Wednesday, April 15, 2015


If I get myself organized--an "if" that this spring seems cacklingly determined to foil--this will be but the seed of a proper post down the line, but for now,  here's a brief quote that represents a conjunction of interests. As my mile-long walk to the train shifts from winter drudgery to birdsong-charmed pleasure, it's the perfect time to read Matthew Beaumont's Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London--and, specifically, his account of Dickens's legendary night roaming:
The nighttime journey on foot to Gad's Hill Place, driven by an acute sense of anguish and guilt, took Dickens little more than seven hours. He was a fast walker, who took pride in the fact that he could sustain a pace of at least four miles an hour across long distances. His friends, indeed, frequently complained of the speed and impatience with which he walked. "Sometimes his perspiring companions gave way to blisters and breathlessness," writes [Edgar Johnson,] one of his biographers. He himself was boastful of his feats as a pedestrian. "So much of my travelling is done on foot," he professed in 1860, "that if I cherished betting propensities, I should probably found be found registered in sporting newspapers under some such title as the Elastic Novice, challenging all eleven stone mankind to competition in walking."
Dickens was a night walker--"The streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark, dull, murky winter's night," he once wrote--but I am a morning walker. And 'tis the season for morning walking: the sun is now, finally, my companion once again, and it makes all the difference.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

John Aubrey gets gross

With baseball beckoning, today I'll just share a couple of bits from Ruth Scurr's wonderful new John Aubrey biography-as-diary, John Aubrey: My Own Life. I wrote last week about Scurr's audacious approach; before I quote from the book I'll just remind you that what Scurr is presenting here in Aubrey's voice is mostly drawn from his own writings, with spellings modernized, but that she's likely patched together disparate sources and added some connective or clarifying tissue. If you care to trace her work, the book's notes are helpful (though not as granular as I'd like), and for what it's worth, thus far any time I've tried to find the source lines behind a particularly interesting observation or phrase, I've been able to do so. (Thanks, Google Book Search!)

These entries come from November of 1666, when Aubrey was forty. I'll share abridged versions of three entries that appear consecutively and deal with similar subjects. I'm abridging for maximal disgust!

First, an entry that follows a meeting of the Royal Society that included a report on visits made to the post-Great Fire ruins of St. Paul's to look at the miraculously preserved body of Bishop Braybrook. It had been dislodged from its resting place by the fire, and workmen clearing rubble were charging twopence for a look. "I will go myself," decides Aubrey:
I saw Bishop Braybrook's body. It was like a preserved fish: uncorrupted except for the ears and pudenda, or genitals .It was dry and stiff and would stand on end. It was never embalmed. His belly and stomach were untouched, except for a hole on one side made by the falling debris. I could put my hand in the hole and could see his dried lungs.
Of course, of course: you see a mummified body that's got a hole in it, you're gonna stick your finger in there. Right? (Ewwww.)

Aubrey, who would talk with anyone, asked some questions of the laborers:
They tell me when they took up the leaden coffin of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose sumptuous monument was among those tumbled in to the church, the stink was so great that they took a week to scour themselves of it.
Believe it or not, things gets more disgusting from there. The next entry I'll give you in full:
A little before the Great Conflagration, somebody made a hole in the lead coffin of Dean Colet, which lay above the ground beneath his statue. I remember my friend Mr Wylde and Ralph Greatrex, the mathematical instrument maker, decided to probe the Dean's body through the hole with a piece of iron curtain rod that happened to be near by. They found the body lay in liquor, like boiled brawn. The liquor was clear and insipid: they both tasted it. Mr Wylde said it had something of the taste of iron, but that might have been on account of the iron rod. This was a strange and rare way of conserving a corpse. Perhaps it was a pickle, as for beef. There was no ill smell.
Glad he cleared up that last bit, after the men drank the strange coffin liquid! Good god.

Moments like these, along with accounts of the public display or dissection of hanged criminals, are a reminder of the odd transformation of our attitude toward bodies in the years since Aubrey was poking corpses. Even as--or perhaps because--religious belief has ebbed, our sense that a dead body in some sense retains, and should retain, some rights (of privacy, of inviolability) has grown immensely. I suppose it's largely a result of the combination of a growing awareness (if one that many, perhaps even most, of us kick against) that the physical and the spiritual aren't separate--that the body is not just a vessel, and this world, after all, is our home--combined with our own recent history's growing belief in individual self-determination. Still, even if I can come up with a thumbnail rationalization like that, nonetheless there are few things I've ever read that have made me feel more estranged from the past than these passages.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ruth Scurr on John Aubrey

I'm 100 pages into Ruth Scurr's unusual new biography of John Aubrey (at this point available only from the UK), which has put Aubrey back front and center in my brain. He never strays too far from there, which I suspect is the case with anyone who falls under his spell: Aubrey's magpie eye for odd detail is catching; read a lot of Aubrey and it's hard not to see the world through his eyes, hear the stories of friends with his ear, walk past the remnants of the past on your city block with his antiquarian's interest directing your gaze.

Scurr wins us over with her introduction, which demonstrates that she gets Aubrey:
John Aubrey loved England. . . . From an early age, he saw his England slipping away and committed himself to preserving for posterity what remained of it--in stories, books, monuments and buildings. Aubrey was wonderfully imaginative. By posterity he meant us: people of the future, who would hear his voice through his writing and be grateful for the information he bequeathed. Throughout Aubrey's lifetime, the English were losing assuredness of their identity to a degree not to be repeated till the late twentieth century.
On its own, that could give a false impression of Aubrey as little more than a Colonel Blimp with an antiquarian bent. But such certainty and dismissal weren't in Aubrey's character:
Aubrey exemplifies an English sensibility to be proud of--charming, self-deprecating, moderate in all matters political and religious, learned but never ponderous.
As Anthony Powell--who wrote an underrated biography of Aubrey in an act of postwar throat-clearing before embarking on Dance--noted in his introduction to an edition of the Brief Lives, Aubrey displayed:
Intelligence, modesty, friendliness--and good sense where anyone but himself was concerned. His own writing is the best index to his character. . . . He is notably fair to political opponents, or to persons who had quarrelled with himself or his friends.
Scurr expands on that:
Agnostic and afraid of fanaticism, Aubrey tended always toward tolerance and open-mindedness in his religious and political views. He had both royalist and republican friends. He was close to Protestants, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.
He was fundamentally, to risk wordplay, an interested and disinterested man: someone who listened and collected stories largely as if he personally had nothing at stake--a quality, by the way, that he shares with Powell's Nick Jenkins.

It's good that Scurr earns our trust early, because what she's asking of us as readers is unusual: her book is not a traditional biography, but rather the diary she imagines Aubrey might have written--but a diary that is, crucially, built on Aubrey's own writings. She explains:
In constructing Aubrey's diary, I have used as many as possible of his own words. It is a diary based on the historical evidence; a diary that shows him living vividly, day by day, month by month, year by year, but with necessary gaps where nothing is known about where he was or what he was doing. I have not invented scenes or relationships for him as a novelist would, but neither have I followed the conventions of traditional biography. When he is silent, I do not speculate about where he was or what he was doing or thinking. When he speaks, I have modernised his words and spellings and indicated the original sources in endnotes. I have added words of my own to explain events or interactions that would otherwise be obscure and to frame or offset the charm of Aubrey's own turns of phrase.
In other words, this is a daring book. Biography, often a dreadfully conventional form, is also one that has long been open to experiment, as biographers from Plutarch to Strachey could attest. And if any author lends himself to this sort of patchwork approach, it's Aubrey: his writings were, as Powell notes in his biography, "tumultuarily" assembled, if assembled at all. He published but one book in his lifetime, leaving behind an absolute mare's nest of papers. These days, to be an Aubrey fan means having a nice edition of the Brief Lives on one's shelves alongside, at best, a few hideous print-on-demand editions of the Miscellanies and the Remains of Gentilism and Judaism. To have a biographer who is willing to jigsaw his scrap heap into a readable whole is an unexpected gift.

And yet . . . I find myself wanting to know just a bit more than Scurr's notes give me, thus far. Maybe it's my own odd relationship with quotation: I will admit that when I read these days in the back of my mind is always the question of whether a well-turned phrase would fit on Twitter.  I am, in a sense, always commonplace-booking. (FWIW, I don't think it's harming my reading, but I could be deluding myself.) And Aubrey is a writer I love quoting. So as I'm reading Scurr's book, I keep hitting phrases that stop me in my tracks--like this one, from September 1643, after Osney Abbey, pressed into service as a gunpowder factory during the Civil War, is blown up: "I was fearful the ruins would collapse from neglect, but war has helped them on their way." It reads like Aubrey, certainly--but is it him? There's no note for that paragraph, so I'm assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that the note to the preceding paragraph remains controlling. If so, the source is a volume of letters to Aubrey. So is that phrase his, or--impressively--Scurr's?

What I want would, I realize, be unmarketable: basically an Aubreyan version of a red-letter Bible, where every word that is Aubrey's is marked as such, all interpolations indicated. The result would be clear in its construction, but borderline unreadable. And is that even a reasonable way to read the book? I suspect not, honestly, that it's not fair to Scurr's intentions nor to the quality of the book itself. I suspect I should simply put my desire to quote in abeyance for a few days, and trust to what I see on the page: namely, that Scurr knows what she's doing, and that, whatever paste-up is going on behind the scenes, her work as presented is seamless, and convincing. For in those moments on the train today when the questioning part of my brain unexpectedly slipped into idle, I found myself wholly wrapped up: this feels like Aubrey's voice, and it's incredible. If it were fiction, and built in exactly the same way, I would be in awe. That Scurr is making an additional claim, while being honest about her methods, should add, rather than detract.

In that spirit, I'll close by sharing a passage that I think must come from Aubrey's writings on education, and which Scurr places right after the young Oxford student's rapturous statement, "All this time I am falling deeper and deeper in love with books":
In London, I get lost among the piles of books for sale in St Paul's churchyard; most of them are sold in sheets, but some are already bound. I pick up one after another without any idea where to begin: the books that are bound all look alike. How to tell which will be worth buying with my spare money? I come away empty-handed, overwhelmed, as though the books have become trees again and I am wandering blind in a forest. Back in Dr Bathurst's library, I can explore more calmly; I am starting to find my way.
As am I, I think, through this remarkable book.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Those of you who keep up with Twitter (Who can keep up with Twitter? I mean, I love it, and even find it borderline essential for discovering interesting books, but it doth flow past me like the vasty deep unleashed; I'm lucky to snag a few beautifully polished pieces of driftwood as they idle in eddies.) may have caught an announcement recently that, while minor in the scheme of things, was major for me: I've written a foreword to the new edition of Anthony Powell's Venusberg that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, will publish in October.

This is exciting for me for a couple of reasons. First is probably the most obvious: after years of reading, and thinking about, and writing about Powell--probably 40,000 words or more in this space alone--it's a pleasure to get to have some of those words appear in conjunction with Powell's own. The second reason is that in recent years Venusberg, with its Lubitsch-style whirl of counts and ne'erdowells, has risen substantially in my estimation. It now vies with Afternoon Men to be my favorite of Powell's non-Dance novels. (As Powell himself put it in his memoirs, the reviews were "well-disposed," with the "habitual undercurrent of disapproval from those who disliked books being 'modern.'" Several critics, Powell, noted, "commented that the stiff hurdle of a second novel had been satisfactorily cleared." Which is a very Powell way to put it.)

I'll leave more detailed commentary on the book to the foreword itself. Instead, I'll point you to two earlier times when I wrote about it, because both posts include bits from or about the book that I think you'll find entertaining. The first quotes an extended discussion between Venusberg's protagonist, Lushington, and the not wholly self-effacing butler he's saddled with in his new journalistic posting, Pope. It belongs in the upper ranks of butler comedy. The second goes into the publishing history of the book a bit, via a collection of letters between Powell and the New York bookstore owner who decided to bring the book out in the States in 1952. That post is worth reading, I promise, for the quote from a letter from a disgruntled reader.

Up next: the cover, which should be available soon, and is lovely. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Boswell and Johnson at the bar

I've been spending a lot of casual, here and there reading time with Boswell and Johnson lately. Three volumes--the Oxford World's Classics selection of Johnson's writing, Boswell's Life, and Boswell's London journal--have been alongside whatever chair I'm reading in reliably for months now, dipped into for a page here, a page there, when I'm between books or need a break. I suspect there are few other trios of books that are so reliably rewarding.

Today it was the London journal, which offers us Boswell unbuttoned, unashamed of what he is even as he continually lays fruitless plans to become better. I opened it at random to a pair of entries that could, in a pinch, stand in for the whole experience of reading the journal. The first is from July 14, 1763:
When we went into the Mitre tonight, Mr. Johnson said, "We will not drink two bottles of port." When one was drank, he called for another pint; and when we had got to the bottom of that, and I was distributing it equally, "Come," said he, "you need not measure it so exactly." "Sir," said I, "it is done." "Well, Sir," said he, "are you satisfied? or would you choose another?" "Would you, Sir?" said I. "Yes," said he, "I think I would. I think two bottles would seem toe be the quantity for us." Accordingly we made them out.

I take pleasure in recording every little circumstance about so great a man as Mr. Johnson. This little specimen of social pleasantry will serve me to tell as an agreeable story to literary people. He took me cordially by the hand and said, "My dear Boswell! I do love you very much."--I will be vain, there's enough.

FRIDAY 15 JULY. A bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and a very inflammatory dose. I felt it last time that I drank it for several days, and this morning it was boiling in my veins. Dempster came and saw me, and said I had better be palsied at eighteen than not to keep company with such a man as Johnson.
A little too much to drink

{Photos by rocketlass.}

The break between days there works as effectively as a comic cut in a TV show: we see Boswell drunk and happy, cut to black, then see him hungover and groaning. I admire him for recalling so clearly--and so convincingly--the drunken finickiness about measuring out the port, and the later descent into maudlin sentiment. We have, most of us, been that exact drunk at some point.

Boswell was, to be fair, at a disadvantage. Though Johnson in later life gave up drinking, he is thought to have had (in part based on his own claims) an impressive capacity in his early life. One bottle may have been enough to wreck Boswell's head, but in the Life Johnson boasts that he would face no such risk:
Talking of drinking wine, he said, "I did not leave off wine because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this." Boswell: "Why then, Sir, did you leave it off?" Johnson: "Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself."
Johnson's line of argument jibes with another discussion of alcohol in the Life, this one involving Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter:
We discussed the question whether drinking improved conversation and benevolence. Sir Joshua maintained it did. Johnson: "No, Sir: before dinner men meet with great inequality of understanding; and those who are conscious of their inferiority, have the modesty not to talk. When they have drunk wine, every man feels himself happy, and loses that modesty, and grows impudent and vociferous: but he is not improved; he is only not sensible of his defects."
That calls to mind an anecdote from after Johnson gave up drinking, found in Boswell, but retold in the version I'm quoting here by Reynolds's biographer Frederick Sanders Pulling. Pulling leaves out Johnson's opening sally, as reported by Boswell, who at the time was (briefly) sticking to water: "Boswell is a bolder combatant than Sir Joshua: he argues for wine without the help of wine; but Sir Joshua with it." From there, however, Pulling offers a good summary:
Never did he tire of inveighing against wine, and any one who ventured to argue the point with him got a severe rebuff. Witness the poor man who innocently suggested that at all events drinking made one forget disagreeable things. "Would you not," he mildly inquired, "allow a man to drink for that reason?" "Yes, sir," grunted Johnson, "if he sat next you." To such an inveterate hater of wine, even Reynolds's moderation was excess; and on one occasion, when the painter had urged that "to please one's company was a strong motive," Johnson, having no answer ready, retorted rudely with "I won't argue any more with you, sir--you are too far gone." Reynolds's rebuke is calmly dignified: "I should have thought so indeed, sir, had I made such a speech as you have now done." This was enough. Johnson, "drawing himself in, and I really thought blushing," says Boswell, "replies, 'Nay, don't be angry--I did not mean to offend you.'"
The rare sight of Johnson realizing he's gone too far, and embarrassed by it, I find deeply touching, a reminder of the powerful humanity and unexpected gentleness and even vulnerability that truly do seem to have been hidden deep beneath his obstreperous, self-confident presentation.

Since port is what we first poured in this post, it would be wrong not to close with Johnson's most famous words on that drink, also found in Boswell's Life:
Johnson harangued upon the qualities of different liquors; and spoke with great contempt of claret, as so weak, that "a man would be drowned by it before it made him drunk." He was persuaded to drink one glass of it, that he might judge, not from recollection, which might be dim, but from immediate sensation. He shook his head, and said, "Poor stuff! No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him. There are, indeed, few who are able to drink brandy. That is a power rather to be wished for than attained."
I do not need my readers to be heroes, so you should feel free to raise a glass of whatever suits your fancy: here's to Boswell and the Doctor. May they be read for centuries more.

at the violet hour

Monday, March 16, 2015

A genius for friendship

Vera Brittain's memoir of Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship, achieves what any biographer wants--and even more, what any biographer of a friend wants: it makes us believe that we know what it was like to be around its subject, to feel that we've encountered her actual life force. In Holtby's case, it seems to have been a potent, energetic, effusive life force, extinguished by disease far too young. This is a book that earns the term of its title: while far from a hagiography, it's nonetheless a true testament, a tribute as much as a portrait.

Tonight I'll share a few paragraphs that succinctly show Brittain's approach while at the same time revealing a key aspect of Holtby's character:
Since Winifred died, many people have wondered where exactly her genius for friendship lay. It came, I think, from an instinctive skill in the art of human relationship which most of us acquire only after years of blunder and quarrelsome pain. St. John Ervine has said that she saw her radiance in other people, and this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that few individuals are jet black or even neutral grey; most of them possess their own radiance, their peculiar glamour, if the beholder's eye is benevolent enough to discern it. Winifred realised that the desire to "be good" is a fundamental part of each normal person's make-up. It may be overlaid by pessimism, camouflaged by cynicism, transformed by bitterness, but the observer who perceives it beneath the trappings can usually count on a gracious response.

Winifred had an infallible consciousness of the other person's standpoint; usually she put her friends' wishes first and her own second. When she wrote letters she invariably began by referring to her correspondents' interests and problems. If she answered the telephone she always replied, however disastrously the call had interrupted her, as though the speaker at the other end were the one person whom she wanted to hear. In conversation she seldom discussed her own troubles; she encouraged other people to talk about theirs. She was never offended; she seemed to be quite without the apparatus of sensitive pride and vulnerable dignity used by the person who lacks confidence to defend his ego against a world of which he is deeply suspicious. Meanness and irrationality were the only qualities that she feared, and she always took for granted that people were generous and rational until they had proved beyond doubt that her trust was misplaced.

When, very occasionally, someone did her a service, she promptly expressed her delighted appreciation; her very surprise (for she was not without her own brand of cynicism) added to its spontaneous sincerity. Although, especially in her last years, she had a marked capacity for trenchant criticism, she seldom criticised individuals for their conduct, and only then after the most thorough search for extenuating circumstances. She never committed the deadly sin of undermining another person's self-confidence, for she knew that self-confidence takes half a lifetime to build up but can be destroyed in half an hour.
Most of this is far from complicated--it's what we try to remind ourselves to do: listen, ask questions, pay attention, care about the people we careen about with in this life. But all too often we fail to do so; the self is too seductive and distracting. Holtby, it seems, managed it, and did so with a grace and ease that made it seem natural. To do that and while managing to write several novels, be a well-regarded journalist, and be politically active (and effectively so), well, that's the mark of a rare person. No wonder Brittain felt her loss so keenly.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Books at the bus stop

It's not fair to winter to blame it for our woes, but woes we have and winter we have, so I'll fall in line and let it take the blame. Blogging has suffered along with overall morale. But today . . . today we saw sun, and temperatures such that a coatless walk to the library at lunch brought no Boswell-style self-recriminations for impulsiveness. So perhaps hope is reasonably in order?

That said, I'm still a bit behind-hand in almost everything, so I'll place-hold for a few more days. I spent much of last week falling under the spell of Winifred Holtby's 1936 novel of English village life and government, South Riding, on the recommendation of Proustitute and Rohan Maitzen. Dog-eared pages remind me that I intend to write properly about it soon, but for now I'll just share a pleasant moment: as I was standing at the bus stop reading the novel--which I think it's fair to say is all but unknown in the States--another of the regular habitues of my stop saw it, and, smiling, said, "It's not common to come across another Winifred Holtby fan."

To top off this brief, cheering moment of transit communion, a few days later he lent me Vera Brittain's book about her friendship with Holtby, Testament of Friendship. And as I flipped through it, a passage in Carolyn Heilbrun's introduction brought things back around to the writer who has probably drawn my thoughts most frequently through the winter, Virginia Woolf:
Holtby admired the work of Virginia Woolf, still, of course, in progress when Holtby died [in 1939]. Her criticism is notable for being the work of a contemporary woman; it is considerably more intelligent than most of the Woolf criticism produced before 1960. Holtby, for example, recognized, as no one was to do again for many years, that Jacob's Room was a war book: "It is as much a war book as The Death of a Hero or Farewell to Arms; yet it never mentions trenches, camps, recruiting officers, nor latrines. It does not describe the hero's feelings on the eve of battle; not an inch of barbed wire decorates its foreground. . . . She could not know in what terms Tommies referred to their sergeant-major nor what it feels like to thrust a bayonet through a belly. What she did know, what she could imagine, was what life looked like to those young men who in 1914 and 1915 crossed the Channel and vanished out of English life forever."
And now I want to go read some of Holtby's criticism . . .

Monday, March 02, 2015

Old style, James Laughlin goes above and beyond.

I know the default stance among publishing people is to look back at the early-to-mid-century golden era and lament what's been lost, but then I read a passage like the following from Ian S. MacNiven's new biography of New Directions founder James Laughlin, and I think, good god, I'm glad that my job has boundaries:
He argued over Fascism and anti-semitism with Pound, and scolded Henry Miller for his obscenity and his pecuniary fecklessness; he was raucously denounced by Kenneth Rexroth for publishing "fairies like Tennessee Williams," and cursed by Edward Dahlberg for printing nearly everyone but himself; he sought advice from paranoiac Delmore Schwartz, bought ballet shoes for Celine's wife, paid Kenneth Patchen's medical bills, went to the morgue to identify Dylan Thomas, helped Nabokov with his lepidopterology, meticulously arranged into the acclaimed Asian Journal the chaos of notes that his friend Merton left behind after his tragic electrocution, dined with Octavio Paz at the Century, and discovered Paul Bowles, Denise Levertov, and John Hawkes.
Now, to be clear, some of the activities on that list are close to ordinary, while others are honorable, and contributed substantially to the good of readers. But oh, how glad I am not to be in a position where someone I'm working with thinks it reasonable for me to buy his wife ballet shoes!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Time for some Jacobean slang!

Peter Ackroyd's multi-volume History of England series has reached the English Civil War, a period I know primarily through the not-always-reliable lenses of John Aubrey and John Milton. Like nearly of Ackroyd's histories, it's a book for a reader rather than a scholar--trying to trace Ackroyd's sources, in the absence of notes or a proper bibliography, would be all but impossible. But for a lay reader, his rich fund of anecdote and quotation is, as always, a great pleasure.

My two favorite individual details thus far are, first, the fact that the people used to call Lord Buckingham, Charles I's much-loathed right hand, Lord Fuckingham, and, second, that James I, sick with gout and a "shrewd case of the stone," having heard that deer's blood was good for the health, would sit with his feet stuffed inside the bloody carcass of a newly killed deer. (To which I say, respectively, Of course they did, and, shades of Luke Skywalker and the tauntaun there.)

Tonight, though, I'll share some Jacobean slang that Ackroyd has harvested from Ben Jonson's "teeming" play of London life, Bartholomew Fair:
A "hobby-horse" was a prostitute. An "undermeal" was a light snack. To "stale" was to urinate. When one character discloses that "we were all a little stained last night," he means that they were drunk. "Whimsies" were the female genitalia. A "diet-drink" was medicine. A Catholic recusant was derided as "a seminary."
Some words ripe for revival there, methinks! You could use "stained" in that context today without, I expect, having to explain. "Whimsies," too, if set in a reasonably clear context. "Stale" would require more groundwork, however, while I doubt "undermeal" would ever take--it sounds too much like one of those terms one might innocently search for on the Internet only to discover some thriving and graphically depicted sexual subculture.

So there's your assignment: let's get the usable ones from that list out there in the world, folks. Report back with your successes!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fowlers End

Some books you describe. Others, you shove into a person's hands and say, "Trust me. Just start reading."

Gerald Kersh's Fowler's End (1957) is the latter. So let's briefly pretend I'm still a bookseller, and you're a familiar customer. Open it up--skip past the glossary of Cockney slang for now--and start reading. I'll be over here, slowly making my way to the till to ring you up.
Snoring for air while he sipped and gulped at himself, talking between hastily swallowed mouthfuls of himself, fidgeting with a little blue bottle and a red rubber nose-dropper, Mr. Yudenow said to me, "Who you are, what you are, I duddo. But I like your style, what I bead to say--the way you wet about applyig for this 'ere job. Dishertive, dishertive--if you get what I bead--dishertive is what we wat id show biz. Arf a tick, please--I got to take by drops."
Sorry--I said I wouldn't interrupt, but I cant help it. Let's look at this a bit. That string of gerunds--"snoring," "talking," "fidgeting"--and their accompanying plain-old past-tense friends "sipped" and "gulped" give that opening sentence such momentum. We're well into action, described with apt and unusual verbs, before we even know the where or what or who. And then, while we're still trying--like Yudenow himself--to catch our breath (and get acclimated to this unusual narrative voice), we are without warning presented with another wholly unusual manner of speaking, an idiom rendered even stranger by what we slowly suss out as a stopped up nose. We're one paragraph in, yet it feels like we're already up to our eyes in oddity. Gerald Kersh has grabbed our lapels.

Paragraph two:
He filled the dropper with some pale oily fluid, threw back his head and sniffed; became mauve in the face, gagged, choked; blew into a big silk handkerchief, and then continued, sighing with relief, "Wonderful stuff. It's deadly poison. But it loosens the head." He showed me the contents of his handkerchief, which might have been brains. "Confidentially, catarrh. Yes, I like the way you went about applying for this 'ere job. Millions of people would give their right 'and to manage one of Sam Yudenow's shows--the cream of the biz, the top of the milk!"
Learning that a character is the sort of person who shows a near-stranger the contents of his used handkerchief . . . well, that tells you a lot in a compact way, no?

Let's keep going. This bit comes from the next page, as Yudenow, who runs a silent cinema where your narrator is applying for a job as a manager, is, unprompted, offering a bit of detail about the job. I'm going to quote at unusual length, because the extensiveness of Yudenow's perpetual monologue is part of the point:
"Can you use your 'ands?"

"Box a little," I said.

"You won't need to--don't worry about that. They don't understand that stuff rahnd Fowlers End. If somebody gets rorty and buggers up the show, so come up be'ind 'im like a gentleman; put a stranglehold on 'is thvoat miv the left arm, pick 'im up by the arse from 'is trousers miv the right 'and, and chunk 'im into the Alley--one, two, three!--in peace and quiet. My last manager but two got punch-drunk, kind o' thing, and lost 'is nerve--tried to clean up the Fowlers End Health and Superman Lague miv a fire bucket, and I was the sufferer. Keep order, yes, but leave no marks. I want my managers should be diplomats. Look at Goldwyn, Look at Katz. Odeons they started miv nickels, not knuckles, and you should live to see your children in such a nice position like they got. Remember, the Pantheon don't cater for royalty, and Fowlers End ain't Bond Street--not just yet it ain't.

"In the first place, everybody's unemployed--which is the opium of the people rahnd here. The rest, so they work in factories--which is the scum. Rahnd the corner is the Fowlers End Pipe Factory. They make gas pipes, water pipes--d'you foller? Well, all these loafers do, instead of making pipes, they make coshes: so they'll get a foot of gas pipe and fill it up with lead. One of them threatens you, don't call the police to give the show a bad name. This is a family theater. Warn him. If he 'its you to leave a mark, then the law's on your side. Put the left 'and rahnd his thvoat, the right 'and in the arse of his trousers, and chunk 'im out. And don't give 'im his money back. That is the opium of the working classes. Stand no nonsense if you want to be a showman. . . . Whereas, there's a mob kids from school, so there's a new idear they got. So they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you 'ave it. Discourage 'em. Threaten to tell their teacher. Lay one finger on 'em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children--and I'm the sufferer. . . . It's nothing; like a lion-tamer, just be cool and nobody'll 'urt you. Remember, this ain't the New Gallery in Regent Street, not already, almost."
Ready to shake Yudenow's hand and take over the management of the Pantheon?

I expect a lot of readers reach the end of that passage, and, exhausted, close the book and quietly back away. But if you're like me, you find the sheer kinetic energy of Yudenow's peculiar voice, with his tics and obsessions, as funny and exhilarating as it is wearing, and utterly captivating. If so, you should seek out Fowlers End posthaste (and thanks be to Valancourt Books for bringing it back into print recently): what I've quoted is what you get, page after page after page of it. Oh, it's not all Yudenow--there are other characters, other voices. But they're all oddities, and most of them obsessives, cranks of one kind or another whose combination of self-absorption and logorrhea leads to cascades of words, passionate outpourings in little need of interlocutors.

There's a plot, of sorts, or rather a couple of them, but they barely raise the book above the level of a picaresque; Kersh makes little pretense to caring about anything beyond watching these lunatics buzz around each other, self-obsessed and yammering. Fowlers End is all about the peculiar power of words, and the pleasures of attending to the nuances of a deformed personal argot. The manic intensity recalls Tristram Shandy, some of the stranger rhapsodies in Moby-Dick, and the explanations from Casi's clients in A Naked Singularity, but its closest spiritual kin are the novels of Charles Portis. Portis's best books are more successful than Fowlers End--at no point in reading Portis did I ever want to put a book down to rest, which I think is inevitable even for a reader who loves Fowlers End--but like Fowlers End they exist largely as vessels for unforgettable voices relating strange obsessions. Portis's cranks are a bit more of the idee fixe sort, and their obsessions are essentially an armor against the world, whereas Fowler's characters are firing a barrage of words into the world to clear a space for themselves. Down at heel in a place luck left long ago, they're using the only tool they have--pell-mell personality poured into words--to try to get back up. Fowlers End is far from serious, but there's nonetheless a moving quality to the tenacity of its characters. Rejection will never, ever take with this crowd, so long as they still have words with which to protest.

Have I sold you? If you're teetering, I recommend digging up a copy and opening it at random. Like so:
"Have you eaten bubble-and-squeak?"

I had. If you are very young and desperately hungry you can eat it practically without nausea. In Soho, in the small hours, the cafe proprietors used to give it away--this being a benevolent way of cleaning their kitchens. It is made as follows: Procure leftover potatoes. Add to them anything you like which, somehow, always happens to be yesterday's cabbage. Take a heavy instrument--any heavy instrument--and beat this mixture without mercy until it is quite flat. Put the resultant cake into a pan which you are heating to burn off coagulations of old fat. Fry until you can no longer see through a blue haze. Then give it to a passer-by. He will, most likely, hurl it into the street, thus saving you the cost of an extra garbage bin. When cold, a portion of bubble-and-squeak can be thrown a great distance, like a discus, and has been known ot inflict grievous bodily harm--for which purpose it is better than brickbats or bottles because, if charged, the thrower can always plead: "I was only offering him a midnight snack." Bubble-and-squeak has been known by various nicknames, such as "poor man's leavings," and "lump-in-the-stomach," and "constipation tart." I did not dare to tell Sam Yudenow that I could write a brochure about bubble-and-squeak and its various uses--I felt that if I did so, he would tell me where to find the pencil and put me to work at once.
A trained salesman, I return to the key question: have I sold you? Oh, good. I'll let another character close the deal, then:
"My cut, if you like, will be: Terms to Be Mutually Agreed. Gentleman's agreement. . . . Happen, by any chance, to have a spare white handkerchief?"