Thursday, August 14, 2014

A visit to the library

When I started work on The Getaway Car, I hadn't been a student for nearly twenty years. So the first step was re-learning how to do research--which also involved learning just how much could be done from my couch. With the help of the University of Chicago Library, I was able to discover and order nearly fifty books and articles, and have a surprising number of them delivered to me directly, within minutes, right on my laptop. It was a spectacular lesson in the enlarged, place-less library of the present-and-future.

Ah, but there's still plenty to be said for actually hitting the stacks, as a visit this week to the Regenstein Library on campus reminded me. I went in search of Roy Fuller's The Second Curtain, an English crime novel from 1953 that had been recommended to me by Will Schofield (proprietor of the wonderful Fifty Watts). I located it, admired its first line "("Fox was rather like a fox."), and was about to move on . . .

Then another name caught my eye. Firbank. Ah, Ronald Firbank! The writer whom Anthony Powell led back into print when he worked at Duckworth, of whom Harold Nicolson wrote, "It would be impossible, I think, to actually be as decadent as [Firbank] looked." It has been a while since I've looked into his baroque weirdness. [Flip, flip, flip]

Oh, yes, this browsing was worth it. It turned up this, from the unfinished  Tragedy in Green:
It was one of Lady Georgia's habits to find equivalents for all her worser feelings in the Bible.
That line was offered as a gloss on a bit of dialogue:
"I am a work of art," she sighed, "and this evening I feel nearly as wicked as Herodias."
Few writers ever mastered the sigh like Firbank.

The same volume also yielded this bit, from another incomplete work:
Her week-ends were a noted success. She arranged a circle of chairs under the lime trees on her lawn, and everyone slept. It was so restful, her friends said, and then when one could not sleep one could always talk scandal to one's neighbor.
Firbank's complete works aren't extensive, which meant it didn't take long for my eyes to light on another irresistible volume: Ronald Firbank: Memoirs and Critiques (1977), an example of one of my favorite genres: a collection of accounts of a writer by those who knew him. With a character as memorable as Firbank, such a book can't but be riddled with gems. Here's one, from Ifan Kyrle Fletcher:
In 1905 he published a slim volume containing this story ["Odette d'Antravernes"] and another sketch called "A Study in Temperament." Some of the copies were bound in pink wrappers and some in blue. The pallor of these colors offended his eye, now quick in aesthetic sensibility. He expressed his detestation in a letter to his publishers which foreshadowed his later ironical work. From the point of view of the public, he need not have been concerned. His book was ignored.
Fletcher also supplies a wonderfully concise description. After quoting another person to the point that Firbank was "full of contradictions," "naturally artificial and sincerely paradoxical," Fletcher writes::
It is this twisting of qualities which today makes him appear so remote, like a figure from a Restoration comedy. And it was this twisting of qualities which, in his life-time, made him so vitally baorque. His life seemed all grotesque ornamentation. His love of beauty was skilfully disguised. But it was always apparent in his hatred of pretensiousness. He suspected his own expressions of admiration as strongly as he questioned the sincerity of all rodomontade. Growing out of this was his refusal to talk seriously about art and life, even to kindred spirits. he feared that serious talk would become sober tosh.
Then there's this unforgettable account from Augustus John:
If I terrified Ronald Firbank, as he used to say I did, he often quite unnerved me with his way of emitting a long, hollow laugh about nothing in particular, a laugh like a clock suddenly "running down," accompanied by a fluttering of the hands (not the clock's), hand which he would then proceed to wash with the furtive precipitation of a murderer evading pursuit.
Osbert Sitwell, meanwhile, retails an anecdote that is appropriate for this month's Great War centennial (even if it smacks of being far too good to be true):
He told us . . . that when, after a dozen or so examinations, the War Office finally rejected him as totally unfit for service (which anyone else could have told at a glance), and then, in their usual muddled way, at once called him up again, he replied to them through his lawyer with the threat of a libel action. The War Office, at a time when it governed the world, was so taken aback at this simple piece of individual initiative that it at once sent back to him a humble apology.
Evelyn Waugh, meanwhile, contributes a critical essay in which the following effectively analytic paragraph stands out (once you get past the "inscrutable wit of the Chinese," that is):
But by its nature Firbank's humour defies quotation. Perhaps it is a shade nearer to the abiding and inscrutable with of the Chinese. It is there to be njoyed by those who have a taste for it, but it is too individual and intangible to become a literary influence. The importance of Firbank, which justifies the writing of a critical essay about him, lies in his literary method. He is the first quite modern writer to solve for himself, quite unobtrusively and probably more or less unconsciously, the aesthetic problem of representation in fiction; to achieve, that is to say, a new, balanced interrelation of subject and form. Nineteenth-century novelists achieved a balance only by complete submission to the idea of the succession of events in an arbitrarily limited period of time. Just as in painting until the last generation the aesthetically significant activity of the artist had always to be occasioned by anecdote and representation, so the novelist was fettered by the chain of cause and effect,. Almost all the important novels of this century have been experiments in making an art form out of this raw material of narration. It is a problem capable of many solutions, of which Firbank discovered one that was peculiarly appropriate and delicate.

His later novels are almost wholly devoid of any attributions of cause to effect.

Still reeling from the strangeness of Firbank, I let my eyes slide over a shelf, where they found the safest of harbors: John Galsworthy. A volume of his letters, flipped open, yielded this passage, which seems a suitable way to tiptoe back towards ordinary life from the Firbankian shadows:
I am conscious of never having been of any set in my life. To be "in" and "of" are not the same. It seems queer to look back on those times; queer and not too reassuring--yet sometimes there comes over one now the feeling that in pure physical health and pleasures lies the true existence, and that in all the nerve devouring and heart searching analysis of our present years lies discontent and fag. How comparatively vegetably happy are not one or two of my friends of those days who have been content to pass their lives keeping packs of hounds. No doubts and queries about them! Jolly red faces, and solid muscles. Ah! well, everything that is, is right.
Equilibrium restored to at least its usual tentative state, I ambled from the library, remembering as I left a passage from late in the new, final volume of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, The Magician's Land. Grossman's characters are wandering a magical library located between worlds, and they glance into a side room, set aside by the librarian for "problem formats":
It was the weirdest bibliographical menagerie she'd ever seen. Books so tall and yet so narrow that they looked like yardsticks; she supposed they must be illustrated guides to snakes, or arrows, or maybe yardsticks. One book was kept in a glass terrarium--a librarium?--the better to contain the words that kept crawling out of it like ants. One lay slightly open on a table, but only slightly, so you could see that its pages emitted an intolerably bright radiance; a welding mask lay next to it. One book appeared to be all spine along all of its edges. It was unopenable, its pages sealed inside it.
Another room contains all the novels people have meant to write but not gotten around to. I imagine browsing in that room would be a tad less productive than the hour I spent in PR6011 through PR6013.

Enjoy your weekend, folks. May your browsing lead you to good places!


  1. I remember a library of novels people have meant to write but not gotten around to being in The Sandman comic somewhere, too. Oh, and 'The Second Curtain' is a wonderful book.

  2. Will actually pointed me to a post where you praised The Second Curtain as part of his pitch. It's up next, once I finish my current Nero Wolfe fix.