Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Nazis in power

The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), the first volume of Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans’s three-volume history of the Nazi era in Germany, was one of the best books I read last year. It was impressively detailed, yet gripping and frightening. It balanced comfortably between accident and inevitability, demonstrating the little, unremarkable factors that caused the Nazi rise, while also keeping an eye on the seemingly inexorable larger elements . It’s a way of letting us simultaneously understand the era as tragedy and as a sheer –and repeatable–human failing.

The second volume, The Third Reich in Power (2005), is a less dramatic book. Without the press of events that destroyed the Weimar Republic to structure it, Evans is left with a partyin power and the bureaucratic, legal, and illegal actions it takes. Everything feels like a prelude to the war that Hitler had been planning since before he took power.

But Evans still presents a lot of fascinating detail. Making use of multiple types of source, he paints a clear picture of life under a totalitarian regime. When the Nazis first started pushing citizens to denounce their neighbors,
It was the unpredictability of denunciation, rather than its frequency, that mattered. It caused people to believe that agents of the Gestapo, paid or unpaid, were everywhere, and that the police knew everything that was going on.

Germans who did not support the regime—a significant number in the early years—communicated their disapproval clandestinely:
Some began to speak of “the German glance,” a counterpart to “the German greeting” [the Hitler salute] when two friends happened on one another in public: it meant looking round to make sure nobody was within earshot.

And, in an example of just how much ground good history can cover, Evans tells of chilling accounts of dreams collected by journalist Charlotte Beradt in 1933:
One doctor dreamed in 1934 that the walls of his consulting-room and of all the houses and flats in the neighborhood suddenly vanished, while a loudspeaker blared forth the announcement that it was “according to the Decree for the Abolition of Walls, passed on the 17th of this month. . . . A girl reported that in a dream she had seen the two pictures of angels that hung over her bed move their eyes downwards from their accustomed heavenward gaze so that they could keep her under observation. . . . [A] woman dreamed that she removed the swastika from the Nazi flag every night, but it reappeared every morning all the same.

As diarist Victor Klemperer noted, and later wrote a whole book about,
Words that in a normal, civilized society had a negative connotation acquired the opposite sense under Nazism . . . So that “fanatical,” “brutal,” “ruthless,” “uncompromising,” “hard” all became words of praise. . . . The German language became a language of superlatives, so that everything the regime did became the best and the greatest, its achievements unprecedented, unique, historic and incomparable.

As the Nazis tightened their control on every aspect of civilian life, they retained an odd attachment to fig leaves of legality, hastily promulgated decrees (The Decree for the Abolition of Walls) to cover actions they wished to take, or, sometimes, had just taken. And it seemed to make a difference to people, both in Germany and internationally, that the Nazis pretended to rule by law. It was the same in the Roman empire: one of the reasons Caligula terrified people was that he dispensed with the legal fictions Tiberius had retained When Caligula wanted someone dead, he didn’t secretly poison him; he simply killed him outright.

Terrible, punitive laws were passed targeting particular groups—Jews, Catholics, Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, gypsies, and homosexuals—then the Nazis, from Hitler down to the lowest SS men, would go beyond the law in their brutality. When Jews were being forced to sell their businesses in 1935,
A characteristic incident occurred . . . when the Jewish owner of a shop agreed after lengthy negotiations to sell it to a non-Jewish purchaser who had repeatedly attempted to beat the price down. As he took the money from the purchaser during the final meeting in his lawyer’s offices, the door opened and two Gestapo officers came in and declared the money confiscated on the basis of a law covering the property of “enemies of the state.” Seizing it from the Jewish vendor, they arrested him for resisting authority, while the purchaser banded him and his family from returning to their business and to their home above the shop, although the contract allowed them to do so.

Once in a rare while, a person was able to use such fabricated legality against the Nazis themselves:
When stormtroopers were brought in to the village from outside to confiscate the bicycles of the local cycling club, which was close to the Communist Party, the local innkeeper, a long-established Nazi Party member, presented them with a fictitious deed purporting to show that the club owed him so much money that he was entitled to seize the bicycles in lieu of payment. The stormtroopers withdrew, and the innkeeper stowed the bicycles away in his loft, where they remained until they were retrieved by their former owners after the war.

Such victories were few, and The Third Reich in Power is throughout a horrifying slow-motion tragedy, wherein a radical party takes power and every day surprises people by how much more radical it is than they expected. That’s not to say the Nazis didn’t have support—Evans very clearly parses their varying, but generally high levels of public support, reminding us that what people wanted most was stability after the turmoil of the Weimar years. After 1934, the Nazis provided that, and for the most part, people were willing to look the other way in exchange.

What’s most chilling to me is the sense that we haven't learned what we should have from the Nazis. The most radical edges of our politics are still driven by suppurating resentment, as were those of the Nazis to an astonishing degree. Politicians still trade on fear and anti-intellectualism. Alberto Gonzales and the other believers in the “unitary executive” have yet to learn that no one is to be trusted with absolute power. In the rhetoric of the dedicated anti-immigration forces, who warn us that our culture is under attack, and we’re being “swamped” and “drowned” by aliens, I hear a familiar xenophobia and scapegoating.

As a nation, we’re very good at ignoring things that are disturbing. Of course, I’d like to think that had I been in Nazi Germany, I would have resisted. But there’s no way to know. I like a quiet, stable life. So do other Americans. How far would we go to keep that? How long would we look the other way? The totalitarian impulse never disappears. It just waits until we’re not paying attention, then it quietly begins going about its work.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

R. I. P. Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

From Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught everywhere from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hairsplitting quibbles about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding.

Right after I moved to Uptown, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It would be hard to overstate how brilliant it seemed. I was quickly growing to love the messy, unplanned, lively character of the neighborhood, and Jane Jacobs explained, clearly and convincingly, why it worked. From the organic, contingent development of successful city neighborhoods, she drew conclusions that, while flying in the face of development and planning principles of the time, seemed, when I read them thirty-seven years later, irrefutable. They described perfectly what I loved about Uptown.

Now, Jacobs's arguments for the value of multi-use, diverse, compact neighborhoods are nearly commonplaces. She didn't quite win the battle; the arguments over development, density, sprawl, and zoning continue. But she did fundamentally change the terms of the debate for the better. There aren't many people in any field who can say that.

Last night, before I knew Jacobs had died, Stacey and I saw a documentary at the Chicago Architectural Foundation about Alexander Caldwell, designer of some of Chicago's finest parks (including Promontory Point, the lily pond north of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the entire lakefront between Foster and Montrose, where we spend countless summer hours).

In the cafe next door, an old man was reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities. When I'm his age, I'll probably still be able to find someone at the cafe next door to the Chicago Architecture Foundation reading Jane Jacobs, and learning from her. Books full of ideas are great, great things.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Christopher Marlowe

As presented by Robert Graves in I, Claudius, ancient Rome, with its double dealing, spying, and state-sanctioned murders reminded me more than a little of the presentation of Elizabethan England in David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004). Claudius’s tendency to quietly stay out of the way, underestimated and unremarked, would have served him well amid the religiously inspired plots and counterplots of Elizabeth’s reign nearly sixteen centuries later.

Sadly, Christopher Marlowe probably wouldn’t have taken such advice. From the little we know about him, and David Riggs’s extrapolations from that evidence, Marlowe seems like a man who would have found trouble in any era, no matter how hard he had to look. He brawled in the streets. He might have been gay, was likely an atheist, and he traveled in questionable circles. Worst of all, he spoke and wrote freely in an age when that was perilous. His mysterious, much-studied stabbing death in a private house in Deptford, during a quarrel with swindler Ingram Frizer, could not have come as much of a surprise to his friends. Anyone courting death in the violent culture of Elizabethan England should not have expected a long engagement.

The son of a shoemaker in Canterbury, Marlowe attended Cambridge on scholarship. In 1587, Cambridge officials hesitated to grant his degree because of rumors that he might be involved in Catholic plotting, but a cryptic note from the Queen’s Privy Council changed their minds. It asked that they award the degree and allay any rumors, because Marlowe “had done her Majesty good service . . . in matters touching the benefit of the country.” Spying? No one knows. The note is the only piece of hard evidence, though Riggs makes a good case for Marlowe the spy from other, circumstantial evidence. And thus began the mysteries that surrounded Marlowe the rest of his life.

About Marlowe the writer, a little more is known. He wrote “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” In a time when Virgil was all the rage, he translated the politically unacceptable Ovid. In 1587, his first London stage production, Tamburlaine the Great, was a tremendous hit, so he followed it with Tamburlaine the Great, Part II. In the next five years, he had hits with The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward the Second, and The Massacre at Paris, each bloodier than the last.

In the midst of his writing success, Marlowe was dogged by trouble. He was arrested in the Netherlands for counterfeiting, getting off somehow on the excuse that he only wanted “to see the goldsmith’s cunning.” In Shoreditch, he was arrested as a participant in a brawl wherein one of his friends killed a man, and later he was required to post a guarantee that he would not disturb the peace. In Canterbury, he was sued for destruction of property. (Unlike his contemporary Ben Jonson, Marlowe didn’t, so far as we know, kill anyone.)

He consorted regularly with half a dozen or so of Elizabeth’s spies, at least some of whom were double agents. And, if one of her informants is to be believed, Marlowe loudly and regularly proclaimed his atheism, in the pugnacious manner of late-night college dormitory disputants:
Marlowe “doth not only hold [these opinions] himself,” Baines concluded, “but almost into every Company he Cometh he persuades men to Atheism, willing them not to be afeared of bugbears and hobgoblins, and utterly scorning both god and his ministers.”

Under torture, Marlowe’s friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd corroborated the accusations:
“It was his custom,” he wrote, “in table talk or otherwise to jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate and confute what hath been spoke or writ by prophets and such holy men.”

Such beliefs were not to be spoken aloud, for any doubt gave aid and comfort to the queen’s Catholic enemies. Days after the accusations, Marlowe was dead after the “great reckoning in a little room,” about which Charles Nicholl has written a whole book, and which Riggs describes—and investigates—extremely well. Was Marlowe murdered by order of the Queen? The facts are complex, but Riggs argues convincingly that “all relevant evidence leads back to the palace.” Within a fortnight, the Queen had pardoned the killer.

Near the book’s end, Riggs asks:
Was the great poet a good man? Firsthand recollections about Marlowe’s character are hard to come by. Nashe counted him “among my friend that used me like a friend.” The printer Edward Blount calls him “the man, that hath been dear unto us.” The satirist John Marston memorably refers to “kind Kit Marlowe.” On the other hand, Kyd’s letters to Puckering assert that Marlowe was “intemperate and of a cruel heart,” a person who rashly attempted “sudden privy injuries to men.”

Riggs attempts to mitigate Kyd’s words, arguing that, having been tortured, he was attempting to distance himself from Marlowe, but Kyd’s description sounds as apt as the kinder ones.

That’s the Marlowe who’s so fascinating: a man of contradictions and confusions and mysteries, living in an era that seems a heightened composite of those qualities. And David Riggs does a laudable job of, essentially, creating that Marlowe for us, making him real and compelling against the backdrop of those times. His brief life and penchant for trouble call to mind the Edna St. Vincent Millay lines, from "First Fig" (1920):
My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night.
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

I've already imagined Marlowe consorting with Claudius, so I might as well pull him out of history again and wonder how he would find our era, when a person with his literary talents has a more clear—and certainly much safer—path. I don’t think I’d like to have been friends with Marlowe, but I’d like to have had other friends who were. That way, I could avoid being dragged into his troubles, but I’d get to see him once in a while at parties. I’d always be kept up on the gossip. And I’m guessing that wouldn’t lessen the mystery or the contradictions one bit. Kit Marlowe would still be trouble.

Monday, April 24, 2006

R. I. P. Muriel Spark (1918-2006)

From "The Portobello Road," collected in The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark
I must explain that I departed this life nearly five years ago. But I did not altogether depart this world. There were those odd things still to be done which one’s executors can never do properly. Papers to be looked over, even after the executors have torn them up. . . . Sometimes as occasion arises on a Saturday morning, my friend Kathleen, who is a Catholic, has a Mass said for my soul, and then I am in attendance, as it were, at the church. But most Saturdays I take my delight among the solemn crowds with their aimless purposes, their eternal life not far away, who push past the counters and stalls, who handle, buy, steal, touch, desire and ogle the merchandise. I hear the tinkling tills, I hear the jangle of loose change and tongues and children wanting to hold and have.

That is how I came to be in the Portobello Road that Saturday morning when I saw George and Kathleen. I would not have spoken had I not been inspired to it. Indeed it’s one of the things I can’t do now—to speak out, unless inspired. And most extraordinary, on that morning as I spoke, a degree of visibility set in. I suppose from poor George’s point of view it was like seeing a ghost when he saw me standing by the fruit barrow repeating in so friendly a manner, “Hallo, George!”

Sunday, April 23, 2006

An odd English boyhood

As I’ve mentioned before, I started reading Julian MacLaren-Ross only because he is considered to be the model for X. Trapnel, a louche young writer who figures prominently in the final three novels of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Trapnel is a striking figure; tall, thin, and bearded, he carries a sword cane surmounted by a tiny skull. “The final effect had that touch of surrealism that redeems from complete absurdity, though such redemption was a near thing, only narrowly achieved.” A peerless raconteur, and utterly feckless, he always needs to be stood drinks and fronted cab fare. (The reason he takes cabs everywhere? “Taxis provided a security, denied to the man on foot, against bailiffs serving writs for debt.”) Narrator Nicholas Jenkins, recently moved to a quiet country house, spends many a late night in Trapnel’s company—to some extent reliving his own youth in the bubbly 1920s. Though he enjoys Trapnel’s rackety eccentricity, he can foresee the inevitable dissolution.

According to everything I’ve read, the differences between MacLaren-Ross and Trapnel were minor. Somehow, however, in the midst of a short life spent rambling around the pubs of Fitzrovia at all hours, MacLaren-Ross managed to write a couple of volumes of autobiography and a bunch of short stories. I just finished his memoir of his boyhood, The Weeping and the Laughter, which, in its convoluted, Latinate sentence structure bears a bit of a resemblance to Powell’s writing. Thought it’s out of print in the United States, it’s great fun and has value well beyond the Powell connection.

The opening will give you a sense of MacLaren-Ross’s intentionally overblown sense of drama:

Soon after my birth, which took place at midnight and during a thunderstorm , war broke out, and one of my earliest memories is of being snatched from my cot and carried out in my father’s arms on to the lawn of our house at Ramsgate, just in time to see a German Zeppelin cast its shadow on the rooftop from the vast moonlit menace of the sky.

“Vast moonlit menace of the sky”—that’s the tone in which MacLaren-Ross describes the whole world of his youth; everything is seen through the credulous eyes of young Julian, who has been conditioned by a steady diet of movie thrillers to see lurking mystery everywhere.

His father is obstinate and particular, turning every disagreement into a carefully nurtured feud. When MacLaren-Ross’s sister, Carol, reveals that she is eloping, things do not go well:
When my father wished someone to leave the house, their departure was not long delayed. Carol was no exception to the rule. . . . “We’d neither one of us ever accept a penny of yours,” Carol told him, “but if you must know, we are going to Canada.” . . . “Perhaps your husband imagines the Klondike gold-rush is still in progress? I can assure you that it has been over for many years: your Uncle Reggie was frozen to death there in 1896. Stiff as a board, I remember, was the way they put it at the time.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke to his daughter.

But the other odd relatives bear a share of the blame for the elder MacLaren-Ross’s vexed relationships:
It was owing to the mutual antipathy between Father and Grandma Emily, as she was always called, that they visited us so rarely, to the regret of my mother ,who not unnaturally did not share her husband’s dislike of her parent. Every time they met, my father would make a heroic effort to overcome this, as on the present occasion: the strain of which was reflected in the fixed brightness of his smile while his voice, pitched a tone louder than usual, held [a] spurious and rather ferocious geniality. . . . But Grandma Emily was not deluded, nor did she make any reciprocal attempt to disguise her own feelings: her opening remark, as I recall, prefaced with the eerie cackle that had been in her youth a gay ironical laugh, was: Why, Lambden, you’re looking old.

Uncles (like Uncle Max, who becomes convinced that his business partner is a swindling murderer) and aunts (like Aunt Edith, about whom MacLaren-Ross’s father says, “That woman’s a stormy petrel if I’ve ever seen one.”) shimmer in and out, sometimes living with the family, at other times convincing them to enter into ill-advised financial ventures. Carrying Julian’s naivete throughout the narrative allows MacLaren-Ross to imbue even fairly ordinary details of life with an element of wonder. Disembarking from the Calais ferry, his
first sight of France was of a cloaked man holding an enormous key. . . . He was the subject of [a poster] and advertised not as I thought some super-serial but, as Mother told me . . . a detective agency: even more satisfactory, since I had not imagined such concerns existed outside film or books.

Later, he is enthralled by a French puppet show:
The Judge arrived to try the case, in white wig and black gown. He condemned Guignol to death on the spot. There was no jury, and soon the guillotine was dragged on to the stage, en bloc, by the Gendarme and the Executioner. It seemed Guignol was for it this time, but no: his stick appeared by magic in his arms and he proceeded to murder all the representatives of the law, guillotining personally the Judge and the Executioner after he had stunned them with his stick.

One would have expected this drama of greed and mass murder to conclude, somehow, on a moral note; instead it concluded, oddly, with a paean in praise of drink.

MacLaren-Ross also brings that air of non-judgmental wonder to images and scenes that would otherwise be grotesque, horrible, or affecting, like the beggars Julian finds in Marseilles:
There was a dwarf with a hump on his back and a hare-lip, who apparently lived in the Cathedral de Notre Dame and used to pounce on passers-by from its doorway, pursuing them for some way down the street with curses if he failed to receive a donation. Farther along, a blind woman was stationed, holding a child, also blind, in her arms. The dwarf always stopped short when he reached her territory; so you were safe from him if you got as far as that. . . . After her there was a fairly beggarless stretch of pavement; then came two men in rags, both legless, between the Dames de France and the Galeries de Lafayette. One sat in a sort of box on wheels, exposing the stump of a shoulder like yellow wax, where his arm had seemingly been hacked off with a hatchet. The second man had no box but was propped up on the sidewalk itself and had only sores to exhibit, less interesting than the stump and more repulsive to look at.

And, oh, does MacLaren-Ross love the grotesque. He tells of “a female shark, harpooned off the quay, [that] gave birth to little sharks in her death-agony on the quay.” And of his Uncle Bertie’s pet leech,
which had been employed by a French doctor for cupping my grandmother during a grave illness, Uncle Bertie had become fond of it during the time it was applied to her, and since it had played a large part in saving her life, he felt it should be preserved. Now it lived in a bottle, raw meat was provided daily to supply the blood needed for its sustenance, and he described how, when the meat was sucked dry, it would let go and fall gorged to the bottom of the bottle, where it lay until no longer replete and ready for the next meal: otherwise, to make it loose hold when once anchored to a prey, the best method was to sprinkle salt on it, as with ticks on dogs.

The overall effect is like a mixture of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, in which siblings form an intense, near-mystical bond in the wake of their father’s self-destructive profligacy, and Flora Thompson’s loving memoirs of growing up in an English country village, Lark Rise to Candleford. Or as if Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, and Jean Shepherd had combined to write a memoir of boyhood.

Ultimately, in The Weeping and the Laughter MacLaren-Ross has recaptured that mistaken sense kids possess that the world is explicable, and that the only reason it doesn’t quite make sense is that they’re not yet adults. By doing so, he simultaneously domesticates the disturbing and renders strange the ordinary, weaving both into an engaging, memorable chronicle of a long-gone world.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Oh, those Romans!

Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934) purports to be the autobiography of Claudius, a late-period Roman emperor whose reign fell between those of Caligula and Nero. Before his accession, Claudius was regarded as feeble and inconsequential due to a variety of physical ailments, the nature of which historians still debate. He walked poorly, stuttered, drooled, and suffered fits, but he was smart, canny, and underestimated by those around him, and those qualities allowed him to outlast all his rivals.

Graves makes the mistake of affecting a somewhat antiquated, awkward style, presumably to retain some of the tone of the Roman histories from which he drew his story. And because Claudius is writing the story of his life rather than a novel, Graves gives the book far too little structure, relying instead on chronology. Because Roman society was so complexly intertwined, and because the book spans more than eighty years, there are also far more characters than someone writing a proper novel would deem sensible. While some minor characters, like the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus and the captivatingly brave Praetorian Prefect Cassius Chaerea, come to life, dozens of others appear only long enough to add confusion to an already crowded narrative.

Despite all that, the decision to cast I, Claudius as fiction was probably the correct one. What Graves gains thereby is the freedom to present the dizzying machinations of high-level Roman politics through the consciousness of someone who is at the heart of the struggle, but often unnoticed. For most of the book, Claudius is the Nick Carraway of Rome: marginal, yet deeply complicit. His perspective sharpens our understanding of both the players and the destructive consequences of their actions.

But it’s the source material that makes the book. The Romans are perpetually fascinating, an incredibly fertile source of stories. At times, they seem very near to us in their thought and daily lives; some of Cicero’s speeches could almost be delivered by a particularly forceful and eloquent politician today. But then there are moments where the distance between us gapes wide, as when the Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia, relates the portents that accompanied his succession:
And at that fateful interruption of history what monstrous portents had not been seen? Had there not been flashes of armour from the clouds and bloody rain falling? Had not a serpent of gigantic size appeared in the main street of Alexandria and uttered an incredibly loud hiss? Had not the ghosts of dead Pharaohs appeared? Had not their statues frowned? Had not Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis, uttered a bellow of lamentation and burst into tears?

Or when a noble boy chokes to death on a pear, and
As was the custom in such cases, the pear tree was charged with murder and sentenced to be uprooted and burned.

Graves knows that that disjunction is a big part of why we read the Romans, and he supplies plenty. When Claudius’s brother, Germanicus, becomes a political threat to the Emperor Tiberius, he is cursed by a witch:
The next day a slave reported with a face of terror that as he had been washing the floor in the hall he had noticed a loose tile and, lifting it up, had found underneath what appeared to be the naked and decaying corpse of a baby, the belly painted red and horns tied to the forehead. An immediate search was made in every room and a dozen equally gruesome finds were made under the tiles or in niches scooped in the walls behind hangings. They included the corpse of a cat with rudimentary wings growing from its back, and the head of a Negro with a child’s hand protruding from its mouth. With each of these dreadful relics was a lead tablet on which was Germanicus’s name.

To no one’s surprise, Germanicus dies soon after.

And that’s the other reason we read about the Romans: the murders and machinations. I, Claudius features plenty. Through the reigns of Augustus and his stepson, Tiberius, who succeeded him, Augustus’s wife, Livia, is the manipulative power behind the throne. She’s the most compelling character in the book, utterly amoral and always several steps ahead, not just of her opponents, but of the reader as well. All possible rivals to Augustus and Tiberius end up dead, but in ways that no one ever manages to pin on her or either emperor. The ingrown, incestuous nature of Roman politics makes her ruthlessness more breathtaking: nearly everyone she murders is a relative. As Claudius realizes about his grandmother at a young age,
Most women are inclined to set a modest limit to their ambitions; a few rare ones set a bold limit. But Livia was unique in setting no limit at all to hers, and yet remaining perfectly level-headed and cool in what would be judged in any other woman to be raving madness.

The plotting and counter-plotting is dizzying. To be celebrated for any success, to achieve any public popularity, is to be noticed by Livia, and to be noticed by Livia is a death sentence.

But all the astonishing amorality supplied by the characters in the first two-thirds of the novel is just a warm-up. When the truly depraved Caligula appears, he makes his predecessors look like amateurs, like Karl Christian Rove showing up at a College Republicans gala.

Though there’s a fair amount of uncertainty among historians about just how insane Caligula was—Graves’s primary source, Suetonius, is generally agreed to have painted him in the worst possible light—there’s no question that he was a capricious, cruel, destructive emperor. He utterly discarded the pretense, maintained in varying degrees by his predecessors, that he was anything but an unfettered dictator, murdering at will and in public rivals whom Livia would have done away with more circumspectly. He spent profligately, nearly bankrupting the imperial treasury. He famously threatened to make his horse a senator. He also made a senator of a captain of guards who
had volunteered to drain a three-gallon jar of wine without removing it form his lips, and had really done so and kept the wine down in the bargain.

To refute a prophecy that he could no more be emperor than he could ride a horse across the Bay of Baiea, he
collected about four thousand vessels, including a thousand built especially for the occasion, and anchored them across the bay, thwart to thwart in a double line. . . . Then he boarded the double line across and threw earth on the boards and had the earth watered and rammed flat; and the result was a broad firm road, some six thousand paces long from end to end. When more ships arrived, just back from voyages to the East, he lashed them together into five islands which he linked to the road, one at every thousand paces. . . He installed a drinking-water system and planted gardens. The islands he made into villages.

Despite all the ruthlessness and violence that’s preceded him, Caligula manages to shock and horrify. Part of what’s awful and fascinating about Caligula—as with all of Roman history—is the level of detail that the historians have passed on to us, and Graves makes sure to incorporate as much as possible. A drunken Caligula causes the death of a prized hostage, Eleazar,
who was the tallest man in the world. He was over eleven foot high. He was not, however, strong in proportion to his height: he had a voice like the bleat of a camel and a weak back, and was considered to be of feeble intellect. He was a Jew by birth. Caligula had the body stuffed and dressed in armour and put Eleazar outside the door of his bed-chamber to frighten away would-be assassins.

Such are the glories of history: we know about the speaking voice of an utterly inconsequential Roman slave who was fated to suffer the indignity of being a scarecrow for assassins.

If you know any Roman history—or even if you’ve just read this far in this post—you’ll not be surprised to learn that it doesn’t work. Caligula is eventually murdered, and Claudius, perpetually underestimated, surprises everyone by succeeding him. Graves continues the story in Claudius the God, which will now go on my stack. But I may have to wait a bit before I dive into it. I can only take so much Roman nastiness at one time. I may have to read some Barbara Pym first. Or a Hard Case Crime novel. After Romans, grifters and gunmen seem positively saintly.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 8 of 8

From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl (2006)
Within weeks of the gift of the robe, the Emperor’s Mathematist, his chief artificer and scientist, requested a private audience. At a wave of the Emperor’s hand, the counselors crept from the room, clucking and fluttering, irritated at the privileges their sovereign had over the years accorded the Mathematist.

In the silent reaches of the imperial hall, overheard only by the fireflies that flickered through the early evening, the Mathematist explained his theory of combinatorics, using which he could elucidate all possible branchings of a tree of numbers—or stories. To that end, he asked that the Emperor let him count and classify the embroidered scenes, a project that, with assistance, the Mathematist could complete in less than a year.

From that count, he averred, he could tell the number and extent of all possibilities—mathematics would show forth all stories. Infinity would be brought to heel, chance shown to be a lie peddled by the ignorant.

The force of the Emperor’s displeasure should not have surprised the Mathematist. Perhaps it did not—inquiry frequently leads us into paths we should sensibly avoid. Surely he knew that the Emperor would disdain the idea that such a limited tool as mathematics could comprehend the whole of human experience. Perhaps he knew that his request would lead to his death.

But he would surely have been surprised by what the Emperor ordered next. In death, the Mathematist was added—crudely, it must be admitted—to the robe of stories, replacing the absence previously left for the infinite.

And there he remained, stitched as a warning, a chastening for those with the temerity to apply inquiry to the infinite. For the Emperor knew from painful experience that where there is a path we should sensibly avoid, there is always another path, and others still, and even chance knows not our choice until we have taken the first step.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 7 of 8

From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl (2006)
“This robe,” the man continued, “is decorated with all the scenes of human life. All things a man might do, or have done, or suffer through himself—all joys and fears, disappointments and surprises, loves and hates, art and destruction, begettings and murders—all are here, in discrete scenes that, with a shift of my shoulders, I rearrange. Every possible story is here for you, every beginning and every ending.”

He paused, rustling the folds of his robe as if calling on its guidance, then he spoke again. “A learned manipulation of this robe tells all tales. His Imperial Majesty need never be bored again—the robe contains infinite surprises.”

The advisors, old and troubled, wanting only a pleasing lack of disturbance in their last days, had sat, apprehensive, through this recitation. But on hearing the infinite spoken of with such blithe disregard for propriety, reflexively they cried out as one, dooming the man as an abomination for claiming such command of all knowledge. Their cries echoed around the chamber.

Unshaken, the man raised his voice and continued, almost shouting, drowning out the protests of the counselors. “But everyone understands that a mortal toys with the infinite at his peril. Knowing that, I have left a space untouched by my artistry. In that space lie all of man’s dreams—all things, however inconceivable, unknown as yet under the sun. In that absence all roads are open, no possibility foreclosed. And I have brought it for Your Imperial Majesty, in exchange for his recalling his armies from the land of my people.”

The counselors were uncertain, but as the Emperor turned his heavy head from the window, they saw in his eyes a brightness they had not seen since the early days of his reign. Though he said nothing—he spoke very little these later days—it was clear that the visitor’s offer had been accepted. Lands to conquer were many; this robe was singular. The armies would be ordered to keep moving, across the farther mountains.

The young man bowed, slipping the robe over his shoulders and into the arms of two pages. Forehead to the floor, he crawled backwards out of the hall. A counselor slipped from the room behind him to carry word to the generals.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 6 of 8

Stories of fashion got me thinking . . . and writing fiction for the first time in years. That's one of the many dangers of pulling Invisible Cities off the shelf—it ought to be in the back cover copy for that book, like a surgeon general's warning.

From Certain of the Chronicles, by Levi Stahl (2006)
In the later years of the Jade Emperor’s reign, his armies discovered and subjugated a mountainous land familiar from legend for its intricate works of embroidery. The people who dwelled in that land dressed in nothing but the most extravagantly decorated fabrics. To those who understood the customs of the land, the mere choice of pieces of clothing, and the particulars of its decoration, revealed the story of the wearer and his family, their achievements and position. To those who did not understand that language, the embroidery was simply art, captivating, like the shy smile of a woman one has not yet met.

On their return to the capital, the Emperor’s top generals brought him the finest examples of that artistry. The ornate capes, robes, dresses, and hats that the generals presented were decorated with fluttering birds’ wings, sinuous tendrils of flowering vines, indescribably powerful fish, quick with life, swimming in pristine alpine lakes.

Hidden behind their opaque screens, the Emperor’s advisors anticipated his nonchalant response. Reduced as he was in his waning years, he felt a constant need of variety and surprise in the forms of extravagance that were brought to him. He had worn beautiful clothing before. He had seen fashions come and go. Skilled as they were, these creations did not impress him. He waved away the generals, his own silks fluttering, bidding them bother him no more with such trifles. They shuffled disconsolate from the room and exhausted their wrath on their blameless adjutants.

But the generals, unwittingly, left behind them a surprise. In their place stood a young man, wrapped several times round in a gold—no, mustard—no, plum robe, his unlined face the only part of him visible above its folds. It was unclear, even to the elite guards, how he had reached the inner chamber.

He spoke. His dialect was rough, uncultured. The habitues of the court could barely comprehend him. “Your Imperial Majesty was wrong to reject the offered works. They are the finest fruits of a culture far older and more sophisticated than the one that has placed you on the throne of heaven. Were there gods, they would rebuke you. But Your Imperial Majesty’s blindness will be forgiven—because I wear what the Emperor desires.”

Hearing the word "wrong," the Court Executioner slid his sword silently from its scabbard. But at the smallest of signals—a puff of breath—from the Emperor, he stopped. The Court Executioner froze. His blade glinted mercilessly in the warm, fading evening light.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 5 of 8

Then there is the darker side of fashion, ranging from simple visual horrors to the actual evils of furs and feathers. And always, in fashion and clothing as in nearly everything, the Romans did it first, and worst.

From P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
”Jeeves is a great believer in the moral effect of clothes. He thinks I just as good, but I objected to the boots.”

I saw his point. There is enough sadness in life without having fellows like Gussie Fink-Nottle going about in sea-boots.

From Anthony Powell’s A Writer’s Notebook (2001)
A man says with horror, “Later, I saw him without a hat.”

From David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (1996), collected in Graeme Gibson's Bedside Book of Birds (2005)
The indigenous people also took their toll on the native birds. The spectacular feathered capes and helmets that became uniforms of rank among Hawaiian chiefs, and the ceremonial feather-garments known as kahilis (loosely translated, “fly flaps”), cost thousands of avian lives. During early periods of Hawaiian history, commoners were even obliged to pay tribute to their alii in the currency of feathers. Shiny black plumage from one species, scarlet from another, green from another. Yellow was the most valued color, a stroke of bad luck for species like Drepanis pacifica, the Hawaii mamo, with its bright yellow rump highlighted against a starling-black body. The annals of Hawaiian fashion tell us that one chief, Kamehameha the Great, possessed a resplendent yellow cape containing the feathers of eighty thousand mamo.

From Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934)
About this time Julia went quite bald. I do not know whether [her mother] Livia had a hand in this: it seems not improbable, though certainly baldness was in the Caesar family. At all events, Augustus found an Egyptian wig-maker who made her one of the most magnificent fair wigs that was ever seen, and her charms were thus rather increased than diminished by her mischance; she had not had very good hair of her own. It is said that the wig was not built, in the usual way, on a base of hair net but was the whole scalp of a German chieftain’s daughter shrunk to the exact size of Julia’s head and kept alive and pliant by occasional rubbing with a special ointment. But I must say that I don’t believe this.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 4 of 8

Every group and subgroup, every class and demographic, has its own fashion, its own range of acceptable dress. And that dress frequently looks odd, or even ridiculous, to those outside the group. From the wealthy ladies parading in their furs on Michigan Avenue to the kids hanging around the Dunkin’ Donuts on Belmont getting powdered sugar all over their tongue studs to the bond traders waiting for the train in their expensive suits on a cold morning, no coats, no hats—everyone looks silly if, for a moment, you don’t take them on their own terms.

If I’d realized that when I was twelve, middle school would have been a lot easier.

From Paul Fussell’s Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (2002)
The universal dilemma can be specified succinctly: everyone must wear a uniform, but everyone must deny wearing one, lest one’s invaluable personality and unique identity be compromised.

From Samuel Pepys’s Diary, 19 August 1661
To Worcester House, where several Lords are met in council this afternoon. And while I am waiting there, in comes the King in a plain common riding-suit and velvet cap in which he seemed a very ordinary man to one that had not known him.

From Céleste Alberet’s Monsieur Proust (1973)
He didn’t wear his shoes out any more than his clothes. He always traveled about in taxis and never walked except on carpets and parquets. And then he was a person of habit; he hated any kind of change. He felt especially comfortable in things he’d worn for a long time. What’s more, choosing, buying, trying things on, were tiring and took up time. Also, we mustn’t forget, he only went out at times when the shops were shut. He never bought anything himself—he ordered it.

From Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them: A Memoir of Parents (2005)
I engaged in numerous diets that might help me to resemble the ghoulishly emaciated models who flocked to Mother’s parties: three days of buttermilk and soda water, three days of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes, three days of stewed prunes and tea.

From my trip on the #6 Jackson Park Express bus the afternoon of March 30th (2006)
At 56th and Hyde Park Boulevard, a 20-ish Asian-American woman with extravagant, multi-hued hair extensions boarded the bus. She had a pretty face and was good-looking, though very skinny, dressed in a small, tight, white tank top and extremely low-rise jeans. She carried one of those long cruising skateboards, and she was plugged in to her earbuds, listening to music.

On her left hand was written, in big block letters, “BUY A SUIT!”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 3 of 8

When I think of the excesses of fashion, I tend to think of Bertie Wooster, whose desire to be de moda frequently outstrips his rather limited sense. But having been subjected so frequently to the withering sartorial opinions of Jeeves, he, too, can spot a fashion faux pas.

From P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
“What ho, Gussie,” I said.

You couldn’t have told it from my manner, but I was feeling more than a bit nonplussed. The spectacle before me was enough to nonplus anyone. I mean to say, this Fink-Nottle, as I remembered him, was the sort of shy, shrinking goop who might have been expected to shake like an aspen if invited to so much as a social Saturday afternoon at the vicarage. And yet here he was, if one could credit one’s senses, about to take part in a fancy-dress ball, a form of entertainment notoriously a testing experience for the toughest.

And he was attending that fancy-dress ball, mark you—not, like every other well-bred Englishman, as a Pierrot, but as Mephistopheles—this involving, as I need scarcely stress, not only scarlet tights but a pretty frightful false beard.

Rummy, you’ll admit. However, one masks one’s feelings, I betrayed no vulgar astonishment, but, as I say, what-hoed with civil nonchalance.

He grinned through the fungus—rather sheepishly, I thought.

From Robert Graves
’s I, Claudius (1934)
Everyone knew that Livia kept her [her husband] Augustus in strict order and that, if not actually frightened of her, he was at any rate very careful not to offend her. One day, in his capacity as Censor, he was lecturing some rich men about allowing their wives to bedizen themselves with jewels. “For a woman to overdress,” he said, “is unseemly. It is the husband’s duty to restrain his wife from luxury.” Carried away by his own eloquence, he unfortunately added: “I sometimes have occasion to admonish my own wife about this. “ There was a delighted cry from the culprits. “Oh, Augustus,” they said, “do tell us in what words you admonish Livia. It will serve as a model for us.” Augustus was embarrassed and alarmed. “You mis-heard me,” he said, “I did not say that I had ever had occasion to reprimand Livia. As you know well, she is a paragon of matronly modesty. But I certainly would have no hesitation in reprimanding her, were she to forget her dignity by dressing, as some of your wives do, like an Alexandrian dancing-girl who has be some queer turn of fate become an Armenian queen-dowager.” That same evening, Livia tried to make Augustus look small by appearing at the dinner table in the most fantastically gorgeous finery she could lay her hands on, the foundation of which was one of Cleopatra’s ceremonial dresses. But he got well out of an awkward situation by praising her for her witty and opportune parody of the very fault he had been condemning.

From Marco Polo's The Travels of Marco Polo (1298-99)
Now you must know that the Great Khan hath set apart twelve thousand of his men who are distinguished by the name of Keshican; and on these twelve thousand barons he bestows thirteen changes of raiment, which are all different from one another. In one set twelve thousand are all of one colour and there are thirteen different sets of colours These robes are garnished with gems and pearls and other precious things in a very rich and costly manner.

The Emperor himself has thirteen suits corresponding to those of his Barons, in colour, though his are grander, richer, and costlier. And you may see that all this costs an amount which it is scarcely possible to calculate.

From Anthony Powell’s A Writer’s Notebook (2001)
Widmerpool plays croquet in uniform, refusing to relinquish some papers from under his arm in a briefcase.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 2 of 8

To be fair to Julian MacLaren-Ross, the reason I started reading him in the first place was because he is said to be the model for the rackety writer X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. So Powell bears responsibility for this topic, too—which is fair, because he, too, had an eye for clothes. Mostly, however, his interest was in how they reflected social convention or position and how, when divorced from their social value, they were often, essentially, absurd.

Like tattoos.

From Marco Polo's The Travels of Marco Polo (1298-99)
[In Kanigu province,] both men and women have their bodies marked with the needle all over, in figures of beasts and birds; and there are among them practitioners whose sole employment it is to execute these ornaments upon the hands, the legs, and the breast. When a black colouring stuff has been rubbed over these punctures, it is impossible either by water or otherwise, to efface the marks. The man or woman who exhibits the greatest profusion of these figures, is esteemed the most handsome.

From Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing (1951)
“But my dear Peter,” [said Stringham], “Why do you always go about dressed as if you were going to dance up and down a row of naked ladies singing ‘Dapper Dan was a very handy man,’ or something equally lyrical? You get more like an advertisement for gents’ tailoring every day.”

From Céleste Alberet’s Monsieur Proust (1973)
As well as tails and dinner jacket, he had several jackets which he wore with striped trousers, and to these he added a black jacket with piping. Everything was of course made to measure.

He had a collection of waistcoats, handsome but plain. I remember he had one made because he particularly liked the material. It was red silk with a white silk lining. He tried it on and showed me. I can see him now turning this way and that in front of the mirror, then saying:

“Definitely not. It would be all right for a dandy like Bonii de Castellane, but I don’t want to look ridiculous.”

And he never wore it. I put it away in the cupboard.

From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972)
The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. . . . So you begin to wonder if Leonia’s true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity.

Of fashion and matters sartorial, part 1 of 8

If this series of entries is anyone’s fault, it’s Julian MacLaren-Ross’s. It was he, talking about World War I uniforms, as worn by his ne’er-do-well brother, who got me thinking about the many appearances of fashion and clothing in things I’ve been reading. A few hours later, when I happened across Barbara Pym’s note about the fashions at Oxford in her youth, suddenly I was off to consult Samuel Johnson. The rest was inevitable.

From Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)
Fashionist: A follower of the mode; a fop; a coxcomb.

From a letter by Barbara Pym to Philip Larkin, collected in A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (1984)
I suppose when you were at Oxford nobody came into The George wearing a silver lamé shirt or went around with a lizard on their shoulder or carried a toy kangaroo—that was the early thirties when I was up. But surely there must have been girls, even in the austere, one-bottle-of-wine a term forties (shoulder-length pageboy hair, square shoulders and short skirts?).

From Edward Lear’s The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense
There was an Old Man of Blackheath,
Whose head was adorned with a wreath
Of lobsters and spice, pickled onions and mice,
That uncommon Old Man of Blackheath.

From Julian Maclaren-Ross’s The Weeping and the Laughter (1953), in Collected Memoirs
My brother, pardonably bitter, turned his back on the church, and for a time went about getting drunk in a black cloak lined with crimson silk—but somehow he was not really cut out for a roisterer.

From P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves Takes Charge,” collected in Carry on, Jeeves (1925)
“Oh, Jeeves,” I said. “About that check suit.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Is it really a frost?”

“A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.’

“But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is.”

“Doubtless in order to avoid him sir.”

“He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.”

“I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.”

. . . .

“All right, Jeeves,” I said. ‘You know! Give the bally thing away to somebody.”

He looked down at me like a father gazing tenderly at the wayward child.

“Thank you, sir. I gave it to the under-gardener last night. A little more tea, sir?”

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Garry Wills on what Jesus meant

The most recent book I read by Garry Wills, his 1970 Nixon Agonistes, managed, in vividly portraying Nixon and his rise, to prefigure the next thirty-five years of the conservative movement. Not that Nixon Agonistes is a prophetic book; rather, it is a ferociously smart and clear-headed book, one that by completely understanding its historical moment shows us the seeds that Nixon and his supporters are sowing.

Wills’s brief new book, What Jesus Meant is not, properly, a response to that movement. Rather, as he puts it in the Introduction, it is a devotional book, the writings of a thoughtful believer who has spent long hours with the gospels. But in these times of hyper-politicized religion, any honest attempt to explain what Jesus meant will necessarily call out the contemporary conservative Christian movement for perverting the teachings of the man it claims to follow. As a non-believer compelled by Jesus, yet repelled by many of those who claim to act in his name, I found it fascinating.

Opening this way, however, is not quite being fair to the book; rather, it’s taking the marketing plan for the book at face value. Arguments about contemporary politics are simply a necessary side effect of Wills’s true focus: what Jesus is reported to have said and done, and what that means for believers. The search for the historical Jesus is not for him. While there may be historical and cultural lessons to be learned through such endeavors—why and how certain stories gained or lost prominence in the century or so during which the gospels were written—such considerations do little for faith itself. “The only Jesus we have,” Wills writes, “is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say.”

Those teachings, he demonstrates, are simple yet utterly radical. Jesus’ vision is, first of all, radically egalitarian. There are to be no distinctions between people on the basis of position, wealth, ethnicity, gender, or even piety. There are to be no priests, no division among the faithful: “Do not be called rabbi, for one is your teacher, and all of you are brethren” (Matthew 23:8). Everyone is equal before God. Such is clear to anyone who reads the gospels attentively, but Wills adds his deep knowledge of the period and the Bible itself, providing context for Jesus’ radicalism and the challenges it posed for the religious and secular powers of the time.

Then there is Jesus’ nonviolence: “I say to all who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). As Wills says, “Tremendous ingenuity has been expended to compromise these uncompromising words.” Violence is never acceptable: Jesus forbids Peter to draw his sword to defend him, and if violence to protect God himself is not acceptable, when would it be? All violence is violence against Jesus. Love is at all times the only answer.

That leads us to one of Wills’s recurrent points: Jesus viewed himself as sent by God to bring a new reign, based on love, a reign not rooted in earthly power or politics, but utterly separate from them, God’s love made manifest not just in Jesus, but, ultimately, in all of creation. Jesus did not have a political program or plan, and he cannot legitimately be conscripted in support of one:
Many would like to make the reign of Jesus belong to this political order. If they want the state to be politically Christian, they are not following Jesus, who says that his reign is not of that order. If, on the other hand, they ask the state simply to profess religion of some sort (not specifically Christian), then some other religions may be conscripted for that purpose, but that of Jesus will not be among them. His reign is not of that order. If people want to do battle for God, they cannot claim that Jesus has called them to this task, since he told Pilate that his ministers would not do that.

Such an assertion, of course, must lead Wills back to politics. He notes that both left and right have attempted to make use of Jesus, but, as the conservatives lately have been the ones to take upon themselves the mantle of Jesus, they come in for far more pointed denunciations. I see no way anyone could read this book and still believe that Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Fred Phelps—or George Bush or Benedict XVI—are truly following Jesus.

Such perversions—and even honest misunderstandings—of Jesus’ message are endemic, their very ubiquity a demonstration of how unsettling his teachings are. Even his apostles, the people who knew him best, are frequently shown in the gospels simply not getting it. They continue to think in terms of hierarchies and purity, us and them:
John said, “Master, we found a man casting out devils in your name, but we stopped him since he was not of our party." But Jesus answered him: ‘Do not stop him, since anyone who does not oppose you supports you’” (Luke 9:49-50).

From such failures of understanding grow, in later centuries, organized churches, the priesthood, excommunication, the Inquisition, religious war, even George Bush’s flat reversal: “You're either with us or against us.”

Where Wills and I differ, ultimately, is on the role of these teachings for one who does not believe. For him, Jesus’ singularity—and his importance—is rooted in his actuality as the son of God, in his death and resurrection:
If that is unbelievable to anyone, then why should that person bother with him? The flat cutout figure they are left with is not a more profound philosopher than Plato, a better storyteller than Mark Twain, or a more bitingly ascetical figure than Epictetus. If his claims are no higher than theirs, then those claims amount to nothing.

I disagree. For me, even if Jesus’ claims about a life beyond are spurious, even if he was nothing but a man—a man whose humanity shines vividly, interwoven with his uncanny strangeness, throughout the gospels—his message is no less strong. Though Wills emphasizes that Jesus was not telling us how to organize and manage this world—he was not, in other words, giving us a political program—that does not negate the force of his teachings in this world. There is no reason that the absence of a world beyond this one need necessarily make an attempt to live radically by love any less important.

Jesus’ followers believed in the resurrection, and that is why his message was preserved. But with that message before us, nonbelievers, too, can see how our lives fall short and can attempt to live with more love for others. Is that taking only a portion of Jesus’ message, while leaving out the more important part? Wills might argue so, and I can see his point: his analysis makes clear that Jesus's teachings about this world were always seen as a preparation for the world of God's reign. Would this message be more powerful if I believed in Jesus' divinity? I'm sure it would.

But I don’t see how lack of belief makes the portion one does take—that one should love unconditionally—any less compelling, any less useful, any less awe-inspiring. It may not be a political program. It may be unworkable on this earth, even on an individual level. But it remains a useful guide.

Even the following passage, which is predicated on the idea of an eventual day of judgment, when all are rewarded or punished, loses no power for me if severed from the idea of a divinity or an afterlife:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25: 35-46).

When we deny anyone, we deny everyone. When we aid anyone, we aid everone. Such is always our duty, regardless of belief. Absence of punishment or reward does nothing to mitigate our failure. We will fail, but that must not prevent us from trying.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Brief Lives

From Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Books”
I would rather choose to be truly informed of the conversation [Brutus] had in his tent with some of his particular friends the night before a battle than of the harangue he made the next day to his army; and of what he did in his study and his chamber than what he did in the public square and in the Senate.

Me, too. And, if his Written Lives is anything to go by, so would Javier Marías. Written Lives is a collection of brief biographical sketches of writers—mostly rackety, frequently troublesome, the sort who only demonstrate capability when putting pen to paper. But these aren’t by any means conventional biographies, covering achievements and major life events; instead, Marías tells of quirks and phobias, arguments and spectacular drunks.

The Borgesian origins of Marías’s approach are worth noting. He explains in the Introduction that
This book arose from another in which I was also involved: an anthology of very strange stories entitled Cuentos únicos, in which each story was prefaced by a brief biographical note about its extremely obscure author. The majority were so obscure that any information I had about them was sometimes both minimal and difficult to unearth, and, therefore, so fragmentary and often so bizarre that it looked as if I had simply invented it all, a conclusion reached by several readers, who, logically enough, also doubted the authenticity of the stories.

I believe, and believed at the time, that this was due not only to the strange and disparate nature of the information available about these ill-fated and forgotten authors, but also to the manner in which the biographies were written, and it occurred to me that I could adopt the same approach with more familiar and more famous writers. . . . The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.

He’s combed biographies, collections of letters, and diaries and boiled them down to telling details and anecdotes. He knows what’s likely to pique our interest—and that’s all he relates. Of Isak Dinesen he reveals,
According to the Americans, she lived on a diet of oysters and champagne, which was not quite true, for she also consumed prawns, asparagus, grapes, and tea.

And he tells of Djuna Barnes that
No one saw very much of her during this interminable old age. She was afraid of the adolescents who hung around in the streets. She had such a horror of beards that she even phoned a future visitor and demanded that he shave his off (she had enquired about his appearance) before he came to see her.

Then there is Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, Fanny:
The truth is that, with the exception of Henry James, who always treated her with great respect, Stevenson’s other friends all heartily detested her, because Fanny, on the excuse that everything was bad for Louis’ health, devoted herself to organizing every aspect of his life and to keeping him away from those friends whose companions—wine, tobacco, songs, and talk—she considered dangerous.

Then there is Nabokov’s wife, to whom we owe a great deal:
One day in 1950, his wife, Véra, only just managed to stop him as he was heading out into the garden to burn the first chapters of Lolita, beset as he was with doubts and technical difficulties.

The stories are enlivened by Marías’s elegant, detached, somewhat arch prose. He presents Laurence Sterne as the son of Roger Sterne, who
traveled ceaselessly with his battered regiment, accompanied by his wife and their variable number of children: variable because some were always being born and others were always dying.

And he ends the Djuna Barnes sketch with
She considered age to be an exercise in interpretation, but she also thought that the old ought to be killed off. “There should be a law,” she said. The law had its way in that apartment on the night of June 18,1982.

Of Yukio Mishima’s suicide, he says,
The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life.

Speaking of death, months before Henry James died—following a delirium in which he dictated two letters as if he were Napoleon—he told friends that in the grip of an attack,
When he fell to the floor convinced that he was dying, he had heard in the room a voice not his own saying: “So it has come at last—the Distinguished Thing!”

I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on the entry for the notorious alcoholic Malcolm Lowry, or the pleasant awkwardness of Conan Doyle, or the utterly incomprehensible behavior of Rimbaud. Written Lives is an enchanting book, a worthy companion to John Aubrey. It's so attuned to my tastes in biography that it might well have been written just for me. If Marías would write a dozen volumes, I’d read them all.

And now I can’t resist. I will give you something from the Malcolm Lowry sketch after all. It’s the epitaph he proposed for his tombstone:
Malcolm Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily
And died playing the ukelele.

His long-suffering wife chose, understandably, not to follow his wishes.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Criminally bad

In four months of writing this blog, I’ve written approvingly of nearly everything I’ve read. Even the couple of books that disappointed me had some value or brought me some pleasure. I wouldn’t blame anyone reading this blog for thinking I’m just not that picky.

That’s an illusion, however, one that’s possible because I’m pretty careful about what I start reading. I tend to know a lot about a book before I get around to picking it up. I read a lot of book reviews. I remember recommendations from friends, family, and co-workers. I follow a small batch of authors pretty closely and keep up with what they’re writing. And I browse my local bookstore a couple of lunch hours a week. So I rarely buy anything without having a pretty good idea of what I’m getting, and that it’s something I’ll like.

But I do on occasion turn over my decisions to trusted editors. I’ll read pretty much anything put out in the New York Review of Books Classics line. I’ll at least pick up anything that Luc Sante puts his name to. And, as chronicled here, I’ve subscribed to the Hard Case Crime series, which through five books had paid off. A little disappointment here and there, but nothing that I’d regretted reading. The editors and I seemed to agree, in principle, about what made a good crime novel.

That changed with Seymour Shubin’s Witness to Myself, which is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. Shubin has been writing mysteries for more than fifty years, and maybe this one, newly written for the series, is an aberration. Maybe he’s a great writer—the blurbs in the front matter for Witness to Myself make clear that some people think he is. But this is a bad book.

In Anthony Powell’s The Acceptance World, narrator Nick Jenkins deplores a popular novelist for his “inexactness of thought and feeling.” Add careless prose style, and you’ve got Witness to Myself. Ostensibly about a man tormented with guilt his whole life over a murder he may have committed as a boy, it fails to convey suspense, excitement, or psychological depth. Instead, there’s a relentless flatness. Take this paragraph from the opening page:
Alan and I were cousins, the only children of two sisters. We lived for quite a few years in the same neighborhood, in fact only four houses apart. And being five years older, I was like a big brother to him, more than just a cousin. He used to enjoy being in my company, following me around, which I took on as my role even though once in a while, like all kids, he was a nuisance.

Tolstoy renders masses of details both real in themselves and at the same time, in aggregate, as pictures of believable people and places—in the same inexplicable way that matter can be composed of both particles and waves. Shubin here is the anti-Tolstoy, tossing out details that by their very lack of specificity become less than the sum of their parts. There’s no exactness here. Nothing makes an impression—a building block for the next detail to rest on—because these aren’t really details. They’re more like the generic equivalent, as if Shubin arranged the basic elements of “remembered boyhood” and stopped there, before bothering to adapt the parts to fit a specific character.

That slackness also pervades the prose itself. This paragraph is fairly typical:
It was very soon after this that his career began to take a different direction. He had made a good friend of Elsa Tomlinson, of the renowned Elsa and Jonathan Tomlinson Foundation, the national charity that provided grants in many fields including the arts and education. He had been called in by one of his firm’s law partners to help her, a recent widow, reconstruct her will. And she had given him particular credit for it, to the point of having him do an increasing amount of the Foundation’s legal work.

I’m not Martin Amis-level picky about prose: I can put up with some awkward sentences if they’re part of an interesting story. And individually, each of these sentences would be tolerable. I’d quibble with the pretense of familiarity with the Tomlinson Foundation that he tries to casually slip past us by using the definite article in calling it “the national charity.” I’d object to the awkwardly placed “including the arts and education.” I’m capable of overlooking both, though, in a book that’s succeeding in other areas.

But in Witness to Myself, the hasty prose and the generic descriptions combine to give the impression that this world we’re reading about only exists sentence to sentence. One step beyond the current thought is pure absence, as Shubin, with a vague plot in mind, is making up the rest of his characters’ lives and habitats as he goes along. The guilt-ridden murderer starts thinking about buying a gun, so we’re treated to a generic memory of a sadistic childhood neighbor who owned a BB gun. Nothing ever rings true; every element is there simply to prop up the rickety sentence preceding it, making use of whatever comes to mind. Nothing is convincing, so nothing matters. We can’t care.

As I was swearing about Witness to Myself, Stacey kept asking me why I didn’t just stop reading it. I kept going because I wanted to learn that the Hard Case Crime editors had a reason to publish it. Surely something would happen to redeem the book. But I was wrong. Maybe it was included in honor of Shubin’s long career. Or maybe the editors and I don’t share taste in mysteries after all, and I’ve just been lucky so far.

I guess we’ll find out, because like a sap going back to the dame who cold-cocked him., I’ll be giving them another chance soon. Max Allan Collins’s Two for the Money is on the shelf waiting for me. I’ll check back and let you know whether I got the girl and the loot, or a blackjack to the skull.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

On love

From Barbara Pym’s A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters
21 September 1932
It was a very cold evening and I felt very tired, but we went down Weston lane and looked at the stars. I said that the happiness one got out of love was worth any unhappiness it might (and generally does) bring. I can’t remember what Rupert said but he wasn’t so sure about it not having had the experience I suppose.

From Propertius’s Elegies, 1.1 (ca. 54-40 BC), as translated and collected in A Loeb Classical Library Reader
Cynthia first with her eyes ensnared me, poor wretch, that had previously been untouched by desire. It was then that Love made me lower my looks of stubborn pride and trod my head beneath his feet, until the villain taught me to shun decent girls and live the life of a ne’er-do-well. Poor me, for a whole year now this frenzy has not abated, while I am compelled to endure the frown of heaven.

2 Samuel 11:2
And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself, and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

From Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them: A Memoir of Parents (2005)
In this particular mimesis of [my mother] Tatiana I had aspired to be courted by barons and counts, as she had, and I bettered her: I ended up going steady—how corny can you get?—with an alcoholic prince. No earlier accomplishments of mine evoked such a surge of maternal approval as I received during my affair with that particular cad.

From Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing (1951)
Being in love is a complicated matter; although anyone who is prepared to pretend that love is a simple, straightforward business is always in a strong position for making conquests.

From Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599, 1600)
Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or sleepy mountain yields.

From Evelyn Waugh’s "Love in the Slump" (1932)
“You’re always so much nicer to me than anyone else, Tom; I wonder why?” and before he could deflect her—he had had an unusually exacting day’s business and the dance had been stupefying—she had popped the question.

“Well of course,” he had stammered, “I mean to say there’s nothing I’d like more, old girl. I mean, you know, of course I’ve always been crazy about you . . . But the difficulty is I simply can’t afford to marry. Absolutely out of the question for years, you know.”

“But I don’t think I should mind being poor with you, Tom; we know each other so well. Everything would be easy.”

And before Tom knew whether he was pleased or not, the engagement had been announced.

From Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing (1951)
In general, things are apt to turn out unsatisfactorily for at least one of the parties concerned; and in due course only its most determined devotees remain unwilling to admit that an intimate and affectionate relationship is not necessarily a simple one: while such persistent enthusiasts have usually brought their own meaning of the word to something far different from what it conveys to most people in early life.

From Barbara Pym's A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters
1 November 1933
What a bad sign it is to get the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse out of the library.

From Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men (1931)
Barlow said: “If it’s really poisoning your life, why not ask her to marry you? I sometimes do that. Girls like it. Besides, you’d be quite safe. I don’t think she’d accept you for a moment.”

From an early 1938 letter from Barbara Pym to her friend Robert Liddell, collected in A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters
“Mrs Minshall seems to want us all to be either dead or married,” said Mrs. Pym to her daughter as they drove home in the car.

“Well, I do not see what else we can be,” said Barbara in a thoughtful tone. “I suppose we all come to one state or the other eventually. I do not know which I would rather be in.”

“Oh, there is plenty of time for that,” said Mrs. Pym comfortably.
From Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (1599, 1600)
The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

From David Riggs’s The World of Christopher Marlowe (2004)
Six years after Marlowe’s death, when his [translation of Ovid’s Amores] had appeared in print, Archbishop Whitgift ordered all copies to “be presently brought to the Bishop of London to be burned” in St. Paul’s churchyard.