Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Trollope goes digital, Borges goes ghostly, Donne goes on a peace mission

Not a lot of time tonight, so all I've got for you is a collection of odds and ends.

1 In all the writing about Trollope I've been doing this summer, I've neglected to mention Penguin's great new Trollope site, created with the help of the Trollope Society. It's everything such a site should be--especially for a writer as prolific as Trollope--giving a brief synopsis of each novel and major character, information about his Barset and Palliser sequences, and biographical information about Trollope. A particularly nice touch are the eye-catching (though slightly too contemporary?) cartoon renderings of Trollope's characters. But surely Phineas Finn didn't really look as horrid as this?

I also learned from the site that Trollope thought that the ending of Phineas Finn was a bit abrupt and unsatisfying, as did I. In his Autobiography, Trollope admitted:
It is all fairly good except the ending,--as to which till I got to it I had made no provision. As I fully intended to bring my hero again into the world, I was wrong to marry him to a simple pretty Irish girl, who could only be felt as an encumbrance on such return.
If I may be allowed to absurdly mix eras and forms: the ending reminded me of the end of Don Knotts's great comedy The Love God?, wherein Knotts's character ends up not with the vivacious career woman (and bombshell) he's been seeing, but with the lovely young lady from his hometown who has been patiently waiting--and who is as dull as paste. It makes sense for the ethical arc of the story, but it's impossible to believe and makes no damn sense on any other level.

2 I learned about the Trollope site through the ReadySteadyBook blog, where I was involved in the following exchange after blogger Mark Thwaite ended his post by asking if he should give Trollope a try:
Stephen Mitchelmore: No!

Mark Thwaite: Sage, succinct advice as ever, sir!

Levi Stahl: I totally disagree with Stephen Mitchelmore: Yes!

The Palliser novels provide insight into politics, strongly drawn characters--including several fully realized, sympathetic portrayals of strong-willed women--and a drawn-out, sensitive depiction of a marriage of two very different partners who despite their differences (and the strictures placed on them by society) are essentially equals.

Trollope doesn't have the humor of Dickens, the godlike sympathy and understanding of Tolstoy, the fire of Dostoevsky, or the piercing aphoristic insight of George Eliot, but his attention to his characters and the realities of their world make him well worth reading.

Stephen Mitchelmore: But Levi, we do share the same reasons!

3 In With Borges, which I wrote about the other day, Alberto Manguel mentions that he's just one of many people who, over the years, served as readers for the blind master. I imagine them reuniting once a year in a secret library, an invisible college of readers conjuring the Borges who is not in the library, the lost Borges, the one who, in "Borges and I," writes:
It's Borges, the other one, that things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause--mechanically now, perhaps--to gaze at the arch of an entryway and its inner door; news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, seventeenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that our relationship is hostile--I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification.
At the end of a long evening of wine and talk, during which they've tricked him into lowering his guard, the Borges they conjure is swiftly trapped between two covers and filed away in an obscure, rarely visited section of this already obscure library.

As the years mount, and death slowly winnows the circle of readers, the Borges they conjure becomes less solid; what was at their first meeting a gargantuan reference book becomes, by their last, perhaps a single line of poetry.

4 After writing about Borges's admonition to his nephew ("If you behave, I'll give you permission to think of a bear."), I thought that Borges might have enjoyed my favorite Victor Borge joke, which I heard him deliver to a young whippersnapper on the Jack Benny Show:
Borge: How old are you?

Whippersnapper: I'm six!

Borge: Shame on you! When I was your age, I was twice that old!

5 Having written recently about the Thirty Years War, I was surprised to learn yesterday from John Stubbs's John Donne: The Reformed Soul (2007) that Donne served as chaplain to the delegation that King James sent to Frederick and Ferdinand, the chief warring parties, in 1619. The mission, however, was doomed from the start, as it had been
entirely seeded and nurtured by a Spanish subterfuge. Spain's great aim in the Bohemian crisis was to keep England from sending military and financial aid to the Protestant rebels: the neutrality desired by the Spanish was assured by massaging King James's diplomatic ego. The great Machiavellian Spanish ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, reassured his masters that "the vanity of the present King of England is so great that he will always think it of great importance that peace should be obtained by his means, so that his authority may be increased."
Actually that's the sense I get of the whole war: if you were involved, you were probably being double-crossed.

For his part, Donne in the years to come would be a strong voice against English involvement in the war, despite anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish public sentiment. Donne surely took up that position at least in part because it was the position of the King, in whose good graces Donne needed to stay--but it's also not hard to trace that preference to Donne's youthful memories of the horrors of war and his seeming general distaste for sectarianism and the violence it often entailed.

6 Finally, it seems fitting to follow Donne, the poet of love in secular and religious guises, to a couple of fun throwaway lines from Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game (1961):
I lighted her cigarette. She was poised and cool but not at all subtle. She leaned forward to take the light and to give me a look at large breasts harnessed by a lacy black bra. Eve learned that one the day they got dressed and moved out of Eden. It has been just as effective ever since.

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