Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Been having a filthy time lately," or, a letter from Julian Maclaren-Ross

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I'm so wrapped up in William Boyd's Any Human Heart today that I can't bring myself to put it down and write a proper post. Instead, I'll share a particularly good letter from writer Julian Maclaren-Ross (who doesn't turn up in Boyd's novelized tour of the English literary scene of the twentieth century--though Anthony Powell, who immortalized Maclaren-Ross as the character X. Trapnel in A Dance to the Music of Time, does make several appearances).

Maclaren-Ross's recently published Selected Letters (2008) is bound to be of interest to any fan of his writing, if only because the letters are full of ideas and proposals, many never realized, for stories, adaptations, reviews, treatments--anything that might bring in some money. Maclaren-Ross was such a wastrel and led such an itinerant, hand-to-mouth existence that the vast majority of the letters in the volume involve him attempting to cadge money from someone, either in return for amorphous future work or simply on the grounds of friendship. Petulance and self-righteous anger greet the frequent refusals; as those familiar with his life already know, he could be quite a difficult man to be around.

For sheer directness and goofy pathos, no letter in the batch can top this one to his friend, writer Dan Davin, from the summer of 1955:
My dear Dan,
Thank you for the drink last night.

I'm sorry I was taken queer before the end & had to go; but truth is I haven't had anything solid to eat for some days and have had to stay in and work nonetheless: also my little illness is troubling me a bit.

Until the holiday is over & the editors get back & get to work, I shan't have any money at all--which means Wed. or Thurs. at earliest.

Have you any money?

I do not have any.

I do not have cigarettes either.

Tonight i could go down to Royal Oxford and get tick, but I can't get cigarettes on the bill--or cigars. Then tehre are 2 or 3 days to get over before what's owing to me comes in; and meantime I must do more work. On empty belly & no fags, not easy.

If you have any money please let me have some. I will pay.

I will look in on you at home about 7.15 p.m. (when you've had dinner) and hope for best. Unless you've a moment to look in here sometime before.

Don't want to come over to pub, because crossing road makes me dizzy in this state; also am not fit company just now in big crowd.

This letter written v. simply because I expect you've a hangover; & I can never take anything in, myself, when I have.

Letter from USA enclosed. Good prospect for future?

I want to ask advice about something; but won't while you've guests to attend to.

Will go to sleep now. Nothing else to do.

As ever,
I like to think that Davin, hangover or not, at least came across with some cigarettes, if not bundles of cash. For once, I'm with Maclaren-Ross: given his obvious condition at the time of writing, anything less seems insupportable.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Are you an Anglophile? Take this simple quiz and find out!

Reading John Wyndham's creepy and well-conceived The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), which was later filmed as The Village of the Damned, brought me several unexpected pleasures.

1 I smiled at this sentence describing the sleepy hamlet of Midwich:
And before that it hit the headlines--well, anyway, the broadsheets--when Black Ned, a second-class highwayman, was shot on the steps of The Scythe and Stone Inn by Sweet Polly Parker, and although this gesture of reproof appears to have been of a more personal than social nature, she was, nevertheless, much lauded for it in the ballads of 1768.
Then I stopped, for it occurred to me that here was a perfect test of whether a reader is amenable to English literature: this droll, historically inclined sentence, which draws its arch-eyebrowed humor largely from its balanced, careful organization, seems characteristic of the dominant strain of the nation's literary output. A reader who pauses to enjoy this sentence might as well move on to Dickens, Thackeray, Waugh, Powell, Fitzgerald, and others. One who doesn't should probably plump for Dostoevsky or Melville instead.

2 As I was reading the book I realized that Ed's and my recent creation of the Invisible Library has unexpectedly added a new layer of drama to my reading. Early in the novel, the narrator refers to Midwich resident Gordon Zellaby's work of philosophy While We Last; soon after, Zellaby himself mentions that the manuscript for his next book, The British Twilight, is overdue.

I snapped to attention: would he--given the distractions posed by an infestation of possibly alien children--deliver the manuscript? Would The British Twilight ever be published--and thus available for stocking at the Invisible Library?

Sadly, John Wyndham seems to have been far less concerned about the fate of The British Twilight than I am, for the novel ends without a definite answer. Given, however, that nine years pass between the initial mention of the book and the conclusion of The Midwich Cuckoos, I decided, in my role as Invisible Librarian, that Zellaby--a professional philosopher--would surely have found the time to finish The British Twilight at some point. Thus a copy now resides on the "Z" shelf.

Did I make the right decision? Only Wyndham would know for sure, and he left this world nearly forty years ago; should his spirit visit the Library, I'll let you know.

3 Because I've had the Invisible Library on the brain this week, I also perked up at the following line spoken by a character:
What's going on here is the burning of books before they have been written.
The character is using books as a metaphor to describe the short-sightedness of the government's failure to study the alien children, but it also seems like a phrase one might find decorating one of the more cobwebby carrels in the Invisible Library.

It seems like it would go nicely that area of special collections that would house lost books like Profiles in String, the greatest work of X. Trapnel, the only manuscript of which was chucked into a Venetian canal by Pamela Widmerpool, because "it wasn't worthy of X."

Now any reader in possession of an Invisible Library card can see for himself whether Pamela was right . . . or whether perhaps the book was brilliant, and that was why it haunted her . . . if that was why, after Trapnel's death she admitted with a shiver, "I see that manuscript of his floating away on every canal."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Congratulations to Barack Obama, our nominee . . .

. . . and the next president of the United States.

Forty-five years ago today:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cyril Connolly and the "faintly Mephistopholean Jack Kahane"

I can't resist following up Monday night's discussion of Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool with two additional points of incidental interest, drawn largely from the pages of Jeremy Lewis's Cyril Connolly: A Life (1997).

1 Connolly's initial efforts to find a publisher for The Rock Pool were stymied by the houses' squeamishness about its perceived obscenity. Though it's difficult now to fathom how the novel--which stoops no lower than a lot of drunkenness and the occasional frank use of the word "lesbian"--could be considered obscene, recent obscenity prosecutions had made publishers reticent. Multiple houses, including Faber and Faber and possibly the Woolfs' Hogarth Press, declined to publish the book, leading Connolly to consider chucking the whole project, as he explains in his introductory letter to his friend Peter Quennell:
I know there is a theory that a book, if it is any good, will always find a publisher, that talent cannot be stifled, that it even proves itself by thriving on disappointment, but I have never subscribed to it: we do not expect spring flowers to bloom in a black frost, and I think the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with "We are afraid," has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.
Fortunately for us Connolly fans, English expatriate Jack Kahane came to the rescue, offering to publish the book under his Paris-based Obelisk Press imprint. Kahane, who enjoyed flouting English convention, was known among the cogniscenti for his publication of standard-bearers of obscenity Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Lawrence Durrell; according to Jeremy Lewis, Kahane
seemed to Alfred Perles the quintessential Englishman, sprucely turned out in a grey business suit with a carnation in his buttonhole, enjoying a bottle of Bass for lunch, and suffering from the occasional "touch of halitosis"; he liked to live well-at one stage he owned seven bulldogs and fifty pairs of trousers.
Kahane admired the book, but he was known to later say, only half-facetiously, that the relative tameness of Connolly's novel was a disgrace to his list.

In the United States, meanwhile, The Rock Pool was published by Scribner's, who sold 300 copies.

2 Though the novel's protagonist, Naylor, clearly serves at least part of the time as a mouthpiece for his creator, he also was based at least in part on an acquaintance of Connolly named Nigel Richards. Jeremy Lewis's note offering more detail about Richards made me gasp--it could have come straight from the more brutal precincts of a Waugh novel:
He abandoned stockbroking to become a tea-planter in Burma, where his first wife, an alcoholoic, fell overboard into a crocodile-infested river, and was eaten (or, as Norman Douglas used to cry, "The crocs got her!"). Some time after publication of The Rock Pool, Connolly and [his wife] Jean were having a drink in the Cafe Royal with Betty Fletcher-Mossop and Robin McDouall, the source of the above information, when Nigel Richards unexpectedly walked in: Connolly was, apparently, overcome with embarrassment, and blurted out "My God, I thought you were dead!" Nigel Richards later married Betty Fletcher-Mossop.
As my friend Marc says, why does anyone bother to make anything up, when real life is always providing more than we can ever use?

Monday, August 25, 2008

"However wise we are, we are only worldly wise for others."

Though he wrote extensively and astutely on novelists major and minor throughout his life, Cyril Connolly himself produced only one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), a brief satire of life among a community of expatriate bohemians and ne'er-do-wells on the Mediterranean coast. As he was wont to do in all aspects of life, Connolly made some effort at preempting the criticism he anticipated of the novel, explaining in his introductory letter to the book, addressed to his friend Peter Quennell,
If one has criticized novels for several years one is supposed to have profited from them. Actually one finds one's mind irremediably silted up with every trick and cliche, every still-born phrase and facile and second-hand expression that one has deplored in others. The easy trade of reviewing is found to have carried banality with it to the point of an occupational disease.
Connolly's worry is misguided: the language of The Rock Pool is far too careful to fall into cliche, though at the same time it is less animated than that of his critical writing. A more accurate, if too harsh, critical account is given by Jeremy Lewis in his biography of Connolly:
None of the characters comes alive; the dialogue is as stiff and awkward and unconvincing as that of a group of incompatible strangers, reluctantly introduced to one another and unlikely to take things any further; there is no sense of drama or involvement or interaction between its wooden-seeming puppets, and its ostensibly shocking subject-matter--bohemian life in the South of France, with its obligatory dashes of sex, drugs, drink and general dissipation--seems irremediably tame, lacking even the faintest whiff of brimstone or depravity.
At its best, The Rock Pool's jaded, brutal humor rivals that of the early comic novels of Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh, who ruthlessly stripped those books of any hint of sentiment or lyricism, leaving only terse, Hemingway-esque prose and a slashing, cynical wit. Connolly, however, never seems fully comfortable in that mode, alternating awkwardly between that sort of genuinely funny passage and the more lyrical, sentimental, melancholy, and self-lacerating effusions that make The Unquiet Grave and Enemies of Promise so intimate and compelling. Those interludes do deliver the occasional gem--
I shall cultivate obscurity and practise failure, so repulsive in others, in oneself of course the only dignified thing.

[T]he habit and profession of cynicism can often exist without the requisite gold reserves of emotion to back them.
--but they draw attention to the fact that the book is neither emotionally involving enough to be a straight novel nor spare and biting enough to be a first-rate satire. It's a tough no-man's-land to attempt to hold--Dawn Powell did it, but Connolly can't quite pull it off. You can sense the difficulty he had in the writing, can instantly apprehend why, in Quennell's words, this "aesthetic idealist and . . . literary perfectionist" never wrote another novel.

Despite that, The Rock Pool is often a pleasure to read, offering some wonderfully deadpan dialogue. I particularly liked the fresh strangeness of this exchange:
At the main road Toni turned round. "You must walk back with me to my room, Rascasse--because--because--"

"Because what?"

"Because I am afraid of a ghost there."

"What kind of ghost?"

"Oh, well--she is a woman with very red hair, very cold, sometimes she is thin and sometimes she is fat. She comes very close and goes away at the same time like a pendule. She is the ghost of a mountain in Finland and she wants me to go back because I promised never to leave her."

The midnight bus from Nice could not have arrived more opportunely.
Later, Naylor chats up a drunk German blonde named Sonia:
"Ich bin so mude, so mude," she sighed and went on in labored English. "It is terrible. I get so easily drunk. Let us talk philosophy. What is your philosophy?"


"What is that?

"Making the most of my chances."

"Pah--how material."

"Well, why not?"

"But you are young. Later you can be material--now is the time to believe."

"But I do believe--I believe in opportunism."

"How silly--what about life--what is life--what is progress--what is growth?"

"But I do believe in growth and progress. I believe that one is young, then not so young, then old, then very old, then dead; timid, then bold, then cautious, then crusty, then feeble; fresh, then stale; innocent, then guilty, then totally indifferent; first generous and then mean; thin then fat; thoughtless then selfish; hairy then bald--what more can you want?"
Later, Naylor learns more about Sonia from Rascasse, a painter friend, who explains:
"I'm just a little bit in love with her."

"Is she in love with you?"

"No, but she's sorry for me, because she's a virgin and so she tries to make it up to me."

"Well, that's something."

"Yes, but she's sorry for the colonial too, because he takes her everywhere in his car."

"He finds her a virgin as well?"
Connolly also presents a couple of splendid descriptions of hangovers:
Naylor woke late, with a hang-over. It was relatively a new sensation for him, for he was proud of a certain donnish temperance. He would take two whiskies at night and suddenly round on those of his friends who had a third one. Not that he minded, only it seemed rather childish; remember the law of diminishing returns? And why make yourself sick the next day? But strangely enough he was not sick--instead he seemed to be spun up in a kind of voluptuous cocoon. The sun streamed in over the purple bougainvillea. He tottered down to the sea. Lying on his back, the curious sensation was stronger, his stomach seemed made of wool, his throat felt some rich sensual craving, his mind floated among a multitude of sensations, all his senses were slowed up to an unusual delicacy. He masticated a line of Eliot: "The notion of some infinitely tender, infinitely suffering thing." Opening his eyes, the sky and sand were grey as a photograph, his antennae played over the tiny crystals, women's brown legs passed him on the board-walk, but he could not look up. "You see in me a creature in the most refined state of intoxication," he thought, and waves of sensual and lotophagous reminiscence swept over him.
That time, one gets the sense that Naylor had the good fortune to still have some alcohol in his system when he woke, thus avoiding the worst of drink's punishment; on another day, he's not so lucky:
This time he woke up with the real thing. Somebody was tapping his skull as if it were a breakfast egg. When he moved loose flints rattled inside it. His mouth seemed full of corrosive sublimate. He had a breath like an old tyre on a smoking dump. . . . Naylor closed his eyes, opened them, and was sick. For some time after he lay like a crushed snail on a garden path.
Connolly was probably right to decide that his gifts lay in criticism rather than in fiction, but anyone whose writing on hangovers deserves to be mentioned in the same boozy breath as Kingsley Amis's has accomplished something to be proud of; if Connolly were still with us, I'd gladly stand him drink after drink on the strength of those paragraphs alone.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Stocking the shelves of the Invisible Library

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Earlier this summer, inspired by book-filled novels by Graham Greene and Vladimir Nabokov, I hit upon the idea of using the Internet to start a catalog of books that exist only within other books--a Borgesian invisible library.

Now, through the inventiveness and industry of Ed Park--no mean begetter of imaginary books himself--the Invisible Library has a home! So far Ed and I have catalogued a mere handful of titles--leaning heavily on our old favorite, Anthony Powell--but the library is designed to be infinitely expandable, and we'll continually add more as we come across them.

Come by for a visit: whether you find your fancy piqued by Odo Stevens's wartime memoir Sad Majors or Fellowes Kraft's Joseph-Campbellesque mythic exploration Time's Body or Sebastian Knight's little-understood first novel, The Prismatic Bezel, we promise you'll leave empty-handed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"I presume you have heard that Mr. Shelley & Capt. Williams were lost on the 7th Ulto."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

If you don't have Bill Peschel's Reader's Almanac in your RSS reader, you should: it offers an interesting and well-told story from literary history every day. The lead item for this past Monday, August 18th, an account of the cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley on a beach in Italy in 1822, was gruesome enough to send me back to my bookshelves to learn a bit more. I recommend you go read Peschel's account now, then come back here.

Shelley had drowned a week earlier, along with his friend Edward Williams, and worries about disease led Italian officials to order the pair temporarily buried where they washed up until a proper funeral could be arranged. Shelley's opportunistic and somewhat irritating--but, one has to admit in this case, loyal--friend Edward John Trelawny took charge, and Williams was burned first. In her biography of Lord Byron, Fiona MacCarthy relates Byron's description of Williams's pyre:
"You can have no idea," he told Tom Moore, "what an extraordinary effect such a funeral pile has on a desolate shore, with mountains in the back-groudn and the sea before, and the singular appearance the salt and frankincense gave to the flame."
The next day, the men set out in search of Shelley's grave, which, according to MacCarthy, was poorly marked:
It took about an hour to locate it, by which time Byron and Leigh Hunt had arrived from Pisa, accompanied by two mounted dragoons and four foot soldiers to keep prospective sightseers at bay.
They finally found Shelley's body, which had been rendered grotesque by the water, and set about their work. Peschel points out that Trelawny forbade Byron to take Shelley's skull, which ultimately disintegrated; yet, when Shelley's heart, in Byron's words, "would not take the flame," Trelawny himself eventually grabbed it. MacCarthy goes into detail, drawing on Trelawny's later Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author:
Trelawny's recollections of the scene provide more details: the heart "although bedded in fire--would not burn." They waited an hour, continually adding fuel, until "it becoming late we gave over by mutual conviction of its being unavailing--all exclaiming it will not burn--there was a bright flame round it occasioned by the moisture still flowing from it--and on removing the furnace nearer to the sea to immerse the iron I took the heart in my hand to examine it--after sprinkling it with water: yet it was still so hot as to burn my hand badly and a quantity of this oily fluid still flowed from it."
Mary Shelley ultimately ended up with the heart, but not before Leigh Hunt tried to put in a claim that is astonishing in its presumption and lack of feeling:
[T]he next day [he wrote] indignantly to her, "With reagrd to Ld B. he has no right to bestow the heart, & I am sure pretends to none. If he told you that you should have it, it could only have been from his thinking I could more easily part with it than I can."
An interesting final note to all of this is that, though Byron earlier that month, in writing to his publisher, John Murray, had praised Shelley extravagantly--
You are all brutally mistaken about Shelley who was without exception--the best and least selfish man I ever knew.--I never knew one who was not a beast in comparison.
--he later that year wrote to Mary Shelley an unexpectedly distant account of their relationship:
As to friendship, it is a propensity in which my genius is very limited. I do not know the male human being, except Lord Clare, the friend of my infancy, for whom I feel any thing that deserves the name. All my others are men-of-the-world friendships. I did not even feel it for Shelley, however much I admired and esteemed him; so that you see not even vanity could bribe me into it, for, of all men, Shelley thought highest of my talents,--and, perhaps of my disposition.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A question of translation

Reading Carol Clark's 2002 translation of The Prisoner, the fourth volume of In Search of Lost Time, yesterday, I was brought up short by one passage. It comes midway through the volume, at the outset of an evening party at the Verdurins' house. Madame Verdurin's sparkling guest list for the party has been assembled by--and therefore subject to the hatreds and feuds of--the Baron de Charlus. In the midst of that process Madame Verdurin makes the mistake of suggesting that they invite the Comtesse de Mole, to whom the Baron has taken a vigorous public dislike. In response, the Baron casually lets loose with some disdain:
"Well, well, there's no accounting for tastes," M. de Charlus had replied, and if yours, dear lady, is to spend your time with Mrs Todgers, Sarah Gamp and Mrs Harris I have nothing to say, but please let it be on an evening when I am not here."
Fans of Dickens will recognize these three women as characters from Martin Chuzzlewit--and their names, you can surely imagine, were quite a surprise coming out of the Baron's mouth.

A note accompanying the line explains:
M. de Charlus's reference in the original is to Mme Pipelet, Mme Gibout and Mme Joseph Prudhomme, minor creations of hte nineteenth-century writers Eugene Sue and Henri Monnier. They are chosen as examples of women utterly lacking in social distinction: Mme Pipelet, for example, is a concierge. Three comparable characters from Dickens have been substituted.
I understand that Carol Clark wanted to make sure that we didn't miss the Baron's point--and I think Clark is right to guess that your average reader of Proust in translation isn't going to know the characters the Baron actually cites. But am I alone in thinking that translating them to characters we know is overdoing it a bit? Couldn't the context have been provided in a note instead--especially since this more invasive solution didn't even eliminate the need for a note?

That was the solution opted for in the Moncrieff, Enright, and Kilmartin translation, which also manages to offer in the note the names of the novels from which the minor characters are taken: Pipelet from Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris, Gibout from Monnier's Scenes populaires, and Prudhomme from Monnier's Les Memoires de Joseph Prudhomme. The result is both cleaner and more informative, resting in a confidence that the reader will check the note, a confidence that doesn't seem unreasonable in such a lightly annotated text.

Even if I disagree with it, Clark's decision obviously isn't that big a deal: it distracted me briefly, but the moment passed quickly in the rush of the ensuing party. It does, however, serve as a good reminder of the difficulty of the job translators take on, of all the similar decisions like they have to make in a book, page after page. As a reader with no languages other than English at my command, the fact that nearly all of those decisions are pass more or less unnoticed in a good translation is an achievement that I greatly appreciate.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Parker's back!

A couple of months ago, I announced that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, was going to reprint the first three of Richard Stark's novels about Parker the heister, The Hunter (1962), The Man with the Getaway Face (1963), and The Outfit (1963). Like any sensible blogger, I generally keep my blogging life and my work life separate, but I was excited enough about the Parker novels to break that rule, in large part because my enthusiastic praise for the books had been what led our paperback editor to look at them in the first place.

Now they're here, with new cover illustrations and designs by David Drummond, looking as sharp and mean as the words inside. If you haven't yet made Parker's acquaintance, there couldn't be a better time--and you don't have to take my word for it: Luc Sante, John Banville, Terry Teachout, and Ed Park will all vouch for the villain. You can also go here to read an interview that a coworker and I recently conducted with Stark, under his real name of Donald Westlake.

If all goes right, next season will bring the next three in the series: The Mourner, The Jugger, and The Score, the last of which is one of my favorites, both for the ingeniousness of the heist and because it introduces Parker's associate Alan Grofield, who would go on to star in a handful of books of his own, including Lemons Never Lie, which, in a recent edition from Hard Case Crime, introduced me to Stark.

I hope you enjoy Stark's dramatic, tightly plotted, well-crafted little amorality tales as much as I do. You can blow through all three in a weekend--but don't be surprised if you find yourself looking at your city just a bit differently come Monday. As you head out on your usual route to work or the store, for the first time you'll find your eye drawn to service entrances and side doors, Brinks trucks and window bars, inattentive security guards and indolent clerks . . . and what about that hard-looking man in the pea coat who seems to be casting his gaze ever so casually at the very same thing?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Five postscripts

This is the point where, back in an earlier century, I would have turned the letter on its side and begun writing across what was already there. Fortunately for your sanity, technology has saved you from having to read the enormity that would be the result of such a technique employed in my hideous handwriting.

1 In writing about So I Have Thought of You, the new collection of Penelope Fitzgerald's letters, I can't believe that I forgot to mention why a good portion of the letters from the first half or so of her life are missing: they were in her houseboat, Grace, when it sank in the Thames. Fans of her Booker Prize-winning Offshore (1979), a novel about an eccentric community of houseboat owners struggling to survive on the muddy banks of the Thames, may not be surprised--at least until they learn that this was the second time Grace sank. Once, for most of us, would have been enough.

2 Maud Newton and I corresponded off and on over several weeks recently about the possible fate of Iris Murdoch's letters, with me worrying that Murdoch's innate secretiveness surely meant that she was a burner of letters. But it took Jenny Davidson to suggest that the answer might be on my bookshelves: demonstrating yet again that she's a scholar while I'm just a dilettante, she pointed out that Peter Conradi, in his Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001), probably at least mentions whether he had recourse to her letters. The resulting list tidbits about the topic, which I fired off in an e-mail to Jenny and Maud, is now part of a post at Maud's site. Short answer: there was probably some serious burning.

3 To close my post Wednesday about Sybille Bedford' s A Legacy, I drew on some praise for the book that Nancy Mitford included in a letter to Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, on the other hand, though he "read it straight through with intense pleasure," disagrees with me about its second half being the richer portion:
For the first half--up to the marriage of Jules & Melanie--I was in full agreement '"one of the best novels I ever read" as you say. After that I found a slight falling off, as though the writer had suddenly taken a stiff dose of Henry James, particularly in the long talks between Sarah & Caroline. Also I think it was clumsy to have any of the narrative in the first person. The daughter relates things she cannot possibly ever have known as though she were an eye witness. But these are small blemishes. What a brilliant plot!
Later in the letter, he, ponders, tongue in cheek, on the identity of the book's author:
I wondered for a time who this brilliant "Mrs Bedford" could be. A cosmopolitan military man, plainly, with knowledge of parliamentary government, and popular journalism, a dislike for Prussians, a liking for Jews, a belief that everyone speaks French in the home . . .
4 In her introduction to the 1999 Counterpoint edition of A Legacy, Bedford notes that the book was less than a success on publication, though Waugh gave it a strong review in the Spectator. "Such reception as it had was mostly bewildered or hostile or both." Even her publisher was less than fully committed to the book, though for extra-literary reasons:
George Weidenfeld was in the midst of troubles of his own--wives and Cyril Connolly--he gave me lunch at the Ritz on a bad day for him and was openly sad.
From Jeremy Lewis's Cyril Connolly: A Life (1997) we learn that this was the period when Weidenfeld, his marriage having collapsed, was busy diving into an affair with Connolly's wife, Barbara Skelton.

It began, Skelton claims, when Connolly himself told her that, as he had fallen for Lucien Freud's wife, Caroline Blackwood (who wanted nothing to do with him), he wouldn't mind her finding "a rival attraction of her own . . . provided he was a gentleman." It didn't take long: accidentally brushing hands at the theatre, Weidenfeld and Skelton "were suddenly aware of an intense and mutual physical attraction"; things proceeded apace, with childishness, misbehavior, and hideous scenes on all sides. Evelyn Waugh, rarely inclined to be generous about another's troubles, complained that
Connolly's cuckolding is a great bore. I dined with him and he went on and on.
Connolly's mother, on the other hand, was more vitriolically understanding, opening her argument with the unintentionally ridiculous line,
I think it is the last straw that it should it be your publisher. . . . I think a lioness would have repaid you more [than Barbara has]--animals have not spite and deliberate cruelty. . . . [P]ut her out of your mind and leave her to her present keeper.
Divorce ensued, followed by a quick marriage between Skelton and Weidenfeld that the bridegroom described as "a dismal affair, more like a wake than a wedding." The marriage itself was as brief and unpleasant as the affair had been long and passionate:
Life as a publisher's wife proved entirely uncongenial to Barbara. She claimed that she hated being woken every morning to the rustle of newspapers, was bored by Wiedenfeld's business talk and tireless ambition, and refused to play the part of the compliant, charming publishing hostess, despite his begging her to "Gush! Gush! You must be more gushing!"
It's not hard to see why Anthony Powell fixed on Skelton as the model for Pamela Widmerpool, isn't it? Skelton wrote two volumes of memoir, which I'm beginning to think I need to read.

5 This final item doesn't quite qualify as a true postscript, as I haven't really written about Cyril Connolly in recent weeks, but as he's a topic that's perpetually bubbling under the surface in these parts, you can consider it a postscript to I've Been Reading Lately in general. From his journal for 1931, a few lines for a city summer:
London now completely summer. Trees, tawdriness spreading west from Tottenham Court Road, evening pavements crowded with aimless sex. V. Woolf asked Elizabeth what unnatural vice was--"I mean what do they do?"
And that's all for tonight, for I find myself once again, as Connolly jotted down elsewhere in his journal, "Proust-ridden." The Prisoner calls.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Sybille Bedford's A Legacy

Sybille Bedford's A Legacy (1956) tells the story of three German families in the years leading up to World War I: two neighboring landed families from the Catholic South and a Jewish manufacturing family from Berlin. Narrated by a woman whose mother was the product of one of the marriages that over the years intertwined the families, the book relates their very different ways of being in--and, despite their wealth and connections, largely being at the mercy of--the rapidly changing Germany of the turn of the twentieth century. Bedford describes one of the Catholic families, the Feldens, thus:
[T]hey were neither backwoodsmen nor courtiers, but country gentlemen of cultured, if not general, interests. They drank hock and claret, but they also drank and knew how to make their own wine. They dabbled in the natural sciences; they enjoyed and contributed to those branches of the arts that increase the amenities of linving--domestic archietecture, instrument-making, horticulture. They were bored by the abstract, bored by letters, and their acceptance of thought was confined to acceptance of thought about things. They liked new theories of acoustics, but turned from ones of government with suspicion and distaste. They played music like craftsmen, and made objects like artists.
The Feldens are lovably eccentric: for example, one of the sons, Julius, keeps chimpanzees that he treats like people. The family leads a charmingly bucolic countryside life that would seem farfetched if it didn't jibe so well with what Patrick Leigh Fermor discovered on his mid-1930s trek through that area. But that life of near-Edenic plenty and ease has done little to fit them--Julius in particular--for life elsewhere, where one must find new activities and occupations, and when love draws Julius to Berlin, he is unmoored and to some extent never quite recovers.

The other southern family, the Bernins, is more politically active, its members staffing government departments and holding cabinet positions, while the Berlin family, the Merzes, is almost entirely contained within its large townhouse, which is stuffed with spinster aunts and ungrateful uncles and autocratic grandparents. The events of the outside world reach them in confused fashion; then that blurry information is endlessly talked round and suspected to the point of negation. This scene, where the patriarch, some cousins, assorted other family members, and the butler discuss the extravagant gambling debts run up by the eldest son, Eduard, shows the mix of obliviousness, confusion, and petty cruelty that reigns in the house; it also serves well to demonstrate Bedford's light touch with comic dialogue:
"Whist, I suppose."

"Not whist, papa."

"Well, some fool game. Good money out of the window. Daresay it's in the family. Look at your uncle Emil. Wake up, Emil!" His brother-in-law, who was fifteen years younger and neither deaf nor napping, looked up. "Edu's lost more at the tables than you ever had a chance to spit at."

"Poor Sarah," said Emil, who was a nice man.

"Sarah is a rich woman," said Cousin Markwald, who was neither.

"Well, she forked it out. How much did you say it was?" said Grandpapa who knew, but wished to hear again.

Friedrich named a figure.

"Round," said Grandpapa.

"Has poor Edu been losing again?" said Grandmama. "He's always such bad luck. I'm sure they swindle him."

"Him," said Cousin Markwald.

"The results do not point to that conclusion, sir."

"Well, yes, mama, I think the money-lenders take him in. It's hardly conceivable otherwise; no-one could stake so much in cold blood."

"I never heard of anyone staking in cold blood," said Emil.

"Money-lenders?" said Grandmama. "What would the poor boy want to borrow money for?"

"Has my son been to the money-lenders?" said the old gentleman, really stung. "I'm going to cut him off. Who does the fool think he is, a Goy?"

"Everybody goes to them nowadays, papa," said Friedrich.

"It does sound degenerate of us," said Emil.
Bedford makes that sort of comedy seem effortless. She's just as skilled at showing how the refusal of each of these families to engage fully with reality and its problems not only dooms them to loss and decline but also, when ramified through a whole society, ultimately aids the rise of the Nazi horror.

But the novel really comes to life when Bedford begins to focus more clearly on Sarah, Eduard's long-suffering wife. Early on, when Sarah--who, unlike her in-laws, always lives in the world as it is, rather than as she'd have it be--is beginning to come to terms with the fact that she's married a wastrel, Bedford offers this capsule description:
She was a woman who had to know herself just in all her dealings. She liked few people, had never loved and liked at the same time for long; she could not afford not to like herself. Dignity and consience were her shell and her recourse. She had presence, she was instructed, she judged, she was too tall; men treaterd her as she appeared to them, and never, once, had she been spoken to in the way Julius spoke to Tzara, his chimpanzee. Nor was there anyone from whom this could have been entirely acceptable: she sought rectititude, success, character; looks, wit and mind, and had never found them united in one person. Without looks she could not be moved, looks and a civilized facade; mind she was long resigned tofinding only among those of her acquaintance who were slovenly and self-interested, or slovenly and indifferent; and at that period of her life she was quite alone.
Sarah's natural toughness, her cold facade, are drawn so convincingly, made so familiar and comprehensible--and, importantly, sympathetic--that when we learn, in a passage I quoted from yesterday, that she has fallen in what Bedford describes as "late love," the very revelation is moving. When we find (and here those of you who might be thinking of reading A Legacy should probably stop reading; the scenes on which I'm basing the rest of this post are best encountered in context), perhaps not unexpectedly, that the object of her love is fickle and flighty and probably unworthy, we ache for her--yet at the same time, Bedford draws that love so well that we understand.

The object of Sarah's love is revealed to us at a dinner party. She turns out to be a married woman named Caroline, who arrives decidedly late, spraying apologies to the assembled:
"How can you ever forgive me? That endless Brahms--you know the way that never stops. And then of course no cabs, there's a blizzard--"
She whirls through the party, "hugging silence, sometimes bubbling to the surface in a splash of talk," at one point managing an amusing exchange with Sarah's brother-in-law and friend Julius:
"Dinner parties," Julius told her, "so unnecesary. Large ones. So many people eating together. The after-dinner faces--it is so unbecoming to the women."

"How like Lord Byron."

"The poet?" said Julius with the recklessness of someone trying a very long shot.

She smiled at him, all on the surface now. "Lord Byron, the poet."
But later, when the crowd has thinned, Sarah corners her:
"My dear."

"And I wanted to say, I don't see how you can forgive me for tonight. It was unpardonable. But you know--"

"My dear--it was not Brahms this afternoon, it was Schumann. I know: because I was there."

"No? What a lark." She smiled at Sarah with her eyes. "Darling, then you're able to say that you saw me."

"Please, please my dear, be careful. Oh I beg you."

"I might. A little. To please you--to throw something to the gods."

"And were you supposed to have changed into this dress in the cab?"

Her look turned inward again as if to meet a memory.

"Should you even talk so much about going alone in cabs?"

"Not alone."

"I am frightened."

"I am happy." The face became drawn; then her eyes met Sarah's fully, she very lightly touched her hand with her hand. "Sarah--I am so happy. The world--"

"It does not make you invisible. Nor invulnerable."

"But it does," said Caroline, "it does, it does."
My god, that recklessness, that life, that glow--can't you see it? Haven't we all fallen for it at some point, despite knowing better? I get chills every time I read that scene, and what follows in the remaining 150+ pages, as relationships, marriages, families come and go, is worthy of that shiver.

A Legacy is a brilliant book; I'm with Nancy Mitford, who wrote to Evelyn Waugh that it "all seemed perfect to me."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Warning: Open Windows Can Be Hazardous

{Photo by rocketlass, who, busy shooting, made no effort to save these children.}

It's not quite as balanced nor as terse as Felix Feneon's writing, but this bit from Gary Indiana's Gone Tomorrow (1992) did bring to mind the casual violence and viper's sting of Feneon's Novels in Three Lines:
Paul said that Hannah, after breaking up with Vale, the cameraman, resumed an old affair with a policeman, who apparently brutalzed her, beat her up all the time, the details were unclear. At any rate, out the window she went.
Meanwhile, Feneon himself--having last year been rescued from the obscurity of the pre-war French newspaper Le Matin via a Luc Sante translation of his acrid little mouthfuls published by the New York Review of Books--has this week stepped fully into our post-millennial world: he's Twittering from beyond the grave. Which seems perfect.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"A most disagreeable instrument, I hear."

Midway through Sybille Bedford's wonderful novel of pre-war Germany, A Legacy (1956) there occurs a very funny bit of dialogue between a woman, Sarah, and her brother-in-law, Julius, with whom she has developed a close, if somewhat mutually uncomprehending, friendship over the years. We have been warned in the preceding paragraph, in Bedford's simultaneously elliptic and epigrammatic fashion, that, unexpectedly, something is up with Sarah:
Late love has this in common with first love, it is again involuntary. In the event, Sarah did make a large sum of money by playing the French Rente; she did not get the Monet, but she bought another, and she also bought a Seurat, yet these achievements hardly weighed with her at all: if she had chosen them to keep herself diverted and absorbed, she was that winter--rapt in discovery, borne on laughter, freshly, involuntarily, magically absorbed. She was also something else, she was happy.
But we've as yet been given no details when the next paragraph opens with dialogue:
"Do you know anyone who can help one to get a telephone?"


"T e l e p h o n e."

"A most disagreeable instrument, I hear," said Julius.

"Obviously you're no help."

"A friend of mine has one. Somebody put it in for her as a surprise. It is used for ordering oysters when it's too late for sending a petit bleu. But the petit bleu is quicker."

"Extraordinary housekeeping. Your friend could hardly be willing to wrench it off her wall and give it to me? We must get our benighted Embassy to do something. You must speak to them."


"The brother-in-law of the Foreign Minister."

"Oh, poor Conrad; I don't think of him in that way."

"It's the way that best bears thinking about. They say it takes three weeks normally. I want it now."

"The telephone?"

"Yes, Jules."

"Whatever for?"

"To talk. To talk to one's friends in the morning."

"Sarah?" said Julius. "You are not expecting me to talk to you on the telephone?"

"No," Sarah said. "Not you."
In fewer than twenty lines Bedford sketches the heart of the difficulties that perpetually beset this family, the reliable inability of nearly every family member to properly attend to one another as actual people, with wishes and desires that just possibly might not be coterminous with their own. That she does so while also making us laugh--and at the same time beginning to cultivate the ache she'll later make us feel over Sarah's foredoomed love--is as good an example of the power of concision (or, as I referred to it the other day in writing about that past master of the art, Penelope Fitzgerald, the art of leaving out) as you'll ever see.

If I'm sufficiently organized, I'll have more to say later this week about this novel. Tonight, though, I have a question: when I first read this exchange, I immediately was sure I'd read a conversation about telephones in an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel that ran along similar lines. If it exists, I'm sure it's in one of the two that the New York Review of Books Classics line has reissued, Manservant and Maidservant or A House and Its Head. But in paging through those volumes a bit, I haven't been able to find it. Does this strike a chord with anyone else, or am I imagining it, based on how very Compton-Burnett the passage is?

{By the way: thanks to About Last Night contributor Our Girl in Chicago for leading me to pick up this novel. Compare something convincingly to Anthony Powell and you've got me every time . . . }

Saturday, August 09, 2008

"I cannot deny there is much repetition," or, Letters Week, Part VI!

From Canto XXI of The Beauty of the Husband (2001), by Anne Carson
To say what letters contain is impossible. Did you ever touch your tongue to a metal surface in winter--how it felt to not get a letter is easier to say.
In a comment to a post from earlier this week, Warren Hynes wrote,
Makes you wonder how much we're losing in our own chronicle of the modern day now that so many of us choose e-mails over old-fashioned letters. I can't imagine someday reading "The Collected E-mails of Dave Eggers."
It's a thought that's inescapable if you spend enough of your time reading letters collections: what have we lost with the decline of the letter? To take a simple example, So I Have Thought of You, the new volume of Penelope Fitzgerald's letters that I wrote about yesterday, is rich with business letters, notes to her editors and agents and publishers about various details regarding the publication of her books. Working in publishing, I find them fascinating--they offer a certain pleasant element of, "So that is how they used to do this!" And there's the occasional straight-up gem that originates in a work letter, like this one to Fitzgerald's publisher at Duckworth, Colin Haycraft:
I am in hopeless trouble (as usual) with all my Georgian permissions. Except for yourself, everyone who has to deal with them becomes maniacal, secretive, suspicious, very old or very ill. I'd no idea there would be such trouble.
Such communication does continue in today's offices via e-mail. But if my own e-mail archive is any indication, business e-mails in general attempt to make up in volume what they lack in clarity or lasting interest; if editing a chaotic trove of letters is a largely thankless task, then editing a lifetime of business e-mails would surely be resemble diabolic punishment.

It's the lost personal letters that are more pang-worthy, of course: what resources for understanding (or wickedly gossiping about) today's authors have we lost to the ephemerality of cell phones? At least The Collected E-mails of Dave Eggers is conceivable. The Collected Cell Phone Calls of Dave Eggers, with a New Appendix of Dropped Calls is a book only shelvable in the Imaginary Library.

I do still write letters fairly regularly, though more from of a dislike of the telephone than out of concern for posterity, the very thought that someone might want to someday collect my letters being ludicrous. (And, I have to confess, were it not ludicrous, the thought would almost instantly send me--despite all my complaints about destructive authors--matches in hand, to the nearest trash barrel.) I've maintained reasonably reliable paper correspondences with a couple of friends for nearly fifteen years, as we've lived in different cities or even countries.

That leads me to today's letter, with which I'll close Letters Week: in part because of our years-long correspondence, for Christmas this year I gave my friend Maggie Bandur a copy of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1748), whose 1,536 pages reign over the form of the epistolary novel. Knowing that Clarissa has its fans (including Jenny Davidson), I gave it in all kindness--but I will admit to being unsurprised when the cynical and worldly Ms. Bandur assumed I had given it as a cruel dare, an unspoken challenge to her honor. Refusing to take umbrage at her impugning of my intentions, I pleased myself instead with the knowledge that her misconception meant she would plow through the book with unstoppable determination.

Which she did. The result was a letter, received Friday, from which I draw the excerpts below:
My Dear Mister Stahl,
I hope you will excuse the familiarity of my addres, but I know not how else to express my boundless gratitude for the gift of the most virtuous, but most ill-used Clarissa. What a noble creature! What an excellent moral leson! Alas, for me, it has come too late. But what are the sorrows and disappointments of this earth, compared to the comfort of being held in our Father's bosom for eternity? And believe me, I now know what eternity feels like.

In truth, I must confess the book is exceedingly long. . . . Although Clarissa longs for escape from this mean existence and her meaner troubles, she learns, "Death from grief was the slowest of deaths." Cowars and villains expire in one epistle; a saint of nineteen requires 1,300 pages.

In answer to your question if it is worth reading, yes, yes, a million times yes. Put aside all other pursuits and pick up--nay, heft, this volume, eyesight and back problems be d----d! I know this is not womanly speech; you must excuse the violence of my passions. How can anyone not love this most exemplary of women? . . .

The book is full of beautiful language, charming observations of human nature, and an excess of moralizing. . . . . I would not say I didn't enjoy the book, but there is so, so much of it. The moments of intense action come as a surprise. I cannot imagine that even in simpler times, people were desirous of such a very long, complete, and earnest lesson. I was not unhappy while reading, but I cannot deny it has been an albatross around my neck. . . . I read nine other books while working my way through this one, and I'm haunted by what I could have read instead. Three Dickens! The entire works of Graham Greene! And surely there is a paradox, that one can write a book so improving to the spirit and yet leave young people absolutely no time to pick up a Bible.

Richardson's conclusion warns against happy endings. For virtue to always be rewarded and evil always to be punished in literature creates an unreasonable expectation in the reader. Life is not fair, and we must be prepared for such. All the justice is in the hearafter. I do confess I yearn for the order I've seen only in art. Like punishments for those who give presents that can be seen only as a dare.

Ah, but you know my prideful ways as well as anyone. What are months of study and a new eyeglass prescription compared to the bragging rights I've acquired?

So thank you, dear sir. I am much improved in mind and spirit since last we met, although I remain,

Your humble servant,
Maggie Bandur
Ah, but Maggie, think of all the fun you can have once you get to the afterlife slagging on the book with Henry Fielding! Isn't that alone worth your investment of time?

As for me, well, as I'm sure my letters over the coming months will reveal, I'm busy developing a serious dread of next Christmas.

Friday, August 08, 2008

"The sale of letters is a strange thing, though, a very different matter, it seems to me, from books," or, Letters Week Part V!

What set me paging through my various collections of letters this week were the reviews heralding the publication in England of So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald--whose collection of essays and reviews, The Afterlife (2003), was the subject of my first published review, in the Bloomsbury Review--has long been a favorite, her concise and moving novels a forceful reminder of the power of leaving out; now that I have the volume of her letters in hand, I'm pleased to find that the intelligence, gently ironic humor, and deep sympathy that mark her novels are in evidence in her correspondence as well.

I've only spent a couple of hours with the book so far, but I've already found much that's worth sharing. As I do with any book related to twentieth-century literary culture, I started with the index: Powell, Anthony. Powell does turn up, playing an unexpectedly heroic role, in a letter that is most likely from 1979 (Note to young writers: always include the year on your letters!) to novelist Francis King. At the time King was helping Fitzgerald research a biography of novelist L. P. Hartley, but Hartley's great love, Lord David Cecil, was stymieing her; she wrote,
My LPH situation has got better and worse, (in a way) as Anthony Powell, whom I went to see, rang up Lord David, out of pure kindness of heart, and told him to come off it, as Leslie's biography was sure to be written some time.
Powell's entreaty--delivered in perfectly Powellian fashion, relying equally on old-chap camaraderie and the inevitability posed by time's relentlessness--worked, as Lord David wrote Fitzgerald to say that he had "withdrawn all objections." Sadly, he soon adduced new ones, and the biography was never finished; our loss and Hartley's both, one has to believe, as Fitzgerald was a talented, perceptive, and kind biographer. She argued for the value of her approach in another letter to King:
A primary biography by people who know the subject and are really fond of him or her is a protection, I think. Perhaps artists should be judged by their work, but it's only too evident that they aren't.
That sympathy was where Fitzgerald rooted herself as a biographer; as she explained, first in a letter to her friend Hugh Lee in 1978, then again in more polished form to her American editor Chris Carduff in 1987,
[O]n the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

Fitzgerald frequently returned in her letters to the myriad difficulties facing a biographer. Here, for example, in a letter to her publisher Colin Haycraft, dated October 12, 1978, she noted early problems getting needed information about Hartley:
I asked for information about Leslie Hartley in the TLS and got a number of replies, some referring discreetly to the drink problem--one of my difficulties however is that the only person I can find who was actually at Harrow with Leslie (in 1910) is Paul Bloomfield, who is at the same time much too easy and much too difficult to deal with, and also I wonder how much longer he'll last?
I particularly enjoy that letter because, though Fitzgerald is writing it from the perspective of a biographer, the line about Bloomfield--who is simultaneously too easy and too difficult--is the thought of a novelist, marveling at layers of complexity. A similar tone inflects a line from a letter to writer Harvey Pitcher, whom she was attempting to buck up about a biography he was struggling with:
What is odd is that the people concerned, it seems, both did, and didn't, want to conceal everything.
In another letter to Pitcher, from 1988, she succinctly defended the biographer's art, while addressing the question--inescapable for fans of the form--of the lasting emotional effect of digging so deeply into another's life:
I was surprised, though, at what you said about biography. It seems to me that (particularly if you have the letters, and if you knew the subject yourself or can get hold of someone who knew the subject) you can know him or her at least as well as anyone you meet in real life. The trouble is that it's rather difficult to shake the people off when the book is written, and return to yourself. They're not to be got rid of so easily.

Fitzgerald's biographical endeavors also caused her to be particularly attentive to the fates of letters. Still wrestling with the Hartley problem, she wrote to King on June 2, 1978 that, unfair though it may be, she's sure that a new, revealing biography of Edith Sitwell will frighten friends and relations of Hartley into reticence, and
I'm sure going to upset Norah very much and cause more wholesale destruction of letters &c. Well,--"publishing scoundrels!"
Of an earlier biographical subject, the poet Charlotte Mew, she wrote to Forster scholar Mary Lago in 1994,
I never did manage to find the crucial letters or information, although I'm sure they exist; Professor Friedmann said to me--"if there's no proof that a letter's been burned, it must exist somewhere.
Alas, I fear that Professor Friedman is overly optimistic, time and chaos being the fiends they pride themselves on being.

I'll close with a line that made me break out in a broad smile, from a letter of November 20, 1980 to her editor Richard Ollard:
It would be better to write long novels and short letters.
No fan of Fitzgerald's novels could wish that she'd taken her advice seriously; now that I've gotten a chance to enjoy her letters, I'm doubly glad.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

"I am religious!!!" or, Letters Week, Part IV

For today's installment of Letters Week, I've got two bits of more or less straight comedy. The first comes from Dorothy Parker, whose wit shines through everything she wrote, her letters being no exception. From The Portable Dorothy Parker, here's the opening of a letter to her sister, Helen Rothschild Grimwood, from sometime in 1939--the sensitive among you should be warned that it involves domestic animals coming to harm, though they survive it intact:
Dear Mrs. G., some day I will write you a letter containing good news, but so far the day hasn't dawned. Now last night, for example, Alan ran over Poupee, the poodle. . . . Her damages were a badly cut hind paw and a nasty case of shock (which I may say is nothing to the one Alan sustained) and, I hope, a resolve not to run barking out at cars any more. She is now in the hospital at Doylestown, where she has joined Jack, the Dalmation, who has an infection of his blood stream that made him come out in great horrible sores--and he did so enjoy being beautiful! He wouldn't be badly off if he had been taken to the doctor's in time, but Miss Gordon didn't get around to it while we were away. In fact, all the time we were away Miss Gordon stayed really magnificently drunk and neglected everything except the truck, which she smashed to pieces. Miss Gordon is with us no more, and I can't tell you the relief that is. It's funny how you think you can't get along without somebody and then when they finally do go, you realize they have been a burden and an irritant for years.

Six is fine. I don't need to mention that. When the poodle was run over and lay writhing in blood, he ran out and attacked her savagely. Sealyhams are glorious.
And here's an author less well-known for his humor, Gustave Flaubert, writing about his ambitions to his friend, writer Ernest Feydeau in August 21, 1859
after prolonged meditations, I want to invent a lovely autobiography, so as to ensure a good name for myself:
1 From my earliest years I have uttered all the famous saying in history: we shall fight in the dark--you are in my light--once more into the breach--a horse, a horse etc.

2 I was such a lovely young thing that all my nursemaids masturbated me until they dislocated their wrists . . . and the duchesse de Berry stopped her carriage so as to give me a kiss (historical fact).

3 I gave every sign of prodigious intelligence. Before the age of ten, I knew various oriental languages and I was reading Laplace's Celestial Mechanics.

4 I have saved 48 people from death by fire.

5 For a bet, one day I ate 15 sirloins of beef, and I can still easily manage to drink 72 big barrels of whisky.

6 I have killed 20 carabineers in the course of dueling. One day we were but three and they were ten thousand. We gave them a bloody good thrashing!

7 I have satiated the entire harem of hte Grand Turk. All the women, when they saw me, used to say: "How handsome he is! Taieb! Zeb Ketir!"

8 I steal into the peasant hovel and the working-class slum to bring relief to their unseen wretchedness. Here I see an old man, there I see a young girl, and so on (complete the sentence) and I bestow gold in great handfuls.

9 I have an income of a hundred thousand pounds. I give parties.

10 Publishers fight to get my manuscripts; I am pperpetually asailed by invitations from all the royal courts of Northern Europe.

11 I know all the "secrets of state".

12 (and lastly) I am religious!!! I insist that all my servants take communion.
This does make me wonder: could I squeeze the most outsized iteration of my ambitions into twelve points?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"I'm jolly near being mad," or, Letters Week, Part III!

Continuing with Letters Week here at I've Been Reading Lately, today we turn to two of my favorite writers of chatty, catty, caustic letters: Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. I've drawn many a time before from the collection of their letters that Nancy's niece Charlotte Mosley edited back in 1996, but it's a nearly inexhaustible volume--fans of either writer should unquestionably have this book at hand.

No real organization or plan today: just a grab-bag of good stuff, gleanings from my most recent perusal of the correspondence.

First, an exchange that, while being a bit too minor to qualify for my Consigned to the Flames series, at least reminds us of the difficulties confronting those who undertake the relatively thankless task of editing literary letters. We begin with a request in a letter from Evelyn to Nancy, dated September 29, 1952
I believe you keep my letters. A month or so ago I wrote a nasty one about Clarissa [Churchill]. Will you be very kind & burn it?
Nancy, looking ahead, speaks for us all in her response the next day:
What a very rum request. I specially treasure your nasty letters, posterity will love them so.
But as a writer of the occasional scathing letter herself, she understands, and instantly gives in, continuing with, "However just as you say."

Next, a lament from Nancy that will be familiar to all the writers out there, opening a letter of November 25, 1951:
I've been struggling with my article all the afternoon--must relax (Oh I loathe work--do you think I'm rich enough now to stop?)
It seems right to move from that into a chiding from Evelyn, dated March 31st of that year, to a casual complaint from Nancy about having to revise the manuscript of her novel The Blessing:
Now none of this. No complaints about headaches. Revision is just as important as any other part of writing and must be done con amore.
But as anyone who has read any of Waugh's travel writing knows, Waugh is no stranger to the form of the complaint--the more specifically and absurdly articulated the better. In a letter sent from La Baule, France, on August 18, 1949, he begins by reclaiming a word, "ineffable," that is all too often left to chillmasters like M. R. James, and he only gets better from there:
I am in a town of ineffable horror. You might have warned me. There i a strip of sand, a row of hotels and sand-dunes & pines at the back. This is the worst of the many hotels. I came here with my boy Auberon in an aeroplane on Monday to join your great new friend Pamela. I came to the hotel and was told she was too ill to see me & that there was no room for me in the hotel. I assumed adultery but investigations there seem to prove that there was no politician or journalist concealed in her room. The rooms are too small for one. Mine has a "bathroom"--a sandy trough behind a curtain, a broken bidet & no lulu which is all one really needs. The public lulus are balkan.
I love the way the very English second-person "one" in that next-to-last sentence half-dodges the real problem: that the rooms are too small for him.

Evelyn seems to have particularly enjoyed appraising and diagnosing Nancy's emotional state from afar, a practice of which she was apparently surprisingly tolerant. In this letter of January 27, 1952, for example, he succinctly (and amusingly) links her to her sister Deborah, known in the family as Honks:
I have long recognized your euphoria as a pathological condition as morbid as Honks's melancholy. You each choose minor exterior conditions to explain yours states--oddly enough the same one--France.
Perhaps what made Evelyn's appraisals--and even occasional lectures--tolerable was that he was also willing to turn a relatively exacting eye on himself on occasion, as in this letter of December 5, 1949, in which you can still, sixty years later, feel the throb of his hangover:
I have been an invalid for a week recuperating from a brief visit to London. I get so painfully drunk whenever I go there. (Champagne, the shortest road out of Welfaria) and nowadays it is not a matter of a headache and an aspirin but of complete collapse, with some clear indications of incipient lunacy. I think I am jolly near being mad & need very careful treatment if I am to survive another decade without the strait straight? jacket.
While we're on the subject of melancholy, here's Nancy with an only half-joking lament from September 21, 1949--which also takes care of today's obligatory Cyril Connolly reference:
I am appalled to find that in this week's Horizon there is not one single article I can understand. It's not a question of "I don't quite see what you're getting at" I simply do not understand it, it's like a foreign language. (Except for one fragment which is too sad to read--yes & why is everything always sad fragments now? You might say of modern books sadly fragmented instead of well documented.) What does it mean--ought I to commit suicide? I don't dare ask Cyril he is so touchy & he might think I imply a reproach.
Finally, I'll close with a straight-up joke. Evelyn had written to Nancy an aside about an old woman who refused to use the WC--West City--postal code because of the unpleasant associations of those initials. On November 23, 1955, Nancy with the verve of the true comedian, fired back a response--and a one-up:
Even Winston always puts in the Spencer to avoid W. C. I always think it's rather common of him--his American blood no doubt. But even I wouldn't care for the initials of an old neighbour of ours V. D.
Well played, Nancy, well played.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"We both are rather comic people," or, Letters Week, Part II!

It seems right to follow the high seriousness of Tolstoy's letters with the more down-to-earth concerns of Barbara Pym. She offers a nice contrast, too in that, for all that Tolstoy took himself too seriously, Pym, at least in her letters, often presented herself too lightly; like the sharper characters in her novels, she tended to try to put the best face on bad news, offering up everything with a leaven of wry, self-deprecating humor.

In this letter to Henry Harvey, a longtime object of failed love interest, for example, her attempts at levity can't hide the emotional strain of a collapsed affair:
I can't exactly remember what I did tell you in my last letter. Did I tell you that I was in love and that it was all hopeless? I expect so--well if I did you may be interested (and relieved?) to hear that we parted at Christmas and haven't seen or written to each other since then--a real Victorian renunciation--the sort of thing I adore in novels, but find extremely painful in real life. Of course we may come together again in the future--time alone will tell (sorry!) but in the meantime he thought it better I should try to find somebody else who can marry me, which he wouldn't be able to do for at least a year. . . . Luckily we both are rather comic people so it isn't as bad as it sounds.
Or take this letter to her friend Bob Smith, from April 22, 1954, about her recurring struggles with the publishing industry:
I had a letter from Jock recently. He liked Jane and Prudence very much. But the Americans and Continentals most definitely don't and now I am feeling a little bruised! In answer to my enquiries Cape tells me that 8 Americans and 10 Continental publishers saw and "declined" (that seems to be the word) Excellent Women and they are still plodding on with J & P. So humble yourself, Miss Pym, and do not give yourself airs!
But late on this Tuesday night, something more truly cheerful seems in order--and what's more reliably entertaining than descriptions of Cyril Connolly? This one is from another letter to Henry Harvey, dated February 20, 1946:
If you haven't read Cyril Connolly's book The Unquiet Grave, you will wonder what I am talking about and say [angst] is just one of my silly German words, but as I expect you have read it you will see that I am keeping up to date with all our clever young men. Not that he is young exactly--he is approaching forty, indeed, probably is forty now, is fat and given to self-pity and nostalgia. But he is clever and puts his finger on what it is we suffer from now--though maybe you don't in the bracing air of Sweden. He is "soaked in French Literature"--not my expression, but the kind of thing one would like to be!
And this passage from a letter to her friend Richard Campbell Roberts, from January 5, 1965, seems a good way to close for today:
It says on this Airmail pad that 12 sheets and an envelope weighs less than half an nounce, but I doubt if I can go on at that length. Also I am writing this in the office in the morning, which seems frightfully sinful.
If simply writing a letter in the office of a morning makes her feel sinful, I think she needs a copy of Personal Days! Ed, how's your time machine working?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Dear I've Been Reading Lately,

A discussion this week with Jenny Davidson about the publication of So I Have Thought of You, a collection of letters from the splendid Penelope Fitzgerald (a copy of which is winging its way to me across the ocean as we speak) has convinced me that this week ought to be, despite not a whit of planning on my part, a Letters Week! I do, after all, love letters.

Fortunately for this theme, I happened to begin the week with a bit from Kafka's letters. As I've also recently been reading Tolstoy's letters, it seems right to continue by quoting a letter from him that, unusually, could serve as the opening--or perhaps even the whole--of a story by Kafka. Sent to his English translator Aylmer Maude on November 3, 1910, at the end of his ill-starred final flight from the (somewhat self-induced) marital hell of Yasnaya Polyana, it was written in English in response to a letter Maude had sent inquiring about his health. Tolstoy's letter in full reads:
On my way to the place where I wished to be alone I was taken ill . . .
Four days later he was dead.

Tolstoy's letters, like his biography, serve as a reminder, should we need one, that acute perceptiveness and talent needn't necessarily bring with them true understanding of oneself, one's relations to others, or--perhaps most troubling--of how one ought to live in the world. A passage from a letter to Turgenev, sent from Moscow in May of 1882, illustrates this poignantly:
I'm quite calm, but sad--often because of the exultant, self-assured madness of the life of the people around me. I often don't understand why it has been granted to me to see their madness so clearly, and they are completely incapable of understanding their own madness and their own errors; and we just stand opposite each other without understanding each other, being astonished, and condemning each other. Only they are legion, and I am one. They seem to be happy and I seem to be sad.
He was right about his understanding, insufferable because of it, and never quite capable of reconciling what he knew of other people and what he knew of himself. Therein lies the tragic sadness of Tolstoy's life.