Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"It is a great conviction of youth from which some people never escape that everyone is having a better time than they are," or, Powell to Batuman

A tip for any aspiring bloggers out there: should you be on any given night too busy to put together a proper post, turn ye to Anthony Powell's grab-bag of notes, ideas, thoughts on character, and snippets of dialogue, A Writer's Notebook, and thereof shall ye feast!

Being in that situation myself tonight, I offer you this:
Love is like being seasick, you feel you are going to die, then when you walk down the gangway on to dry land you can hardly remember what you have suffered.
I shouldn't think a woman could ever really forget a man with breath like his.
Then there's a pair of bits about literary critics:
Having no opinions is a positive advantage for a literary critic.

A literary critic says, "It's rather exterior."
But, because I'm an old hand at this blogging thing, I'll go one more and also offer a passage from Elif Batuman's wonderfully strange and funny new book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them--which is full of literary critics like the ones Powell was imagining, and which might just as honestly be titled, OMG, Aren't Russians and Academics--Particularly Graduate Students--Weird? (with a subtitle of Lovably, Endearingly, Almost at Times Understandably So, That Is).

The book is absolutely stuffed with quotable oddities, which makes it a particularly good chaser for a week of Isaac D'Israeli. I've chosen the following passage, relatively pedestrian by the high standards of the rest of the book, to share tonight because of the brief, unexpectedly Powellian aside in its last line. Batuman is telling about the wedding of Peter the Great's niece, Anna Ioannovna to Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Courland:
At the wedding banquet, the tsar cut open two pies with his dagger. A splendidly dressed dwarf jumped out of each pie and together they danced a minuet on the table. The next day, Peter treated his guests to a second wedding: that of his favorite dwarf attended by forty-two other dwarfs from all corners of the empire. Some foreign guests saw a certain symmetry in the double wedding, one between two miniature people, the other between two pawns in the great game of European politics.

One the way back to Courland, the teenage duke died, of alcohol poisoning. One his last night in Petersburg, he had engaged--rashly, one feels--in a drinking contest with Peter the Great.
Yet another item to add to the list of things one ought not to do if one ever found oneself in possession of a time machine: engage in a contest of any kind with Peter the Great.

As for Anna--"'seven-foot, 280-pound Anna,' in the words of one courtier"--this would be far from her last experience with dwarves, who ended up playing many unpleasant parts in the litany of cruel whimsy that was her reign. Batuman's got plenty of jaw-dropping details there, too; Empress Anna and her ice palace alone are enough to make the whole book worth reading.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed Batuman's book, having been attracted to it by the Roz Chast cover. It made me want to go and reread all my Babel short stories, and to NEVER study post-grad literature at a university.