spell, and the world it comes from, feel just that tiny bit more real.

Even in its last pages, The Library at Mount Char continues to surprise, offering a couple of moments so inventive and well-conceived that they achieve the rare goal of feeling simultaneously wholly surprising and, once we read of them, inevitable. The result is an often creepy, action-oriented dark fantasy novel that ends by being genuinely moving.

The Library at Mount Char is a book I'll be telling people about--and lending to friends--for a long time to come. Your October will be the better, and the shiverier, for giving it a try.