Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Venusberg

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?"

Thursday, February 19, 2015

In spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball

It was -6° when I left the house this morning. It was still dark. I was wearing a balaclava over most of my face, which meant I had to take off my steamed-up glasses, so the world through which I trudged to the train was a bit vague. It was no great loss: the hip-high mounds of two-week-old snow are showing their age, and the salt stains on the pavements call to mind the last days of Carthage. Winter grips mercilessly.

Yet I take some comfort from the fact that this week also marks the beginning of spring. Oh, not in any climatic sense--it's a spiritual one: for right now, pitchers and catchers are making their way to camps. In Florida and Arizona, catchers are lacing up shinguards and pitchers are playing long-toss. Baseball is on its way.



{Photos by rocketlass.}

I don't write a lot about baseball here, simply because I don't read all that many baseball books. But it's a constant in my life, the reliable background of every spring and summer. In April, after our annual Opening Day party, we attend to it closely: we'll have the radio on when we're cooking, turn on a random game on the TV while folding laundry. It's new and alive again, and we can't get enough. By May, it recedes: Cardinals radio broadcasts hum along in the background while I'm writing, and we'll wander to the ballpark every couple of weeks, but the majority of the season from that point is experienced more casually, through checking in on scores and trawling for highlights.

It's that very dailiness that makes baseball the perfect sport for me. You don't have to pay too much attention to any one game, because there will be another tomorrow. That's part of why actually going to the ballpark is such a pleasure, too: even for a serious fan, it's a fundamentally casual experience--and that casualness throws the moments of genuine surprise and drama that do emerge into strong relief. I've got a book of scorecards upstairs from ten years or so of games, and even if I were to flip through it, the number of games I would genuinely recall would be tiny. But I remember moments: Orlando Palmeiro leaping against the ivy to make a game-saving catch; Kerry Wood, seemingly firing nothing but fastballs, outdueling Roger Clemens at Wrigley on a beautiful summer afternoon; Jim Edmonds skywalking the wall to backhand a would-be home run ball.

In some ways, the meaningless games are baseball. If you want to play in October, you've got to go out and get the work done every damn day in April, May, and so on. It's what makes baseball most like life, or like an ordinary job. The same is true for the long arcs of its careers: I learned more about aging from watching Jim Edmonds fight the fading of his incredible talent than I've ever learned from Philip Roth.

But then there are those days when you go to the ballpark and you experience magic. Being reminded of one of those yesterday is what sent me down this path: September 21, 1997, the final home game of a dismal Cubs season. The team had opened the year with fourteen straight losses, and they were easily the worst team I've watched regularly. And I was watching regularly: that spring, I'd returned from a sojourn as a bookseller in London and taken a job at a bookstore in Evanston, the first job I'd ever had that didn't have a fixed end point in sight, and the first time when that job was my only obligation. I was, finally, an adult for real, trying to build a life to go with my job (in a way that no one describes better than Anthony Powell in the early volumes of Dance)--which meant choosing what that adult life would contain. Perhaps the only choice that was as easy as books was baseball.

So by the time late September rolled around, the idea of spending one last beautiful early autumn day at the ballpark, even watching that utterly forgettable Cubs team, was irresistible. Accompanied by three friends (two of whom would go on to careers working for or writing about baseball), I watched the most meaningless of games: a pointless contest between the Cubs and another last-place team, the Phillies. It was Ryne Sandberg's last home game, but even that felt almost like an afterthought, as if we'd already all made our peace with his leaving way back when he announced his retirement. No, this was simply a day to be out at the ballpark. We wandered from section to section, seeing the game from different angles--and at one point getting shooed from the far left field corner of the upper deck, which wasn't needed for this far-from-capacity crowd. (Yes, we'd gone there in part so that one of my friends could sneak a smoke.) As the Cubs offense came to life, hanging 11 runs on the Phillies, it was baseball pleasure at its purest: being at a game simply to be at a game.

Then the ninth inning arrived, and, unexpectedly, it got better. I'll let Ted Cox of the Chicago Reader, whose account of that day is worth reading in full, tell it:
There had to be 20,000 people still in the stands; the bleachers were full right up to the center-field scoreboard. . . . They had stayed to cheer a 66-90 team and to exact the last bittersweet drops of pleasure from the baseball season on the north side. That is what I had come to the game for, to get all there was to be gotten of baseball at Wrigley Field this year, but I had no idea so many other fans felt the same way.
With everyone standing, the Cubs hauled in the last out . . . and then we didn't leave. We didn't plan to stay . . . we just didn't go. Again, Ted Cox tells it better than I could:
Even after the last out no one went anywhere. The Cubs lined up to shake hands with each other, as they do after every victory, and then gathered on the pitching mound as if to decide how to respond to this crowd of 20,000 crazies who wouldn't be vacated. What they did was march first to one side of the screen behind home plate, near the visitors' dugout, and shake hands and throw a few caps into the stands, and then to the other side of the screen to do the same, before descending into their dugout and their clubhouse. Sosa took one last longing look at his loyalists in the right-field bleachers, then suddenly dropped his glove and went sprinting out there at full speed, the way he does at the start of each game. Let's leave the season right there, with Sammy Sosa tracing a rapid, graceful arc near the right-field wall and 20,000 Cubs fans insisting that no 90 losses--that's 90 this year, and 86 last year, and 89 seasons without a championship--are enough to chase them away.
What Cox doesn't note is what's stayed with me most powerfully: eventually, the organist began playing "Auld Lang Syne," and we all sang. Baseball was leaving us once more, but it would be back.

Nearly twenty years have passed since that game. I've seen hundreds of games since then, and thousands more have hummed along in the background as I've taken the little and big steps that together build an adult life. I'm a different person in some ways than I was that day in 1997, but I'm still in touch with those friends, and I'm still in love with the game.

As I braved the bite of the cold this morning, thinking about baseball, I remembered a line from Thoreau's journals, and it was true: "I felt the winter breaking up in me."

It's almost time again. Let's play ball.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Up and away with The Once and Future King

Most readers won't come to Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk quite the way I did: fresh off reading books by and about T. H. White, whose account of mostly failing to tame a goshawk, The Goshawk serves as a sort of model, doppelganger, and nemesis throughout both Macdonald's book and the experience it chronicles: learning to train a goshawk while at the same time coping with the unexpected death of her father. If you've just been reading White--and are still abuzz with what a complicated, difficult, compelling, often difficult, and mostly unhappy man he was--the book is incredibly powerful: you see Macdonald struggling not just with the hawk, and with her own history and personality and emotions, but with White's, too, with his shortcomings and achievements, and, perhaps foremost, his loneliness. The result is captivating, a moving book that makes you understand the appeal of this relationship with something utterly alien and other, and, if it doesn't make you share White's and Macdonald's obsession, at least enables you to understand it.

I picked up H is for Hawk when I was in London: having already bought nine other books, I was sure I was finished overloading my suitcase--but then two different friends told me it was the best thing they'd read all year, an assessment that jibed with the shower of accolades the book received, so I broke down. As usual when I buy a book on the recommendation of a friend, I'm glad I did. Those of you who are Stateside should be able to get it early next month; consider this my recommendation.

Today, I'll share a passage that I still can't quite believe--it's simply too unexpected, too close to perfect in its strange dislocations of space, time, and experience. Here's Macdonald, early on, when she's just started telling the reader a bit about her youthful obsession with White's The Goshawk:
A few years ago I met a retired U2 pilot. He was tall, flinty and handsome and had just the right kind of deadly stillness you'd expect from a man who'd spent years flying at the edge of space in a dusty-black American spy plane. The geopolitical aspects of his role were truly disconcerting. But as a day job it was absurdly cool. At eighty thousand feet the world curves deep below you and the sky above is wet black ink. You're wearing a spacesuit, confined to a cockpit the size of a bathtub, piloting a machine that first flew the year James Dean died. You cannot touch the world, just record it. You have no weapons; your only defence is height. But as I talked with this man what impressed me the most weren't his dead-pan tales of high adventure, the "incidents" with Russian MiGs and so on, but his battle against boredom. The nine-hour solo missions. The twelve-hour solo missions. "Wasn't that horrendous?" I asked. "It could get a little lonely up there," he replied. But there was something about how he said it that made it sound a state still longed-for. And then he said something else. "I used to read," he said, unexpectedly, and with that his face changed, and his voice, too: his deadpan Yeager drawl slipped, was replaced by a shy, childlike enthusiasm. "The Once and Future King. By T. H. White," he said. "Have you heard of him? He's an English writer. It's a great book. I used to take that up, read it on the way out and the way back."

"Wow," I said. "Yes." Because this story struck me as extraordinary, and it still does. Once upon a time there was a man in a spacesuit in a secret reconnaissance plane reading The Once and Future King, that great historical epic, that comic, tragic, romantic retelling of the Arthurian legend that tussles with questions of war and aggression, and might, and right, and the matter of what a nation is or might be.
A man on the edge of space, reading a book rooted in a largely imaginary past, conjured up to comfort and explain amid a world ever more new and strange, a book that explicitly grapples with questions of morality, force, war, and loyalty as if they were as new as the world, and as essential as anything. Amazing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nabokov the bad Samaritan?

A tip from Dan Visel sent me to the library today, where I secured a couple of volumes of Guy Davenport's letters. The most immediately interesting was the one from 2007 collecting his correspondence with New Directions founder James Laughlin, a figure who's long been of interest to this blog. Even a cursory flip through the book offered up some gems, like this passage from Davenport:
Both Hemingway's tight style and D. H. Lawrence's sloppy one are now in the attic. Neither had any sense of humor whatsoever; this tells a lot. The Terribly Serious writer is serious in relation to his age and the eternal verities wear very different clothes from one age to the next.
And there's a line from Laughlin that I'll never forget:
Shadow are useful in love poems.
The most striking discovery thus far, though, is a brief, almost tossed-off story Laughlin shares about Vladimir Nabokov in a letter from July 30, 1989:
You're so right about Nabokov. He had beautiful manners but his blood was icy. One day that summer when he was staying with me in the mountains of Utah he came in for dinner and told me that he had heard what sounded like groaning in Grizzly Gulch. What was it? He hadn't gone to investigate because he was chasing a lepidopteroid he had never seen before. Next day some hikers found the body of an old prospector who had fallen in the steep gulch and cracked open his head and bled to death.
Davenport doesn't seem to take the story very seriously, replying only
I forget what I said about Nabokov. I think the old prospector was lucky to be desamaritanized by him.
Now, even if one, not necessarily unreasonably, wants to more or less let Nabokov off the hook here (Was he sure about what he was hearing? Would we all definitely have investigated, butterflies or no?), it's odd that the story seems never to have gone anywhere beyond Laughlin. It doesn't appear in Brian Boyd's biography, and while I initially thought that could be an artifact of timing, as the Laughlin letter wasn't published until 2007, sixteen years after Boyd's book, I later found a slightly different version of it, also credited to Laughlin, though (at least so far as I can tell from Google Books) without explicit footnoting, in Clifton Fadiman's 1989 anthology The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (which was picked up verbatim by Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes in 2000).

But that's basically it: the literary world, which generally is ready to hyperventilate over any Nabokov-related news, seems to have completely missed this chilling-if-true story. And while a single-source anecdote is always eligible for substantial discounting, Laughlin would seem tough to impeach: while the pair had their differences over the years, Laughlin was nonetheless one of Nabokov's biggest supporters, and while there may have been an edge to their interpersonal relationship, it's hard to imagine him inventing such a damning story out of whole cloth.

The anecdote has lived on, it seems, in one way--and this is perhaps the strangest part of the whole story. A search on "Nabokov prospector gulch" turns up . . . sermons. Laughlin's story has, it seems, been folded into standard sermons on selfishness, become one of those brief bits of filler that a desperate minister might turn to when his text needs some fleshing out. Could there be a more bizarre outcome of this tale?