Saturday, May 31, 2008

All ears

{Photo of drinks at the Violet Hour by rocketlass.}

From 4 Dada Suicides: Selected Texts of Arthur Cravan, Jacques Rigaut, Julien Torma & Jacques Vache
If a drunk spins you a line about faked poems, listen to him with all your heart.
Despite all the book people in Los Angeles this week, and the large amount of alcohol they've consumed, nothing quite like that has yet happened to me. But thanks to Julien Torma's advice, I'll be ready if it does.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"I ain't no extra, baby / I'm a leading man!"

From "Death in Hollywood" (1947), by Evelyn Waugh
In a thousand years or so, when the first archaeologists from beyond the date line unload their boat on the sands of Southern California, they will find much the same scene as confronted the Franciscan missionaries. A dry landscape will extend from the ocean to the mountains. Bel Air and Beverly Hills will lie naked except for scrub and cactus, all their flimsy multitude of architectural styles turned long ago to dust, while the horned toad and the turkey buzzard leave their faint imprint on the dunes that will drift on Sunset Boulevard.

For Los Angeles, when its brief history comes to an end, will fall swiftly and silently. Too far dispersed for effective bombardment, too unimportant strategically for the use of expensive atomic devices, it will be destroyed by drought. Its water comes 250 miles from the Owens River. A handful of parachutists or partisans anywhere along that vital aqueduct can make the coastal strip uninhabitable. Bones will whiten along the Santa Fe trail as the great recessional struggles eastward. Nature will reassert herself and gently obliterate the vast, deserted suburb. Its history will pass from memory to legend until, centuries later, as we have supposed, the archaeologists prick their ears at the cryptic references in the texts of the 20th Century to a cult which once flourished on this forgotten strand; of the idol Oscar, sexless image of infertility; of the great Star Goddesses who were once worshipped there in a Holy Wood.
I'm in Los Angeles this week for work. Hopefully Waugh's apocalyptic vision will be postponed at least through the weekend, when I'll return to the more sedate confines of Chicago.

Unless, that is, I get discovered. Wonder if I've got time to pop into Schwab's Drug Store before my meetings?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Telling tales

From "The Man of Many Names," collected in And Other Stories, by Georgi Gospodinov (2001, English translation by Alexis Levitin and Magdalena Levy, 2007)
He said that he could tell us the stories of all the books he had read, that he could talk until morning interpreting the stories he had just heard, but no matter how he searched his memory, he couldn't come up with a single story of his own.

"And our personal stories are the only moves, the only moves that help us postpone, at least for a while, the predetermined ending to our game. And even though we are going to lose the game from the strategic point of view, the idle moves of our stories always postpone the end. Even if they are stories about failure."

From In the Night Garden (2006), by Catherynne N. Valente
On an evening when I was a very small child, an old woman came to the great silver gate, and twisting her hands among the rose roots told me this: I was not born with this mark. A spirit came into my cradle on the seventh day of the seventh month of my life, and while my mother slept in her snow white bed, the spirit touched my face, and left there many tales and spells, like the tattoos of sailors. The verses and songs were so great in number and so closely written that they appeared as one long, unbroken streak of jet on my eyelids. But they are the words of the river and the marsh, the lake and the wind. Together they make a great magic, and when the tales are all read out, and heard end to shining end, to the last syllable, the spirit will return and judge me.

From Somebody Owes Me Money (1969), by Donald E. Westlake
"Sid, when you go to the bathroom, you're going to have a lot more to tell your boss than just where he can find Abbie and me. You're going to tell him who killed Tommy McKay, and you're going to tell him about the lawyer I went to see on my way to town, and you're going to tell him about the letter I dictated to that lawyer, and you're going to tell him why his boy and Droble's boys both should lay off both Abbie and me permanently and forever. This is all going to be very interesting, Sid."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Left item #28

On returning from my recent trip to New York, I found the above claim check in the pocket of my coat. Clearly, I'd forgotten to redeem something I'd left with the management of some establishment. But what could the item have been? My fedora, my coat, and my shoulder bag all made the return trip with me. For a while I thought I'd lost a tie, and I enjoyed imagining a forgotten moment in some bar when, having been deemed overdressed, I was forced to strip it from my neck with a flourish and hand it to the coat check girl in the ripped Metallica t-shirt. But alas, even the tie eventually turned up.

Then there's the question of where I checked said mysterious object. The ticket bears no writing aside from that red "28," and gives no clue to its origins. I suppose the next time I'm in New York I could retrace my steps, presenting this claim check at every bar and restaurant I visited this time around, enduring blank stare after blank stare until, finally, someone takes the ticket with a brisk nod, spins on a heel and disappears into the back room to return moments later with . . . what?

Or I could turn to an old favorite, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516) and employ the method used by the English knight Astolfo, friend of the love-maddened Orlando, when he wishes to seek out poor Orlando's lost wits. Astride a hippogriff, he flies to the moon, and here, in Barbara Reynolds's translation, is what he finds there:
Between two mountains of prodigious height
The travellers to a deep valley went.
What by our fault, or Time's relentless flight,
Or Fortune's chances, or by accident
(Whatever be the cause) we lose down here,
Miraculously is assembled there.

Not only wealth and kingdoms, which the wheel
Of Fortune whirls at random among men,
But what she has no power to give or steal,
Such as the following, I also mean:
Tatters of fame are there, on which a meal
Is made (the tooth of Time is sharp and keen);
Prayers to God and penitential vows
Which sinners make with humbled knees and brows,

The tears of lovers and their endless sighs,
The moments lost in empty games of chance,
Vain projects none could ever realize,
The fruitless idleness of ignorance,
And unfulfilled desire--which occupies
More room than all the rest and more expanse:
In short, whatever has been lost on earth
Is found upon the moon, for what it's worth.
The question, I suppose, is how quickly left objects become the moon's responsibility? Is it after a set amount of time, or does it happen the moment the person holding the claim check has forgotten what it redeems? It would be extremely frustrating to arrive at the moon only to learn that Death & Co. still held my . . . whatever it is.

A trip to the moon's repository also offers risk of embarrassment, as Astolfo discovered when he entered the chamber containing various vials of lost wits:
A liquid, thin and clear, Astolfo sees,
Distilled in many vases, large and small,
Which must (so volatile the fluid is)
Be tightly corked; the largest of them all
Contains the greatest of those essences:
The mind of mad Anglante, of whose fall
You are aware and of his frenzied fits.
And on it the duke read: "Orlando's wits."

On other bottles too the names are shown
To whom the wits belong. To his surprise,
Astolfo finds a great part of his own.
A New York trek is sounding like the better idea all the time. I only hope whatever I checked wasn't perishable.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"I knew Sweet F. A. about it."

Yesterday's post that featured Oblomov's difficulties in finding the right word in a letter he was writing seems like the perfect lead-in to a post about the difficulties Julian Maclaren-Ross had with the language in what was to become his first published story, "A Bit of a Smash in Madras." A sharp tale of drink, dissipation, and the problems of colonial life, the story establishes its strong narrative voice in the first line:
Absolute fact I knew fuck-all about it.
Horizon, Cyril Connolly's heralded wartime literary magazine, accepted the story, but Stephen Spender, the magazine's uncredited co-editor, began to worry that no printer would be willing to print the volume if they didn't change some of Maclaren-Ross's earthy language. According to Paul Willetts, author of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: The Bizarre Life of Writer, Actor, and Soho Raconteur Julian Maclaren-Ross (2005), Spender offered the following emendations:
Besides changing the opening sentence from "Absolute fact, I knew fuck-all about it" to "Absolute fact I knew Sweet F. A. about it," Spender suggested a succession of substitute phrases that could be deployed throughout the rest of the story. he listed these 'in the form of a short poem':

By Christ
Even from this distance in years, I have trouble imagining that the words Spender was worried about could have been much worse than his preferred replacements.

Regardless, Maclaren-Ross was annoyed, and despite, as an unpublished author, having essentially no leverage, he decided to confront Connolly. True to form, however, he scotched the meeting by displaying such a conspicuous interest in Horizon's captivating administrative assistant Sonia Brownell (later to be Sonia Orwell), "the Euston Road Venus," that Connolly, disconcerted, cut short the meeting. The story went to press in less racy form, and even today, in Dewi Lewis Publishing's Selected Stories (2004), "A Bit of a Smash" opens with less force than Maclaren-Ross intended, his "fuck" replaced with a "damn."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On not doing.

For a character who is best known for spending nearly all his time in bed, the titular protagonist of Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1859) doesn't actually spend that much time in bed. Oh, he's probably in or around bed for nearly half the book--but that still leaves more than two hundred pages wherein he (admittedly under pressure from an energetic German friend) attends dinners, reads the daily papers, visits friends, and even falls in love with a woman who nearly pulls him out of his lethargy for good.

Nonetheless, the heart of the book is Oblomov's apathy, his Bartleby-style refusal to cope with any of the complexities of the world--a trait that Goncharov convincingly portrays as a sort of bone-deep innocence and harmlessness. Oblomov himself names his tendency to subside into reverie oblomovschina, a capacious term that encompasses a hereditary laziness, a fundamental lack of concern for any aspect of one's well-being beyond immediate peace, and a preference for wispy dreams over active plans. The world is the way it is, unlikely to be changed by one's efforts, so why should one not lie in one's tattered dressing gown and contemplate the ceiling cracks until sleep descends?

Oblomov's is a worldview that I can't endorse outside of fiction; hell, I'm not even good at sleeping in. (Example: today, home from work with an ugly head cold, I was up by 7:20.) So long as I'm in Goncharov's grip, however I teeter, understanding both the frustration of Oblomov's friends and the siren call of restful oblivion. Oblomov is so utterly blameless in his lethargy that it's hard not to take his side in the many arguments he has about activity; his friends' positions, though eminently sensible, all come burdened with the crash and rush and potential calamity of positive action. If one acts, one will eventually meet failure. Inaction, on the other hand, is attractive precisely because it guarantees a sort of success: a lazy surrender to the fates makes their judgments feel less like judgments and more like agreed-upon outcomes.

One of the best examples of the seductive nature of Oblomov's point of view comes early in the book, when he is attempting to write to his landlord, who is threatening to evict him. Having dislodged a spider from the inkwell and dug a pen from under a cushion, Oblomov starts writing . . . but he quickly encounters difficulties that will be familiar to any writer:
He thought for a while and began to write.

"The apartment on the second floor, which I rent and in which you are proposing to undertake some renovation is entirely suitable to my style of life and the routine I have developed over the many years I have lived here. On learning from my man, Zakhar Trofimov, that you had required him to convey to me that the apartment I rent . . " Oblomov stopped writing and read what he had written.

"It reads awkwardly," he said. "I've written 'that' twice in a row and I've put 'which' twice too."

Whispering to himself, he tried rearranging the words, but it was no good because the first 'which' went with 'the floor,' and not 'the apartment,' it still did not hang together. He tried to improve it and racked his brains in an effort to avoid the doubling of 'that.' He tried crossing out one word and replacing it with another.

He put 'that' in three different places and only succeeded in either making nonsense of the sentence or ending up with the three 'thats' too close together again.

"Just can't get rid of this damned second 'that,'" he said in exasperation. "Well to hell with it--and the damned letter too--breaking my head over such niggling details! I've lost the knack of writing business letters-and it's almost three o'clock!"

"Are you satisfied now, Zakhar?" He tore the letter in four and flung the pieces on the floor.
What writer could blame Oblomov for returning to bed after that fiasco? Yet here I am, writing and editing and rewriting this piece, rather than just hitting Post and being done with it.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008


In what I think will be the last post linking Ed Park's Personal Days to Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov, we turn to the place of unusual appearance in business dealings.

First Ed tells us about the office's tarty bombshell, Maxine, whose faith in the powers of an outfit that can be described only with the aid of italics is, unexpectedly, proved to be misplaced:
Maxine's new outfit was completely inappropriate for winter, in fact for any season or situation. It had two kinds of pink going on, and ornate beaded strappy things, and a fairly explicit bondage motif. There were parallelograms of exposed flesh that were illegal in most states, a bow in the back that looked like a winding key. One area involved fur. Her hair had a fresh-from-salon bounce that clashed with the rest of the getup, but this being Maxine, everything kind of went together in the end. . . . Pru and Lizzie instinctively flinched. They might as well have been rolling on the ground like bowling pins, with xs for eyes.

With her female competition out of the way, Maxine leveled her extremely hot gaze right at Grime, who stood his ground. He swayed in place, gently rocking on one heel. Maxine was saying something about Wednesday, but it wasn't clear whether she meant tomorrow or last Wednesday.

Grime's not-flinching was making Maxine flinch. It looked like a nod but it was actually a flinch. Lizzie and Pru saw it all unfold. They're filing away the subtleties for Jack II and his blog. Maxine lost the thread of what she was saying, eyes gleaming in panic. She could have been talking about the general concept of Wednesday, its status as a hump day, its complicated spelling. No one had seen her quiver like this before. It was like she'd been set in italics.

There was a historical vibe to the scene.
Then there's Goncharov's account of Oblomov's landlord, who is, perhaps intentionally, awkward and a bit grotesque:
The brother tip-toed into the room and responded to Oblomov's greeting with a triple bow. His tunic was tightly buttoned from top to bottom so that it was impossible to tell whether he was wearing any linen underneath. His tie was knotted with a single knot and the ends were tucked inside the tunic. He was about forty with a tuft of hair sticking straight up from his brown and with two identical tufts sprouting, wild and untended, from each temple, resembling nothing so much as the ears of an average-sized dog. His gray eyes never settled on their target directly, but only after some stealthy reconnoitering in its vicinity.

It seemed as if he were ashamed of his hands and whenever he spoke to someone he did his best to keeping them out of sight, either placing both hands behind his back or keeping one tucked inside his coat and holding the other behind his back. When handing a document requiring some explanation to a supervisor he would keep one hand behind his back and, with the middle finger of his other hand, making sure to keep the nail pointing downwards, he would point to the line or word in question. Then, at the earliest possible moment he would tuck the hand out of sight, maybe because his fingers were on the thick side, reddish and trembling slightly, and he felt, not unreasonably, that it was somehow too indelicate to expose them too frequently to public scrutiny.
Despite that seeming insecurity, the landlord manages to successfully dun the relatively hapless Oblomov for 1,354 roubles and twenty-eight kopecks for a two-week rental.

Were we able to jumble these scenes, I think that Oblomov might successfully deploy his congenital mix of apathy and vagueness to hold out against Grime's unflappability, whereas I have no question that Maxine's wardrobe (mal)function would cut the landlord's bill at least in half.

As Patricia Highsmith might have put it, criss-cross! Inter-novelistic loans, that's what we need!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading the signs

Reading Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1859) and Ed Park's Personal Days (2008) at the same time continues to offer unexpected (and unexpectedly rewarding) affinities. Take, for example, this bit of contemporary folklore offered up by one of Ed's charactes:
Jack II says that when you feel a tingling in your fingers, it means someone's Googling you. We take to this bit of instant folklore immediately.
I wonder whether a Yahoo search triggers the same response? Or an Alta Vista search?

If Goncharov were alive today, he'd surely know the answer, if the following conversation between Oblomov's parents is any indication:
Suddenly Ilya Ivanovich stopped in the middle of the room, and, with a look of alarm, touched the tip of his nose. "Oh, no, this is terrible," he said, "look, the tip of my nose is itching, there's going to be a death."

"There you go again!" his wife exclaimed, clasping her hands, "it's not the tip of your nose itching that means there's going to be a death, it's the bridge of your nose! Really, what a scatterbrain you are! What if you were to say something like that when we were visiting people or when we had guests--it would be so embarrassing!"

"Well, what does it mean then when the tip of your nose itches?" said Ilya Ivanovich, discountenanced.

"A death! Really, what can you be thinking of?"

"I'm always mixing things up," said Ilya Ivanovich. "How can a personal be expected to know what it means when you itch in all these different places, the side of your nose, the tip, the eyebrows. . . ?"

Pelegaya Ivanovna was quick to supply the information. "The side means news, between the eyebrows means tears, the forehead means meeting someone, on the right a man, on the left a woman, the ears means rain, the lips, kissing, the whiskers, eating sweets, the elbow, sleeping in a new place, the soles of the feet, a journey."

"Well done, Pelageya Ivanovna!" said Ilya Ivanovich.
For maximum enjoyment, I recommend reading Pelegaya Ivanovna's litany out loud at top speed.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"Consequently, the initial prospect of spending the major part of his life going to work was painfully depressing."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Those of you who've served time in an office will surely recognize this guy:
At work he has no clearly defined tasks because his colleagues and supervisors have never been able to detect in him any particular skills or competence. Whatever task he is given he performs in such a way that his supervisor is always hard put to it to say whether he has performed it well or badly. No matter how closely he looks or how carefully he reads, the best he can come up with is: "Leave it for now, I'll take a look at it later . . yes, well it seems more or less alright."
Apparently some aspects of office life never change: the above is not from Ed Park's brand-new, critically acclaimed novel of office life, Personal Days, but from Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov, which was published in 1859. As I was traveling when Ed's book was published this week and therefore couldn't pick up the copy I'd pre-ordered at 57th Street Books, I was pleasantly surprised to discover some office comedy in Oblomov.

The titular gentleman of the novel is primarily known for spending most of his life in bed, alternately daydreaming and dozing--but as a young man he worked in Russia's senselessly bureaucratic civil service. Like many a person entering on his first job, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov brought some misconceptions to the workplace:
He imagined that office colleagues were just one close, happy family constantly putting themselves out for each other's comfort and pleasure and that attendance at the office could not possibly be a kind of compulsory custom that you simply had to observe every single day and that slush, heat, or mere disinclination would be adequate and legitimate grounds for non-attendance.

Imagine his dismay on realizing that nothing short of an earthquake could excuse a healthy civil servant's absence from his place of work and that, in any case, St. Petersburg never had the good fortune to have earthquakes. No doubt a flood would also be acceptable grounds, but floods hardly ever happened there either.
Worse was his misunderstanding of the role of the boss:
At home, he had heard that a boss or a supervisor was a father to his subordinates and had formed an image of such a personage, an image as beaming and benign and indulgent as a member of his own family. He saw him as a kind of second father who lived and breathed only to reward his subordinates and to cater, unceasingly and unremittingly, regardless of their merits, not only to their needs but even to their pleasures. Ilya Ilyich thought that a superior was so intimately bound up in the welfare of his subordinates that he would inquire anxiously whether he had had a good night's sleep, why his eyes were a little cloudy and whether he might not have a little headache.

His first day on the job was thus a rude awakening. The moment the supervisor appeared, everyone started hustling and bustling and bumping into each other from sheer agitation, some even nervously fingering their clothing in case he might deem them not sufficiently presentable. The reason for this, as Oblomov subsequently became aware, was that in the person of a subordinate scared out of his wits and rushing to pay his respects, a certain type of boss saw not only proper respect for his person, but a mark of zealousness and indeed at times even of competence.
And all that frantic kowtowing occurs despite Oblomov's department having a relatively good supervisor:
He was never heard to utter a harsh word or even to raise his voice; he never demanded but always asked. If he wanted you to do something, he asked; if he invited you to his house, he asked; if he had you arrested, he asked.
Between the rush of duties ("It doesn't leave a moment for living!" Oblomov laments) and his fear of his supervisor ("[T]he moment the boss addressed him, he would find that his natural voice had been replaced by something nauseatingly insipid."), poor Oblomov quickly becomes a wreck . . . so he forges a doctor's note diagnosing himself with hepatitis and an enlarged heart, both blamed on the office, which he then forsakes forever in favor of his bed.

Those of us without substantial private incomes from large country estates, however, will inevitably be back on the train Monday--but with Personal Days under one arm, Oblomov under the other, we'll have an extra spring in our step and a glint in our eye, our quiet laughter a sufficient defense against our fellow commuters' confused contempt.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"They had met only a few hours before."

I came to New York on Tuesday with five books, which was too many.

I'm leaving with ten.

The silliest part is that four of them were bought when I was in full command of myself, during visits to St. Mark's, Book Culture (the former Labyrinth), and McNally Robinson, at times when, despite knowing that I had a book (or several) in my bag to read, I found things on the shelf I'd been thinking about . . . and now my luggage is that much heavier.

But perhaps at least tonight's book can be excused? I'll set the scene: I spent much of this rainy, rainy evening at the extremely welcoming cocktail bar Death & Co., having three drinks (two of which were not martinis, which should give anyone who knows me a sense of how convincing the bartender's skills were), with only my marathon-honed willpower steeling me against the desire for a fourth. As I drank, I read Oblomov, which led the aforementioned bartender to recommend Maxim Gorky, whom I've not read. So on my wander back to the subway I stopped in St. Mark's. They didn't have Gorky, but in the place where Gorky might otherwise have been was a very slim volume in Northwestern University Press's Writings from an Unbound Europe series, And Other Stories (2007) by Georgi Gospodinov. As someone who will remain forever grateful to that series for introducing me to Mesa Selimovic, I'm perhaps extra-susceptible to its charms . . . so I walked out with the book.

I work in publishing, so I know the considerations that go into the pricing of a book. The cost of production comes into play, but the overriding consideration is what the market will bear: how are other books of this ilk, aimed at this audience, priced? Can we get a price near that and still make money? But as a reader, there are times when the price I pay seems to bear absolutely no relationship to what I get from a book--what price Anna Karenina, after all? Or Labyrinths? In Search of Lost Time?

I of course wouldn't claim, on the basis of the one story from And Other Stories that I read twice in succession on the subway tonight, that this volume is on a level with those works. But there's no question that that lone story, "Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots," was all by itself more than worth the $14.95 I spent. Extremely brief--less than 1,500 words--it relates an airport encounter in Bulgaria between strangers: a man, who has a package, perhaps illicit, that is to be delivered to America, and the woman who is to carry it for him. As Gospodinov explains, "It was a five-minute job," but the two hit it off, and they talk and talk as the time until her flight leaves winds down:
And the silence was becoming unseemly. The small table in front of them was piled with empty plastic cups that had acquired most unexpected shapes after being fumbled at for hours. The coffee stirrers had long been broken into the smallest possible pieces, the empty sugar bags turned into tiny cornets and little boats.

It occurred to him that he could turn this table into a ready-made object, an installation, so to speak, that he could title An Apologia for Embarrassment (plastic coffee cups, stirrers, empty sugar bags, a white table.)
Inexplicably--and certainly unexpectedly--they've found something, someone.
"Let's talk," she said, as if they hadn't been talking nonstop for two hours.

The remaining hour was too little time to be wasted in beating around the bush and making boats. But since he wouldn't start talking, she said simply, "We have to accept it that sometimes people just miss each other."

"The whole irony of it is that they realize it the moment they meet," he said.

"Maybe we've met before. We've lived in the same city for so long. It's not possible that we haven't passed each other at some traffic light or other."

"I'd have noticed you," he said.

"Do you love her?" she asked.

"Do you love him?" he asked.
It's a formulaic conceit, unequestionably, and that, along with the sheer unlikeliness--these things don't, after all, happen, right?--should sink the story. But Gospodinov's spare language and emotional restraint affords the scene a melancholy, almost chilling power. The crux of the story comes just after the midpoint--after the pair have acknowledged their mutual attraction--when Gospodinov unexpectedly propels us into an already dimmed future:
Later he couldn't even remember who was the one who had come up with the life-saving (or so he thought then) idea of inventing shared memories, to make up a whole life together before and after their meeting.
That very concept ought to be laughably cliched, reeking of low-level fiction-writing classes--but the blunt parenthetical, "(or so he thought then)," throws the whole story into heartbreaking relief, making us believe--and care about--the pair's futile efforts to pretend their lives have been different. The rest of the story serves as a coda to that moment, agonizingly recounting their sincere, doomed efforts to cement their unexpected connection.

It's a hell of a story, and a good way to end a week in a city I've come to love but don't live in. See you next time, NYC.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Notes on notebooks

{Photo by rocketlass. It only belongs here because that toothy face stared at me as I wrote the essay that was the starting point for this post.}

I have a piece about three poetry notebooks up at the Poetry Foundation today. In writing the article, I took a lot of notes (on a laptop rather than a notebook) that I didn't end up using, so a brief notes post about my notebooks piece seems in order. But you should read the finished article first!

You've done that now? Okay, then here are the odds and ends.

1 I flagged a lot of great lines in all three books as I read, not knowing at the time what I'd end up needing. Most of them didn't make it, but some at least are worth sharing here. Like this one from Gabriel Gudding's massive Rhode Island Notebook:
[. . .] My head was formed
in library, my hope there, and
have always loved meeting lib'arians
may they always be my friends
They are like surrogate aunts. There is
no other job
more materteral.
I don't think of my current librarian friends as surrogate aunts, but it does seem an apt description of the relationship one can develop with a librarian as a kid: not quite a proper friendship, and too attenuated to be a true familial relationship, yet shot through with real warmth, affection, and appreciation. Surrogate aunt it is.

2 George Oppen's Daybooks include many a memorable line, most seeming relatively casual, chance thoughts put down in case of later value. But as Oppen kept working at his notebooks for years, even decades, some entries bear the marks of later emendation, or even complete reconsideration. I think this one, complete in its negation, is my favorite:
All there is to say
It's so perfect as to be a joke--but was it?

3 I'm not confident that in the relatively small space I had at the Poetry Foundation's site I conveyed just what good company Campbell McGrath is as a poet. That's not to say he's always cheery and upbeat, but that his attention to the stuff of the world is in itself satisfying, serving that time-honored poetic function of waking us up to it ourselves. In his "Forms of Attention" he describes that approach:
Often writing is a kind of listening,
a form of deep attention.
Turning the stations, fingering the dial.
Marry that to a wry sense of humor and an exuberance inherited from Whitman and you get odes to bureaucrats and Schaffer's beer, haiku about sparrows, and transporting reveries in a denuded strawberry patch--all wonderful poems.

4 Both George Oppen's and Gabriel Gudding's books mention Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, one of my favorites. Gudding quotes from it, while Oppen uses it as a prop in an argument about influences, positing his temperament as more . . . difficult? because in childhood he read Burton rather than Edna St. Vincent Millay and other poets of the day.

That coincidence immediately sent me back to McGrath's Seven Notebooks in hopes that there was a Burton reference there, too, which I'd missed. But no luck--and I shouldn't have been surprised. Though McGrath writes frequently of late-night insomniac vigils--prime times for dipping into Burton--his does not appear to be a melancholic's nature.

Still, I think McGrath would enjoy Burton's magpie accumulations and his rush of words, his effort to somehow write it all down--the very act of which seemed to fend off the melancholy that inspired it.

5 Campbell McGrath taught the first poetry class I took, a reading and writing poetry class in the spring of 1993 when I was nineteen. He was an excellent teacher, enthusiastic but critical, treating our amateurish efforts with care while arguing strenuously for the necessity of unstinting reading as we tried to learn to write.

I wrote a sonnet for that class about Elvis Presley, not knowing McGrath well enough to know whether he was a fan. I suspect now that he is, given Elvis's symbolic place as a mish-mash of so much that is thought to be oppositional in American culture: high and low, North and South, white and black, art and trash, success and failure. Even an abiding love of Elvis, however, wouldn't have been likely to rescue that sonnet.

6 I'll close with a line from Oppen's Daybooks that is both apt and eerie, reminiscent of Kafka's more epigrammatic writings:
The poem (narrative) depends for its "argument" on vividness--One might regard it as incoherent in the way that a man may seem incoherent whose argument consists finally in repeating--"But look, But look--!"
I often feel that what I'm doing on this blog is saying, "Look! Look!"--a new version of the hand-selling that was the best part of my old bookseller days. I wouldn't claim to often achieve the vividness Oppen notes, but I like to think that some days I shout loud enough to get some people to follow my pointing finger to a book they wouldn't have tried. (Like this one!)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Readers of a feather

{Spring Night, Greenwich Village, 1930, by Martin Lewis.}

On an overnight visit to Lichfield, Staffordshire, during our recent vacation to London, we visited a charming little museum devoted to Erasmus Darwin, a doctor, poet, and botanist who was the grandfather of Charles and a member of the learned society the Lunar Society, whose numbers included Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, and Joseph Wright of Derby. From a placard at the museum, I unexpectedly learned that Erasmus Darwin and I are spiritual kin: a young woman wrote that when Dr. Darwin would set out to call on patients he would have
a pile of books reaching from the floor to nearly the ceiling of the carriage.
That was for a journey of a mere forty miles. I'm traveling much farther this week, and I'm proud to say that I've brought only five books.

Should I be pleased that I'm finally getting smart enough to heed the warning cries of my sore shoulders? Or should I feel silly that I brought even that many to a city that is lousy with books? But what if I were to run out . . . and so did New York's bookstores? Disasters do happen in publishing, after all--like the supply-chain mishaps that, according to biographer Ron Powers, nearly brought down Mark Twain's publishing company:
Then bad luck struck the business, in the form of fires and contagious horse diseases that slowed down book shipment.
Perhaps I should stop by St. Mark's tonight, just in case of horse disease.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


{The New Novel (1877), by Winslow Homer.}

The early action of Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) turns on a book of poetry published anonymously by the heroine of the title, who, though the daughter of servants, is the widow of a gentleman. Her mother-in-law, Lady Petherwin, with whom she lives, is horrified when the cloak of authorial anonymity is pulled away. I laughed out loud on the train at her response to the discovery of Ethelberta's authorship:
"But surely you have not written every one of those ribald verses?"

Ethelberta looked inclined to exclaim most vehemently against this; but what she actually did say was, "'Ribald'--what do you mean by that? I don't think that you are aware what 'ribald' means."

"I am not sure that I am. As regards some words, as well as some persons, the less you are acquainted with them the more it is to your credit."
That "Harrumph!" of a riposte reminded me of a position that Rabbit takes on a difficult word in The House at Pooh Corner (1928), of which a post at Crooked House reminded me last week:
You can't help respecting anybody who can spell "Tuesday," even if he doesn't spell it right; but spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn't count.
But perhaps that's not a fair connection: Rabbit's position on "Tuesday," after all, though part of a larger argument about his indispensability to Christopher Robin, does include of a dash of humility and kindness--qualities that would, I'm afraid, be relatively foreign to Lady Petherwin. She might find herself more in sympathy with Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty--though she's not nearly so clever:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," Alice said, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."
Taken from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872), those are among the most-quoted of Carroll lines--but Humpty's follow-up, which is far more rarely noted, is at least as good:
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them--particularly verbs; they're the proudest--adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs; however, I can manage the whole lot of them. Impenetrability! That's what I say!"
Seems like the right way to end a rainy, gray, and defiantly non-spring weekend, no?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Brooding silence

Reading Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) on the L on the way home tonight, I was stopped by the following lines, describing a carriage ride between two men of different class and little congeniality:
Even had the two men's dislike to each other's society been less, the general din of the night would have prevented much talking; as it was, they sat in a rigid reticence that was almost a third personality.
Oh, what a skilled writer can do: with that image, I think Hardy may have forever changed the way that I think about tense silences. Even weirder, I expect that any time I find myself in a non-conversation and start thinking about that simmering third personality, I'll also think of Hardy, who will instantly make an invisible fourth.

Though Hardy was writing of an active aversion, a hostile silence, could his metaphor not also occasionally fit the more casual group silence of the L, or any commuter train? Think of those times when the cell phones and headphone leakage sink into the ambient noise and everyone else is dozing or staring or reading--but most of all not acknowledging in any way all the other people with whom they're sharing this odd-shaped moving room. That group aversion really can feed on itself until it seems to take on a personality and force of its own, and the moment it is punctured, whether by an official announcement or by an unexpected utterance from a passenger, can be extremely jarring.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A look into the case files

{Photo of our detective nephew by rocketlass.}

1 From Deadly Beloved (2008), by Max Allan Collins
"'Examine the past, understand it, then leave it behind . . . and move on.' Great advice, Doctor. But as a detective I spend at least as much time in the past as in the present."

"The nature of your business."
Are there any fictional detectives to whom that doesn't apply? Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple, such as Matthew Scudder or Derek Strange, who seem to traffic a bit more in crimes of the moment, but they seem more than balanced by those, such as Lew Archer, who are forever dealing with the lingering consequences of people's past, secret mistakes. Any strong exceptions worth noting?

2 Monday on "Fresh Air" Terry Gross interviewed Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime. We all know that Gross is a good interviewer, and Ardai turns out to be a comfortable and interesting interview subject. It was fun to learn that he became a noir fan through high-school readings of Lawrence Block, whose Grifter's Game (1961) was the first book published by Hard Case. The most surprising thing I learned, however, was that the reason the retro-style cover paintings that grace Hard Case's books are a tad less salacious than those of the pulp era is not because of decorum on the part of Ardai and cofounder Max Phillips, but because of prudery on the part of major retailers such as Wal-Mart. The big chains say no nudity, so the painters opt for artful draping and incomprehensibly complicated lingerie instead.

Gross also talked to Ardai at length about the two novels he's written under the pen name Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost (2004) and Songs of Innocence (2007). I've read all but a handful of Hard Case's titles, and Songs of Innocence just might be the best of the lot, challenged only by a couple of the Block novels. Carrying us along as his young, damaged detective quickly gets in over his head, Aleas brutally gives the lie to the more wish-fulfilling aspects of crime fiction--and thus opens up the true, dark heart of noir. It's been nearly a year since I read the book, and it has only grown in my estimation since.

3 Ardai is currently writing Hard Case's fiftieth book, Fifty-to-One, to be published under his own name at the end of the year. Unexpectedly, it's a comedy, written in fifty chapters, each named after a Hard Case Crime novel. That qualifies as Oulipean, if just barely . . . but--question for Ed--might it also count as an Ouroboros? Especially once you see that the cover features tiny versions of a bunch of the Hard Case covers?

4 Speaking of cover designs, Rex Parker's Pop Sensation blog recently highlighted this unforgettable cover from a 1965 Pocket Books edition of Raymond Chandler's The High Window:

In the post, Parker points out that the man does look a tad goofy if you look at him too closely:
If you turn the book upside-down, that guy looks like your dad pretending to be a monster after he's had a hard day at work / a little too much to drink.
But I still call it a successful cover. After all, if you were at the train station waiting anxiously for the 3:22 AM to Utica, hat pulled down and collar turned up to hide your face, trying to look all casual by lazily turning the paperback spinner . . . wouldn't you stop cold on that one?

5 Though my blogger profile mentions that I work in publishing in Chicago, and .22 seconds on Google will dig up the name of my employer, I've never mentioned their name directly on this blog, both because it never seemed necessary and because, as my friend Luke puts it, "Getting fired for your blog is so 2002."

But excitement about some forthcoming books has convinced me to break my silence: I work as the publicity manager for the University of Chicago Press, and this summer the Press will be publishing the first three of Richard Stark's Parker novels. The Press's first venture into the hard-boiled underworld began when I dropped copies of The Man with the Getaway Face (1963) and The Outfit (1963) on the desk of my colleague who acquires out-of-house paperbacks, along with an explanation (including this post) of why I thought we ought to reprint them. Within a couple of days, she was hooked, too, and the Press--which had previously published some mysteries, including Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries and Friedrich Durrenmatt's deconstructionist Euro-noirs--had picked up rights to those two, as well as Stark's first Parker novel, The Hunter (1962).

Not only did this mean that we got to commission great new cover illustrations, which I'll share when they're available, but it also meant that I got to write some serious crime copy:
You probably haven’t ever noticed them. But they’ve noticed you. They notice everything. That’s their job. Sitting quietly in a nondescript car outside a bank making note of the tellers’ work habits, the positions of the security guards. Lagging a few car lengths behind the Brinks truck on its daily rounds. Surreptitiously jiggling the handle of an unmarked service door at the racetrack.

They’re thieves. Heisters, to be precise. They’re pros, and Parker is far and away the best of them. If you’re planning a job, you want him in. Tough, smart, hardworking, and relentlessly focused on his trade, he is the heister’s heister, the robber’s robber, the heavy’s heavy. You don’t want to cross him, and you don’t want to get in his way, because he’ll stop at nothing to get what he’s after.
Though I'd read some Westlake and some Stark before, I read my first Parker novel on the way to visit my family at Thanksgiving. I've read fourteen more in the six months since, and I'm not the slightest bit tired of them. I imagine that the feeling of being involved with these reprints is similar to what Charles Ardai felt when he signed up his first Lawrence Block--and now I'm looking forward to years of aiding and abetting Parker's criminal ways.

6 All of which means that I really ought to expand on the disclaimer that I vaguely offer in my blogger profile, just to be clear, before I return to my usual approach of not mentioning work. How's this?
This blog is entirely separate from my job, written only in my non-work hours. The opinions are mine alone and are offered neither at the behest of or with any restraints from my employer. If you want to believe that my manifest enthusiasm for my favorite novel, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, published by Chicago, could possibly be feigned, then I'll take your name and call you the next time the Continental Op needs the services of a professional cynic.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Travelers and affinities, expected and unexpected

{Photo by rocketlass.}

1 I nodded off on the L on my way home from work yesterday while reading Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta (1866), and my half-dreams were of the novel--but as if it had been written by Alvaro Mutis, whose Maqroll stories I had spent the weekend reading. Waking, I was amused at the ease with which the world-weariness of Mutis had infiltrated Hardy's uncharacteristically comic novel.

If you'd asked me, I would have said the two writers had nothing in common, but the dream reminded me that Hardy's more typically tragic novels do share with Maqroll a certain fatalistic vision. I was reminded of an exchange I've quoted before from a conversation that Hardy had with Princeton professor Henry Van Dyke in 1909, about Tess:
"Yes," he said gravely, "I love her best of all."

"Why, then, did you kill her? Was there no other way to end the book"

"There was no other way," he replied, still more gravely. "I did not kill her. It was fated."
Maqroll would understand, though whereas he tends to complacently accept, or even welcome, his fate, Tess is unforgettable because she rails against hers--and by vigorously opposing it, hastens its tragic arrival.

2 Near the end of John Updike's review of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll in the January 13, 2003 issue of the New Yorker, he writes,
Lone rangers, from Don Quixote to Sam Spade and James Bond, are customarily engaged in combat against bad guys; they afford themselves the escapism of a virtuous quest, a perpetual cleanup. Maqroll instead presents himself as one of the bad guys, "on the periphery of laws and codes," and proposes that bad guys aren't so bad, as they smuggle and pimp and deal their way through the world.
When I read that yesterdy morning, it crystallized a thought that had been nagging me all weekend: Maqroll is also strange kin to Richard Stark's robber, Parker. Maqroll is wildly different from Parker in that he is essentially harmless, his underlying innocence somehow surviving the questionable morality of many of his occupations. But this weekend as Maqroll demonstrated again and again his preternatural ability to wait out events--as in this scene from Un Bel Morir,
Then two booming explosions echoed down the ravine. They sounded like bazookas or high-powered grenades. . . . An unexpected sense of relief lightened his step. What he had feared so much was finally here. Uncertainty had ended, and with it the anxiety that deforms and poisons everything. Once again men had begun the dark work of summoning death. Everything was in order. Now he would try to get out alive.
--I was reminded of the following exchange, between a police artist and two officers, from Stark's most recent Parker novel, Dirty Money (2008):
"I think, Gwen Reversa told her, "the main thing wrong with the picture now is, it makes him look threatening."

"That's right," Captain Modale said.

The artist, who wasn't the one who'd done the original drawing, frowned at it. "Yes, it is threatening," she agreed. "What should it be instead?"

"Watchful," Gwen Reversa said.

"This man," the captain said, gesturing at the picture, "is aggressive, he's about to make some sort of move. The real man doesn't move first. He watches you, he waits to see what you're going to do."
But while Parker waits for your move so that he can make his, Maqroll waits for your move so that he can figure out which exit to start wandering quietly towards.

3 Finally, there's the inescapable link with Italo Calvino's best book, Invisible Cities (1972), and its inspiration, Marco Polo's captivating, untrustworthy account of his travels to the far East. In Calvino's hands, Polo's journeys are stripped of their purpose as trading missions and transformed into compulsive wanderings, real and imagined:
"Journeys to relive your past?" was the Khan's question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: "Journeys to recover your future?"

And Marco's answer was: "Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and never will have."
As portrayed by Calvino, Marco Polo's travels, and his fantastical accounts of them to Kublai Khan, are in some sense quest for the home, with its clarity and understanding, that for the compulsive traveler lies forever just around the corner--or perhaps in the irretrievable past. As Polo, locked in a jail cell in Venice, first set down his adventures, I think Maqroll would have been welcome company:
He thought perhaps there really was no place for him in the world, no country where he could end his wandering. Just like the poet who had been his companion on long visits to countless bars and cafes in a rainy Andean city, the Gaviero could say, "I imagine a Country, a blurred, fogbound Country, an enchanted magical Country where I could live. What Country, where? . . . Not Mosul or Basra or Samarkand. Not Karlskrona or Abylund or Stockholm or Copenhagen. Not Kazan or Kanpur or Aleppo. Not in lacustrian Venice or chimerical Istambul, not on the Ile de France or in Tours or Stratford-on-Avon or Weimar or Yasnaia Poliana or in the baths of Algiers," and his comrade continued to evoke cities where he perhaps had never been. "I, who have known them all," thought Maqroll, "and in many have turned life's most surprising corners, now I'm running from this shit hamlet without knowing exactly why I let myself be caught in the most stupid trap that destiny ever set for me. All that's left for me now is the estuary, nothing but the marshes in the delta. That's all."
Or, as the Bible puts it,
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
So the travelers shoulder their packs and keep on with their journeys:
Carried by the current, the barge sailed into the night as if it were entering a lethal, unknown world. The Gaviero, without turning around, waved goodbye with his hand. Leaning on the tiller, he looked like a tired Charon overcome by the weight of his memories, on his way to find the rest he had been seeking for so long, and for which he would not have to pay anything.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Maqroll el Gaviero

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Un Bel Morir (1989), by Alvaro Mutis, translated into English by Edith Grossman, 1992, collected in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll
The captain began to pace up and down, holding the papers in his hand. He put them back and placed both hands on the desk, leaning slightly toward the Gaviero and staring at him intently. He was wearing a different guayabera, as impeccably white as the first. His Mexican movie star face was impassive. For a moment Maqroll thought he would never speak again, but the rather sharp, uninflected voice disabused him of that idea.

"Well, to begin with, we have some identity problems with you. They aren't the reason you were detained, but they are unsettling. You're traveling with a Cypriot passport. The most recent visa, dated Marseilles, expired a year and a half ago. Earlier ones were obtained in Panama City, Glasgow, and Antwerp. Your stated profession is sailor. Place of birth, unknown. This is not the kind of passport that brings peace of mind to the authorities in a country that is in a state of virtual civil war."
I have spent the weekend under Alvaro Mutis's spell. Some ingredients are familiar from other sources: the demimonde of the world's merchant marine; the shady, half-glimpsed characters in Conrad who gather around Marlowe as he tells another tale; the dirty dealings we'd discover if Signor Ferrari allowed us into the back room at the Blue Parrot; the ever-present ladies, lovely and dark, and their ever-present secrets; all washed with a stately imperturbability reminiscent of Borges. Other components are less familiar: inland seas and towns and rivers and wharves and estuaries that we will never see in reality, whose names-- festooned with diacritics and full of meaning for the multilingual--are redolent with mystery and, more important, distance. In Maqroll's desultory, disastrous adventures, Mutis offers us the drama of Indiana Jones and the splendor of the Arabian Nights--but tarnished by reality, screened through a personality and an odd semi-realism that translates the exoticism of those tales into the ennui of a world that is winding down. As Maqroll explains to a friendly rancher:
Finding a reason to live is what's hard for me, not dying. La Plata seemed the ideal place to call a halt, if only for a while, to the nomadic life I've grown sick of. The bamboo bed in the blind woman's house, the river that flows under my room and helps me forget on those fearful nights when memories crowd around and demand a settling of accounts, the strength and complicity of alcohol in the tavern, my refuge when the struggle with myself becomes too difficult: it's all I ask of a place where nobody knows me and I have no debts to pay. But my guardian devil forces me to start idiotic ventures and get caught up in other people's affairs, to become involved with them and feel I own a small portion of their destiny.
But Maqroll's very enervation energizes the reader. For Maqroll, life has long ceased to have a meaning beyond one's connections to friends and lovers--who, in the face of his best efforts to keep them close, are perpetually being lost to such rivals as distance and death. Yet he continues to plod on nonetheless, driven by inertia and a curiosity, barely acknowledged as such, that continues to seek new experiences and new answers, despite knowing that every time, they will be revealed to be the same as the last, simultaneously dangerous and disappointing.

Rarely able to make his way to the sea, Maqroll finds himself again and again on land, a world-weary innocent embroiled in unlikely and dangerous schemes whose very improbability is a large part of what attracts him--from smuggling Afghan diamonds to operating a high-end whorehouse whose denizens pose as moonlighting stewardesses. Along with his fellow nomads, he is drawn deeper and deeper into a shadow economy that trades in the detritus of the worldwide machine of capitalism; one sip of the doppelganger globalization that Mutis concocts for us in these forgotten wharfside bars would leave a cheerleading jet-setter like Thomas Friedman sunburnt, blind, and muttering to himself, flat on his back in a leaky canoe bobbing alongside a rickety dock somewhere near the headwaters of the River of Doubt. Mutis's brew, of hole-and-corner con men, gun runners, vicious generals, and comely madames, is more bitter, more potent, and, oddly, more convincing that what one can read about in the Economist.
It all began when Maqroll decided to remain in the port of La Plata and postpone indefinitely the continuation of his journey upriver.
As Maqroll trades stories--or guns, or drinks, or lusts--with the flotsam and jetsam of the world's illicit trading centers, we can hear the plash of the gator-rich river around the pylons, the late cries of gulls in the dusk, the barking of a stray dog in the square. The tropical night arrives quickly and silently, and we are carried utterly away.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Species of Spaces

From Olivier Rolin's Hotel Crystal (2004, English translation 2008 by Jane Kuntz)
The last crisis, I remember it perfectly, took place in Alexandria. We were staying in room 417 of the Cecil Hotel. Melanie Melbourne had insisted that I bring her to Alexandria, and that we stay at the Cecil, because she was completely wrapped up in reading Durrell's Quartet in those days. And she had developed the quirky habit--a poetic one that proved costly in the end--of reading works only in the places where they were set: Proust's Jeunes filles en fleur at the Grand Hotel of Cabourg, Larbaud's Journal intime de A. O. Barnabooth between the Florence Carlton and the Saint Peteresburg Evropeiskaia, Conrad in the Singapore Raffles, etc. Melanie Melbourne was the love of my life, but I think she was a bit loony.
As someone who recently read part of Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood while in Rochester, Kent, and part of Boswell's Life of Johnson while in Johnson's hometown of Lichfield, Staffordshire . . . well, I still can't disagree. It probably is a bit loony. But it's quite fun.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Munday after Christmas was in danger to be spoiled by my horse," or, More Aubreyan Adventures!

In a post last week about the grave illnesses from which John Aubrey suffered as a child, I mentioned that the sketchy autobiographical notes that were appended to the 1696 edition of Aubrey's Miscellaneous Notes Upon Various Subjects tell of the many non-medical travails he endured in succeeding years. General bad fortune--mostly related to the chronic indebtedness caused by the labyrinthine restrictions and complicated debts encumbering his inherited property--alternates with threats of violent death, the reasons for which are often unclear.

Here, as promised, is a bit more detail:
1643. April and May, the Small Pox at Oxon; after left that ingenious place for three years led a sad life in the Country.

1656. Sept. 1655 or rather I think 1656 I began my chargeable tedious lawe Suite on the Entaile in Brcknockshire and Monmouthshire. This yeare and the last was a strange yeare to me. Several love and lawe suites.

1666. This yeare all my business and affairs ran kim kam, nothing tooke effect, as if I had been under an ill tongue. Treacheries in abundance against me.

1669 and 1670 I sold all my Estate in Wilts. From 1670 to this very day (I thank God) I have enjoyed a happy delitescency.

1671. Danger of Arrests.

1677. Latter end of June an impostume brake in my head. Mdm. St John's night 1673 in danger of being run through with a sword by a young templer at M. Burges' chamber in the M. Temple.

I was in danger of being killed by William Earl of Pembroke then Lord Herbert at the election of Sir William Salkeld for New Sarum. I have been in danger of being drowned twice.
Aubrey's equating of lawsuits and love suits in the entry for 1656 prompts a smile every time--especially given the often vexed outcomes of both activities. Another of the great joys of this selection are the disused seventeenth-century words he offers. Delitescence, or secluded retirement, is nice; but nothing can quite compare to kim kam, which the Oxford English Dictionary, drawing on Aubrey's usage and three others from the same period, defines as "Crooked, awkward, perverse, contrary." I see no reason that we all shouldn't try to return kim kam to circulation, posthaste.

Aubrey's autobiographical notes somewhat resemble his brief lives, though they're far more fragmentary; so much is left out that someone unfamiliar with Aubrey's less-than-methodical, drink-fueled work habits might naturally assume that he was being deliberately suggestive, writing with a sly wink. More likely is that, just as with his Lives, Aubrey always meant to put together something more detailed, but his habitual disorganization and dissipation got the better of him.

Perhaps that knowledge is what leads me to detect in these minimal notes some tiny hints of that strain of self-excoriation, of frustrated acknowledgment of failures of character or resolve, that I find so inexplicably charming in other favorite writers such as Cyril Connolly, Samuel Pepys, James Boswell, and even, in his diaries, Samuel Johnson. Edmund Wilson, in his introduction to the 1962 edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives, notes that at the points when Aubrey's Lives most clearly reveal the haziness of his memories of late-night conversations, the original manuscripts are often dotted with the frustrated exclamation, "Sot that I am!"

But fan that I am of the fragment, the incomplete, the hopelessly heterogenous, I find the Miscellanies endless fun; I'll be dipping into it for years. Like when I need a cure for toothache--
Take a new nail, and make the gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an oak. This did cure William Neal's son, a very stout gentleman, when he was almost mad with the pain, and had a mind to have pistolled himself.
--or when my horses have been bewitched--
Mr. Sp. told me that his horse which was bewitched, would break bridles and strong halters, like a Samson. They filled a bottle of the horse's urine, stopped it with a cork and bound it fast in, and then buried it underground: and the party suspected to be the witch, felt ill, that he could not make water, of which he died. When they took up. the bottle, the urine was almost gone; so, that they did believe, that if the fellow could have lived a little longer, he had recovered.
--or, perhaps most important, when I need to save myself from the horror of sour beer on a stormy summer night:
In Herefordshire, and other parts, they do put a cold iron bar upon their barrels, to preserve their beer from being soured by thunder. This is a common practice in Kent.
Sot that Aubrey was, I'll enjoy this messy volume and be grateful.