Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A prison break from 1795

A passing mention in the chapter on Jews in London in Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century caught my eye. In a paragraph on Jewish criminals, White writes,
And a dozen Jews and Christians combined again in a desperate attempt to rescue a suspected Jewish forger from the New Prison, Clerkenwell, in 1795.
Having mentioned the prison break, White moves on--but I couldn't very well leave it there, could I?

White's note attributes the story to the Annual Register for 1795--and, thanks to the Internet, I had the full story in less than a minute. Here's the account, from April 5:
This morning between one and two o'clock a very desperate attempt was made to rescue Isdwell Isdwell, a jew, who stood charged with some others, with being concerned in a late forgery of stamps, and who, in a scuffle, lost his life in the following manner: Isdwell, who was confined in New Prison, Clerkenwell, persuaded two of the turnkeys, that an aunt of his, who was very rich, then lay at the point of death., and that he had been informed, that could she see him before she died, she would give him a thousand pounds; and therefore, if they would let him out and accompany him to the place, he would give them fifty guineas each for their trouble, and that the matter might be effected without the knowledge of the keeper of the prison or any other person, they having the keys of it at night, and the time required being very short. To this proposal the turnkeys agreed, and accordingly, about one o'clock in the morning, the gates were opened, and Isdwell, with bis irons on, was conducted in a hackney coach by one of them, armed with a blunderbuss, to the place directed, which was in Artillery-lane, Bishopsgate-street, where they gained immediate admittance on ringing a bell; and, on enquiring for the sick lady, were ushered up one pair of stairs. Isdwell went into the room first, on which several fellows rushed forth and attempted to keep the turnkey out; but not succeeding in that respect, they put the candles out, wrested the blunderbuss out of his hands, and discharged it at him. At this instant, it was supposed, Isdwell was endeavouring to make his escape out of the door, as he received the principal part of the contents of the blunderbuss in his back, and fell dead; the turnkey also fell, one of the slugs having grazed the upper part of his head; and the villains by some means finding their mistake, though in the dark, beat him in so shocking a manner with the butt end of the blunderbuss, while he lay on the ground, as to break it to pieces, fracture his skull in two places, and bruise him dreadfully about the body. The noise which the affair occasioned brought a number of watchmen and patroles to the house, who secured ten persons therein, mostly jews. There is every reason to suppose that they would have completely murdered the turnkey had not timely assistance been afforded.
It's not much of a plan, is it? I would say that turnkeys were pretty easily fooled back in 1795, but in an essay on the history of jailbreaks in The Getaway Car (which will be reprinted in Vice this fall), Donald Westlake tells of a mid-twentieth-century prison guard who got nothing but broken promises of eventual cash for helping an inmate escape in a shipping crate. The greed of guards may be a constant in our universe.

Isdwell, it seems, died of his wounds (though, confusingly, the Register tells of an Isdwell who was hanged on June 22 for forgeries "on the stamp office" and the Bank of Amsterdam). The rest of his string faced the rough justice of their era on June 30, and in the process we get a bit more detail about the scheme:
Yesterday Jonathan Jones, William Tilley, George Hardwick, James Haydon, John Henley, John Delany, William Heanlon, Simon Jacobs, John Solomon, John Philips, and Charles Croswell, were severally indicted for felony, in aiding and abetting Isdwell Isdwell in an attempt to escape from New Prison, Clerkenwell. The first witness on the part of the prosecution was Mr. Newport, head keeper of the gaol, who proved the warrant of commitment against Isdwell. Roberts, his deputy, concurred in the same point, and also said that he knew not of the plan designed between Isdwell and his turnkeys, one of whom (Day) on his examination, said, that being induced by the promise of a large sum, he went with Isdwell to Artillery-lane, to see, as Isdwell said, a sick aunt, who wished to see him. When they arrived there, three of the prisoners, James Haydon, John Henley, and William Heanlon, seized him and wrested from him a blunderbuss, which was fired off in the dark, by which Isdwell, was killed, and he himself wounded.

Bernard Solomon, the next witness, said he lived servant with Mrs. Isdwell; that he often went with messages to Isdwell; that he had been sent to Gosport for Jonathan Jones, who was Mrs. Idwell's uncle; that Jones came to town and took lodgings for her in Artillery-lane.--On Good Friday, the day of the evening of which Isdwell was killed, he observed that Mrs. Isdwell had set out her bedroom with a number of phials and other apparatus, so as to give the room the appearance of a sick person being there; he saw Jacobs, Hardwick, Haydon, and Philips, in the house previous to the accident: he opened the door when Isdwell and Day came, and some time after he heard the report of a blunderbuss; after which he surrendered himself to the people, who came into the house in consequence of the alarm.

Many other witnesses corroborated this evidence and also identified the persons of the remaining prisoners.

The prisoners brought many respectable people, who gave them very good characters.

When the judge had summed up the evidence the jury, after having retired for a short time, brought in their verdict, Jonathan Jones, William Tilley, and John Delany--Not guilty; George Hardwick, James Haydon, John Henley, William Heanlon, Simon Jacobs, John Solomon, John Philips, and Charles Croswell--Guilty.
What's left unanswered is what the henchmen were promised for their part in the scheme. Were they merely part of Isdwell's gang more generally, and were simply breaking out their comrade? Or were his forgeries successful enough that he could promise future payment substantial enough to justify the risk?

Either way, the execution of the plan seems to have left a bit to be desired. If the aunt had set out props to indicate her ill state, why didn't the men take advantage of that, letting the turnkey into the room, then surprising him?

Alas, as Parker's experiences have taught us: quality henchmen can be hard to come by. Yet another reason to avoid a life of crime.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The posh mess of eighteenth-century London

I took the day off today and spent much of it engrossed in Jerry White's giant London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (2012). If his London in the Twentieth Century and London in the Nineteenth Century are as good--as full of detail, anecdote, and apposite quotation--then I'll gladly follow him all the way back to the (necessarily slimmer) Londinium in the First Century, should he decide the journey's worth it.

The opening section traces London's physical growth, and the buildings thereof, through the careers of two Scottish architects, James Gibbs and Robert Adam. As the eighteenth century opened, the London we know was still nearly all open land and fields, but by the time Gibbs died at midcentury, the open spaces around Hyde Park were starting to fill in with handsome terraced houses, and the city's inexorable march was truly underway.

White's description of the creation of Grosvener Square--now one of the poshest (and stateliest) locales in London--highlights the differences between building schemes then and now. This "grandest planned development of London's eighteenth century," which would convert the Grosvenor estate, was planned not as a set of buildings, or even a neighborhood, but as a whole town.
It is worth stressing just how socially mixed this most aristocratic of London estates was at its beginning. It was built not as a suburb but as a self-contained new town, complete with markets, churches or chapels, and even quartering and stabling for the 2nd Troop of the Life Guards, helpful in keeping the peace. Grosvenor Square, built from 1728, would immediately become home to the richest men and women in England, with a distinctively aristocratic tone, and so would Upper Grosvenor Street, Upper Brook Street, and, for a time, North and South Audley Streets. The first tenants of Grosvenor Square included the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Coventry, the Bishop of Durham, Viscount Weymouth, the Earl of Albermarle and numerous titled widows. Other smart developments in Mount Street became the homes of fashionable tradesmen, "upholders" or interior designers and the like, all living and working conveniently close to their clients. But behind these frontages, Palladian and palatial, let mews and blind-end courts for ostlers and coachmen and laundresses. Dung heaps peppered the stable yards in sniffing distance of drawing-room windows. And to the north of Grosvenor Square was a much more plebeian district, at George Street, Hart Street, Chandlers Street and so on, built at the same time as the square but home to building tradesmen, blacksmiths, butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers with businesses in St George's and Grosvenor Markets in the north-east corner of the estate.
Today's wealthy are much, much better at separating themselves from the other classes whose labor they require.

Even the squares themselves, intended as beautiful open spaces, could be quite noisome. White uses St James Square, "still easily London's smartest in 1726," as an example:
The Square's great open space was like "a common Dunghill." It contained many "loads of Soil and Rubbish" on which "the Inhabitants have, for many Years past, thrown their Dirt and Ashes, and . . . Cats and Dogs have likewise been cast, on the same." There were also encroachments, "particularly by a Coachmaker, who has erected a Shed, about Thirty Feet in the Square, in which he puts Heaps of Wood, and other Things."
That description calls to mind two great books by Emily Cockayne: Hubbub, about filth and mess in early modern England, and Cheek by Jowl, which traces the history of neighbors--the people who are most often responsible for dumping the horrible rubbish in the first place. Here she is, from Cheek by Jowl, on dunghills:
Dunghills were heaped up wherever they could be contained, sometimes against the neighbour's house. Rain saturated these stinking piles, encouraging damp to penetrate indoors and creating the potential for flooding. A London inkeeper heaped dung against his neighbour's wall in 1677 and the moisture from it soaked through the wall "to the great damage and the Annoyance of her house."
But those were times when both the law and moral suasion had less force, where the boundaries between public and private, both in terms of behavior and space, were less clear and less rigorously enforced. It was, quite simply, less clear what one could and couldn't do in a public square, or who had the authority to check your behavior if it crossed that ill-defined line.

Which is just one of many reasons why I'm glad to be able to enjoy this summer night reading in my library with the windows open, while suffering neither noxious odors nor any more street noise than that provided by the cicadas and the occasional hum of a passing bicycle. Some days, in some it's easier to spot--and remember to be thankful for--progress.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Even Tennyson can be tentative

Not much time tonight--I made the mistake of deciding to make rice pudding, which (I had forgotten) involves standing at the stove for an inordinately long time, toil-and-troubling as the concoction bubbles. So I'll simply share a passage I came across while hopping around in Tennyson's letters earlier this week. Like a lot of nineteenth-century volumes of letters, it was a "Life and," which tends to be annoying: letters get presented out of context, partially quoted and partially summarized, and it's frequently hard to be sure of their dates and addressees.

In the case of the Tennyson volume, however, the grab-bag approach was fruitful: the editors threw in some Tennyson-related passages from the diaries and letters of those who knew him, which yielded the following account from Aubrey de Vere's diary:
Alfred Tennyson came in and smoked his pipe. He told us with pleasure of his dinner with Wordsworth—was pleased as well as amused by Wordsworth saying to him, "Come, brother bard, to dinner," and taking his arm; said that he was ashamed of paying Mr. Wordsworth compliments, but that he had at last, in the dark, said something about the pleasure he had had from Mr. Wordsworth’s writings, and that the old poet had taken his hand, and replied with some expressions equally kind and complimentary.
I enjoy the idea of Wordsworth--the conservative, older Wordsworth--calling Tennyson "brother bard." And isn't it easy to imagine Tennyson, briefly the picture of English reticence, quietly muttering some words of praise and gratitude?

All of which reminds me that I've got another bit of Tennysoniana (is that the word?) for you as well! This one is a bit of a joke from a letter Rupert Brooke sent to James Strachey on August 20, 1905:
You demanded a return catechism. Here it is. As yours ‘embraced all the Important in Life’; so mine, I hope, embraces all the Unimportant in Life—a much more essential thing.

1. What are the two greatest tragedies in Life?

2. Shew the comic side of both.

3. What is the most beautiful adjective in English?

4. When did you give up reading Tennyson?

5. What is the World coming to?

The only one which I'd expect you, fair reader, to answer, is number 3. My answer? Hmm. I do have a soft spot for "numinous," though the need for it is rare. "Sere" is also good, though even less useful. Perhaps "inordinate" (see above) or "wanton" would do?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A visit to the library

When I started work on The Getaway Car, I hadn't been a student for nearly twenty years. So the first step was re-learning how to do research--which also involved learning just how much could be done from my couch. With the help of the University of Chicago Library, I was able to discover and order nearly fifty books and articles, and have a surprising number of them delivered to me directly, within minutes, right on my laptop. It was a spectacular lesson in the enlarged, place-less library of the present-and-future.

Ah, but there's still plenty to be said for actually hitting the stacks, as a visit this week to the Regenstein Library on campus reminded me. I went in search of Roy Fuller's The Second Curtain, an English crime novel from 1953 that had been recommended to me by Will Schofield (proprietor of the wonderful Fifty Watts). I located it, admired its first line "("Fox was rather like a fox."), and was about to move on . . .

Then another name caught my eye. Firbank. Ah, Ronald Firbank! The writer whom Anthony Powell led back into print when he worked at Duckworth, of whom Harold Nicolson wrote, "It would be impossible, I think, to actually be as decadent as [Firbank] looked." It has been a while since I've looked into his baroque weirdness. [Flip, flip, flip]

Oh, yes, this browsing was worth it. It turned up this, from the unfinished  Tragedy in Green:
It was one of Lady Georgia's habits to find equivalents for all her worser feelings in the Bible.
That line was offered as a gloss on a bit of dialogue:
"I am a work of art," she sighed, "and this evening I feel nearly as wicked as Herodias."
Few writers ever mastered the sigh like Firbank.

The same volume also yielded this bit, from another incomplete work:
Her week-ends were a noted success. She arranged a circle of chairs under the lime trees on her lawn, and everyone slept. It was so restful, her friends said, and then when one could not sleep one could always talk scandal to one's neighbor.
Firbank's complete works aren't extensive, which meant it didn't take long for my eyes to light on another irresistible volume: Ronald Firbank: Memoirs and Critiques (1977), an example of one of my favorite genres: a collection of accounts of a writer by those who knew him. With a character as memorable as Firbank, such a book can't but be riddled with gems. Here's one, from Ifan Kyrle Fletcher:
In 1905 he published a slim volume containing this story ["Odette d'Antravernes"] and another sketch called "A Study in Temperament." Some of the copies were bound in pink wrappers and some in blue. The pallor of these colors offended his eye, now quick in aesthetic sensibility. He expressed his detestation in a letter to his publishers which foreshadowed his later ironical work. From the point of view of the public, he need not have been concerned. His book was ignored.
Fletcher also supplies a wonderfully concise description. After quoting another person to the point that Firbank was "full of contradictions," "naturally artificial and sincerely paradoxical," Fletcher writes::
It is this twisting of qualities which today makes him appear so remote, like a figure from a Restoration comedy. And it was this twisting of qualities which, in his life-time, made him so vitally baorque. His life seemed all grotesque ornamentation. His love of beauty was skilfully disguised. But it was always apparent in his hatred of pretensiousness. He suspected his own expressions of admiration as strongly as he questioned the sincerity of all rodomontade. Growing out of this was his refusal to talk seriously about art and life, even to kindred spirits. he feared that serious talk would become sober tosh.
Then there's this unforgettable account from Augustus John:
If I terrified Ronald Firbank, as he used to say I did, he often quite unnerved me with his way of emitting a long, hollow laugh about nothing in particular, a laugh like a clock suddenly "running down," accompanied by a fluttering of the hands (not the clock's), hand which he would then proceed to wash with the furtive precipitation of a murderer evading pursuit.
Osbert Sitwell, meanwhile, retails an anecdote that is appropriate for this month's Great War centennial (even if it smacks of being far too good to be true):
He told us . . . that when, after a dozen or so examinations, the War Office finally rejected him as totally unfit for service (which anyone else could have told at a glance), and then, in their usual muddled way, at once called him up again, he replied to them through his lawyer with the threat of a libel action. The War Office, at a time when it governed the world, was so taken aback at this simple piece of individual initiative that it at once sent back to him a humble apology.
Evelyn Waugh, meanwhile, contributes a critical essay in which the following effectively analytic paragraph stands out (once you get past the "inscrutable wit of the Chinese," that is):
But by its nature Firbank's humour defies quotation. Perhaps it is a shade nearer to the abiding and inscrutable with of the Chinese. It is there to be njoyed by those who have a taste for it, but it is too individual and intangible to become a literary influence. The importance of Firbank, which justifies the writing of a critical essay about him, lies in his literary method. He is the first quite modern writer to solve for himself, quite unobtrusively and probably more or less unconsciously, the aesthetic problem of representation in fiction; to achieve, that is to say, a new, balanced interrelation of subject and form. Nineteenth-century novelists achieved a balance only by complete submission to the idea of the succession of events in an arbitrarily limited period of time. Just as in painting until the last generation the aesthetically significant activity of the artist had always to be occasioned by anecdote and representation, so the novelist was fettered by the chain of cause and effect,. Almost all the important novels of this century have been experiments in making an art form out of this raw material of narration. It is a problem capable of many solutions, of which Firbank discovered one that was peculiarly appropriate and delicate.

His later novels are almost wholly devoid of any attributions of cause to effect.

Still reeling from the strangeness of Firbank, I let my eyes slide over a shelf, where they found the safest of harbors: John Galsworthy. A volume of his letters, flipped open, yielded this passage, which seems a suitable way to tiptoe back towards ordinary life from the Firbankian shadows:
I am conscious of never having been of any set in my life. To be "in" and "of" are not the same. It seems queer to look back on those times; queer and not too reassuring--yet sometimes there comes over one now the feeling that in pure physical health and pleasures lies the true existence, and that in all the nerve devouring and heart searching analysis of our present years lies discontent and fag. How comparatively vegetably happy are not one or two of my friends of those days who have been content to pass their lives keeping packs of hounds. No doubts and queries about them! Jolly red faces, and solid muscles. Ah! well, everything that is, is right.
Equilibrium restored to at least its usual tentative state, I ambled from the library, remembering as I left a passage from late in the new, final volume of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, The Magician's Land. Grossman's characters are wandering a magical library located between worlds, and they glance into a side room, set aside by the librarian for "problem formats":
It was the weirdest bibliographical menagerie she'd ever seen. Books so tall and yet so narrow that they looked like yardsticks; she supposed they must be illustrated guides to snakes, or arrows, or maybe yardsticks. One book was kept in a glass terrarium--a librarium?--the better to contain the words that kept crawling out of it like ants. One lay slightly open on a table, but only slightly, so you could see that its pages emitted an intolerably bright radiance; a welding mask lay next to it. One book appeared to be all spine along all of its edges. It was unopenable, its pages sealed inside it.
Another room contains all the novels people have meant to write but not gotten around to. I imagine browsing in that room would be a tad less productive than the hour I spent in PR6011 through PR6013.

Enjoy your weekend, folks. May your browsing lead you to good places!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thanks to Random House's reissues, I (relatively) suddenly find myself with thirty John D. MacDonalds on my shelves

Random House started reissuing John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee mysteries a year and a half ago, and I've enjoyed having an excuse to revisit a series that was really important to me when I was in high school. Along with Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, the McGees were key to my transition from the coziness of Agatha Christie to a more hardboiled American school of crime.

The McGees hold up remarkably well. Having spent so much time with Donald Westlake's relative reticence over the past few years, MacDonald's use of McGee and Meyer as his dual-persona mouthpieces took some getting used to, but while the natural staling of politics means that MacDonald once in a while strikes a wrong note, overall his sociopolitical asides remain effective--and, most important, consistent with his tarnished knight-errant. Florida is, was (since at least Andrew Jackson, and probably the Spanish), and always will be an absolute destructive mess, it seems, as unfathomable to outsiders as it is confounding to natives.

One thing that remains particularly interesting is how MacDonald uses McGee to acknowledge the frustration and weariness of the series writer. Through the middle of the series--three or four books leading up to 1978's The Green Ripper--McGee is explicitly weary with himself, frustrated by the role he's cast himself in, doubting its truth and value both, but unsure about how he might either rejuvenate himself or break out of it. That, dramatized, is the problem of the series author--and one of the reasons that I remain astonished by (and incredibly respectful of) Westlake's twenty-four years of letting Parker lie fallow: mechanically putting a character through recognizable paces is a creative risk, one that can kill character and creator both. Yet rather than deny the problems he faced continuing to write stories about his meal ticket, and thereby letting his books curdle into cynicism, MacDonald took them out and looked at them, and let us see them, too.

For McGee, the answer is lasting love, which instantly reenergizes him--and its inevitable loss, which sets him dangerously aflame. For MacDonald, presumably, rejuvenation came from allowing McGee a possibility previously denied--the possibility of lasting change--and seeing where that led.

I've been skirting the one substantial flaw in MacDonald's books: sex. McGee is at his most dated when it comes to women--not because he is a midcentury sexist, but because the feminism he believes in and practices is, much as he scoffs at Hefner, fundamentally a Playboy feminism. It's a feminism of difference, one that allows self-determination regardless of gender but nonetheless falls back too often (for our contemporary tastes) on men being men, women being women, and freely given, heartfelt, passionate sex being the cure-all. Even McGee sees the occasional excess, lacerating himself here and there for his fuck-a-wounded-bird-to-health technique--but that doesn't stop him from maintaining the approach.

Worst of all, McDonald fails to heed my sole rule of writing: Always describe hangovers; never describe sex. Oh, does he describe sex. It's well-meaning, inexplicit, but nonetheless cringe-inducing, like when you hear someone say "make love" in seriousness. A passage from The Brass Cupcake will suffice as evidence:
I rose with her on the wave crest of a thing long denied, only vaguely conscious of reaching between us and thumbing open the buttons of the jeans, then sliding my hand around her and peeling the jeans down over the twin concavities of alive plum-tautness, dimly conscious of the thud as the moccasin fell at the end of the couch, of her breath that was like the beating of a wing against my throat, of the infuriating intricacies of robe belt, of the twin alivenesses hard under the blue T shirt, of the whole urgent mounting need of her, as vivid as a scream.
"Twin concavities of alive plum-tautness"? Jesus. (And that moccasin--in 1950, that's surely borderline Bohemian?)

That passage aside, The Brass Cupcake is a fine crime novel, and, as MacDonald's first, surely gave his editor a sense that here was a rare talent ready to cut loose. Bad sex aside, I'm grateful to Random House for reissuing it and a slew of other MacDonald standalones. Those are the books that a young Westlake read as he was starting out, and about which he wrote:
Gold Medal originals, with their yellow spines, were my education in popular fiction. At first I devoured them all indiscriminately, but gradually I began to go past the yellow spine to the brand name, to differentiate Vin Packer from Harry Whittington, Edward S. Aarons from Peter Rabe, and to accept some new titles more eagerly than others. There were the writers to skip, there were the old reliables, there were the few really good writers with surprises and felicities somewhere within every book, and there was John D. MacDonald. Almost from the beginning, he was in a class by himself, and I think the secret was that he never wrote a scene, not a scene of any kind, as though he were writing for the pulps. There was never overstatement, never sleaze, no wallowing in the mire. He accepted my, the reader's, intelligence as a given, and not many did that.
My complaints about the sex scenes aside, I can't disagree.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Anthony Powell has a visitor

As longtime readers (or Twitter friends) will know, I turn frequently to Anthony Powell's A Writer's Notebook. Who could resist, when opening it to a random page yields such pleasures as--well, let's try it:
A man who looked as if he had been pressed for a long time between the pages of a book.
And once more for luck: this one was clearly banked by Powell as a possible future line of dialogue:
"Visiting her was like calling on Penelope when the suitors were about the house."
In contrast, Powell's journals are a disappointment. Oh, they're definitely books that the serious Powell fan should own and consult--and, thank Heinemann!, they do have indexes--but their very nature as the journals of an older man more or less retired in the country means we get far too much about wines vintages and chicken curries, and also a bit of the aging Tory grumpiness that the generosity of the novels almost entirely obscures.

That said, they're far from wholly unrewarding to the late evening, heading-for-bed browser. Here, for example, is a bit I just turned up on Evelyn Waugh, a writer and contemporary who can't help but serve, for readers as well as, one assumes, to some extent for Powell himself, as a dark shadow of Powell himself, more successful yet far less satisfied. On March 10, 1991, Powell writes about rereading a volume of Waugh's letters:
Interesting how little people know themselves. Evelyn, speaking of Swift (whom he had been reading about), says he has a sense of possessing much in common with Swift, but without Swift's "bossiness," something that did not trouble him at all. The best letters from the point of view of being amusing are those to Nancy Mitford, who, in general feebly deferential, had moments of rebellion. In point of fact Evelyn got more from Nancy about upper-class life than he would probably have cared to admit.
Three sentences, three solid observations about literary figures we care about.

The passage that's amused me most tonight, however, comes from June 10, 1992:
The baroque French clock in the library stopped; the grandfather has not struck for several years, so in a reckless moment I wrote to Mr Jackman (who presented me with the clock he made himself some years ago) to ask if he knew anyone who could mend these. Before he replied the clock in the library recovered. By that time it was too late to stop Mr Jackman. He is seventy, extremely tall, with a fairly large neatly cut grey beard, and a great talker, a characteristic to which he himself referred. He possesses thirty-five clocks, but has a friend (who mends clocks professionally) who has thirty-seven in his sitting room alone. I explained the situation. Mr Jackman examined the grandfather, said that if I wanted he would take the essential part to his friend, but he himself advised leaving it as it was, unless I thought the strike very important. I agreed, gave Mr Jackman a paperback set of Dance. He left the house, rather like a brief violent visit from the God of Clocks.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of the essential qualities of Nick Jenkins's narration in Dance--and, for that matter, of the conversation of the friends he's closest to--is the way that his mind ranges so easily from the quotidian to the symbolic or mythological: scenes present themselves to him and call up echoes of literature or mythology, or, as in the opening paragraph of the whole sequence, images of
the ancient world. . . . A fabulous past, infinitely removed, from life; and yet bringing with them memories of things real and imagined.
Such associations almost always feel natural, and they invest the ordinary with a light, pleasant drama and potency that, in its more staid, even fussy way, nonetheless somehow calls to mind the headlong rush of love-blind eros depicted by Iris Murdoch. Life is the dull daily detail, after all, yet the numinous somehow also exists; those places where it peeks through, or where, in thinking of a goofy handyman neighbor as the God of Clocks, we deliberately, if jokingly, invite it in, are moments we remember.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Westlake and Manchette

My friend who manages 57th Street Books (my home bookstore) pushed Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Prone Gunman (1981) into my hands this week, and I'm glad he did: it's a short, taut, bleak thriller about a hit man forced to postpone retirement, and it reads very much like a French cousin to Donald Westlake's work as Richard Stark. The passage that most directly called Stark to mind was this one, wherein Terrier, the hit man, gets the drop on a man who's been following him:
"They said you were an okay guy, that you might knock me around a little, but I only had to say I was a gofer and give you the name of the Rossi brothers and you would let me go! You're going to let me go now, aren't you?"


Terrier drew back a little on his seat and stopped pressing the barrel of the HK4 against the throat of the young man. The latter tearfully rubbed his neck.

"Oh! Thank you, thank you!"

"Take this message to Cox," said Terrier as he put a slug into his heart.
Reading that, Parker fans will no doubt find themselves thinking of a scene from Butcher's Moon. As Parker strides through the middle of a gang war he's fomented, he confronts a low-level gangster who pleads for mercy:
"I'm only the messenger!"

"Now you're the message," Parker told him, and shot him.
As Timothy Peltason points out in his excellent essay on the Parker books in the current issue of the Yale Review, Parker isn't generally one for snappy lines. Talking is generally a waste of time, and never more so than when you're about to shoot somebody. But at that moment in Butcher's Moon, he (or his creator) can't resist--and, slightly out of character though it may be, it has become one of Parker's signature moments. It's fun to see it echoed--most likely unknowingly--by Manchette.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Improperly packed postcards

In Nancy Mitford's delightfully lightweight wartime espionage novel Pigeon Pie (1940), at one point her heroine writes to her paramour about their mutual friend Olga, who has in recent months taken on a deliberate air of mystery, built around artlessly dropped hints about her secret war work for "my Chief" as B.F.S., or Beautiful Female Spy:
I'm afraid I was rather rude to her but really I'm getting tired of Olga in the role of beautiful female spy--it's becoming a bore. I've just sent her a telegram saying "Proceed John o' Groats and away further instructions. F.69." Hope she proceeds, that's all.
When I read that passage today, I laughed, but it also made me remember to do something I'd forgotten: my mysterious Texan correspondent.

Longterm readers may remember earlier appearances of my correspondent: over the past couple of years, he (or she!) has sent anonymous postcards with memorable quotes from A Dance to the Music of Time (This one, dealing with the unforgettable Mopsy Pontner, is the best of the batch) or, another time, some interesting context for one of Mark Twain's autobiographical anecdotes. The correspondence has always been the best sort of surprise: irregular, varied, and utterly enjoyable.

What Mitford's spy nonsense reminded me of is that I am two postcards behind! Back in the late spring, I received a pair. One, if I recall correctly, featured a quote from Proust; the other--perhaps?--a quote from Maupassant. They arrived as we were in the midst of packing and dealing with all the stress and frustrations of moving and buying property, and they were an extremely welcome distraction.

But oh, packing. Packing a stuffed-full condo after fourteen years. Ninety boxes of books alone. The postcards . . . are somewhere. And until Mitford reminded me, I had forgotten that I had failed even to acknowledge receipt. So please, mysterious Texan correspondent, accept my apology and gratitude--and, if my delinquency hasn't soured you on this project, click through to the Annex for my new address. To quote Mitford, I hope he/she proceeds, that's all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Robert Graves

One of the books that carried me through the twenty-one hours, door-to-door, of my return from Slovenia earlier this month was Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That. I've long been an enthusiastic dabbler in Graves--a fan of the delectable I, Claudius, a timid peeper at the labyrinthine obsessions of The White Goddess, and a prurient, if casual, collector of anecdotes about his life.

On that last point, the best stories tend to revolve around the malevolent power of his longtime love Laura Riding. Michael Dirda, in Bound to Please, relates one of the most shocking. After a different lover rejected her, Riding:
sipped some Lysol, tootled, "Goodbye, chaps," and leaped out of a fourth-floor window. Robert immediately rushed down the steps; but realizing that his muse must surely be dead, he stopped on the third floor and jumped out a window after her.
Astonishingly, both survived, though with substantial injuries. Riding would go on to dominate Graves's life for many years; there's an often harrowing account of her power in Once As It WasGriselda Jackson Ohannessian's memoir of the years she spent as their neighbor in rural Pennsylvania when she was a girl. She tells of how Riding quickly brought all the nearby adults under her spell, and her descriptions of Riding's dominance are convincingly uncanny. As Dirda notes, Graves once remarked, "You have no idea of Laura's holiness"; if Ohanessian is to be believed, her holiness was more that of the pagan deity inexorably demanding sacrifice than of the sort that honors and rewards purity and goodness.

A much more gently amusing Graves anecdote entered my store this winter via Albert Vigoleis Thelen's magnificent, enormous novel The Island of Second Sight. It's a thinly veiled--though beautifully, inventively, and hilariously stylized--account of the years Thelen spent on Mallorca in the run-up to World War II. Among the modest European expatriate community is Graves, who enlists Thelen to translate some of his work into German. The amusing bit, though, is how Thelen tells us Graves introduces himself to everyone he meets: shaking the person's hand vigorously, he says, "Robert Van Ranke Graves, Goodbye to All That." No use courting confusion, I suppose.

Which leads us to the book that made Graves's name, and for which he's still best known, Goodbye to All That. Published in 1929, it was one of a wave of memoirs of the Great War, and, along with Siefried Sassoon's and Edmund Blunden's memoirs, it has remained one of the key documents of the experience of the trenches. So imagine my surprise when I realized how much comedy was in it--this is no All Quiet on the Western Front. Oh, there are horrors aplenty, and much of the humor is of the nihilistic black sort that, it seems likely, has always been part of the soldier's experience. But there is also the occasional bit of pure, if savagely ironic, comedy, as in this passage from Graves's first extended leave, in 1916. Home with his parents, he allows himself to be badgered into attending church in the morning--his mother taking "no active part in the argument, just looking sad"--rather than catching up on months of lost sleep. Church is to be at 9:30, which Graves thought "unusually early for matins," but attributed to "the new wartime principle of getting things over quickly." Then comes a knock at the door:
The proprietor of a neighbouring bath-chair business was waiting with a bath-chair. He explained that, as he had previously told my mother, they could not spare a man to take it to church, being seriously under-staffed because of the war--his sole employee, the only one left, had a job pulling the aged Countess of I-forget-what to the Parish Church, a mile or so in the opposite direction. For the moment I thought that it had been a very generous thought of my mother's on my behalf, but, ill as I felt, I could surely manage to reach the church, about half a mile away, without such a parade of infirmity. I forgot my father's gout, and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart, pulled their mother, the priestess, to the Temple, and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate human happiness.
Had Solon tried to make the same example of Graves, I expect he would have received some choice words in return. In reality, though, Graves "could only laugh" and take up the "beastly vehicle." The church, as you've surely already assumed, was up a hill.

It got worse from there:
By half-past ten the service did not seem to be getting on as fast it should have, and I grew dreadfully bored, longing to sneak outside for--well, anyhow, I wanted to sneak outside.

I whispered to my mother: "Isn't it nearly over?"

She answered: "My dear, didn't your father tell you that it would be a three-hour service? And, of course, since you couldn't get up to pull him to church for the early service, he'll want to stay for Holy Communion at the end. That will make it a little longer."
Welcome home from the trenches, son! We've missed you terribly!

One question before I wrap this up: Does anyone feel confident about what Graves was planning to sneak out of church to do? Smoke or drink, one would assume, but if that's it, why not just say so explicitly? Any other ideas?

Monday, July 21, 2014

The absent Edwardian father

If my earlier posts have failed to convince you to pick up Slightly Foxed's paperback of Diana Holman-Hunt's memoir My Grandmothers and I, well, there's probably little more I can do. You clearly aren't into Edwardian eccentricity, which is a way of approaching life that makes me shudder to contemplate. Next you'll tell me you're not amused by Lord Byron's keeping a tame bear while at college, in protest at the rules against dogs!

Nonetheless, in hopes that it may convince you to mend your ways, I'm drawing on the book one last time today. This time, it's the character of Holman-Hunt's father, a sportsman and man-about-town in India at the time, who provides the entertainment. Early in the book, young Diana receives a letter from her father, which her more staid grandmother reads aloud to her:
"'My dearest Diana,

'I am posting this letter a month before your birthday to make sure it arrives in time.'" She looked at the date on the post mark.

"Well, get on with it, Mamie!" My grandfather crossed his feet on his stick.

"'Under separate cover I am sending you the skin of a young leopard I shot in the jungle. It will make a good rug for your room, if you get it properly mounted and lined.'" She cleared her throat. "'Some people make the claws into broaches . . . ' How extraordinary, do let me see."

"For God's sake get on with the letter! You're not a savage! Brooches indeed!"

She read on: "'I enclose some snapshots of me and my--'" she hesitated and spelled out a word, "it looks like 'CHIPRARSIES.' I wonder if they can be orchids?"

"Of course not," he grunted.

"'Also of me and my new polo ponies. Their names are Hasty-Hussy, Hot House'--and something I cannot decipher." She peered into the envelope. "There are no photographs as far as I can see."

"Perhaps they were in the parcel." He poked at the paper with his stick.

"Here's one," I said, "of a very big man on a very small horse, wearing a white hat."

"I presume the very big man is wearing the white hat," he said.
It goes on like that, the letter slowed and filtered by the grandmother, huffed over by the grandfather, and impatiently awaited by Diana, until finally the end is reached:
"'I wish you many happy returns and I am your affectionate father. Postscript. It is time you knew it is all rot about fairies and Father Christmas.'"
Happy birthday, indeed!

It is perhaps no surprise that when Diana's father does eventually turn up, he's rackety and fast and unreliable, spending most of his time either hungover or getting that way, while introducing his daughter to ladies of questionable virtue. But all that pales beside his one great accomplishment: fulfilling every unhappy boarding school child's dream, he arrives unexpectedly at the school and, with a dramatic flair that leaves the headmaster fuming, up and removes Diana from the school for good. For a father of that period, I think that probably leaves his performance well to the good, on balance.