Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Some advice to the love-lorn, of questionable value, from Barbara Pym's journals

From A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (1984), by Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym
31 July 1933
After lunch I took some Yeastvite tablets and continued to take them after tea and super. A slightly unromantic way of curing lovesickness I admit, but certainly I feel a lot better now. (Hilary is playing "Stormy Weather" incessantly--my theme song I think!) . . . I turned to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and began to read about Love Melancholy--but I haven't yet got to the part where he deals with the cure. Perhaps I'm suffering from the spleen, too--in that case I may be completely cured by taking a course of our English poets--which all points to drowning my sorrows in work.

Friday 23 April 1943
Hilary has gone to the cottage this weekend--so Honor and I are by ourselves. We talked about things--the folly of day-dreaming amongst otheres. She thinks I ought to have a really good affaire. I quite agree, but OH DEAR.

January 1957
One talks so gaily about "old loves," but there comes a time when they really are old.
And to close, a description of a location that could serve to host the beginning of an intrigue--romantic or perhaps more sinister. Whichever it might turn out to be, though, Pym is clear that it would not be likely to end well:
7 Sepember 1954
Lisbon, Hotel Metropole
Near the Moorish style railway station. Dark little room looking into a well. I can see them washing up at 11 o'clock at night. The lower part of the walls covered with striped canvas like luggage (it's like living in a suitcase), the dim light and the grey iron bedstead like a French film. Setting for a Graham Greene novel.

Monday, April 28, 2008

On the science of bleeding, or, And people wonder why I don't particularly like doctors!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Near the conclusion of Henry Fielding's black comedy of rascality The Life of Mr Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), Thomas Heartfree, a good man falsely condemned for a variety of frauds actually perpetrated by the amoral Jonathan Wild, learns of his reprieve mere moments before ascending the gallows. Fielding writes,
It would be impertinent to offer at a description of the joy this occasioned to the two friends, or to Mrs Heartfree, who was now again recovered. A surgeon, who was happily present, was employed to bleed them all.
I read that passage on the way home from London, a few days after a visit to the old operating theater in the garret of St. Thomas's church, where multi-bladed bleeding implements were nestled in display cases alongside other terrifying tools of early modern medicine. Being confronted with the reality of that most cringe-making of outdated medical practices reminded me of my first encounter with therapeutic bleeding, which I imagine I share with many a bookish kid. It came at the hands of Robert Louis Stevenson, in those glorious opening scenes of Treasure Island (1883), where an ordinary boyhood is disrupted by the arrival of mysterious strangers--one of whom has a stroke:
"The man has had a stroke, as I warned him. Now, Mrs. Hawkins, you just run up-stairs to your husband, and, tell him, if possible, nothing about it. I must do my best to save this fellow's trebly worthless life, and Jim here will get me a basin."

When I got back with the basin, the doctor had already ripped up the captain's sleeve and exposed his great sinewy arm. It was tattooed in several places. "Here's luck," "A fair wind" and "Billy Bones his fancy," were very neatly and clearly executed on the forearm; and up near the shoulder there was a sketch of a gallows and a man hanging from it--done, as I thought, with great spirit. "Prophetic," said the doctor, touching this picture with his finger. "And now, Master Billy Bones, if that be your name, we ll have a look at the colour of your blood. Jim," he said, "are you afraid of blood?"

"No, sir," said I.

"Well, then," said he, "you hold the basin;" and with that he took his lancet and opened a vein.

A great deal of blood was taken before the captain opened his eyes and looked mistily about him. First he recognised the doctor with an unmistakable frown; then his glance fell upon me, and he looked relieved But suddenly his colour changed and he tried to raise himself crying:--

"Where's Black Dog?"

"There is no Black Dog here," said the doctor, "except what you have on your own back. You have been drinking rum, you have had a stroke, precisely as I told you, and I have just, very much against my own will, dragged you headforemost out of the grave."
I remember being both horrified and fascinated when I first read that, feeling instantly that I was in a world markedly different from my own--almost certainly my first experience of literature's enlivening of the past.

The operating theater, which was placed in the garret of St. Thomas's church in the mid-19th century when the adjacent St. Thomas's Hospital was desperate for space, was sealed up around the turn of the century and forgotten for more than fifty years. Now it is a fun little museum, alternating displays of herbs (with signs explaining their real and supposed medicinal powers, such as coral's powers over "Monsters, Incubii, Succubii, Phantasmata and all Evil Spirits") with cases of medical implements that were once state-of-the-gruesome-art. The operating theater itself encapsulates the horrors of Victorian medicine: as a placard explains, it rests on a false floor above three inches of sawdust, so that blood spilled by the doctors--who wore frock coats "stiff and stinking with pus"--wouldn't seep through into the sanctuary below.

Of most interest to the literary tourist, however, is the fact that John Keats studied at St. Thomas's, and presumably attended lectures in the operating theater. But Keats soon realized that he was not suited for a medical career: according to Lord Houghton,
When he had once entered upon the practical part of his business, he found his mind so oppressed with an over-wrought apprehension of doing harm that he determined on abandoning the course of life to which he had devoted a considerable portion of his small fortune.
A letter Keats sent to a friend in 1817 pinpoints the decision in a moment of distraction while bleeding a patient:
My last operation was the opening of a man's temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.
At least Keats realized his shortcomings; a contemporaneous account of his medical mentor, Mr. Morgan, related in the operating theater museum, is postively chilling:
A tall, ungainly, awkward man, with stooping shoulders and a shuffling walk, as deaf as a post, not overburdened with brains, but very good-natured, and liked by everyone. His surgical acquirements were very small,his operations very badly performed, and accompanied with much bungling, if not worse.
It seems that Keats probably made the right decision in choosing the relatively developed art of poetry over the still-blind gropings of Regency medicine. Remind me not to visit the past unless I'm sure my time machine is prepared to yank me back at the first sign of sickness.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Something one should definitely never, ever, ever do at the zoo. Even if it sounds like fun.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

One of the greatest pleasures offered by novels is their by-the-way presentation of incidental details of how we used to live. In Gerard Woodward's novel August (2001), some characters visit the London Zoo in the late 1930s, and their visit differs starkly from zoo visits we might make today:
Viv ate bananas all day, bananas they'd intended for the chimps and gorillas. Aldous was amused to find that Colette had brought with her two shopping bags heaving with fruit, vegetables, sausages and fresh sardines. She could hardly carry them. He helped her.

He laughed as Colette tossed a cauliflower at a camel, the vegetable bursting into florets at the disinterested animal's feet. He applauded the accuracy of Colette's sardine-lobbing, the polar bear hardly moving his head as he took the little fish out of the air. He chuckled as Colette passed tomatoes one by one through the bars of a chimp's cage where a black leathery hand received them.
Apparently, we used to blithely chuck food at the animals on display. I wonder what lucky carnivore was going to get the sausages?

I know that animals in zoos are incalculably better off today than even just a few decades ago--let along seventy years ago--because zookeepers have realized and acted on their understanding that animals, rather than being presented as exotic house pets or trained performers, should be treated as animals, their regimens and habitats tailored letting them live as natural a life as is possible within the confines of a zoo. That, of course, means no bananas through the bars--which, however much your local gorilla might make sad eyes at you, is unquestionably a good thing.

Despite all that, I won't pretend that I wouldn't greatly enjoy getting to feed the giraffes. And the camels! And the capybaras! And especially the penguins!

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Boredom will become its own reward and change suddenly to ecstasy."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From "The Art of Travel" (1931), by Cyril Connolly, collected in The Selected Works of Cyril Connolly, Volume Two: The Two Natures (2005)
I should like to restore mobility to the place it deserves, to produce a book of photographs with the slenderest commentary, a book called "The Anonymous Voyage" that would exhibit the bones of travel, the simplest component elements, the boat, the train, the ferry, the street, the hotel. There would be the quality of different countries; the incidents of movement; leaving at dawn, lunching on the train, arriving in the evening, walking round the town and dining by daylight; drinking alone.

Until I came across that passage, I hadn't thought about possible affinities between Cyril Connolly and Luc Sante--such as their shared fascination with the half-submerged influences of their youth, the seemingly limitless scope of their knowledge and curiosity, and their tendency toward self-deprecation--but Connolly's book of travel photos certainly seems like something that Sante would appreciate.

Alas, it doesn't exist, another of the legion of phantom books that could have been, condemned instead to haunt dreams and tug at imaginations, forever mislaid and mis-shelved in some alternate, richer universe, unseen and unshared.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"'Twas the most dangerous sickness that ever I had."

{Engravings from Chambers' Book of Days (1869) of touch-pieces given by the sovereign to subjects whom he or she touched for the King's Evil.}

Yesterday I featured a passage from John Aubrey's Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696) about a man, Arise Evans, whom Aubrey had been informed had cured his "fungous nose" by rubbing it on the hand of King Charles II.

Perhaps Aubrey's parents should have availed themselves of that remedy when he was a boy; according to his own sketchy biographical notes that open my edition of the Miscellanies, he was born "very weak and like to Dye" and was "therefore christned that morning before Prayer," just in case. Christening may I suppose have healed his soul, but it did nothing for his general infirmity:
About three or four years old I had a grievous ague, I can remember it. I got not health till eleven or twelve, but had sickness of Vomiting every 12 hours every fortnight for years, then it came monthly for then quarterly then half yearly, the last was in June 1642.
After that litany of suffering--which, in its odd regularity sounds more like a haunting than an infection--Aubrey hardly needs to add, "This sickness nipt my strength in the bud." Unexpectedly, he survived and grew to manhood--at which point, if his account is to be believed, he immediately replaced the specter of fatal illness with the dangers of drowning, spills from horses, and violent death. But those are details for another day.

A full century after Aubrey's boyhood, Samuel Johnson's parents did carry him into the royal presence in search of a healing touch. In his case, the ailment was scrofula, commonly known as "the King's Evil," as it was thought to be amenable to the royal touch. In his Life of Johnson, James Boswell records,
His mother, yielding to the superstitious notion, which it is wonderful to think, prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion, which our kings encouraged, and to which a man of such inquiry and such judgement as Carte could give credit; carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne. Mrs. Johnson indeed, as Mr. Hector informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer, then a physician in Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very frankly, and Mrs. Piozzi has preserved his very picturesque description of the scene, as it remained upon his fancy. Being asked if he could remember Queen Anne, "He had (he said) a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood." This touch, however, was without any effect.
More remarkable by far than the belief in royal healing is Aubrey's tale of a physician, Dr. Richard Nepier, "a person of great abstinence, innocence, and piety." Drawing on an account by Ashmolean Museum founder Elias Ashmole, the gloriously credulous Aubrey tells of Nepier's suprising--and apparently foolproof--method of predicting his patients' fates:
When a patient or querent came to him, he presently went to his closet to pray: and told to admiration the recovery, or death of the patient. It appears by his papers, that he did converse with the angel Raphael, who gave him the responses.
I'm guessing the admiration was considerably lessened when the angelic prognosis was negative. Ashmole's study of Dr. Nepier's papers seems to show that Raphael went so far as to prescribe medicines for his patients; he also was kind enough to answer questions such as whether there are more good or more bad spirits. Raphael assured Dr. Nepier that the good outnumbered the bad; whether that remains true nearly four hundred years later I leave to your imagination.

From our vantage, it's hard not to be smile a bit condescendingly at Dr. Nepier and his visions, but it's worth noting what Aubrey is careful to point: that he "did practice physic, but gave most to the poor that he got by it." Count one for the good spirits.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


{Photo by rocketlass.}

Having months ago created, with rocketlass's help, a LOL President, with this post I descend through one more circle of Internet citizenship: I've been tagged!

Ed at the Dizzies has given me the following task:
1 Pick up the nearest book.
2 Open to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.
5 Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
At the moment I was tagged, I was equidistant from two books. Anthony Powell's John Aubrey and His Friends (1948) is nearest to me vertically, being on top of John Aubrey's Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696), which achieves the tie by being wider, and thus closer horizontally. So let's do both!

From page 123 of John Aubrey and His Friends
Edward Adye's answer, given 29 April, 1669, was that, having need of money, he had borrowed from Joan Sumner the amounts named. He had, however, paid them back with interest "long since." He had heard the story of Aubrey's engagement to marry Joan. A Further stage of the case was that, on 7 February, 1670, there was an Order in the Chancery that an injunction be issued to stop the proceedings at law of John Aubrey against Joan Sumner until he had answered the plea put in by her.
Graham Greene, when he was the managing director of Eyre & Spottiswode, Powell's publisher, called John Aubrey and His Friends "bloody boring," thus opening a "white-hot row" with Powell. It must be admitted that that passage does support Greene's position--though the lively interest of Powell's introduction to the book allows me to continue to expect that he'll be proved wrong. I'll let you know soon.

And here's what I found on page 123 of Miscellanies
They had been also instructed by their governesses how to behave themselves toward Cyrus, to gain his favour; not to turn away when he came to them, not to be coy when he touched them, to permit him to kiss them, and many other amatory instructions practised by women who expose their beauty to sale. Each contended to out-vie the other in handsomeness. Only Aspasia would not endure to be clothed with a rich robe, nor to put on a various coloured vest, nor to be washed; but calling upon the Grecian and Eleutherian gods, she cried out upon her father's name, execrating herself to her father. She thought the robe which she should put on was a manifest sign of bondage.
That selection really doesn't do the goofy fun of Aubrey's grab-bag justice. I think he deserves another randomly selected passage:
Arise Evans had a fungous nose, and said, it was revealed to him, that the King's hand would cure him, and at the first coming of King Charles II, into St. James's Park, he kissed the King's hand, and rubbed his nose with it; which disturbed the King, but cured him. Mr. Ashmole told it me.
That's much more pleasantly Aubreyan.

Finally, for the tagging! Bob the librarian--who knows what was just dropped on his desk? Sarah! Jim! Joe! Aaron! All your base, as we LOL-cat-making, meme-conveying Internet citizens like to say, are belong to me!

Monday, April 21, 2008

"The wonderful immensity of London," or, London Blogging Week, Part V

From The Life of Samuel Johnson (1771), by James Boswell
Talking of London, he observed, "Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists."
And, in the interest of offering a counter to Cyril Connolly's ennui from the other day, I can't very well let this week conclude without offering up Johnson's most famous words on his adopted city:
The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. . . . Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual who is willing to leave London: No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"To run my fingers through the town's soft pelt," or, A Week of Blogging about London, Part IV

From "England Not My England" (1929), by Cyril Connolly
10th October 1928

By some seasonable miracle I seem to be falling in love with London and recapturing the same exaltation that I attributed merely to youth last year. To feel this jungle come alive all around one in the evening, the same October mists, fires, lights, wet streets, blown leaves, to plunge into its many zones, not knowing what one will discover, and to return with a growing sense of confidence and power as a new street or a new district falls beneath one's rule, is to feel a true explorer, or rather is to combine the intimacy of a wooer with the excitement of an adventurer; to run my fingers through the town's soft pelt, to caress the lax pulsating city as rashly, as apprehensively, as a Greek might approach an Amazon, or a small spry leopard, male of some great cat.
But as always with Connolly, the wheel inexorably turns, and mere weeks later . . .
November 1928

One cannot really love London. It is disappointing in every way. A foggy, dead-alive city, like a dying ant-heap. London was created for rich young men to shop in, dine in, ride in, get married in, go to theatres in, and die in as respected householders. It is a city for the unmarried upper class, not for the poor. Every writer and artist must feel a sense of inferiority in London unless he is (like Browning or Henry James) a romantic snob--or else fits into the Reynolds-Johnson tradition of Fleet Street, Garrick, good burgundy, and golf.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dissipation! or, A Week of Blogging about London, Part III

{An Election Entertainment (1754), by William Hogarth}

From Jane Austen: A Life (1997), by Claire Tomalin
There were plenty of jokes for Cassandra. On arriving in London, [Jane wrote] "Here I am once more in this Scene of Dissipation & vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"So then, Oxford-street," or, A Week of Blogging about London, Part II

From Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), by Thomas De Quincey
So then, Oxford-street, stony-hearted step-mother! thou that listenest to the sighs of orphans and drinkest the tears of children, at length I was dismissed from thee; the time was come at last that I no more should pace in anguish thy never-ending terraces, no more should dream and wake in captivity to the pangs of hunger. Successors too many, to myself and Ann, have doubtless since then trodden in our footsteps, inheritors of our calamities; other orphans than Ann have sighed; tears have been shed by other children; and thou, Oxford-street, hast since doubtless echoed to the groans of innumerable hearts. For myself, however, the storm which I had outlived seemed to have been the pledge of a long fair-weather—the premature sufferings which I had paid down to have been accepted as a ransom for many years to come, as a price of long immunity from sorrow; and if again I walked in London a solitary and contemplative man (as oftentimes I did), I walked for the most part in serenity and peace of mind.

From Dickens's Dictionary of London (1893)
Oxford Street
De Quincey's stony-hearted stepmother--ought to be, if it be not, the finest as well as the longest and straightest of the main arteries of London. With one end reaching through its extensions--Holborn, Newgate-st, and Cheapside--to the City, with the other continued by the Bayswater-rd by the side of Hyde-Park, through Notting-hill, and out, with scarce a curve, to the far west, it ought to be the finest thoroughfare in the world. As a matter of fact it is not so by any means, and though it is, like all the other thoroughfares, improving, it still contains many houses which even in a third-rate street would be considered mean.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Not that one should always take Byron's advice, or, A Week of Blogging about London Begins!

{Painting of the Thames by Canaletto}

From a letter sent from Lord Byron to James Hogg, March 1, 1816
And so--you want to come to London--it is a damned place--to be sure--but the only one in the world-(at least in the English world) for fun--though I have seen parts of the Globe that I like better--still upon the whole it is the completest either to help one in feeling alive--or forgetting that one is so.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lew Archer, family counselor

With every Ross Macdonald novel I read, I become more of a fan. By chance or by choice, Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer, always seems to catch the sort of case that forces him to be as much family therapist as detective, delving into secret grievances and simmering hurts, appealed to and abused in equal measure, and batted back and forth between feuding relatives like the prototypical child of divorce. He is less cynical than many noir detectives, yet at the same time less vulnerable--usually, the only pain he suffers is the pain of the ineffectual observer, one who has tried and failed to get people to see the damage they're doing to their purported loved ones. Even as he's knocking on the door of a new client's house, Archer gives off an air of being tired of being used and being lied to, yet unwilling to stop trying to hold back--however temporarily--the inevitable flood of resentment and sadistic anger.

Macdonald's writing is anything but flashy, but he takes full advantage of Archer's bone-deep weariness, letting us watch as Archer's mind moves perpetually on dual tracks: on the one hand listening to his interlocutors while on the other perpetually reading their manner and their surroundings in an effort to gauge their veracity. Given the sort of cases that Archer takes on, it's helpful that Macdonald's good with dialogue, too--especially in the context of undeclared arguments.

In just the first chapters of The Instant Enemy (1968), which Black Lizard has just republished, there's plenty of good stuff to share:
"This is Mr. Lew Archer," Sebastian was saying. "The private detective I called." He spoke as if he was presenting me to her as a kind of peace offering.

. . . .

"Mr. Stephen Hackett is my boss. That is, he controls the holding company that controls the savings and loan company that I work for. He owns quite a few other things, too."

"Including you," his wife said. "But not my daughter."

"That's unfair, Bernice. I never said--"

"It's what you do that counts."

. . . .

She looked at the window as if it was still dark, now and forever. I followed her glance. Two people were striding along the fairway, a man and a woman, both white-haired, as if they'd grown old in the quest for their small white ball.

. . . .

"A thousand? A thousand cash, no taxes to pay."

"Forget it," [I said.]

"A thousand cash and me. I look better without my clothes on." She nudge my arm with her breast. All it did was make my kidneys hurt.
And then there's this more extended sequence, which begins when Archer tries to talk a young thug into returning his client's daughter:
"She's never going back to that dungeon."

"It's better than shacking up with a psycho."

"I'm not a psycho!"

To prove it he swung his right fist at my head. I leaned back and let it go by. But his left followed very quickly, catching me on the side of the neck. I staggered backward into the garden, balancing the wobbly sky on my chin.
175 pages to go. I know what I'm doing with the rest of my afternoon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Talking of writers talking

Early in his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell attempts to justify his publication of so much of Johnson's daily conversation:
Of one thing I am certain, that considering how highly the small portion which we have of the table-talk and other anecdotes of our celebrated writers is valued, and how earnestly it is regretted that we have not more, I am justified in preserving rather too many of Johnson's sayings, than too few; especially as from the diversity of dispositions it cannot be known with certainty beforehand, whether what may seem trifling to some, and perhaps to the collector himself, may not be most agreeable to many; and the greater number that an author can please in any degree, the more pleasure does there arise to a benevolent mind.
As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am firmly in Boswell's camp on this question. Snippets of conversation from my favorite authors are great prizes, akin to a glimpse into their notebooks or a trawl through their library. Such knowledge isn't by any means necessary to an understanding or appreciation of a writer, but it offers an additional layer of context and character for their work--and it can be such fun!

For example, what Borges fan wouldn't enjoy this exchange he had with Paul Theroux, preserved in The Old Patagonian Express (1979):
Borges said, "It's like Hardy. Hardy was a great poet, but I can't read his novels. He should have stuck to poetry."

"He did, in the end. He gave up writing novels."

"He never should have started."
We have many essays and lectures from Borges outlining his literary tastes (to say nothing of the account of them we are given in his fiction), but none quite offers the casual curmudgeonliness of that exchange, and I'm grateful that Paul Theroux was there to chronicle it.

Graham Greene, however, seems to have taken the opposite position, at least on one occasion. Shirley Hazzard, in her Greene on Capri (2000), tells of a dinner with Greene,
a familiar moment--the evening scene of Italian pleasures and trellised vines, a young man at the nearby table reading his Corriere, the lovers passing in pairs in the street just below us; and Graham turning to Henry James.
A long conversation about James unfolds, with Greene revealing that
he could no longer read the late and "greatest" novels. . . . "And now I have the very criticisms I despised as philistine, that the writing is self-indulgent, convoluted, effete, that the story inches along, losing its hold. I've loved those books so long. And now I can't read them.
A conversation that any fan of Greene and James would enjoy overhearing . . . which fact led the mercurial, even cruel, Greene to cause a scene at the conclusion of dinner:
Then, abruptly, with a voice that rang out theatrically: "There's a spy in this restaurant."

People turned, stared. We ourselves were not astonished.

"This young man has been listening. He hasn't turned a page in half an hour. He's been watching us."

Useless to point out--Graham, knowing it was you, understanding English, why not want to hear you speak of Henry James?

The young man got up and left.


Graham said, "He may have followed us here." Yet he knew.
Greene, like Borges, had reached a level of fame and esteem that left him little choice but to become, in some sense, a performer. But while Borges had accepted that role, as Theroux notes--
There was something of the charlatan about him--he had a way of speechifying, and I knew he was repeating something he had said a hundred times before.
--Greene seemed still to want to deny it. And while I have sympathy for his for his frustration, inappropriately as he may have expressed it, I'm glad that Hazzard herself decided that the interest of preserving and presenting the talk of her late friend, warts and all, outweighed his desire for privacy. Boswell would surely have approved.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Consigned to the Flames VII: Samuel Johnson

From The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), by James Boswell
Had Dr. Johnson written his own life, in conformity with the opinion which he has given, that every man's life may be best written by himself; had he employed in the preservation of his own history, that clearness of narration and elegance of language in which he has embalmed so many eminent persons, the world would probably have had the most perfect example of biography that was ever exhibited. But although he at different times, in a desultory manner, committed to writing many particulars of the progress of his mind and fortunes, he never had persevering diligence enough to form them into a regular composition. Of these memorials a few have been preserved, but the greater part was consigned by him to the flames, a few days before his death.
Johnson had been preoccupied with his impending end for years, a perhaps not unreasonable response to the various health problems that beset him throughout his life. Even as early as Easter Week of 1775, nearly nine years before his eventual death, he wrote in one of his surviving diaries,
Of the use of time or of my commendation of myself I thought no more, but lost life in restless nights and broken days, till this week awakened my attention.

This year has passed with very little improvement, perhaps with diminution of knowledge. Much time I have not left. Infirmities oppress me. But much remains to be done.
He concluded with another of his frequent injunctions to himself to be less of a slugabed:
I hope to rise at eight or sooner in the morning.
So it is no surprise that in December of 1784, suffering from worsening emphysema, the after-effects of a stroke, and a weakening heart, Johnson began to work in earnest to put his affairs in order. Adam Sisman succinctly recounts Johnson's last days in Boswell's Presumptuous Task (2000):
He made a will, and burned some of his papers and diaries. He spent much of the time in prayer. On 13 December 1784, at about seven o'clock in the evening, he died.
We're left wondering what criteria Johnson employed in choosing what to burn. (Though perhaps Johnson scholars have answered this question?) What he did not destroy is by no means uniformly flattering. His journals are full of self-reproaches and failed resolutions, so his decisions surely weren't driven--or at least weren't solely driven--by a desire to improve posterity's view of his character. Perhaps he excised painful accounts of difficulties in his marriage to his first wife, Tetty--though Johnson claimed nothing but happiness with Tetty, contemporary accounts (which, to be fair, are themselves disputable) paint her as, at minimum, problematically awkward. Boswell notes that
her person and manner, as described to me by the late Mr. Garrick, were by no means pleasing to others.
Or perhaps he destroyed accounts of the frustrated romantic hopes that many believe he later pinned on his friend Hester Thrale. Or--treasure of treasures--perhaps he burned candid impressions of Boswell himself!

Sadly, the flames have done their work. Fortunately, however, so did Boswell, and it is he who shall accompany me and Stacey soon on a pilgrimage to Lichfield to see Johnson's birthplace. It's hard to imagine much better company.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

En un lugar en Buenos Aires . . . una biblioteca

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Until recently, I’d never felt the urge to read Paul Theroux, novelist and writer of dyspeptic travel books. The little travel writing I read tends to be relatively old and arcane: why read Theroux’s contemporary wanderings when I could instead turn once more to Travels in Arabia Deserta?

Last week, however, I scurried to my local bookstore in search of Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express (1979) following a review at the Millions in which the reviewer, C. Max Magee, mentioned one of the people Theroux met on his rail journey from Boston to Patagonia. I’ll let Theroux himself tell you the name of the person he encountered who so piqued my interest, in this passage from his introduction to the 1997 edition of the book:

I was lucky in the people I met. The Panama Canal was in the news: President Carter had convened a conference to hand the canal back to the Panamanians. The Zonians—delightful name—were furious at what they took to be Carter’s treachery. And I found a reasonable man to discuss these matters, and more: Mr. Reiss, the head mortician in the Gorgas Mortuary. And there were others: the woman in Veracruz looking for her lover, Mr. Thornberry in Costa Rica, the Irish priest who had started a little family in Ecuador, Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires.
That final name is slid in there so casually, delivered without even the benefit of an "and" or an ellipsis, as if this is the sort of matter-of-course encounter we all have when we visit Buenos Aires.

Theroux can’t quite sustain that air of nonchalance when he comes to describing the moment when, after a couple of people offer to put him in touch with Borges, he learns that he’s going to meet the man. Though related plainly, the scene crackles with the mysterious energy of destiny that animates so many of Borges’s own stories:

Later the next afternoon, my phone rang.

“Borges wants to see you.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “When?”

“In fifteen minutes.”

A Borges fan can’t help but think of Borges's story “Shakespeare’s Memory,” in which a Shakespeare scholar receives an unsolicited phone call offering him Shakespeare’s memory; in that moment, some of the magic and terror of the early days of instant communication are revived, the realization that this machine--with its ability to rupture one's day with news good or bad--could possess unexpected and unsettling power.

After all, any of us might at any time receive such an unexpected call, delivering horrible news . . . or offering us a quiet evening in Borges's library. Perhaps the latter is even more likely now that the man himself is long gone, with no obligations to distract him from his books, slowly read aloud to his shade by good friends.

And now, to follow Theroux into Borges’s library. I’ll report back soon.

Monday, April 07, 2008


I read Richard Price's Clockers (1992) on a long car trip last weekend, and the recurrent use of the word "pipehead" to refer to addicts set me to wondering: just how many different kinds of "-head" are there?

Below is a quick list I came up with while running today; degrees of offensiveness vary.
No way that's even close to all of them. Additions?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

"A man of knowledge knows that nothing is true and that the whole truth will be revealed only at the end of time."

After last week's back-and-forth on vice and virtue among Samuel Johnson, William Blake, and Thomas De Quincey, I couldn't very well not share the discussion of vice that I encountered later that day in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities (1933). Ulrich, the protagonist (and Musil's mouthpiece), arguing with his sister about her forging of their late father's will, says
We're looking to justify what you did. We have established that respectable people are deeply attracted to crime, though of course only in their imagination. We might add that criminals, to hear them talk, would almost without exception like to be regarded as respectable people. So we might arrive at a definition: Crimes are the concentrated form, within sinners, of everything other people work off in little irregularities, in their imagination and in innumerable petty everyday acts and attitudes of spite and viciousness. We could also say: Crimes are in the air and simply seek the path of least resistance, which leads them to certain individuals. We could even say that while they are the acts of individuals who are incapable of behaving morally, in the main they're the condensed expresion of some kind of general human maladjustment where the distinction between good and evil is concerned.
Ultimately, Ulrich doesn't in that conversation quite succeed in convincing either his sister or himself that he actions were acceptable. He does, however, offer a memorable observation about the dangerously disruptive powers of art--those powers that caused Plato to ban artists from his perfect city:
And art? Doesn't it amount to a creation of images that don't correspond to the realities of life? . . . But think of a real work of art: have you never had the feeling that something about it is reminiscent of the smell of burning metal you get from a knife you're whetting on a grindstone? It's a cosmic, meteoric, lightning-and-thunder smell, something divinely uncanny!
It's the sort of line that crops up regularly in The Man Without Qualities and makes slogging through the occasional dull patches in its 1,100 pages worthwhile.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Fabulous Clipjoint

{Photo by Gareth Kay. Used under a Creative Commons License.}

From Fredric Brown's The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947)
We walked north two blocks on the east side of Michigan Boulevard to the Allerton Hotel. We went in, and there was a special elevator. We rode up a long time, I don't know how many floors, but the Allerton is a tall building.

The top floor was a very swanky cocktail bar. The windows were open and it was cool there. Up as high as that , the breeze was a cool breeze and not something out of a blast furnace.

We took a table by a window on the south side, looking out toward the Loop. It was beautiful in the bright sunshine. The tall, narrow buildings were like fingers reaching toward the sky. It was like something out of a science-fiction story. You couldn't quite believe it, even looking at it.

"Ain't it something, kid?"

"Beautiful as hell," I said. "But it's a clipjoint."

He grinned. The little laughing wrinkles were back in the corners of his eyes.

He said, "It's fabulous clipjoint, kid. The craziest things can happen in it, and not all of them are bad."
Though the Allerton Hotel is still here and in operation, the Tip-Top-Tap is long gone, all that's left of it the false promise of the beckoning sign. It seems cruel for our skyline to offer the warm glow of that sign, a will-o-the-wisp that disappears when you enter the elevator, find no button for the Tap, and realize that the swank luxury you'd imagined is but a chimera.

Which gives me an idea: maybe the Sun-Times, in an act of manifold civic duty, should buy and refit the Tip-Top-Tap, send out free drink coupons to all manner of elected officials, and resurrect the glory days of the Mirage? For after all, the one thing we can be sure of is that our fair city remains but a fabulous clipjoint.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

On virtue and vice

{Satan Falls, by Gustave Dore}

In the midst of a Rambler essay for March 31, 1750, on the then-new genre of the naturalistic novel, Samuel Johnson addresses the danger of an author allowing the charms of evil too much play in his characters:
Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principle personages that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrance of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved than the art of murdering without pain.
Could Johnson have been thinking of the eponymous hero of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), whose salacious romantic exploits would have been the talk of the novel-reading public just then?

My thoughts also turned immediately to Milton's seductively regal presentation of Satan in Paradise Lost (1667), which caused William Blake later to claim that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." Yet Johnson, in a 1779 preface to a collection of Milton's works--in which his dismissal of Milton's poem "Lycidas" as something that "surely no man could have fancied that he read . . . with pleasure had he not known its author" demonstrates that he is not star-struck by the master--seems untroubled by Milton's portrayal of Satan:
Milton has been censured by Clarke for the impiety which sometimes breaks from Satan's mouth. For there are thoughts, as he justly remarks, which no observation of character can justify, because no good man would willingly permit them to pass, however transiently, through his own mind. To make Satan speak as a rebel, without any such expressions as might taint the reader's imagination, was indeed one of the great difficulties in Milton's undertaking, and I cannot but think that he has extricated himself with great happiness.
Perhaps it was only with Blake and the early stirrings of Romanticism--with its glorification of individuality, adventure, and transgression--that the rebellious allure of Milton's Satan, so obvious from our vantage, began to become apparent. It's not that hard to imagine that though Johnson could understand the attraction of evil richly portrayed, he nevertheless remained so firmly rooted in Christian belief as to be incapable of even conceiving of a reader's being drawn to Satan.

All of which led me to think, with a smile, of how resolutely Johnson would have refused to accept--let alone enjoy--the gleeful joking of Thomas De Quincey in his On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827). I've written a bit about this gloriously inventive and fun essay recently. I think it's likely that, had he been alive to crack De Quincey's volume, Johnson surely would have heaved it across the room in disgust after a few pages--perhaps when De Quincey, as historical background to the art of murder, offers up this assessment of Cain:
As the inventor of murder, and the father of the art, Cain must have been a first-rate genius.
Yet it's hard not to hear some lingering Johnsonian cadences in De Quincey's prose in the following paragraph, which sees his cringe-inducing joking reach its zenith with an analysis of some details that might contribute to a murder's aesthetic perfection:
A philosophic friend, well-known for his philanthropy and general benignity, suggests that the subject chosen ought also to have a family of young children wholly dependent on his exertions, by way of deepening the pathos. And, undoubtedly, this is a judicious caution. Yet I would not insist too keenly on this condition. Severe good taste unquestionably demands it; but still, where the man was otherwise unobjectionable in point of morals and health, I would not look with too curious a jealousy to a restriction which might have the effect of narrowing the artist's sphere.
It does seem unlikely that De Quincey and Johnson would have found one another congenial; a mind that can offer up such thoughts--even as satire--would, it seems, be difficult to square with one that could contend, as Johnson did, that,
Vice, for vice is necessary to be shown, should always disgust. . . . It is therefore to be steadily inculcated that virtue is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy.
Something tells me that Dr. Johnson wouldn't have thought much of Richard Stark's Parker novels, either. I, however, am in the fortunate position of being able to enjoy the work of all three men . . . whether to the detriment of whatever eternal soul I may possess being, of course, a question for the unknown gods.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Novels in Three Lines

{Forest/Fog by secretagentmartens. All rights reserved.}

After I took up Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines (1906, translated by Luc Sante in 2007) and read aloud this--
Gallant Leon Courtescu, of Angers, was thrown into the Marne, where he drowned, by a husband, M. Brouard.
--and this--
As it fell from a scaffolding simultaneous with Dury, a mason, of Marseilles, a stone crushed his skull.
--and this--
At dawn, Mlle Eugenie Gilbert, of Redon, to whom love had been cruel, went off to throw herself into the Nantes Canal at Brest.
--and this--
Three strikers in Fressenneville have been sentenced to jail for one, two, or three months, according to how gravely they insulted the police.
--my wife said, not without exasperation, "You only like this book because you love to overuse the comma!" Unable to deny it, I hung my head.

But the comma isn't all that draws me to these lurid tales, originally published anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin. It's also the skill involved in the coy deferral of essential information (remarkably well maintained by Sante in his translation), the way that Feneon deploys memorable details to simultaneously set a scene and distract us from the gruesomeness that we are sure must be coming. There's perhaps no better example than this story, where the eventual revelation takes on the horrible force of the actual shocking surprises of life:
A little girl, tan, plump, hair braided, clothed and shod in brown cloth, holy medals around her neck, has been fished out at Suresnes.
I also admire Feneon's faith in our ability to pay attention--to keep track of the antecedents of pronouns, for example:
M. Colombe, of Rouen, killed himself with a bullet yesterday. His wife had shot three of them at him in March, and their divorce was imminent.
Or to provide ourselves some information that he casually elides:
Although it had arrived at the station in Velizy, the train was still rolling. The impatient Mme Gieger broke both her legs.
But mostly I'm drawn to Feneon's mordantly defiant tone, which gives his assemblage the air of a testament to humanity's resilience: no matter how horrible and surprising the events whose newsprint renderings smudge our fingers of a morning, so long as we don't encounter our own names in the columns, we'll marvel, then move on.
"I could have done worse!" exultantly cried the murderer Lebret, sentenced at Rouen to hard labor for life.
If these entries described current events, that freshness might make their deadpan voyeurism difficult to countenance. But having acquired the patina of a century, they appear instead as a bizarre dispatch from a mostly forgotten back room of the past, a breath of late-autumn air, sucked in through a filter-less cigarette and exhaled as the gruesome cackle of a cemetery seer as he dispassionately surveys the shambles.
The former mayor of Cherbourg, Gosse, was in the hands of a barber when he cried out and died, although the razor had nothing to do with it.
And, well, Stacey's right: it's the commas.
Foringer, alias Rothschild, a Pantin ragpicker, came home drunk, drained a liter of wine despite his son's protests, and broke it over his head.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Shirley Hazzard on Graham Greene . . . and, unexpectedly, on another old favorite!

Still beset by the busy-ness of business at work, I was casting about this evening for something brief to share, when Shirley Hazzard unexpectedly came through with a passage comparing someone to Sydney Greenstreet--another entry for my slowly growing collection!

In her book about the friendship she and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, shared with Graham Greene in his last decades, Greene on Capri (2000), Hazzard introduces an English friend of Greene thus:
Ian Greenlees, a cultivated and independent mind, had left Capri for Florence, where he long directed the British Institute, but retained, and regularly visited, his picturesque old Anacapri house, Villa Fraita, acquired from the writer Francis Brett Young in the late 1940s. In appearance, manner, and pallor, a ringer for Sydney Greenstreet, Ian had a long past in Italy.
Though not as playful as Donald E. Westlake's Greenstreet comparisons, the description makes clear what a useful figure he can be to a writer, instantly conjuring up, entire, both an appearance and an affect.

Because I never tire of Graham Greene anecdotes, I'll also pass along this unforgettable account of an eruption of Greene's antipathy for Robert Louis Stevenson's wife, whom Greene--displaying his not infrequent lack of sympathy for a woman's perspective or position--blamed for Stevenson's peripatetic search for a climate that would agree with his poor health:
Graham's close feeling for Robert Louis Stevenson led him to high resentment against Stevenson's wife--in his view a predatory and destructive influence on Stevenson's short life. When Francis once protested that Mrs. S. herself, while an undoubted oddity, had had much to bear, Graham would have none of it: "No, no. She ran him to ground, and she ruled him. She got him out there"--to California, and, later, to the South Seas--"and she"--unforgettable grappling gesture, hands outstretched across the table with fingers crooked--"got the hooks in him." Eyes wild, blue, unblinking.
That image of Greene--hands clutching cruelly at air--could itself slide nicely into one of Stevenson's more macabre tales.