Monday, December 31, 2007

Writing Mark Twain

To write a life of Mark Twain must be an incredibly daunting task. The man lived a long and eventful life and wrote constantly (including more than 12,000 extant letters!). Much of what he wrote was ephemeral, a lot of it has dated poorly, and some is downright bad. Anyone who can grapple with all of that and come away with a convincing, compelling life is to be praised.

But they should also be sure to get their manuscript into the hands of a close-reading, hands-on editor. Sadly, Ron Powers doesn't seem to have done that with his Mark Twain (2005). A good editor would have prevented the following annoying, recurring problems from marring what is otherwise a fine book: anecdotes, incidents, and quips that are repeated, turning up first in the brief initial sketch of a character or period, then again when they occur naturally in the chronology; overuse of particular pet words, ranging from the wildly obscure ("absquatulate," which Powers plucks from one of Twain's letters and uses four or five times) to the simply uncommon ("anneal," which turns up a few too many times, never in connection with metalworking); the occasional slip into parade-of-events-style contextualization that is the hallmark of lousy biographies; too-easy reference to modern-day cultural figures and events; and simple mistakes, such as identifying Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop ever to play baseball, as a third baseman.

More important, a truly daring editor would have convinced Powers to drop most of his attempts at humor. I understand the impulse; after reading Twain it's really hard not to start thinking in his sarcastic, ironic terms. But that's one of the jobs of a good editor: to point out that when put up against some of the best humor writing in American history--a fair amount of which, particularly in the letters, is still quite funny--the biographer's sallies are sure to seeem flat at best, lame and forced at worst.

I don't want to sound relentlessly critical; I meant what I said in the opening paragraph. Twain's life is a tough task, and Powers handles it well. He delivers a Clemens that is unsimplified and unreduced: a stormy, fractious, emotional, talented man who seemed to only very rarely be able assess himself with any dispassion or objectivity, which both generated and compromised his art. Powers juggles Twain's crazily peripatetic life, his scads of friends and relatives, and his many, many projects (both completed and aborted) while never losing the narrative thread or allowing the tumult to explode into confusion. It also never bogs down, remaining interesting, even fun, despite the darkness that shadowed Twain's later years.

What I'm most thankful for, though, is Powers's delving into Twain's papers, including his letters and notebooks. Twain's voluminous correspondence--which must have been a brutal slog at times--yields some real gems for the reader. My favorites are the letters sent to Twain in the wake of the success of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, many of which were brazen requests for some form of assistance. Many, many people wrote for literary advice:
Do you think you could find time to look over say 400 pages of M.S.S. written. Something out of the treadmill style of the latter day novels?

On that envelope, Twain scribbled, "An absurd request." Others he filed away under "From an ass." No word on how he categorized the following inarguably logical request for funds:
Gracious Sir;
You are rich. To lose $10.00 would not make you miserable.

I am poor. To gain $10.00 would not make me miserable.

Please send me $10.00 (ten dollars). . . .
From Twain's own letters Powers turns up the following lines, which as a Chicagoan I can't resist sharing, written following a visit to Chicago in December of 1871, mere weeks after the Chicago Fire:
There is literally no Chicago here. I recognize nothing here, that ever I saw before.
Then there's this off-hand speculation on genius from Twain's notebook, written December 21st, 1866:
Geniuses are people who dash off wierd [sic], wild, incomprehensible poems with astonishing facility, & then go & get booming drunk & sleep in the gutter . . . people who have genius do not pay their board, as a general thing.
Finally, because it serves as the flip side of my occasional feature on works lost to fire, I'll close with this extract from a letter Twain sent his friend and editor William Dean Howells in August of 1876:
I . . . began another boys' book--more to be at work than anything else. . . . I have written 400 pages on it--therefore it is very nearly half done. It is Huck Finn's Autobiography. I like it only tolerably well, as far as I have got, & may possibly pigeonhole or burn the MS when it is done.

Have a great New Year's. Be careful what you burn.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mark Twain and the Civil War

I'm about a third of the way through Ron Powers's Mark Twain (2005), which has given me my first real acquaintance with Samuel Clemens's early years. Previously, all I'd known of his life was his riveting account of his brief career as a river pilot in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and bits and pieces of his later years, when he was famous and palling around with people like William Dean Howells and Ulysses S. Grant. It's been fun to get to know Clemens as an ambitious young man, fired with the joy that comes from transforming the heterogeneous stuff of the world into words.

What has struck me most forcefully so far, however, has been learning that Clemens pretty much sat out the Civil War. I assume that's commonly known, but I somehow hadn't realized it before. Clemens was twenty-five when the war began, and, despite (or perhaps because of?) growing up in Missouri, an area of sharply divided loyalties and great strategic importance, he seems not just to have avoided service, but to have as much as possible avoided even taking a position on the conflict.

To the extent that his loyalties can be reconstructed, they seem to have lain with the South, which I suppose makes some sense: though Lincoln was able through a combination of deft management and brute force to keep Missouri in the Union, it was a slave state that was culturally more Southern than Northern. It's also easy to imagine the high-toned moralizing of the abolitionist movement causing someone with Clemens's temperament to get his back up a bit; add in the casual racism that shows up in his youthful writings (and which he would spend a lifetime attempting to outgrow and overcome), and Clemens as a Confederate sympathizer is fairly easy to picture.

His only military service in the war was brief and essentially comic. Here's Powers's description of the homegrown, anti-Union militia that Clemens volunteered for in 1861:
The Green Berets, they were not. No two dressed alike. Weapons ranged from hunting knives to shotguns to squirrel rifles. . . . [Clemens's friend Absalom] Grimes recalls that Sam showed up for war on a four-foot-high yellow mule, clutching a valise, a homemade quilt, a frying pan, a squirrel rifle, twenty yards of seagrass rope, and an umbrella. . . . The outfit called itself the Ralls County Rangers. Sam was elected second lieutenant, and gave a speech standing on a log. Then they all went haring around the country, cadging meals at farmhouses, sleeping in the rain, and laughing at nay passing officer who dared give them an order.
The closest the unit came to combat was a late-night scare sparked by imaginary Union pickets and another false alarm that led to one of the men accidentally shooting his own horse. Clemens quickly fled the unit, and the war entirely, decamping to the Nevada territory, where he began writing the Western sketches that would first make his name. Even out there, though he got into a few arguments over the question, his occasional pro-secession remarks appear to have been at least as much the product of a needling contrarianism as of deeply held beliefs.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what I would have had him do differently. While I'd obviously rather he had seen the evils of slavery and the rightness of the Union cause, given his background that's difficult to imagine. And after all, it's not as if even all northerners were jumping at the chance to serve; the draft riots and the practice of paying for substitutes testify otherwise. Similarly, I'm not willing to take him to task for perceived cowardice: five minutes of reading about the carnage at Cold Harbor or the Battle of the Wilderness is enough to make anyone understand why a person would hope to avoid serving. Clemens wasn't yet a public figure, so it's not as if he had even an implied responsibility to be or do something larger than himself. Would I have been on the right side of the issue had I been in his shoes? I'd sure as hell like to think so, but it's impossible to know.

I guess I'm just surprised that when it came to the defining question of his age--an age for which he himself would end up as a defining figure--it appears that Clemens didn't even give it much thought. In a time when the fate of the nation was at stake in a war that with each passing year was being more clearly defined as an essential moral struggle, Clemens blithely stayed away. Am I wrong to expect more? Does it even matter? It doesn't seem to have mattered to his public as he rocketed to fame in the postwar years. (One wonders whether, like John Wayne, who also became a symbol of his nation despite avoiding service, Clemens in later years ever found himself in fights with those who had served. Did the question occur, for example, to Grant?)

But given that Clemens the writer still matters these days largely because of his ability to perceive and convey, however fitfully, the humanity of an escaping slave named Jim, his absence on the larger question of the fate of Jim and his brethren in the years before Huckleberry Finn does seem important. It's yet another inescapable complicating factor in our attempts to understand the man, his work, and his times.

On the lameness of me and the greatness of detail-oriented scholarship

Since I mentioned earlier in the week that I probably ought to get out more, I can't help but pose the question, before I even begin writing this post: could there possibly be anything more lame than spending the late hours of a Friday night writing about a note to a Penguin Classic? No, no, no, no way. There's just not. This is the lamest.

Does it help if I avow that Rocketlass and I did go out tonight? That we spent the evening with friends? No? Okay, what if I try to justify tonight's post by reference to my longstanding appreciation of the drudge work that goes into editing, establishing, and writing the notes for authoritative texts? It's work that I, by long ago deciding against graduate school, eschewed, but that I appreciate nonetheless, and that therefore I feel should occasionally get its share of attention.

The note I'm interested in tonight is one I picked up on several weeks ago when I was reading the Penguin Classics edition of Tom Jones. Late in the novel, in the midst of some pleasantly rambling remarks introducing a chapter, Henry Fielding describes the untrustworthiness of Tom's sugar mama Lady Bellaston in the following manner:
Tho' the Reader may have long since concluded Lady Bellaston to be a Member (and no inconsiderable one) of the Great World, she was in reality a very considerable Member of the Little World; by which Appellation was distinguished a very worthy and honourable Society which not long since flourished in this Kingdom.

Among other good Principles upon which this Society was founded, there was one very remarkable: For as it was a Rule of an honourable Club of Heroes, who assembled at the close of the late War, that all the Members should every Day fight once at least; so 'twas in this, that every Member should, within the twenty-four Hours, tell at least one merry Fib, which was to be propagated by all Brethren and Sisterhood.
Editors Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely grace readers of that paragraph with the following information:
Although the War of the Austrian Succession, formally concluded in October 1748, was the most recent war to have ended, Battestin plausibly finds an allusion here to a coterie of officeers, the so-called "Derby Captains," who devoted themselves to provoking duels following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. Battestin also cites John Arbuthnot's prospectus for a mock-treatise entitled "The Art of Political Lying" (1727), a chapter of which would outline "a Project for uniting the several smaller Corporations of Lyars into one Society."
Could a note be more suggestive or fascinating? Don't both those societies sound like something right out of Robert Louis Stevenson, or perhaps G. K. Chesterton? Dumas, too, would surely have had fun with these folks. Or, at a further remove, can't you imagine Borges delivering a detailed account of a secret society dedicating to lying and dueling--which, despite its being fully annotated and crammed with references to the appropriate historical documents, you would naturally assume to be a complete fabrication?

Thank you, edition-editing, note-writing scholars. You've kept me up far too late and brought me real pleasure.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

There'll be scary ghost stories . . .

{Photos by rocketlass.}
Chapter 1: Arrival at Raven House
Chapter 2: The Tall Ghost
Chapter 3: Settling In
Chapter 4: The Slamming Door
Chapter 5: A Strange Dream
Chapter 6: Mysterious Lights and a Warning
Chapter 7: Looking for Clues
Chapter 8: A Visitor in the Night
Chapter 9: Trespasser!
Chapter 10: The Old Locket
Chapter 11: An Accidental Discovery
Chapter 12: A Haunting Tune
Chapter 13: A Long Way Down
Chapter 14: The Invisible Hand
Chapter 15: Raven Cottage
Chapter 16: Return of the Mysterious Lights
Chapter 17: A Key
Chapter 18: Inside the Locked Room
Chapter 19: Do We Have to Have Dinner?
Chapter 20: An Exercise in Cartography
Chapter 21: Lost and Found
Chapter 22: The Adventures of an Epicure
Chapter 23: The Better Part of Valor
Chapter 24: Captured!
Chapter 25: A History Lesson
Chapter 26: Back to Raven House
Chapter 27: Two Birthday Parties
That's the table of contents for The Mystery at Raven House, the novel that Rocketlass and I have been writing for our nine-year-old nephew for Christmas. In years past, we've collaborated on a pair of picture books and a board game as gifts for him, but this is by far the most ambitious and extended story we've told.

In the novel, our nephew encounters some ghostly happenings while on vacation with his sister and his grandparents. I wrote a draft in early December, attempting to hew fairly closely to the style of the couple of godawful Goosebumps novels I checked out from my local library. Yet despite my satisfaction at putting together a coherent plot for the first time in my writing life, on the whole I knew the manuscript was at best fair. I instantly could tell that this just wasn't my form; writing each sentence felt like a brief but intense wrestling match, with my only goal being to lose in an unremarkable fashion.

So about four days before Christmas Rocketlass started work on a thorough revision. As she reads a fair amount of children's literature, she's much more adept at capturing the right tone, and her revision has done wonders--it's starting to resemble a real book.

But you've probably noticed some worrisome verb tense tension in the above description: "have been working on," "started work on," "starting to." As in, Christmas was two days ago and our revised manuscript currently stops after the seventh chapter. So did we disappoint our nephew on Christmas morning?

Would we do that? At the minutes ticked away late last week, I hit upon the brilliant idea of serial publication. What worked for Dickens and Trollope--or more recently for Stephen King and Michael Connelly--could surely work for us! We quickly laid out and printed the table of contents and the first six chapters, clapped them in an old wooden hollow book that we for some reason had lying around, and presented it to my nephew on Christmas accompanied by a promise that the mailman would bring him one additional chapter per week for twenty-one weeks.

To our surprise, he was really excited. In the past, we've given our gifts knowing that they were unlikely to compete with the allure of Star Wars Monopoly and Captain Jack Sparrow, and we've not been wrong. That's fine--while we've always hoped he'd enjoy our gifts, we've crafted them knowing that he's more likely to appreciate them when he's older. But this time was different. On opening the box, Carson immediately began reading, and when he got to the end of Chapter 1--
Grandpa turned the big key in the door and pushed it open. They all peered in. Then Grandma gasped and Ainsley screamed . . . there, just inside the door, stood a big white ghost!
--he visibly jumped. Soon after, he turned to us, wide-eyed, and said, "I'm going to go in the other room and read this right now!"

And he did. Here's hoping Rocketlass's inventiveness and ability to think like a nine-year-old hold up for twenty-one more chapters. In six months I'll be sure to report back to you what our nephew thinks of the project once he's turned the last page.

One of the incidental pleasures of biography

I just got back from Christmas travels, so no time for a real post today. Instead, I offer you a couple of lines from Ron Powers's Mark Twain (2005) that serve as a good example of one most fun aspects of biography as a form. The lines describe Samuel Clemens's mother, Jane Clemens, whose mercurial husband had just died, more or less bankrupt, leaving her with a clutch of children to raise. Jane, who was (not unreasonably) never all that stable herself, began to withdraw from active participation in the lives of her children:
Jane Clemens, not yet forty-four, drew inward, wept frequently, became absorbed in omens and dreams. Her flame-colored hair was graying. She took up pipe-smoking, played cards, accumulated cats, and grew deeply absorbed in the color red.
It's just three lines full of throwaway detail, but they deliver an oddly effective suggestion of roundedness and reality, intriguing and suggestive. Their sidelong concision hints of John Aubrey's elliptical style. And instantly we move on, because, despite playing a prominent role in her son's life, Jane Clemens is not the focus of this biography, and it will take hundreds of pages to attempt to limn her son's character alone.

When you read lots of history and biography of a period, occasionally those little incidental portraits start to interconnect, as figures from the margins of one life turn up as central to another; eventually a satisfyingly subtle tapestry of interwoven lives begins to emerge. It's one of the best ways--and maybe the most fun way--I know to really begin to get the flavor of a period.

Finally, how would I fare in that sort of three-line capsule summary? Something like this, perhaps?
Levi, not yet thirty-four, shaved his head and spent ever more of his time reading and running alone. He took up martini-drinking, bought books compulsively, accumulated cats, and became deeply absorbed in the sometimes-pink shade of his wife's hair.
Hmm. Though that last bit may be an exaggeration, it's still clear that I need to get out more.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Relatives and revelations

With Christmas looming, I'll be away from the blog for a few days. It seems right, as we gather our families around us, to leave you with William Maxwell, that master of writing about the histories, irrevocable if not unrecoverable, of American families. His stately, elegiac biography of his own family, Ancestors (1971) includes a scene that simply and movingly captures the distances between family members and generations--distances that we so often learn, too late, could have been bridged, had we only allowed ourselves to make the effort.

Maxwell presents that gap as it arises during a dinner between his young self, in his late twenties and recently transplanted to New York, and his uncle from Cincinnati, who is nearing forty and living a seemingly unremarkable Midwestern life, with wife and children and a brokerage business.
I was living in Greenwich Village, and he came east on a business trip and took me to dinner at an expensive restaurant on lower Fifth Avenue. We were beautifully at cross purposes all evening. I thought he had called me out of a sense of duty, whereas in fact it was because something--that I was a misfit introverted child, that he was fond of my mother and father, that I represented the younger brother he wished he had had--made him interested in me. All I know for sure, and I wish I had known it on that occasion, is that he was immensely pleased and proud of me because I had published a couple of novels.

I can see us now so clearly, in that lime-green hotel dining room--his face across the table from me, and his double-breasted dark-blue pin-stripe suit, and his courteous manner of speaking, and his habit of lighting one cigarette from another--that it almost seems possible to live the evening over again the way it ought to have gone.

At first, in our efforts to life the relationship to where it seemed to belong, we were not quite natural with each other. As people go, we weren't much alike, but it wasn't true either that we had nothing in common. He was named for my father and so was I. Max spent the early part of his childhood and I spent all of mine in a small town in the dead center of Illinois. We both went to high school in Chicago. My father felt that Max had failed in his responsibilities to his mother, but we could hardly talk about that. When other relatives got around to speaking of my writing, it was to point out kindly that there were novels which did sell--historical novels with lots of action in them, and plot. And that were afterwards bought by the movies for a considerable amount of money. It was not a conversation I wanted to repeat with Max. I had been in Cincinnati once, overnight, and hadn't called him. So we couldn't talk about Cincinnati. I had never met his wife and daughter. And I didn't own an stocks and bonds. Meeting my eyes over the top of his menu, he urged me to have turtle soup with him. I don't think I did. I can't remember what I had. But when his soup came, he summoned the headwater grandly and demanded a glass of sherry to put in it, and I wondered how he knew that this was what you were supposed to do.

As we ate, he asked one question after another. I have done it myself so many times since with somebody who was younger and not very talkative. It is the only thing you can do. He asked about my job, and about what it was like living in New York, and I saw how attentively he listened to everything I said. He was like an imaginary older brother--interested, affectionate, perceptive, and more securely situated in a world of his own making. I liked him very much, but I went on answering his questions with a single statement that obliged him to think up some new question--instead of saying to him, "I was living in a rooming house on Lexington Avenue and I had diner with somebody from the office one night who said there was a vacant apartment in the building where he lived, so I went home with him and the door was unlocked but there weren't any light bulbs, and I took it because I liked the way it felt in the dark. The rent is thirty-five dollars a month. You go past an iron gate into a courtyard with gas streetlamps. It was built during the Civil War, I think. Anyway, it's very old. And my apartment is on the third floor, looking out on a different courtyard, with trees in it. Ailanthus tree. I like having something green to look at. Technically it's a room and a half. The half is a bedroom just big enough for a single bed, and I never sleep there because it's too like lying in a coffin. I sleep on a studio couch in the living room. The fireplace works. And once when I had done something I was terribly ashamed of, I went and put my forehead on the mantelpiece. It was just the right height."
In order to give you a sense of the prose and of the regret underlying Maxwell's memories, I've had to quote at greater length than fair use guidelines would countenance. I wish I could keep going, as the mesmerizing parade of images continues for pages; by themselves, those pages are a sufficient reason for you to hurry out and pick up a copy of Ancestors. Maxwell lets his imagined self keep talking, offering not confessions but scattered, impressionistic gifts of his actual life, a life that in reality he casually assumed his uncle wouldn't--or maybe even couldn't--understand. Had he but thought to attempt that openness, he wonders, might it have even led to a similar revelation of hidden personality on the part of his uncle? What portion of life's losses and lonelinesses can be laid at the feet of just such unnecessary, unconsidered reticence?

It's a strain that runs through Maxwell's work, that lament for the chance not taken, the word not spoken. In a brief four-page story, “The Room Outside” (1998), that my friend Joe (who recently wrote about an unexpected encounter with Maxwell's enduring presence) dropped on my desk the other day, there's a moment when Maxwell's regret turns into self-lacerating anguish; an account of a wintry afternoon spent with friends is interrupted by a parenthetical cry:
(Why did I never see them again when I liked them so much? How could I have been so stupid as to leave everything, including friendships, to chance?)
This holiday season, as we come together with relatives strange and familiar, perhaps we should let Maxwell be our guide: Ask. Answer. Reveal. Remember. Listen. Listen. Listen.

You can get away with robbing Peter, but only if you remember to actually pay Paul

A few weeks ago, in a comment on my recent post about Richard Stark's novels about Parker the bank robber, The All-Seeing Eye, Jr. (proprietor of the great new blog Pinakothek) referred to Parker's longest and most impassioned speech, a diatribe about the dangers of not paying your taxes. He didn't remember which book contained the speech, but last weekend I happened across it in The Score (1964). It turns out that the scion of the All-Seeing Eye had been led astray by his memory--the speech is delivered not by Parker but by one of his cronies, an older man named Littlefield--but the scene is fun enough to share regardless.

The discussion about taxes comes near the end of a planning meeting, as one of the crooks, Grofield (who steals primarily to support his low-level theatrical career and who shows up in some Stark novels of his own later on, including Lemons Never Lie), is astonished to hear Littlefield casually mention paying income tax.
"Income tax?" Grofield stared at him. "You pay income tax?"

"On every penny."

"I bet your return shakes them up."

"I account for every penny of income," Littlefield told him, "but I am forced, of course, to invent my sources."

"Why bother?"

Littlefield leaned closer to him. "You're a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you'll never even be indicted. But if you don't pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail."

"Oh sure," said Grofield. "Sure thing."

"Parker knows I'm right. You pay tax, don't you, Parker?"

Parker nodded. Under the Charlie Willis name he owned pieces of a few losing businesses here and there, and they gave him the background to cover his income on his tax return.

Grofield shook his head. "I don't get it. You're putting me on."

"Income taxes is federal," Parker told him.

"So's a bank for Christ's sake."

"I don't mean federal offense, I mean federal, whose money it is. A bank is stockholders, but income tax is government money."

Pop Phillips said, "Those are words of wisdom, Grofield. I only fell twice, and once it was income tax. I got three years, and I'm still paying the back taxes. Why do you think I'm not retired?"

"I'll put you onto my accountant," Littlefield said. "He'll get you straightened out."

Grofield got to his feet, looking agitated. "That's a lot of crap. Don't talk to me about that. Income tax!"

Littlefield shrugged. "You'll go to jail," he said.

Parker saw Grofield getting mad, and said, "Back to business. We got a lot to set up tonight."
I've quoted at greater length than usual because even beyond the fun of Littlefield's speech, this strikes me as a really successful batch of dialogue. I wrote before about the Parker novels as books about work; what we see here is the camaraderie of coworkers acted out. Everyone plays the right part: Littlefield confident in his knowledge; Grofield, the younger man, getting his back up at being more or less called an idiot; Parker quickly reading the shifting vibe and getting everyone back on track.

Change the content while keeping the tone and I've seen exactly this exchange in a late-night diner, around the counter at a farm supply store, on a slow day at the record store. It's the chatter of casual colleagues, and it does all the subtle work inherent in such talk--establishing bona fides, asserting and maintaining rank, transmitting knowledge, reinforcing group identity--while also simply serving to pass the time. Richard Russo and Wendell Berry at their best can fill pages with this sort of conversation and make them enthralling, and though it makes perfect sense that Stark--with his laser-like focus on the details of work--is good at it, too, I was still pleasantly surprised to encounter this exchange, with its quiet ring of ordinary truth.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"I think we should go on living," or, From Compton-Burnett to Conan Doyle

I'm returning briefly to Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant (1937) tonight both because I feel it would be wrong to give up before I've convinced each of you to slip one of her novels into the stocking of your favorite witty cynic and because I can't resist sharing the following scene. Set in the schoolroom of the novel's isolated rural family, it tells of the arrival of the long-suffering children's first tutor, Gideon. In the children's grilling of him, Compton-Burnett's dialogue hews closer to realism than usual--perhaps because children tend more towards cruel bluntness than adults do--but it's no less funny or cutting for that.
"You are rather old for a tutor," said Marcus, "I thought they were generally young."

"Some young men begin by being tutors, and pass on to something else."

"Then you are a failure?" said Tamasin.

"I think I should be called one. I paid too much attention to my studies when I was young, and that does lead to people's being tutors."

"How old are you?" said Marcus

"I am forty-one."

"Oh, quite a young man," said Tamasin.

"Does your wife think you are a failure?" said Marcus.

"I am not married. I live with my mother and sister. If they think so, they do not betray it. Women are so loyal."

"What do you do with the money you earn?" said Jasper. "If you have no wife, you can't have children, and you don't seem as if you spend very much on yourself."

"Part of it I subscribe to the family expenses, and part to a fund that is to give me an income when I am old."

"Your hair is gray now," said Marcus.

"Yes, but that is premature. It merely gives me a personality."
The scene is also unusual in that it develops along more typically comedic lines than most of Compton-Burnett's scenes: there are no surprise interruptions from a character who's not even been announced as entering the room, no unexpectedly murderous asides, not even a sense that the participants are scrapping for points. Given the freedom that comes from the natural inquisitiveness of children confronted with a new tutor, Compton-Burnett runs with it.

One technique that does tie Compton-Burnett to other English satire is her employment of negative constructions as a way of both softening and improving a joke. Born, presumably, of a real usage reflecting British reticence, the negative construction--"not entirely unexpected," "not particularly," "not without its charms," and the like--works as a way of tiptoeing up to a barb; it focuses the attention, and, in the case of a skilled satirist, reveals unexpected degrees of denial and diffidence. It is the stiff upper lip incarnate. Anthony Powell was a master of negative constructions, as was Evelyn Waugh, who employs it simply but to good effect in this line about the dictatorship of Neutralia in "Scott-King's Modern Europe":
"[They were] led to the reception hall which with its pews and thrones had somewhat the air of a court of law and was in fact not infrequently used for condemning aspiring politicians to exile on one or the other of the inhospitable islands that lay off the coast of the country.
But I've yet to encounter a writer whose employment of negative constructions is more effective than Compton-Burnett's. The following lines describing the role of a village shopkeeper, Miss Buchanan, as a receiving station for clandestine letters capture the understated effectiveness of the technique:
On this secondary traffic Miss Buchanan turned an equivocal eye, that did not add to the ease, already not complete, of those who availed themselves of it.
At its best, the negative construction works sort of like a hand brought to the mouth to hide the scurrilous details we're being told; its pretense to authorial reluctance make the bulk of the satire, expressed in positive, straightforward terms, seem even more viciously pointed.

And viciousness is unavoidable in Compton-Burnett; life in her novels is richly red in tooth and claw. Late in Manservant and Maidservant, two of the boys, on seeing their father headed for a bridge they know to be dangerously faulty, willfully neglect to issue a warning to him. After he passes, they reflect on their failing:
"We are worse than we have ever been. We are not meant to kill people, whatever the reason. We might meet him in a future state, and know that he knew about it. It would be what is called poetic justice."

"That would not be for a long time."

"It might be soon. Some people would die of remorse."

"I think we should go on living," said Jasper.
That scene came to mind the other day when I was reading Michael Dirda's appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in his Classics for Pleasure (2007). Dirda describes a feeling I've written about before, the sense of returning home that one gets every time one slips into the familiar world of a Holmes story:
[W]e discover a quiet refuge from our crowded lives as we glance again around the familiar flat with its chemical retorts, blazing fire, the bullet holes in the wall forming the initials V. R. Outside the fog rolls in and the rain beats down, but Mrs. Hudson is even now bringing up a cheering supper. Soon, there will be a knock on the door and a distressed gentlewoman will enter, or a puzzled policeman or a disguised nobleman, and the next grand adventure will begin. As Vincent Starrett observed: "they still live for all that love them well: in a romantic chamber of the heart, in a nostalgic country of the mind, where it is always 1895."
In Compton-Burnett's novels, it is always the early Edwardian era, a few years into the new century at best, and as I read Dirda's description, I began to picture Compton-Burnett's country houses, and the spite and viciousness they contain, as the flip side of Holmes's rationality: these are the locations, the people, the crimes, the competing hatreds and passions, that Holmes is called on to put to rights.

Conan Doyle provides us with answers and comforts us; Compton-Burnett provides us with unruly darkness and distaste. Perhaps an appreciation of both is a sign of emotional health?

Jane and Marcel

Yesterday I mentioned that I was deciding between returning to Proust and starting Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life (1997). Well, I chose Austen, but I unexpectedly encountered a Proustian moment as well, in a passage from Austen's epistolary novel Lesley Castle (1791), written when she was sixteen and never published. Tomalin quotes the following lines from the book, representing a letter by the sister of a woman who, on her wedding day, has just learned that her bridegroom has been thrown from a horse and is expected to die:
Dear Eloisa (said I) there's no occasion for your crying so much about such a trifle (for I was willing to make light of it in order to comfort her) I beg you would not mind it--You see it does not vex me in the least; though perhaps I may suffer most from it after all; for I shall not only be obliged to eat up all the Victuals I have dressed already, but must if Henry should recover (which is however not very likely) dress as much for you again; or should he die (as I suppose he will) I shall still have to prepare a Dinner for you whenever you marry any one else. So you see that tho' perhaps for the present it may afflict you to think of Henry's sufferings, Yet I dare say he'll die soon, and then his pain will be over and you will be easy, whereas my Trouble will last much longer for work as hard as I may, I am certain that the pantry cannot be cleared in less than a fortnight.
Tomalin says that the woman's self-centered obsession, reaching its comic peak at the casual acknowledgment of, "as I suppose he will," compares favorably to Dickens. I don't think it has the overflowing richness of language of Dickens at his best, but considering that Austen was but a teenager when she wrote Lesley Castle, the fact that the comparison can even be made is astonishing.

Rather than Dickens, though, I found myself reminded of Proust, and specifically the scene at the end of The Guermantes Way (1921) where Swann, exasperated by the intransigence of the Duchesse de Guermantes, reveals to her and the Duc that his doctors have told him that he will be dead in mere months. The astonished response of the Duchesse is perhaps her most unguarded moment in the book, revealing her to be temporarily foundered:
"What on earth are you telling me?" the Duchesse broke out, stopping short for a second on her way to the carriage and raising her handsome, melancholy blue eyes, her gaze now fraught with uncertainty. Poised for the first time in her life between two duties as far removed from each other as getting into her carriage to go to a dinner-party and showing compassion for a man who was about to die, she could find no appropriate precedent to follow in the code of conventions and, not knowing which duty to honour, she felt no choice but to pretend to believe that the second alternative did not need to be raised, thus enabling her to comply with the first, which at that moment required less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that there was one. "You must be joking," she said to Swann.

"It would be a joke in charming taste, replied Swann ironically. "I don't know why I'm telling you this. I've never mentioned my illness to you before. But since you asked me, and since now I may die at any moment . . . But please, that last thing I want to do is to hold you up, and you've got a dinner-party to go to," he added, because he knew that for other people their own social obligations mattered more than the death of a friend, and as a man of considerable politeness he put himself in her place. But the Duchesse's own sense of manners too afforded her a confused glimpse of the fact that for Swann her dinner-party must count for less than his own death.
To her (limited) credit, the Duchesse hesitates, but that very hesitation angers the Duc, who brushes off Swann's revelation with a reminder to his wife that they are in danger of being late--only to abruptly change his mind when he realizes the Duchesse is wearing the wrong shoes. He sends her back to change, then dismisses Swann with a brusque obliviousness that is breathtaking:
"Good-bye, my dear boys, he said, thrusting us gently away, off you go, now, before Oriane comes down. It's not that she doesn't like seeing you both. on the contrary, she's too fond of seeing you. If she finds you still here, she'll start talking again. She's already very tired, and she'll be dead by the time she gets to that dinner. And quite frankly, I have to tell you that I'm dying of hunger."
While the sixteen-year-old Austen plays her scene solely as comedy, Proust is master of a wider range of effects: the startling callousness of the Duc and Duchesse set against the self-effacing frankness and honor of Swann render the scene both pathetically comic and deeply moving. But the resemblance between the scenes is undeniable, revealing an unexpected affinity, both of thought and apprehension of the social self, between Austen and Proust--a pleasant surprise on a day when time's perpetual insufficiency forced me to choose.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

On some prose styles

There I was, dithering between Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen and a return to Proust, with Ron Powers's Mark Twain bio lurking about as a bushy-haired alternative, when my friend Jim convinced me to open Clive James's Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007). I did, to the piece on Edward Gibbon, a writer with whom I've never been able to get on, despite Silas Wegg's enthusiasm in Our Mutual Friend. A couple of hundred pages into The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the summit still shrouded in distant clouds, I've always turned away in search of lesser, more rewarding peaks.

Clive James, despite having made a far more honorable attempt than I, feels the same. Here he is on Gibbon's prose, which is unnecessarily baroque (even when set against the work of his contemporaries) and, what is worse, tic-laden:
[T]here is still something to the assumption that a sentence, however the reader gets to the end of it, should be intelligible by the time he does, and that if he is forced to begin again he has been hoodwinked into helping the writer do the writing. Readers of Gibbon don't just help: they join a chain gang, and the chain gang is in a salt mine, and the salt mine is reached after a long trip by galley, during which they are never excused the feel of the oar of the snap of the lash.
Ah, how refreshing are the hatred and disdain that can only come of a serious attempt to address a writer on his own terms!

Then I opened the book again at random and happened across the following lines about the prose style--memorable and effective, though frequently ungrammatical--of my favorite novelist, Anthony Powell:
Powell . . . was the arch-perpetrator of the dangling modifier. At least Waugh had got over the influence of Latin constructions. Powell, to the end of his career, wrote as if English were an inflected language, and at least once per page, in Powell's prose, the reader is obliged to rearrange the order of a sentence so that a descriptive phrase, sometimes a whole descriptive clause, can be re-attached to its proper object. In a book review I once mentioned Powell's erratic neo-classical prosody. He sent me a postcard quoting precedent as far back as John Aubrey.
Now, as much joy as there is to be found in Aubrey--no small part of which comes from the way he presses his brief, scattershot biographical insights into curving and complicated sentences--a writer who adduces him as favorable evidence in a question of contemporary usage is essentially pleading guilty and hoping he's drawn a kindly judge.

I can see that I'm going to have to spend some time with Cultural Amnesia. But it's at heart a bedside book, broken as it is into essays of comfortable length, so I'm still left in need of an answer to my initial question: Tomalin or Proust? I guess I'll have to let today's commute decide. I have a hunch that Proust will win out because, well, when does he not?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A simple method for determining whether you ought to try George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels

From Flash for Freedom (1971), by George MacDonald Fraser
By and large I'm partial to Americans. They make a great affectation of disliking the English and asserting their equality with us, but I've discovered that underneath they dearly love a lord, and if you're civil and cool and don't play it with too high a hand you can impose on them quite easily. I'm not a lord, of course, but I've got the airs when I want 'em, and know how to use them in moderation.
Having just returned from traveling and therefore having little time to write, I find this a particularly good topic for tonight because in a pinch it can be boiled down to a single question:
Do you instinctively smile when you see the word "roger" used as a verb?
If so, you are likely to find that the Flashman novels will provide you with hours of pleasant entertainment and disreputable diversion. Other indications of possible affinity are a healthy appreciation of swashbuckling and swordfighting; momentous events in British history related in first-person from the head of the retreat; the words "gallop" and "rattle" used as transitive verbs synonymous with "roger"; knavery, roguishness, scoundrelsy, and scampism; self-justification, judicious self-dealing, and frantic poltroonery; phrases like "boil his bile" and words like "harridan" and "mumchance"; or lines like these:
With the danger safely past, I was soon in good fettle again. As I've said before, there's nothing so cheering as surviving a peril in which companions have perished, and our losses had been heavy.
or this one:
We also serve who only turn and run.
But really, it all comes back to the rogering, with which sentiment I'm sure Flashman would agree.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Baroque asperity

Whenever I read Ivy Compton-Burnett I find myself remembering some lines from one of Barbara Pym's letters, which I quoted last year when I first wrote about Compton-Burnett:
The influence of Miss Compton-Burnett is very powerful once it takes a hold, isn’t it? For a time there seems to be no point in writing any other way, indeed, there seems not to be any other way, but I have found that it passes (like so much in this life) and I have now got back to my own way, such as it is. But purified and strengthened, as after a rich spiritual experience, or a shattering love affair.
What stays most firmly in the mind is Compton-Burnett's precise language, which she deploys to create a tone of stunning astringency. One of her tendencies that I find particularly infectious is her habit of ending her characters' pointed exchanges with a clarifying aside, often delivered as a corrective of sorts by the character who's gotten the worst of the discussion. Take the following scene from Manservant and Maidservant (1947), for example. Sarah, the eldest daughter, has just been discovered with grateful tears in her eyes that were brought on by overheard words of praise from her siblings. The family nurse, two younger brothers (Avery and Marcus), and the unfeeling patriarch, Horace, discuss the discovery:
"Why does Sarah cry?" said Avery.

"She was touched by what she heard," said Nurse, blinking her own eyelids.

"What is touched?"

"Her heart was touched," said Nurse.

"There is no need to elaborate the matter," said Horace, sharply. "There is no occasion to pity anyone, because she hears a pleasant word of herself."

"She doesn't always," said Avery.

"It is when people don't, that they are made to cry when they do," said Marcus.
The adverb, "sharply," attached to Horace's comment reminds of how often, and how well, Compton-Burnett uses adverbial phrases--a trait she shares with Pym, though their use of them could hardly be more different. Compton-Burnett, needing adverbs to help anchor her lengthy stretches of dialogue--words are spoken "in an indulgent tone," "half to himself," "with grim comprehension"--employs them almost as much as markers of the speaker's intentions as of actuality: this is the way the speaker, arching an eyebrow and looking around, wants his words to be taken. Pym, on the other hand, seems most often to rely on the adverbs that the listener would be likely to supply; in her world of timid church ladies and ineffectual curates, the way a remark is taken tends to have far more weight that the intentions behind its utterance.

The adverbial phrases are actually themselves characteristic of a larger trait, perhaps the one I most admire in Compton-Burnett's writing: she seems never to let a joke rest with its first effect. Rather, one gets the sense that she meticulously worked and reworked her scenes, pushing and prodding every exchange to see if she could squeeze out one more barbed line--and thus expose one more facet of her characters' relationships. It reminds me of what football commentators refer to as "a good second effort," that extra push a strong running back will deliver after first being rebuffed. It may only gain him one or two additional yards, but those yards can be crucial. (I can't believe I'm comparing Ivy Compton-Burnett to football, but there you are.)

I'll give you two brief examples. In the first, the childrens' new tutor, Gideon, tells his widowed mother, Gertrude, about his employer, whom she declares an intention to meet.
"Why do you want to meet the man?" said Gideon, who did not know that his mother wanted to meet any man within twenty years of her own age, and was willing to meet any one outside this limit.

"I do not want to meet him," said Gertrude, who hardly knew it herself.
It would have been a good joke had it ended with the revelation of his mother's catholic interest in men; it becomes sublime with the addition of her lack of self-knowledge.

Something similar happens in this scene, wherein Sarah reads to her seven-year-old brother, Avery, who has been severely chastised for mild misbehavior:
Sarah was seated on Avery's bed, reading from the Book of Job, not from any sense of fitness, but because it was her brother's choice. He lay with a convalescent air, his face responding as the words confirmed his memory.

To close, I'll return to Barbara Pym, but this time by way of Nancy Mitford. I would have expected Mitford to be a fan of Compton-Burnett, whose portraits of isolated families of precocious children and eccentric, tyrannical parents would have, I thought, appealed to any of the Mitfords But no: as she confessed in a letter to her friend Heywood Hill, "I wish I could get on with Miss Compton-Burnett, but it's my blind spot." She was always interested in gossip, however, so Hill later wrote to her about Compton-Burnett's last days:
She'd shrunk but still had her darting brain. She died in her home which she'd been frightened of not doing--and she still had a maid. Anne reminded me how Ivy had once said to her about some woman, "Well--she still had a maid to the end."
Influence, it turns out, can be read both ways: Barbara Pym may have lamented falling under the spell of Compton-Burnett, but can you imagine a more Barbara Pym line than that one?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lost in the night

{Cottage on Fire at Night (c. 1785-1793), Joseph Wright of Derby}
From Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Approaching towards night.

Their night-ward studies, wherewith they close the day's work.
Tonight I'm returning one last time to the well of fascinating knowledge that is Richard Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993). The book's primary story, which I've barely addressed in the couple of posts for which I've already drawn on the book, is in itself full of interest: Holmes applies all his skills as a biographer to discover the nature of Samuel Johnson's friendship with the poet Richard Savage, whose biography Johnson would write in the year after Savage's death. The pursuit of that friendship allows Holmes to draw attention to--and conclusions about--the young Johnson in the years before his fame; to that, he adds an affecting portrait of the talented, maddening, irascible, self-destructive Savage.

But what I enjoyed most in the book were the incidental discoveries and asides that Holmes delivers, the facts and ideas that help him to flesh out his portrait of Augustan England. I wrote a few days ago about some archaic points of eighteenth-century English law that caught my eye; today I'll turn to one last example in that line. Holmes points it out during Savage's last months, at the end of 1742, when, broke and increasingly forlorn, he became an increasing burden on his friends and patrons, and,
[B]y the end of the year, the old pattern of his city life reasserted itself. "All the Charms of his Conversation could not compensate" for his hopeless irregularity as a house-guest. He harassed friends with his talk and his drinking; and he finally repelled them with his endless schemes and demands. His clothes, like his novelty value, started to wear thin. He began to be pursued by small debtors, and slowly reverted to the tramp-like existence of his former days, lodging at taverns and wandering the streets at night.
That wandering was in part habitual, possibly even preferred: Savage had long been a late-night carouser; in fact, the event that brought him his greatest fame--his conviction for murder--had come about as a result of a wee-hours brawl.
One who raises disturbances in the night.

You unlace your reputation,
And spend your rich opinion for the name
Of a
But his turn to the nocturnal this time had a further, more specific purpose as well. As Holmes explains,
This grim, lethargic life was partly forced on Savage by municipal laws, which prevented bailiffs from arresting anyone for debt between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Night thus became the only time Savage could venture out from his hiding-place, which was a back-street tavern called the White Lion.
In his At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (2005), A. Roger Ekirch fleshes out the picture a bit:
Numerous folk, besides burglars, robbers, and other hardened rogues, exploited the evening darkness, often for illicit purposes. . . . For poor families, social and legal constraints of all sorts eased. . . . Likewise, debtors and other fugitives, fearful of arrest [in the day], traveled freely. At night, wrote Thomas Dekker, "The banckrupt, the fellon, and all that owed any mony, and for feare of arrests, or justices warrants, had like so many snayles kept their houses over their heads all day before, began to creep out of their shels."
Ekirch even points out a custom that could possibly have helped Savage, exiled (at the suggestion of and with a handsome stipend provided by Alexander Pope) as he was in Bristol, save on lodging:
Squatters in parts of Western England and Wales laid more permanent claims. A local custom of uncertain origins permitted one to occupy a piece of waste or common land by building a turf cottage overnight, generally known as a caban unnos. The work had to be completed between twilight and dawn, though friends and family were permitted to help.
It's impossible, though, to imagine Savage, whose self-styling as a gentleman bastard was one of the great sources of his misery, turning his hand to such low building work. Instead, he remained afoot and a-stagger in the lanes of Bristol, suffering increasingly from illness, drink, and depression. As the winter wore on and the nights of wandering grew longer, Johnson tells us that "Distress stole upon him by imperceptible Degrees."
Traveling in the night.

Will-a-Wisp misleads night-faring clowns,
O'er hills, and sinking bogs, and pathless downs.

Finally Savage lost even his battle with the diurnal cycle, being nabbed when returning to his quarters after dawn from a too-long party. A group of bailiffs arrested him for a debt of eight pounds to a Mrs. Read, owner of a coffeehouse--whom Savage, with his usual ferocity towards his enemies, later referred to in letters as "Madame Wolf-Bitch."

Savage would die in jail just over six months later, leaving, in a sense, Johnson to write his epitaph, in the Life of Savage:
There are no proper Judges of his Conduct who have slumber'd away their Time on the Down of Plenty, nor will a wise Man easily presume to say, "Had I been in Savage's Condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage."
For tonight, though, I'll let Dr. Johnson reassume his lexicographer's hat and have a different--and single--last word.
Lost or distressed in the night.

Either some one like us night-foundered here,
Or else some neighbour woodman, or at worst,
Some roving robber calling to his fellows.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Spicing your egg nog with misanthropy

{Illustration from John Verney's Friday's Tunnel (1959)}

When I read Ivy Compton-Burnett I fight a persistent urge to share every passage with everyone around. Her novels, written almost entirely in dialogue, are so sharp and funny, the words so finely chosen, that every time I start to pick out an example to share I find that I don't know where to stop, for each additional line brings a new parry or thrust, adding a further wrinkle to her deeply misanthropic portrayal of familial wars. Every conversation is a struggle, and a finicky exactitude of language, determined ruthlessness, and grim fatalism are the only proven weapons. If you've not read her, you might imagine her as a Wodehouse who turned his gift with words and sense of humor not to entertainment, but to an effort to prove that, yes, it really is all that bad--or an Ealing Studios comedy that everyone involved is determined to play as the most grotesque, yet understated tragedy.

Today, I'll limit myself to this one scene, from her Master and Maidservant (1947), one of a pair that the New York Review Classics line has republished. Though there are several characters in this scene, all you really need to know is that they are a well-to-do family sitting down to dinner, of which family Horace is the tyrannical and determined skinflint at the head, Charlotte is his wife, and George, who enters partway through, is the young manservant.
"Six cutlets would have been enough," said Horace. "They know we do not eat seven. One cold cutlet does not serve any purpose. It means that one of the servants will eat it for supper."

"And is that quite a useless end for it?" said Mortimer.

"Of course it is, when other things are provided. It will be eaten as an extra, and that is pure waste."

"Not quite pure, is it?" said Emilia, smiling.

"I suppose Cook thought Emilia or I might take a second cutlet," said Charlotte. "It was not such an unnatural line of thought."

"I wish they would not think," said Horace, who tended to take both this view and the opposite. "Their thinking can be done for them."

"And other things cannot," said Emilia. "That is the strength of their position."

"I will have the cutlet," said Charlotte, "and prevent the end that is feared for it."

"But it will establish the custom of having one too many," said Horace.

"It is not so easy to mold the future. One cutlet will hardly do so much. They will only think we don't usually have quite enough to eat, and I daresay they already think that."

"They cannot," said Horace, sharply. "We are not large eaters, and why should we supply the table simply for show?"

George entered to remove the plates, and cast his eyes over the empty dish.

"George had counted on that cutlet," said Horace, with grim comprehension.

"Do not expose the tragedies underlying daily life," said Charlotte. "We do not want George to come back and find me in tears. Though of course he would not know I was weeping for him."

"You are childish at times, Charlotte. You know that George is well fed."

"I know nothing about it. I somehow feel he is not. I can not ask him if he has the same feeling."

"The housekeeping is not your province."

"No, it is a dark undercurrent that I do not dare to sound. That may be why I like to refer to it. Speaking of things robs them of half their terrors."

Compton-Burnett seems the perfect writer for the holiday season, with all its family gatherings; she serves as a counterpoint to the public air of cheerfulness and goodfellowship and at the same time as a reliable bulwark against too much despair. For no matter the state of your family's internal relations, they're unlikely to be worse than those she depicts---though by the same token, they're also unlikely to be as mordantly funny. Meanwhile, those of us with the undeservedly good fortune to be in reasonably pleasant family situations might, infected by too much Compton-Burnett, wickedly adopt the tone of one of her characters and observe that you do all have your crosses to bear, don't you?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"So inly swete a sweven," or, A passel of dreams

{The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of, John Anster Fitzgerald (1858)}

1 Saturday was my nephew's ninth birthday, and that night I dreamed about the party we'd attended for him that afternoon. The dream, however, featured two guests who hadn't attended the actual party: Marcel Proust and Eloise. The two of them seemed--not, I think, inaptly--to be great friends, spending the whole party sitting next to each other, sipping from the tiny teacups of a child's tea set and quietly sharing private jokes that caused them to break out in skeins of shared giggles. I'm sure you can imagine the smile I wore on waking.

Proust himself would have me doubt their identities--might they have been other people, real people from my life, in masquerade? He takes up the question in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919, translated by James Grieve in 2002):
I knew that in many dreams one must disregard the appearance of people, who may be disguised or may have exchanged faces with one another, like those mutilated saints on the fronts of cathedrals which have been repaired by ignorant archaeologists in a jumble of mismatched heads and bodies, attributes and names. Those we give to characters in our dreams can be misleading. The one we love can be recognized only by the quality of the pain we feel.
But the underlying simplicity and gentleness of this dream belie Proust's natural suspicions: the dream seemed to have no hidden message, was transmuting no disguised anxiety. In this case, I find myself agreeing with what Iris Murdoch said in a 1983 interview with John Haffenden, collected in From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003):
I think dreams have a great many sorts of explanation. Once the Freud virus has, as it were, got into you, you keep on looking at things in that way. But surely there's a lot of pure accident in dreams. One has kinds of obsessions and fears that can't be given a sexual meaning. I think the inventiveness and details of dreams are amazing.
I'm sure Eloise and Proust were simply Eloise and Proust, linked, I can only imagine, because while in New York in September I read a few pages of Mary Ann Caws's Proust while in view of the Plaza Hotel, where Eloise presumably still makes her home. And from now on I'll imagine her there taking catty, gleeful tea with her friend Marcel.

2 Murdoch was a master of employing believably obscure, layered, and organic dreams in her novels; at their best, their richness allowed her to obliquely suggest reams about her characters in remarkably compressed form. But she wasn't interested, at least on the day of the above interview, in sharing her own dreams. When asked to supply an example, Murdoch--usually a very accommodating and open interview subject--responded, "I don't think I will." And she didn't.

3 Though it's hard to imagine Samuel Johnson having much truck with Freud, perhaps Freud could have reassured Johnson on the place of sexual dreams, if the following anecdote, first recounted by one of Johnson's closest friends, Hester Thrale, in her Anecdotes (1765), is to be believed. Here's how Richard Holmes relates it in his Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993):
Johnson came fretfully back from seeing Hester's son to school, suddenly immersed in memories of his own adolescence. "'Make your boy tell you his dreams: the first corruption that entered my heart was communicated in a dream.' 'What was it, Sir?' said I. 'Do not ask me,' replied he, with much violence, and walked away in apparent agitation.
Again, this may just be the Freud virus speaking, but I think I have to disagree with the good Doctor: not every dream should be shared with one's mother.

4 A far more enigmatic dream turns up in Johnson's diary entry for January 23, 1759, the day of his mother's burial. The bulk of the entry is a prayer for his mother's soul and for the improvement, through meditation on her example, of his own. But Johnson closes with a brief, suggestive, unforgettable line:
The dream of my Brother I shall remember.
Donald Greene's note to that line in the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Major Works offers a partial explanation:
Nathanael Johnson died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of twenty-four, just at the time Samuel and David Garrick left for London; suicide has been suspected. His one surviving letter, written not long before his death, complains of his harsh treatment by his brother.
The dream itself, however, goes unannotated and unexplained. Boswell doesn't note it--and quite possibly didn't even know about it; Nathanael barely registers in the Life of Johnson, rating five mentions, the first of which flatly states that he "died in his twenty-fifth year."

Perhaps the dream was the travail of a single night, relatively unimportant. But just as Johnson resolved to remember the dream, by the troubling simplicity of that final line he has guaranteed that I will remember it, undreamt and unknown, as well.

5 I'll close with some lines from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess (c. 1370) that are never far from my mind because on first reading them fifteen years ago, I fell for the Middle English word for dream, "sweven," and have never forgotten it. It seems an appropriate way to end this post, since my dreams, like my daily life, are shot through with words--the magical, intoxicating power of which forms the one sweven from which I expect I'll never have to wake.
I hadde unneth that word y-sayd
Right thus as I have told hit yow,
That sodeynly, I niste how,
Swich a lust anoon me took
To slepe, that right upon my book
I fil aslepe, and therwith even
Me mette so inly swete a sweven,
So wonderful, that never yit
I trowe no man hadde the wit
To conne wel my sweven rede.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The legal aftermath of "th' ensanguin'd Floor"

{William Hogarth, The Four Times of Day: Night, 1738}

In reading Richard Holmes's Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993), a careful reconstruction of the brief but powerful friendship between the young Samuel Johnson, not yet a success, and Richard Savage, a raffish, arrogant, obsessive ne'er-do-well, bastard, poet, and, oh, yes, killer, I came across a couple of odd tidbits about archaic English law that seemed worth sharing.

In 1727, Savage stabbed a man to death with a sword during a late-night brawl at a coffeehouse. Though accounts differ--and much of the pleasure of Holmes's book is afforded by his careful parsing of those accounts--it seems clear that Savage and his two drunken companions, upon entering the coffeehouse, demanded that they be given a private room, and, when told that the room was occupied and temporarily unavailable, barged into it and began breaking furniture and acting in a haughty and threatening manner to its lower-class occupants. As Holmes succinctly notes,
Savage and his friends had assumed social precedence, the privilege of moneyed gentlemen to command and bully, which the habitues of Robinson's Coffee-house were not prepared to grant them
A scuffle ensued, during which Savage landed the fatal blow.

At his trial, Savage drew an infamous hanging-judge, Francis Page (who, Holmes points out, is caricatured in Tom Jones). Johnson, reconstructing the trial for his later, far-from-impartial Life of Savage, presents the following version of the Judge's summing-up of the case, taken from Savage's later recountings, that demonstrates how pointed the judge's remarks could be:
Gentlemen of the Jury, you are to consider, that Mr savage is a very great Man, a much greater Man than you or I, Gentlemen of the Jury; that he wears very fine Clothes, much finer Clothes than you or I, Gentlemen of the Jury; that he has an abundance of Money in his Pocket, much more money than you or I, Gentlemen of the Jury; but, Gentlemen of the Jury, it is not a very hard Case, Gentlemen of the Jury, that Mr Savage should therefore kill you or me, Gentlemen of the Jury.
Though that may strike you as a bit much coming from a judge--who is, after all, supposed to be instructing a jury to weigh the evidence and make their own decision--it's nothing compared to what came next. According to Alexander Pope, who watched the trial from the gallery, the judge concluded by instructing the jury to find all three men guilty of murder. Holmes is quick to point out that
Such positive direction would never be countenanced in a modern courtroom; yet it was not unusual in an eighteenth-century one.
Forthright instructions aside, the jury did actually make up its own mind, finding only two of the men--including Savage--guilty of "wilful murder," while naming the third guilty only of manslaughter.

Committed to Newgate to await his execution--which would eventually be forestalled by a pardon--Savage explained to his friend Theophilus Cibber that he was holding up well, aside from having to put up with the "insipid visits" of the Newgate padre, of whom there was no way of ridding himself,
except one; which was by talking on points of religion, and learning, a little above his capacity.
Holmes can't resist pointing out that there may have been a reason for the preacher's tenacity:
[I]ncidentally, by a curiosity of prison regulations, [the padre] had the publishing rights to any written confession he could extract from his charges.
I suppose that's one way for lawmakers, concerned about the souls of those confined to Newgate, to be sure that the churchmen would be properly attentive to their charges. And though that practice seems bizarre on its face, I'm not sure we're even now quite settled the question of how to deal with the confessions of a murderer: think of the Son of Sam laws and If I Did It. So long as the ghoulish interest remains, so will the question of divvying up the spoils.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Consigned to the Flames IV: Marcel Proust

Perhaps every author should have one of these: a pot--fireproof, one assumes--with his own face on it. Placed beside the author's desk, or, in some cases, sickbed, ready to receive any productions of her pen that she believed unfit to face the depredations of the world.

And there's no end of accessories that could be sold to accompany it: silver matchboxes engraved with lines from the author's first, wildly successful novel; a close-fitting lid with which to snuff fires, découpaged with a scene of the author's works heaped on the remainder table; a rough stone for striking matches, painted with the hideous, lolling tongue and ghastly, pale, insatiable countenance of a skiving biographer.

From André Aciman's introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of Monsieur Proust (1977), by Céleste Alberet
But the greater--incalculable--loss is the disappearance of Proust's cahiers noirs (black books), which Céleste describes as containing "the first drafts of the book, long fragments and even whole chapters written in the course of earlier years, even of his youth." Proust had ordered her to burn all thirty-two of them. Sometimes, because he had more than just a tendency to distrust everyone and must have suspected her slightly mischievous side, he began to fear that she might disobey him and spirit the notebooks away. But no, Céleste was faithful to a fault. She carried out the incineration, blindly, reducing all thirty-two notebooks to ashes. Max Brod proved himself a far more judicious friend when he broke his promise to a dying Kafka and decided not to burn the latter's manuscripts.

At least we still retain some of Proust's dizzingly layered manuscripts to marvel at:

One look at that is enough to make me glad that I'm a Proust fan rather than a Proust scholar.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Consigned to the Flames III: Lord Byron

{Lord Byron in Albanian dress, painted by Thomas Phillips, 1813}

You had to know I'd get to this one sooner or later. Here's how Fiona MacCarthy describes it in her Byron: Life and Legend (2002):
On 17 May 1824, after three days of agonized discussions, Byron's memoirs were burnt in the grate of [Byron's publisher] John Murray's Albermarle Street drawing room, in the most famous sacrificial scene of literary history. Of the six men assembled in the room--[Byron's friend Thomas] Moore and his supporter the sociable Irish poet Henry Luttrell, [Byron's friend John Cam] Hobhouse, John Murray, [Byron's half-sister] Augusta Leigh's ally Wilmot Horton, and Lady Byron's representative Colonel Doyle--only Moore and Luttrell had actually read the memoirs, if Murray had indeed resisted the temptation to do so in the years the manuscript lay in his possession. Moore was there under protest. He and Henry Luttrell had pressed the case for "the injustice we thought it would be to Byron's memory to condemn the work wholly, and without even opening it, as if it were a pest bag." Moore pleaded that at least the manuscript should be carefully perused and if necessary censored but that "what was innoxious and creditable to Lord Byron" should be preserved.

Those of us who love such unexpectedly revealing personal narratives as Boswell's journals can't help but imagine that we might have had something as entertaining from Byron. Compared to Byron, after all, Boswell was a prude, and Byron’s letters and journals themselves are such extravagant fun that it’s not hard to conjure up a book that would be a delectable, ridiculous mix of Casanova and Rousseau.

The available evidence, however, suggests that such a view may be overly romantic. If Byron's letter to John Murray initially proposing the memoirs--to be published after Byron's death, "for a man always looks dead after his own life has appeared"--is to be believed, the manuscript contained probably at least as much hinting and beating around the bush as it did explicit detail:
The Life is Memoranda not Confessions. I have left out all my loves (except in a general way) and many other of the most important things (because I must not compromise other people) so that it is like the play of Hamlet--"the part of Hamlet omitted by particular desire." But you will find many opinions, and some fun, with a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences, as true as a party concerned can make such accounts, for I suppose we are all prejudiced.
Byron gave the memoirs to his friend Moore in late 1819 (He joked in a letter to George Kinnaird that he “put my life (in M.S.) into his hands.”), telling Moore that he was free to share them with appropriate friends. Fiona MacCarthy estimates that Moore circulated them to about twenty people before--again with Byron's permission--selling them to John Murray for £2,000 (which Murray paid back following the burning). As for the contents:
A minority of readers found themselves outraged. William Gifford, who had read the memoirs at Murray’s request, reported that “the whole Memoirs were fit only for a brothel and would damn Lord B to certain infamy if published.” Lord John Russell found three or four pages “too gross and indelicate for publication.” But the consensus of opinion was that Byron’s memoirs were a bit of a damp squib. Two weeks after the destruction Mary Shelley wrote to Trelawny: “There was not much in them I know, for I read them some years ago at Venice, but the world fancied that it was to have a confession of the hidden feelings of one, concerning whom they are always passionately anxious.”
Is it possible that the memoirs consisted less of a catalogue of amorous adventures and more of an attempt to justify Byron’s indefensible behavior in his marriage, which Karen Joy Fowler has described well as “improbably gothic in its awfulness”? Byron did mention the marriage in his letter to Murray. MacCarthy also quotes a letter from Lord to Lady Byron in 1819, three years after she’d left him, in which Lord Byron expresses a wish that his ex-wife would read the memoirs for accuracy, noting however that
You will find nothing to flatter you—nothing to lead you to the most remote supposition that we could ever have been—or be happy together.
Could it all have been an unconvincing attempt to clear his name, if not completely, then at least a tiny bit?

In any case, it’s understandable that Lady Byron’s friends wouldn’t want to take the chance of an account of the marriage from Byron’s perspective coming to light; add in the concern of relatively respectable friends such as Hobhouse--who might have been worried in part about the possibility of Byron recounting homosexual adventures--and the fate of the memoirs begins to seem inevitable. As Vic Gatrell puts it in City of Laughter,
Byron and his ilk were laid low by somethign deeper than a passing spasm of moralizing. A cultural revolution was more like it, and Byron's lament for the shift from cunt to cant was no bad way of describing what had happened.
The prudes won out, and the match was struck.

I’ll let Byron himself have the last word, reminding us that whatever we may lose to the flames, we lose far more every day to the inevitable wear of time. In his “Detached Thoughts,” he wrote,
It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.—a year impairs, a luster obliteratres.—There is little distinct left without an effort of memory,--then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment—but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?