Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"My comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard," or, Paul Collins brings Poe to life

A life of Poe should be short. Not so much because Poe's own life was short, but because it was so rackety, so filled with loss, failure, destitution, and disgrace that it's a hard life to spend much time with. It's difficult enough to know that Poe's talent was deformed by the pressures of his life; to be reminded of it at length is painful.

That alone would make Paul Collins's new brief life of Poe, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, worth seeking out. When you add Collins's eye for anecdote and ability as an archive sleuth, you've got a real treat. Collins proves to be a judicious analyst of Poe's life and talent, offering thoughtful readings of his successes and failures in both, including his mystifying (to modern eyes) wedding to his thirteen-year-old cousin.

But, just as we go to Poe for his gothic wonders, for his excesses and intensities, rather than for his overarching narratives, what's most fun in Collins are the many rich anecdotes, often built on accounts from Poe's friends and acquaintances, that bring Poe to life on the page. Here, for example, is a moment from his youth:
His foster father, apparently surprised by a fifteen-year-old's capacity to turn moody, quickly blamed Edgar's friends. "He does nothing & seems quite miserable, sulky & ill-tempered to all the Family," Allan wrote that autumn. "How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception. . . . I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking & acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England."
Edgar Allan Poe, typical moody teen.

A few years later finds Poe at the University of Virginia, which also didn't quite suit him:
The end of the school year, though, was not a happy one. Poe crossed paths with William Wertenbaker, a fellow student who also served as the campus librarian--a sympathetic ear on a campus where the young poet had never entirely fit in. He found "Gaffy" so ready to abandon campus that he'd smashed up his dorm-room furniture to save on buying firewood for his final nights there. 
"It was a cold night in December," Wertenbaker said, "and his fire having gone pretty nearly out by the aid of some tallow candles, and the fragments of a small table which he broke up for the purpose, he soon rekindled it, and by its comfortable blaze I spent a very pleasant hour with him."
Institutional life never would sit well with Poe; West Point, too, was a bust. When he was drummed out, however, the superintendent thought well enough of him to allow him to take up a collection from his fellow students. Instead of that, however, Poe sold them advance rights to a copy of a book of poems he had in contemplation: "Of the class of 232, 131 cadets paid $1.25 each to raise the money for it." But what they thought they were getting--a book of the mocking verses he'd become known for at the academy--turned out instead to be a collection of fervidly Romantic serious poems. And it was poorly produced:
It arrived poorly printed on coarse paper with the widest of margins--"a miserable production mechanically," Poe's roommate wrote later, "bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale." Finding one brings a small fortune today, but a very different valuation survives in what one classmate scribbled on his copy.

"This book," he wrote, "is a damned cheat."
Collins is also good at conveying Poe's self-destructive perversity. His account of Poe's performance at the season premiere of the Boston Lyceum in October 1845 is jaw-dropping:
Poe found himself unable to versify; by the time he reached the stage in Boston's Odeon Theatre, he'd stayed sober, but still had no poem ready.

The crowd's patience was exhausted even before Poe opened his mouth, as a previous speaker had droned on for over two hours already. When Poe departed from the advertised poem to give an impromptu twenty-minute speech on American poetry, it drove out many patrons. Among those who stayed were Emily Dickinson's future preceptor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who recalled how Poe then "abruptly began the recitation of his rather perplexing poem, [and] the audience looked thoroughly mystified." Well they might, for Poe had resorted to a poem that was decidedly not new at all: it was his obscure 1829 farrago ""Al Aaraaf." While Higginson was won over by it ("walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard"), the few left by the end were only mollified by a recitation of "The Raven." Boston newspapers did not fondly recall Poe afterwards, and the feeling was mutual.
As October nears, you couldn't do better to prepare for proper Poe season than picking up The Fever Called Living.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The perils of soldiering

As I put together Monday's post about World War I, I was reminded of a footnote in Andrew McConnell Stott's excellent new book on Byron, the Shelleys, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont, The Poet and the Vampyre. Though it's hard to dispute that the experience of the soldier in World War I was likely the worst in human history, the footnote from Stott is a reminder that the lot of the soldier has always been fairly awful:
A similar fate befell Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, the brother of Byron's former lover, Caroline Lamb. Wounded in both arms and lanced in the back, he fell off his horse and spent most of the battle [of Waterloo] lying helpless on the field where he was robbed, used as cover by a rifleman, trampled under the hoofs of Prussian cavalry, and robbed again. Despite lying out all night and suffering seven major wounds, he lived for another twenty-two years.
Jesus. I'd like to think that he at least was able to shape his experience into the kind of story that would get him stood drinks for the rest of his life.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The outbreak of World War I

One of my distractions while running lately has been the World War I episodes of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. Two-and-a-half episodes in, Carlin has barely reached the Battle of the Marne, but that's a good thing: the months leading up to and just after the outbreak of the war are the most complicated and important, and he's giving them their due, doing a good job of showing how reasonably sane people--products of their time, but not evil or ill-meaning--boxed themselves in so thoroughly that war became unavoidable, and almost instantly assumed a scope and deadliness until then unimaginable. The casualty figures from the first few months of the war are still breathtaking; to think that any nation could absorb deaths in that quantity and continue to fight is almost unfathomable today. (In fact, I take it as one of the few unquestionable signs of legitimate human progress that the nations of the West are, a century later, much less willing to countenance widespread bloodshed in war. For all the indefatigable bellicosity of our hawks, life is not quite so recklessly thrown away now as it was then.)

The greatest strength of Carlin's podcast is its conversational quality. Though it's hard to imagine the whole three-plus hours of each episode isn't fairly closely scripted, the effect is not of something read, like an audiobook, or even a delivery of prepared notes, like a lecture, but of someone telling you something. It's thus perfect for a long drive or a long run, engaging moment to moment, yet not so intense as to be thrown wholly off course when you have to look up to leap out of the way of a snarling chipugpug, or brake to avoid one of those hideous three-wheeled motorcycles.

The other great strength of the podcast is that Carlin loads it up with direct quotation. We hear firsthand accounts from soldiers, diplomats, generals, journalists, and more, and they help immensely in bringing immediacy and uncertainty to events that we can't avoid seeing at least to some extent as distant and predetermined. The most striking, for me, in the first episode was a story filed for Scribner's by America's greatest reporter of WWI, Richard Harding Davis. Davis was on the scene as the Germans marched into neutral Belgium, and he filed a long, richly descriptive report:
At eleven o'clock, down the Boulevard Waterloo came the advance-guard of the German army. It consisted of three men, a captain and two privates on bicycles. Behind them, so close upon each other that to cross from one sidewalk to the other was not possible, came the Uhlans, infantry, and the guns. For two hours I watched them and then, bored with the monotony of it, returned to the hotel. After an hour, from beneath my window, I still could hear them; another hour and another went by. They still were passing. Boredom gave way to wonder. The thing fascinated you against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed. No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman; a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this earth, but mysterious, ghostlike.
What fascinates me in that passage is that Davis compares the German army to natural forces. We're so used to explaining the horrors of World War I through the lens of runaway technology--an ability to kill that vastly outstripped our ability to understand, let alone harness or defend against it--that to hear the vast extent of the German army (bigger, in tiny Belgium alone, than Napoleon's Grande Armee as it entered Russia) called uncanny . . . yet compared not to a machine, but to natural forces. But then he turns. By the end of the third day, he's shifted metaphors. Overnight, the Germans were like "the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon," but by the fourth day, they have become
a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steamroller.
They are "a cataract of molten lead," their "perfect unison" the "blows from giant pile-drivers." Then,
When at night for an instant the machine halted, the silence awoke you, as at sea you wake when the screw stops.
It is no longer any sort of natural force--for there is a sense in which we can accept power and destruction in that form, even if we cannot understand it. This, it has become clear, is some other order of thing entirely.

But in his closing, Davis finds a way to bring the two metaphors together. This "monstrous engine,"
is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death. Those who cast it loose upon Europe are military-mad. . . . And like Frankenstein's monster, this monster, to which they gave life, may turn on them and rend them.
And that does seem like the perfect metaphor for what World War I unleashed: a harnessing of technology, with little thought to its ends, looses a force that can no longer be controlled, and that wreaks havoc wherever it roams. A century later, we're still sorting through the ashes it left behind.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A cop in search of a partner

In her Dublin Murder squad series, Tana French has featured a new protagonist in each book, taken, cleverly, from the many minor characters in earlier books. This time around, for The Secret Place, she's chosen Stephen Moran, whom we met back in Faithful Place when he was a beat cop. He's since worked his way up to Cold Cases--in part because of the scratch of the protagonist of that earlier novel, a well-placed cop who was grateful for his help. This book opens with Moran seeing his chance at latching onto the murder squad, as a case drops into his lap.

As with all of French's novels, the prose and sensibility in this book are distinctive: you always know when you're reading a Tana French novel. While the plots can sometimes let you down--and this, in its relatively limited complexity, isn't one of her best--her broader interests in contemporary Irish society, and, in particular, in the deleterious effects of the rapidly receding boom, rendered in richly detailed prose, make her books something I look forward to every time. Hell, they'd almost be worth it for the Irish slang alone. I'd happily read about things being "banjaxed" in many more novels.

What brings me here tonight, however, isn't the book itself--who hasn't covered this novel already? It's a single passage of reflective wistfulness early on:
Your dream partner grows in the back of your mind, secret, like your dream girl. Mine grew up with violin lessons, floor-to-high-ceiling books, red setters, a confidence he took for granted and a dry sense of humor no one but me would get.
It's not the perfect fit, but it does sound as if in some ways he may be pining for our old friend Saul Panzer. Here's Archie Goodwin's description of Saul's apartment, from "Fourth of July":
Saul Panzer, below average in size but miles above it in savvy, lived alone on the top floor--living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bath--of a remodeled house on Thirty-eighth Street between Lexington and Third. The living room was big, lighted with two floor lamps and two table lamps, even at seven o'clock of a July evening, because the blinds were drawn. One wall had windows, another was solid with books, and the other two had pictures and shelves that were cluttered with everything from chunks of minerals to walrus tusks. In the far corner was a grand piano.
What other detective is more casually, unostentatiously cultured as Saul Panzer? Alas, Saul's neither Irish nor contemporary--nor, let's be clear, likely to be amenable to working with an organization like the Dublin Police Department. It would pay poorly, work inefficiently, and tolerate incompetence and corruption on a scale no operative whose favored employer is Nero Wolfe would ever tolerate. The dream partner remains but a dream. 'Tis a fallen world we live in, after all.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Byron, the Shelleys, and the rough wake of cruel genius

How many times can we read again of Byron, the Shelleys, Lake Geneva, and the Year without a Summer? Surely the topic has been exhausted by now?

Perhaps. Perhaps there's nothing truly new to be discovered from that stormy sojourn. But that doesn't keep me from hungrily devouring yet another account, if it's well told--which Andrew McConnell Stott's The Poet and the Vampyre certainly is. Stott improves on the usual tale of hothouse creativity by simultaneously broadening his lens--telling of the months leading up to and following the Lake Geneva stay--and focusing it on characters usually seen as peripheral, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. We've always known that Byron and Shelley are, in their distinct ways, largely monsters, but close attention to Polidori and Clairmont renders the poets' darkness and insensitivity utterly comprehensible. Neither Polidori nor Clairmont is anywhere near wholly sympathetic as a character--indeed, while Clairmont has a certain magnetism, it takes an act of serious historicization, of remembering the limitations he faced in society, for us not to find Polidori almost entirely unlikeable, short-tempered and full of ill-founded self-regard. Yet Clairmont and Polidori are both, importantly, familiar: we all know that feeling of wanting, more than anything else in the world, to have a secure place in the orbit of someone more popular, charming, and talented than we are--and of having that person capriciously tack from friendship to dismissal. In Stott's hands, the desire that fuels both Polidori and Clairmont becomes palpable, its off-hand rejection cruel beyond belief.

At the same time, the reason we come back to Byron again and again is that charm, that heedless, headlong selfishness, that insistence that the world is there for him to play with. And the book is full of that, too: anecdotes, scenes, and quotations that further cement Byron as a larger-than-life figure, a man of whom it seems reasonable of a woman who meets him in Rome to say to her daughter, "Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at."

Today, however, I'll turn away from Byron and focus instead on Polidori and medicine, the field to which he ill-fatedly committed himself young. First, I'll share this jaw-dropping anecdote from Polidori's time at the University of Edinburgh:
The neglect of practical studies was responsible for some of the worst abuses at the university, specifically in the case of anatomy. Edinburgh's professorship in this key area had been occupied for a total of 126 years by three men, all of whom had been named Alexander Munro: father, son and grandson. This was not unusual in a nepotistic age when, of the ten professors hired in the two decades prior to John's arrival, eight were the sons of professors already in residence. By sheer good fortune, the first two Alexander Munros had been men of parts, but by the time John was there, the post had devolved to Alexander Munro III, who treated it as a tiresome inheritance. Appearing in class with his clothes in runkled disarray, Munro mumbled through the notes his grandfather had written almost three-quarters of a century before without even bothering to omit such obvious anachronisms as the phrase "when I was a student in Leyden in 1714"--a passage that took on such a mythic status that its annual utterance became something of a fete, the students showering the professor with peas when they heard it while Munro sputtered on.
Extra credit to Stott for using "runkled," which I was pleased to have to look up.

After such stellar instruction, Polidori graduated from the University of Edinburgh at twenty . . . only to discover that he couldn't practice medicine in London until he passed the boards, which no one under twenty-six was even allowed to sit. Thus, when Byron was looking for a physician to accompany him on his European exile, Polidori jumped at the chance, income and idol-worship creating a compelling combination.

After Byron fired Polidori, largely because of his irritability, profligacy, and jumped-up pretensions (which Byron alternately encouraged and scoffed at), Polidori attempted to latch on with a number of nobles as a personal physician, without much luck. In Pisa, he briefly succeeded in building a practice, but either his Edinburgh training or his faulty stars showed through:
None of [his patients] lasted long. Lord Guilford died first, falling to chronic alcoholism and such tumorous guts that John had to remove his intestines and embalm the body before it could be sent back to Britain for burial. In February 1817, Francis Horner succumbed to a heart condition, followed shortly afterwards by Thomas Hope's young son, who died of scarlet fever.
Byron was no more understanding than usual, writing to his friend Scrope Davies that Polidori was
on his way to England with the present Lord Guilford--having actually disembowelled the last at Pisa and spiced and pickled him for his rancid ancestors.
"Rancid ancestors"--it's phrases like that which bring me back, again and again, to Byron's letters. In another letter, Byron suggested to John Cam Hobhouse that Polidori might suit Lady Westmorland, whose service he hoped to enter. Her eye for young men was on Byron's mind as he offered a vulgar assessment:
He suggested to Hobhouse that John might be on the verge of securing his fortune, the key to which lay in his handling of "Lady W's Clitoris, which is supposed to be of the longest", and ability to talk her into a quick marriage, "if only to fill up the gap which he has already made in the population."
I'm now about 100 pages from the end. Byron, untouched by anything as always, is resident in Venice, drunkenly swimming its canals. Clairmont, meanwhile, is in despair, having borne Byron's child and surrendered it to him; Polidori has returned to London, tail between his legs, and is trying to figure out his career from there. Will they recover some equilibrium, or will they be more like the suicides strewn in the Shelleys' wake? Even knowing the outcome, I find I want to race through Stott's telling to learn more. If you're half the sucker for this story that I am, you should grab this book and do the same.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

You don't want the guys on your string to be late. Early, though--we'll take early.

Look what arrived a week early--and just in time for me to show off a couple at a family reunion this weekend!



It's shipping out now to individual customers and to bookstores, and you should see it on the shelves (or, may we hope, the front table?) of your local bookstore by early-to-mid September. The official publication date will be September 29. I think it turned out beautifully: my colleagues at the University of Chicago Press turned my messy stack of xeroxes into a handsome book that should catch the eye of any Westlake fan, and I'm grateful for it.

In other Getaway Car news, September 1 issue of Booklist will bring us what's likely the last of the pre-publication reviews, and it's pleasantly of a piece with the rave in Kirkus and the starred review in Publishers Weekly. It, too, is starred, and it's full of praise for Westlake:
An absolute must-read for Westlake’s legion of fans, this wonderful collection showcases the late mystery writer’s nonfiction skills. . . . Westlake’s writing here is as compelling, as seemingly effortlessly entertaining, as it is in his fiction. A great collection and a reminder of just how talented an author Westlake was.
I couldn't ask for much better than that.

Finally, if you're not sick of hearing me yammer about the book yet, and you're in Chicago, New York, or Iowa City, you should come out and see me! Here's the calendar:

September 20
Chicago
7 PM at The Curiosity
E-mail me at WestlakeGetawayCar@gmail.com for more details and to RSVP.

September 29
New York
6:30 PM at The Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren Street
For this event, I'll be joined by Abby Westlake, Lawrence Block, and Otto Penzler. As all three are great raconteurs, I'm planning to basically say hello, thank everyone for coming, and turn them loose to tell Donald Westlake stories all night.

October 4
Iowa City
As part of the Iowa City Book Festival, I'll be on a panel October 4with crime writer and genre historian Craig McDonald talking about Westlake and crime fiction in general. Come for James Ellroy (He's on the mainstage October 2), stay for us!

If you're planning to be at any of these, drop me a note--if we've not met, I'd like to be sure to introduce myself and say hi.

In an essay on Stephen Frears that's included in the book, Westlake says, "If you can't have fun, why do it?" Well, this project has been a blast from the very start, and I suspect the real fun part is just beginning.

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?

Good-night.
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!