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.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald on The Yellow Book and the New Woman

In preparation for a trip to the Harry Ransom Center to investigate the Penelope Fitzgerald archives, I'm reading one of the two books by her that I'd not read, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends (1984). (The other being her biography of Edward Burne-Jones.) In her biography of Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee characterizes the book as "the crucial turning point, the hinged door between what, in another writer, you might call 'early' and 'late' work," in part because of the copious research involved. All of Fitzgerald's earlier novels had been rooted in some way in her own experience; all of her later ones would be set in different places and different times, and would require substantial research to give their slim extents their hefty backbones of believability.

Mew herself was a minor poet, all but forgotten today, though Brad Leithauser, in his introduction to a 1988 American edition of the book, makes a strong case for the quality of her limited output. In Mew, Fitzgerald found a subject who brought together themes that we can trace elsewhere in her own life and work: a woman forced by circumstance to make her way on her own; a woman who determines to be a writer, and does so; and a woman playing a part in establishing new terrain for women at a time when old norms were being upended. That last comes into particular focus in the course of one short paragraph about Mew and her fellow writers on the legendary decadent-era magazine The Yellow Book:
That summer she entered the new world of the New Woman. It was an exhilarating place, which Netta Syrett describes in her autobiography The Sheltering Tree and Evelyn Sharp in Unfinished Adventure. Although the public, discreetly prompted by Lane, thought of The Yellow Book as bizarre and decadent, and though its male writers were often alcoholic, weak-willed and tired of life, its women were strong. Evelyn Sharp, who was one of them, wrote that they "felt on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away the Victorian tradition," and that everything must go. Netta, Evelyn and Ella d'Arcy, like Charlotte, had seen The Yellow Book announcement and sent in their first contributions to Lane. They were also among Lane's Keynotes--that is, they contributed to a special "advanced" series of stories, each with their own Keynote, designed by Beardsley. "Petticoat" Lane liked to be seen with women round him "and we fell in and out of love," said Evelyn, "with or without disaster, like other people." They would find time for marriage some day, but not yet, there was too much in hand. Everything was open for discussion. Netta Syrett, in particular, talked unconcernedly about sex, for her uncle, the writer Grant Allen, was a frank materialist and had brought her up to do so. But this was only one aspect of a world that had grown limitless, but still had to be put to rights. Skimming from one end of London to the other on their bicycles, without fear, without chaperones, they lodged two and two in flats, or in the newly opened Victorian Club in Sackville Street, which had small, cold, candle-lit bedrooms for professional women. If need arose they could emerge soignees and glittering, in the full evening dress of the nineties. These young women were not Bohemians, they were dandies. They complained when the down-and-out Frederick Rolfe, on his visits to Harland's flat, left lice on the furniture. Aubrey Beardsley was "a dear boy" to them. They had no intention of drifting or failing, they meant to rise with the coming twentieth century.
So much is covered in that one long paragraph. The acknowledgment for example, neither overstated nor unduly celebrated, that the women of this circle (like the women in Barbara Pym's world)  were the capable, competent ones, saddled with men who were neither. The specificity of detail that conjures up how very different London suddenly looked to a woman experiencing new freedom--Bicycles! Bedsits! And the distinction between true Bohemians and these women, who still saw value in some social conventions, wanting merely the right to choose for themselves which they would observe. There are aspects here that are familiar from the lives of Virginia and Vanessa Stephen, though their rebellion was both more pointed and more contained; you also detect echoes of Daisy Saunders, from The Gate of Angels, though Daisy starts lower in class, and (perhaps therefore) has lower ambitions. Or, if we flip genders, we can see hints of Forster's Leonard Bast, striving for something that, a few years earlier, would have been explicitly unattainable.

It's an enchanting vision, and the tragedy at the heart of Fitzgerald's bio is that, like Leonard Bast, Mew wasn't quite ever able to make it over the bar. Freedom was not as easy to seize, nor to hold, as it at first seemed, and her life would be a series of frustrations and reverses. But for that one moment--with echoing glimmers here and there throughout the rest of Mew's life--Fitzgerald brings an era, and its new possibilities, to shimmering life.

Wish me luck in my archival research. If it goes well, you'll hear much, much more about it down the line.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

As Martin Amis once put it, late Henry James "didn't give a shit about the reader," or, How The Golden Bowl killed the Wall Street Journal book club!

{Fair warning: I've been letting my imagination wander again, prompted by the announcement a while back that Colm Toibin had named The Golden Bowl the next selection of the Wall Street Journal book club.}

I can already picture it: When all the big newspapers are getting together at the holidays next year, the NYT, trying to come up with something to talk about other than the election, will be all like, "Hey, WSJ--didn't you like have book club or something that you did regularly? Like, you'd get people together and drink wine and talk about the book? Anyway, how's that going?"

"Oh, god. God. Hang on--I have to have a drink first."

The WSJ will down a double Scotch, look at the glass, then pour and down another.

"It was fine. It was totally fine--I mean, a lot of times people wouldn't read the book and we'd just end up talking about Mad Men, but whatever, you know? It was fun. It was a chance for everybody to get out of the house--do you know how hard it is for the Business & Tech. section to get a proper night out with its two bratty kids scaring off all the babysitters on the Upper West Side? I won't say we were doing groundbreaking lit crit or anything, but it was important to us, at least. It was fun. And then . . . Colm Fucking Toibin, man. And Henry Fucking James--though let's be honest: it's Toibin's fault, not James's. We could have handled James. If Toibin had picked What Maisie Knew, for example--I mean, that one might as well have a fucking Reading Group Guide bound in the back, it's got so many obvious bits you can talk about. Or even Portrait of a Lady, if he really felt like he had to push things. (Do you identify with Isabel Archer? Who should play her in a movie? Were you surprised when she chose Gilbert? Would you have done that?) But The Golden Fucking Bowl? What was he thinking? What did he expect to happen? I'll tell you what did happen. It was awful. We never heard from Careers again, not even once--just never showed, never e-mailed, was never again published. Sports at least tried to read it, but after 50 pages was so confused he gave it to his dog, A-Rod, to chew on. Even the Review section admitted that she while she'd struggled all the way through it, she wasn't quite sure what had happened to the characters. And News? News went on an absolute tirade of profanity--smashed a wine glass, tried to stab Op-Ed with an olive pick; we almost called the NYPD beat reporter on him. Colm Fucking Toibin broke our fucking book club. The Golden Fucking Bowl. Jesus."

At that point, the WSJ will look up and realize that all the other papers are huddled over in the corner by the Post, watching him get a new high score on Candy Crush. (Except the Observer, who is already passed out.)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Cheer

When this post appears, if all is going well, I'll be in the air on my way to a week of publicity calls in New York, having just spent the weekend muttering to myself on my couch in an attempt to hammer the outlines of presentations for 50 or so books into my head.

Accompanying me on the flight will be Thomas Kunkel's new biography of Joseph Mitchell, A Man in Profile. Starting a trip with a book you can count on is essential, and I have it on good authority--that of the book's manuscript editor, Benjamin Dreyer--that this one is excellent.

Knowing I could read it on the plane kept me from doing more than dip into it last week, but I did happen across one bit that I'll share. It's from a letter Mitchell sent a fan in 1993 who wrote him to praise Up in the Old Hotel:
Your letter is one of the first I am really answering because it has meant so much to me. If you remember, in your letter you said you had thought of writing to me about missing my stories in The New Yorker but had decided not to do so until you read in the Author’s Note of my book that graveyard humor exemplified the cast of my mind—"so," you continued in your letter, "you will appreciate this: I thought you were dead." Well, Mrs. Edwards, I don’t know why, but that delighted me. It filled me with cheerfulness. I keep the letter in the tray drawer of my desk and anytime one of those strange, sudden attacks of depression that many of us have hits me, I get it out and reread it, and it never fails to cheer me up.
A good way to start the week, I think. And a good way to start pining for a Joseph Mitchell letters collection . . .

(Oh, and never you worry: yes, I did pack a volume of A Dance to the Music of Time as well. Best to be doubly prepared.)


Friday, May 08, 2015

Byways of the Reformation, courtesy of Diarmaid MacCulloch

Watching the excellent BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall filled me with a desire to read the novels again--which, let's be clear, would be absurd. As Hussein Haddaway says in the introduction to his translation of the Arabian Nights, "There are other fair creatures in the world." I do not need to read Wolf Hall a fourth time right now.

To quell that desire, I decided instead to pull down from the shelf Diarmaid MacCulloch's 700-page history of the Reformation. I read about 100 pages of it back in 2005, when it was published in paperback, but other books intervened, and onto the shelf it went. Now, however, with my head full of power politics and protestant fervor, I dove back in. And I'm glad I did. On the one hand, there's no way I need to know as much about the Reformation as MacCulloch is telling me. I'm quickly going to forget 90% of the names, places, and events. But the vast sweep of it will stay, and, because MacCulloch is a good storyteller, attached to it will be memorable moments, ideas, and people.

I've got two to share tonight. First, a thumbnail sketch of Martin Luther's wife, Katharina von Bora, "an aristocratic former Cistercian nun," whom he married when he was forty-two and already an established figure:
Luther had at first somewhat unromantic intentions to give a good home to one of several destitute former nuns in return for being properly looked after, but Katharina turned out to be a high-spirited, long-suffering and extremely capable partner, who brought him much happiness and much-loved children. She presided over a famously convivial atmosphere at the Luther family dinner table, usually with an admiring student or two ready to take down every passing thought or joke of Dr Luther. . . . The result of Katie's careful budgeting and generous catering can be seen in the marked contrast between the lean austere friar of Luther's first portraits and the married reformer who inspired the proverb "as fat as Martin Luther."
I'm always interested by the capable people who hold the mooring lines of an ambitious, self-regarding, self-involved partner. What must Katie have been like? How did she claim her territory and power within the relationship in its early days? How did she deal with Luther's prominence, outspokenness, and fiery temper? MacCulloch's description runs but a few sentences, yet it's hard not to feel as if in some way you actually know Katie after you read it.

The second passage follows the account of a complicated and bizarre series of events in Munster in 1534. A group of Anabaptists seized the city and were soon besieged by Catholic forces led by Bishop von Waldeck. A "charismatic former tailor," Dutchman Jan Beukels, assumed leadership of the besieged forces, taking on the name John of Leiden and professing two aims: "to usher in the Last Days," and " to sustain the urgent needs of a crowded city in military crisis." Beukels redistributed property for communal use and attempted to mount a defense, but it was of no use. After about four months, the Anabaptists were betrayed from within and the Bishop's forces were let inside the walls. Public executions, "unsurprisingly exercises in exemplary sadism," were carried out on Beukels and his two leading supporters. At that point in the story, MacCulloch offers an aside that will, I think, pique the interest of any engaged city dweller:
A vigilant visitor to Munster today finds . . . reminders: the city churches reveal plenty of evidence of the city's medieval wealth, but a marked lack of pre-1534 furnishings--no stained glass, no tombs. Evidently the Anabaptists, trapped in the besieged city, had ample time to eliminate everything that they hated. A poignant discovery in the 1890s was a series of fragments of a beautiful fourteenth-century font, recovered from inside the rubble of one of the city wall towers; it can be identified as having come from the Benedictine abbey church known as the Uberwasserkirche, and it was evidently smashed up and contemptuously redeployed by the defenders in a symbolic humiliation of infant baptism. Likewise, one of the distinctive features of Munster churches is the amount of mid-sixteenth-century art: the product of a frantic effort of refurnishing. The priority of the triumphant besiegers was to edit the immediate past and remember only what they needed to.
I love the detective work on display there: cities will tell us stories, if we just ask the right questions about what we're seeing and why it is the way it is.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Off, off, off with their heads!



{Photo by rocketlass.}

On the recommendation of the polymath Steve Donoghue, I recently read Jean Plaidy's novel of Mary, Queen of Scots, Royal Road to Fotheringay(1955), and its closing scene reminded me of two things:

1. That the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots was a bizarre event, featuring details no fiction writer would dare invent.

2. That execution by axe was a particularly troublesome and difficult method of administering capital punishment.

Here's how Plaidy tells the story of Mary's end, in the hall at Fotheringay at the end of years of imprisonment. By all accounts, Mary met her death with courage, and a dignity that the event itself could not come up to:
Bulle, the executioner, hesitated. This was his trade; his victim had forgiven him, knowing this; yet never before had he been called upon to wield the axe for one who affected him so deeply with her grace and dignity.

Every eye in the hall was upon him. He faltered. He dealt a blow. There was a gasp from the watchers, for the axe had slipped and though the blood of Mary Stuart gushed forth, she was merely wounded.

Trembling, Bulle again raised his axe; but his nerve was affected. Again he struck, and again he failed to complete his work.

It was with the third stroke that he severed the Queen's head from her body.

Then he grasped the beautiful chestnut hair, crying: "God save Queen Elizabeth! So perish all her enemies!"

But the head had rolled on to the bloodstained cloth which covered the scaffold, and it was a wig which the executioner held up before him.

There was silence in the hall as all eyes turned to the head with the cropped grey hair--the head of a woman grown old in captivity.
Though the history of executions is gruesome, it's hard to imagine much more ghastly than those botched attempts topped by the final indignity of the wig held aloft. Yet even that wasn't the strangest moment:
And as they watched, they saw a movement beneath the red velvet petticoat, and Mary's little Skye terrier, who unnoticed had followed his mistress into the hall, ran to the head and crouched beside it, whimpering.
It's one of those moments that both makes history come palpably alive and makes its figures seem fully human: Mary loved her dog, and her dog loved her, and death was necessarily a mystery to both.

While Mary's end is gruesome, others condemned to the axe over the centuries had it far worse. In Severed, Frances Larson runs through some horrible examples with chilling matter-of-factness:
Alcohol may have fortified the mind [of the executioner], but it certainly did not steady the hand, and no doubt it only added to the executioner's problems. One common excuse for failure was that the executioner had seen the condemned man's head double before him, and "therefore did not know which of the two was the real one." There are stories of swords slicing through jaws and axes hacking into shoulder blades and skulls, and of it taking two, three, five, even twenty attempts to dispatch the poor soul on the scaffold. It took three blows to sever the head of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, and many more in 1541 to kill Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who defied her fate by refusing to place her neck on the block.
Thinking of Margaret Pole's defiance beggars my imagination: even if I try to think myself into the frenzied state that surely would accompany the knowledge that I was about to (unjustly, I would assume) be killed, I can't imagine finding the courage to refuse the easier route at that moment, to force a more painful and gory death as a point of honor. It's astonishing. (Even Samuel Johnson wasn't quite able to feel confident about how he might approach the moment of execution, telling Boswell, "I know not whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.")

Larson notes that these problems arise primarily because it is very hard to sever a human head with a single blow from a blade. But she also tells us that executioners received more than regret from their employment:
Despite the demands of the job, or perhaps because of them, when beheadings went well they could bring an executioner great distinction. From the mid-sixteenth century, wealthier European executioners hired assistants, who administered minor punishments, but the job of beheading people was always reserved for the master. Myths grew up around executioners and people told stories about their magical powers. It was said that they could recover lost children or stolen goods, that they could exorcise evil spirits and cure diseases with their touch, and that the swords in the executioner's house rattled whenever a person was condemned to death. There was the story of an executioner who had decapitated a standing man so fast that the only visible mark on the dead man's body was a thin stripe of blood around his neck.
That last reminds me of how Hilary Mantel in Bring Up the Bodies, without making Anne Boylen's death overly gruesome, nonetheless makes us feel the horror of it, and how powerfully Cromwell, who has reluctantly engineered the execution, feels it, too:
The queen is alone now, as alone as she has ever been in her life. . . . She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God's sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if--the executioner calls out sharply, "Get me the sword." The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound, from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
The sound of the sword, the "flat little presence"--it's hard to read that passage and not shiver.

I wonder whether the condemned ever haunted the executioners? Larson's book offers no reports of ghosts, and I suppose that makes sense: surely from whatever realm a ghost might descend, she would have sufficient perspective to see, not the hand that wielded the blade, but the more blameful hand that signed the order, and thus had more fully earned a haunting.

I ask the question because when it's entirely possible that the very first thing I knew about English history when I was a kid was that Anne Boylen was said to haunt the Tower. The more I learn about her life and death and the manner of dying of the period, the more I understand. If I were her, I'd haunt Henry and his descendants down through eternity.