Thursday, January 31, 2008

Strangers on a Train, in a Bookbag

For a time tonight, as I made my way home from work on the L, a pair of books by very dissimilar authors shared space in my shoulder bag. Is it possible to imagine a greater difference, in tone, outlook, or theme, than that between Patricia Highsmith and P. G. Wodehouse? And yet . . .

From P. G. Wodehouse's "The Crime Wave at Blandings," collected in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937)
[T]hose who read thrillers are an impatient race. They chafe at scenic rhapsodies and want to get to the rough stuff. When, they ask, did the dirty work start? Who were mixed up in it? Was there blood, and, if so, how much? And--most particularly--where was everybody and what was everybody doing at whatever time it was? The chronicler who wants to grip must supply this information at the earliest possible moment.
From Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
A comment about first chapters in general: it is a good idea to provide lines of action in the first chapter. . . . There is action or the promise of it in every good novel, but in suspense stories, the action is apt to be of a more violent kind. That is the only difference.
I start to imagine. . . . Pressed up together like that in my bookbag, the two authors find themselves forced into a conversation. Wodehouse is a bit awkward and nervous; Highsmith a bit cranky and distracted. But they soon discover that they both have books they've been wanting, desperately, to write . . . but they're holding back, worried about what will result, the possible consequences.

What, Highsmith suggests with a disarming laugh, if they were to agree to secretly write each other's books? To her surprise, Wodehouse perks up. Criss-cross, he cries. Criss-cross! It would be the perfect crime of art . . . because no one would ever suspect!

From Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone. I am so law-abiding, I can tremble before a customs inspector with nothing contraband in my suitcases. Perhaps I have some severe and severely repressed criminal drive in myself, or I would not take such an interest in criminals or write about them so often. And I think many suspense writers--except perhaps those whose heroes and heroines are the wronged and victimized parties, and whose villains are off-scene, unattractive or doomed--must have some kind of sympathy and identification with criminals, or they would not become emotionally engrossed in books about them. The suspense book is vastly different from the mystery story in this respect. The suspense writer often deals much more closely with the criminal mind, because the criminal is usually known throughout the book, and the writer has to describe what is going on in his head. Unless a writer is sympathetic, he cannot do this.

From "Crime Wave at Blandings"
Lord Emsworth tottered to a chair and sank into it, staring glassily at his niece. Any Chicago business man of the modern school would have understood what he was feeling and would have sympathized with him.

The thing that poisons life for gunmen and sometimes makes them wonder moodily if it is worth-while going on is this tendency of the outside public to butt in at inconvenient moments. Whenever you settle some business dispute with a commercial competitor by means of your sub-machine gun, it always turns out that there was some officious witness passing at the time, and there you are, with a new problem confronting you.

And Lord Emsworth was in worse case than his spiritual brother of Chicago would have been, for the latter could always have solved his perplexities by rubbing out the witness. A prominent Shropshire landowner with a position to keep up in the county, cannot rub out his nieces. All he can do, when they reveal that they have seen him wallowing in crime, is to stare glassily at them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Brief Lives

{Photo of St. Boniface Cemetery, Chicago, by rocketlass.}

From Hilary Spurling's review in the Guardian of Peter Ackroyd's new Poe: A Life Cut Short:
Poe's brilliant, erratic, abbreviated career stands to gain rather than lose from the form of brief life patented by Ackroyd. A short biography is not a long one shrunk. Instead of patiently accumulated details, emotional complexity and architectural shaping, it operates by lightning strikes, atmospheric colouring, impressionistic techniques of concision and suggestion.
In that passage above, Spurling has hit on exactly what I love about brief lives. By trimming the dross that even an exceptional full-length biography can't entirely avoid--that year, say, when the subject did little but write self-pitying letters to his publisher--the author of a brief life is freed up to concentrate on the important stuff: the goofy details, telling anecdotes, and mostly inconsequential oddities that dot any closely examined life.

The following two paragraphs about J. M. W. Turner's father, from Ackroyd's brief life of the painter, are a good example:
Old Dad settled very happily and comfortably into Sandycombe Lodge, where he took particular pleasure in tending the garden. On Tuesdays he visited the market at Brentford, and would return with the week's provisions stored in a knotted blue handkerchief. In the spring and summer he would supervise the gallery in Harley Street, when his son was exhibiting, and often made the journey from Twickenham on foot. When Constable and Farington once visited the gallery, the old man told them that "he had walked from Twickenham this morning, eleven miles; his age, 68. In two days the last week he said he had walked fifty miles." He might have used his son's pony, Crop-Ear, but for some reason chose not to do so. Perhaps the beast was considered to be Turner's sole possession; he rode on it for various painting expeditions, and declared that "it would climb like a cat and never get tired." When it died, after strangling itself on its own fastenings, he buried it in the garden.

Old Dad did in the end find an alternative mode of travelling. "Why lookee here," he told an acquaintance, "I have found a way at last of coming up cheap from Twickenham to open my son's gallery. I found out the inn where the market-gardeners baited their horses; I made friends with one on 'em and now, for a glass of gin a day, he brings me up in his cart on top of the vegetables."
As much fun as Ackroyd's 150-ish-page lives are, I actually prefer the far more condensed form that was favored by--or that was the product of the general racketiness of--John Aubrey. On almost any page of his Brief Lives, you come across something great, phrased in Aubrey's unique, elliptical style--like this life of mathematician Henry Briggs:
Looking one time on the mappe of England he observed that the two Rivers, the Thames and that Avon (which runnes to Bathe and so to Bristowe) were not far distant, scilicet, about 3 miles. He sees 'twas but about 25 miles from Oxford; getts a horse and viewes it and found it to be a levell ground and easie to be digged. Then he considered the chardge of cutting between them and the convenience of making a mariage between those Rivers which would be of great consequence for cheape and safe carrying of Goods between London and Bristow, and though the boates go slowly and with meanders, yet considering they goe day and night they would be at their journey's end almost as soon as the Waggons, which often are overthrowne and liquours spilt and other goods broken. Not long after this he dyed and the Civill Warres brake-out.
I found myself thinking of Aubrey the other night when reading the Hesperus Press's very satisfying collection of some of Virginia Woolf's biographical writings, The Platform of Time (2007). The opening paragraph of Woolf's brief life of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, which first appeared in the Hogarth Press's edition of Cameron's photographs, has a touch of Aubrey to it:
Julia Margaret Cameron, the third daughter of James Pattle of the Bengal Civil service, was born on July 11, 1815. Her father was a gentleman of marked, but doubtful, reputation, who after living a riotous life and earning the title of "the biggest liar in India," finally drank himself to death and was consigned to a cask of rum to await shipment to England. The cask was stood outside the widow's bedroom door. In the middle of the night she heard a violent explosion, rushed out, and found her husband, having burst the lid of the coffin, bolt upright menacing her in death as he had menaced her in lift. "The shock sent her off her head then and there, poor thing, and she died raving." It is the father of Miss Ethel Smyth who tells the story (Impressions that Remained), and he goes on to say that, after "Jim Blazes" had been nailed down again and shipped off, the sailors drank the liquor in which the body was preserved, "and, by Jove, the rum ran out and got alight and set the ship on fire! And while they were trying to extinguish the flames she ran on a rock, blew up, and drifted ashore just below Hooghly. And what do you think the sailors said? 'That Pattle had been such a scamp that the devil wouldn't let him go out of India!'"
Though I don't know if Aubrey can actually be claimed as an influence on Woolf's biographical technique, he surely would have enjoyed her handling of the unlikely anecdotes.

Which is more than I'm willing to presume about my own sub-Aubreyan efforts, the continuing series of Brief Lives of the Hip-Hop Stars that I'm writing for the New-York Ghost. For those benighted souls out there who didn't take my advice a while back and subscribe to the Ghost, here's the most recent installment:
Levi Stahl's "Brief Lives of the Hip-Hop Stars"

Dr. Octagon

It seems impossible to conclude that Dr. Octagon ever spake any oaths to Hippocrates; rather, his god of choice seems to have been some hideous concoction partaking of the most unseemly Characters of Dr. Crippen and Casanova, if one is to go by the account of his own Rhymes, viz., that the Dr. Octagon did at several times take Liberties, notably of a sexual nature, with the ladies who came to him for gynaecological advice. It is also said of him that once he did introduce a Horse into the Precincts of a Hospital (Quaere de hoc), with many deleterious effects. However, even his staunchest Opponents on the Medical Board, however, could scant deny the innovative nature of his Treatments for Moosebumps, Chimpanzee Acne, and those rare but wracking infestations of Rectal Bees. Some many days, Dr. Octagon was known to site in his Chambers with his Head encased in a Space Helmet, from beneath which he would bellow challenges to philosophically minded guests to prove that he was not, in fact, in Space. In his later years, presumably barred from the practice of medicine, he is said to have assumed the moniker of Kool Keith and taken up some profession relating to robotics, which I confess I little understand.
All of which reminds me that, rather than writing this, I ought to be working on the next installment. While I do that, and while poor John Aubrey rightfully grumbles at me from beyond the grave, you can go here to subscribe to the Ghost, gratis!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why I find myself dancing to those same old steps again and again and again

Because I proselytize so relentlessly on behalf of Anthony Powell and A Dance to the Music of Time, I'm always searching for relatively succinct ways in which to explain their virtues. I usually place the novels' attraction in Powell's--and by extension, his narrator Nick Jenkins's--insatiable curiosity about the myriad ways that people choose to live their lives; in the fourth novel, At Lady Molly's (1957), in explaining his decision to attend a country weekend that seems likely to be disastrous, Nick Jenkins accords curiosity its proper, exalted place:
Curiosity, which makes the world go round, brought me in the end to accept Quiggin's invitation.
What raises Powell's curiosity in Dance to the level of art is that he leavens it with a real openness to difference, from ordinary English eccentricity to unexpected sexual predilections to inexplicable fixed ideas. That mix of curiosity and sympathy allows Powell to find nearly any person of at least some interest; his much-quoted response to charges of snobbery--that if there were a Burke's of Bank Clerks, he'd buy that, too--rings true for any close reader of Dance.

In the third novel,The Acceptance World (1955), Jenkins neatly sums up Powell's approach and highlights the way that it opens up our understanding of our own selves as well:
I reflected, not for the first time, how mistaken it is to suppose there exists some "ordinary" world into which it is possible at will to wander. All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.
In a 1951 review of the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, Julian MacLaren-Ross (who would later form the basis of one of Powell's most memorable characters) sets a similar assessment of Powell's technique in a broader context:
Mr Powell is, mercifully, a writer without a "message," either philosophical, religious, or political; he is content to examine without comment, and to illustrate through character in action, the changes in human nature brought about by the changing face of the social order in which we live; in other words, he is attempting to fulfill the novelist's only true vocation.
To reveal those changes in character, Powell doesn't rely primarily on particularly dramatic events (though there are some, especially in the war novels); instead, as Terry Teachout puts it,
[T]hings happen--life happens--to Powell's characters, and as we watch them grapple with each successive occurrence, we realize that his interest is not in what they do but in what they want.
And, as Powell demonstrates, what people want so often becomes who they are. If curiosity drives the world, desire--specifically the desire for power--is what risks ruining it. To say that Powell approaches all characters with sympathy doesn't mean that he refuses judgment; though he lets events and actions speak for themselves, we see multiple times the grievous consequences of betrayal, cruelty, and the self-interest that is determined to carry all before it.

Serving as a bulwark against these, concomitant with simple human kindness, is the creative act. As Jenkins reflects in the second volume, A Buyer's Market (1952),
[T]he arts themselves, so it appeared to me as I considered the matter, by their ultimately sensual essence, are, in the long run, inimical to those who pursue power for its own sake. Conversely, the artist who traffics in power does so, if not necessarily disastrously, at least at considerable risk.
The arts may not be able to defeat the Widmerpools of the world, but they can at least create and sustain a rival way of understanding that world, one that the power-hungry will never begin to comprehend. Tariq Ali, at the inaugural Anthony Powell lecture at the Wallace Collection, located the creative act at the center of the novels:
What, then, is the central theme of the series? Creativity--the act of production. Of literature, of books, of paintings, of music; that is what most of the central characters are engaged in for the whole of their lives. Moreland composes, Barnby paints, X Trapnel writes, Quiggin, Members and Maclintick criticise and the narrator publishes books and then becomes a writer. What excites the novelist is music and painting, literature and criticism. It's this creativity, together with the comedy of everyday life, that sustains the Dance.
Curiosity, sympathy, creativity: three strong pillars on which to rest a novel. Add a baroque, yet balanced, prose style and a fierce eye for comedy, and you've got the music for my very favorite Dance.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

From Passenger to Backseat Driver, or, A Winter's Day, from My Living Room

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From eight a.m. yesterday until twelve-thirty this morning, I did very little (a brief run, listening to Thriller, some cooking, a load of laundry) aside from read Tana French's In the Woods (2007). From the first pages, I realized that this was the sort of book that, like a rented Nintendo when I was ten years old, could easily spirit away a whole day barely noticed--but I also knew that was going to require some complicity on my part.

Ordinarily, I approach pretty much all reading, from cereal boxes to genre fiction to Proust, the same way. I'm always thinking as I read, conducting a sort of running conversation in my head with the author, trying to clarify their ideas, suss out their plans, explore their methods. It's so ingrained that I rarely even notice it; reading for me is engaged, critical reading.

Once in a while, however, in the early pages of a novel I'll realize that a critical approach is just going to lead to frustration--yet at the same time, I can feel the tug of the narrative; I can tell that if I surrender like the author is asking, disengage my critical faculties, the ride will be worth it. It's like making a choice to be a true passenger rather than a backseat driver, and it happens rarely--I think reading Scott Smith's The Ruins (2006) was the most recent time. When I read that way, there's always an odd doubleness to the experience, as if at the same time I'm caught up in and enjoying the book, I can imagine a different me on different day in a different mood hating the book, screaming inside at every sentence, arguing back at it, Kingsley Amis-style, "Oh, no that's not at all what they would do!"

I say all this largely to warn you: In the Woods is that sort of book. To be fair, I should make clear that it's a far better book than The Ruins, which, with its overwritten yet underdeveloped characters, gets by on action and fear alone. In the Woods, on the other hand, features a handful of well-imagined characters, a believable Dublin setting, and, some straining at too-literary effects aside, a compelling prose style.

But what makes it impossible to stop reading is the character of the narrator, a police detective working a child murder with eerie similarities to a traumatic incident in his own childhood when his two best friends went missing and he alone was found, bloody and amnesic. His quest for answers to both cases quickly becomes the reader's quest, its pull convincing me, despite my critical mind's murmured objections, to accept certain implausible characters and situations; that acceptance seemed a small price to pay as I followed the narrator's investigation through the murky present and the lost past.

But then--as it neared midnight--French began taking so many wrong turns that even the most complacent passenger wouldn't have been able to avoid raising objections. Pierre Bayard, in his Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery (1998), writes of the construction of a thriller:
The detective thriller does not function as a seamless whole but works in two successive movements. The first of these, which lasts for most of the book, is a movement of opening meaning and tends to multiply leads and solutions. Without exploring all combinatory possibilities--far from it--this movement develops explicit proposals as well as more discreet suggestions, conjuring before the reader's eyes for brief moments a multitude of possible worlds in which different murderers commit virtual murders.

The second movement, which intervenes at the end of the book, is a movement of foreclosing meaning. It brutally eliminates different possibilities and privileges a single one, charged--in conformity with the Van Dine principle--with clarifying all proposed mysteries in retrospect while giving the reader the feeling that it was there in front of him all the time, protected by his blindness.
It is precisely when French begins to close off possibilities that In the Woods goes wrong: the mechanics of the plot turn out to hinge on one of the least convincing of the characters, one whose manner and role are so unlikely that they warp the reactions of even the more well-imagined characters, conjuring up the specter of the author's intrusive needs. Suddenly critical disengagement is no longer possible: the single proposed solution is less believable--and thus less interesting--than the many previously conjured possibilities. The mystery writer's greatest enemy, arbitrariness, begins to rear its head, and the reader can't help but begin to question even the well-developed characters. (There's another, larger problem with the plot as well, but (oh, the frustrations of writing about thrillers!) I can't really discuss it without giving too much away; fortunately, I've written about this very problem before, so if you're willing to risk learning too much, you can read about the second book discussed in this post and draw inferences from there.)

A peculiarity of the mystery genre is that a failure in the second movement can easily render all the content of the first movement essentially pointless: if we don't care who done it, why did the author ask us to waste our time caring how and where and when? In the Woods is a better book than that: the fact that the build-up was so good made the fizzled payoff extra-disappointing--but at the same time the build-up was so good that it seems unfair not to credit it as a real achievement on its own. Tana French managed to tie me in knots all day, and the ultimate disappointment led more to feelings of a chance missed than a long winter day wasted. Though the resolution was deeply frustrating, I don't regret surrendering to the story, and I may even try French's next book. But oh, what could have been!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The perfect gift for the Bartleby in your life?

Okay. I'll bite. To those of you who reached this site by searching for "desk accessory for bartleby the scrivener" (11 of you this month), "bartleby the scrivener desk accessory" (5), "bartleby scrivener desk accessory" (2), "bartleby the scrivener, a desk accessory" (1): what was it you were looking for?

I apologize if this query, which is sure to draw even more of you searchers to this site fruitlessly, is somewhat of a violation of the unwritten rules of the Internet, but you've really piqued my curiousit. I've now done a fair amount of searching myself trying to figure it out, but I've gotten nowhere, so I'm left helplessly trying to imagine what Bartleby might have needed on his desk.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

To be read, may I take the liberty to suggest, with a dry gin martini

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Some offerings from the I've Been Reading Lately bar today: belly up and pick your poison.

1 Having just written about the Amises, I was glad to discover last night in the new issue of Bookforum an article by Alexander Waugh on Kingsley Amis's books on booze . . . of which there are not one, not two, but three! My first reaction was that Amis, a champion tippler (whose monthly bill for Scotch topped £1,000 in the 1970s) and the best writer on drunkenness since Noah first snarfed the grape and rucked up his robes, ought to be a good source for recommendations about drink, but Waugh rightly questions that assumption:
[I]t is worth ruminating for a moment on the question of whether a person who drinks as much as Kingsley Amis did is, or is not, a reliable expert on the subject. You would think that someone who had devoted so much of his life to alcohol would know a thing a two about it—and he certainly did—but are the taste recommendations of alcoholics useful to people who drink only moderately? As an immoderate imbiber myself, I am not the best placed to answer this question, though I cannot imagine that the average two-glasses-of-wine-a-day man is going to think very highly of some of Amis’s recommendations—Bloody Mary with tomato ketchup and no Tabasco, red wine with lemonade, a pint of Guinness mixed with gin and ginger beer (this he erroneously claims to be the invention of my grandfather Evelyn Waugh), Scotch whisky with fried eggs. And who but a committed alcoholic could possibly wish for a glass of the “Tigne Rose,” an Amis cocktail made up of one tot of gin, one tot of whisky, one tot of rum, one tot of vodka, and one tot of brandy? Alcoholics have special cravings that obfuscate, warp, and exaggerate their tastes and, like committed sex maniacs, are often prepared to try almost anything.
The scariest thing about that paragraph for me is that I've encountered—though thank god not tasted—a tomato ketchup Bloody Mary, prepared by Jose, one of the hash-addled South African moving men with whom I shared a horrid travelers' house in north London's Neasden neighborhood in the mid-90s. Not only did Jose seem to have no qualms about making—and heartily quaffing—the aforementioned abomination, he didn't even seem to realize that his concoction was unusual. Thinking of its corn-syrup-thickened redness oozing down his chin still induces a shudder.

2 From Amis's book On Drink (1972), Waugh quotes the following brutally perceptive passage about hangovers:
When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk.
Even those among us whose deepest appreciation for drink is more notional—even literary—than actual can recognize familiar elements in that description, however much we might prefer to banish them from memory.

3 Since Anthony Powell featured in the discussion of the Amises the other night, I ought to note that Powell, too, is very good when writing on drink and drunks. On the recommendation of Ed at the Dizzies, we've been slowly making our way through the 1997 BBC adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time, and one of the many surprising pleasures of the film has been the skill at playing drunk evinced by the actor cast as the hopeless alcoholic Charles Stringham; his wide-eyed efforts to effect a hopeless pretense of sobriety on entering a room elicit equal parts sympathetic pain and horrified laughter.

4 At various times in Dance, many of Powell's characters make appearances while deep in their cups. I particularly like this description, from At Lady Molly's (1957), of the extremely minor character Hegarty, who is employed alongside Nick Jenkins as a screenwriter by a dismally shabby film studio:
Hegarty was also in poor form that day. He had been a script-writer most of his grown-up life—burdened by then with three, if not four, wives, to all of whom he was paying alimony—and he possessed, when reasonably sober, an extraordinary facility for constructing film scenarios. That day, he could not have been described as reasonably sober. Groaning, he had sat all the afternoon in the corner of the room facing the wall. We were working on a stage play that had enjoyed a three-weeks West End run twenty or thirty year before, the banality of which had persuaded some director that it would "make a picture." This was the ninth treatment we had produced between us. At last, for the third time in an hour, Hegarty broke out in a cold sweat. He began taking aspirins by the handful. It was agreed to abandon work for the day.

5 In his notebook, which was published in 2001 as A Writer's Notebook, Powell vented a bit, from bitter experience, about film executives:
One of the reasons that films are so bad is that producers assume that a class of picture-goer exists, stupider and slower witted and more vulgar than themselves, which would, of course, be impossible.
Invective is such a pleasure when balanced and properly coiled, concealing until the last the venomous stinger.

6 For a long time, I've vaguely imagined that the drunken Hegarty incorporated characteristics of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom Powell met while working in Hollywood. Checking the third volume of Powell's autobiography, Faces in My Time (1980), however, I find that the two never actually worked together; in fact, their acquaintance was limited to a single long and amiable lunch. But I did discover the following description of Fitzgerald, which you'll surely agree is timely:
His air could be though a trifle sad, not, as sometimes described at this period, in the least broken-down. When, years later, I came to know Kingsley Amis, his appearance recalled Fitzgerald's to me, a likeness photographs of both confirm.
Powell also describes memorably the tone in which Hollywood figures spoke of Fitzgerald:
It was as if Lazarus, just risen from the dead, were to be looked on as of somewhat doubtful promise as an aspiring scriptwriter.

7 To wrap this up, I'll turn to back to Powell's notebooks, which include plenty of entries touching on drink.
At a party, make up your mind whether you are going to go all out for women, food or drink. You can't have all three.

In quarantine for a hangover.

"I might come in and have a drink with you." "You might come in; a drink depends on my hospitality."

Life is a comedy for those who drink, and a tragedy for those who eat.

A wine snob boasts that he has some bottles corked with corks made from Proust's soundproof room.

A rich left-winger who put his trust in Marx and kept his sherry dry.

A bore, who at worst would explain the meaning of life.
Though the final entry, you'll have noticed, didn't explicitly mention alcohol, I included it nonetheless; I find it nearly impossible to imagine the bore reaching his worst state without the timely assistance of strong drink.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

LBJ in conversation

Lyndon B. Johnson
's phone conversations, which Johnson secretly recorded himself, are a constant source of fascinating details in Taylor Branch's At Canaan's Edge. Johnson's folksy expressions--often colloquial to the point of inexplicability--married to his barrage of earthy, foul-mouthed, and seemingly gentle cajoling, served to hide a fierce determination that, in conversation at least, was rarely thwarted.

Even such a practiced, intractable foe as George Wallace could find himself utterly overwhelmed; in Branch's account of the pair's meeting after the 1965 violence in Selma, which is too long to quote here, Johnson's relentlessness leaves Wallace utterly stricken and sputtering, totally unmoored. If the defeated opponent were almost anyone but George Wallace, I'd feel sorry for him.

Though the instrumentality of LBJ's talk is what makes it historically important, what makes it flat-out fun for us amateurs is his language itself, its bizarre regionalisms and distended metaphors, like his description of himself as being "hunkered down like a jackass in a hailstorm."

Branch highlights one of those great recurrent metaphors in an exchange with Wilbur Cohen, who had been the administration's chief negotiator on Medicare. You also get a sense here of Johnson's style of incessant browbeating, as he presses Cohen to push for a vote on the measure quickly:
"Now remember this," he instructed Cohen, " Nine out of ten things I get in trouble on, is because they lay around. . . . It stinks, it's just like a dead cat on the door. . . . You either bury that cat or get some life in it." He reminded House Speaker John McCormack of a saying by his predecessor, Sam Rayburn, that a finished committee report was a dead cat "stinkin' every day."
In talking to another congressman, Wilbur Mills, Johnson--having taken a bite of a sandwich--says,
"And for God's sake, don't let the dead cat stand on your porch! Mr. Rayburn use to say they stunk and they stunk and they stunk."
The obsession with stench reminds me of Alan Keyes, who in this clip from his quixotic 2004 Senate campaign against Barack Obama likened widespread governmental corruption in Illinois to a smelly toad at a cocktail party; it's worth watching for Keyes's crazy-man delivery alone:

And now that I've linked one multimedia clip, I can't very well fail to link to everyone's favorite Johnson audio clip, the one where Johnson, asks his tailor to
See if you can't leave me an inch from where the zipper (burps) ends, round, under my, back to my bunghole, so I can let it out there if I need to.
Oh, and he also talks about, as he puts it, his nuts. Extensively.

All you young future presidents out there take note: that, at least as much as Nixon's missing eighteen minutes, is your object lesson in why you shouldn't secretly tape your phone calls.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

And in this corner, Anthony Dymoke Powell!

Though I understand that lists of the best this, the most that, and the greatest the other have an ineluctable appeal to editors--as well as an undeniable role to play in warming the air around barstools--I generally don't get too worked up about them. If this blog as a whole argues for anything, it's for the pleasures of creating one's own canon, pawing the stacks of the world's literatures to determine--and shout to the rooftops about--what belongs nearest one's own heart. It thus seems barely worth arguing about the vagaries of quasi-objective rankings, especially if I don't know the underlying aesthetic sensibilities of the compilers.

A few days ago, however, Ed from the Dizzies called on my services as a fan of Anthony Powell to argue against Powell's placement in the twentieth position, one behind Martin Amis, on the Times's list of the fifty greatest postwar British writers. Having been thus entered into the lists on behalf of my favorite writer, how could I refuse?

In some ways, the ranking seems absurd on its face: Amis's three or so good novels look paltry next to the twelve-novel stack of Powell's masterpiece A Dance to the Music of Time--let alone Powell's early and late comic novels, which stand at least equal with some of Evelyn Waugh's lesser works.

But that doesn't quite seem fair to Amis's novels, some of which I like a lot. While nowhere near as good as his father's best, Lucky Jim (1954), Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers (1973) is still one of the funniest books I've ever read--and, much like Joe Matt's comics, it's impressive in its ability to make me squirm with shame at certain elements of maleness I can't deny having at times shared with the feckless young narrator. London Fields (1989), though it ultimately shambles to a messy, disappointing conclusion, is nearly redeemed by the sheer audacious electricity of its prose.

And while I tend to prefer Powell's looser, more anecdotal approach when it comes to writing criticism, Amis's critical writing is also sharp and thoughtful, driven by an appreciation of precisely crafted descriptive prose and alert to humbuggery (yet without descending nearly so often as Christopher Hitchens into smug self-righteousness). The opening paragraphs of his reappraisal of J. G. Ballard's Crash on the occasion of the release of the David Cronenberg film give a good sample of the latter characteristic, accompanied by another trademark of Amis the reviewer: self-deprecation.
I reviewed Crash when it came out in 1973; and, as I remember, the critical community greeted Ballard's novel with a flurry of nervous dismay. But of course reviewers do not admit to nervous dismay. Nervous dismay is a response that never announces itself as such, and comes to the ball tricked out as Aesthetic Fastidiousness or Moral Outrage.

Crash provoked much fancy dress. Some reviewers reached for their thesauri and looked up "repellent"; cooler hands claimed to find the novel "boring." I'm not sure if anyone else adopted the guise I wore: sarcasm. Haughtily (and nervously), I sent Crash up. I was twenty-three. Later that year my first novel appeared, and, like Ballard, I stood accused of displaying a "morbid sexuality." In comparison, thought, my sexuality--and my novel--were obsequiously conventional.
Having said all that, I still choose Powell. With Dance he has given me dozens of characters who have quite simply become part of my mental universe. They are so richly imagined and sympathetically depicted that they inflect my everyday experience of the world; they're the sort of characters who, to the initiated, serve as topics of conversation, common reference points, aids to understanding new acquaintances, clarifying punch lines to real-life situations.

On top of that, Dance is consistently funny, its humor often grounded in the bewilderment created when those who care only for money or power are confronted with the world of art. Here, for example, Nick Jenkins fields a question from his friend and sometime nemesis Kenneth Widmerpool about his job:
"I was in publishing. Art books. Now it is the film business."

"Indeed? What unusual ways you choose to earn a living."
Or take this exchange, which finds Nick discussing books with the enthusiastic, if gruffly fuddled, octogenarian General Conyers:
"I've been reading something called Orlando," said the General. "Virginia Woolf. Ever heard of it?"

"I read it when it first came out."

"What do you think of it?"

"Rather hard to say in a word."

"You think so?"

Unsatisfied, the General presses Jenkins:
"Odd stuff, Orlando," said the General, who was not easily shifted from his subject. "Starts about a young man in the fifteen-hundreds. Then, about eighteen-thirty, he turns into a woman. You say you've read it?"


"Did you like it? Yes or no?"

"Not greatly."

"You didn't?"


"The woman can write, you know."

"Yes, I can see that. I still didn't like it."

The General thought again for some seconds.

"Well, I shall read a bit more of it," he said, at last. "Don't want to waste too much time on that sort of thing, of course. Now, psychoanalysis. Ever read anything about that? Sure you have. That was what I was on over Christmas."
Powell's characters--and the gentle irony of his tone--serve as a reminder that we're all strange in our own ways, and we apprehend one another poorly at best; a healthy response is to accept, and attempt to understand, as much of that odd individuality as we can. It's an approach to the world that I ultimately find far more congenial than Amis's more corrosive, biting, and often nasty perspective.

Powell, who didn't mind a literary feud, might enjoy being given the last word; perhaps the following excerpt from the fourth volume of his autobiography, The Strangers All Are Gone (1982) will serve as an acute reminder of the proper relation between himself and Martin Amis. Describing a visit to Kingsley and Hilly Amis early in Kingsley's career, Powell writes:
During the Swansea visit the three Amis children were in some skilful manner relegated so that the Uplands house was entirely free from them throughout our stay. Since Waugh was very keen on the doctrine that children should neither be seen or heard, Violet mentioned to him the adroitness of the Amises in having so resourcefully disposed of their family.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Martin should be neither seen nor heard, but perhaps he should cede his hold on the nineteenth position to his elder and better?

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Some great truth stands before the door of his life."

From At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (2005), by Taylor Branch
King delivered a tribute to Sunday's march. He mingled an apology for missing it with a reminder of the travails that buffeted him, too, quoting poet Langston Hughes ("Life for me ain't been no crystal stair"), and vowing that the threat of death could not stop them now. "If a man is 36 years old, as I happen to be," he said," and some great truth stands before the door of his life . . . and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live a little longer and he's afraid that his home will get bombed or he's afraid that he will lose his job, he's afraid that he will get shot or beaten down by State Troopers, he may go on and live until he's 80, but he's just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. And the state of breathing in his life is merely the announcement of an earlier death of the spirit."
For the third straight year, I'm spending Martin Luther King Jr. Day reading Taylor Branch's history of King and the Civil Rights movement. Previous volumes tracked the genesis of the movement and its quick spread, and Branch displayed remarkable skill in marshaling disparate sources to present the multifaceted movement--from the SCLC to SNCC to the Freedom Riders to unplanned individual actions--without simplifying or reducing the story to just King and some hangers-on. In this third and final volume, the movement works to consolidate the gains that led to the 1964 Civil Act while continuing to pursue actual change--such as voter registration--in the still violently resistant South. Vietnam complicates the story as well, as Lyndon Johnson reluctantly (and at first secretly) ramps up American involvement despite being advised that there's little hope of victory, while King quickly comes to view protests against the war as a natural extension of his nonviolent ethos.

It would be hard to overpraise Branch's portrayal of all these events. He's as good with the large effect and the major players--Johnson privately browbeating George Wallace, for example, or King's deliberations with his inner circle--as with the small moment, such as the following one, from the days before the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. As King addressed a crowd in a Selma church, he was informed that a judge had just authorized them to march to the courthouse, a march that in previous days had been greeted by officially sanctioned violence. Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox church, who had just arrived in Selma to support the movement, found himself unexpectedly swept up by the crowd into the instantly formed march as grown men cried in wonder:
Iakovos wore a frozen look. A small Negro girl took him by the hand and said not to worry.
The most dramatic moments--such as the violent suppression of the first attempt to march to Montgomery and the ultimately successful later march--are as gripping as any novel, serving to demonstrate the astonishing courage of all those, so many of them just ordinary citizens, who put their lives on the line for the cause.

A couple of weeks ago, Hillary Clinton caught flak for criticizing Barack Obama's rhetoric by saying, "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. It took a president to get it done.” While Clinton definitely could have expressed herself on this topic with more care (and in addition deserves heaping opprobrium for allowing her surrogates to spend a week tossing out poorly veiled racist comments), reading Branch makes clear what she was trying to say. It doesn't lessen the bravery or vision or sacrifice of King--or his co-leaders and co-marchers--to admit that without the support of his sometime ally, sometime antagonist Johnson, the movement would have faced a far greater challenge. When Johnson responded to the violence in Selma with a nationally televised speech calling voting rights fundamental (in language consciously adapted from King), he was committing himself to a truer vision of justice not yet fully shared by all Americans--and he immediately began putting that vision into practice through the Justice Department.

That commitment and its execution weren't perfect, and the risks that Johnson and his staff ran were nothing compared to the risks run by those on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, but their support made a significant difference nonetheless. A simple exercise is sufficient to make clear the importance of the federal government's role as partner--however fitful--in the quest for justice: imagine the Civil Rights movement occurring against the backdrop of the Bush administration, in which the concept of impartial justice is sneered at and the Civil Rights division has taken as its primary task the disenfranchising of African Americans. The thought is enough to make you sick.

Though I've stressed Branch's unrelenting efforts to make clear that the era was about more than just King--and his accounts of figures such as James Bevel, Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and Diane Nash are unforgettable--ultimately the story does swirl around King, who in his unrelenting determination embodies the concept of leadership. Bone-weary, uncertain, frustrated, deliberative, King never stops moving, never stops planning, never flinches from his commitment to change through nonviolent action. When he takes the pulpit or the podium, his words sweep away all other alternatives; nonviolence is the only option, and it will--it must--carry all before it. Even forty years later, on the page, his speech from the end of the Selma-Montgomery march brings chills.

In his introduction, Branch sounds almost wistful for this creed that links Jesus to Tolstoy to Gandhi to King to, we hope, ourselves:
Nonviolence is an orphan among democratic ideas. It has nearly vanished from public discourse even though the most basic element of free government--the vote--has no other meaning. Every ballot is a piece of nonviolence, signifying hard-won consent to raise politics above firepower and bloody conquest.
Justice, nonviolence, commitment, bravery. We may not be able to live them as completely or as reliably as King, but in a sense that's how ideals should always be: just a little further down the road, leading us on and challenging us to get better, to do better, to be better.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Despite the photo, I suppose the icy cold makes today really more of a sliding day than a staggering day.

{My nephew and I running as we imagine we would if we weighed 1,000 pounds apiece. Photo by rocketlass.}

From Natural Gaits, by Pierre Alferi (1991, translated by Cole Swenson in 1995)
nothing falls but
rain (snow, hail) and sometimes
leaves. The rest
slides or

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Baby, it's cold outside

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I woke this morning to find Chicago, not unexpectedly, beset by one-degree temperatures and howling winds. I shouldn't be surprised and annoyed anew every winter--this absurdity, after all, is but a small price to pay for the right to swelter gloriously in the brutal humidity of late August, and I should calmly accept its recurrence.

Looking for solidarity, I betook myself to E. B. White's letters, on the assumption that at some point in his decades in Maine he must have sent off a note to a friend in a warmer clime complaining--with his usual balance, pith, and gentle irony--about the winter. Alas, no such letter appears in The Letters of E. B. White. But White did write well about a Maine winter for the New Yorker in 1971, a piece called "The Winter of the Great Snows." I realize that a Chicago winter, however unpleasant, has nothing on a Maine winter, but nevertheless I felt a sense of a burden shared when I read the following passage:
[This winter] has been more a time of simple survival, to see if a man can stay alive in the cold. The snows arrived early, before the ground froze. Storm followed storm, each depositing its load and rousing the plowman in the night. And then the cold set in, steady and hard. The ponds froze, then the saltwater coves and harbors, then the bay itself. As far as I know, the ground, despite the deep cold, remains unfrozen: snow is a buffer against the frost, an almost perfect insulating material. A fellow recently reported driving a stake into a snow bank, and when the point of the stake reached ground level it kept right on going. I haven't tested this. . . . But I would have to have a pretty long stake, so remote is the ground.
Later, White writes about the transformation wrought on his farm by the accumulated snow, especially its effect on the farm's non-human denizens; my favorite detail is this:
On several occasions this winter, we had to shovel a path for the geese, to make it possible for them to get from their pen in the barn to their favorite loitering spot in the barn cellar. Imagine a man's shoveling a path for a goose! So the goose can loiter!
In the course of my search for words on winter, I happened across a couple of other fun passages, which I suppose I might as well share despite their having nothing to do with the subject--it being silly to even consider doing anything so rash as leaving the house today. At one point in my search, frustrated by White, I turned to The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996), where I found this hilarious aside from a letter Waugh wrote in December of 1949:
I was too drunk in London to get my hair cut. It is so long it tickles. I can't face going back. What am I to do?
As someone who shaves his head with a razor, the concept of the drunken haircut is a harrowing one.

Finally, I'll close with Lord Byron, writing from Italy in January of 1821:
The weather still so humid and impracticable, that London, in its most oppressive fogs, were a summer-bower to this mist and sirocco, which now has lasted (but with one day's interval), chequered with snow or heavy rain only, since the 30th of December, 1820. It is so far lucky that I have a literary turn;--but it is very tiresome not to be able to stir out, in comfort, on any horse but Pegasus, for so many days.
Thinking about the harshness of Italian winters, I think I can comfortably speak for all Chicagoans today: suck it up, Byron.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Edmund Wilson on Abraham Lincoln

Having indirectly slagged Edmund Wilson the other night when writing about Viktor Shklovsky, I think it's only fair to point out how good Wilson is in his book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the Civil War (1962) when writing about another regular preoccupation of this blog, Abraham Lincoln.

Wilson doesn't really break new ground in his study of Lincoln, and he gets Reconstruction wrong (which I suppose can partially be excused by the fact that Wilson was writing before historians in the 1960s and after began arguing for Reconstruction's value--and its eventual, necessary continuation in the Civil Rights movement). But as usual, when Wilson pays close attention to texts--in this case Lincoln's writings and speeches--his responses are insightful and compelling.

He's also good on Lincoln's dreams and visions, one of my favorite aspects of Lincoln history and folklore, which, he notes,
add an element of imagery and tragic foreshadowing that one finds sometimes in the lives of poets--Dante's visions or Byron's last poem--but that one does not expect to encounter in the career of a political figure.
Later, in tying Lincoln's fatalism with his sense of his public role as the suffering but stalwart face of the nation--and therefore of democracy--Wilson writes,
The night before Lincoln was murdered, he dreamed again of the ship approaching its dark destination. He had foreseen and accepted his doom; he knew it was part of the drama. He had in some sense imagined this drama himself--had even prefigured Booth and the aspect he would wear for Booth when the latter would leap down from the Presidential box crying, "Sic semper tyrannis!" Had he not once told Herndon that Brutus was created to murder Caesar and Caesar to be murdered by Brutus?
So far as I remember, Borges never wrote about Lincoln, but that last line makes me think he would have found a rich subject in Abe's morbid fatalism.

But the most fun in Wilson's essay is found early on, when he's doing the work that all writers on Lincoln seem to have to do before setting sail: clearing the deck of a century of accumulated nonsense.
There has undoubtedly been written about him more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other American figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe.
Before I let Wilson go any farther: I doubt anyone's surpassed Lincoln since 1962, but surely someone's surpassed Poe? Ernest Hemingway, maybe? Jack Kerouac? Okay, back to it:
[T]here are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg. Yet Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln, insufferable though it sometimes is, is by no means the worst of these tributes. It is useless if one tries to consult it for the source of some reported incident, but it does have its unselective value as an album of Lincoln clippings. It would, however, be more easily acceptable as a repository of Lincoln folk-lore if the compiler had not gone so far in contributing to this folk-lore himself. Here is Sandburg's intimate account of the behavior of Lincoln's mother, about whom almost nothing is known: "She could croon in the moist evening twilight to the shining face in the sweet bundle, 'Hush thee, hush thee, thy father's a gentleman!' She could toss the bundle into the air against a far, hazy line of blue mountains, catch it in her two hands as it came down, let it snuggle close to her breast and feed, while she asked, 'Here we come--where from?' And after they had both sunken in the depths of forgetful sleep, in the early dark and past midnight, the tug of a mouth at her nipples in the grey dawn matched in its freshness the first warblings of birds and the morning stars leaving the earth to the sun and dew."
Lincoln's mother's nipples! Sandburg imagined Lincoln's mother's nipples! And he compared baby Abe's chewing on them to the singing of birds! I can picture a writer--especially one who is a folksy poet at heart--getting caught up in a rush of words and penning that line. But how on earth does he read it over later without deciding to put the whole manuscript to the match?

It's fun to contrast that silly romantic picture with one of the few things we actually do know about the real Mrs. Lincoln: that she may have been the source of her son's youthful prowess as a wrestler. In Honor's Voice, Douglas L. Wilson quotes testimony from Usher Linder, a neighbor of the Lincolns in Indiana:
His mother, whose maiden name was Nancy Hanks, was said to be a very strong-minded woman, and one of the most athletic women in Kentucky. In a fair wrestle, she could throw most of the men who ever put her powers to the test. A reliable gentleman told me he heard the late Jack Thomas, clerk of the Grayson Court, say he had frequently wrestled with her, and she invariably laid him on his back.
Occasionally I enjoy suspending my disbelief in an afterlife long enough that I can picture unlikely meetings between the dead. Tonight, I'm picturing that day in 1967 when Carl Sandburg joined the heavenly host:
Greeted just inside the gates by Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Sandburg was surprised to quickly find himself being seized by the wings and wrestled to the ground. Confused, he accepted the victorious Mrs. Lincoln's offer of a hand getting up, and as she pulled him to his feet, she introduced herself in her Hoosier drawl and said, "You shouldn't ought to have written that about my nipples."

Dusting off the speechless Sandburg's robes, Mrs. Lincoln smiled and continued, "But you did like my boy, and I have to admit I did enjoy that whole 'hog butcher of the world' bit, so maybe we can be friends after all."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hadji Murat

From Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot (1982), by Viktor Shklovsky
Tolstoy was writing Hadji Murad.

As though a continuation of his analysis of The Cossacks.

When the arches of such a writer as Tolstoy finally join, many unused pieces are left strewn on the ground.

And this is just the same as if man was fashioning a horse on the third day of creation, the horse that was created by God, and now being re-created by man; here stands man, and around him on the ground lies what seems like extraneous material, what man, unlike God, wasn't able to unify the way God would have.

He can only see the uniqueness of God's creation, which never repeats itself.

Because we don't have Tolstoy's strength and ability to construct the temple of the human soul.
Most of the time I want to read criticism that is direct, to the point, wasting no effort in limning the essential qualities of a work of art. Edmund Wilson can be like that; V. S. Pritchett, too, and James Wood at his best. But then there are moments (often late at night) when that seems like the wrong approach--it's as if I'm watching the critic stab the artistic specimen through the thorax, then type the label that will slowly yellow beneath it while the art it describes wriggles hopelessly and dies. To be fair, that feeling is rarely a legitimate response to the critic's work; rather, it's a reflection of the incalculable, constant minor shifts between reader and what's read, a measure of an exact, momentary state of the relationship of my reader's soul to my favorite works.

Viktor Shklovksy's essay on Tolstoy's last fiction, Hadji Murat, is a work of that late-night uncertainty. {Here's where my lack of proper academic training trips me up: how much of Shklovsky's approach is unique to him, and how much is common to Russian Formalism? I worry I'm getting into deep waters here, blithely ignoring big signs that warn, "Danger: Misinterpretation Ahead!"} Hadji Murat is not my favorite Tolstoy, nor are my contrarian impulses strong enough that I'd consider declaring it his best. But it is nonetheless brilliant, and an investment of mere hours in reading it can provide a refreshing refill of Tolstoy's genius. Despite running to a mere 120 or so pages, Hadji Murat contains, in brief, all that is peerless in Tolstoy; it is Tolstoy as bullion cube, each scene packed with the telling details that, for him, comprise and create the world.

It also serves, for me, as as an argument in favor of a less direct criticism. Its aims and effects can doubtless be explained, its relationship to the rest of Tolstoy's ouvre made clear--and those analyses have their place. But the work in itself is so short, so compact and effective, that such criticism can easily seem superfluous. And so long as the circle of Hadji Murat fans remains as small, relative to the ever-growing circle of those who, understandably, are swept away by Anna Karenina, I am inclined instead towards the occluded yet inviting character of Shklovsky's approach, which, rather than risk killing a book under a suffocating critical superstructure, instead builds an amenable, understanding, parallel company of suggestive words.

Whereas my instinct is to simply, straightforwardly, thrust the volume into your hands and say, "Read it. Read it," Shklovsky instead offers sidelong, elliptical insights that can range from the declarative--
Heroes die, or they go mad
--to the personal and tangential:
Once, when I was young and could easily cross a mountain pass without even noticing it--and the ice arches left from winter are good bridges over the river--during one of my journeys into the far lands I had been talking to a woman and when I was leaving, she said: "Are you leaving? I'm in love with you."

My guide, a stern man from another Georgian tribe, consoled me: "Forget her and don't remember her with a sigh. She was being polite to you, she knows she'll never see you again. "

And then I learned by heart that it's difficult to drawn in the Caucasian river; it's so powerful that it swirls the stones and creates nests at the bottom. The river breaks you, it doesn't drown you. It can kill you and fling you out.

There are no mermaids in that river.
From Shklovsky you get not the place and construction of Hadji Murat, but the feel of it--and an inescapable sense that you should read it.

Read Hadji Murat. You won't regret it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Noel Coward on feline intercourse--and smoking

Having actually left the house tonight, I find myself with little time to write, so I'll just give you a snippet from a letter Noel Coward wrote to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that I found in Daniel Mendelsohn's appreciative review of The Letters of Noel Coward (2007) in the January 17 issue of the New York Review of Books:
I have been having a terrible time with After the Ball, mainly on account of Mary Ellis's singing voice which, to coin a phrase, sounds like someone fucking the cat.
If I may be forgiven the pun, that's some first-rate cattiness. With deceptive ease, Coward sets his slagging apart from common lot by the simple replacement of "cats fucking," which we've all heard, with "someone" actively fucking the cat, which, thank god, we've not.

Thinking about Noel Coward reminds me of this passage from Enrique Vila-Matas's Montano's Malady (2002, published in an English translation by Jonathan Dunne in 2007):
To smoke in front of the mirror, as everyone knows, is an intelligent exercise. It is also to know how to confront our most ordinary, considered face.
It's hard for me to imagine Coward--one of the great smokers of the twentieth century, at least to the extent that photographs don't lie--not regularly taking pleasure from smoking in front of the mirror. I'm even willing to believe that he would have agreed with Vila-Matas's sentiments, however tongue-in-cheek, for you never get the sense that Coward is anything less than fully aware of the cigarette and its position in the overall composition of Coward-ness (or is it Coward-ice?). Try to picture him puffing away distractedly like your common mid-century American smoker, who, Luc Sante explains, "often smoked without being aware we were smoking"--you can't, can you?

No, it's always the cigarette (sometimes in a holder, sometimes between two fingers) that pulls the image together, leading the eye to the cool, bemused, oh-so-Coward expression--an expression that you can feel animating this later passage, also highlighted by Mendelsohn:
My philosophy is as simple as ever. I love smoking, drinking, moderate sexual intercourse on a diminishing scale, reading and writing (not arithmetic). I have a selfless absorption in the well-being and achievements of Noel Coward.
Since I don't smoke, I think I'll have to do the next-best thing and buy Coward's letters. After all, as a society we've more or less agreed that reflected glory is almost the same as real glory, right?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Pallid as bread dough and jowly as a squirrel," or, the masculine form as seen by Parker

Unable to kick my recently acquired Richard Stark habit, yesterday I read The Jugger (1965), which includes a couple of sharp physical descriptions of people Parker encounters that seemed worth sharing. This one's my favorite of the bunch:
The little guy standing there was dressed like he was kidding around. Dark green trousers, black-and-white shoes, orange shirt with black string tie, tweed sport jacket with leather elbow patches. The fluffy corners of a lavender handkerchief peeped up from his jacket pocket. His left hand was negligently tucked into his trouser pocket, and his right hand was stuck inside his jacket like an imitation of Napoleon. He had the lined and leathery weasel face of an alky or a tout, and he was both. He was somewhere past forty, short of eighty.
It probably won't surprise you that Parker refuses to work with this guy because he's unreliable. That opening line, meanwhile, reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, perhaps because I remember reading in Publishers Weekly last year that Donald Westlake (Stark's real name) is a Powell fan. Near the beginning of the first volume, A Question of Upbringing (1951), Charles Stringham, a friend of narrator Nick Jenkins, puts a question to their classmate Peter Templer:
But my dear Peter, why do you always go about dressed as if you were going to dance up and down a row of naked ladies singing "Dapper Dan was a very handy man," or something equally lyrical. You get more like an advertisement for gents' tailoring every day.
Getting back to The Jugger, later we get Parker's contemptuous description of a shifty undertaker:
Gliffe at last came through the draperies at the far end of the room, like an apologetic Sydney Greenstreet. He was an extremely tall, somewhat heavy-set man, with sloping shoulders and broad beam and flat-footed stance. He was about fifty, black hair turning gray at the temples the way it was supposed to, face pallid as bread dough and jowly as a squirrel. His eyes were pale blue, watery, slightly protuberant beneath skimpy eyebrows; at the moment they were blinking away sleep. He was wearing a black suit and black tie.

He came forward as improbably light as a Macy's parade balloon, his dead-fish hand extended.

The question I'm left with after that description is whether Sydney Greenstreet ever uttered a sincere apology on screen. I'm confident that the unctuous Signor Ferrari never said a sincere word in his life, but what about The Maltese Falcon's Kasper Gutman? Or perhaps Greenstreet found occasion to apologize when he played William Makepeace Thackeray in Devotion?

Greenstreet's not the only public figure Parker calls on as a descriptive reference in The Jugger. He also delivers this picture of a corrupt local police captain:
Younger got on the phone and made his call and then sat down fat and smug on the sofa, the gun held casually in his lap. His brown suit was baggy and creaseless, his cowboy hat was tipped back on his head. He looked like a yokel Kruschev.

So which would you rather look like, an apologetic Greenstreet or a yokel Kruschev? Me, I'll take the fat man with the fez over the scary dude with the shoe any day.

The cats have demonstrated remarkable patience with the absence of my lap.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Autonauts of the Cosmoroute (1983), by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop
On one side a line of big black ants climbs up to disappear along hte first branch on the left, while another, less disciplined line descends after a trip that doesn't appear to have afforded them any provisions, unless they'd eaten them where they found them. And what intention guides this blue beetle who advances in a slow spiral like a Buddhist monk on the path to revelation? He disappears behind the trunk to reappear a few centimetres higher; at this pace he'll arrive at the top in two hours and perhaps find illumination. A dragonfly has just discovered an enthralling game: she leaves the open air to dart among the foliage, overcoming obstacles, veering off to one side and then the other while she goes up and down through the levels of the leaves, amusing hersef by multiplying an itinerary that seems to have no purpose other than to make sure she never errs in her distance calculations.
It's good to be back home, my long stretch of too much travel finally over. I enjoy traveling, but I think for a while I'll follow Xavier de Maistre's example and stick to the traveling I can do inside my home, or at most inside my city. Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop also offer a good model, their thirty-day trip along the ten hours of the Paris-to-Marseille autoroute a reminder of what discoveries a fresh eye can coax from familiar surroundings. Perhaps Chicago can yield some similar mid-winter surprises.

But even that seems too ambitious for now; today I intend to sit with a cat on my lap and read and watch the birds, with no more solid plans than those displayed by the tiny snowflakes rollercoastering around on the breeze outside.

From Autonauts of the Cosmoroute
This parallel highway we're looking for perhaps only exists in the imagination of those who dream of it; but if it exists (it's too soon to make categorical affirmations, and nevertheless one would say we're there and have been for the last twenty-four hours; let the skeptical reader think, before denying reality to this new route by eliminating the "perhaps" form the phrase, that maybe we'll disappear with it; may he have patience then, at least wait until we've been able to gather the evidence), it doesn't just involve a different physical space but also another time. Cosmonauts of the autoroute, like interplanetary travellers who observe from afar the rapid aging of those who remain subject to the laws of terrestrial time, what are we going to discover when we got at camel speed after so many trips in airplanes, subways, trains? . . . Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, says Julio. The other path, which is, in any event, the same one.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A New York Saturday morning

Looking out my hotel room window this Saturday morning on the deserted office building across the street, I am reminded of another passage from E. B. White's "Here Is New York":
On weekends in summer the town empties. I visit my office on a Saturday afternoon. No phone rings, no one feeds the hungry IN-baskets, no one disturbs the papers; it is a building of the dead, a time of awesome suspension. The whole city is honeycombed with abandoned cells--a jail that has been effectively broken. Occasionally from somewhere in the building a night bell rings, summoning the elevator--a special fire-alarm ring. This is the pit of loneliness, in an offices on a summer Saturday. I stand at the window and look down at the batteries and batteries of offices across the way, recalling how the thing looks in winter twilight when everything is going full blast, every cell lighted, and how you can see in pantomime the puppets fumbling with their slips of paper (but you don't hear the rustle), see them pick up their phone (but you don't hear the ring), see the noiseless, ceaseless moving about of so many passers of pieces of paper: New York, the capital of memoranda, in touch with Calcutta, in touch with Reykjavik, aways fooling with something.
I love the way White uses parentheses to modulate the sound of that last sentence, separating the sights (seen) from the sounds (unheard): the parentheses effectively muffle the sounds you aren't hearing, creating the silent distance he describes.

White, along with William Strunk Jr. wrote the book on prose style, so he is known for his careful, clear, and memorable writing, but it's a treat to encounter anew every time nonetheless. Like the prescriptions of The Elements of Style itself, White's prose wouldn't be well suited for every type of writing--a noir novel, for example, would be difficult to lift out of parody under White's guidance (though it would sure be fun to watch him try!). But a man who can write a sentence as balanced, assonant, and whimsical as this one--
Doormen grow rich blowing their whistles for cabs, and some doormen belong to no door at all--merely wander about through the streets, opening cabs for people as they happen to find them.
--need never apologize for what he can't do.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Head cold

{Homicide Victim With Fedora, ca. 1915, archives of the City of New York}

Note to self:
If you're going to partake of what E. B. White calls "the brief medicinal illusion of gin," you should be very careful that, on leaving the dispensary that delivered said illusory prescription, your hat is on your head rather than under your chair.
This advice holds especially true if you wrote about that hat earlier that day.

Fortunately, the bar is still in possession of the hat and is holding it for me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Old New Yorks

In his 1948 essay "Here Is New York" E. B. White wrote that "To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing." What a visitor like me sees is countless New Yorks of the past living on in everything from the thrilling shine of the Chrysler Building--triumphantly shouting, "Progress!"--to the accidental decoupage archaeology of rock show handbills in the Village--derisively sneering, "Throw it all away." And New York seems to be always, aggressively, doing both.

As I've wandered the city this week, I've also wandered earlier New Yorks in books, traces of which remain visible in the streets around me. I've already written briefly about one of those, Edith Wharton's New York of carriages, balls, and finely delineated social strata. But I've also lost myself in E. B. White's exuberant postwar Manhattan and Lawrence Block's beat-era Greenwich Village.

{52nd Street, 1948, from the Library of Congress's American Memory project.}

White's essay needs no introduction; it's generally regarded as an essential portrait of the city. White writes not so much about specific places as about certain moods and typical scenes: the wrestle for a cab, Bowery winos bedding down, the casual attention of the crowd at an outdoor performance in Central Park. This is the city as gliding complexity and atmosphere:
It is seven o'clock and I reexamine an ex-speakeasy in East Fifty-third Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed.) . . . The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation.
The prominence of the whispering fans in that scene is a reminder of how much of what White writes about is now lost: "Here Is New York" is a summer essay, written in the days before air-conditioning was widespread, and there is much in it of the street life and overheard intimacy generated by open windows and inescapable heat. The arrival of air conditioning is a seeming small thing relative to the scale of a city, yet it leads the windows, transoms, and back doors to be closed, people to be sealed off just a tiny bit more from one another and from the city they make together.

If White is writing about the city as one big agglomeration of individuals, Lawrence Block, in A Diet of Treacle (1961) is writing about how those individuals try to define themselves in opposition to that mass. It follows a trio of young people through beat-era Greenwich Village: Joe, who returned from Korea with emotional damage that expresses itself as a vague inability to do; Anita, a Hunter College student who visits the Village to escape the square life she can already see stretching before her; and Shank, the sociopathic pot dealer who will quickly get them in over their heads.

A Diet of Treacle was probably fairly provocative at the time it was published: it's full of scenes of pot-smoking and sex, and the characters show increasingly little regard for social conventions. But now it's more an interesting artifact, even a work of reportage, an account of the lingo and poses of late-1950s hipness, full of "cats" and "squares" and "bread." The portrayal of pot as a phenomenally powerful, life-changing drug is particularly quaint at this distance, but pot is an important part of what defines these kids: knowing it and using it marks them as different.

In his novel Lucky at Cards, Block portrayed the tug-of-war between the allure of the criminal life and the reliability of the straight side. In A Diet of Treacle, he shifts the terms a bit: though he demonstrates with the luridness of a school filmstrip the dangers of a life consumed by, for want of a better term, criminal hipness, he doesn't pretend that the straight life holds any real appeal for these kids, either. As Block portrays them, they really are stuck, their only safe choice being to sink back into the stultifying conformity of 1950s America.

Wandering Greenwich Village today you still see kids trying to make that choice--or, even more, trying to simply frame it, to decide what's conforming and what's not, what's hip and what's not, what's selling out and what's staying true. I find it almost painful to watch, but maybe I shouldn't. Should I instead take heart in the way that generation succeeds generation down there--and that despite (as the great blog Pinakothek lamented a few weeks ago) the ever-greater ease of buying a hip identity, every generation sees some of those kids slip through, shed poses, and find what truly matters to them? Should I take heart that, so far, Greenwich Village, despite changing and changing and changing, is still in some essential way there for them?

Meanwhile, I continue to wander today's city that will be different tomorrow, dressed as usual like an anachronism in my old suit, overcoat, and fedora, which I discovered yesterday must make me stand out from all the other oddities that comprise a New York street scene--enough at least to draw the attention of a contemporary iteration of one of Block's hipsters: as I walked down 25th Street just past Madison Square Park, a baggily-dressed long-haired teen, lost in the music of his headphones, raised his head just enough to see me, cocked a finger, and said, with an air of approval, "Fedora." Then he bopped on, going about his business, and disappeared into the crowd.