Friday, August 31, 2007

To begin the weekend, some beginnings

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In the wake of the long, involved Austerity Britain, I've felt the need for its opposite: books that are petite and circumscribed i their intent, but no less potent--bursts of intensity rather than drawn-out explorations. So I've pillaged my bookshelves for narrow-spined volumes, and for the past few days I've carried half a dozen books with me on the train every day, blazing through one and then choosing another. I think that's the form my whole weekend is likely to take.

Coincidentally, the first couple I've read have had fabulous openings, the sort that instantly establish an unforgettable tone and, were you to read them in a bookstore, would send you straight to the cash register to buy the book so you can enjoy the rest of it on your back steps with a martini.

The first paragraphs of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) don't feature Miss Brodie, the book's unforgettable central character, whom in the supplementary materials to the HarperPerennial edition Hal Hager describes as
fascinatingly complex, idealistic, self-deluded, vulnerable, vital, romantic, preposterous, lonely, gregarious, outspoken, [and] solipsistic
--to which I'd have to add "inadvertently malevolent," or even "slightly sinister." They do, however, establish a singular mood and prose rhythm--attentive and matter-of-fact, yet subtly ironic about the world of rules and conventions portrayed--that drew me right in:
The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offense. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth-form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. But there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.

Georges Simenon's The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938) opens in a totally different register. Crime novels, perhaps more than any others, need to declare their tone at the start. The lurid cover, after all, has already told us roughly what to expect inside: bad behavior--possibly stretching to murder--and most likely some sex and consequences. The question is how we'll get it, and what the author's relationship to the contents will be. Will he, like Chandler or Graham Greene, create for us a fallen world suffering the consequences of its rot? Will we get the matter-of-fact, crime-as-workplace approach of Donald Westlake? Perhaps the story will be filtered through the knowing perseverance of a Lawrence Block narrator?

Simenon, in the opening paragraphs of The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, announces, loudly, that we will be dealing with inexorable fate, and an ordinary man caught up in its brutal machinery:
As far as Kees Popinga was personally concerned, it shoudl be admitted that at eight in the evening there was still time: his fate, among others, had yet to be sealed. But time for what? And what else could he have done other than what he did do, convinced as he was that his actions were of no more consequence than during the thousands and thousands of days that had gone before?

He would have shrugged in disbelief had someone told him that his life was about to change radically, that the photograph on the side table showing him standing in the middle of his family, with one hand casually resting on the back of a chair, would soon be printed in every newspaper across Europe.
A nice touch, from the former newspaperman Simenon, the transfiguration of the utterly ordinary family photo into a frightening talisman of dark renown.

I was going to stop with two, but then I picked up Gregoire Bouillier's odd little memoir, The Mystery Guest: An Account (2004), which I read a couple of nights ago, and couldn't resist sharing its deliberately casual and opaque first page, too:
It was the day Michel Leiris died. This would have been late September 1990, or maybe the very beginning of October, the date escapes me (whatever it was I can always look it up later on); in any case it was a Sunday, because I was at home in the middle of the afternoon, and it was cold out, and I'd gone to sleep in all my clothes, wrapped up in a blanket the way I often would when I was alone. Cold and oblivion were all I was looking for back then, but this didn't worry me. Sooner or later, I knew, I'd rejoin the world of the living. Just not yet. I felt I had seen enough. Beings, things, landscapes . . . I had enough to last me for the next two hundred years and why go hunting for new material? I didn't want any trouble.
Deceptive in so many ways, that opening frankly invites us to conspire with Bouillier--to acquiesce to his pretense that there's still time for him to clarify the date--and offers, in exchange, it seems, so much. He's seen enough? Enough to last two hundred years before he has to rejoin the living? What could possibly be next?

The answer, though, turns out to be both more pedestrian than you would expect--a mysteriously ended love affair--and yet strangely interesting, even comforting, regardless. Like the others I've written about today, The Mystery Guest is a modest book, but its pleasures and rewards are genuine, and I hope to write more about it soon. For now, I'll close by saying that Bouillier lives up to the implicit credo in the following statement about dreams:
The significance of a dream, we're told, has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life, of what passes among us for real life.
Paying attention to the details: the novelist's art in brief.

Enjoy the weekend, and remember to raise a glass to the labor movement. We'll never pay them back enough for what they've given us.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Austerity Britain, part two

Part one is here.

Noel Coward's not the only famous person that turns up in passing. Accounts from Barbara Pym (whose novels all seem to have the feel of this period, with its scrimping and saving), Bill Wyman, George Orwell, James Lees-Milne, Doris Lessing, and others are interwoven with those of the many unknown people, and while their words are accorded no additional status, the very presence of people we already know enlarges and grounds Kynaston's narrative, linking it to the larger, different cultural stories we already associate with them.

For example, an extra layer of irony accrues to the following open letter from Dirk Bogarde to Woman's Own magazine, because he is now generally thought to have been gay, yet in the letter he's setting out the qualities he will require in the girl he marries:
Do not smoke in public.
Do not wear high heels with slacks.
Wear a little skilful make-up.
Never draw attention to yourself in public places by loud laughter, conversation, or clothing.
NEVER try to order a meal from a menu with I am with you.
Never laugh at me in front of my friends.
Never welcome me back in the evening with a smutty face, the smell of cooking in your hair, broken nails, and a whine about the day's trials and difficulties.
It's not unlikely that Bogarde's view is fairly representative of expected gender roles in the period, which seem straightforwardly horrid for women. But Kynaston tends to try to allow issues to retain their complexity and uncertainty, so he follows that letter with a contemporary response from a Woman's Own reader:
After reading Dirk Bogarde's article, I find that I am his ideal woman. The only snag is, I breathe? Do you think it matters?

Then there are the longer passages, interesting simultaneously as human stories and potent glimpses of the times, like this portrait of a fairly high-level official in the Board of Trade, from the memoirs of Roy Denman, at the time a fresh-faced Cambridge grad:
Mr Bacon had a square jaw, keen blue eyes and dressed, unusually for those days, with a certain elegance. These unfortunately were his main qualification for senior office. Before anyone from the outside world came to see him he would get his secretary to stack his desk high with files garnered from obscure cupboards in order to show how busy he was. With a weary sigh, a wave of his hand indicated to his visitor the crushing burden of administration which he daily bore. "These are difficult times," he would say in a resonant voice. "But if we all pull together the country will get through."
That view of the inefficiencies of the old boy network is only amplified by the description by a leading business manager of the "balanced cultivated life" that a high-level manager should lead:
He should have long weekends . . . he should play golf . . . he should garden . . . he should play bridge . . . he should read, he should do something different.
Needless to say, he thought nothing of the sort was necessary for lower-level employees.

And finally, I can't resist sharing this 1950 Mass-Observation report on attitudes toward Americans:
Cordial detestation. (Schoolmaster)

I like their generosity, but I dislike their wealthy condescension. (Forester)

I do not like their habit of preening themselves and their way of life before the world and of giving advice to the rest of us in a somewhat sermonising manner. (Civil servant)

I like them and consider them our absolute friends. They give me the feeling of being able to do anything if they put their mind to it. Nothing would be too big. (Clerk)

Something like horror though that is much too strong a word. Their strident vitality makes me want to shrink into myself. (Vicar)

As individuals charming. As a race "We are it." (Sales organiser)

I dislike their worship of Mammon and hugeness but one must admire their ability and success. (Retired civil servant)

I hate their "high pressure salesman" society. (Hearing aid technician)

I feel that the Americans are rather too big for their boots. (Civil servant)

The Americans are obviously becoming the Master race, whether we like it or not, so let's all begin to hero-worship them. (Designer)
The question seems to have driven the respondents to new heights of linguistic invention: "cordial detestation," "Strident vitality," "shrink into myself"--all unforgettable turns of phrase. Meanwhile, I have no idea what the sales organizer is trying to say, but I'm comfortable guessing that the designer at the end was questioned in a pub, when a few pints had blurred the lines separating sarcasm, irony, and weary cynicism.

Together, all the anecdotes and letters and journal entries and surveys add up to one of the most vivid and engrossing histories I've ever read, almost impossible to put down, even when it comes to detailed sections about labor relations and industrial history (or the mostly incomprehensible notes on cricket). And there's more to look forward to: Kynaston's announced plan is to write three more volumes that will take the story up to the election of Margaret Thatcher--the emotional, if not necessarily the actual, death of the welfare state that we see created in this first volume--under the overall title Tales of a New Jerusalem.

Here's to him having the time and energy to maintain this level of care and craft throughout. If so, he will have created an indispensable document, a true gift both for the English and for us Anglophiles. If we're lucky, someday someone will attempt to do the same for that period of American history.

Austerity Britain, part one

I've written a lot about how much I like history writing that delivers great portraits of historical figures, from the capsule descriptions that pepper C. V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War to Robert Caro's character study of Robert Moses in The Power Broker to the drawn-out examinations of key figures in Taylor Branch's America in the King Years trilogy. A good character-based history makes it impossible for a reader to forget that actual people were involved in these momentous episodes--and that the decisions they made were shaped by their own perspective. It's the opposite of the Tolstoyan view of history as an impersonal force, and it's what I want in historical writing--most of the time.

Nearly as attractive to me, though, is a totally different sort of history, one that is based less on studies of specific people and more on a detailed look at the daily life of a society. What did people eat? How did they get to work? What did they think about that work once they got there? What were their houses like? What did their kids do for fun? That sort of quotidian detail fascinates me, even about relatively recent times--it's a novelist's level of detail, the inessential material that creates the subtle, believable background. A historian who can carefully recreate that lost background, then flesh out the knowledge, opinions, and hopes of the people who lived there, can save the past from both the gloop of nostalgia and the relative abstraction of big-event history and enable a reader to feel the real life of an era.

In his enormous, 630-page Austerity Britain: 1945-51 (2007), which I've referred to already a couple of times in the past week, David Kynaston aims at that level of re-creation. While not shortchanging the truly momentous events of the period--the creation of the welfare state being the greatest one--he wants more than anything to make us understand the details of daily life in the straitened circumstances of post-war Britain. What was it like to continue living under rations after you'd won the war? How did the housing shortage affect growing families? What was it like, on the first day of the National Health Service, to walk out of a doctor's office without paying? What was it like to go to a neighbor's to watch a football match on a tiny new television?

To answer that sort of question, Kynaston most often turns directly to the words of those who lived through the period. He has seemingly read every contemporary diary, memoir, and letter available--from a satisfyingly wide range of class and situation--and he quotes them liberally. He also draws heavily on the fascinating, insightful reports of the government-sponsored Mass-Observation survey, which combined directed questioning with organized eavesdropping; the collected statements Kynaston plucks out of the M-O reports are often strikingly open and honest. He's also good at buttressing his points with polling, economic, and government figures, the hard data providing a foundation for the more personal perspectives.

From the opening chapter's account of the V-E Day Celebrations, which are so closely observed that you share both the early enthusiasm and the later weariness of the participants, through the brutally harsh winter of 1947, worsened by low coal and food rations, to the eve of the Attlee government's fall in 1951, Kynaston absolutely recreates a world, in, it seems, its own voice. It's a stupendous achievement, and one that he manages while never being anything less than engrossing. This is in part because he has a novelist's eye for anecdote--in fact, I was first led to the book through a piece in the Times of London in which Kynaston explained the book's genesis in terms of novels:
I now envisaged the project as owing something to two types of artistic inspiration: the thickly textured panorama of a 19th-century “loose, baggy monster” realist novel, with perhaps a dash of Frith’s Derby Day painting; and the roman-fleuve of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time novels. I wanted to write a rolling narrative in which “high” history jostles with “low”, in which significant events and themes are viewed as much as possible through the prism of the individual witness or participant.
He's done just that, letting us see history through scores of small, human moments--most of them lost until now--that in aggregate tell a larger, more complicated national story.

So he gives us telling asides:
The early council housing was "the Cinderella of the British housing stock;" a broadcaster notes the reinstatement of the perpetually gloomy weather report (which had been suppressed during the war) by announcing "news of an old friend--the large depression;" a porter, soon after the Labour victory in 1945, replies to a snooty public school boy's order to tote his trunk, "No, that sort of thing is all over now;" a woman writes in her diary after a Laurel and Hardy film that "Hardy--the fat one--is revolting;" Noel Coward, resigned to the Labour victory, says, "It may not be a bad idea for the Labour boys to hold the baby. . . . I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable during the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty that it will be so."

The rest, including more stories, tomorrow.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"You learn stuff from books, don't you?"

The uncommonly nice weather defeated my best intentions this weekend, so you'll have to wait a day or two for a full post on David Kynaston's Austerity Britain: 1945-51. But while I was reading outside today, I did come across another passage that makes a nice appendix to Friday's post about the general public's reading habits. One of the many diarists on whom Kynaston draws for his remarkable history, Kenneth Preston, writes about stopping in at a second-hand bookshop in the spring of 1947:
Whilst we were having a look round we heard the voices of two women in a really incredible conversation. One yelled out to another, who was evidently looking at some books, "Nah! then, don't buy all e' booiks." The other said "Nay, we don't read much at our 'ouse." The other replied "No! we don't. I've nivver read a book i'my life." The other said "No! I often wish I'd read a bit more. You learn stuff from books, don't you?" It seems incredible that there could be anyone who had never read a book. The woman who said she hadn't, Kath said, would be over fifty. These are the folk who vote!
Preston, a "middle-aged English teacher" at a good school, reveals his class blinders in the last line, but his earlier surprise isn't that foreign to contemporary discussions of America's reading. And though I know (and, as I noted Friday, ultimately accept) that there are people who never read, I have to admit to sharing some of Preston's shock every time I think about a life without books. All that richness and knowledge, utterly drained away. I suspect that feeling may bear a resemblance to what religious believers feel when they contemplate the life of an atheist--and perhaps I'm just a pessimist, but in neither case do I expect proselytizing to have much long-term effect.

But I hate to close a weekend on a down note--and there's plenty to share from Austerity Britain that's funny and entertaining, even in the midst of rationing, shortages, and weariness. So I'll share a moment Kynaston relates from the spring of 1946, taken from the diary of a middle-aged mother in Surbiton:
"Bananas. Yes, bananas!! The first for 6 yrs. They are Robin's [her son's] really, as they are only allowed for under 18's . . .Robin says the boys are bringing the peel to school & putting it down for others to slip on. The monkeys." Two days later, "Robin came in to room with banana & wanted to know which end to start peeling it from!! . . . We told him from stem end, & later I wondered if that was right."
So much of the texture of daily life under rationing is packed into those couple of sentences--and the fans of classic comedy among you were surely glad to learn that even children who hadn't seen bananas for years knew instantly what to do with the peels. Bertie Wooster (or at least Gussie Fink-Nottle) would be proud. The human spirit, after all, is hard to crush.

Friday, August 24, 2007

'Cos I ain't got no interest in them

One of the first things I read this morning was an article that Leila at Bookshelves of Doom pointed me to that highlighted the dismal results of an AP poll about American reading habits. Twenty-seven percent of adults surveyed, the poll revealed, hadn't read a book in the past year, and the median number of books read overall was four (though the figure jumped to seven when non-readers were excluded). Now, for those of us who love and/or make our living from books, those are unquestionably depressing figures. Though we can take heart from learning the unsurprising news that Democrats and liberals read more than Republicans and conservatives, we also have to worry that older folks read more books than younger people--not a good sign for the future.

But at the same time, it's important to remember that reading has always fought an uphill battle--against illiteracy, poverty, and lack of time long ago, and against long commutes, big-screen TVs, and video games today. Just as there have always been those of us to whom reading is a central part of life, there have also been those who couldn't or wouldn't open a book.

While I do think reading, any sort of reading, is deeply valuable, I've never been a Cynthia-Ozick-style literature-as-medicine sort: I want people reading because they want to read, because they think there may be something in a novel that expands on the movie version, because they're curious about what Grandpa saw in the war, or because Johnny Damon has great hair. Reading that is clearly pitched as a form of self-improvement can too quickly become reading as punishment--an unlikely recipe for the sort of quiet, contemplative inwardness that reading generates at its best. That's not saying that we should be complacent, especially if we hope to make a living from books in thirty years, but at the same time we have to be realistic about the competition for attention that books face--and we can't delude ourselves into thinking that there was ever a golden age when everyone was reading serious books.

I was thinking about all this on the train this morning when I came across a brief note about reading habits in David Kynaston's Austerity Britain. Kynaston reports the results of research in 1947 into reading habits by the government-sponsored public opinion survey group Mass-Observation (an unparalleled source of detailed information about British life in the 1940s). He opens with a result that reading advocates would be happy to elicit today:
"Reading" was given as the favourite hobby by three in ten of the middle class, by two in ten of the skilled working class, and by one in ten of the unskilled.
Though I don't know for sure, I imagine that the number for all categories would be lower today in both the United States and Britain--but when you think of how little was competing for leisure-time attention with books in those days, the figures don't seem quite so daunting. At the same time, almost half the 1947 sample, Kynaston reveals, admitted to never reading books at all; the reasons they gave for not reading, like so many of the verbatim responses collected by Mass-Observation questioners, are fascinating:
None of them subjects is interesting to me. All I like is gangster stories, though there's precious much chance of reading here. Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around. No convenience, no nothing except water. I'm glad to get out of the house I can tell you.

Cos I ain't got no interest in them--they all apparently lead up to the same thing.

I'm not very good at reading, I never was. I've never liked it some'ow.

Too long. I like to get straight into a story. I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three time. I like to get stuck straight into a story--there's too much preliminary if you see what I mean.

I find the next-to-last respondent almost unbearably poignant--"some'ow" he doesn't like something he was never good at, that he probably was never taught how to do properly. The respondent who might read gangster stories, were it not for the chaos of the house, could be a contemporary parent--and he reminds me of another Mass-Observation subject Kynaston quotes elsewhere, this one on the subject of religion:
Well, I believe in God, but I can't say I'm religious. You get a bit hasty when you've so many children.

The final respondent, though, I think I could help--I know lots of novels that "get straight into a story," with no messing around. If anyone wants to lend me their time machine, I'll load it up with Lawrence Block novels (and maybe, if I want to really freak him out, some Murakami), pop back to 1947, and drop them off at that guy's local library. Anything I should be sure to bring back?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The past is another country; they do things differently there.

Thanks to Geoff Dyer, today I kept vaguely turning over the idea of someday rereading D. H. Lawrence, despite being fairly confident that the specifics of his personal philosophy--on which the whole of his work is hung--are likely to seem, on being re-encountered in adulthood, rather unconvincing. Then, while I was reading David Kynaston's Austerity Britain: 1945-1951 (2007) on the train, I came across the following description of one of the Labour Party's most prominent thinkers of the war years, Evan Durbin:
[Durbin] once remarked that his three greatest pleasures were "food, sleep and sex" but accused D. H. Lawrence of "shallow abstractions" in relation to "freedom in sexual relations."

That is more or less how I remember Lawrence's position, too: a vague positing of sex itself as a primary liberating experience, a crucial step towards a truly free life. Heady stuff at the time, presumably, but quickly sounding silly these days unless taken in small doses.

Ultimately, the problem with Lawrence's novels, from what I remember, is the problem that plagues any writer who knows the way people ought to live: the novel--which as a form thrives on growth, discovery, and above all openness--is warped by the character (or narrative voice) who doesn't need to change, doesn't need to learn, because he already sees through the illusions that bind those around him. Speech and incident become didactic demonstration, drama becomes melodrama, and despite some very powerful passages, the whole is rendered false. In his journal for 1987, Anthony Powell (who, incidentally, agrees with Dyer that Lawrence's letters are great reading) puts it more succinctly:
The reader [is] always, so to speak, tripping over the Lawrence self-image, which at once reduces conviction, much of novel being in any case ludicrously melodramatic.

Powell, who had recently re-read Women in Love, also notes,
Red-hot emotions as usual much overdone, tho' I suppose could be argued people to some extent behave like that nowadays, breaking up marriages because sexual relations not for the moment absolutely ideal. That would, in fact, have greatly disturbed Lawrence himself.
Powell's letting his grouchy conservative side show, but Lawrence isn't the only person who would have been disturbed--and here I return to where I started this post, Austerity Britain, from which learned today that even in 1948, two decades after Lawrence's death, a Gallup poll revealed that only 27 percent of British citizens thought that divorce by simple mutual consent should be allowed. To broaden the picture, Kynaston, as he does throughout the book, turns straight to the actual words of the people, revealing a batch of their responses to related survey question, "How do you feel about divorce?"
It depends on the people. If either is to blame they should have a divorce.

Well, I mean to say, it's a good thing if the couple are unhappy.

No. A man takes a wife for better or worse, doesn't he?

I wouldn't grant divorce. They should get on with it.

I feel very sorry for the kiddies. It's very hard on them but if Mother and Father can't agree it only makes the children suffer worse--they suffer inwardly.

I think it's an awful thing to happen to anyone--everyone turns away from a divorced woman.

Better to divorce than live unhappily.

I don't like the idea of a divorce--all the publicity and scandal.

In some cases, yes. Marriage is a gamble anyway.
Austerity Britain is rich with moments like that, phrases that give such direct, authentic access to the past that they pull you up short. A gamble . . . scandal . . . everyone turns away. Even though at points 1947 can feel very familiar, it was a very different time; a well-crafted work of history, like Kynaston's, works to make sure we never forget that.

And though Powell's probably right that Lawrence would have disapproved of free-and-easy divorce, he surely would have approved of the context in which public opinion was changed and the stigma lost--a gradual but dramatic expansion of an individual's right to freely make decisions about his or her life. That's the side Lawrence was fighting for, after all, and despite his occasional silliness, like everyone who plays a part in shifting the terms of the debate, he deserves to be remembered well for it.

So maybe I will reread The Rainbow someday after all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I can't go on, I'll go on

It's entirely appropriate that, while I meant to write about Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (1997) yesterday, I got distracted and ended up putting it off. For that's what the gloriously titled Out of Sheer Rage is all about: Geoff Dyer putting off writing a "sober, academic study" of D. H. Lawrence.

He's been meaning to write the book--he's told his agent he's going to write it--but he's also thinking about writing a novel, and he can't quite figure out how to get started, and, well, the result is a 230-page tour through Dyer's psyche that at various points takes the form of autobiography, rant, and, despite his worst intentions, even a study of D. H. Lawrence.

Dyer is a betwixt-and-betweener, a hither-and-yonner, constitutionally unable to seize contentment wherever he is and deciding instead that he needs to be somewhere else--where, upon arrival, he instantly begins cataloging all that was good and irreplaceable about the location he just left. Here he is early in the book, having just signed a year-long lease for the apartment he's been occupying in Paris:
I was ecstatic. For about five minutes. Then I realised I had taken on an awesome, not to say crippling responsibility. And far from solving the problem of where to live I had actually put a lid on it so that now my uncertainty was boiling away under pressure, threatening to blow me apart. The one thing I could be sure of was that I had to leave this apartment, where I had never known a moment's peace of mind, as soon as possible. If I stayed here, I now say, I would fail to write both my novel and my study of Lawrence. That much was obvious. The trouble, the rub, was that I had to give three month's notice and therefore had to predict how I would be feeling three months hence which was very difficult. It was all very well deciding today that I wanted to leave but what counted was how I was going to be feeling three months from now. You could be perfectly happy today, I would say to myself, and three months from now you could be suicidal, precisely because you will see the enormity of the mistake you made by not renouncing the lease three months earlier.
And so on. Perpetually dithering and uncertain, Dyer travels from Paris to Rome to Sardinia to Oxford to Taos, accompanied by his surprisingly tolerant and sane girlfriend, simultaneously following Lawrence and bowing to the whims of his neuroses, whining all the way. Sometimes, for example, he has to eat seafood, which he hates:
[S]ea-food is vile filth which I will eat under no circumstances. My favourite foods are all variants of bread, food you can chow down with no effort, without even a knife and fork, food that requires virtually no preparation and little expenditure of money or energy. At the other extreme there is food that you have to fiddle around with, food that comes in shells that you have to prise open, food that you have to prepare for hours and pick the bones out of and pay for through the nose: sea-food, in short, and here we were in a sea-food restaurant. The first course arrived: not any old sea-food (i.e. not simply inedible) but the ultimate sea-food (i.e. there was actually nothing to eat): sea urchins, blackened conker shells with a tiny strip of (presumably) slimy, salty, orange gristle in the middle.

Take that passage and expand it to book-length, and you'll get a sense of Out of Sheer Rage: cranky, unapologetic, utterly self-involved--yet hilarious and impossible to put down. The small difficulties of life wind Dyer up to such a pitch of worry, frustration, and anger that it's hard not to sympathize, even as you're laughing and groaning and realizing that, if you were his long-suffering girlfriend, you'd have to stab him through the eye. Every morning. Instead, she notes his inadequacies in her journal: "G. had a fit, as usual."

Somehow, in the midst of obsessively recounting his travails, Dyer also tells us a lot about Lawrence, delivering a lively and interesting larger critique that one could imagine, after mummification, comprising the sober study he's so utterly failed to write. He's particularly good when writing about photos of writers, and here he is on another topic that fascinates me, the draw of a writer's unfinished or unpublished work:
As time goes by we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author's reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings. This is not simply because, as an author's stature grows posthumously, the fund of published texts becomes exhausted and we have to make do not only with previously unpublished or unfinished material but, increasingly, with matter that was never intended for publication. It is also because we want to get nearer to the man or woman who wrote these books, to his or her being. We crave an increasingly intimate relationship with the author, unmediated, in so far as possible, by the contrivances of art. A curious reversal takes place. The finished works serve as a prologue to the jottings; the published book becomes a stage to be passed through--a draft--en route to the definitive pleasure of the notes, the fleeting impressions, the sketches, in which it had its origin.
Dyer is intentionally overstating the case, but he's essentially right about the draw of a writer's extraneous material: the thrill of peeking into a favorite writer's letters or diaries is of a different character from that provided by their work, but it can vie with that work in power. And through his consideration of interesting portions of Lawrence's letters, notebooks, and journals, Dyer managed to renew my interest in Lawrence, a writer whom I'd half-consciously decided I was unlikely to enjoy as much as an adult as I did when I was twenty. Maybe he'll even get me to re-read The Rainbow--which he himself regrets re-reading. Of course.

Ultimately Dyer's life on tenterhooks is for me like a dispatch from an alien race: I can't even imagine living in such a welter of dread and regret. I'm lucky enough to be as near the opposite as possible: contentment seems to be my natural state. The grass is never greener, and even if it might temporarily appear that way, I know deep down that thoughtful analysis will prove it to be at best a light brown, relatively.

That easy satisfaction can become a fault, of course--and the same contentment that keeps me from deciding to move to New York or hop from job to job also keeps me from having much ambition at all beyond reading through the perpetually renewing stack of books. So to come up against someone like Dyer who is constantly wrestling with his desires and regrets--and who can turn that struggle into a funny, insightful, compelling narrative--is a treat, a powerful reminder of the glories of difference, of the near-infinite ways one can choose to approach this life.

By the end of the book I'd developed real sympathy for Dyer--even admiration. For even though he knows that he is going to regret and second-guess any decision he makes, any effort he puts forth, he doesn't let that stop him. He keeps moving:
[S]ince the only way to avoid giving into depression and despair is to do something, even something you hate, anything in fact, I force myself to keep bashing away at something, anything. . . . It is a simple choice: work or succumb to melancholia, depression, and despair. Like it or not you have to try to do something with your life, you have to keep plugging away.
The horizon and its certainty are always going to be far away; we might as well keep walking. Dyer, knowing that, makes himself good company for the journey.

Some advice, or a field report from the War on Rest

{Photos by rocketlass.}

If you ever find yourself, after dinner, intending quickly to write about Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, which you've just finished, and soon after to get to bed at a reasonable hour, then I recommend that you do not pick up the copy of Sputnik Sweetheart that a friend has just returned, no matter how innocuous it looks lying there on the kitchen counter.

Nor, if you do find yourself going so far as to pick it up, do I recommend thinking to yourself, "I've not read any Murakami for a while," then opening the book and a beer at the same time.

For if you do, I can now tell you from experience, a few hours later you'll read this passage:
I glanced at the full-length mirror as I passed by, at my face reflected in it. A strange expression was on my face. That was my face, all right, but where did that look come from? I didn't feel like retracing my steps and investigating further.

Sumire stood at the entrance to her new place to see me off. She waved goodbye, something she rarely did.

In the end, like so many beautiful promises in our lives, that dinner date never came to be.

Then a few hours after that, when the darkness has driven you from your perch on the back steps and the cicadas have claimed the cemetery next door as their sovereign domain once again until dawn, you'll come to this passage:
In the sky above the summit, the coarse-looking moon loomed awfully near. A hard ball of stone, its skin eaten away by the merciless passage of time. Ominous shadows on its surface were blind cancer cells stretching out feelers toward the warmth of life. The moonlight warped every sound, washed away all meaning, threw every mind into chaos.

Finally, when you close the book, pointedly not looking at the clock, all hope for a reasonable amount of sleep will have long since slunk away, defeated.

In the war on rest, the novel remains a fierce, indefatigable partisan.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The works of the Devill

Like so many things on this blog, this brief pre-breakfast post is Anthony Powell's fault. While looking to see if he'd written about his friend Cyril Connolly in his Some Poets, Artists and "A Reference for Mellors" (2006), I came across the following statement about Lord Rochester, attributed to Connolly:
Rochester represents a frontline almost too hot to hold by apologists for pleasure, one which has to be abandoned in favor of more defensible positions.
A man who claims to have spent five years on end drunk is, on that basis alone, always going to be a bit difficult to defend.

Powell sent me, as he so often does, to John Aubrey, who in his Brief Lives had this to say in his sadly brief account of Rochester:
His youthly spirit and oppulent fortune did sometimes make him doe extravagant actions, but in the country he was generally civill enough. He was wont to say that when he came to Brentford the Devill entered into him and never left him until he came into the Country again.
"Extravagant actions" is a nice bit of understatement--covering as it does everything from the kidnapping of the lady who would become his wife to the hired assault on Dryden to his pornographic poetry and his play, Sodom, written for the King and court, which consisted mostly of nudity and sex and included a stage direction ordering the cast to "Fall to fucking."

But, though I'd not have thought to blame the Devill, all that was known to me. Far more unexpected is what I learned upon looking up Rochester's wife, Anne, Countess Rochester. Aubrey's entry for Rochester's contemporary, poet John Denham, concludes--with typically intriguing Aubreyan vagueness--with the note that
His 2nd lady had no child: was poysoned by he hands of the Countess of Rochester, with Chocolatte.
This may require a trip to the library.

Oh, and finally, a side note: if you don't view this blog in a reader, you'll see that I've added a tag cloud to the right side, by which I (or you) can track the current balance of my various obsessions. Hmm . . . I have written about Lord Rochester rather a lot. Have I written about him too much? Is that even possible?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Nothing is different. Everything is different.

As regular readers of this blog know, I love biographies, especially of favorite writers. That's not because I feel a writer's work needs the context of his life in order to be fully understood but because, being interested in the writing, I'm interested in the talent that underlies it--and thus interested in the life and circumstances that created that talent. (In addition, I'm not ashamed to admit that I whole-heartedly love literary gossip.) And though I've often been surprised to find closer connections between a life and work than I expected--the charismatically malevolent characters in Iris Murdoch's novels, for example, can be mapped pretty closely to such figures in her own life (including the most malevolent of all, Elias Canetti)--I'm almost always able to keep the two separate when I return to the work, and thus I almost never regret learning more about a writer's background.

But I fear that I've found the exception. This week, as I blazed through the four novels collected in the Library of America's new Philip K. Dick volume, Four Novels of the 1960s (The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and Ubik (1969)), I found myself wishing I could return to the moment when I was sixteen and opened my father's copy of Dick's first published sci-fi novel, Time Out of Joint (1959). I knew nothing of Dick or the novel except that my father liked it and that it was strange (the paperback I read, however, sadly did not carry the tag line that the Lippincott first edition hardcover did, "A Novel of Menace").

Strange it definitely was, in a way wholly different from the sci-fi that I'd read up to that point, which consisted of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and a scandalously large number of Star Trek novels. Those writers for the most part worked the "what if" that is a sci-fi writer's inspiration on a grand scale, at the level of universes. Time Out of Joint, on the other hand, opens at the level of the human, on what is recognizably our earth, with a simple moment of confusion: a man reaches for the light pull in his closet but is unable to find it, and after a time he realizes that there's no pull at all--the light is controlled by wall switch. A small mistake, but it gnaws at him, and soon he's finding other elements of his world to be ever-so-slightly askew.

It's a flawless opening, because it draws the reader in with an experience that is utterly familiar, even commonplace. We all know those moments, from deja vu to the momentary pixilated fog of waking from a deep sleep, where our world seems not quite right, like a gear has slipped and allowed us to glimpse, however briefly, the machinery quietly humming along in the background. As Joe Chip in Ubik says as he stands in his office,
I can't put my finger on it, but things are different.
But in our lives, things aren't really different, and we don't, of course, take those moments seriously; we know that they're caused by misfiring neurons or by our minds' inherent desire to discern patterns in the chaotic impressions that perpetually bombard it. We're confident that reality is as we see it, essentially, so we pour our coffee and move on.

Dick asks us, instead, to shed our usual blithe acceptance and instead confront those inexplicable moments on their own terms. Might these hiccups in reality that we accept as internal events, products of our own brains, instead be actual disjunctions, even signs or warnings? Might they be indications that all is not well? What if the reality we see right now isn't the reality that was there mere moments ago? (John Crowley rings a change on this theme in his Aegypt cycle.) What if our memories are not our own? Then, the ominous question that inevitably follows: who might be manipulating our perceptions, and to what end?

It's a captivating conceit--especially for the sixteen-year-old me, just discovering metaphysics--and it's one that turns up again and again in Dick's work. His variations on it are inventive and exciting, and he employs this slippage to produce effects ranging from comedy to suspense to full-throated horror (some moments in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are truly terrifying). For all the efforts of thinkers from Descartes on, we can't, after all, prove that we're right about reality, and a convincing explanation of what Oz the Great and Terrible might be up to behind all those painted canvas backdrops is thus always going to be compelling.

As a teenager, I admired Dick's inventiveness and his relentless attack on that concept, but as I grew older and learned more about Dick's life, it became tougher and tougher to enjoy. Dick, as seemingly every literature fan knows by now, was for much of his life a drug-addled paranoiac on the verge of mental breakdown; fueled by the legal pharmacological bonanza of the late '50s and early '60s (and the illegal one that flourished in his hometown of San Francisco in the latter decade), he was haunted by visions, deep-rooted fears, and an unshakable sense that, beneath the facade of everyday life, there really were answers and explanations.

In part because of the drugs and mental problems, Dick's was not a long life, and it seems not to have been a happy or particularly pleasant one, despite his accomplishments and his many friendships. And now I find it hard to totally banish that knowledge when I read his books. What I enjoyed before--the slithering visions of menace that penetrate The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the cryptic messages that drive the action in Ubik, or even the innocent dislocation that jars Time Out of Joint into motion--are irreversibly suffused with an extra-literary menace.

In a sense, whereas before, Dick and I were playing particularly inventive and fun "what-if" games together, games which we would lay aside at the closing of the book, restoring reality to its rightful place, this week when I read his novels, I couldn't ever quite escape the fear and worry Dick's characters were experiencing. How much of his own fear and worry was fueling the emotions of his characters? How much of these conceits that he would, I'm sure, overtly claim as invention did some part of his fragmented psyche actually believe--and have to live through? How much of the content of these novels is based in invention, and how much is based in actual suffering?

Maybe this is an inappropriate response--drawing one-to-one parallels is the job of the biographer, after all, not of the reader, and falling into that trap can greatly diminish a work. Maybe I'm being unfair to Dick; maybe, even as I praise his creativity, I'm insulting it by even suggesting that the air of paranoia and uncertainty he creates is anything but intentional and separate from his life. The alchemy of creativity is secret and strange in even the most ordinary-seeming writers, and direct attribution or explanation is liable to be wrong at least as often as it's right.

Intellectually, I know that for all my love of biography I'm a better reader when I can make that break, separating the biography and the work--and maybe in the future, in Dick's case, I will be able to. But this week, on this reading, his novels carried an air of pathos that, while leaving them no less arresting, rendered them something far different from entertainment or literature.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The dangers of intemperate criticism, as presented by H. Rider Haggard

Perhaps it's best that I have had no time to write today . . . after all, look at the risk I run every time I criticize a novel!

From H. Rider Haggard's The Days of My Life: An Autobiography (1926), collected in Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), edited by Martin Ray
Of professional critics already I began to feel a certain repletion. Little do these gentlemen know the harm that they do sometimes. A story comes into my mind in illustration of this truth. One day, years later, I was in the little writing room of the Savile Club, that on the first floor with fern-cases in the windows where one my not smoke. At least, so things were when I used to be a member. Presently Thomas Hardy entered and took up one of the leading weekly papers in which was a long review of his last novel. He read it, then came to me--there were no others in the room--and pointed out a certain passage.

"There's a nice thing to say about a man!", he exclaimed. "Well, I'll never write another novel."

And he never did.

Haggard is long dead, so I suppose it's not too dangerous for me to point out how much his little narrative wanders--into fern-cases, smoking, and such--in just that brief paragraph. I'm not surprised to learn that his autobiography was in two volumes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Catching up on some sewing

Oh, no--it's the return of that cherished friend of sportswriters, church bulletin editors, and fluffy metro columnists--the Notes Column! Only this is a blog, so it's a Notes Post. Ahem. But I'll at least try to follow the advice I give my staff at the office when they're writing copy: make sure there's always a thread leading the reader on. Here's hoping I succeed.

1 Yesterday's post included a George Herbert poem, "Prayer (I)," that is essentially a well-patterned list of different ways of conceiving prayer. I wrote that
even a nonbeliever like me can like me can discern the quiet confidence underlying Herbert's rushing tumble of metaphor in this poem.
Being a nonbeliever, though, I'm also a non-prayer, and even Herbert's poem can't change that.

But today, while reading Tim Page's article about his Asperger's syndrome in the newest issue of the New Yorker, I came across a line that brought Herbert's poem to mind: in noting the tenacity of his friendships, Page says,
I concur with Virgil Thomson, who once said that worry was one form of prayer that he found acceptable.
Though not much of a worrier, I will gladly place myself in Page's camp here, though I'd also like to add the glories of simply thinking about friends in their absence--the joys of, for example, experiencing a work of art simultaneously from my own perspective and from what I imagine would be theirs. That imaginative creation of an absent loved one can easily shade over into the realm of prayer, a sort of devotion or obeisance or even insurance payment to an important missing piece of one's life.

2 Speaking of the New Yorker, the August 6th issue may be the best single issue of any magazine I've ever read--and that's even once you take into account that John McPhee, ordinarily a favorite, is in this issue writing about golf, a sport that, despite the fact that I played it in high school, I see no reason ever to read about. An article on e-mail spam is followed by a piece about a murdered U.S. attorney that is followed by Elizabeth Kolbert on the mysterious disappearance of the bees (which has worried the apocalyptic sci-fi fan in me before) that is followed by, unusually for the New Yorker, a piece of fiction I really liked (long-untranslated writings by Russian Daniil Kharms (who was arrested by the NKVD in 1941 for making "defeatist statements")) that is followed by a brief Louis Menand piece about the craft of biography that is followed by an article about Robert Walser's unforgettable fiction (which includes Walser's immortal response to the question of how his writing was going during his stay in a sanitarium, "I am not here to write, but to be mad.") that is followed by a look at the new New York Times building that is, finally, followed by a look at the art of Sara and Gerald Murphy (friends of Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald's models for the Divers in This Side of Paradise).

It's an astonishingly good run of articles, a reminder to occasionally stop and marvel at what the New Yorker pulls off, week in and week out. Even once I skip all the pieces about opera, classical music, and business tycoons, there's something to read and admire every week.

3 The newest New Yorker, meanwhile, includes an article by Adam Gopnik on Philip K. Dick, whose recent Library of America volume I've been reading for the past several days. When I came across the Gopnik article, I had just begun Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968); had I not, I might not have agreed with this statement from Gopnik:
Dick tends to get treated as a romantic: his books are supposed to be studies in the extremes of paranoia and technological nightmare, offering searing conundrums of reality and illusion. This comes partly from the habit, hard to break, of extolling the transgressive, the visionary, the startling undercurrent of dread. In fact, Dick in the sixties is a bone-dry intellectual humorist, a satirist—concerned with taking contemporary practices and beliefs to their reductio ad absurdum.
The sense of paranoia is hard to ignore in Dick; in my (relative to the true Dick fans) limited knowledge, it does seem to be the overarching theme, regardless of what Gopnik argues. But the opening pages of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are flat-out funny. As the novel opens, bounty hunter Rick Deckard has just woken up and is immediately in an argument with his wife, Iran. In the midst of the dispute, he considers how he ought to employ his mood organ:
At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).

"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same. I'll dial the same. I'll dial the maximum and you'll see a fight that makes every argument we've had up to now seem like nothing. Dial and see; just try me."
Gopnik goes on to point out, correctly, that
The gift of Dick's craziness was to see how strong the forces of normalcy are in a society, even when what they are normalizing is objectively nuts.

4 Dick's crazily brilliant The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) features the following exchange between a hallucinating man and his ex-wife (who is almost certainly not actually there):
Eying him, Emily said, "You're blammed."

Blammed. He hadn't heard that term since college; it was long out of style, and naturally Emily still used it. "The word," he said as distinctly as possible, "is now fnugled. Can you remember that? Fnugled."

The dispute over slang terms for drunkenness made for an entertaining coincidence: the same day I read that passage, I received in the mail an out-of-print book I'd ordered, Edmund Wilson's The American Earthquake: A Chronicle of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the Dawn of the New Deal (1958), the highlight of which is Wilson's "Lexicon of Prohibition." Wilson explains that the list of terms that follows is of words denoting drunkenness in common use at the time (March 1927) in the United States, organized roughly in increasing order of drunkenness:
lit, squiffy, oiled, lubricated, owled, edged, jingled, piffed, piped, sloppy, woozy, happy, half-screwed, half-cocked, half-shot, half seas over, fried, stewed, boiled, zozzled, sprung, scrooched, jazzed, jagged, canned, corked, corned, potted, hooted, slopped, tanked, stinko, blind, stiff, under the table, tight, full, wet, high , horseback, liquored, pickled, ginned, shicker (Yiddish), spifflicated, primed, organized, featured, pie-eyed, cock-eyed, wall-eyed, glassy-eyed, bleary-eyed, hoary-eyed, over the Bay, four sheets in the wind, crocked, loaded, leaping, screeching, lathered, plastered, soused, bloated, polluted, saturated, full as a tick, loaded for bear, loaded to the muzzle, loaded to the plimsoll mark, wapsed down, paralyzed, ossified, out like a light, passed out cold, embalmed, buried, blotto, lit up like the sky, lit up like the Commonwealth, lit up like a Christmas tree, lit up like a store window, lit up like a church, fried to the hat, slopped to the ears, stewed to the gills, boiled as an owl, to have a bun on, to have a slant on, to have a skate on, to have a snootful, to have a skinful, to draw a blank, to pull a shut-eye, to pull a Daniel Boone, to have a rubber drink, to have a hangover, to have a head, to have the jumps, to have the shakes, to have the zings, to have the heeby-jeebies, to have the sreaming meemies, to have the whoops and jingles, to burn with a low blue flame.

I hate to cast aspersions at Wilson, but I get the sense that somewhere in the making of that list he gave up on his organizational scheme, as it seems unlikely that all the "to have" constructions really denote successive states of drunkenness. But it's churlish to complain about such a valuable gift to posterity. While my friends and I have over the years regularly used soused, lit, tight, and--particularly in college--happy (which could also be turned into a noun: one could bring a bag of happy to a party, for example), the majority of these terms are new to me. At a minimum, I hope to do my part in returning "loaded to the plimsoll mark," "to pull a Daniel Boone," "wapsed down," "lit up like the Commonwealth," and (my favorite) "to burn with a low blue flame" to circulation.

5 Thinking about drink brings me back to Philip K. Dick, with the addition of the subject of a post earlier in the week, Lawrence Block. Part of the fun of reading Block's 1960s novels is entering the world that they incidentally recreate, the early 60s near-suburban world of businessmen who sleep with their secretaries, eat at smoky, dark-paneled steakhouses with deep, red-leather booths, have a couple of martinis at business lunches, and, though always looking out for the main chance, at the same time feel very secure about their place in the world. Dick, despite writing sci-fi, conveys that atmosphere, too--the very normalcy that Gopnik comments on in the New Yorker is a specifically male, post-war boom world, one that despite being propelled into an imagined future shares many assumptions and characteristics with the cozy world that Block's grifters are always attempting to invade and disrupt.

It's not a world that I find at all congenial (despite my love of its patron saint and apostle, Frank Sinatra), but that in no way lessens my appreciation of the way in which it's been almost inadvertently preserved in novels that are ostensibly about other things. A few pages of Block describing hotels and boardwalks and country clubs and I can almost feel the hitch in my lungs and the buzzing in my head on waking up after a late-night poker game with some of the guys from the Elks--that retention of a lost world, however unintentional, is one of the unsurpassed glories of the novel as a form.

6 Finally, writing about the recreation of a lost period reminds me of something that Stacey and I were talking about earlier tonight, Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier. Originally a mini-series and now available as a beautifully produced single hardcover or a pair of trade paperbacks, it's a retelling of the history of the universe of DC Comics in the 1950s, centered around the formation of the first large-scale superhero team, the Justice League.

My memories of Silver Age DC comics are so old, going back as they do to childhood days spent pawing through the footlocker of my father's mildewed Superman comics, that it's hard for me to separate Cooke's story from my at least partially nostalgic memories--so I don't know for sure whether someone who didn't know the rough outlines of the story of the DC heroes would enjoy the book. Regardless, it's rich in character and action, and Cooke's strikingly minimalist, angular art creates a fully believable post-war atmosphere of straight-cut dark suits, narrow ties, and crew cuts, and of an America (and by extension, a superhero population) that was certain its applied might and know-how could completely remake the world for the better. I think it's about as good as superhero comics get.

Plus, Cooke is the only artist I know who has ever drawn Wonder Woman--an Amazon, don't forget--as taller than Superman. That alone is worth a tip of the hat.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Pair of Herberts

{Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, by Isaac Oliver}

John Stubbs's John Donne: The Restless Self, about which I've written before, includes a brief sketch of Sir Edward Herbert, brother of Donne's fellow poet George Herbert and son of Donne's friend Magadalen Herbert, that I think you'll enjoy.

Though sickly in his youth, by adulthood Sir Edward
had grown into the complete Renaissance man--swordsman, scholar, poet and courtier, the last a role he sniffed at with the right kind of elegant disdain.
He quickly became known for his overdeveloped sense of honor--and his perpetual readiness to avenge perceived slights with violence. Say Stubbs,
He once chased a French cavalier across the countryside for playfully running off with a lady's ribbon, then took it as a personal affront when the rattled Frenchman tried returning the trifle without admitting first that he had been made to give it back.
In an incident with shades of some other scenes of inappropriately glimpsed nudity that I've written about before, Herbert inadvertently (he claimed) wandered into the bedchamber of a Lady Ayres one day and "sawe her through the Courtaines lying upon her bed," pining away at a miniature of him. Sir John Ayres, hearing of this, accused Sir Edward of "whoring" with his wife--and, accompanied by a group of swordsmen, set upon him in London one night.

Sir Edward presumably was glad at the chance to fight, and maybe even was glad to be outnumbered five-to-one. What better way to prove his honor? Stubbs gives us the blow-by-blow:
Ayres and his team were instantly repelled and quickly appalled. Herbert broke his sword with the first stroke, but still fought all of them off with just the stump of the blade. A friendly passer-by, Sir Henry Carew, decently pulled a dagger from Herbert's ribs so that he could go and knock Ayres down for a third time. With the hirelings vanquished and the jealous husband on the ground, Herbert straddled him, hacking furiously: "when kneeling on the Ground and bestriding him I struck at him in fowre seurall places and did almost cut off his left hand," he reported.

But even that wasn't enough for Herbert. Healing quickly from his injuries,
he offered to meet Ayres at a time of his choosing to finish the affair like gentlemen.

{George Herbert, by Robert White (1674)}

Oddly enough, Sir Edward's brother George is a relatively serene figure. He spent much of his life, apparently contentedly, as a country priest, and his poetry, Stubbs notes,
is the unique record of someone finding sufficiency in life as a soul, and a soul, moreover, that could genuinely get on with God.
Even a nonbeliever like me can discern the quiet confidence underlying Herbert's rushing tumble of metaphor in this poem:
Prayer (I)

Prayer the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earht;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinners' tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days' world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

And then there's Herbert's argument for straightforward truths, cleanly expressed, in "Jordan":

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow course-spunne lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lovers loves?
Must all be vail’d, while he that reades, divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing:
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for Prime:
I envie no mans nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with losse of rime,
Who plainly say, My God, My King.

What an odd house the Herberts' must have been, to have produced both Sir Edward, with his prickly honor that perpetually needed to be defended, and the clear-eyed, confident belief of George. So far, I've not been able to learn anything about their other eight siblings, but it does make me wonder just what they were like.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sharpies and frauds

A couple of weeks ago I proclaimed that Richard Aleas's Songs of Innocence (2007) is the best novel that Hard Case Crime has published. The next day my friend Ed from the Dizzies sent me a note saying, essentially, "Really? Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game and The Girl with the Long Green Heart would be hard to top." Uh-oh. There were, after all, five Hard Case Crime books that my subscription hadn't brought me--the Block novels among them. And it wasn't too long ago that Hard Case published a third Block novel, one that reminded me just how much I like his work. Perhaps I should have hedged.

Properly challenged, I ordered the pair from my local bookstore. And Ed's right about at least one thing: they're really good. Both novels feature a grifter looking for a score and falling for a woman (need I note the ensuing disastrous consequences?). But despite their superficial similarities, they're distinctly different in tone, and reading them back-to-back is like watching a master play variations on a theme.

The Girl with the Long Green Heart (1965) tells the story of Johnny Hayden, a retired con artist who is lured back for a sharply designed long con. (You can guess what separates a long con from a short con, but if you want more detail, two great sources are David Mauer's The Big Con and J. R. "The Yellow Kid" Weil's Con Man.) A con novel exists largely so us outsiders can watch a con come together, and Block delivers the goods: there's worthless land in Canada, a mooch who can be induced to smell unearned (and possibly illicit) profit, and a lovely lady to pull it all together. There are deeds to be forged, dummy letters to be mailed from various cities throughout the country, a storefront land office to be furnished and staffed--wheels within wheels, and everything has to work perfectly for the con to succeed, which is what we're rooting for the whole time, morality be damned. Block doesn't excuse our choosing the side of the cheats, but he makes it easier both by making the mark a boor and by reminding us:
There's an old maxim that you cannot swindle a completely honest man. I'm not sure this is entirely true--it would be hard to test it empirically, because I don't think I have ever met an entirely honest man.

Yet even as we're watching the pieces fall into place, we know the plan will fail somehow. You can't write a crime novel about a con that goes off flawlessly--as much fun as these schemes are to read about, it's not the anticipated complications but the dangerous surprises that create the tension and provide the drama. In this case, despite Johnny Hayden's disbelief in pure honesty, too much trust is what opens the door to disaster. To run a con, you've got to trust your partners--and sins of omission, however minor in themselves, can bring the whole game crashing down. And as good as the set-up is in The Girl with the Long Green Heart, the crash is just as impressive.

Grifter's Game (1961) opens as a similar sort of grifter, Joe Marlin, is trying to stay a few steps ahead of unpaid bills:
The lobby was air-conditioned and the carpet was the kind you sink down into and disappear in without leaving a trace. The bellhops moved silently and instantly and efficiently. The elevators started silently and stopped as silently, and the pretty girls who jockeyed them up and down did not chew gum until they were finished working for the day. The ceilings were high and the chandeliers that drooped from them were ornate.

And the manager's voice was pitched very low, his tone apologetic. But this didn't change what he had to say. He wanted the same thing they want in every stinking dive from Hackensack to Hong Kong. He wanted money.

To dodge the bill, Marlin flees to Atlantic City, where he quickly and unexpectedly finds himself a in possession of a big block of heroin--and lovely lady who wants her drug dealing husband dead. From there, events proceed roughly as you might expect. Marlin concocts a satisfyingly multi-layered plan for knocking off the woman's husband, complications ensue, and, almost to the end, Grifter's Game follows through on our expectations: there's love, money, and double crosses, all adding up to a solid, if unspectacular, crime novel.

Then the last ten pages change everything, with an ending that might be the most stunning I've read in a crime novel. Rather than wrap the book up conventionally, Block takes a real chance, and the close of the novel left me gape-mouthed. In writing about Richard Aleas's Songs of Innocence, I mentioned how unflinching Aleas was about the consequences of his book's events, how by playing everything straight he built up to a shocking ending; Block handles Grifter's Game the same way, to similarly powerful effect. The ending is brutal, astonishing, and totally unexpected--yet at the same time it feels completely right.

After all that, have I answered Ed's question? Is Songs of Innocence better than Grifter's Game? Maybe? Probably?

All I know is that even being neck-and-neck with Lawrence Block is something to be proud of--and that if you like crime novels, you might as well read both and make your own decision. Regardless of which you prefer, I don't think you'll regret it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

All the cold dark nights

No time this morning, so I'll just share the following reminiscence by literary critic Arthur Compton Rickett of meeting Thomas Hardy in 1909, collected in Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), edited by Martin Ray:
When the weather was suitable Hardy would accompany a visitor down the quaint little drive to the gate. I remember one lovely September evening when he paused at the gate and looked round wistfully at the pastoral landscape. It was the first fine evening for weeks, and there was that peculiar luminosity so characteristic of the month at its best. I made some common-place remark about the beauty of the evening. Hardy shook his head gently. "Autumn," he said; "don't forget that. Winter is ahead and all the cold dark nights. Give me the roughest of spring days rather than the loveliest of autumn days, for there is death in the air."

I've sung the praises of this book briefly before, but the more I dig into it, the more fun it is. As the editor notes in his introduction, Hardy would have hated it, with its wonderfully fragmentary, yet telling impressions of him in relatively unguarded moments--but a Hardy fan is bound to love it nonetheless.

Friday, August 10, 2007

On a huge hill, cragg'd and steep, Truth stands

I've written before about John Donne's "Meditation XVII," and about how Donne's most famous line, "No man is an island," from that Meditation, is a far more interesting thought when considered as part of the passage that surrounds it:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Similarly, John Stubbs's John Donne: The Reformed Soul (2006) adds interest and nuance to Donne's work by putting it in the context of a skilled reconstruction of his life. Though Donne is often viewed as a complicated, even paradoxical man--a writer of erotic love poems, raised a Catholic, who later became one of the foremost ministers of the Church of England--Stubbs does a convincing job of drawing a line of emotional and spiritual consistency throughout a life of outward change.

Donne lived in the chaotic period between two of the greatest upheavals of English history (Henry VIII's break with the Catholic Church and the English Civil War) and watching him tack back and forth as needed to navigate the political, social, and religious difficulties of the era is fascinating. A Catholic in a Protestant society, he converted when it became necessary--and, Stubbs argues convincingly, found a way (in his deep-rooted ecumenicalism) to fully embrace the change. Exiled from society due to his elopement with the daughter of his first patron, he assiduously courted friends and connections until he was restored to the court's good graces. Eventually, as his prospects of landing a government position (which he badly needed to feed his large family) dimmed, he completed his journey from his Catholic upbringing by heeding King Charles's suggestion that he become a minister. From then on, Donne put all of his intellectual and emotional powers at the Church of England's disposal, developing a more somber and strongly moral tone and becoming in the process one of the most-loved writers in the Christian tradition.

Through all of these changes, however, Stubbs argues, Donne continued to be driven by the same search for truth that can be seen in his earliest satires and even his love poetry, which each in their way aim to strip away hypocrisy to reveal underlying realities and desires. Stubbs returns regularly to the following passage from Donne's "Satire III":
On a huge hill,
Cragg'd, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe,
And what the hills suddenness resists, winne so;
Yet strive so, that before age, deaths twilight,
Thy Soule rest, for none can work in that night.
Stubbs isn't always able to convince, of course. It seems important to accept that Donne was often simply having to make the best of a bad situation--his sycophantic letters to his court patrons, in particular, come across as full of the very lies the younger Donne would have enjoyed puncturing in verse.

The portrait of Donne we're left with is appealing nonetheless: a man refusing to be defeated by any setback and unwilling to ever settle for a received idea, instead perpetually sifting, considering, and reconsidering. That very process animates the best of Donne's metaphysical verse, as he strings thought upon thought, forever pushing for a deeper understanding; it's even present, in a different form, in his lighter work, where he subjects image and metaphor to that same sort of intellectual pressure. I also find Donne congenial because even in his later years, he appears never to have denied his possibly embarrassing past of love affairs and youthful abandon--in other words, to the Christian eye, sin; rather, he seems to have accepted that the God he knew knew him also, both his sins and his goodness, and would accept him as a whole.

Reading about Donne's life, I couldn't help thinking about a couple of fascinating what-ifs. At one point, Donne was angling for a secretarial position with a colonial expedition to Virginia, which leads me to marvel at the thought of Donne's poetic impressions of the American wilderness and the hardships of colonial life. (Peter Ackroyd wrote a novel about the same idea as applied to John Milton, whom he sends to Massachusetts with the Pilgrims--anyone read it?) There's also the question of what side Donne would have taken in the Civil War had he lived another couple of decades. It's hard to imagine him not disdaining the Puritans' harsh intolerance, but at the same time it's impossible to know what he would have made of the Church's increasing crackdown on Puritanism in the years leading up to the war. Which way would Donne the mutable survivor have jumped?

From what we can't know, I'll return to what we do know: the poetry. Which Donne I like best depends on my mood, on whether I feel like following his wanders through metaphor to a truth about humanity or to a simple tryst. Tonight, because it's a lovely summer evening, I'll choose the love poetry to close, one of my favorites because of its ingenious conception, from which Donne wrings every drop of meaning.
The Flea

Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
Me it suck'd first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled bee;
Confesse it, this cannot be said
A sinne, or shame, or losse of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoyes before it wooe,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than wee would doe.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
When we almost, nay more than maryed are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloysterd in these living walls of Jet.
Though use make thee apt to kill me,
Let not to this, selfe murder added bee,
And sacrilege, three sinnes in killing three.

Cruell and sodaine, has thou since
Purpled thy naile, in blood of innocence?
In what could this flea guilty bee,
Except in that drop which it suckt from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and saist that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor mee the weaker now;
'Tis true, then learne how false, feares bee;
Just so much honor, when thou yeeld'st to mee,
Will wast, as this flea's death tooke life from thee.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Trollope goes digital, Borges goes ghostly, Donne goes on a peace mission

Not a lot of time tonight, so all I've got for you is a collection of odds and ends.

1 In all the writing about Trollope I've been doing this summer, I've neglected to mention Penguin's great new Trollope site, created with the help of the Trollope Society. It's everything such a site should be--especially for a writer as prolific as Trollope--giving a brief synopsis of each novel and major character, information about his Barset and Palliser sequences, and biographical information about Trollope. A particularly nice touch are the eye-catching (though slightly too contemporary?) cartoon renderings of Trollope's characters. But surely Phineas Finn didn't really look as horrid as this?

I also learned from the site that Trollope thought that the ending of Phineas Finn was a bit abrupt and unsatisfying, as did I. In his Autobiography, Trollope admitted:
It is all fairly good except the ending,--as to which till I got to it I had made no provision. As I fully intended to bring my hero again into the world, I was wrong to marry him to a simple pretty Irish girl, who could only be felt as an encumbrance on such return.
If I may be allowed to absurdly mix eras and forms: the ending reminded me of the end of Don Knotts's great comedy The Love God?, wherein Knotts's character ends up not with the vivacious career woman (and bombshell) he's been seeing, but with the lovely young lady from his hometown who has been patiently waiting--and who is as dull as paste. It makes sense for the ethical arc of the story, but it's impossible to believe and makes no damn sense on any other level.

2 I learned about the Trollope site through the ReadySteadyBook blog, where I was involved in the following exchange after blogger Mark Thwaite ended his post by asking if he should give Trollope a try:
Stephen Mitchelmore: No!

Mark Thwaite: Sage, succinct advice as ever, sir!

Levi Stahl: I totally disagree with Stephen Mitchelmore: Yes!

The Palliser novels provide insight into politics, strongly drawn characters--including several fully realized, sympathetic portrayals of strong-willed women--and a drawn-out, sensitive depiction of a marriage of two very different partners who despite their differences (and the strictures placed on them by society) are essentially equals.

Trollope doesn't have the humor of Dickens, the godlike sympathy and understanding of Tolstoy, the fire of Dostoevsky, or the piercing aphoristic insight of George Eliot, but his attention to his characters and the realities of their world make him well worth reading.

Stephen Mitchelmore: But Levi, we do share the same reasons!

3 In With Borges, which I wrote about the other day, Alberto Manguel mentions that he's just one of many people who, over the years, served as readers for the blind master. I imagine them reuniting once a year in a secret library, an invisible college of readers conjuring the Borges who is not in the library, the lost Borges, the one who, in "Borges and I," writes:
It's Borges, the other one, that things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause--mechanically now, perhaps--to gaze at the arch of an entryway and its inner door; news of Borges reaches me by mail, or I see his name on a list of academics or in some biographical dictionary. My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, seventeenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee, and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that our relationship is hostile--I live, I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification.
At the end of a long evening of wine and talk, during which they've tricked him into lowering his guard, the Borges they conjure is swiftly trapped between two covers and filed away in an obscure, rarely visited section of this already obscure library.

As the years mount, and death slowly winnows the circle of readers, the Borges they conjure becomes less solid; what was at their first meeting a gargantuan reference book becomes, by their last, perhaps a single line of poetry.

4 After writing about Borges's admonition to his nephew ("If you behave, I'll give you permission to think of a bear."), I thought that Borges might have enjoyed my favorite Victor Borge joke, which I heard him deliver to a young whippersnapper on the Jack Benny Show:
Borge: How old are you?

Whippersnapper: I'm six!

Borge: Shame on you! When I was your age, I was twice that old!

5 Having written recently about the Thirty Years War, I was surprised to learn yesterday from John Stubbs's John Donne: The Reformed Soul (2007) that Donne served as chaplain to the delegation that King James sent to Frederick and Ferdinand, the chief warring parties, in 1619. The mission, however, was doomed from the start, as it had been
entirely seeded and nurtured by a Spanish subterfuge. Spain's great aim in the Bohemian crisis was to keep England from sending military and financial aid to the Protestant rebels: the neutrality desired by the Spanish was assured by massaging King James's diplomatic ego. The great Machiavellian Spanish ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, reassured his masters that "the vanity of the present King of England is so great that he will always think it of great importance that peace should be obtained by his means, so that his authority may be increased."
Actually that's the sense I get of the whole war: if you were involved, you were probably being double-crossed.

For his part, Donne in the years to come would be a strong voice against English involvement in the war, despite anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish public sentiment. Donne surely took up that position at least in part because it was the position of the King, in whose good graces Donne needed to stay--but it's also not hard to trace that preference to Donne's youthful memories of the horrors of war and his seeming general distaste for sectarianism and the violence it often entailed.

6 Finally, it seems fitting to follow Donne, the poet of love in secular and religious guises, to a couple of fun throwaway lines from Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game (1961):
I lighted her cigarette. She was poised and cool but not at all subtle. She leaned forward to take the light and to give me a look at large breasts harnessed by a lacy black bra. Eve learned that one the day they got dressed and moved out of Eden. It has been just as effective ever since.