Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wherein I cut to the chase.

A few days ago I learned of Norman Maclean's education as a writer at the hands of his strict Presbyterian father, who followed the time-honored practice of eyeballing the boy's compositions, then telling him to bring them back when they were half as long, then doing it again and again. Eventually, he would tear the paper up and throw it away--a case, I like to think, of Christian humility before God's perfection triumphing over Zeno's paradox.

The elder Maclean's writing instruction gave me an idea for dealing with the stack of books, mostly crime novels, that I've read lately and not gotten around to writing about: it's time for some ten-word reviews! Though I can't imagine I'll be as good at this--especially not on my first try--as, say Michael Atkinson is at his money-shot movie reviews, it can't be bad practice for such a partisan of the extended, comma-laden, clause-larded sentence as I to be forced to work in brief. So let's give it a try.
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
Funny and bitter, bitter and poor, poor and hopeful--unexpected.

James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia (1987)
Starts strong, but sending a character to Mexico always fatal.

Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know (2007)
Missing sisters, one's found--maybe? Moment of revelation is perfect.

James Crumley, The Right Madness (2005)
The Long Goodbye, plus transexual twins, drugs, band-saw suicide.

Ross Macdonald, The Blue Hammer (1976)
Family troubles--ain't it always? Lew Archer's there to help.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008)
Awkward prose, weak characters, lame mystery, pointless violence, terrible disappointment.

In the spirit of the Reverend Maclean, let's try all that again at half the length!
Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Comedic Orwell--oh, for more!

The Black Dahlia
Betrayals more sordid than affecting.

What the Dead Know
Lies? Memories? Which to believe?

The Right Madness
Murderous conspiracy in fallen world.

The Blue Hammer
Families seethe; Archer sorts, solves.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Failed locked room mystery disappoints.

And now to trim each to one lone word!
Keep the Aspidistra Flying

The Black Dahlia

What the Dead Know

The Right Madness

The Blue Hammer

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Finally, because surely the glorious shambles that is the Internets is no threat to offend the Reverend Maclean's god--rather than tear it up, I'll hit post.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Phil Harris, Jack Benny, and . . . Robert Musil?

Monday night's post about Michael Lesy's Murder City wasn't what I had intended to write when I plopped down with the old laptop. But as I flipped through the book's pages, I kept coming across lines that were too good not to share . . . and an hour later, I had a whole post.

All I'd intended to do was extract a single pair of sentences about the soon-to-be-murdered rake Herbert Ziegler, from the testimony of a woman with whom he danced early on that fatal evening:
Herbert was so drunk that, when he did ask Mrs. Lewinsky to dance, he could barely stand. After three minutes on the dance floor, Herbert's knees buckled.
Why those lines? Because they give me a chance to tell my favorite Phil Harris joke from The Jack Benny Program. Harris, who led the band on Benny's show, played himself as an uneducated, smooth-talking wild man with an overly developed sense of his powers of attraction, intellect, and humor--a man so self-regarding that his young daughter always asked for "Hotshot" when she called for him on the phone. "Oh, that's cute. Is that what your mother calls him?" Jack asked once. "No," she replied. "That's what he calls himself."

Harris's band was a motley assortment of ex-cons and drunkards, with the worst of the tipplers his trumpet player, Frankie Remley. That gets me to the joke that started all this, which comes after Phil has explained to Jack that he had to wake Remley up and drag him out of a trash barrel to get him to rehearsal:
Now tell me, Phil: why on earth would Frankie be sleeping in a trash barrel?

Jackson, when your knees buckle, you ain't always over a featherbed!
My delay in posting this was unexpectedly fortunate, because in the interim I found another reminder of Jack Benny--much to my surprise--in The Man Without Qualities. Appearing in a jailhouse rumination by the Simenon-esque sex murderer Moosbrugger, this passage could easily be describing Jack's experiences with a certain recurrent nemesis:
In a bad mood, he could tell by a fleeting glance at a man's face that here was the same man who always gave him trouble, everywhere, no matter how differently he disguised himself each time. How can anyone object to this? We all have trouble with the same man almost every time. If we were to investigate who the people are we get so idiotically fixated on, it is bound to turn out to be the one with the lock to which we have the key.
Non-Benny fans may be confused, but those in the know surely just recognized their cue to turn and bellow, "Yeeessss?"

Monday, February 25, 2008

"She paints the man who gave her his all as the devil incarnate."

{The Rainbo Gardens Auditorium, Chicago, February 1925.}
The prosecutor sounded resigned:

"You can't convict a woman--a good-looking woman--of killing a man." . . . He spoke, thoughtfully:

"The promiscuous killing of men by women should be stopped--but it can't be done without the assistance of juries."
That's Cook County prosecutor Lloyd Heth speaking in the late summer of 1921 about Mrs. Cora Isabelle Orthwein, whom he'd just failed to convict of murdering her brutal drunk of a lover, Goodyear exec Herbert Ziegler. The sordid story is just one of many in Michael Lesy's Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the 1920s (2007), which I've been slowly making my way through since it was published a year ago.

Despite my enjoyment and appreciation of his work, Lesy's not a writer I can read at length: when I read more than a chapter or two at a time, his highly affected, choppy, hardboiled deadpan can begin to wear, making me less tolerant of the occasional passage where it doesn't quite work:
Sackcloth and ashes might have been a useful costume for Cora to have worn when she appeared, under guard, at Coroner Hoffman's inquest. The pleasure produced by the misfortunes of privileged people--who turn out to be as foolish, helpless, and sad as everyone else--guaranteed that whatever Cora did and didn't do, said and didn't say at the inquest would be closely watched.
But consumed in the proper dosages, Lesy's accounts of the seedy nexus of casual violence, newspaper sensationalism, and the ravages of love and liquor in a gangsters' paradise can rise above their inherent voyeurism and take on the force of tragedy. His tales are at their best when they draw most heavily on firsthand testimony; hearing the story in the voices of the time renders it both more strange and more intimate.

{The Green Mill Gardens, Chicago, 1915.}

The story of Mr. Ziegler and Mrs. Orthwein alone offers plenty of examples. The doomed philanderer, who spent the first half of the last night of his life pickling himself at the Rainbo Gardens, was said by a waiter at the nearby Green Mill to be full of extravagant nervous energy when he arrived there later, so wild that he danced without a partner:
Mr. Ziegler danced alone near his table; he danced the shimmy alone.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Orthweig was doing some drinking of her own, after fleeing Ziegler for her apartment:
I drank gin 'til I could drink no more. It fired me, inflamed me, made me crazy. I didn't know what I was doing.
And from the police report, Lesy plucks Mrs. Orthwein's first statement on being discovered near the body:
Police found Cora, sitting on the bench of her baby grand piano, eyes closed, swaying from side to side. "I shot him," she said. Her clothes were bloody. "I loved him and I killed him. It was all I could do."
Even the words of the press can be similarly evocative, as in this summation from one of the Tribune's stories:
Booze and a woman's kisses, the swift nightlife of old, persisted-in despite the law's edicts, open brawling, gin rickeys splashed in the faces of angry quarrelers . . . .
Though Lesy eschews the more clinical approach taken by William Roughead in his classic accounts of sensational Scottish murders, the effect is not dissimilar: to bring these acts of violence close to us and remind us that, regardless of how passing strange these people may still seem, ultimately the distance between their fates and ours can be as narrow as a knife blade--and that what we on a good day ascribe to personal strength and innate rectitude can sometimes, at the end of a long, lonely winter's night, feel a lot more like the sheer luck of the draw.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Approaching perfection

As a way to clear my mind and get myself properly thinking, cooking is really the only rival in my life to running. The methodical, repetitive nature of the work--combined with the division of attention that is forced by the number of necessarily simultaneous tasks--leads my mind to slowly cede active control over my movements. Whatever portion of my brain is assigned the task of not burning the garlic and onions while chopping the kale and keeping an eye on the broth seems to decouple from the part of my mind that is composed of sentences--and, lulled, I'm set free to think and write. (And then afterwards there are dishes to be washed, that most relaxing and contemplative of activities, which a poet friend once characterized as dealing with "finite objects in an infinite task.")

All this is by way of a preamble to a moment of synchronicity that occurred in my kitchen a while back. As I was prepping some vegetables, I glanced at a pot full of water on the verge of boiling. As I watched, a stream of tiny bubbles began to free themselves from the bottom of the pot and wend their way, with increasing speed, to the surface, where they broke exuberantly into nothingness. After I'd been watching for a few seconds I realized that the bubbles were rising and breaking in perfect time to the pleasantly formless electro-dance music that was playing on the stereo. With each beat, a bubble would burst, and as the almost reluctant off-beat took its turn, another bubble would set forth on its journey. The conjunction lasted a surprisingly long time, a seamless, mesmerizing melding of art and the accidents of the physical world.

As I watched, the unexpected perfection of the moment reminded me of a passage I heard Marilynne Robinson read at a writers' workshop in the summer of 1996. At that point, Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, was sixteen years behind her, and many readers wondered why she had not yet written a second novel, or whether she ever would do so. Though I had never quite understood the passion readers felt for Houskeeping--it's a memorable novel, but I find its narrative voice frequently unconvincing--as soon as Robinson began to read I was fully engaged, even enrapt, as if she were feeding words directly into my brain. It was an unforgettable experience, some of the best, most powerful writing I've ever encountered--yet at the same time I instantly understood why Robinson hadn't published anything for so many years. Such a definitive statement is of course absurdly presumptuous, but it really was what I thought at that moment: though she'd introduced the passage as being from a novel in progress, it was impossible to imagine what she read as forming any part of a sustained work.

And yet . . . it was just a passage about a bowl of blueberries. Freshly washed, resting in a cut glass bowl (or was it a colander?), they sat on a counter in the fading sun of late afternoon, the sun glimmering off the beads of water that clung to their purplish flesh. But Robinson described them so attentively, so luxuriantly, so--there's no other word for it--perfectly, that they became the most delectable, the most unforgettable, the most real blueberries imaginable. Even had they been present in the room, I'm not sure they could have been more obviously existing as a part of our universe. For those moments, the fineness of Robinson's attention made the very substance of the world seem divine.

It's possible that my memory of the passage is inaccurate in some way; it's also possible that Robinson also read about something beyond or aside from the blueberries. Regardless, the feeling of the shimmering reality she conjured up is still strongly resonant nearly a dozen years later.

Yet even as I was listening I thought--and still in some sense do think--that writing of that pitch of intensity would be utterly unsustainable over the course of a novel. For a reader and writer both, it would seem akin to running a marathon while holding to a pace appropriate for a 100-yard dash. When Gilead (which I do think is an exceptional novel) was published eight years later, it didn't contain that passage, and I wondered whether my instincts had been right. But what if they're not? What if I'm setting an artificial boundary on what can be done in art?

The thought brings to mind two of my favorite moments from John Ashbery's Three Poems. First, the temptation:
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
Leaving it all out is seductive--and not just because it can sometimes be easier. Maybe some form of that temptation is driving my pessimism about the possibility of sustaining such intensely observed reality. But perhaps Robinson would seize on the counter that Ashbery offers later in the poem:
Because life is short
We must remember to keep asking it the same question
Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer
In words broken open and pressed to the mouth
And the last silence reveal the lining
Until at last this thing exist separately
At all levels of the landscape and in the sky
And in the people who timidly inhabit it
Ultimately I keep hoping I'm wrong--that Robinson's next novel, or a work by someone else entirely, will take me by the hand and show me that, yes, the world can be apprehended, and loved, at that level of detail, yet that the attention can still somehow be extended as well, be as accommodating and expansive as is allowed by the capacious form of the novel.

I know I've not forgotten the perfection I glimpsed in the passage Robinson read; my guess is that she hasn't either, and that she'll keep worrying at it and mulling it until what once really was impossible is suddenly real and alive and existing. As long as the world offers up beautiful moments, as long as the dancing bubbles occasionally surprise us by matching up with the beats, the real artists will keep trying.

Friday, February 22, 2008

If only I'da known!

One of the advantages the internets have over print media is the ease with which they allow for the addition of postscripts after publication--which is good, because one of the consequences of spending a lot of time reading and a lot of time writing about that reading is that the two don't always match up just right: frequently I learn something new and interesting about a topic long after I've hit the Publish Post button.

But whereas print media would leave me with little recourse, with a blog all I have to do is spend a few minutes typing and tagging my new discoveries, and presto!--my account, however incomplete or questionable it may remain, is instantly more rich and expansive.

Here, for example, are three things I came across today alone that I wish I'd known a while back.

1 If, last night when I was writing about Steven Millhauser, I had already begun reading Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (1930), I would have used this passage to help explain Millhauser's work:
To pass freely through open doors, it is necessary to respect the fact that they have solid frames. This principle, by which the old professor had always lived, is simply a requisite of the sense of reality. But if there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its justification for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility.

Whoever has it does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here this or that might, could, or ought to happen. If he is told that something is the way it is, he will think: Well, it could probably just as well be otherwise. So the sense of possibility could be defined outright as the ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not. The consequence of so creative a disposition can be remarkable, and may, regrettably, often make what people admire seem wrong, and what is taboo permissible, or, also, make both a matter of indifference. Such possibilists are said to inhabit a more delicate medium, a hazy medium of mist, fantasy, daydreams, and the subjunctive mood. Children who show this tendency are dealt with firmly and warned that such persons are cranks, dreamers, weaklings, know-it-alls, or troublemakers.
Not, mind you, that I think Musil and Millhauser are necessarily all that congenial--I imagine Musil would casually dismiss Millhauser as far too playful--but the passage nevertheless serves well as a description of Millhauser's method.

2 If, two weeks ago when I was writing about the joy of reading collections of letters, I had remembered this scene from Ivy Compton-Burnett's Manservant and Maidservant (1937), I would have surely have used it to open my post:
"People do like to read letters," said Marcus, "especially those that are written to someone else."

"They do that sometimes when they are not supposed to," said Tamasin. "They must like it very much."

3 Finally, if, when I wrote about Ring Lardner back in the fall, I had already read Elizabeth Hardwick's brief essay about him, I would have drawn on it for this:
Out of a daily struggle to make a living by literary work of various kinds, Lardner produced many short stories and some longer works of great originality. These stories were also immensely popular and nothing touches us more than this rare happening. In a country like ours where there will necessarily be so much journalism, so much support of the popular, the successful, we are complacently grateful when we find the genuine among the acceptable.
And I probably wouldn't have been able to resist including this as well:
Vanity, greed, and cruel humor are the themes of Lardner's stories. The lack of self-knowledge is made up for by a dizzy readiness with cheap alibis. No group or class seems better than another; there is a democracy of cheapness and shallowness. Lies are at the core of nearly every character he produces for us. The only fear is being caught out, exposed to the truth. love cannot exist because the moment it runs into trouble the people lie about their former feelings. Because of the habit of lying, it is a world without common sense. The tortured characters are not always victims. They may be ruined and made fun of, but they have the last word. They bite the leg that kicks them.

And what, tomorrow, will I wish I had known today? Well, that's one of the reasons we keep reading, isn't it?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

There's a different world . . . a more mysterious world . . . right there . . . just through that door. All we have to do is open it . . .

{Photo by Flickr user andshewas, used under a Creative Commons license.}

Steven Millhauser's brief but powerful story "The Other Town," which is included in his new collection, Dangerous Laughter (2008), tells of a town that for centuries has lived across a woods from an unpopulated exact replica of itself. The origin of the replica is unknown, but in the flush latter-day of the story, it has become a combination of theme park and obsession, supported by tax dollars and run with the guarantee that any change, however minor, in the physical details of the primary town will within two hours be mirrored in the other town. (Techniques that will allow for instant replication are rumored to be just around the corner.) Ruminating on the value of the other town, the narrative voice--which is, as so often in Millhauser, an unnamed collective of town opinion--offers the following justification:
The real value of the town . . . lies in the way it permits us to see our own town more clearly or completely. Preoccupied as we are with domestic and financial cares, we pass through our lives noticing so little of what's really around us that we might be said to inhabit an invisible town; in the other town, the visible town, our attention is seized, we feel compelled to look at things closely, to linger over details that would otherwise fail to exist at all. In this way the other town leads us to a fuller or truer grasp of things.
The passage makes for a nice capsule description of the effect of Steven Millhauser's stories as well: though his tales nearly always involve an element of the fantastic--or at least the improbable--they are so firmly grounded in our material world that they throw that world itself into sharp relief, reminding us even as they break from it that it, too, has dark corners and hidden secrets, roads not taken and doors never opened. At their best, Millhauser's stories combine the intellectual rigor of Borges, the whimsy of Calvino, and the exquisite prose of Nabokov; they conjure up our own world, so bright and detailed that we can no longer pass through it inattentively--and then they give it a little twist.

After a story, labeled as an Opening Cartoon, that hilariously explores the inner life of Tom-and-Jerry-style cartoon characters, Dangerous Laughter is divided into three sections that roughly correspond to Millhauser's three most common types of story, though shared elements run through all three: Impossible Architectures, Heretical Histories, and Vanishing Acts. Impossible Architectures, as the name suggests, is Millhauser at his most Calvino-esque: he writes on such topics as a craze for doming one's home, the aforementioned other town, or a tower stretching to heaven. Technology, once loosed, outstrips human ability to understand it--but the result, rather than a sci-fi dystopia, is most often simply an altered version of the reality we're used to: we are accommodating by nature, and the new situation quickly becomes commonplace.

Heretical Histories, on the other hand, offer us views of, as the narrator of the extremely good "A Precursor of the Cinema" says of its painter of inexplicably animated paintings,
a turn, a dislocation, a bold error, a venture into a possible future that somehow failed to take place.
In these stories--which as a category would include his Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler (and his better, shorter, and very similar "The Dream of the Consortium")--we see the deepest logics of both art and capitalism worked out: everyone pushes always for more and better, more and better. In one story, fashion designers goad one another to ever-dizzier heights of absurdity, while in another an inventor in a Menlo Park-style laboratory presses onward in his quest to understand the sensation of touch. In both these categories of story, Millhauser's inventiveness is at the fore: he sinks a new idea deeply into the material reality we know already, then offers genuine, exhilarating surprises.

The last category, Vanishing Acts, is the least useful as a descriptive grouping--but the stories I would place there, based on what Millhauser has included under that name in this volume, are my favorites in his ouvre. Though they bring out Millhauser's richest, most lavishly descriptive language, they tend to be more restrained in their invention, more tied to our experience--but in a sense, that is where they derive their power. Most often, these stories are set in some vague post-World War II American towns--railroad towns, maybe bedroom communities, perhaps up the Hudson.

It is usually summer, and we are before the ubiquity of air conditioning, so windows are open and escape is so simple. We are also long before the Internet and its easy answers, or even, most often, television and its link to the world outside one's town. Word travels by rumor, and teenagers--a group that has just begun to be identified as such--occupy a liminal world of many questions and few answers. Parents are mostly absent, like in Peanuts, though we catch occasional glimpses of them; they're usually troubled, possibly fuzzed by the haze of the post-war pharmaceutical cornucopia. (I can imagine a whole series of counterstories, the tales of the parents--their parties and golf outings, their furtive affairs--that occur during the exact moments when Millhauser is taking us on the journey of the children. I suppose that's the land of Cheever, or Updike.)

That world seems clearly the land of Millhauser's own youth, in the way that Ray Bradbury's stories of small-town life refract his own upbringing--and there are times, especially when he uses the dangerous multiperson narrative voice, when Millhauser treads awfully close to the nostalgia that so often ensnares Bradbury. But he almost always avoids it, most often by reminding us of the mysterious power of the unknown--and, specifically, of the power of sex, simultaneously a force and an experience, seeming at times the only real divide between the fading pleasures of childhood and the still-mysterious world of the grown-ups. The best story in Dangerous Laughter, "The Room in the Attic," traffics almost wholly in sublimated sex, ratcheting up the tension as day after day the narrator spends hours sitting in a darkened attic room playing games of "guess what's touching you" with the never-seen sister of his best friend.

For all the worries and often-frustrated desires expressed in these stories, the best of them--such as the novella Enchanted Night (1999) and "A Game of Clue," from The Barnum Museum (1990)--also serve to remind us of that feeling (occasionally still available to us, but common when we were teens) that the world really does offer myriad possibilities, and its mysteries can be construed as inherently romantic.

Not all of Millhauser's stories work, even in this strong collection. Both the aforementioned story about fashion and another, "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman," never quite overcome relatively banal premises, while "Dangerous Laughter," about a craze for unrestrained laughter that sweeps a town's youth, mostly lies dead on the page, its central conceit never coming to life. Yet even the failed stories offer shining prose and the occasional memorable insight. "Dangerous Laughter," for example, offers us the following, once the teens' passion for laughter has turned to its opposite, a rage for tears:
The pleasures of weeping proved more satisfying than the old pleasures of laughter, probably because, when all was said and done, we weren't happy, we who were restless and always in search of diversion.
Perhaps it's that relentless search for diversion that unifies all of Millhauser's stories: it drives the capitalists and inventors, the artists and their audiences, and of course the teens. Change, innovation, new experience are all inherently seductive--and Millhauser shows us both that seduction and its consequences: the loss of control, the loss of certainty, the loss, even, of oneself. And then, with his lush prose and his endless inventions, he seduces us again and again regardless.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Roger Ackroyd is dead. At least we can agree on that, right?

When I was in middle school, I went through a period where I read little but Agatha Christie novels. (For those of you keeping score at home, that period followed the one wherein I read little but Doc Savage novels and preceded the one wherein I read little but Star Trek novels.) They offered exactly what I was looking for in a mystery: a setting vaguely exotic, both in its Englishness and its era; minimal violence, occurring offscreen and with virtually no gore; and, most important, a battle of wits--one which, because Christie always played straight with her readers, I was invited to join. I blazed through book after book, preferring Poirot to Marple but ultimately willing to read whatever my local library held.

For nearly twenty years after that, however, I didn't read a single Christie novel. I had moved on: I preferred straight novels, in general, and when I did read mysteries, I was much more interested in the brooding and violence of noir than Christie's decorum. But then a couple of months ago circumstances, like criminals, began to conspire . . .

First, Spinster Aunt supplied a very convincing post about reading Murder on the Orient Express, in the midst of which she pointed out that "You can read Christie's books, drunk, in a day," and that, "They're very good around Christmas time, when [one does] virtually everything in a pleasant alcoholic haze." Marketers take note: those are undeniable selling points!

Then Michael Dirda weighed in. In his Classics for Pleasure (2007), after acknowledging that Christie is not a good writer "if we look to her for the more obvious literary qualities [such as] distinctive prose style, rich characterization, a picture of society and contemporary life," he succinctly explained--thus making me remember--just what is so much fun about her:
Where Christie excels is in her plotting, that most essential of the elements of fiction. (As E. M. Forster emphatically insisted, "Oh yes, the novel tells a story.") Like a poet who writes only sonnets or a composer working out a set of variations, Christie accepts the conventions of the mystery and then seeks to surprise us with her originality. A creative-writing student could usefully study her novels just to learn the art of narrative construction.
In that sense, Christie stands as the anti-Chandler: her characterizations and atmosphere are nil, but her plots are fiendishly clever, her red herrings sprinkled with well-camouflaged abandon, and her mastery of manipulation and misdirection are second to none. No less a mind than Edmund Wilson wrote, after reading Death Comes at the End, that
I confess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised.
--though fairness dictates that I point out that he continued by writing, "I did not care for Agatha Christie, and I hope never to read another of her books."

When I discovered that, despite Christie's reputation as a seamless plotter, Pierre Bayard had, in his book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery (1998), had the gall to argue that Hercule Poirot had gotten the answer to the question posed by his title wrong, it was obvious: the fates (as represented by my Google Reader and my library) were conspiring to tell me that it was time to give Dame Agatha another try.

Fortunately, I'd somehow never read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), despite its having been the book that made Christie's name, so I was in the fortunate position of being able to read it and Bayard's refutation back to back. And it turns out that . . . everyone was right! Spinster Aunt's recommendation of a drink or two to ease the reading was much appreciated, Dirda's assessment of Christie's characters--
[S]he uses the same stock company in book after book--the retired colonel, the village gossip, the local doctor, the independent young woman, the shrewd governess. They, and the victim, are no more real to us than the characters in a game of Clue.
--was dead on, and Christie's plot was ingenious--yet at the same time Bayard homed in on so many surprisingly weak points as to make a reader wonder if she, too, might have been in on the deception. Reading the two books back to back is a treat I'd recommend to any mystery fan.

Bayard's book consists of two roughly even parts: a section of general reflections on the conditions and rules of the mystery genre, and a section specifically deconstructing Christie's explanation of Roger Ackroyd's untimely demise. Much of the fun of the book rests on Bayard's utter seriousness: though he doesn't make the Sherlockian move of pretending that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is anything more than a novel, within the context of the novel itself he treats every fact presented as a true description of the characters and events of the book--and he insists on devising an alternate solution that fits those facts. "Our first concern, then, is with rigor," he writes early in the book, and he does not waver; I think not even Christie herself could argue for long against his solution. It is, like Christie's, ingenious and satisfying--the more so because it teases out a possibility that, before Bayard's work, the novel itself had foreclosed. The very act of reopening the question serves to animate and enliven The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in a way that surely hasn't obtained since soon after its first publication.

I can't be the only person who, on reading Bayard's book, wished Borges had been alive to enjoy it, can I? Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? is almost like a bizarre refraction of a story like Pierre Menard, an enactment of the idea that every text is perpetually alive and available for rewriting, for injecting with a new meaning. Bayard has, in a sense, modernized this eighty-year-old story, by giving us that most post-modern of things: a choice. We now have two answers, two interpretations, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, which give rise, between them, to a third choice: we can decide for ourselves which of the proposed murderers killed Roger Ackroyd--or we can decide to revel in ambiguity itself, enjoying the pleasures of close reading and the stimulation of uncertainty.

And if that's what we choose, we can wholeheartedly look forward to Bayard's next book, on . . . get ready for it . . . The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ah, imagine having a president who was "a constant and voracious reader"!

For your Presidents' Day enjoyment, where better to turn than to Abraham Lincoln?

In his account of Abraham Lincoln's early manhood, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998) (which I wrote about briefly in January), Douglas L. Wilson pieces together a narrative from carefully weighed and vetted first- and second-generation accounts of Lincoln's life after he left his family in Indiana and struck out on his own. Wilson's approach is effective, seemingly getting us yet another bit closer to the historical Lincoln, but the primary sources themselves are the real attraction: his well-chosen selections provide a fascinating glimpse of the life and pastimes of the frontier, delivered in the rough-hewn dialect of its inhabitants.

The language of this account of a prank Lincoln pulled in New Salem--featuring ghosts and drinking, two I've Been Reading Lately favorites--is so spare that it could serve as myth, were it not for the goofy way in which the moral lesson is driven home:
Lincoln is reported to have improvised a prank while in New Salem that sounds as though it were inspired by Burns's poems. As Row Herndon told it,
there was a man that use to come to salem and get tight and stay untell dark he was fraid of Gosts and some one had to goe home with him well Lincoln Perswaded a fellow to take a Sheet and goe in the Rod and perform Gost he then Sent an other gost and the man and Lincoln started home the Gost made his appearence and the man Became much fritened But the Second gost made his appear[ance] and frightend the first Gost half to Deth that Broke the fellow from staying untell Dark anymore.
But while young Lincoln's wit and bawdy humor entertained--and, where unearthed, still do--it was his ability to deploy a similar ease and quick-wittedness as a speaker on more serious points that helped convince his fellow Illinoisans of his leadership potential. Many components went into his ascendance as a politician--including, in a reminder that looks, of a sort, have always mattered in politics, his height and strength--but this list from his Springfield acquaintance William Butler is a nice, brief summary:
Asked why Lincoln was regarded as a good candidate for political office at this time (1832), William Butler replied: " . . . the prominence given him by his captaincy in the Black Hawk War--because he was a good fellow--because he told good stories, and remembered good jokes,--because he was genial, kind, sympathetic, open-hearted--because when he was asked a question and gave an answer it was always characteristic, brief, pointed, a propos, out of the common way and manner, and yet exactly suited to the time place and thing."
I really don't mean to continue making this comparison, because I know it's a real stretch, and of limited utility anyway . . . but I will anyway just this one last time: Wisconsinites and Hawaiians heading to the polls tomorrow, I think you know which of your Democratic candidates gives answers that are "pointed" and "a propos, out of the common way and manner, yet exactly suited to the time place and thing."

{Photo and LOL Obama by rocketlass.}

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some animals I met today, whose relations describe a continuum from kindly cooperation to deadly enmity

{Owen and Mzee, photographer unknown.}

From Pnin (1957), by Vladimir Nabokov
He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like movement, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eying him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. "She has fever, perhaps," thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.
From The Executor: A Comedy of Letters (2006), by Michael Kruger, translated by John Hargraves
I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and turned around to find her already standing in the room. Like an animal, I thought, that knows every hiding place in the apartment, can disappear at the first sign of danger, and reappears as soon as there's something it can grab and run off with. She must have lit her cigarette in her office, even though this was strictly forbidden, for the trip upstairs. She looked for an ashtray, and, not finding one, dropped the butt into a test tube--there were a couple of the desk, set in a wooden rack. She held her thumb over the opening until the glass took on a milky color and the butt went out. Then she put the tube back in its place.
From "Cat 'n' Mouse," by Steven Millhauser, collected in Dangerous Laughter (2008)
The mouse is sitting in his armchair with his chin in his hand, looking off into the distance with a melancholy expression. He is thoughtful by temperament, and he is distressed at the necessity of interrupting his meditations for the daily search for food. The search is wearying and absurd in itself, but is made unbearable be the presence of the brutish cat. The mouse's disdain for the cat is precise and abundant: he loathes the soft, heavy paws with their hidden hooks, the glinting teeth, the hot, fish-stinking breath. At the same time, he confesses to himself a secret admiration for the cat's coarse energy and simplicity. It appears that the cat has no other aim in life than to catch the mouse. Although the faculty of astonishment is not highly developed in the mouse, he is constantly astonished by the cat's unremitting enmity.

{Krazy and Ignatz, by George Herriman.}

Friday, February 15, 2008

A fully rounded metaphor

I think I've inadvertently started a new collection:
Ahead of him was a TWA jet, which trundled into place at the head of the runway, roared and vibrated a few seconds, and then began galumphing away like Sydney Greenstreet playing basketball.
That's from Donald E. Westlake's first Dortmunder mystery, The Hot Rock (1967). A few weeks ago, I pointed out another simile built around Greenstreet, this one also from Westlake, from The Jugger (1965), one of the Parker novels that he wrote under the name Richard Stark:
Gliffe at last came through the draperies at the far end of the room, like an apologetic Sydney Greenstreet.
Because Greenstreet is such an unforgettable physical presence, both of Westlake's images work instantly. You can easily imagine Greenstreet thumping and flailing under the basket, utterly unable to harness his bulk on the court. And while his usual state in films was a sly unctuousness, an apologetic air isn't impossible to conjure up--though knowledgeable cinephiles would surely expect it to be married to an unwavering eye for the main chance.

Greenstreet didn't make the transition from stage to screen until he was sixty-two, so his filmography is limited, but he nevertheless is one of the great joys of cinema, especially when serving as a foil for Peter Lorre's more wildeyed performances. I like the idea of him living on in literature as a handy, adaptable descriptive tool:
"The next morning the sun announcing my hangover was like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca: huge, round, smug, and disasteful."

"She was built like Sydney Greenstreet, and even had his laugh, but you couldn't take your eyes off her--which, come to think of it, made her even more like Greenstreet."

"Give it up, man--you couldn't keep a lid on this story if you put it in a steamer trunk and plopped Sydney Greenstreet on the top."
The problem facing my collection is that my only published examples so far come from a single author. Now, I'll continue to gather and share any Greenstreet references I find, but I also have a more ambitious plan--one that requires your help: I propose that we make a pact to actively increase the number of Sydney Greenstreet similes in the world!

I'm willing to solemnly promise that if I ever publish a novel I will somewhere in its pages compare something to Greenstreet. Budding authors out there in Internetsland, are you willing to make that promise? Who's with me?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Waugh Family Guide to Fatherhood

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I give up. It's turning out to be Evelyn Waugh week after all. (But I promise this is the end of it! Think of this as Sunday morning of Evelyn Waugh week: struggle through this one last sermon and it's all over.)

Today is for those of you who have, or are considering having, children. I, childless and with nary a glimmer of the desire to pass on my genes, can read Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family (2004) as sheer entertainment. I can enjoy the bizarre anecdotes--occasionally flinching at the worst of them--while gaining insight into one of my favorite writers and one of England's most illustrious literary families. Parents, however, can employ the book for a wholly different--and far more important--purpose: they can read it in order to learn how not to raise their children!

The Waughs, it seems, have for generations raised their children in such a way that the casual reader--one who, say, having seen nature films of birds vomiting in the screeching beaks of their offspring or polar bears teaching their children how to kill, vaguely imagines that parents are driven by natural forces to care for and about their young--will regularly find himself staring gapemouthed at the page, wondering just where English eccentricity shades over into . . . well, best to let Evelyn's father tell it:
When the word "sadist" was first explained to Arthur he is reported to have nodded in recognition: "Ah, that is what my father must have been."
Now, to be fair to the later Waughs, Arthur's father, Alexander, was by far the worst of the batch. His sobriquet, "The Brute," was no accident:
The Brute's solution to his elder son's faiblesses was to enroll him on a toughen-you-up induction course based on the old-fashioned wisdom: "'Tis fear as makes 'em brave." To this end he forced his son to cling for his life to farm gates as he swung them violently back and forth, shouting, "Hold on, m'boy." He perched him on high branches, deserting him there for hours on end, and then would creep up behind him, blasting off both barrels of his gun just inches from his ear--all this to fortify Arthur's character and to teach him about surprises.
If the Brute's abuse is enough to make one question whether there is such a thing as innate filial sentiment, the fact that Arthur never even seems to have considered murdering the monstrous shit may provide a countervailing example. In fact, considering his upbringing, Arthur turned out surprisingly well--though still, admittedly, leaving a bit to be desired as a father. As I noted the other day, his involvement with the life of his eldest son, Alec, was intense to the point of obsession, while he essentially ignored his younger son, Evelyn. Sometimes his decisions seem bizarrely cruel:
When Evelyn asked for a bicycle in April 1914 . . . he went off and bought a bigger and better one for Alec, and gave Evelyn a small box of theatrical facepaint instead.
Strangely enough, the result of the stifling closeness to Alec and the general dismissal of Evelyn seems to have been relatively similar: neither man wanted to have all that much to do with his children. Alec, however, was by far the worse offender in that regard, spending nearly his whole life apart from them. In his autobiography he wrote, regarding his return from six years on active service during the war:
My conventional civic duty was clearly to devote my energies to my family, to reforging links with them, to planning for their future, to making amends for the six years' separation. That was my civic duty. Yes, I know, I know. I had been six years away from my family, but I had also been six years away from my desk. I put the claims of my writing first. Time was running out. I had to make the most of the time still left.
Evelyn, on the other hand, was around his children quite a bit, though as his grandson Alexander explains,
He did his best to entertain them but he was never strong enough to keep up the effort for long--he put too much in and felt he got too little out--so that by the end of each school holiday no on was happier than he to see them return to school.
From Alexander's account one gets the sense that it wasn't his kids specifically that Evelyn objected to, but the whole species. He wrote to his friend Lady Diana Cooper that,
I abhor their company because I can only regard children as defective adults. I hate their physical ineptitude, find their jokes flat and monotonous.
He also apparently treated Lady Diana to the following gruesomely funny scenario, telling her that:
"[F]or choice he would take his six children to church at Easter, see them shriven and annealed and, at the church door, slaughter the lot in their innocence and absolution."

"But what about you, Evelyn?" Diana asked him.

"O, I would repent at leisure and be forgiven."
As Evelyn was one of the great satirists of the age, rarely writing anything that didn't betray a glint of cruel steel, it's not difficult to dismiss such sentiments as playing. But the exchange does add a gruesomely personal cast to Brenda Last's callous acceptance of the death of her son in A Handful of Dust. At the very least it seems true that Evelyn was no more comfortable in the presence of his children than he was in the company of adults he actively disliked.

Yet over the years at least some of Evelyn's children seemed to develop a real affection for him--especially Alexander's father, Auberon, despite Evelyn's describing him to Nancy Mitford as a bore (even though "I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober"). Alexander recounts a tale from his uncle Septimus that is almost touching, in which the child Septimus demonstrates more understanding--and certainly more compassion--than customarily evinced by Evelyn the adult:
Septimus told me that Evelyn, fed up with his sighing, had said to him, "If I hear you sigh one more time I shall kick you." When th next sigh fell on the silent air Evelyn duly leaped to his feet: "Right, I am now going to kick you." Septimus set off round the kitchen table with his father in sweaty pursuit. After a couple of circumnavigations he realised that something was wrong. "This is ridiculous," he thought. "I could carry on running round this table all day. Papa is far too fat and slow to catch me ever." Out of mixed feelings of guilt, compassion, and shame, Septimus stopped running to allow his father to catch up and kick him.
Despite all of this bad heritage Auberon (and quite possibly his siblings, whose adult lives mostly go unnoted in Alexander's book) somehow, it seems, became a pretty good father--perhaps a bit hands-off and reticent for the modern taste, but supportive and caring. And Alexander, the father of three children, seems at the very least to have a healthier attitude towards his own relationship with his children than one often sees on the more hotly contested playgrounds of the contemporary urban paradise:
We are all bored by our children on occasion and the world might be an easier place if we were only frank enough to admit it, but modern parents tend instead to furrow their brows, force smiles onto anxious lips and talk down in sentimental goo-goo voices that sometimes stick even after their children have grown up. This, I believe, is the way to damage children.
Ah, but if goo-gooing is the way to damage children, what is the way to raise them properly? Well, though my childlessness may justifiably lead you to discount this prescription, I would argue for happy songs, hugs, regular readings from Good Night, Gorilla--and, just to be sure things don't get too saccharine, a copy of A Handful of Dust held back for the later teenage years.

Consigned to the Flames VI: Evelyn Waugh

From Evelyn Waugh's diary of Friday, October 10, 1919
This morning I tore out and destroyed all the first part of this diary about the holidays. There was little worth preserving and a very great deal that could not possibly be read and was really too dangerous without being funny.
Considering how open and unashamed (and funny) are the portions of Evelyn Waugh's diaries that have appeared in print, it's natural to speculate about what tales of teenage enormities he may have destroyed that day. If his grandson Alexander Waugh's guess is accurate, however, the excised portions dealt primarily with his frustration with--and embarrassment about--his absurdly theatrical father. Most likely, it seems, we lost little by Evelyn's temporary squeamishness.

Of more interest is this tidbit, also gleaned from Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family (2004), regarding Evelyn's first attempt at a full-length novel, written when he was an aimless twenty-one:
During his second term The Temple of Thatch was returned to him in the post by a trusted friend, with a letter stating that he had not in the least enjoyed it. Evelyn consigned the manuscript to the flames of the school boiler.
Whereas the missing diary entries seem ultimately unlamentable, the novel, though almost certainly not good, would be interesting to see, if only because of its subject, black magic--an art in which both Evelyn and, later, his son Auberon dabbled jokingly as part of their perpetually performed suite of effects designed to discomfit their schoolmasters.

The Wauvian Wodehouse--or should it be the Wodehousian Waugh?

From Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family (2004), by Alexander Waugh
[B]y popular request Papa [Auberon Waugh] used to declaim his grandfather's "Bax Passage" . . . in a fluty, ecclesiastical tone for family and friends round the dinner table. My mother, who disliked this form of showing off intensely, barracked him with loud protestations to desist, but at each interruption he would look up to the ceiling, stick out his tummy, and say, "Right, I shall begin again." And begin he did, from the very top, with his voice pitched a semitone higher and the volume defiantly turned up.

From "The Letter of the Law," by P. G. Wodehouse, collected in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937)
The Oldest Member, who often infested the seventh tee on a fine afternoon, nodded. . . . "The only man I ever knew who derived solid profit from driving into somebody who was not out of distance was young Wilmot Byng . . ."

The two men started.

"Are you going to tell us a story?"

"I am."


"I knew you would be pleased," said the Oldest Member.

From Fathers and Sons
[Evelyn Waugh's wife] Laura's happiness at Piers Court was drawn mainly from her cows. She owned six or seven of them, some named after her daughters, all jealously guarded by herself and the cowman, Mr Sanders. . . . The happiest moments of her day were spent in discussing her herd with Sanders, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of individual beasts, comparing moos with milk yields, moving them slowly from one field to another and wondering what to do with them next. . . . If Bron [Auberon Waugh] ever suspected that his mother was more interested in Sanders and her cows than she was in her children, he may have been right. . . . In his autobiography he wrote: "My mother had only a few cows and they cost a fortune to keep, but she loved them extravagantly, as other women love their dogs or, so I have been told, their children."

From "The Crime Wave at Blandings'" by P. G. Wodehouse, collected in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937)
She drew the pallid peer aside, and spoke with sharp rebuke.

"Just like a stuck pig!"

"Eh?" said Lord Emsworth. His mind had been wandering, as it so often did. The magic word brought it back. "Pigs? What about pigs?"

"I was saying that you were looking like a stuck pig. You might at least have asked Mr. Baxter how he was."

"I could see how he was. What's he doing here?"

"I told you what he was doing here."

. . . .

"You mean the chap's out of a job?" he cried aghast.

"Yes. And it could not have happened at a more fortunate time, because something has got to be done about George."

"Who's George?"

"You have a grandson of that name," explained Lady Constance with the sweet, frozen patience which she so often used when conversing with her brother.

From Fathers and Sons
One summer [Evelyn] grew a handlebar moustache, which made him look like a motor-bike queen on the Earl's Court Road circa 1968: "Every man must grow a moustache or a beard at least once in his life," he said--one piece of his advice that I have never taken. His family thought he looked loathsome with that on his face.

From "Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg," by P. G. Wodehouse, collected in Carry On, Jeeves (1925)
I was sorry if Bicky was in trouble, but, as a matter of fact, I was rather glad to have something I could discuss freely with Jeeves just then, because things had been a bit strained between us for some time, and it had been rather difficult to hit on anything to talk about that wasn't apt to take a personal turn. You see, I had decided--rightly or wrongly--to grow a moustache, and this had cut Jeeves to the quick. He couldn't stick the thing at any price, and I had been ever since in an atmosphere of bally disapproval till I was getting jolly well fed up with it. What I mean is, while there's no doubt that in certain matters of dress Jeeves's judgment is absolutely sound and should be followed, it seemed to me that it was getting a bit too thick if he was going to edit my face as well as my costume. No one can call me an unreasonable chappie, and many's the time I've given in like a lamb when Jeeves has voted against one of my pet suits or ties; but when it comes to one's valet's staking out a claim on your upper lip you've simply got to have a bit of the good old bulldog pluck and defy the blighter.

From Fathers and Sons
[Evelyn] had no expectation for [his son James] as a writer, believing him devoid of literary taste. "James is reading P. G. Wodehouse with great seriousness. 'Don't you find it funny, James?' 'I think this book is meant to be serious, Papa.' The book was Carry on Jeeves."

From "Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg"
It was a wrench, but I felt it was the only possible thing to be done.

"Bring me my shaving things."

A gleam of hope shone in the man's eye, mixed with doubt.

"You mean, sir?"

"And shave off my moustache."

There was a moment's silence. I could see the fellow was deeply moved.

"Thank you very much indeed, sir," he said, in a low voice.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Members of the Waugh Family

{Auberon, Alexander, and Evelyn Waugh at home in 1965. The cigar is, so far as I know, just a cigar.}

At the risk of unintentionally turning this into Evelyn Waugh Week . . . and at the further risk of permanently alienating whatever small portion of my small readership has any taste or good sense . . . . I think I have to--I see no other course but to--write about some of the members of the Waugh family's . . . members.


See, despite Alexander Waugh's acknowledgment of the problematic nature of familial nudity--
I never saw my father's bare arse or his exposed genitals and am glad of that, as a glance at either might have traumatised me for life
--his Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family (2004) is chock full of, if not descriptions of, then at least information about, Waugh family units.

A blogger with a sense of decency would pass over those moments in this heartfelt and amusing book in silence, or at most would dignify them with a quiet "Harrumph" or two. But decency be damned--they're too horridly entertaining to ignore!

Take, for example, this demonstration of the unintended consequences of punishment, from the schooldays of Alexander's great-uncle Alec Waugh:
One day he was caught misbehaving and, by way of punishment, was ordered to spend the night kneeling on the stone floor of the school chapel. It was there that he first worked out how to masturbate.
Surely Alexander's grandfather Evelyn would have appreciated that nicely chosen "worked out," with its whiff of remembered furtive experimentation. For his own part, Evelyn later wrote to a friend that he was "reading all the case studies in Havelock Ellis and frigging too much."

Then there's the official horror provoked by the discovery of such illicit activity. The headmaster wrote to Alec's father, Arthur, and Arthur--whose involvement with the details of Alec's youth, at this distance in years, appears obsessive to the point of creepiness--dispatched a lengthy, moralizing letter to his son, in the midst of which is this howler of a paragraph:
And something more. The man who is addicted to self-abuse generally becomes the father of feeble and rickety children, even if he is not incapable of being a parent at all. It is an awful thought that someday you might take to a pure girl's arms a body that will avenge its own indulgences upon children yet unborn. It is a deadly thought. It must be prevented at all costs.
I understand that Arthur Waugh was writing from a sensibility rooted in the Victorian era--including its science of glands and depletion of essence and such--but masturbation must be prevented at all costs? Goodness--surely there are some remedies that even the staunchest opponent of self-defilement wouldn't countenance?

The modernity that is rooted so deeply in us reflexively argues that such a relentlessness quest to stamp out sexual expression inevitably will lead to its emergence elsewhere, in some murkier, possibly damaged form. In that vein, take note of the drawing that Alec's 8-year-old brother Evelyn commits to his diary to commemorate his appendicitis operation, which was "performed with chloroform on the kitchen table":
It shows a jubilant doctor waving scissors and a knife in the air as Evelyn is held down by his mother. Another figure (probably Arthur) bangs a chisel into his son's penis.
I don't think one has to be steeped in Freud to raise an eyebrow at that. (This takes us off the topic a bit, but I can't resist: after the operation, Waugh was bedridden for a week, and he was too weak to stand when released. Arthur
sent him to a vacated girls' school to recuperate where they forced him to undergo electric-shock and cold-water treatments.
Evelyn Waugh was a complicated, frequently unpleasant man, and his cranky awkwardness can't entirely be blamed on his bizarre childhood--but it clearly gave him a solid shove on his way.)

I'll skip over Arthur's hiring of a young woman to give him buttock massages in his old age--because it's too grotesque to contemplate--and instead move up a generation, which offers me a chance to give the memberless members of the Waugh family their nude due. (Which, clothed or not, Alexander doesn't do much of in this volume: until recently only the Waugh men wrote, so only the Waugh men get written about.) Alexander speculates whether,
in my own father's case, if his erotic sensibilities were not slightly impaired by the seminal shock of seeing (aged three) his nonagenarian step-great-great-grandmother naked in her bath. Her name was Grace Wemyss: she was his mother's mother's stepmother. "How beautiful you are looking today, Granny Grace," he is said to have said. Evelyn, oblivious to the psychological damage this grotesque spectacle might have inflicted upon his little boy, wrote proudly in his diary: "Auberon surprised her in her bath and is thus one of the very few men who can claim to have seen his great-great-grandmother in the raw."
If any of you are members of that exclusive club, I don't want to know!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

You never know when you'll stumble into a gun show.

{Photo by santheo from the 2005 Polar Bear Swim at North Avenue Beach, Chicago. Used under a Creative Commons license.}

From Dawn Powell's The Wicked Pavilion (1954)
[H]e went on his way down the stairs to the men's room.
He was slightly bewildered to find there a tall bushy-browed beagle-nosed man, coatless in a fancy mauve shirt and scarlet suspenders, his pinstriped gray jacket dangling from the doorknob, solemnly flexing his right arm with a regular rhythm before the mirror.

"Feel those muscles," commanded this gentleman, without taking his eye from the mirror, apparently not at all perturbed by an audience.

"Like iron," said Dalzell obediently.

"Of course they're like iron, because I keep them that way. Golf. Tennis. Sixty years old. I just put my arm through the door. Take a look at the other side. Right through. Wanted to see if I could still do it."

"You must be a professional athlete," Dalzell said, properly awed by the jagged hole in the door.

"Think so?" beamed the man. "Believe it or not, I'm in the advertising business."


"I'm telling you. Here's my card. Hastings Hardy of Hardy, Long, and Love. I just don't let myself get soft, that's all."
Ah, but brains can be of value sometimes, too--or at least the appearance of brains:
"You look to me like a mighty intelligent fellow," he said. "I like a man who looks intelligent. What do you do?"

The beard again, Dalzell thought.
But that's all the time I can spend blogging tonight--being beardless, what choice do I have but to spend the hours between now and bedtime engaged in push-ups and shadow-boxing and a serious workout with the old medicine ball?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

"Are you shrieking yet?"

The last two letters I featured in Monday's post about letters were drawn from The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996). Though they didn't begin corresponding regularly until Waugh was posted to Europe during the war, he and Mitford first became friends amidst the social whirl of young 1920s London that Waugh skewered so brilliantly in Vile Bodies.

In fact, in a scene Waugh could have written, Nancy Mitford was an eyewitness to the breakup of the Waugh's marriage: Evelyn decamped to the country in 1929 to write, and in anticipation of his absence he and his wife, who was also named Evelyn and was known by the couple's friends as She-Evelyn, invited Nancy to stay with her in their London apartment. He-Evelyn's absence apparently weighed more heavily on his wife than was expected, and before his return She-Evelyn had left him for John Heygate. Nancy, aghast, broke off her friendship with She-Evelyn, while remaining friends with He-Evelyn for the rest of his life.

From World War II until Evelyn's death in 1966, that friendship depended almost entirely on correspondence, rarely taking any other form. As Nancy's niece Charlotte Mosley, editor of the letters, explains in her preface,
[T]hey found it easier to conduct a friendship on paper rather than in person. When they did meet, Evelyn's bad temper and Nancy's sharp tongue--qualities which enhance their correspondence--often led to quarrels.
But in writing to their idealized epistolary versions of one another they got along swimmingly, trafficking in perpetual jabbing banter. Complaints from Waugh--
IMPORTANT PICASSOS indeed! Talk about my becoming nicer! You couldn't write an obscene phrase like that except to offend.
--crossed in the mail with extravagant exaggerations from Mitford--
I know you can't tell the difference between Lloyd George & Stalin, but other people can.
--in hundreds of splendidly entertaining letters, full of cattiness, name-dropping, casual literary criticism, and mordant commentary on British and French society at mid-century.

Their correspondence includes one of my favorite letters of all time,* sent by Waugh to Mitford on July 27, 1952, in response to her question,
What do you do with all the people who want interviews, with fan letters & with fans in the flesh? Just a barrage of nos?
When he received Mitford's letter, Waugh was obviously feeling of a systematic turn of mind, for he replied in detail:
I am not greatly troubled by fans nowadays. Less than one a day on the average. No sour grapes when I say they were an infernal nuisance. I divide them into
(a) Humble expressions of admiration. To these a post-card saying "I am delighted to learn that you enjoyed my book. E. W."
(b) Impudent criticism. No answer.
(c) Bores who wish to tell me about themselves. Post-card saying "Thank you for interesting letter. E. W."
(d) Technical criticism, eg. One has made a character go to Salisbury from Paddington. Post-card: "Many thanks for your valuable suggestion. E. W."
(e) Humble aspirations of would-be writers. If attractive a letter of discouragement. If unattractive a post-card.
(f) Requests from University Clubs for a lecture. Printed refusal.
(g) Requests from Catholic Clubs for lecture. Acceptance.
(h) American students of "Creative Writing" who are writing theses about one & want one, virtually, to write their theses for them. Printed refusal.
(i) Tourists who invite themselves to one's house. Printed refusal.
(j) Manuscript sent for advice. Return without comment.
I also have some post-cards with my photograph on them which I send to nuns.
In case of very impudent letters from married women I write to the husband warning him that his wife is attempting to enter into correspondence with strange men.
Oh, and of course
(k) Autograph collectors: no answer.
(l) Indians & Germans asking for free copies of one's books: no answer.
(m) Very rich Americans: polite letter. They are capable of buying 100 copies for Christmas presents.
I think that more or less covers the field.
In her reply, Mitford, after an initial lament, sharply picked up on the most important question presented by Waugh's list:
You are heavenly. Bref, however, I note that you do answer, even if only with insults. I was rather hoping you would say you don't bother to.

How do you know if Americans are rich? I suppose you assume they all are.
They were perfectly suited as correspondents, and their collected letters provide readers near endless amusement with which to while away many a snowy winter afternoon--and offer aspiring wits many a line ripe for stealing.

*Another of my very favorite letters similarly incorporates an entertaining list: in the midst of an ordinary letter she sent me recently, my friend Maggie broke off unexpectedly from whatever subject she'd been on and instead began listing hilariously apt names for non-existent Harry Potter characters. She came up with twenty-two of them--but, alas, before I could transcribe them, one of our cats vomited extravagantly on the letter, rendering it untouchable. Such are the felne dangers that perpetually stalk nondigital media.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Dear snooping posterity,

{Photo by rocketlass of our niece writing postcards.}

Lest you get the wrong impression from my post the other night in which I quoted Virginia Woolf writing that "the Victorian age killed the art of letter writing with kindness," I thought I should tonight state very clearly my firmly held belief that there can never be too many letters! Never! I want the letters of all my favorite authors published in multiple, handsome volumes! With rich annotations! And while we're at it, let's make them fully searchable on the Internet!

That said, a volume of selected letters is a splendid thing as well, and in a just world great glory would accrue to those patient scholars who winnow down the corpus of correspondence to meet the requirements of both the marketplace and bookbinding technology. Tempting though some of the complete sets may be--I'm looking at you, Lord Byron--a stack of Selecteds around one's laptop exudes a powerful joy of its own, because by dipping in almost at random, one can pluck such gems as this, from a letter Gustave Flaubert sent to Louise Colet on Easter of 1853:
The impression that my travel notes made upon you has prompted me, dear Muse, into strange reflections on the hearts of men and women. Decidedly, they are not the same, whatever people say.

On our side there is candour, if not delicacy; we are in the wrong even so, for this candour is a kind of hard-heartedness. If I had omitted my impressions of women, then you would not have found anything to cause you distress! Women keep everything to themselves. They never confide in your unequivocally. The most they can manage is to set you guessing, and, when they tell you things, it comes with such quantities of sauce that the meat disappears beneath it. But if we allow ourselves two or three delinquent little ejaculations, even though our hearts are not really in it, they start moaning and groaning!
Or this, from a letter Barbara Pym sent to Philip Larkin on September 14, 1964:
Our library has been made slightly more interesting--in a macabre way--by a rather peculiar young man joining the staff. He doesn't come in till 10:35 most mornings and is given to cryptic utterances which one can only half hear. I don't have much to do with him myself but hear all this from the other staff. I find it is pleasanter to observe these things rather than actually participate in them.

As a nod to friends who have recently wrestled with book proofs, I'll pass along this opening to a letter sent by the aforementioned Lord Byron to his publisher John Murray:
Dear Sir--I have received & return by this post under cover--the first proof of "Don Juan."--Before the second can arrive it is probably that I may have left Venice--and the length of my absence is so uncertain--that you had better proceed to the publication without boring me with more proofs--I sent by the last post an addition--and a new copy of "Julia's letter," perceiving or supposing the former one in Winter did not arrive.--Mr. Hobhouse is at it again about indelicacy--there is no indelicacy--if he wants that, let him read Swift--his great Idol--but his imagination must be a dunghill with a Viper's nest in the middle--to engender such a supposition about this poem.--For my part I think you are all crazed.
The next time a deadline looms, you might consider seeing if you can put over that closing line.

Staying with the publishing theme, here's Jessica Mitford, getting right to the point in a letter to a literary agent friend in 1990:
Thanks SO much for yr letter, what a pleasure to get it. PUBLISHING: Too ghastly here, too, as I'm sure you know.
Here's a more circumspect passage from a letter E. B. White sent his editor on May 24, 1952, after first seeing the jacket design for Charlotte's Web:
Thanks for the dummy cuts and the jacket design. I like everything. The group on the jacket is charming. My only complaint is that the goose looks, for some reason, a bit snakelike. Perhaps this is because its beak is open, or perhaps because the eye is round like a snake's. You sound so rushed that I presume you don't want to make any revisions, and I would be satisfied have the jacket go as is, if it seems right to you. But no goose-lover in this house is satisfied.

The web effect is OK for the purposes of jacket design but that type of rather mussy Charles Addams attic web is not right for the illustrations. I'm sure that Garth realizes that. Charlotte weaves quite an orderly, symmetrical web.
Closing this batch of publishing correspondence is Herman Melville, who, in writing to his editor about Moby-Dick, not unsurprisingly brings the spooky:
It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship's cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.

I've only just begun to flip through the new collection of Noel Coward's letters, but I've already found great pleasures, like this installment, sent from New Jersey in November of 1926, of his weekly letters to his doting mother:
The play, dear, has all the earmarks of being a failure! Gladys and Jack and I sat grandly in a box on the First Night and watched it falling flatter and flatter. And I must admit we got bad giggles! They were all expecting something very dirty indeed after the English Censor banning it and they were bitterly disappointed.

Francine Larrimore was very good an A. E. Matthews, too, tho' he forgot most of his lines.
Speaking of parenting, Lord Chesterfield's cynical letters to his son always reward a browse; here's an entertaining bit from a particularly long one, sent on January 8, 1750:
There are people who indulge themselves in a sort of lying, which they reckon innocent, and which in one sense is so; for it hurts nobody but themselves. This sort of lying is the spurious offspring of vanity, begotten upon folly: these people deal in the marvellous; they have seen some things that never existed; they have seen other things which they never really saw, though they did exist, only because they were thought worth seeing. Has anything remarkable been said or done in any place, or in any company, they immediately present and declare themselves eye or ear witnesses of it. They have done feats themselves, unattempted, or at least unperformed by others. Thy are always the heroes of their own fables; and think that they gain consideration, or at least present attention, by it. Whereas, in truth, all they get is ridicule and contempt, not without a good degree of distrust: for one must naturally conclude, that he who will tell any lie from idle vanity, will not scruple telling a greater for interest. Had I really seen anything so very extraordinary as to be almost incredible, I would keep it to myself, rather than by telling it give anybody room to doubt, for one minute, of my veracity.
Note that Lord Chesterfield, as is his wont, is not objecting to lying, per se, but to lying for no reason.

I'll close with some top-shelf cruel wit, from some masters of the art. First, a few lines from Nancy Mitford, writing from Paris to Evelyn Waugh on August 20, 1952:
Here we are obsessed by the fate of Sire Jacques Drumont, an English millionaire who has been murdered with his wife & small child while camping out. Though all are very sorry for Sire Jacques, & Lady Ann his wife, it is rather hoped that this will cure English millionaires of their mania for camping, they are a bore & start forest fires everywhere.
Finally, there's this comment from Waugh to Mitford from April 8, 1951:
Everyone I met in London was in debt & despair & either much too fat or much too thin.
Note to today's writers: put down those iPhones and write more letters! I'll want to read them when you're dead and I'm old!