Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sure, you should put it in your tea . . . but seriously, folks--let's trust W. C. Fields and stop there.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Nearly a year ago, with the help of Tobias Smollett and Peter Ackroyd, I warned about the perils of drinking milk, which range from dreadful sobriety to painful gout.

Had I recalled it at the time, I could also have drawn on the experienced opinion of Dairyman Crick, who gives Tess Durbeyfield employment as a milker:
She drank a little milk as temporary refreshment--to the surprise--indeed, slight contempt--of Dairyman Crick, to whose mind it had apparently never occurred that milk was good as a beverage.

"Oh, if ye can swaller that, be it so," he said indifferently, while one held up the pail that she spped from. " 'Tis what I hain't touched for years--not I. Rot the stuff; it would lie in my innerds like lead."
That exchange is followed by a scene of the milking crew in action together. It's rich with details of Victorian country life that I would have passed over inattentively on my first reading of Tess when I was in college, but that I now prize as an example of one of my favorite characteristics of novels--their tendecy to incidentally preserve the living details of lost ways of life. Here the dairyman and his crew run through some folk wisdom:
"To my thinking," said the dairyman, rising suddenly from a cow he had just finished off, snatching up his three-legged stool in one hand and the pail in the other, and moving on to the next hard-yielder in his vicinity; "to my thinking, the cows don't gie down their milk to-day as usual. Upon my life, if Winker do begin keeping back like this, she'll not be worth going under by midsummer."

" 'Tis because there's a new hand come among us," said Jonathan Kail. "I've noticed such things afore."

"To be sure. It may be so. I didn't think o't."

"I've ben told that it goes up into their horns at such times," said a dairymaid.

"Well, as to going up into their horns," replied Dairyman Crick dubiously, as though even witchcraft might be limited by anatomical possibilities, "I couldn't say; I certainly could not. But as nott cow will keep it back as well as the horned one. I don't quite agree to it."
Ultimately the crew decides to "life up a stave or two" to coax the recalcitrant cows, a practice that remained at least until 1951, when Alan Lomax took his Nagra out to collect folk songs in Scotland and had a milker assure him that her singing "Makes the cow more content, and she gives more milk when she hears me singing."

For their part, the cows in Tess seem unbothered by the fact that the song chosen is about "a murderer who was afraid to go to bed in the dark because he saw certain brimstone flames around him." The reader can easily imagine a young Thomas Hardy witnessing such a song and carefully storing it away . . . for the edification of us readers, supermarket milk-buyers all, more than a century later.

But good god, that doesn't mean we should drink the stuff! Why do you think gin was invented?!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On re-reading Tess

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In her biography of Thomas Hardy, Claire Tomalin writes, "[Hardy] could . . . use his sense of the world's random cruelty to make a masterpiece." I have just begun reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) for the first time since the spring of 1994, when I was turning twenty. Last year's visit to Hardy's native Dorset, where rocketlass (whom I'd not met when last I read the novel) and I traced the young Hardy's steps through the heath from Higher Bockhampton to the market town of Dorchester, has given me exactly the sort of additional context that can make re-reading so powerful; fourteen years of living have done their part as well.

Mere pages in, I am captivated. Memories of the whole rush in upon me with sufficient force that I can already agree with Tomalin:
To read Tess is an emotional experience; to write it must have been an overwhelming one. . . . [Hardy] was exact when he said a novel is not an argument but an impression, and this novel lives through its impressions of Tess and the landscapes through which she moves.
And here are the first of those impressions:
A young member of the band turned her head at the exclamation. She was a fine and handsome girl--not handsomer than some others, possibly--but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment. . . . Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience. The dialect was on her tongue to some extent, despite the village school. . . . Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still. As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.

Yet few knew, and still fewer considered this. A small minority, mainly strangers, would look long at her in casually passing by, and grow momentarily fascinated by her freshness, and wonder if they would ever see her again: but to almost everybody she was a fine and picturesque country girl, and no more.
T. S. Eliot wrote of Hardy,
What again and again introduces a note of falsity into Hardy's novels is that he will leave nothing to nature, but will always be giving one last turn of the screw himself, and of his motives for so doing I have the gravest suspicion.
That's true of Jude the Obscure (1895), which eventually turns so grimly gothic as to be laughable, but in Tess we feel the workings of true, implacable fate, abetted (or even goaded) by the inherent cruelties of society. Hardy himself provocatively wrote in his explanatory note to the first edition,
I would ask that any too genteel reader, who cannot endure to have said what everybody nowadays thinks and feels, to remember a well-worn sentence of St Jerome's: If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"I repair the omission now," or, a pleasant coincidence

{Photo of Thomas Hardy's boyhood home by rocketlass.}

I learned today from Paul Collins's blog, Weekend Stubble, that the Times of London has begun a new blog that draws from their archives--and, in a coincidence that allows for a pleasant follow-up to yesterday's post about Thomas Hardy and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), one of their first posts features a letter of thanks that Hardy sent the paper following a strongly positive review of Tess:
Max Gate

My dear Sir,

I cannot let your notice of my novel in to-day’s Times pass by without sending you a line to express my thanks and also my sense of the generous insight which recognizes the spirit and aim of a writer when his achievement is only too faulty.

Yours very faithfully
Thomas Hardy
It's well worth clicking through to the post itself, for it also features a second letter, this one thanking the Times for a review of Life's Little Ironies (1894), as well as images of the letters themselves, now held in the paper's archive.

Yet another blog to add to my Google reader . . .

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Mr. Hardy was of medium height and figure . . . his expression placid rather than sad."

{Photo of Thomas Hardy's boyhood home by rocketlass.}

Earlier this week I raved about the many pleasures to be found in The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (2007), offering a couple of examples from the entry for Lord Byron, whose life spun off enough rich anecdotes to fill a personal Decameron.

It would seem wrong, however, to close discussion of the book without also turning to another of this blog's favorite preoccupations, Thomas Hardy; fortunately, the volume doesn't disappoint when it comes to Dorchester's greatest export. First, we learn that Hardy had something unexpected in common with Vladimir Nabokov: both were synesthetes, as Elliot Felkin's "Days with Thomas Hardy" (published in Encounter in 1962) reveals:
He went on to talk about days of the week and colours and associations. Monday was colourless, and Tuesday a little less colourless, and Wednesday was blue--"this sort of blue" pointing to an imitation Sevres plate--and Thursday is darker blue, and Friday is dark blue, and Saturday is yellow, and Sunday is always red.
And Tess fans can't help but marvel at this story, told by Hardy's second wife, Florence, in her The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1930), of a hospital visit to Hardy's friend Lord Pembroke:
He [Pembroke] was now ill at a nursing home in London, and an amusing incident occurred while his visitor was sitting by his bedside one afternoon, thinking what havoc of good material it was that such a fine and handsome man should be prostrated. He whispered to Hardy that there was a "Tess" in the establishment, who always came if he rang at that time of day, and that he would do so then that Hardy might see her. He accordingly rang, whereupon Tess's chronicler was much disappointed at the result; but endeavoured to discern beauty in the very indifferent figure who responded, and at last persuaded himself that he could do so. When she had gone the patient apologized, saying that for the first time since he had lain there a stranger had attended to his summons.
The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes includes a handful of additional Hardy stories, all good--but really nothing can touch the trove that is Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), edited by Martin Ray. A compilation of firsthand accounts of Hardy by both the well- and the little-known, it offers page after fascinating page of sheer pleasure for the Hardy fan. Sure, it costs £55 (which, until John McCain unsuspends the suspension of the suspension of his campaign and flat-out superheros this economic crisis, is something like $1,000,000,000.34), but where else are you going to find such a collection of Hardy anecdotes?

Hell, I would argue that this one from Augustus John's Chiaroscuro: Fragments of Autobiography (1952) is worth nearly £55 on its own, if for no other reason than the vehemence of Hardy's protest:
Thomas Hardy had good reason to view with anxiety the demonstrations of some of his admirers. One of these, hailing from the USA, on the strength of a few minutes interview, produced a book entitled Thomas Hardy's Universe [Ernest Brennecke, 1952--ed.], in which the poet was described as soliloquizing before the fire, while smoking a succession of cigarettes. "But," said Hardy, with a gesture of despair, "I have never smoked a cigarette in my life!"
Or this nuanced appraisal from Edmund Gosse's obituary of Hardy in the Sunday Times of January 15, 1928:
[Hardy] needed all the natural magic of his genius to prevent his work, interpenetrated as it was by this resigned and hopeless melancholy, from becoming sterile, but joy streamed into it from other sources--the joy of observation, of sympathy, of humour. Yet, after all, the core of Hardy's genius was austere and tragical, and this has to be taken into consideration, and weighed in every estimation of his writings. It was a curious fact, and difficult to explain, that this obvious aspect of his temperament was the one which he firmly refused to contemplate. The author of Tess of the d'Urbervilles conceived himself to be an optimist.
Or, returning to Tess, this account of authorial travails from Frank A. Hedgcock's "Reminiscences of Thomas Hardy" (published in the National and English Review of October 1951):
He thought that public opinion was probably right in regarding it as his best novel; but he had put too much feeling into it to recall it with pleasure.
However, my favorite of Hardy's references to Tess (aside, that is, from this one) comes from Desmond MacCarthy's "Thomas Hardy: The Writer" (published in the BBC magazine The Listener on June 6, 1940). For its sheer disingenuousness, this anecdote alone is definitely worth £55, exchange rates be damned:
Once when we were passing some spot in Tess he said to me, "If I had thought that story was going to be such a success, I'd have made it a really good book."
Methinks a re-read of Tess may be on my autumn calendar.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Warning Signs

{Photo by rocketlass.}

1 Page 423 (of 765) of The Box from Japan (1932) by Harry Stephen Keeler offers a challenge to the intrepid mystery reader:

THIS IS A CHALLENGE TO YOU. At this point all the characters and clues have been presented. It should now be possible for you to solve the mystery.


Here's your chance to do a little detective work on your own--a chance to test your powers of deduction. Review the mystery and see if you can solve it at this point.

Remember! THIS IS A SPORTING PROPOSITION, made in an effort to make the reading of mystery stories more interesting to you. So--don't read any further. Reach your solution now. Then proceed.

2 Page 248 (of 352) of Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop's Autonauts of the Cosmoroute (1983, translated into English in 2007 by Anne McLean) delivers a gentle warning to the reader who may have been too blithely enjoying the pair's tales of their thirty-day sojourn on the Paris-Marseilles freeway:
Reading these pages
has it not occurred to you
at least once, oh complicit
and patient reader, to wonder whether
we haven't been hidden in some
hotel room in la Villette since
the 23rd of May?

In the cases of both books--full of ignorance in the former, trust in the latter--I ignored the warnings and plunged boldly, not to say carelessly, ahead. And was rewarded.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"Come on," he shouted, "I am always better after vomiting."

Looking for a temporary distraction from the unremittingly grim fourth section of Roberto Bolano's 2666, this evening I dipped into the nearest repository of lit-nerd manna, The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (2008), where I once again found some good stuff to share.

We'll start with a story that has the distinction of featuring a couple of recurrent I've Been Reading Lately fascinations: Lord Byron (whose admonition to his friend Edward John Trelawny provides this post's headline) and inappropriate pets. From Leslie Marchand's Byron: A Portrait (1971):
When he returned to Cambridge in the autumn, he bought a tame bear and lodged him in the small hexagonal tower above his rooms. He enjoyed the sensation he made when he took bruin for walks on a chain like a dog. He announced with pride to Elizabeth Pigot: "I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what i meant to do with him, and my reply was, 'he should sit for a fellowship.'"
For another comment on Byron, we move to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from the entry of May 18, 1866 in the diary of poet William Allingham:
We spoke of Byron. T. greatly admired him in boyhood, but does not now.

"When I heard of his death (it was at Somersby, my Father's rectory) I went out to the back of the house and cut on a wall with my knife, 'Lord Byron is dead.'"

"Parts of Don Juan are good, but other parts are badly done. I like some of his small things."

A.--"Any of his Tales, or Mysteries, or Plays?"
A.--"He was the one English writer who disparaged Shakespeare. He was a Lord, and talked about, and he wrote vulgarly, therefore he was popular."
T.--"Why am I popular? I don't write very vulgarly."
A.--"I have often wondered that you are, and Browning wonders."
T.--"I believe it's because I'm Poet-Laureate. It's something like being a lord."
I love the query, "Why am I popular?" Is Tennyson actually mystified, or is he simply fishing for compliments?

Following the chain of references, we come unexpectedly to Churchill. In this excerpt from Violet Bonham Carter's Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1965), Sir Winston, about to be made Home Secretary in 1910, discusses with Bonham Carter the question of suitable reading material for prison inmates:
I asked what books he thought they would enjoy and he trotted out several old favourites from his first days of self-education at Bangalore headed by Gibbon and Macaulay. I expressed some doubts about the popularity of his list. "If you had just committed murder would you feel inclined to read Gibbon?" "Well, the stern and speedy process of the Law might place a noose around my neck and string me up before I had time to launch myself on that broad stream. But for robbery with violence, arson, rape . . ." Here followed a long inventory of crimes well fitted to whet the appetite of their authors for Gibbon. I said that I would rather be hanged than endure a life-sentence. He vehemently disagreed. "Never abandon life. There is a way out of everything--except death." He was obviously confident of finding his way out of a life-sentence and I daresay he was right. I quoted Dickens, "Life is given us on the understanding that we defend it to the last." He liked that and repeated it to himself. "'Defend it to the last'--I'd do it. So would you. What is it you once called yourself--'red in tooth and claw'? I like to see you plunge your claws--those delicate and rosy claws--into the vitals of a foe." "It wasn't my phrase, it was Tennyson's." "Never read him. Should I like his books?" "Not much I think, nor would the criminals."
I agree: it's hard to imagine Parker dipping into Tennyson should he find himself unlucky enough to be behind bars. And what must the rest of Churchill's list of Gibbon-suitable crimes have included?

Which leads me close with an anecdote of Edward Gibbon himself, from Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856):
Gibbon took very little exercise. He had been staying some time with Lord Sheffield in the country; and when he was about to go away, the servants could not find his hat. "Bless me," said Gibbon, "I certainly left it in the hall on my arrival here." He had not stirred out of doors during the whole of the visit.
Now there is a point at which we modern folks--even those dedicated readers who are the natural audience for this wonderful anthology--have an advantage: in the absence of the brace of servants that Gibbon had at his beck, we at least have to put the book down and leave the house every once in a while. The gin, after all, does eventually run out.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Homage to Czerny

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I'm planning to review Roberto Bolano's 2666 for the Seminary Co-op Bookstore's new blog. Well, my first review for them is posted there now. It's of a new novel published by the good people at Dalkey Archive, Gert Jonke's strange and wonderful Homage to Czerny (1977, translated in 2008 by Jean M. Snook), which at times reads like the work of a Thomas Bernhard who has become addicted to whimsy.

One passage I particularly liked, but didn't find an appropriate place for in my review, is this one:
Now everything started to happen very quickly, moving to its confusing end, the memory of it in my head is only fleeting and hazy, as though my stacks of orderly thoughts were somehow scattered violently, thrown up in the air, I was carried away, I don't remember exactly how.
Now that I think about it, that's a pretty good description of how I felt at the end of several hours of reading 2666 last night.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The sense of an ending, or, I think this is the shortest post I've ever written

{Photo by rocketlass.}

When I begin reading a novel, I always flip to the back to see how long it is, and as I read I'm always conscious of that looming final page: I'm a third of the way through; I'm halfway through; I'm nearly there. The knowledge of the distance to the end helps me keep my attention on the structure of the novel, on where its dramatic points and narrative shifts come, on what might still be possible.

I'm not doing that right now. I'm deep into the first of five utterly distinct sections of an advance reader's copy of Roberto Bolano's forthcoming 2666, which I'll be reviewing for the Seminary Co-op's new blog . . . and while I know how long the whole novel is, I have no idea where this section ends. Instead, I'm just along for the ride, willing to let Bolano take me where he will, for as long as he chooses. It's not just that I don't know: I don't even want to know. I'd rather dread.

I remember this feeling from reading The Savage Detectives: Bolano's narrative technique is strangely unmooring, propulsive yet at the same time somehow still seeming quotidian--the days and the anecdotes and half-anecdotes go by with little to suggest a pattern or a plan . . . yet dread builds, worry accumulates, my readerly desire to know what will happen fills the back of my mind, pacing and pacing and pacing as my more immediate, focused attention turns page after page after page.

If I can figure out how Bolano achieves that effect, I'll feel very smart indeed. And if 2666 sustains the force of its first 150 pages . . . well, I don't even quite know what to say.

{Photo of Roberto Bolano by Flickr user vonbergen.net, used under a Creative Commons license.}

In dreams

About six weeks ago, as the result of a tipsy promise to a friend, I read Infinite Jest for the first time, after years of pointedly avoiding it, having believed that no matter how much I admired David Foster Wallace's essays, his fiction was unlikely to appeal to my tastes. To some extent, I was right: Infinite Jest frustrated me (The Wheelchair Assassins) nearly as often--though not as deeply--as it stunned and moved me (the PGOAT, David Gately, Kate Gompert, Hal). Yet at the same time, I've not been able to shake the novel; ever since I turned the last page (and well before Wallace's death made it inescapable) it was hovering in the back of my mind.

Even so, when I woke this morning from two successive dreams about Infinite Jest, my first thought was that I had in no way deserved them--that I knew countless people, all bigger fans and better readers of Wallace, who should have gotten to dream these dreams instead of me. I suppose the best I can do is share them.

First, I dreamed that I was standing with Pemulis and Hal looking down on the courts at Enfield Tennis Academy from above as some people below shuffled the bleachers around. Suddenly, Pemulis and Hal noticed a pattern to the arrangement of the bleachers that replicated something they'd seen in a druggy vision--and they instantly lit out at top speed to execute some large-scale plan that up to that moment they hadn't quite understood. In the context of the dream, this obviously involved some of the later, unchronicled events that are hinted at or mentioned in the novel (like the night that David Gately helps Hal dig up Himself's head); it seemed instantly to open up new avenues for understanding all the ambiguities that Wallace scattered throughout the book.

Moments after that dream faded, I dreamed that Infinite Jest was actually a video game, and that by playing it long enough and well enough, I had been awarded a secret code that would unlock a whole slate of new characters. I entered the code, and as a list of dozens of names began scrolling down the screen, I shivered in awe, which woke me.

What left me so astonished on waking was how well these dreams seemed to fit with the expansive complexities of the novel. The emergence of patterns, the hope (or sometimes dangerous delusion) that there's more information, more knowledge, more something hidden somewhere, if only one can figure out how to get at it. And it seems right for a novel so concerned with how and what we throw away (or wish to throw away)--actual garbage, damaged people, poisonous memories, crippling desires--to crop up in dreams, which so often seem to serve as a combination of Norton Disk Doctor and small intestine for our weary minds. I thrilled to the memory of them all day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stark descriptions

An important date with C. C. Sabathia has kept me away from the computer for long enough that I can't offer a proper post tonight. Instead, I'll just quickly share a couple of sharply observed moments I've come across during my current Richard Stark jag. First, from Slayground (1971), a line I love about a guy working boring guard duty:
The guy was leaning against the wall there, smoking, looking at his cigarette between puffs as though trying to understand the principle of its operation.
Later in the novel, Parker gets the drop on a crooked but easily scared cop:
Parker nodded at the gun on Dunstan's hip. "Now there's that," he said. "I want you to take it out very slow, using thumb and forefinger only, and holding it only by the butt. Go ahead."

Dunstan did it, moving so slowly Parker almost told him to speed it up. But sweat was breaking out on Dunstan's face now, the idea of drawing the gun with Parker armed and standing in front of him was shaking him up so much he was liable to faint, so Parker waited him out, and when Dunstan finally held the gun out to him Parker took it, flipped open the chamber, and shook the cartridges out. Then he gave the gun back to Dunstan and told him, "Put it back in your holster." When Dunstan started trying to do it while holding the gun with thumb and forefinger, he said, "No, you can hold it the regular way now." Dunstan made a nervous embarrassed laugh and put the gun away.
Currently I'm about halfway through The Rare Coin Score, which introduces us to Claire, who will come to play a big role in Parker's life. As often happens when Parker can't instantly size up someone he meets, their first encounter doesn't go so well. She shows up at his hotel when he's expecting someone to arrive to tell him about a planned heist; surprised to see a woman, he rudely runs her through some code words before letting her in, then:
She came in, still unruffled and self-possessed, saying, "Is all that caution really needed at this point?"

He shut the door. "I didn't expect a woman," he said.

"Oh? Why not?"

"It's unprofessional."

She smiled slightly, with one side of her mouth. "It doesn't sound like a very rewarding profession."
Having first come across Claire in Stark's later novels, I'd always thought of her as a Jeanne Tripplehorn or Lara Flynn Boyle type, but that answer's straight Bacall. No wonder she turns out to be able to more or less keep up with Parker; I'd never have the guts to bet against Bacall.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Anyone else in Chicago feel like we've been plunked down in "All Summer in a Day"?

To get Ray Bradbury's grim short story off my mind, and to close out this rainy, rainy, rainy weekend, some lists (with all appropriate apologies to Sei Shonagon).

Things that are in no way resistant to--let alone proof against--water

1 The right member of the pair of shoes I chose to wear on a walk to the sandwich shop.

Things that once were Crispi but now most certainly are not

1 A Chicken Sandwicu left forlorn on the sidewalk during the two rainiest days in Chicago history.

Things which, though they might have stayed dry, instead got wet

1 My face, upturned along with my umbrella, to espy a V of passing geese.
2 My right sock.

Hard-to-find Parker novels by Richard Stark which, having miraculously appeared on my desk at the office, seem to be exactly what I needed to distract me from the monsoon

1 Deadly Edge
2 Slayground

What Parker would have to say about the incredible amount of rain that's fallen this weekend.

1 . . .

Saturday, September 13, 2008

David Foster Wallace, R.I.P.

Tolstoy, perhaps predictably, simultaneously offers acceptance and prescription in this letter from 1898:
The question "Has a man in general the right to kill himself?" is incorrectly put. There can be no question of "right". If he is able to do it, then he has the right. I think that the possibility of killing oneself is a safety-valve. Having it, man has no right (here the expression "right" is appropriate) to say that life is unbearable.

If it were impossible to live, then one would kill oneself; and consequently one cannot speak of life as being unbearable. The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may (he has the right to) kill himself, and he continually uses this right - when he kills himself in duels, in war, by dissipation, wine, tobacco, opium, etc.

The question can only be as to whether it is reasonable and moral (the reasonable and moral always coincide) to kill oneself. No, it is unreasonable; as unreasonable as to cut off the shoots of a plant which one wishes to destroy; it will not die, but will merely grow irregularly..

Life is indestructible; it is beyond time and space, therefore death can only change its form, arrest its manifestation in this world. But having arrested it in this world, I, first, do not know whether its manifestation in another world will be more pleasant to me; and, secondly, I deprive myself of the possibility of experiencing and acquiring by my ego all that could be acquired in this world.

Besides this, and above all, it is unreasonable because by arresting my life owing to its apparent unpleasantness, I hereby show that I have a perverted idea of the object of my life, assuming that its object is my pleasure - whereas its objects, on the other hand, personal perfection, and on the other, the service of that work which is being accomplished by the whole life of the Universe.

It is for the same reason that suicide is also immoral. Life in its entirety, and the possibility of living until natural death, have been given to man only on the condition that he serve the life of the Universe. But, having profited by life so long as it was pleasant, he refuses to serve the Universe as soon as life becomes unpleasant: whereas, in all probability, his service commenced precisely when life began to appear unpleasant. All work appears at first unpleasant.

In the Optin Monastery, for more than thirty years, there lay on the floor a monk smitten with paralysis, who had the use of his left hand only. The doctors said that he was sure to suffer much, but not only did he refrain from complaining of his position, but incessantly making the sign of the cross, and looking at the ikons, he smilingly expressed his gratitude to God and joy in that spark of life which flickered in him. Tens of thousands of visitors came to see him, and it is difficult to imagine all the good which flowed into the world through this man, though deprived of the possibility of any activity. Certainly he did more good than thousands and thousands of healthy people who imagine that in various institutions they are serving the world.

While there is life in man, he can perfect himself and serve the Universe. But he can serve the Universe only be perfecting himself, and perfect himself only by serving the Universe.
Tolstoy's view--essentially insufferable--is of course predicated on a belief that the Universe is purposive and that therefore one's own insignificant life has a purpose as well, a view that many of us living more than a century later have a hard time countenancing.

Chekhov--remaining, like Tolstoy, largely in character--offers a different spin, focusing on the inability of our art to grasp the dimensions of self-destruction:
The suicide of a seventeen-year-old boy is a very promising and tempting theme, but a frightening one to undertake. An issue so painful to us all calls for a painfully forceful response, and do we young writers have the inner resources for it? No. When you guarantee the success of this theme, you are judging by your own standards. But then, in addition to talent, the men of your generation had erudition, schooling, iron and phosphorus, while contemporary talents have nothing of the sort. Frankly speaking, there is reason to rejoice that they keep away from serious problems. Let them have a go at your seventeen-year-old, and I am certain that X, completely unaware of what he is doing, will slander him and pile lie upon blasphemy with the purest of intentions; Y will give him a shot of pallid and petty tendentiousness; while Z will explain away the suicide as a psychosis. Your boy is of a good, pure nature. He seeks after God. He is loving, sensitive and deeply hurt. To handle a figure like that, an author has to be capable of suffering, while all our contemporary authors can do is whine and snivel.
The sections of Infinite Jest dealing with Kate Gompert's suicidal depression are among the most memorable and powerful in the book; like Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, David Foster Wallace wrote about depression and the suicidal impulse with the clarity and force of someone who had experienced them. Yet I almost off-handedly assumed that a person who found the very stuff of the world as fascinating as he obviously did would have a handle, a power, an ability to overcome the darkness that has claimed so many. Intellectually, I knew that depression doesn't work that way, but the joy I am fortunate enough to take in the dailiness of life has always made it extremely difficult for me to imagine its obverse.

I find myself thinking about Malcolm Lowry--who, if he didn't explicitly kill himself, at least registered, again and again, his dissatisfaction and discomfort with the state of being alive. In a letter to his wife's family, he wrote that the theme of his novel of extended suicide, Under the Volcano, was that "only against death does man cry out in vain."

Rest in peace, David Foster Wallace. Our thoughts are with your family and friends.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A brief sojourn in lit-nerd heaven . . . with Edgar Allan Poe

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Being someone who fully admits to (oh, let's be honest--revels in) being about as lit-nerdy as you can get without assuming the stifling purposefulness of academia . . . how on earth did I not know that The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (2007) existed until I saw its forthcoming paperback edition listed in Oxford University Press's Fall catalog?

Seriously, can you think of anything that would be more up my alley, aside perhaps from The Anthony Powell Guide to Anthony Powell and Friends, with Digressions on Proust and Richard Stark? Gossip, biography, literary opinions, goofiness, gossip--what more could I want? Unwilling to wait for the paperback to be published, I ordered a copy of the hardcover posthaste; the first entry I happened to turn to, on Edgar Allan Poe, did not disappoint.

The Poe section is drawn largely from Jeffrey Meyers's Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (1992), and anyone who, like me, spent significant portions of their childhood terrified by Poe's dark visions can surely take a grim pleasure from this first selection:
The superstitious skeptic, who could be terrified by his own imagination, later confessed to the editor George Graham that "he disliked the dark, and was rarely out at night. On one occasion he said to me, 'I believe that demons take advantage of the night to mislead the unwary--although, you know,' he added, 'I don't believe in them.'"
Even more fun is this entry, which presents a dialogue recalled by Joel Benton between Poe and poet William Ross Wallace on the streets of New York, shortly after Poe had completed "The Raven":
"Wallace," said Poe, "I have just written the greatest poem that ever was written."

"Have you?" said Wallace. "That is a fine achievement."

"Would you like to hear it?" said Poe.

"Most certainly," said Wallace.

Thereupon Poe began to read the soon-to-be famous verses in his best way--which . . . was always an impressive and captivating way. When he had finished it he turned to Wallace for his approval of them--when Wallace said:

"Poe--they are fine; uncommonly fine."

"Fine?" said Poe, contemptuously. "Is that all you can say for this poem? I tell you it's the greatest poem that was ever written."
I don't know what strikes me more in this exchange, the thought of Poe reading "The Raven" aloud in his "impressive and captivating way"--what that must have been like!--or the circumspect calm of Wallace's "Have you? That is a fine achievement." I deeply admire that degree of unflappability.

My favorite of the entries on Poe, however, is this one, also taken from Meyers, if for no other reason than that it inescapably calls to mind one of Poe's most prominent fans, Jorge Luis Borges:
It was extremely ironic that the author of the article on "Whirlpool" in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gave Poe credit for information that Poe had lifted from an earlier edition of the same Encyclopedia [for his story "A Descent into the Maelstrom"], and then quoted as facts the parts of the story that Poe himself had invented.
Having invoked Borges, I can't help but end with the unforgettable epitaph to Poe that he offered up, relatively casually, at the close of an introduction he wrote for an edition of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener":
Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity, have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions. Edgar Allan Poe was one of these; so was Melville.
Clamorous my support of The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes may be; erroneous I promise you it is not. I'll have more to share from it in the coming months, I'm sure.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The most dizzying collection of Invisible Library books ever?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Suggestions for additions to the collection of the Invisible Library continue to roll in (and slowly be catalogued by our poorly trained, uncommunicative, yet cheerful staff of Oompa-Loompas and Ugnaughts). But it's going to be hard for anyone to top this contribution from Stephany Aulenback of Crooked House, the vertiginous array of invisibooks found in Julia Donaldson's Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book. Writes Stephany:
The story starts with Charlie Cook, who is curled up reading his favourite book, Shiver Me Timbers; in which a pirate is reading his favourite book, Fairy Tales from a Forgotten Island; in which Goldilocks is reading Baby Bear’s favourite book, The Bearo Annual; in which a knight is reading a joke out of his favourite book, Joust Joking; in which a frog jumps upon the book Incredible Stories of Real Birds; in which a rook’s nest is lined with pages from his favourite book, A Country Childhood; in which a little girl’s mother reads a magazine called The Posh Lady’s Magazine; in which a criminal in prison reads his favourite book, Improving Stories for Wicked Thieves; in which a crocodile reads My First Encyclopedia; in which an astronaut reads Out of the Worlds: A Collection of Ghost Stories; in which a ghost called Underarm Alice (she usually carries her head around under her arm, unless she puts it back on to read) is reading Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book.
Whew. I hope our staff didn't have grand plans for the weekend.

While I'm on the topic of libraries, I thought I'd share a new entry in another, less formal collection I've slowly been building: my Dream Library, stocked with books that only appear in my dreams. Until recently the only entry was Robin Anne Powter's Ghost Whim: A Cultural History of Dreaming, but the other day, as I nodded over Ulysses on the L, I dreamed that as Leopold Bloom wandered Dublin he carried under one arm an attractively designed volume called Camus' Book of Counterimplications. The very fact that Bloom had a volume of Camus nine years before Camus was even born suggests that Bloom may have had access to an unusual library or two himself.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

And in this corner . . . James Joyce vs. Richard Stark!

First thing Monday morning, as I sat down on the L, I dove into James Joyce's Ulysses, making good on a tipsy promise to my friend Carrie Olivia Adams. {Regular readers will remember that a similar promise, to one Erin Hogan, led to my reading Infinite Jest earlier this summer. Surely there's a lesson here? Oh, right: don't drink with people who read.}

I'll admit that for the first thirty pages or so I felt a bit at sea, enjoying Joyce's language but not always sure what was going on, content to simply let the flow of the words wash over me. After a while, though, I started to find my sea legs {Good god, this metaphor is getting worse all the time! But if there's one rule of metaphor, it's this: when the anchor of metaphor threatens to pull you under the waves, the important thing is to keep swimming!} and was ready to settle in for the long haul.

But that was before Richard Stark's The Seventh (1966) unexpectedly appeared on my desk, a veritable Crusoe's island for the tired swimmer. The lure of a Parker novel is not to be denied, and, promise or not, Joyce would have to wait a few hours.

Though every Parker novel follows the same basic set-up, Stark obviously enjoys trying out variations on the pattern, and in The Seventh he mixes things up by making the heist relatively minor, almost perfunctory. Parker and six other heisters hold up the box office at a college football stadium, and the operation goes off without a hitch--until, that is, someone steals the whole take from right under Parker's nose. The aftermath is full of surprises (and as violent and amoral as ever), and the result is one of the best novels in the series.

The main reason The Seventh stands out is that Stark's eye for detail and character is in top form, brought out especially in the rich language of his descriptions. Here's how he introduces the heister who's set up the job:
Little Bob Negli was sitting on the green leatherette sofa in the back room, smoking a cigar half as tall as him. He was a shrimp: four feet eleven and one-half inches tall. He had the little man's cockiness, standing and moving like the bantam-weight champion of the world, chomping dollar cigars, wearing clothes as fancy as he could find, sporting a pompadour in his black hair that damn near brought his height up to normal. He looked like something that had been shrunk and preserved in the nineteenth century.
Or take this detail he throws in about the girlfriend of one of Parker's partners, who's been wearing only a too-short sweatshirt:
She was still dressed the same way, and she'd been sitting on a cane chair, and her bottom now looked like a rounded pink waffle.

The physical details draw the characters for us, but it's the way Stark uses them to give insights into personality--both those of the person observed and of the observer--that make them memorable. For example, in this description of a police detective, Parker sees beyond the immediate physical impression of the man to the very different reality underneath:
He was no more than thirty, but he had all the style of fifty; dressed in his undershirt and trousers and a pair of brown slippers, carrying a rolled napkin in his left hand, walking with the male approximation of a woman in late pregnancy. He wasn't stout at all, but he gave an impression of soft overweight. His round face was gray with lack of sleep and the need of a shave, and his dry brown hair had already receded from his forehead.

But it was all crap. His eyes were slate gray, and all they did was watch. The way he held his right hand, his revolver was still on his hip somewhere.
Then there's this more straightforward psychological account of an amateur killer:
He couldn't really encompass the concept that he had murdered two people and tried to murder a third. He did these things because in their moments they were the only possible things he could do, but at no time did it seem to him that these actions were a part of the fabric of his personality. He was sure he wasn't the type; he did these extraordinary things because he had been thrust into extraordinary situations. In the normal course of events he would no more murder anyone than he would spit on the flag. His having killed Ellen, and then Morey, and then having tried to kill the stranger, were all atypical actions which he would not want anyone to have judged him by.
It reads like nothing so much as Georges Simenon in his romans durs--a debt that Stark acknowledges with a passing reference to Simenon's detective Maigret later in the novel.

All this is in service of the usual criminal pleasures of a Parker novel, of which there are plenty, of the "Parker filled his pockets with pistols, and left the apartment" variety. And there's one jaw-dropping surprise: Parker laughs. Sure, it's a bitter, sardonic laugh, uttered at the end of a trail of dead bodies, but still--Parker laughing is at least as chillingly unexpected as anything Stark's ever written.

And now, refreshed and invigorated, I dive back into Joyce.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sunday Haiku

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Last night as I bicycled down Damen Avenue, I was surprised by the honking of geese overhead, long after they should have been bedded down for the night. By the time we got to our destination, I was working on this haiku:
Geese in formation
Honk to announce September
Where did summer go?
Then there's this version, which adds what I noticed on my run in the park this afternoon:
Geese in formation
And leaves crunching underfoot:
September has come.
All of which reminds me of Wendell Berry--whose unwavering attention to the changes on the land is a model for us all--and in particular of this stanza, from the 1991 installment of his Sabbath poems,collected in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998):
Autumn ripens the corn.
You pick the yellow ears,
Carry them from the field,
Rich, satisfying loads.
The garden's final yield
Now harvested, the ground
Worked and manured, prepared
For spring, put out of mind,
You must saw, split, bring in,
And store your winter wood.
And thus the year comes round.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"People who return in dreams from the dark regions where they've drifted," or, The two novels that have defined my summer

{Warning: I suppose there might be spoilers in this post. I'll admit to not being a good judge of these things--I do reveal some details of the end of the second novel under discussion, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you probably should skip today's post.}

My reading summer has been defined by two novels, Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (1998) and Gary Indiana's Do Everything in the Dark (2003), both of which have been impossible to dislodge from my thoughts or my conversations with friends. They're quite different on the surface, but they quickly reveal themselves as spiritual kin, serving as acts of commemoration, honor, and preservation for lost or disappearing communities, friends, and ways of being.

Though the world of the bohemian poets described by The Savage Detectives (about which I've written quite a bit already) is long-lost and almost entirely forgotten, the elegaic qualities of the book's oral histories are never overwhelming, always carefully balanced by the vibrancy and inventiveness of Bolano's prose. Because Bolano aims to all but bring that world back to life, to recreate what it felt like, moment to moment, to be so alive and so free in that time and place, The Savage Detectives never seems to be anything but a young man's book, starting its full-throated song on the first page and barely pausing for breath for 500 pages thereafter. This world, like Bolano himself, is gone, but for the hours you're engrossed in it, it's impossible to believe anything could be more alive.

Do Everything in the Dark, on the other hand, reads like the book of an older--if not flat-out old--man, the work of a writer who sees the days shortening before him and, possibly surprised that he's made it this far, is beginning to look around to see who and what he's outlasted. Gary Indiana's earlier novel Gone Tomorrow (1993) hinged on the arrival of the AIDS epidemic, which, occurring in the space of a chapter break, put paid to the hedonism and games of the 1970s and replaced them with creeping dread and an inescapable awareness of mortality. By the time of Do Everything in the Dark, the red tide of AIDS has mostly subsided, and this book concerns those left standing on the shore, surviving and no longer shell-shocked, but still capable, on the wrong day and at the wrong time, of seeing Greenwich Village as a cenotaph.

But it's not just AIDS they've survived. Drugs, alcohol, success, failure, even time itself--all have laid low their share, and even those still standing have suffered their ravages. In William Boyd's Any Human Heart, a writer notes in his journal, "Living this hard in New York takes its toll"; what Indiana shows us is what's left of those who've paid it. The narrator gives the sense of being very like Gary Indiana himself: a writer who, though never quite making it even to the mid-list, has managed to carve out a life for himself in New York that, if not prosperous, is at least sustainable, even in the go-go days of the turn of the twenty-first century. "It's my destiny to collect any evidence that everyone's life hasn't been a hallucination, even if it feels like one," he tells us, and in brief chapters he performs that duty, recounting the lives of a group of friends, nearly all artists or writers, in the course of the summer of 2001, hopping from character to character and mind to mind, but never losing the sense that behind all of this, guiding our perceptions, is his own thoughtful perspective.

And so we meet women and men, straight and gay, successes and failures, users and used. There's Denise, who "no longer took drugs, except ones prescribed for her by an admittedly liberal-minded physician" and who eventually has to decide whether to cope with or run from the schizophrenia of her heroin-addicted partner; Anna, who is "between enough things that I can't get my bearings. I'm not here, I'm not there," and solves the problem with mind-boggling amounts of drugs and sex; Jesse, who feels that "the world has become too twined, to insalubrious with suffering, to float through it, as if one had the right to be anywhere," and who therefore puts himself in ever-greater danger by picking up rough trade; Miles, who "had satanic good looks" and had been "hardwired to expect betrayal from those close to him"; and many more. We watch these people circle one another, help or betray one another, give and take from one another. There are furtive fucks in doorways; ghastly, cruel dinner parties; exhibitions of wildly expensive and utterly false art. We see the detritus of both success and failure, talent and hackery, and are reminded that the links between those pairs are often close to arbitrary.

Throughout, the narrator serves as a solid, reliable node for all these circling misfits. He's not in a relationship (and we get the sense that it's been a while since he was), and while he's ruthlessly clear-eyed about people's failings, including his own, he's also deeply sympathetic. He's the one people call for late-night advice or don't bother to call for months, the one whose couch they crash on, the one whose support they take for granted ("As far as Miles was concerned, I owed him everything and anything, and always would."), the one who performs even such simple tasks as serving as the older guest that the father of a younger friend can relate to at a dinner party. He can be wry, even mordant, about the people he knows, as in this description:
Millie Ferguson got ambushed by mirrors, stuck to them like a pinned butterfly, and who wouldn't if they looked like her? People wanted either to be Millie or fuck her, or both.
He can also be piercingly epigrammatic:
He sounded like one of the Beat era's antique raconteurs, frozen in the dead past, who greeted every new person he met with the same stale bouquet of self-glorifying memories.

The few authentically educated, earnest people in the art world wake up contemplating suicide five mornings every week.

To answer that you would need to define what a good person is, and whether purity of heart requires having only one reason for doing anything.

Boredom can be viewed as a kind of fossil fuel, poured into inertia and ignited with fabulous results, but I am skeptical of this view, which reeks of unempirical optimism.
But ultimately, despite all he's seen, his primary characteristic is simply caring, earnestly and powerfully wanting to believe that our failings need not trap us in our solitary hells. "I could never summon the right words, the right help. I could never save anybody," he says, but he keeps trying nonetheless, even as he also tries to maintain a brutally realistic view of life:
This is how it was, or how I was, that summer: I wanted to accept the world in its true condition, as it hurtled to its stony end. To meet it on its own filthy terms. Even force some pleasure out of it, though I couldn't.
His care and concern for his friends, even as they infuriate and damage him and one another, is electric and unforgettable.

The novel ends with a funeral in lower Manhattan, a memorial for a character whom we've realized was doomed from the start, but whose eventual end still comes as a surprise. The service is strained by being both a public event for the arts world and a private event for his friends, and the vampires of culture batten onto it and try to make it their own. But when their cruelties are ultimately overwhelmed by real, human grief, the effect is astonishingly powerful--so much so that when we realize that the funeral is happening on September 10, 2001, the date, unbelievably, doesn't feel like a cheap shot. Rather, the lessons we've learned about love and loss from this novel are so strong that they force us to acknowledge and think anew about the horrors that will descend the next day and throughout the ensuing years--the way that no loss, no matter its cause, can never really be made good.

For those are ultimately the twinned points of Do Everything in the Dark: love and loss. As well as any work of art I've encountered, it makes clear how love can transcend, even thrive in the face of, the most grotesque faults; how it can be richer, deeper, stronger than the forces, external or internal, that are always tearing away at it. It's Forster's age-old "only connect": our love may not be able to save anyone--hell, death guarantees that it can't--but it's all we have to offer, so try we must. The narrator counsels a friend, "This is the only life we have, and it's short. Very short." Of such brevity is the fierce urgency of Gary Indiana and Roberto Bolano made; of such love and loss they make their indelible memorials.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Sinking the Submarine Library

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Thinking about the Invisible Library over the past couple of weeks reminded me that I never got around to sharing a memorable passage in MacDonald Harris's Mortal Leap (1964) when I wrote briefly about that novel earlier this summer.

Harris's novel is about a man who, having lost his identity to a shipwreck while serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, is given a chance at a new life when a woman claims him as her husband, a naval officer who died in the same battle; Harris uses the man's story--and his choice to allow this unexpected new life to become his own--to explore basic yet essential questions of identity, individuality, and purpose. It was brought to my attention by the Neglected Books Page, whose editor raved about it:
I first read Mortal Leap almost thirty years ago, and I remember how the narrative seized my attention. It was one of those books you begrudge the rest of your life for taking you away from. When you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, you feel as if you are hurtling forward along with the protagonist.

When I reread the book recently, it seemed even more powerful and affecting. I knew how it would turn out, but now the suspense was in seeing how Harris could make it plausible. What I saw this time around was how he manages to make this wildly improbable situation into a very basic lesson about being. So the man learns how to imitate Ben Davenant without getting caught–or at least, so he thinks. The man has made the leap and a new bar is in his hands. But he still has to confront the question, “Now what?”
I wasn't as taken with it as he was: the set-up was smartly conceived, and the narrative voice was strong and distinctive, but the book's second half, when the man begins to decide what sort of life he wants to lead, felt a bit flat--as the philosophical questions driving the narrative began to find answers, the story itself lost some of its inherent interest. Regardless, I'm glad I read it, and it's well worth the push the Neglected Books Page has given it--it's made me want to search out more of MacDonald Harris's novels.

But what has caused it to resurface in my mind tonight is a scene early in the novel, when the sailor, having fled the Utah home of his boyhood for a directionless life at sea, begins to use the dead hours in his bunk to become an autodidact. At each port, he takes on more books:
During those five years I read on the average two or three books a week, but I had never been educated properly or shown how to read books and I would get things all mixed up and twisted in my head. I never could get it straight that there were two Samuel Butlers and what the difference was between Malraux, Maurois, and Mauriac. I didn't read Conrad anymore because I had decided he was a sentimentalist. In San Francisco or Melbourne I would buy a box of books and when we got out to sea I would take them out one by one and read the first ten pages. If it didn't interest me I would throw it overboard or give it to Sailors' Relief. In this way I discovered Malthus, Ricardo, Gibbon, Veblen, Spencer, Bakunin, Kierkegaard, Vico, Mencken, Fourier. I didn't like Hegel or Kant or any author who got involved in abstractions, and any kind of speculation or general theorizing made me impatient; I wanted the books that had the answers. I read everything, biography and fiction, but it was the same with the novelists; I threw away books by tea-party fairies like Proust and read the naturalists, Zola, Crane, Dreiser, Celine, Steinbeck, Dos Passos. Somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific is a copy of The Forsyte Saga I heaved overboard one afternoon. I very quickly saw what was wrong with it; Galsworthy was a gentleman, and no gentleman would ever write a good book.
Now, anyone who calls Proust a "tea-party fairy" is planting his feet firmly on my bad side, and though I have never been willing to commit the time to attempting Galsworthy (perhaps in part due to the influence of Anthony Powell, who argued that The Forsyte Saga "cannot hold a candle to Vanity Fair," and that Galsworthy "lacks the pitiless knowledge of human nature to be found in, say, Proust or James"), I'm fairly confident it doesn't quite deserve burial at sea. But I will admit to enjoying the image . . . rather than an Invisible Library, a submarine library, pages slowly swaying in the silent currents of the trackless deep, read in that pitchy blackness only by those fish with the good sense to have evolved their own light sources.

I have a water-damaged copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, victim of a careless roommate and a bathtub, that I'm happy to contribute. Anyone else have books with which to help me outfit a soon-to-be-scuttled submarine library?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"Almost the only people I know who agree word for word on what they saw on the night of 15 July are Phyllis and I."

On the recommendation of the Caustic Cover Critic, who recently revealed that the oeuvre of John Wyndham extends far beyond his justly famous The Day of the Triffids (1951), in recent days I've been racing through some of what Wyndham described as his "logical science fiction" novels. Had Wyndham not named his style, I would probably have tagged it with something clunky like "It was a day like any other . . ." science fiction. In the Wyndham novels I've read so far--the aforementioned Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) (which is better known among American readers in its movie form, where it was called Village of the Damned), and The Kraken Wakes (1953), which I'm halfway through--space-borne entities of utterly inscrutable origin and intentions arrive and initiate a struggle for survival with the human race. What's so compelling about Wyndham's work is that by shifting the terms of our everyday life just a tiny bit he reveals--logically and convincingly--the shaky foundations and unquestioned assumptions on which our entire human world is based. It was an ordinary day . . . and then, again and again--sometimes suddenly, sometimes with dreadful, clawing slowness--it isn't.

I'll almost certainly have more to say about Wyndham in the coming months, as I work my way through the rest of his novels. For now, I simply want to share a great pasage from The Kraken Wakes. Whereas The Day of the Triffids is unrelenting in its tension, and The Midwich Cuckoos, though a bit more restrained, also rarely shifts its narrative attention from the creepy children at its core, The Kraken Wakes reads more like Wyndham's attempt to transplant Nick and Nora Charles into a particularly sharp episode of Lights Out. The couple who are its center are writers for the EBC, a commercial cousin of the BBC, and their comfortable banter offers considerable leaven to the slowly accumulating horrors of the first half of the novel.

This particular passage follows the late night-arrival of a couple of visiting friends, a husband and wife, and it shares the dry wit for which I praised Wyndham's prose earlier in the week--but with the addition of some finely honed thoughts about friendship and marriage, and a perfectly phrased observation to close it:
Wondering why one's friends chose to marry the people they did is unprofitable, but recurrent. One could so often have done so much better for them. For instance, I could think of three girls who would have been better for Harold, in their different ways; one would have pushed him, another would have looked after him, the third would have amused him. It is true that they were none of them quite as decorative as Tuny, but that's not--well, it's something like the difference between the room you live in and the one at the Ideal Home Exhibition. However, there it was, and, as Phyllis said, a girl who makes good with a name like Petunia must at least have something her parents didn't have.
Do you see why Wyndham has succeeded in enchanting me?

The Quarterly Conversation

The newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation is online. It's full of good stuff, including an interview with Horacio Castellanos Moya (alongside a review of his amazing-sounding new novel Senselessness); a review of the NYRB's new Stefan Zweig reissue The Post-Office Girl; and a review by me of a new book of poems by Ed Pavlic, Winners Have Yet to Be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway.

It's all worth checking out, especially since I spent all evening at a slow-moving, 11-inning Cubs game, so I've got nothing more to offer tonight.