Monday, July 25, 2011

Short, round, tall, short, or, "Now that was a silly business."

1 Charles Portis's wonderfully cracked Norwood (1966) has provided me another citation for my running file of comparisons to Sydney Greenstreet!
The man with the funny voice was a midget of inestimable age. He was sitting on the end of the bowling machine runway with his legs crossed. On his face there was a Sydney Greenstreet look of weary petulance.
Weary petulance--that's the best way to describe Greenstreet's best, and most typical, look. The only other look I can imagine competing with it would be his look of rapidly eroding patience.

I'll take this occasion to repeat my plea: all you novelists out there, I want more Sydney Greenstreet comparisons! Even after Donald Westlake's honorable efforts, the field remains relatively unploughed, ready for your best efforts! In an earlier post on this topic, I even wrote some that you're welcome to use to get started:
"The next morning the sun announcing my hangover was like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca: huge, round, smug, and disasteful."

"She was built like Sydney Greenstreet, and even had his laugh, but you couldn't take your eyes off her--which, come to think of it, made her even more like Greenstreet."

"Give it up, man--you couldn't keep a lid on this story if you put it in a steamer trunk and plopped Sydney Greenstreet on the top."
Get to it, writers of America!

2 Since I started with a classic fat man, it seems right to turn to one of the strangest bits of information in Robert K. Massie's Peter the Great (1980), which I also read last week: his account of Frederick William I of Prussia's obsession with giants:
The King's most famous obsession was his collection of giants, for which he was renowned throughout Europe. Known as the Blue Prussians or the Giants of Potsdam, there were over 1,200 of them, organized into two battalions of 600 men each. None was under six feet tall, and some, in the special Red Unit of the First Battalion, were almost seven feet tall. The King dressed them in blue jackets with gold trim and scarlet lapels, scarlet trousers, white stockings, black shoes and tall red hats. He gave them muskets, white bandoleers and small daggers, and he played with them as a child would with enormous living toys. No expense was too great for this hobby, and Frederick William spent millions to recruit and equip his giant grenadiers. They were hired or bought all over Europe; especially desirable specimens, refusing the offer of the King's recruiting agents, were simply kidnapped. Eventually, recruiting in this way became too expensive--one seven-foot-two-inch Irishman cost over 6,000 pounds--and Frederick William tried to breed giants. Every tall man in his realm was forced to marry a tall woman. The drawback was that the King had to wait twenty years for the products of these unions to mature, and often as not a boy or girl of normal height resulted. The easiest method of obtaining giants was to receive them as gifts. Foreign ambassadors advised their masters that the way to find favor with the King of Prussia was to send him giants. Peter especially appreciated his fellow sovereign's interest in nature's curios, and Russia supplied the Prussian King with fifty new giants every year. (Once, when Peter recalled some of the giants lent to Frederick William and replaced them with men who were a trifle shorter, the King was so upset that he could not discuss business with the Russian ambassador; the wound in his heart, he said, was still too raw.)
As I typed that passage, I kept thinking that it was getting too long and I should cut it off. But where could I have stopped? Would you have wanted to continue in life not knowing about Peter's annual fifty-giant gift? Or Frederick's despondence when he took some back? Each sentence piles on yet another amazing detail. The past is a foreign country indeed--they do things insanely differently there.

3 Or maybe not so much, depending on whether you're hanging out in the American South in a Charles Portis novel. Back to Norwood, and a conversation with the earlier "midget of inestimable age," who introduces himself to Norwood as Edmund B. Ratner, the world's smallest perfect man:
"My father sold me when I was just a pup."

"Sold you?"


"I don't believe that."

"It's true, yes. He sold me to a man named Curly Hill. Those were dreadful times! My father, Solomon Ratner, was not an uneducated man but he was only a junior railway clerk and there were so many mouths to feed. And imagine, a midget in the house! Well, Curly came to town with his animal show--he toured all the fairs. He saw me at the station and asked me how I would like to wear a cowboy suit and ride an Irish wolfhound. He had a chimp named Bob doing it at the time. I directed him to my father and they came to terms. I never learned the price though I expect it was around twenty pounds, perhaps more. Now understand, I don't brood on it. Curly was like a second father to me, a very decent, humorous man. He came from good people. His mother was the oldest practical nurse in the United Kingdom. I saw her once, she looked like a mummy, poor thing. The pound was worth five dollars at that time."

"Are you with a circus here?"

"No, no, I thought I told you, I left circus work. Now that was a silly business. I let my appetite run away with me. I can't account for it, it came and it went. Pizzas, thick pastramis, chili dogs--nothing was too gross and I simply could not get enough. Some gland acting up. I grew four inches and gained almost two stone. Well, the upshot was, they took away my billing as the World's Smallest Perfect Man and gave it to a little goon who calls himself Bumblebee Billy. I ask you! Bumblebee Billy! All his fingers are like toes. Needless to say, I was furious and I said some regrettable little things to the boss. The long and short is, I was sacked altogether. "

"Them are regular little hands you got."

"Of course they are."

"If you were out somewhere without anything else around, like a desert, and I was to start walking toward you I would walk right into you because I would think you were further off than what you were."

"I've never heard it put quite that way."
Doesn't that make you want to, first, thank the gods that the world has someone as strange as Charles Portis in it, and, second, run out and buy, not a midget or giant, for that would be wrong, but the first Portis novel you find?

No comments:

Post a Comment