Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Fashionable parents

My mother enjoyed claiming direct descent from Genghis Khan. Having asserted that one eighth of her blood was Tarter and only seven eighths of it “ordinary Russian,” with a panache that no one else could have pulled off she proceeded to drop a few names in the chronology of our lineage: Kublai Khan, Tamerlane, and then the great Mogul monarch Babur, from whose favorite Kirghiz concubine my great-grandmother was descended, and voila!, our ancestry was established.

That’s where Francine du Plessix Gray opens, Them: A Memoir of Parents, her biography of her mother and stepfather, and that mix of mystery, glamour, falsehood, and determination characterize remain the pair’s signature throughout. Gray’s mother, Tatiana Iacovleva, an immigrant from Russia by way of wartime France, was from the 1940s through the 1960s known as Tatiana of Saks, her hats on all the right heads in that last golden era of women’s hats. Gray’s stepfather, Alex Liberman, was in the same period art director of Vogue, later moving up the Conde Nast chain to editorial director. Between them, they were a force in the mid-century fashion world, exuding confidence and seeming to be a perfect couple, devoted to each other and to their daughter.

Unsurprisingly, Them is about a privileged child growing to realize that Tatiana and Alex weren’t that good at parenting after all. Appearance was everything, and they were far more interested in each other, their careers, and their lavish parties—thrown at a scale beyond their means to a truly Russian degree—than in parenting. Unwilling to consider anyone’s needs but her own, and supported in her self-centeredness by her doting husband, Tatiana refused to handle even the most essential duties of parenting. She even abdicated the responsibility of telling Francine that her father had been killed in the war, forcing the babysitter to do so—and that only after he’d been dead for more than a year.

A memoir of bad parenting by a child of privilege is nothing new. But because Gray is impressively honest and sympathetic, and the milieu in which her parents moved varied and interesting, Them becomes as bewitching as the couple at its center. She’s not after revenge or self-justification, but answers and understanding. Why did she love her parents? Why does she still love them? What made them such fashion—and social—successes, and such failures at family life? In attempting to answer these questions for herself paints her parents so clearly that we are simultaneously appalled and captivated.

As important as Gray’s unflinching honesty is her eye for a good story, and what really makes Them is its profusion of well-told anecdotes and portraits of friends and relatives, famous and obscure. Marlene Dietrich, Tatiana’s best friend in the 1960s, cooks for Francine in a thigh-length t-shirt and not a stitch more, as she inadvertently reveals when reaching for a pot. Then there’s an editor-in-chief at Vogue in the 1950s, who at parties
used to absentmindedly chew canap├ęs through the veils of the little black hats she always wore, creating a gooey mess of tuna fish or chopped liver, her hat gradually descending upon her face until she realized her gaffe and ran into the nearest bathroom, moaning, to clean up.

And the friend of Tatiana from Saks who was given to issuing fashion predictions along these lines: “The toreador look! Small heads are in this fall.” Or the time that
I came home from church with my children and found that [Tatiana] had swept some two inches of snow from my driveway into my living room, entirely covering the floor, and was now busy sweeping it out. “What’s happening?” I cried out. She put her broom down and, hands on hips, turned her most disdainful glance on me. “Didn’t you know that this is the only way to clean rugs? That’s how we did it in Russia.”

which echoes an earlier story of melting snow, from Tatiana’s aunt in pre-revolutionary Russia:
Aunt Sandra’s years as a young opera star in Russia yielded an anecdote that I bade her repeat innumerable times throughout my childhood: “I’d just sung Aida in St. Petersburg, it was after a huge snowstorm,” she’d tell me, “I dressed in a rush to go to a grand bal, and as I waited for my carriage my escort made me laugh so hard that I pee-peed in my pants, the snow underneath me melted, and clouds of steam rose all around me.”

Woven throughout the narrative, these odd, magical-sounding stories flesh out the world inhabited by Tatiana and Alex, bringing it all to vivid life. It's a testament to Gray's skill that, though I didn't like this frequently appalling couple, I was glad I'd spent time with them and learned their stories, and I understood why their daughter loved them and continued to struggle with their memory.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Elementary

From Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (1891), collected in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
"And the murderer?"

"Is a tall man, left-handed, limps with the right leg, wears thick-soled shooting boots and a grey cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar-holder, and carries a blunt penknife in his pocket. There are several other indications, but these may be enough to aid us in our search."
If you've ever read any Holmes stories, you didn't even need me to identify the quotation. No other fictional creation could be so rapid, certain, and detailed, while at the same time suggesting that what he's revealed is only the tip of the iceberg.
"We have got to the deductions and the inferences," said Lestrade, winking at me. "I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies."

"You are right," said Holmes demurely; "you do find it hard to tackle the facts."
Stacey and I have been reading Holmes stories aloud to each other on car trips for seven or eight years now. We don't read one on every trip—too often on winter trips we're leaving work right before sundown—but we've gotten through a fair number. We were reading from three or four Oxford World's Classics editions, but on the publication a year or so ago of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, we decided to start over at the beginning. We've therefore still got a lot of unread stories ahead of us.

Holmes stories are just about perfect for reading aloud in the car. (My coworker Carrie said she had recently suggested to her husband that they read aloud from Macbeth, but that's of necessity a two-person, home-based activity—too many parts to keep track of with a lone voice. And too much blood for a rental car.) The plots clip along, the dialogue is just stilted enough that one person can read each character's dialogue with reasonable conviction, and Holmes's arrogance rears its charming head often enough that the reading doesn't get monotonous, broken as it is by astonished laughter from reader and listener.

And there seem to be just enough stories, too. Just enough stories that, in fifty, sixty, seventy years of marriage, we could run through them again and again—but not so often that they get repetitive. The plots will become more familiar, but we're really reading for Holmes and Watson, and they, like a good marriage itself, should only become more comfortable—and comforting—with repetition. Watson's wife could be speaking to us all when she argues, in response to his worries that he might be too busy to travel on a case with Holmes:
"You have been looking a little pale lately. I think the change would do you good, and you are always so interested in Mr. Sherlock Holmes's cases."

R.I.P. Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006)

From Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961)
What did [the word home] mean to me? Earth? I thought of the great bustling cities where I would wander and lose myself, and I thought of them as I had thought of the ocean [of Solaris] on the second or third night, when I had wanted to throw myself upon the dark waves. I shall immerse myself among men. I shall be silent and attentive, an appreciative companion. There will be many acquaintances, friends, women—and perhaps even a wife. For a while, I shall have to make a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand, and perform the thousands of little gestures which constitute life on Earth, and then those gestures will become reflexes again. I shall find new interests and occupations; and I shall not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody. Perhaps at night I shall stare up at the dark nebula that cuts off the light of the twin suns, and remember everything, even what I am thinking now. With a condescending, slightly rueful smile I shall remember my follies and my hopes. And this future Kelvin will be no less worthy a man than the Kelvin of the past, who was prepared for anything in the name of an ambitious enterprise called Contact. Nor will any man have the right to judge me.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

A writer's purpose

From Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave (1951)
The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious though this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.

Every excursion into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, will be doomed to disappointment. To put our best into these is another folly, since thereby we condemn good ideas as well as bad to oblivion. It is in the nature of such work not to last, and it should never be undertaken . Writers engrossed in any literary task which is not an assault on perfection are their own dupes and, unless these self-flatterers are content to dismiss such activity as their contribution to the war effort, they might as well be peeling potatoes.

From Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891), collected in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
He had stood behind that tree during the interview between the father and son. He had even smoked there. I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enabled me to pronounce as an Indian cigar. I have, as you know, devoted some attention to this, and written a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco.

From Herman Melville’s "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853), collected in The Piazza Tales
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.

. . . .

[Several days later] I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.

“Why, how now? what next?” exclaimed I, “do no more writing?”

“No more.”

“And what is the reason?”

“Do you not see the reason for yourself?” he indifferently replied.

From Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave (1951)
The goal of every culture is to decay through overcivilization; the factors of decadence, luxury, skepticism, weariness, and superstition,—are constant. The civilization of one epoch becomes the manure of the next.

. . . .

Yet to live in a decadence need not make us despair. It is but one technical problem the more which a writer has to solve.

Note 40, by editor Leslie S. Klinger, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891), collected in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
Holmes first mentioned his monograph, without disclosing the actual title, in A Study in Scarlet. He refers to it again in The Sign of Four, giving the full title of his monograph as “Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos: An Enumeration of 140 Forms of Cigar, Cigarette, and Pipe Tobacco, with Coloured Plates Illustrating the Difference in the Ash,” and remarks that Francois le Villard of the French detective service was translating the work into his native language.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Footsteps

From thatbob

Funny how certain authors can dog you over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps a contemporary author's choices of subject matter repeatedly echo the chronicles of your own life; or else the works of an author long dead reveal themselves to you at strangely opportune periods of your life.

I seem to have achieved some kind of synchronicity with the Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee. In college, for my Analysis and Performance of Poetry Class, I chose his poem "Eating Alone" from the vast anthology To Read Literature for studious desecration in a dreadful solo performance, completely ignorant that he was a contemporary poet, writing in English. But "Eating Alone" and "From Blossoms", the other piece anthologized, stuck with me over the years, so when I finally came across one of his books, The City In Which I Love You, in my hometown of Rochester NY, I was shocked to see that it was published out of a building in which I was working at the time.

Years later, back in Chicago, I recognized a poem set partly at a precise location in the neighborhood I had moved to. I learned that he lived in the neighborhood. More years later, and I work at the neighborhood branch library not 2 blocks away. Is he dogging my footsteps, or am I dogging his?

Anyway, here's that part of the poem.

Once, while I walked
with my father, a man
reached out, touched his arm, said Kuo Yuan?
The way he stared and spoke my father’s name,
I thought he meant to ask, Are you a dream?
Here was the sadness of ten thousand miles,
of an abandoned house in Nan Jing,
where my father helped a blind man
wash his wife’s newly dead body,
then bury it, while bombs
fell, and trees raised
charred arms and burned.
Here was a man who remembered
the sound of another’s footfalls
so well as to call to him
after twenty years
on a sidewalk in America.

America, where, in Chicago, Little Chinatown,
who should I see
on the corner of Argyle and Broadway
but Li Bai and Du Fu, those two
poets of the wanderer’s heart.
Folding paper boats,
they sent them swirling
down little rivers of gutter water.
Gold-toothed, cigarettes rolled in their sleeves,
they noted my dumb surprise:
What did you expect? Where else should we be?

- Li-Young Lee


from “Furious Versions,” The City In Which I Love You, (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 1990).

Thursday, March 23, 2006

From Here to Eternity

A book has to be extremely good for me to admire it if I don’t like its prose style. My thinking about writing tends to begin at the level of the sentence, and overwritten or poorly executed prose is almost always an insurmountable distraction. So it’s saying something that James Jones’s From Here to Eternity—the prose style of which I not only disliked, but actively disagreed with—completely captivated me, pulling me into its world with a miss-your-train-stop kind of fascination. It’s a hell of a book.

From Here to Eternity is thought of as a World War II novel—many people think it’s the best World War II novel. But, like my other favorite novel about that war, James Gould Cozzens’s less-remembered Guard of Honor, it takes place away from war, on an army base, where the only violence is that which the officers and enlisted men compulsively inflict on one another. The life of the men at their Hawaii base is so all-encompassing that when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor towards the end of the book, it almost comes as a surprise.

Though Jones creates and develops dozens of distinct characters, From Here to Eternity’s two poles, the commanding presences from which it draws its power and around which it’s organized, are Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt and 1st Sergeant Milton Warden. Prewitt is a thirty-year Army man who’s chosen the Army for life without ever fully accepting the sacrifice of individuality that it requires of him. Warden, on the other hand, has channeled his frustrations with the Army into iron-willed control over all the details of G Company—details that should be the purview of his superiors, whose incompetence and uninterest only serve to fuel Warden’s relentless, hard-edged competence. The struggles of the two men—against, at various times, each other, their superiors, their fellow enlisted men, and the Army itself—are the heart of the book. Do you kick at every imposition, fight until you're utterly broken, or do you focus your energies on bending one circumscribed area to your will, while making the necessary compromises outside your domain?

Jones’s themes grow out of those strong personalities: the place of the individual in a system designed to crush initiative and difference; the fate of integrity and achievement in an organization that rewards neither—that in fact fears them; the fine lines between sensible compromise and self-abasement, honor and self-destruction. But it’s not just the army that’s the problem. In a sense, From Here to Eternity doesn’t even need the military: Jones could drop his characters into nearly any situation, and we’d learn many of the same things about them. The same is true of Guard of Honor. But for both books, the unique conditions of the army—its clear lines of authority, its legitimation of violence, and its close quartering of volatile personalities—serve to increase the pressure on the characters, confronting them daily with the compromises and failures that in civilian life they might unwittingly train themselves to ignore.

Around Prewitt and Warden, Jones builds a cast of convincing, well-developed characters, ranging from the hardworking, honorable, racist Mess Sergeant Maylon Stark to the gifted athlete and alcoholic Corporal Choate. Jones gives us moments where we truly understand each of these characters, including a stunning scene where Warden’s superior, Captain Dana "Dynamite" Holmes, who has previously been presented entirely through Warden’s disapproving eyes, becomes the focus of our sympathy; the swiftness and power of the reversal is jaw-dropping.

Then there’s Prewitt’s friend, Private Angelo Maggio, one of the most compelling characters in the book. He’s the indomitable scrapper who so impressed Frank Sinatra that, rumor has it, he went to great lengths to secure the part in the 1953 movie. Maggio’s rant while in the Stockade for a drunken brawl limns the struggle that is Jones’s focus:
“Well, I’ve stood all I can stand—if I can get myself out of standing any more of it. They aint going to drive this soldier to any goddam suicide. And they aint going to drive this soldier into growing a brown nose. They shouldn’t teach their immigrants’ kids all about democracy unless they mean to let them have a little of it, it ony makes for trouble. Me and the United States is disassociating our alliance as of right now, until the United States can find time to read its own textbooks a little.”

Maggio’s speech also demonstrates one of the problems I had with Jones’s prose: his cluttered dialogue that, despite the use of dialect (my least favorite of the tools available to a writer) manages to sound utterly unlikely and unnatural. He fragments sentences and duplicates adverbs and adjectives in a distracting attempt to suggest the multiplicity and complexity of the world; unlike Anthony Powell, whose descriptions and redescriptions feel like careful attempts to reach exactitude, Jones’s extravagance with modifiers feels forced—and therefore lifeless.

But, as I said at the opening, it doesn’t matter, in the same way that Melville’s logorrhea in Moby-Dick doesn’t matter. There’s just way too much going on in From Here to Eternity for me to quibble, too many characters to watch and worry about. Too many individuals set loose to work with, fight against, and wonder about other individuals who are stuck doing the very same thing, separated by apprehension and misunderstanding from the camaraderie and mutual support they might otherwise share. The richness of characters and Jones's deep understanding of human nature overcome the limitations of the prose. And once in a while, they do work together, as in this passage that, for the first time, gave me real insight into the actual workings of self-destructive impulses:
Warden got up from the meatblock that was beside the chair and stepped around the chair and bent to get the bottle. There was a way to handle this. There was a way to handle everything. All you had to do was be careful. But then, you got so tired of always going around always being careful.

Near the end of the novel, Jones boils the whole book down to one sentence, and he puts it in Warden’s mouth. “‘Why does the world have to be the way it is,’ Warden said, letting himself go completely. ‘I dont know why the world has to be like it is.’”

His lover responds, “I dont know either. And I used to be very bitter about it. But now I know it has to be that way. Theres no other way for it to be. Whenever a menace is conquered, a new more subtle menace arises. There is no other way it could be.”

Or, in the blunt idiom appropriate to the army: if the world weren't SNAFUed in this particular way, we’d have found some other way to SNAFU it. Living with it—and the way it taints us—day to day is the best we can hope to do.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Tortoise and the Curate

I will admit that I came to Verlyn Klinkenborg's new book, Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile, hoping it really would be what the flap copy suggested, a story told from the point of view of a tortoise. I was hoping for something akin to the trick Richard Adams manages in Watership Down, where he mixes anthropomorphism and convincing animal behaviors to tell about characters which, though complex and captivating, never seem like anything other than rabbits.

It turns out that's not what Klinkenborg is up to. Instead, he's written a gently chiding appreciation—and inversion—of eighteenth-century naturalist's Gilbert White's The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789). White was a careful observer of nature, recording climatic details, movements of animals, results of the harvest, and everything he saw on his rambles through the countryside near his house. Given to White by an aunt, Timothy was a tortoise who lived in his garden for years, turning up now and again in the journal.

Now Timothy gets center stage, and it turns out that he's as much of a naturalist as White, but without the handicap of being human. White, though an undoubted lover of nature, was a curate of the Church of England, and he suffered from the beliefs of the era, which, before Darwinism encouraged a view of humanity at the top of nature, separated humans from the natural world entirely. Timothy knows better, knows the limits of what White preaches on Sundays:
Is death so fearsome that it must be undone? Is this life so poor a thing? Is not eternity somewhat too long?
Theirs is a niggardly faith, withal. Parishioners believe only as much as will save the humans among them. Never mind the rest of creation. Unwilling to distinguish the dead from the living. But eager to set apart the rest of creation.

He rises to the pulpit. God's family, he says, is numberless. "comprehending the whole race of mankind." And only the race of mankind. Thereby cutting off most of creation.

But numberless is not the race of mankind. Numberless is the race of beetles. Numberless are "the most insignificant insects and reptiles." Flying ants that swarm by millions in this garden. Armies of aphids falling in showers over the village. Palmer-worms hanging by threads from the oaks. Shoals of shell-snails. the earthworms. Mighty, Mr. Gilbert White avers, in their effect on the economy of nature. Yet excluded from the family of god.

Timothy watches, as White watches, only Timothy sees more, keeping track of the humans and their thoughts and activities as he keeps track of nature. Clearly, Klinkenborg is not trying to make Timothy seem like a turtle in essence; rather, he's using the idea of a tortoise to slow down and refocus his own thoughts about nature, pushing himself and the reader out of their ordinary understandings of the human and the animal. It doesn't always work, but at its best—as when Timothy watches White age and poignantly realizes that the events of nature will continue in Selbourne, unrecorded, once White is gone—it marries natural history, environmental philosophy, and the story of the odd semi-friendship that develops between man and tortoise. It was good for Saturday reading in my front room while watching the finches and sparrows and juncos crowd the feeder.
But what is the heron's vocation? To what occupation is the viper called? Or summer's myriad of frogs? What trade was the otter following when he strayed down the rivulet?
Only a single vocation in all the rest of this earthly parish, all the rest of creation. Vocation of place.

There are certainly worse vocations, for any animal, including a human.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Pleasures of Biography

From Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755)
Biographer: A writer of lives, a relator not of the history of nations, but of the actions of particular persons.
"Our Grubstreet biographers watch for the death of a great man like so many undertakers, on purpose to make a penny of him."—Addison's Freeholders, No. 35

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
When Malcolm Lowry got into trouble in 1946 during his second stay in Mexico and, in an attempt not to be expelled from the country, asked the sub-chief of the Immigration department in Acapulco what there was against him from his previous visit in 1938, the government employee took out a file, tapped it with one finger and said: "Drunk, Drunk, Drunk. Here is your life." These words are as brutal as they are exact, and perhaps, on more compassionate lips, the right word would have been "calamitous," because Lowry does seem to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field.

From John Aubrey's Brief Lives (169?)
Thomas Chaloner had a trick some times to goe into Wesminster-hall in a morning in Term-time, and tell some strange story (Sham) and would come thither again about 11 or 12 to have the pleasure to heare how it spred; and sometime it would be altered, with additions, he could scarce know it to be his owne. He was neither proud nor covetous, nor a hypocrite, nor apt to do injustice, but apt to revenge

After the restauration of King Charles the Second, he kept the Castle at the Isle of Man, where he had a pretty Wench that was his Concubine; where when Newes was brought to him that there were some come to the Castle to demaund it for his Majestie, he spake to his Girle to make him a Possett, into which he putt, out of a paper he had, some Poyson, which did, in a very short time, make him fall a vomiting exceedingly; and after some time vomited nothing but Bloud. His Retchings were so violent that the Standers by were much grieved to behold it. Within three howres he dyed. The Demandants of the Castle came and sawe him dead: he was swoln so extremely that they could not see any eie he had, and no more of his nose than the tip of it, which shewed like a wart, and his Coddes were swoln as big as one's head.

From Francine du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents (2005)
The very next afternoon, shortly after returning to [the school] Les Roches, Alex started vomiting blood. The nurse at the school infirmary told him that "nobody vomits blood" and that he'd probably eaten too much currant jelly.

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
According to contemporary accounts, Rimbaud never changed his clothes and therefore smelled disgusting, left any bed he slept in full of lice, drank constantly (preferably absinthe), and rewarded his acquaintances with nothing but impertinence and insults.

From William Hazlitt's "The Indian Juggler" (1821), reprinted in On the Pleasure of Hating
Ingenuity is genius in trifles, greatness is genius in undertakings of much pith and moment. A clever or ingenious man is one who can do any thing well, whether it is worth doing or not; a great man is one who can do that which when done is of the highest importance. Themistocles said he could not play on the flute, but that he could make of a small city a great one. This gives a pretty good idea of the distinction in question. . . . John Hunter was a great man. That anyone might see without the smallest skill in surgery. His style and manner shewed the man. He would set about cutting up the carcase of a whale with the same greatness of gusto that Michael Angelo would have hewn a block of marble. Lord Nelson was a great naval commander, but for myself, I have not much opinion of a sea-faring life. Sir Humphry Davy was a great chemist, but I am not sure he is a great man. I am not a bit the wiser for one of his discoveries, nor I never met with any one that was.

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
Lowry did not make a very good impression during his stay in Ronda and especially in Granada: at the time, although still very young, he was fat, drank wine all the time, and insisted on wearing huge Cordoban hats of a kind that no one has ever worn. In Granada he soon became known as "the drunken Englishman;" people poked fun and the Guardia Civil were also keeping an eye on him. [Conrad] Aiken's wife remembers Lowry walking around the city surrounded by a troop of children who were all laughing at him and whom he was unable to shake off.

From Francine du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents (2005)
Throughout these innocent adventures she had retained much of the anarchic extravagance of her Soviet youth: upon entering a restaurant and seeing a group of her friends at the other end of a crowded room, she had simply jumped onto a table and leaped from table to table until she reached her pals, impervious to any disturbance she might cause to the diners on the way.

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
It is hardly surprising that Djuna Barnes should have considered her first name as so unequivocally hers when Anais Nin took the liberty of using it, for most of the names in her family seem to have been chosen precisely so that no one else could usurp them. Suffice it to say that among her own siblings and ancestors were the following extravagant examples, which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them: Urlan, Niar, Unade, Reon, Hinda, Zadel, Gaybert, Culmer, Kilmeny, Thurn, Zendon, Saxon, Shangar, Wald, and Llewellyn. At least the last name is recognized in Wales. Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.

From David Riggs's The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004)
During the months leading up to Marlowe's murder in a hired room near London, the pamphleteer Robert Greene publicly predicted that if the "famous gracer of tragedians" did not repent his blasphemies, God would soon strike him down. A few days before Marlowe was killed, the spy Richard Baines informed the Queen's Privy Council that he was a proselytizing atheist, a counterfeiter, and a consumer "of boys and tobacco."

From Javier Marias's Written Lives (2005)
Adah Isaacs Menken had numerous lovers, some of whom, inevitably, were writers, such as Alexandre Dumas pere at the end of his days and that masochistic poet par excellence, Algernon Charles Swinburne, that tiny red-haired, Victorian, homosexual drunkard, addicted to the whip.

From Anthony Powell's review of Rare Sir William Davenant, by Mary Edmond, collected in Some Poets, Artists, and "A Reference for Mellors" (2005)
Miss Edmond has been extremely ingenious in digging out material about Davenant; in fact one is staggered by her research, which proves the point that scholarly biography is by far the most entertaining kind. Davenant, as might be expected, was not very good at paying his tailor, who sued him (though Davenant continued to have his clothes made there), which leads to a lot of relevant information.

From "The Life and Times of John Aubrey," (1949) by Oliver Lawson Dick, in the David R. Godine edition of John Aubrey's Brief Lives
Having decided to write a life, Aubrey selected a page in one of his notebooks and jotted down as quickly as possible everything that he could remember about the character concerned: his friends, his appearance, his actions, his books, and his sayings. Any facts or dates that did not occur to him on the spur of the moment were left blank, and as Aubrey was so extremely sociable that he was usually suffering from a hangover when he came to put pen to paper, the number of these omissions was often very large.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Crime is up

From Richard Powell’s Say It With Bullets (1953)
At the overnight stop in North Platte, Nebraska, Bill Wayne didn’t copy the other tourists in the party when they bought postcards to mail to friends. He was running a little low on friends these days. Once he’d classed five guys as friends, but they had picked up a habit of doing things behind his back, like shooting at it. The only wish-you-were here postcard he wanted to send them was a picture of a cemetery.

Say It With Bullets was the fifth book I've read in the Hard Case Crime series, and, like the others, it was pretty satisfying. People get shot, tough guys fight, mysteries are solved. Good stuff.

That said, it's clear why these books, mostly fifty or so years old, have until now been out of print. They're not brilliant books, and there are so many detective novels published every year that a bunch are bound to slip through the cracks and disappear. The Hard Case Crime books I've read so far have been fun mysteries, but none has been at the level of Chandler or Hammett or even Ross MacDonald. The plots are just a tad too thin, the characters just a bit less complex than in the better writers' books; none of these, in other words, is something you'd give a friend as evidence that there's a world of great mystery writing out there that he's missing. They're books for the already initiated, for people like me who enjoy hanging out in the slightly implausible worlds that these men and women find themselves stumbling into. They're for people who are willing to read several pages of fairly pedestrian plot in order to enjoy a description like this one from Say It With Bullets:
The town of Winnemucca was about six gas stations long by four taprooms wide. But the place had quite a hotel. It was sleek and modern and had a tiled patio decked with gay umbrellas around a swimming pool. He relaxed in his air-conditioned bedroom and studied the play of light on the swimming pool below his window and on the Tom Collins glass in his hand. Things were going to look brighter as soon as he got outside the Tom Collins and inside the swimming pool. He changed slowly into a bathing suit and went outside.

The first person he saw was Holly coming out of the water. She wore a two-piece white bathing suit and an air of assurance. That added up to more assurance than bathing suit. She had long slim legs and a flat stomach and hips that at one moment were all angles, like a coat hanger, and at the next were all curves. It was odd: he couldn’t decide whether she was a child or a woman. She walked over to a tall young man who had so many muscles that he must get tired carrying them around.

I would never be content reading exclusively crime novels of this sort, but I've really been enjoying getting two a month in the mail. That seems about the right frequency for me, and it's even better that I don't have to pick them—someone else, whose opinion I've already come to trust, does it for me.

So far, the two I've liked least have been the two books that received their first publication in the series—Stephen King's The Dakota Kid and Richard Aleas's Little Girl Lost. Neither was all that bad, but each had its problems. The problems with King's I've already gone over, while Aleas's book suffered from one of those plots that, if you were living it, you might not figure out, but that in a book is utterly transparent. On top of that, the novel ends with the protagonist—who in himself is the best part of the book to that point, a young detective whose inexperience leads him to make dangerous mistakes—making a morally unacceptable choice. He knows he's done wrong, but even so, neither he nor the novel seem to fully admit how wrong his decision is. It made me pull all the way back to questioning the author's ethics, and that's not where you want to leave a reader at the end of a mystery novel.

But I'll keep at the series. Two more should be here this weekend.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dipping into books

From James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951)
He went on a reading jag. It was the second real reading jag in his life. The first had been when he was laid up in the hospital at Myer getting over the clap that the rich girl had given him. They had had a good, though small, library at the Myer hospital and he had read his way through almost all of it with a dictionary at this elbow mainly because there hadn't been anything else in the GU ward to do. Reading, he found was like with pain, or a delicate appetite; you minced your way around the outside tasting this dish and that and getting more and more irritable. And nothing suited you, until you had made up your mind to promise yourself you would read every word on every page. Once you got yourself started and into it you weren't irritable any more and it was kind of fun, in a way.

He did that with every book in Georgette's Book of the Month Club collection, even the bad ones that did not sound true to life, at least not as he had become acquainted with life. But he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since obviously he had not known every kind of life (like, the life of the rich, say) and anyway, if you just shut off part of your mind from asking acerbic questions about this and that and limited yourself to just the words you read in through your eyes, you could almost believe all of them, even the worst ones. Besides, it was a good way to pass the time. Much better than newspapers. And it did not give you a hangover.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On the idea of the usefulness of literature in general, and Moby-Dick in particular

One of the problems I have with the instrumental view of literature, the idea that there is something to “get” from literature, is that it tends, especially at the high school level, to lead to attempts to explain complex stories through their symbolism. Moby-Dick is nature, Ahab is man attempting to overcome it. Or the whale is death. Or progress. Or some such thing. It’s an approach that, in the hands of a dedicated teacher working with engaged students, as part of an overall attempt to understand how and why Melville wrote the book, and why we might want to read it, could be productive. But as presented by an indifferent teacher to distracted students as a way to answer questions four through seven of the quiz that came with the study guide, it’s reductive, tedious, and as likely as not to turn students another step away from literature. In that case, I'd rather a teacher hand out some Stephen King or John Grisham or something—anything to get students to see that reading can be engrossing and surprising.

Moby-Dick should probably not be taught in high school. It seems like a book that a person should come to on his or her own terms, later. But if it is to be taught in high school, I think a teacher at my old high school, Mr. Harrison, who retired the year before I would have been in his class, had the right idea of how to do so. Several times in the fall of 1989, I walked by his classroom and heard him reading Moby-Dick aloud. That, it seemed, was a large part of his method of teaching it. He’d read aloud. But he didn’t read Moby-Dick so much as declaim it, preach it, shout it, chant it. It was captivating.

And that’s how I usually think about Moby-Dick. Jim from my office says he thinks it’s a book about work, about these guys trapped on a whale ship for a three-year cruise, and all the things they have to do and put up with, and about how Melville knew that work, whatever we may wish to pretend, is what we all do with most of our time. He’s got a point, and a fairly convincing one. But I think it’s really a book about Melville and some thing he has to say to you.

I imagine that he sits down next to you at the bar—where you were only planning to have a quick one on your way home—and starts telling you a story. He's interesting, funny, even charming. And he’s telling you about things you know nothing about, so you buy him a drink and stick around a little longer, but—and here’s the part you don’t remember very clearly—then there are a lot of empty glasses in front of you both, and he’s leaning very close to you and has your shoulder in a grip a little too tight to be comfortable. One minute, he’s whispering conspiratorially, and then he SHOUTS in your ear, then he's mumbling more or less to himself. You aren't sure you have any idea what he’s talking about now, but you’ve definitely missed your last train home, so you might as well stick around and see if you can find out.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Living one's ideals

From James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951)
You cant disagree with the adopted values of a bunch of people without they get pissed off at you. When people tie their lives to some screwy idea or other and you attempt to point out to them that for you (not for them, mind you, just for you personally) that this idea is screwy, then serious results can always and will always come out of it for you. Because as far as they care you are the same as saying their lives are nothing and this always bothers people, because people prefer anything to being nothing, look at the Nazis, and that is why they tie their lives to things.

From A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy: A Biography (1988)
Pregnancy had become an almost permanent condition of life for Tolstoy’s unfortunate wife. Little Lev had hardly been weaned before she feared herself to be once more with child. “With each child,” she wrote philosophically in her journal, “one sacrifices a little more of one’s life and accepts an even heavier burden of perennial anxieties and illnesses.”

But for her husband, the thought of new minds to educate, new little beings to boss into a correct way of viewing the world was irresistibly tempting.

As so often happened when Tolstoy embarked upon something with repellent intentions, he produced sublime results.

From James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951)
He had learned that Warden would not do that, that that old private line of equity, drawn with such sharpness with such close secrecy that it was wholly invisible to everyone but Warden, would not let the big man take advantage of the situation in that way. . . . It was, Prew often thought, as if The Warden had applied to his whole life the principle which applied to all other games of sport—that laying down of certain arbitrary rules to make success that much harder for the player to attain, like clipping in football or traveling in basketball, or in the same way, as he had read someplace, that sporting fishermen would use the light six-nine tackle in fighting for sailfish instead of the heavy tackle that makes it easy for the novice, thereby imposing upon themselves voluntarily the harder conditions that make the reward worth more to them. But where fishermen only did it on their day off or on vacation, to gain some obscure satisfaction that the cut- throat business ethics of their lives no longer gave them, The Warden applied it to his whole life, and stuck by it.

From A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy: A Biography (1988)
Bulgakov’s diary depicts for us more vividly than most of the accounts the underlying tension of day-to-day life at [the Tolstoys’ home] Yasnaya Polyana. At meals, the master of the house and the mistress were already bickering, or eyeing each other with suspicion. Tolstoy complained ceaselessly about the “elaborate” diet. Sofya Andreyevna [Tolstoy] justified it “on the grounds that a vegetarian table needs variety.” Tolstoy took to elaborate sotto voce apologies to guests which were designed to get a “rise” out of his increasingly hysterical wife.

When the painter N. N. Ge came to a meal, Tolstoy whispered, “I think that in fifty years people will say: ‘Imagine, they could calmly sit there and eat while grown people walked around waiting on them—their food was served to them, cooked for them.’”

“What are you talking about?” asked Sofya Andreyevna. “About their serving us?”

“Yes,” said Lev Nikolayevich [Tolstoy] and repeated aloud what he had said.

Sofya Andreyevna began to protest.

“But I was only saying it to him,” said Lev Nikolayevich, pointing to Ge. “I knew there would be objections and I absolutely do not wish to argue.”

2 Timothy 4:7
I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.

Friday, March 10, 2006

V. S. Pritchett

Reading the stories collected in V. S. Pritchett’s Essential Stories, I couldn’t quite figure out how to describe them. There are some commonalities among the stories. They tend to be about long-cherished illusions being lost, or revealed, or replaced. Each is written in a flowing, descriptive language that has been polished to near perfection, but without being a distraction, or distancing the reader from the story. But each story is at the same time so different from its fellows in topic and tone, with a different feel and outlook, appropriate to its characters and milieu. Pritchett fully inhabits the character at the heart of each story as if he’s slipped into a well-tailored suit of clothes and wandered out to live that person’s life for a while

Finally, I decided that the way to get across what’s great about these stories is simply to give you the opening paragraphs of a few of them.
From “The Evils of Spain”
We took our seats at the table. There were seven of us.

It was at one of those taverns in Madrid. The moment we sat down Juliano, the little, hen-headed, red-lipped consumptive who was paying for the dinner and who laughed not with his mouth by buy crinkling the skin round his eyes into scores of scratchy lines and showing his bony teeth—Juliano got up and said, “We are all badly placed.”

From “You Make Your Own Life”
Upstairs from the street a sign in electric light said “Gent’s Saloon.” I went up. There was a small hot back room full of sunlight, with hair clipping on the floor, towels hanging form a peg and newspapers on the chairs. “Take a seat. Just finishing,” said the barber. It was a lie. He wasn’t anywhere near finishing. He had in fact just begun a shave .The customer was having everything.

From “The Saint”
When I was seventeen years old I lost my religious faith. It had been unsteady for some time and then, very suddenly, it went as the result of an incident in a punt on the river outside the town where we lived. My uncle, with whom I was obliged to stay for long periods of my life, had started a small furniture-making business in the town. He was always in difficulties about money, but he was convinced that in some way God would help him. And this happened.

From “Our Oldest Friend”
“Look out!” someone said. “Here comes Saxon.”

It was too late. Moving off the dance floor and pausing at the door with the blatant long sight of the stalker, Saxon saw us all in our quiet corner of the lounge and came over. He stopped and stood with his hands on his hips and his legs apart, like a goalkeeper. Then he came forward.

Each story seems to open on its own terms, completely different from the one that preceded it, plunging you right into a point of view, a place, a situation, a voice. Pritchett mimics impressively while never losing control of his careful, vivid language. Here’s a troubled man thinking of his brother: “Deep in the piety of his fear he saw in Micky a man who had never worshipped at its icy alters. He must be made to know.”
And later, “He remained in the house all day, and when the night came a misted moonlight gleamed on the cold roof and the sea was as quiet as the licking of a cat’s tongue.”

I tend to prefer novels to short stories for the common reasons. I usually find short stories a bit forced, trying too hard to both develop a character and portray an incident in a short span. And not every story here succeeds. But most often, Pritchett’s characters seem fully developed from the opening paragraphs, and the best stories here seem just right as stories, leaving little left to be said.

Note to Bob: You in particular would like a pair of these stories: “The Saint,” which, like Philip Roth’s wonderful “The Conversion of the Jews,” is about a rigid theology brought down through contact with a child, and “The Evils of Spain,” which is about, well, nothing, because around a dinner table with friends in Spain, one gets distracted and things move with a pleasant, crowded slowness.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On the job

From James Salter’s Solo Faces (1979)
A breed of aimless wanderers can be found in California, working as mason’s helpers, carpenters, parking cars. They somehow keep a certain dignity, they are surprisingly unashamed. It’s one thing to know their faces will become lined, their plain talk stupid, that they will be crushed in the end by those who stayed in school, bought land, practiced law. Still, they have an infuriating power, that of condemned men. They can talk to anybody, they can speak the truth.


From Richard Aleas’s Little Girl Lost (2004)
I thought about all the other bruises I’d gotten over the past half decade of working for Leo, that and the other threats, the fights I’d only narrowly talked my way out of, the dirt I’d dug up on people who’d wanted to keep it hidden. How had I ended up doing this for a living? Around the time Miranda had been making plans to become a doctor, what was it I thought I’d be doing? I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t this. I did remember the day I met Leo and the day I joined him full-time because it was either that or go to work for an Internet company, and I still had some self-respect.


From William Hazlitt’s The Indian Jugglers (1821), collected in On the Pleasure of Hating
[Seeing the Indian juggler] makes me ashamed of myself. I ask what there is that I can do as well as this? Nothing. What have I been doing all my life? Have I been idle, or have I nothing to shew for all my labours and pains? Or have I passed my time in pouring words like water into empty sieves, rolling a stone up a hill and then down again, trying to prove an argument in the teeth of facts, and looking for causes in the dark, and not finding them? Is there no one thing in which I can challenge competition, that I can bring as an instance of exact perfection, in which others cannot find a flaw? The utmost I can pretend to do is write a description of what this fellow can do. I can write a book: so can many others who have not even learned to spell. What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill! Yet they are the best I can do. I endeavour to recollect all I have ever observed or thought upon a subject, and to express it as nearly as I can.


From James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951)
"And remember," Warden said. "Mon-Sewer O'Hayer says you got to straighten up this mess sometime today."

"Your face," Leva said.

"Your mother's box," Milt said. "Get to work."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Guts

Questions about guts (what they are, who has them, how one demonstrates them) don’t interest me much. I take the position of Murray Kempton, who, following a conversation with Norman Mailer, is reported to have said that he couldn’t figure out why someone so smart would spend so much time thinking about toughness. It seems a question of an earlier age, of a group of men who were unwilling to accept that they might not face danger in their lives, might have to go without a definitive answer to the question of whether they indeed could be brave. I, on the other hand, complacently work in an office, and I’m glad that I have been fortunate enough in life not to have needed to face physical danger. Should I ever have to, well, I guess I’ll find out whether I’m tough. Until then, I just don’t care.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed writers who concern themselves with the question. Though I haven’t read any Hemingway recently, I have very much enjoyed him in the past. And as readers of this blog know, I enjoy hard-boiled detective writing, which is as much as anything else concerned with a man’s ability, when the world tries to push him around, to push back harder.

But in James Salter’s Solo Faces (1979), the problem of guts becomes a big part of the novel near the end, and it pretty much derails what has until that point been a smart, compelling book about mountain climbing. For most of the book, Salter tells about a man, Gary Rand, who is compelled above all else to climb more and more difficult mountains, and about the wreckage—physical and emotional—that such a compulsion leaves in its wake. Other climbers make memorable appearances, as friends and rivals, and so do the women Rand sleeps with and lives with.

Salter’s language is spare, but his imagery is precise and memorable, crafted and polished—but never in a way that distracts from the object being described. Take this pair of sentences about a train journey:
Through crowded terminals, cities, rain, he had carried certain hopes and expectations, vague but thrilling. He was dozing on them like baggage, numbed by the journey.

Or a depiction of the patrons of an alpine pub:
There is a strain of English whose faces are somehow crude as if they were not worth finishing or touching with color.

Or contrast this description of a quiet village
Down a curving dawn street in the stillness, at the hour when shutters are still closed and all that distinguishes this century from the last are empty cars ranked along the gutters, Rand walked.

with an earlier one of Los Angeles
Above Los Angeles, the faint sound of traffic hung like haze. The air had a coolness, an early clarity. The wind was coming from the sea which as much as anything gives the city its aura. Morning light flooded down, onto the shops, the awnings, the leaves of every tree.


When Salter applies this precision to the act of climbing a mountain, the narrative slows perceptibly. Each move of hand and foot becomes a deeply felt struggle. As he depicts that intense sharpening of focus, the forcible ejection from the climber’s mind of all thoughts and impressions aside from those essential to survival, it becomes clear that this is why people climb. There may be other reasons, but this one would be sufficient: when climbing, nothing else matters. Nothing else even is. It's the elements of addiction stripped bare.

There are moments of great suspense in Solo Faces, as when Rand’s fellow climber is terribly injured halfway up the face of a mountain, and there are moments of deep understanding of people and relationships. A scene where Rand’s girlfriend reveals she’s pregnant is reminiscent of—and as good as—Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.”

But towards the end of the book, Salter loses his way. It’s as if explaining climbing itself—and making it real for those of us who have never attempted it—wasn’t quite enough for him. That’s when the real thinking about toughness starts, and it culminates in what I tend to think is one of the great cop-out scenes available to a writer: a game of Russian roulette. The scene is a failure, but the book to that point has been so strong that it can’t be entirely wrecked.

I was put on to Solo Faces by my co-worker, Jim (the same one with whom I was discussing Roosevelt the other day), who assures me that this theme is not one that always preoccupies Salter. Knowing that, I’ll give him another try. Anyone who can write a sentence like this
The silence was mounting, like a bill that would have to be paid.

is worth reading more of.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

On the River of Doubt

One of the many areas of agreement between me and my co-worker Jim is that there can never be too much written about Theodore Roosevelt. But whereas, with Abraham Lincoln, about whom I feel the same, the inextinguishable possibilities of history and biography lie more in the complexity of his psyche, Roosevelt’s richness as a subject is directly tied to his physical inexhaustibility. He crammed so much incident and interest into one life that Edmund Morris’s biography required two volumes just to get through the presidential years.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find that I wasn't the only person who hadn't heard of the South American river journey that is the subject of Candice Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. Another co-worker who’s a TR fan checked the H. W. Brands biography; the journey down the River of Doubt receives a scant four pages. Candice Millard spreads the story out over 400 pages, and it's worth it.

Roosevelt began the trip as a way to cope with his landslide loss to Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, wherein Roosevelt had broken with the Republicans and run as the candidate of the Progressive Party. Crushed by the defeat, Roosevelt was quick to sign on to an idea proposed by an old friend, Father Zahm of Notre Dame, that he spend a few months traveling the Amazon River. Roosevelt put Zahm in charge of the planning. Zahm, for whom Millard doesn't attempt to hide her contempt, was no fan of hard work, and he delegated the organizational responsibilities to a man whose only credential was leadership of a disastrously failed Arctic exploration. The planning, thus, was poor: deep in the jungle, the members of the expedition were exceedingly displeased to find tins of luxury mustards where they expected to find basic foodstuffs.

The journey was to be fairly unadventurous, compared to some of Roosevelt’s travels as a young man. But once in Brazil—already chafing at the thought of breaking no new ground with his trip—he was quickly convinced to attempt something more daring: a descent of the River of Doubt, an Amazon tributary never before navigated by non-natives. The Brazilian government gave him its full support, in the form of a large number of camaradas, or laborers, and Brazil’s greatest explorer, Colonel Candido Mariana da Silva Rondon, who would be co-leader of the expedition.

From the start of the trip, things went poorly, as even the long overland journey, through territory familiar to Colonel Rondon from earlier exploration, was slower and more difficult than expected. Pack animals dropped dead, food supplies ran low, and malaria began its relentless attack on the group. Father Zahm quickly wore out his welcome through laziness and racism, which irked both Rondon and Roosevelt. The final straw came when he suggested that he be borne in a litter by four camaradas, because, “The Indian is made to carry priests.” Roosevelt asked Father Zahm to step into his tent; when they emerged, the Father was on his way back to Sao Paulo. (A private browbeating by TR is something better imagined than experienced. Even thinking about it makes me want to do whatever he thinks I should do. Quickly.)

The picture Millard paints of Roosevelt is the one we’re accustomed to: strong in body and stronger in will, brave to the point of foolhardiness, indefatigable, and a bit bull-headed. But alongside him she places fully-realized portraits of his son, Kermit, and of Colonel Rondon, who to this day remains a hero in Brazil for his work on behalf of the Amazon’s native population. You don’t need to know much about Roosevelt to realize that he would have trouble with the rule Rondon drummed into his exploration corps: in contact with Indians, “die if you must, but never kill.” Roosevelt was a man who cherished the idea of selling one’s life dear. Yet the element of willpower in Rondon’s adherence to his philosophy of life was so clear—the life hewing so closely to the ideals—that Roosevelt respected Rondon even as the River of Doubt tested the men and their new friendship.

As the expedition makes its way down the river, beset by difficulties at every turn. Millard describes the life of the jungle and explains how centuries of adaptive pressures had fitted animals and plants into ever-tighter evolutionary niches. With the verve of a student of natural history, she tells of the dreaded candiru (which I knew of from Peter Fleming’s excellent Brazilian Adventure), the monkey fish, which can leap high enough out of the water to snag monkeys from low branches, and the more familiar—but no less scary—piranha and caiman.

The men suffered from disease, hunger, and deadly rapids. The jungle itself, in its monotony as much as its dangers, preyed on their minds. Millard quotes from my favorite Brazilian travel book, H. R. Tomlinson’s 1912 The Sea and the Jungle
The forest of the Amazons is not merely trees and shrubs. It is not land. It is another element. Its inhabitants are arborean; they have been fashioned for life in that medium as fishes to the seas and birds to the air. Its green apparition is persistent, as the sky is and the ocean. In months of travel it is the horizon which the traveler cannot reach.


Millard conveys that tedium, and the danger, hunger, and weariness of the expedition, as well as the best travel writers—everyone from Apsley Cherry-Garrard to Bill Bryson—to the point where I found myself admiring the men just for getting up from their bedrolls in the morning.

Well into the journey, Roosevelt develops a fever and wastes away before our eyes, from the hale man who just the year before delivered a speech in Milwaukee with five bullets in his chest from a would-be assassin, to skin-and-bones shell, unable to walk. At that point, it doesn't matter that we know he died in his bed years later. There are thirty days ahead on the River of Doubt, and we see no escape. Getting out was Roosevelt's last great adventure, and thanks to Candice Millard, we now know all about it.