Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Most people know little about it, aside from the fact that a great deal of dancing took place."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Just in time for a game of Risk with my nephew, his dad, and my brother*, over Christmas weekend I started reading Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna (2007), by Adam Zamoyski. At the halfway mark, it’s nearly as fascinating as Zamoyki’s earlier book, Moscow 1812.

Zamoyski does a remarkable job of helping the reader keep the dizzying array of people and interests at the Congress straight. Though not representative of his general style, the following list is worth reproducing for the picture it gives of the complexity of Napoleonic-era European politics; it covers only the minor German interests--dispossessed nobles and the like--in attendance at the Congress:
Some Standesherren had got together and elected one of their number in a region; others preferred to go themselves. There were also representatives of the four Hanseatic cities (Hamburg, Lubeck, Bremen and Frankfurt); of the city of Mainz; of the Chamber of Commerce of the city of Mainz; of the Teutonic Order; of the firms of Bonte and Co., Kayser and Co. and Wittersheim and Bock, creditors of the government of Westphalia, which had been abolished; of the Bishop of Liege; of the subjects of Count Solms-Braunfels. One delegation of Catholic clergy demanded full restitution under Papal authority; another, consisting of four delegates led by the Bishop of Constance, called for the institution of a new German national Catholic Church. The Pope’s delegate, Cardinal Consalvi, was there to oppose this. There was also a delegation, consisting of Friedrich Justin Bertuch of Weimar and Johann George von Cotta of Stuttgart, publisher of the Allgemeine Zeitung, representing eighty-one German publishers and demanding a copyright law as well as freedom of the press. And there were J. J. Gumprecht and Jakob Baruch of Frankfurt and Carl August Buchholz of Lubeck, representing the interests of the Jews. They were one of the few groups eager to preserve changes made by Napoleon, who had granted them full equality, of which the authorities in many German states were now attempting to strip them once more.

Yet out of this mess, Zamoyski constructs a narrative that is clear, coherent, and, even more remarkable, compelling. He freely indulges a taste for entertaining anecdotes--as in this story of one of the English plenipotentiary Sir Charles Stewart:
Accident-prone as ever, he came home one evening in his usual drunken state, tore off his uniform and threw himself onto the bed without bothering to close the french windows into the garden, and woke up to find that not only his richly gold-braided hussar jacket with its diamond-studded decorations, but every single item of clothing had been stolen. He was confined to quarters while a tailor ran up a new uniform.
The book spills over with such moments, which together paint a lively and unforgettable picture of the upper reaches of early nineteenth-century life.

Zamoyski is also blessed with the presence of three of the century’s most memorable figures: Tsar Alexander--of whom a friend once wrote,
He would willingly have made everyone free, as long as everyone willingly did what he wanted.
--the Austrian foreign minister, Metternich--who
was in every sense the center of his own universe. He would write endlessly about what he had thought, written and done, pointing out, sometimes only for his own benefit, how brilliantly these thoughts, writings, and doings reflected on him. This egotism was buttressed by a monumental complacency that was proof against all experience.
--and the French foreign minister, Talleyrand--whom Goethe called "the supreme diplomat of our century." and whom Roberto Calasso in The Ruin of Kasch credited with "the ability to sniff out the age." Together (or more accurately, perpetually at odds) they offer a tableau of drama, intrigue, and personal power that are breathtaking in their contrast to the limited political life of our more democratic age.

I’ll have plenty more to share from this book over the coming weeks, but with New Year’s Eve looming, it seems fitting to close with a brief description of one of the dozens of lavish balls held during the Congress. This account of the opening night fete--which filled two ballrooms and an indoor riding school--comes from the young German wife of the Danish ambassador:
In place of the windows there were enormous mirrors which reflected 100,000 sparkling lights. . . . The stairs swept down in two arcs to the floor of the riding school, which was covered with parquet and ringed on three sides with rows of seats like an amphitheatre. Blinded and almost dizzy, I paused for a few moments at the top of the stairs, and once I had gone down I could view the dazzling procession as the whole court of Vienna and those of other countries descended.
Those of you who, like me, tend to be skeptical about parties may find the response of Prussian chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg more in your line:
"Crush," Hardenberg jotted down in his diary. He disliked large gatherings and was in a bad mood besides, but even he could not resist adding "--many beautiful women."
Sounds like he might have been the sort to stay home on New Year’s.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Early reading experiences

One aspect of Laura Miller's The Magician's Book which I was pleasantly surprised by was her treatment of childhood reading, of how children experience and understand books. Her account is built largely on memory, like this attempt to reconstruct her first encounter with Narnia:
What remains is a dim recollection of how life was shaped before I knew about Narnia, and a more distinct sense of what it was like afterward. I had found a new world, which at the same time felt like a place I'd always known existed. It wouldn't have occurred to me to be wistful about the fact that I'd never read this perfect book for the first time again. All I wanted was more.
But she also offers other perspectives, including accounts from educators, psychologists, and other authors. Here, for example, is a quick look at the absence of parents from most good children's books:
In the great enterprise of growing up, a child's imagination practices the painless, surgical removal of an attachment that, however essential it may be at the moment, will sooner or later have to be left behind. The same child (myself, for example) who finds imagining her parents' deaths to be heart-freezingly scary will also fantasize about the exciting escapade of being left entirely to her own devices. In her memoir, Welcome to Lizard Motel, the educator Barbara Feinberg describes leading a children's creativity workshop whose participants liked pretending they were orphans, though not, one litle girl clarified, "the sad part of orphans."
Then there's this almost unbearably cute anecdote about the reaction of some friend's children to a picture book she was reading to them:
When I got to the part where a whistling Andy nears a turn in the road and notices just the tip of the runaway lion's tail peeping around the corner, [three-year-old] Desmond scrambled anxiously to the other end of the sofa and hid behind a cushion. Next we read Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, and, at the moment when Santa put his arm around the book's narrator and called for a cheer from the crowd of onlooking children, Desmond sat up straight, radiating pride.
That sort of reflection is sprinkled throughout The Magician's Book, a recurring reminder that we are not the same people--and certainly not the same readers--we were when we first encountered the books of childhood that we recall so fondly.

Almost any serious reader risks slipping into rapturous tones when describing childhood reading. It's one of the rare instances of nostalgia in which there seems little danger of memory playing us false--the experience really was that intense, that all-encompassing.

But when I think of myself as an enthusiastic young reader, I think of an incident that's far more pedestrian: when I was in kindergarten, I read my first Hardy Boys book, The Tower Treasure, and I loved it. Detectives, robberies, mysteries--this was how the world should be! The clues and questions mounted, and just when it seemed that things couldn't get any more dramatic, Frank and Joe discovered who was behind the crimes: a hobo!

Only, the problem was, I thought the word "hobo" meant "ghost." The world of the Hardy Boys was even wilder than I'd imagined--and suddenly I wasn't so sure I wanted to be a detective!

I don't remember how long it took me to figure out I'd made a mistake, but thirty years later I still think of it every time I encounter a difficult passage in a book. I am not the reader I once was, indeed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage:
It was Christmas at Camelot--King Arthur's court,
where the great and the good of the land had gathered,
all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table
quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.
Time after time, in tournaments of joust,
they had lunged at each other with leveled lances
then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,
for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,
with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.
The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:
pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,
so the house and its hall were lit with happiness
and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.
May Christmas find you at your family's Camelot, your table ringed with loved ones, the hubbub of their humor heavenly to hear--or, as the Middle English has it, "Such glaum ande gle glorious to here"--and nary a Green Knight in sight.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The year draws in--time for a list!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm not generally inclined to make a year-end best books list, but this year it occurred to me that I could use the occasion to note some books that I failed to write about, despite their being among my very favorites. So here goes: a novel, a book of poems, and a category for special circumstances.


Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything (2004, translated by James Anderson and published in 2009 by Archipelago Books) is the only novel I read this year that could come close to challenging Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as the most absorbing, affecting read of the year. Shifting between philosophical detachment and psychological realism, A Time for Everything mixes reflections on the nature of angels in Christian history with retellings of a couple of stories from the bible.

If that doesn't sound promising to you, stay with me for a minute: the reflections on angels offer bookish, antiquarian pleasures in the playfully questing spirit of Eco or Borges--but with the addition of Danilo Kis's sense of tragedy and loss--while Knausgaard transforms the biblical tales (their spareness "fraught with background," as Eric Auerbach so memorably described them) into agonizing human dramas. Stefan Heym has worked some of this territory before, in his great novels The King David Report and The Wandering Jew, as has Nino Ricci in his Testament, but--while not intending to make too great a claim for the novel--I have to say that the writer this book most calls to mind is Tolstoy.

Imagine Tolstoy's ruminations on history shifted to ruminations on the role of angels; his empathy applied to a Cain who watches Abel, crazed by visions of angels, begin to lose his moorings. Imagine a Tolstoy who chooses to retell the story of the flood, not from the perspective of Noah, but from that of his doomed sister. There is real horror here: the human cost of divine anger has never, in my experience, been more clearly, achingly described. At the same time, the loving attention lavished on characters whose fates we know--and dread--reminds us of the necessary role of love in all creation, authorial or divine. Take this passage about Noah's sister's husband, for example:
She learned a lot about him that first autumn. She learned that he worked grudgingly, he'd rather sit and chat with people. But work was something he had to do. And when he'd at last reconciled himself to it, and begun to work, it always progressed slowly. He took plenty of time, no matter what he was doing. As if the measure of it was more the time it took than the work itself. Putting out a net in the evening shouldn't take long, it was only a matter of rowing out, casting the net, and rowing back, but for Javan it took hours.
We know he's going to drown, along with everyone he knows, yet Knausgaard convinces us to attend to him, think about and worry about him. A Time for Everything is an absolutely stunning book, one that I'll be thinking about for years to come.


Ernest Hilbert's Sixty Sonnets is exactly what its title suggests--and thus it's a performance as much as a book of poems, showy and spectacular. From the brisk noir of "She Remembers How They Fled from the Liquor Store Robbery in New Mexico"--
You'd been shot three times, soaked with tar and sweat,
But you gunned the grimy frame toward night,
Lit a smoke and cringed at the oily guts
Leaking from your side. . .
--to the ironic call-and-response of "Fortunate Ones"--
You will inherit large sums of money
(But someone dear to you will have to die first).
You will travel far and see the wide world
(And load yourself with debt; these things aren't free).
You can relax now. You've been through the worst
(But it consumed your youth, and now you're old).
--to the elegiac fatalism of "White Noise--
My songs are lost, as all will be at last,
Unremembered as a minor fiefdom,
Its peasants who tilled fields and died in wars.
--Hilbert takes the reader on a bravura run through seemingly every variation of tone and style that the sonnet can contain. It's a craftsman's book, a revival of form best summed up by the opening lines of "Song":
A song for those who learn forgotten, slow
Skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce,
By hard, dark, oily machines, and the din
Of duplicates shipped by the millions, stowed
In cavernous depots to be dispersed
To each home, used once, and then binned.
Books of the year are those you know you'll never bin; Sixty Sonnets belongs in their company.

Special Circumstances

1 Two of my very favorite books this year were written by good friends, and I'd be remiss to close out the year without noting them. Joseph G. Peterson's debut novel Beautiful Piece plunges the reader into the claustrophobic consciousness of a hard-luck Chicago man who is trying, in his limited, obsessive way, to figure out just how he's ended up in bed with the girlfriend of a dangerous man. The novel is short, but its repetitive phrasing and mobius-strip chronology combine with the intensity of the first-person narrative voice to make it haunting; its working title was Alone in the Heat Alone, a phrase whose thumping rhythm and repetition in a mere five words give a clear sense of the book's style. For a taste of Joe's distinct, insistent voice, you can check out the two stories of his I've published at Joyland.

2 My friend Carrie Olivia Adams, meanwhile, last winter published her first full-length book of poetry, Intervening Absence. Incorporating her earlier chapbook, A Useless Window (which I wrote about here), it is cinematic and mysterious, its frozen moments resembling film stills that have been severed from the domesticating surroundings of plot and exposition, leaving them full of fugitive meaning that eventually dissolves into dread, regret, and loss. In "A History of Drowning," the speaker, with the authority of an omniscient narrator, places you in the urban landscape--
This is before you have forgotten which way is east.
So, this is after you stopped on a bridge
by a statue to admire her hands.
And you turned your head to find yourself
in someone's photograph, your body arched
across the stone base, pressing up.
--before locking you away for good, and hinting that you should be grateful:
There is a room in the attic with jointed anatomical models and dressmaker torsos.
You & the parcels may stay there.
Inattention, in these poems, might bring us to disaster ("Floods have reached the bridge / Now the bridge bridges nothing); attention might not save us, either, but the book demands it nonetheless, its lines and images lodging deep in the mind, unforgettable.

3 Finally, a book from work. I tend to stay away from writing about books for which I serve as the publicist in my day job at the University of Chicago Press; it seems best to keep the two enterprises entirely separate, for, as my friend Luke once said, "Getting fired for your blog is so 2002."

But when I work on a book that draws on IBRL favorite Fernando Pessoa, how can I possibly justify ignoring it here? Philip Graham's The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon tells of a year he spent living in Pessoa's hometown of Lisbon with his wife and daughter, falling in love with the culture even as the everyday struggles of living in a foreign country continually reminded him that he could never quite be at home there.

Graham is wry, self-deprecating, and attentive to the unusual and the usual alike--just what I want in an armchair traveling companion. The following passage, which finds him settling in on the subway to read Pessoa following a confusing incident wherein a ticket salesman seemed offended that Graham had come to him to buy a ticket, will give you a sense of his tone:
Again, I press on and search further--I'm not sure why--here and there, until I find, "If I lift up my eyes from my thinking, they smart at the sight of the world."

I glance up at the window, and see the faint reflection of my own surprised face as I remember the ticket clerk, a few miles of train track safely behind me, and wonder if I've stumbled on the method behind his madness. What if invisible, convoluted strands of his imagination fill that glassed-in booth, and he sees anyone approaching as an alien unable to breathe his own brand of air. If so, what are a few strangers' missed connections to the unwelcome loss of his dream-state? His reputation has given him the solitude he craves, with the help of an accomplice, that ticket dispenser right outside on the platform.

Maybe everyone in the neighborhood gives him wide latitude in that booth, recognizing his artistic disposition, his need to defend an interior domain against all comers. Maybe those looks of shock and surprise I received weren't sympathy for me, but for the clerk who'd been interrupted by an insensitive newbie.

I blush, and then an alternate, Pessoa-like voice inside me rises up and says, Or maybe he's just a pain in the ass.
If you want more samples from The Moon, Come to Earth, you can find them at McSweeney's, where they were originally published in serial form.

Happy holidays and merry Christmas to you all. May your stockings bulge with books.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the wake of the storm

For all the folks on the east coast who are digging out from yesterday's snowstorm, two entries from the wonderful new edition of Thoreau's journals that the New York Review of Books Classics line has just published:
December 24, 1856
More snow in the night and to-day. making nine or ten inches.

P.M.--To Walden and Baker Farm with Ricketson, it still snowing a little.
        It was very pleasant walking thus before the the storm was over, in the soft, subdued light.

December 25, 1856

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.
Now, as you settle into your third hour of shoveling, you can console yourself with the fact that you're just taking your place in a long American tradition of snow appreciation!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Childhood reading

{Photo by rocketlass.}

As I read Laura Miller's charmingly conversational yet thoughtful The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (2008), I perked up at this passage about J. R. R. Tolkien:
Tolkien has had many admirers of considerable intellectual stature--Auden was his great champion in the press, and the novelist Iris Murdoch sent him fan mail--but this, too, doesn't go very far in persuading other intelligent people who can't abide his books. Murdoch perhaps chose the wisest course when her husband, the Oxford professor John Bayley, would demand to know how she could be so enthralled by books that were so "fantastically badly written": she'd stare at him in amazement and insist that she didn't know what he was talking about.
Murdoch's response seems just right to me: Bayley is asking a question that doesn't really apply to the Lord of the Rings. Yes, they're badly written, teeth-clackingly awkward at times, but that's not the point. At their best, they immerse the reader in a world that seems inexhaustible, so fully imagined that we begin to suspect there's no question we could ask that Tolkien wouldn't have been able to answer--we feel that we've been invited to enter a supreme work of focused imagination, the vitality of which makes the clunky archaisms of Tolkien's prose entirely beside the point.

That said, neither Tolkien nor his friend C. S. Lewis were real touchstones for me as a young reader, like the latter was for Miller. I read and loved The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I felt none of the same magic from the two men's subsequent books. Looking back, I can see that they represented two important poles of imagination for me: the jumble-sale quality of Lewis's imagination--which, as Miller writes, "lifted figures and motifs in whole cloth from a motley assortment of national traditions, making no effort to integrate them into any coherent mythos"--clashed with my desire for order, while Tolkien's obsessive attention to detail (a quality I would later come to admire) took the books too far in the other direction, bogging them down in hours of elvensong when all I really wanted was for someone to draw sword in anger.

Neither author could match Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain or Susan Cooper's Dark Is Risingi sequence (and in particular its first, and least fantastic book, Over Sea, Under Stone, which I read over and over). Looking back, I think that one overarching reason for my preference was that Narnia and Middle-Earth both lacked a quality I prized in fiction even as a boy: a sense of the everyday reality that lies underneath the fantasy and adventure. As Miller points out, neither Tolkien nor Lewis seemed all that interested in the day-to-day life of their worlds: there's no discernible economic activity, no incidental change, and--outside of Sam Gamgee--no characters who reveal long-range plans or aspirations that are disrupted by the events that have swept them up.

Alexander and Cooper, on the other hand, offer plenty of hints of what people in their worlds do when not questing: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper; Coll a full pig-keeper; Fflewddur Fflam a bard; Eilonwy, as a princess, is expected to do nothing--and that limitation drives her nuts. At the end of a battle, Coll laments the crops churned under by the fighting, a loss that will be felt that winter in the surrounding villages. In Over Sea, Under Stone, the Cornish village that the children visit on holiday is entirely ordinary, which makes the irruption of sinister forces and ancient magic all the more astonishing. It is a simple vacation with a somewhat distant relative, a situation we can all recognize--and then suddenly it's much more.

I was a very fortunate child, surrounded by a loving family in a rural freedom that seems more idyllic with every passing year. I didn't want to escape to somewhere: I wanted a world where adventure and dailiness could live side by side, where I could be part of momentous events but not have to give up the home I loved. Alexander and Cooper seemed to understand that in a way that Tolkien and Lewis--whom I now know were themselves in search of full-on escape from a world grown uncongenial--did not.

To circle back to where this post started, I'll turn once again to Iris Murdoch. In a 1962 interview for the Sunday Times, collected in From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003, edited by Gillian Dooley), Murdoch responds to a question about whether there's a division between fantasy and reality in her own work:
If fantasy and realism are visible and separate aspects in a novel, then the novel is likely to be a failure. In real life the fantastic and the ordinary, the plain and the symbolic, are often indissolubly joined together, and I think the best novels explore and exhibit life without disjoining them.
Though Murdoch wasn't referring here strictly, or even at all, to fantastic literature as represented by Tolkien, Lewis, et al., I think her point nonetheless has some validity. Cooper's and Alexander's books were so powerful for this young reader exactly because they "indissolubly joined" the world of the everyday and the world of the imagination; they offered a new reality I could believe in, and set alongside my own, rather than escape to.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Looking ahead . . . to 2110!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

One of the most fun pieces of criticism I read all year was the Second Pass's "Fired from the Canon" article from mid-summer, in which a handful of anonymous reviewers gleefully slagged books by such eminent writers as Dickens, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, DeLillo, and more. Find yourself the right bar--one with a literary clientele and free wifi--and you just might have enough fodder argument fodder there to enable you to break John Steinbeck's twenty-seven-martini record.

The holidays, however, are a more generous time, and in that spirit the Second Pass today published a complementary article, "The 2110 Club," in which they invited contributors to make a pitch for one book, relatively little-known or poorly understood now, that they could imagine holding up for a century.

The resulting list of books includes a couple of old favorites--and that's before you get to my own contribution, which I describe as "a novel so grim—and so relevant—that it’s almost painful to read." If that doesn't whet your appetite enough to make you postpone wrapping presents for a few minutes, what will?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Oh, the weather outside is--good god--frightful!

I feel I should apologize in advance for the fact that today's post is yet another in a series of weather-related entries. My only defense is that of inappropriate shock, of a constitution--ordinarily hardy--that this year seems to have decided to respond to winter's inevitable descent with umbrage expressed through shivering.

Keeping that condition in mind, you'll understand why, fresh from a seductively mild weekend with my in-laws in California, I was struck this cold, bright morning by the following passage:
A disappointing kind of sun was shining. She lures you outside with her radiant eyes and blackmails you with the accusation that you're missing some exceptional, lovely weather, but once you've gone outside, full of good intentions, and you're walking the streets, along with all those other cheery city-dwellers and tourists blinking with confusion, you wished you'd put on a thicker sweater.
That's the opening paragraph of Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer's Rupert: A Confession (2002, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison in 2009), recently published by Open Letter Books. Only a moron, an optimist, or a tourist*, of course, would have been fooled by today's brittle sun; a Chicagoan knows better. Yet at the same time, there is a part of me that--looking ahead to the bleak gray of the seven weeks of January yet to come--agrees with Rupert's conclusion:
But to go back now would be an affront to the beautiful day--lovely weather really, mustn't grumble, pity to stay indoors.
I'm less than thirty pages into the novel, but already I'm taken with it. Rupert is one of those domineering, insistent narrators that takes you by the arm with the first sentence and, heedless of your protests, proceeds to construct the entire universe of his story exactly to his specifications, truth, when necessary, being casually damned. I'm a sucker for that approach, and while I already suspect that Rupert will lie far, far closer, on the continuum of creepiness, to Humbert than to Holden, I expect I won't regret the hours I spend in his company.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

More holiday cheer from Thoreau

While I was typing the entry from Thoreau's journals that closed my most recent post, I noticed two others on the facing page that I can't resist sharing. In their juxtaposition of the serious and the silly, they give a nice sense of the many pleasures to be found in the book.

First, as our Puritan upbringing teaches us, we will be serious:
December 26, 1858
Call at a farmer's this Sunday afternoon, where I surprise the well-to-do masters of the house lounging in very ragged clothes (for which they think it necessary to apologize), and one of them is busy laying the supper-table (at which he invites me to sit down at last), bringing up cold meat from the cellar and a lump of butter on the end of his knife, and making the tea by the time his mother gets home from church. Thus sincere and homely, as I am glad to know, is the actual life of these New England men, wearing rags indoors there which would disgrace a beggar (and are not beggars and paupers they would could be disgraced so?) and doing the indispensable work, however humble. I am glad to find that our New England life has a genuine human core to it; that inside, after all, there is so little pretense and brag.
I'm impressed (and entertained) by the way that Thoreau recasts a moment of embarrassment as an indication of the essential goodness and simplicity of New Englanders--and at the same time I love the little glimpse this entry gives of the social awkwardness we sense underlying much of Thoreau's work. It can't always have been easy to know him, can it? "He will pop up, won't he?" I can imagine the lady of the house above muttering to her husband as he swings wide the front door.

And now for the silly, from two days later:
December 28
Aunt Jane says that she was born on Christmas Day, and they called her a Christmas gift, and she remembers hearing that her Aunt Hannah Orrock was so disconcerted by the event that she threw all the spoons outdoors, when she had washed them, or with the dishwater. . . .
Better the spoons with the dishwater than the baby with the bathwater, I suppose.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"The days are short enough now," or, Winter walks with Thoreau

{Photo of Walden Pond in winter by Flickr user Kingdafy. Reproduced under a Creative Commons license; some rights reserved.}

After being tantalized by excerpts all autumn long on A Different Stripe, the blog of the New York Review of Books Classics, I finally got myself a copy of their new edition of selections from Thoreau's journals this week. It couldn't be more suited to dipping into here and there: the entries are rarely more than a couple of pages long, and a few minutes spent with their meditative tone and wide-ranging thoughts are a perfect way to start or end one's day.

Today, as snow and cold put paid to any lingering fantasies of a mild winter, I looked through to see what Thoreau was doing on some long-gone Decembers. And, much as I love snow, I can't say that the first one I found didn't leave me feeling a tad jealous:
Dec. 10, 1853
Another still more glorious day, if possible; Indian-summery even. These are among the finest days in the year, on account of the wholesome bracing coolness and clearness.

Thoreau's invocation of Indian Summer does seem a bit optimistic, however, as he goes on to give more--and specifically more wintry--detail:
Paddled Cheney's boat up Assabet.

Passed in some places between shooting ice-crystals, extending from both sides of the stream. Upon the thinnest black ice-crystals, just cemented, was the appearance of broad fern leaves, or ostrich-plumes, or flat fir trees with branches bent down. The surface was far from even, rather in sharp-edged plaits or folds. The form of the crystals was oftenest that of low, flattish, three-sided pyramids; when the base was very broad the apex was imperfect, with many irregular rosettes of small and perfect pyramids, the largest with bases equal to two or three inches. All this appeared to advantage only while the ice (one twelfth of an inch thick, perhaps) rested on the black water.

What I write about at home I understand so well, comparatively! and I write with such repose and freedom from exaggeration!
Lest you become too jealous of Thoreau's lovely day--or too troubled by your own blustery, frigid one--you should know that a mere two weeks earlier he had been convinced that winter's grip was as solid as it gets:
Nov. 27
Now a man will eat his heart, if ever, now while the earth is bare, barren and cheerless, and we have the coldness of winter without the variety of ice and snow; but methinks the variety and compensation are in the stars now. How bright they are now by contrast with the dark earth! The days are short enough now. The sun is already setting before I have reached the ordinary limit of my walk, but the 21st of next month the day will be shorter still by about twenty-five minutes.

It is too cold to-day to use a paddle; the water freezes on the hand and numbs my fingers.
Before I turn to my fireplace and mulled wine, I'll give you an entry for tomorrow, too, because I can't resist the way this entry combines wildly disparate modes of thought:
Dec. 11, 1858
To Walden. An overcast afternoon and rather warm. The snow on the ground in pastures brings out the warm red in leafy oak woodlands by contrast. These are what Thomson calls "the tawny copse." So that they suggest both shelter and warmth. All browns, indeed, are warmer now than a week ago. How much warmer our woodlands look and are for these withered leaves that still hang on! Without them the woods would be dreary, bleak, and wintry indeed!

A "swirl" applied to leaves suddenly caught up by a sort of whirlwind, is a good word enough, methinks.

Some, being offended, think sharp and satirical things, which yet they are not prepared consciously to utter. But in some unguarded moment these things escape from them, when they are as it were unconscious. They betray their thoughts, as it were by talking in their sleep, for the truth will out, under whatever veil of civility.
That closing meditation makes me wonder what sort of arguments Thoreau had been getting himself into that day!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Machiavelli, as he will, offers advice

Prompted by a long-ago post by Brad DeLong, recently I have been flipping through a brief selection of the letters of Machiavelli, and today I happened across a passage that I think you'll surely enjoy. It comes in the midst of a letter Machiavelli sent from exile on his farm to his friend (and, as I learned from the Italian Wikipedia, ambassador to the Papal Court) Francesco Vettori on August 10, 1513; the letter itself is a complicated explanation of why Machiavelli favors action to encourage France to dislodge the English from Lombardy.

After explaining that what he really fears is the Swiss, who now "have entered Lombardy with the excuse of putting the present duke back there, but in fact they themselves are the dukes," Machiavelli argues that from Lombardy they are almost certain to overrun all of Italy*, and that thus "one needs to be exceedingly afraid of them."

Knowing that Vettori would be reluctant to take this view, Machiavelli continues,
I know that to this opinion of mine is opposed a natural defect of man: first, wishing to live from day to day; second, not believing that anything can happen that has not happened; last, always reckoning about a person in the same way.
About the first of these, it seems to me that we can--and maybe should--do little: despite being by nature a planner, I, too, like to live from day to day, and I think that temporary fixes deserve a better reputation than they generally carry. The latter two, however, are recurrent problems that I've never before seen described so succinctly. Put so well, the pitfalls Machiavelli describes seem eminently avoidable; would that that were the case.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Stuffing your virtual stocking early, it's the The Quarterly Conversation!

{Grinchy-looking photo by rocketlass. I am reading a novel about the plague, which seems like a sufficient excuse for the frown.}

Various holiday travels (to say nothing of holiday planning, shopping, socializing, or egg nog drinking) may result in spottier-than-usual posting through the month. Fortunately, the new Winter issue of the Quarterly Conversation just hit the virtual newsstand, so no matter how badly I may fall down on the job you'll have more than enough to keep you busy as Christmas nears.

My review this time is of Rachel Loden's new book of poetry, Dick of the Dead; the Dick of the title is Nixon, whose jowly growl Loden conjures vividly, more than once from beyond the grave. Other highlights include Ron Slate's review of Farrah Field's Rising, George Fragopoulos's essay on Mahmoud Darwish in English, and Barrett Hathcock's review of The Ask, by the bitingly hilarious Sam Lipsyte ("How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?").

The most impressive piece in the issue, however, is "Translate This Book!," which collects responses from a wide variety of authors, translators, critics, and publishing folks to the question, "What is the best book you know that's never been translated into English?" The resulting list is enough to make you want to learn a dozen languages; barring that, I'll settle for getting it into the hands of some adventurous acquisitions editors.

Friday, December 04, 2009

"A library is total generosity," or, Roberto Bolaño speaks!

Fans of Roberto Bolano who can't read Spanish have it remarkably good right now. Though we have had to adapt our reading to the structural pace of the publishing industry, for the past few years each season's list from New Directions has brought a freshly translated edition of one of his old novels. And while this requires patience, it seems clear that eventually we'll have them all--something that can't be said about the work of many other great novelists who wrote in languages other than English.

And now we even have a collection of interviews, pulled together into a slim volume by Melville House, Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview. Some of its contents have appeared in English before--most notably his final interview, with Playboy Mexico, which was published in Stop Smiling a few years back and the introductory essay by Marcela Valdes, which was originally published in the Nation--but it's great to have them all in one place, enhanced with explanatory notes that are a great help when Bolaño mentions writers who are little-known in English.

Without seeming disingenuous, the interviews feel like performances as much as anything: Bolaño throws out names, books, ideas with abandon, weaving a complicated tapestry of influence and Spanish-language literary history that it's easy to imagine taking a different form in another interview, conducted another day when he was in a different mood. Throughout, it's as if we're rushing through a giant library with Bolaño as our guide, his praise and damnation both driven by enthusiasm, as if he doesn't quite care if you agree with him--or even remember what he says--so long as you walk out the door with an armload of books.

While not as crammed with author names as many other answers, this exchange from a 1999 interview in Capital gives you an idea of the attitude Bolaño expresses toward books and authors:
RB:In one way or another, we're all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what's best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

HS/MB: Nevertheless, literature is not purely a sanctuary for good sentiment. It is also a refuge for hatefulness and resentment.

RB: I accept that. But it's indisputable that there are good sentiments in it. I think Borges said that a good writer is normally a good person. It must have been Borges because he said practically everything.
Elsewhere, he hints at the outlines of his positions on larger literary questions, especially as they relate to his working methods; here, in an interview from 2002 in Bomb, he answers the question of how he chooses plots:
Yes, plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won't leave you in peace. Fortunately, that's not so important--the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there's no book, or at least in most cases that's what happens. Let's say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that's in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you'll see): It's not that I don't like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.
I think that's the best, most concise description I've yet seen of the way that the relatively formal organizational structures of Bolaño's novels work to contain--or to fail to contain--the limitless sprawl of the forever branching stories within stories within stories that make up their plots.

The Last Interview is a slight book, but it's one that I'll be returning to as I keep reading my way through Bolaño's body of work--and it will make a nice stopgap while we wait for the collection of his nonfiction that Natasha Wimmer is currently translating. If only all international authors could be treated so well in English!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Props for Pops

I just finished reading Terry Teachout's wonderful new biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops, which is as good as its many rave reviews have said. Since everyone from the Times on down has weighed in with praise already, I'll just heartily second them, and share two things:

1 Throughout the book, Teachout keeps the music front and center, never letting us forget that that was what was most important to Armstrong himself. He frequently offers detailed analysis of songs, some of which were unfamiliar--but every time he described an unfamiliar song, I was able to go to and listen to it. Lala is an online service that sells digital music--and, more important in this case, they also let you listen to any song in their library one time for free. This is the first music bio I've read since the site's debut, and having a legitimate, nearly unlimited source of reference tracks when reading a book like this makes the experience incalculably richer. If you're going to read Pops and you don't know Armstrong's music like the back of your hand already, do yourself a favor and have Lala at hand in your browser; you'll be glad you did.

2 One passage that really stuck with me was Teachout's account of the postwar demise of the big bands. I knew, as a casual fan of jazz, big bands, and popular song, that their disappearance was quick, but I had no idea it was this rapid:
The bottom fell out of big-band jazz in the winter of 1946. Time ran an obituary for the era: "The big brassy jazz bands had become a luxury that people were unwilling to pay for. . . . In the past eight weeks, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Les Brown and Jack Teagarden decided to disband. Gene Krupa and Jimmy Dorsey cut salaries. This week Woody Herman gave up too." [Armstrong's manager] Joe Glaser needed no journalist to read him the writing on the wall. "Promoters all over are going broke--bookings are being canceled at the last minute--I can name at least half a dozen Colored bands that will disband in the next 30 days and at least 30 white bands that will disband," he had written to Joe Garland that summer.
Good god, that's dizzying. I suppose it's just another reminder--as people in the old live radio industry or the newspaper industry can attest--when tastes change and costs rise, things can fall apart really fast.

Because the holidays are nearing and cheer is the order of the day, I'm going to temporary refuse to apply that lesson to publishing. For now, after all, publishing still lives, books are still with us, and Pops is a beautiful example of the bookmaker's, no less than the biographer's art; may Armstrong's smile grace many a stocking this Christmas.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard Times, come again no more

As I read Hard Times last week, I found myself trying to imagine what it must have been like to read it as it was published, in Dickens's journal Household Words, in the spring of 1854. Such a reader surely would have come to it with breathless excitement, for its immediate predecessor, Bleak House, concluded seven months earlier, had displayed Dickens at the top of his craft, his language, plotting, and eye for character all reaching new heights. And the opening page of Hard Times, though not as strong as the meditation on dust that rings in Bleak House, shares with it a vivacity and inventiveness that would surely only have raised those expectations:
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,—all helped the emphasis.
A promising start, no? But very quickly, disappointment would surely creep in, for Hard Times is not a very good novel. Conceived and written in a haste that was unusual even for Dickens--designed to counteract a slump in sales of Household Words--it feels throughout like a rush job. Its language, though never boring, is at the same time nowhere as wildly free and inventive as in Bleak House, weighed down all too often by the combination of sentimentality and didacticism that mars some of Dickens's Christmas books. None of its several plotlines offers much interest or surprise on their own; nor do they come together particularly well. In fact, their failure to cohere is indicative of the greatest failure of the novel: it is a book without a center. Rather than a compelling protagonist on the order of Esther Summerson or Mr. Dombey, Hard Times offers a clutch of secondary characters, a mix of variations on Dickens's typically too-pure-to-interest Victorian women and his monomaniacal eccentrics. Some of them are unquestionably memorable--Gradgrind, who was introduced in that opening scene, being the greatest of them--but none is strong enough to carry the narrative. When set next to the triumph of Bleak House, Hard Times seems particularly impoverished.

A cursory investigation suggests that contemporary reviewers had that reaction. The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens says that
Reviewers were virtually unanimous in condemning Hard Times and dull and disappointing,
which Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Dickens, fleshes out:
" . . . A mere dull melodrama," The Rambler said, "in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsoud." The Westminster Review commented upon its topical nature, and suggested that Dickens's language was one which "speaks especially to the present generation" and may not be intelligible to the next. And, later, there was a sharp parody of Dickens's style in Our Miscellany: "The crowd gathering. Like a snowball. Much dirtier, though. Rather."
Meanwhile, F. R. Leavis's attempt to raise its status by calling it a "moral fable" in his The Great Tradition decades later seems fundamentally misguided. We don't, after all, go to Dickens for the weak tea of fables; we go to him for the full-bodied life he offers, dashing and funny and wild and unexpected and full of meaning. If the best we can find there is a "moral fable," then we've not found the best of Dickens.

All of this ought not to obscure the fact that even lesser Dickens offers real pleasures. The description of Mr. Gradgrind that I've already shared reminds me of the following account of the novel's other great eccentric, Mrs. Sparsit:
Mrs. Sparsit, lying by to recover the tone of her nerves in Mr. Bounderby's retreat, kept such a sharp look-out, night and day, under her Coriolanian eyebrows, that her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighborhood, but for the placidity of her manner. Although it was hard to believe that her retiring for the night could be any thing but a form, so severely wide awake were those classical eyes of hers, and so impossible did it seem that her rigid nose could yield to any relaxing influence, yet her manner of sitting, smoothing her uncomfortable, not to say, gritty, mittens (they were constructed of a cool fabric like a meat-safe), or of ambling to unknown places of destination with her foot in her cotton stirrup, was so perfectly serene, that most observers would have been constrained to suppose her a dove, embodied, by some freak of nature, in the earthly tabernacle of a bird of the hook-beaked order.

She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story, was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea. Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever seen by human vision to go at a great pace.
Then there's this beautifully observed moment--one so singular as to give the sense of something witnessed in reality, then stored away for later fictional use--that comes when two women have raised an alarm about a man fallen down a mine:
One of the men was in a drunken slumber, but on his comrade's shouting to him that a man had fallen down the Old Hell Shaft, he started out to a pool of dirty water, put his head in it, and came back sober.
It's the rare moments like those in Hard Times, when Dickens gives the sense of being fully engaged with both his characters and his language, that make the rest of its wan pages so frustrating.

Fortunately for our imagined Victorian reader, unhappily laying aside the August 12, 1854 issue of Household Words that saw the novel's end, Hard Times did not signify a diminution of Dickens's powers--something that even Dickens himself may have feared. As John Lucas points out in Charles Dickens: The Major Novels, the beginning of his next book was a bit rough:
He apparently had far more than his usual difficulty in getting started; and I have noted that he changed his mind about what his novel was to be called. This suggests a degree of uncertainty which the opening pages don't entirely dispel. Reading and re-reading them I sense a writer casting around, trying to find the right tone, the right point of entry, the right subject even.
Yet the resulting novel, Little Dorrit, is one of his strongest, and it launched him on a string that would lead to the haunting Great Expectations and the sprawling, panoramic breakthrough of Our Mutual Friend--a reminder that our favorite writers surely deserve our forbearance in the case of an occasional failure.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Re-entering "The Little Room"--this time with the help of the Internet!

Back in October, I wrote a post about Madeline Yale Wynne's "The Little Room" (1895), a short story whose delicacy in dealing with the inexplicable could serve as a model for writers of uncanny tales. A few days ago, Addie Harris came across that post and left a comment that is far too interesting to be left to mulch in the archives. If you've not read "The Little Room," I'd suggest you take ten minutes to go here and read it before you read Addie's comment. You'll be glad you did

Addie writes,
My husband and I own a house that once belonged to Madeline Yale Wynne's aunt and uncle. Before we bought the house we were given a tour by the real estate agent. When we went upstairs to see the bedrooms he pointed out that it was unusual for a Victorian house to have been built with original closets. He took us into the first bedroom at the top of the stairs, showed us the view out the double window and pointed out the closet. At the second bedroom he pointed out an identical double window and an identical closet. He followed the same routine in the third bedroom. The fourth and apparently last bedroom was full of furniture so we stayed behind as he squeezed around the foot of the bed to point to yet another double window and another closet but, as we were turning to leave the room, we found ourselves alone. A second later there was a faint "Are you coming?" from inside the closet. In the back of that closet was a doorway leading into another room with blue wallpaper that has no entrance from the hall. I read somewhere that Madeline Yale Wynne was probably inspired to write "The Little Room" by her home in Massachusetts but I don't believe that.
I love that they learn about the room because they're thinking of buying the house--a situation that has set up spooky stories for more than a century. I further love that the real estate agent doesn't even seem to think there's anything all that odd about the little room; maybe he has some strange power--maybe all the houses he shows suddenly have little rooms?

The wonderfully fortuitous nature of this discovery about Wynne's story threatens to send me into yet another rhapsody about the glories of the Internet. Instead, I'll merely thank Addie for taking the time to share her knowledge, and I'll remember to add the Internet to the list of things I'm thankful for this holiday weekend.

Things here will most likely be quiet through the weekend but should be back to normal by Monday. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"It would have been a sure way to invite demons to the party," or, Subtle connections

Autumnal bread baking has won out over blogging this afternoon, so rather than a proper post I have merely two passages to share. They have no explicit commonalities, but when I read the second this afternoon it called to mind the first. See what you think.

The first passage comes from "Little Red's Tango," a strange, elliptical, atmospheric story by Peter Straub (which is collected in a stunning anthology he edited last year, Poe's Children: The New Horror) that reads like the offspring of Steven Millhauser and Kelly Link. The title character, Little Red, is a jazz record collector and friend to a certain subset of those in need; he is spoken of only in vague terms, for though it seems clear that he has some unusual powers, their nature is elusive, even to him.
He will not remind you of anyone you know. Little Red is not a type.

The closest you will come to thinking that someone has reminded you of Little Red will occur in the midst of a movie seen late in a summer afternoon on which you have decided to use a darkened theater to walk away from your troubles for a couple of hours. As you sit surrounded by empty seats in the pleasant murk, watching a scene depicting a lavish party or a crowded restaurant, an unnamed extra will move through the door and depart, and at first you will feel no more than a mild tingle of recognition all the more compelling for having no obvious referent. Someone is going, someone has gone, that is all you will know. Then the tilt of the departing head or the negligent gesture of a hand will return to you a quality more closely akin to the emotional context of memory than to memory itself, and with the image of Little Red rising into your mind, you will find yourself pierced by a sense of loss, longing, and sweetness, as if someone had just spoken the name of a long-vanished, once-dear childhood friend.
The second passage comes from Joscelyn Godwin's fascinating Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World (2009), from a brief aside explaining Kircher's relationship to magic:
Kircher was not a magician like Marsilio Ficino, who summoned the planetary influences with Orphic songs and perfumes. He is never known to have drawn up horoscopes, like Johann Kepler or Jerome Cardan. Unlike Tommaso Campanella, he did not perform ceremonies of astrological magic for his patron Pope Urban VIII. Nor had he any respect for alchemy, either physical or spiritual. He despised all forms of divination, especially the geomancy that infatuated Robert Fludd. One cannot be sure that he never indulged in erotically energized meditations, like Giordano Bruno, but it seems unlikely. He never, ever summoned spirits or attempted to converse with angels, like John Dee and Edward Kelley; it would have been a sure way to invite demons to the party. . . . While he wrote unhesitatingly about magnetic magic, musical magic, hieroglyphic magic, and many other magics, the only ones Kircher considered licit were natural. That is, they were based on the knowledge and exploitation of nature's hidden laws, which not even angels and demons were free to disobey. That these laws included correspondences between entities on the different planes of being (planets, plants, parts of the body, etc.) was not supernatural: it was simply the way the natural universe was put together, "bound by secret knots."
In typing these out, I think I've discovered why they linked themselves in my mind: the urgent whisper of that Someone is going, someone is gone in the Straub excerpt feels very much like stumbling across one of Kircher's "secret knots," the hint of an order that we're too small, too finite in our understanding, to fully grasp; though Straub tied this particular knot himself, it has the authentic feel of something ancient and strange, the shadowy glimpse of magic that gives a good uncanny story its power.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Lambs of London

A post by Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence last week about Peter Ackroyd's novel The Lambs of London (2004) reminded me that I had a copy of that book, unread, on my shelves, purchased several years ago when all I knew of Charles and Mary Lamb was their Tales from Shakespeare. Patrick's post gives a good sense of the pleasures of this slim novel (and you can also turn to him for praise of Charles Lamb's essays, which I plan to dive into this winter); since he's covered that ground, I'll merely share a few aspects that struck me.

Though Ackroyd dwells far less than I would have expected on the sad circumstances of the Lambs' shared life, he does give clear pictures of both Charles's alcoholism--
He had a strange relationship with his drunken self; he considered him to be an unhappy and unfortunate acquaintance to whom he had become accustomed. He would neither defend him nor apologise for him. He would merely recognise his existence.
--and Mary's bouts of insanity. Without overdoing things, Ackroyd suggests that Mary's troubles, if not caused by the cramped life forced on her by Georgian propriety, were at the very least exacerbated by it: while Charles spends his evenings out with friends, Mary stays at home, awaiting the talks they'll have on his return. When she does leave the house, it takes courage; she "decides to venture" into their street. She has barely been out of their neighborhood; a trip across the Thames affords her "a rare moment of discovery." When Charles challenges her about having been out one evening, she whirls on him,
"When you see me in this house I am sleep-walking. I have no real--no genuine--life here at all. Why do you think I long for you to come home each evening? When you are not wretchedly drunk, of course. . . . Whom do I see? Whom do I talk to? Whose propriety is it that I should be pressed to death? Whose convention is it that I am already lying in the family grave?"
By contrast, Charles's life as a young cleark for the East India Company is full of company, wit, charm, and sociability; his companions are sketched quickly but convincingly, my favorite being Alfred Jowett, who was
practical, hard-headed and a little mercenary. He divided his salary by the length of the working year, and had calculated that he earned five pence and three farthings every working hour. He had a written table inside his desk and, whenever he managed to idle away one of those hours, he added that sum to his running profit.
When comparing the lives and ambits of the siblings, it is hard not to think of the James family, of Alice stuck at home while her brothers escaped; in the century that separated them from the Lambs, the situation had improved, but not nearly enough.

Unexpectedly, though Ackroyd centers the story on the tragedy of the Lambs--when Mary, in a fit, killed her mother--he drives his plot with a story of forgery, introducing a young bookseller named William Henry Ireland, who briefly wowed literary England with the slowly doled out discovery of a cache of Shakespeare's papers, including, ultimately, a whole lost play, Vortigern. When his deception is finally undone, he apologetically explains,
I acted out of innocent delight and sheer intoxication with my gifts.
--while his success, however temporary, was rooted in a similar delight: people wanted to believe in the forgeries, wanted to believe that they had not seen the last of Shakespeare.

All of which reminded me of a passage from an interview of D. Graham Burnett conducted with historian Anthony Grafton in the Spring 2009 issue of Cabinet. Speaking of forgery, Grafton says,
[I]n many cases it was the forgers who took on the most ambitious projects of historical recovery. They were the ones who were trying to make the past live again, to animate, to resurrect the lost worlds. They had to steep themselves in these worlds enough that they could actually inhabit them creatively. . . . [I]n many cases there is a sense that these sorts of forgeries are not an effort to falsify the past, but in fact to rescue it. The truly passionate historical forger of the Renaissance was often saying something like, "I really know what was going on back then. I know how this tradition in antiquity worked. I know what the record ought to show, and if it's not there in our crappy manuscripts, well then, dammit, I'm going to put it there!"
And what else is a historical novelist doing but that? History may not have retained any extended account of Charles Lamb's table talk, or of his quiet tenderness towards his sister, or her private worries, but we have Peter Ackroyd, master forger, to fill in the gaps.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

To Boldly Go Where No Blogger Has Gone Before!, or, Four years in

As some days it seems that a depressingly large amount of online talk about books is about their future--or lack thereof--it seems only appropriate that on this, the fourth birthday of I've Been Reading Lately, I look not to the past and its 775 posts but to the future. But what can I say about the future? I don't know any better than you what books will look like in the years to come, or how we'll read them* . . . fortunately, however, as I was distracting myself from the task of folding laundry this evening by watching TV, I realized who does know: the crew of the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701!

For right there, in the series' pilot episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," was the answer: by the twenty-third century, books will be stored on cassettes that are similar in appearance to, though a bit smaller than, eight-tracks, and they will be projected on small monitors a page at a time. I have to admit that I'm disappointed less in the relatively bulky data storage that it appears our descendants will devolve to than in the lousy image quality they will achieve; the Kindle and Nook may not perfectly replicate the experience of reading text on a page, but at least they don't look like a splotchy mimeograph of a page set in a distressed, utilitarian typewriter font. Still, it's heartening to have proof that the written word will survive, and even to be reassured that at least one of my favorite writers will as well: Spinoza's Ethics makes an appearance onscreen in the episode.

Poetry, too, survives, as evidenced by a poem that helmsman Gary Mitchell recites to Dr. Elizabeth Dehner:
My love has wings
slender, feathered things
with grace
and upswept curve and
tapered tip
It's unclear from the context whether what Mitchell recites is a fragment or the whole poem, but he reveals that it is called "Nightingale Woman," and it was written by Tarbold on the Canopius Planet in that long ago year of 1996. He also doesn't reveal in what year humans will first learn of the poem--which we would of course have no way of knowing about here in 2009 were it not for Star Trek, given that we've failed thus far to achieve first contact--but he does describe it as "one of the most passionate love sonnets of the past couple of centuries."** So all you oh-no-poetry-is-dying folks can relax for at least a few hundred years.

Thanks for reading these four years; I hope you've enjoyed it even half as much as I have.

Monday, November 16, 2009

"Those rather hit-or-miss days," or, Wodehouse in spats and letters

In Wednesday's post about the P. G. Wodehouse interview that's included in the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews I mentioned in passing Wodehouse's expression of dismay at the disappearance of spats, but his whole disquisition on the topic is so good that it seems a shame not to share it, for it gives a great flavor of the light, yet thoughtful tone Wodehouse maintains throughout.

The exchange begins with a lament from Wodehouse about the changing times:
. . . I suppose a typical member of the Drones Club now is someone with a job and very earnest about it. Those rather hit-or-miss days have passed away. . . .

I suppose that world has gone the way of spats. You were very fond of spats, weren't you? Tell me a little about them.

I don't know why spats went out! The actual name was spatter-dashers, and you fastened them over your ankles, you see, to prevent the spatter from dashing you. They certainly lent tone to your appearance, and they were awfully comfortable, especially when you wore them in cold weather. I've written articles, which were rather funny, about how I used to go about London. I would borrow my brother's frock coat and my uncle's hat, but my spats were always new and impeccable. The butler would open the door and take in my old topcoat and hat and sniff as if to say, Hardly the sort of thing we are accustomed to. And then he would look down at the spats and everything would be all right. It's a shame when things like spats go out.
In fact, as Orwell (among others) has pointed out, Bertie Wooster was out of date almost the instant he first appeared; in his sympathetic 1945 essay defending Wodehouse against the charge of treason for the German radio broadcasts he made from Berlin during the war, Orwell notes,
Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. He is the "knut" of the pre-1914 period, celebrated in such songs as "Gilbert the Filbert" or "Reckless Reggie of the Regent's Palace". The kind of life that Wodehouse writes about by preference, the life of the "clubman" or "man about town", the elegant young man who lounges all the morning in Piccadilly with a cane under his arm and a carnation in his buttonhole, barely survived into the nineteen-twenties. . . . It is significant that Wodehouse could publish in 1936 a book entitled Young Men in Spats. For who was wearing spats at that date? They had gone out of fashion quite ten years earlier.
Reading Orwell's essay again made me wonder what Wodehouse himself thought of it, whether his appreciation for the support would be diminished by the fact that Orwell's defense consisted largely of establishing that Wodehouse was so ignorant of reality as to be essentially blameless when it unexpectedly intruded. Robert McCrum, in his biography of Wodehouse, reports the essay was actually in part the result of a correspondence the two men struck up following a group lunch in Paris*, and that at the time the essay was published, Wodehouse was grateful, writing to Orwell,
I don't think I have ever read a better bit of criticism. You were absolutely right in everything you said about my work. It was uncanny.
A bit more digging, however, led me to the P. G. Wodehouse Books site, which quotes from a letter Wodehouse sent around the same time to his friend Bill Townend, wherein he complains about Orwell's mention of Wodehouse's line from the radio talks about how German officers near his house were always "dropping in for a bath or a party":
From Orwell's article, you would think I had invited the blighters to come and scour their damned bodies in my bathroom. What actually happened was that at the end of the second week of occupation, the house next door became full of German Labour Corps workers and they seemed to have got me muddled up with Tennyson's Sir Walter Vivian. The gentleman who "all of a summer's day gave his broad lawns until the set of sun to the people." I suppose to a man fond of German Labour Corps workers, and liking to hear them singing in the bath, the conditions would have been ideal, but they didn't suit me. I chafed, and a fat lot of good chafing did me. They came again next day and brought their friends.
Even the staunchest Wodehouse apologist is unlikely to have much sympathy for his account of the suffering brought on by the horrors of German singing, considering what others went through; at the same time, the letter itself sounds so Wodehousian--so unexpectedly close in tone to some of his characters--that it's hard not to be in some degree charmed nonetheless.

One last note before I leave Wodehouse behind for a while. That passage led me to wonder whether his letters might be worth reading--whether they were, as for so many writers, a place for rehearsing what would later turn up in his fiction. Well, if Nancy Mitford is to be trusted--and on the subject of comedy, I think she surely is--the answer is no: she closed a letter to Evelyn Waugh** in 1953 with this postscript about Wodehouse's just-published Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters:
Have you read the P G Wodehouse letters? He never seems to stay in one place more than a week. Not a joke in the whole lot -- as far as I've read.
Anyone out there read them and disagree strongly enough to make a case for my giving them a try?

Friday, November 13, 2009

"It seemed to be always 3 o'clock," or, Ye Olde Time Sunday Feeling

When I was a boy, Sundays meant getting up early to watch "The Little Rascals," as the old "Our Gang" shorts were renamed when they were run on our local television station in the early 1980s. If we were lucky, we could follow it with George Reeves in the "Adventures of Superman"--but if we were unlucky, we had to leave Superman to put the world to rights on his own while we all set out for church, which has never, in the seventy-plus years of Superman's existence, come close to rivaling him for entertainment.

Being a voracious reader, however, I knew that even without Superman, we had it good: in novel after novel, I encountered Victorian children and frontier American children whose entertainment options from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday were limited to the Bible and the sermon, with any hints of fun or amusement or light-heartedness strictly forbidden.* The very thought of such enforced piety--and the crushing boredom it necessarily brought with it--made our hour-long, light-on-fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian service much more bearable.

All that came to mind last night as I was reading Molly Hughes's A London Child of the 1870s (1934), a charming memoir of a middle-class London family of the Victorian era. The book isn't that well known these days--though Adam Gopnik, in his introduction to the lovely Persephone Boks edition, makes a convincing case for it as an urban counterpart to the more popular and beloved Lark Rise to Candleford--but it's a wonderful little book, one that any lover of London or Victoriana should read; Gopnik describes it, aptly, as David Copperfield from the point of view of the Micawber children.

I expect, however, that on Sundays even the ebullient Micawbers forced their faces into pious expresions, and Molly Hughes's family was no different:
The mere word "Sunday" is apt to give a mental shiver to people of long memories. The outer world closed down. It was wrong to travel except for dire necessity, and then very difficult. It was wrong to work, and wrong to play. In fact, existence in some houses was so dull that Tom said he undersrtood the full meaning of the opening verse of the 122nd Psalm. However, we did the best we could with the day, and it had the advantage of my father being with us all the time. He didn't take religion too seriously, and left it to mother to enforce all her superstitious restrictions that she had imbibed in her Cornish home.
Church--which the family took at St. Paul's, after a lovingly described walk through the relatively quiet Sunday streets--was bad enough, the sermons "usually stiff with learning and far over our heads,"** but it was the rest of the day that was the real torture:
The afternoons hung heavy. It seemed to be always 3 o'clock. All amusements, as well as work, were forbidden. It was a real privation not to be allowed to draw and paint. However, an exception was made in favour of illuminated texts, and we rivalled the old monks in our zeal for copying Scripture, with the same kind of worldly decorations that they devised.

Naturally our main stand-by was reading, but here again our field was limited by mother's notions of what was appropriate for Sunday. Tom Brown, Robinson Crusoe, Hans Andersen's Tales, and Pilgrim's Progress were permitted, but not the Arabian Nights, or Walter Scott, or indeed any novel. We had to fall back on bound volumes of Good Words for the Young, which were not so bad as the title suggests, and contained plenty of stories. Again and again I turned to something entitled The Dark Journey, only to find that it was an account of one's digetsion. You may wonder why I did this more than once, but I always hoped that I had been mistaken, and that such a splendid title must mean a good story. No, there was still that forbidding picture of one's insides cut through the middle.

We all liked certain parts of a three-volume story called Henry Milner, which purported to be an account of the upbringing of a Christian gentleman. I believe he never did anything wrong, but his school-fellows didi, and all their gay activities shone like misdeeds in a pious world.
It's good to see that some things never change, and that the best parts of tales of uplift likely always have been the lovingly described scenes of life at its most sordid.

There was, however, one real, unmitigated pleasure, which suggests that even Mother realized--though she refused to acknowledge it--that the Sabbath at times required the leaven of laughter:
Pickwick Papers, by some blessed workings of mother's conscience, did not come under the head of novels. They were "papers." She herself led the laughter over the long gamekeeper and Bob Sawyer's supper-party. Not sabbatical by any means, but those readings rescued our childhood's Sundays from the grimness that might otherwise have stuck to them.
Oh, the perennial joys of Dickens! The thought of that family, in the years just after Dickens's death, laughing at the same books we still laugh at today; it takes me back to standing in the poky little Dickens museum in London many years ago, overwhelmed with gratitude at the thought that one man could have brought all of us so, so much joy.

Hughes may not have left us nearly the riches that Dickens did, but her gem of a memoir carries a tone reminiscent of Dickens's lighter moments, full of the joys and surprises of everyday middle-class life. A London Child of the 1870s doesn't appear to be available in the United States; it's unclear whether Persephone has a distributor over here. But it's well worth getting from the UK; I can think of few better cup-of-tea-and-a-blanket-by-the-fireside books for the incipient winter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"And I thought, Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet?", or, P. G. Wodehouse on Jeeves

The two highlights for me of the new fourth volume of The Paris Review Interviews--reason enough on their own for me to buy the book--are the interview with Haruki Murakami, which I drew on yesterday, and the one from 1975 with P. G. Wodehouse.

Wodehouse comes across as amiable and a bit goofy, but at the same time every bit the master craftsman and hard worker his fans know him to have been. The interview is sprinkled with wonderful moments--like when Wodehouse says, "I'm bad at remembering things, like when flying really became fashionable," or "It's a shame when things like spats go out"--but what has inspired today's post is one of the standard questions that Wodehouse must have fielded hundreds of times, but to which this time he gave an interesting answer:
Did you ever have a butler like Jeeves?

No, never like Jeeves. My butlers were different, though I believe J. M. Barrie had one just like Jeeves.
Really? Now this calls for a trip to the bookshelves, where from Lisa Chaney's Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie (2005), we learn about Barrie's manservant Frank Thurston, who entered Barrie's service in the 1920s and does seem to have been remarkable:
Thurston's ability to enter and leave a room with absolute silence was a reflection of his enigmatic and, some thought, slightly sinister personality. To compound the mystery he had somehow familiarised himself not only with Spanish and French, but also with Latin and Greek. In addition to admirably fulfilling his role as skilled and urbane butler, it soon became clear that Thurston was a man of startling learning. Cynthia [Asquith] wrote of him:
Dictionaries and various learned tomes soon cluttered up the pantry, where I would constantly find him reading Latin or Greek while he polished the silver.
Thurston had an astonishing memory for other things besides living and dead languages. He could supply any forgotten date or quotation. One day Barrie remarked that the only line in an Oxford quotation that survived was "A rose red city half as old as Time." Though we all knew this line, no one of us could remember the name of the poet.
When Cynthia's husband, Beb, confessed that he couldn't remember the name of the "rose red city" and no one else at the table could either, Thurston, passing around the meat, finally said, "Was it not Petra, Sir?"
In light of Thurston's surprising erudition, Chaney tells us, Barrie took to warning his guests that
if they were thinking of reading a thriller in bed they would be advised "to hide it between a Pliny and the latest theory of Ethics."
While Robert McCrum's recent biography of Wodehouse barely mentions Barrie, and Thurston not at all, it does appear
(if Google Book Search's frustratingly limited preview isn't leading me astray) that N. T. P. Murphy at least touched on the question of Thurston as an inspiration for Jeeves in his In Search of Blandings: An Investigation into the Sources That Inspired P. G. Wodehouse (1986), writing that, through the accounts of Wodehouse's friend Denis Mackail, Thurston "played a part in the 'growth' of Jeeves in the early part of the 1920s."*

All of which makes me wonder how Thurston would have handled an odd incident involving Barrie that I've related before, but which seems worth sharing once again. It's from Penelope Fitzgerald's loving, perceptive group biography of her uncles, The Knox Brothers (1977), and, appropriately or not, it's the first thing that comes to my mind when Barrie is brought up:
Desmond MacCarthy, the most genial of Irish critics, had been at King's, and wanted to help [Fitzgerald's uncle Edmund Knox], as he wanted to help everybody he met. He also knew everybody. Eddie must come to him and ask advice from James Barrie, who was at the height of his fame, though he could sometimes be a little disconcerting, unless the side of him which spoke to adults, and which he called "McConachie," happened to be foremost. Buoyed up by MacCarthy's confidence, the two of them called at 133 Gloucester Terrace, where they found the room empty, except for a large dog, with which Barrie used to play hide-and-seek in the Park. While they waited, Eddie in sheer nervousness hit his hand on the marble mantelpiece. It began to bleed profusely. MacCarthy was aghast. Barrie could not bear the sight of blood. They tried to staunch it with handkerchiefs, and with the cuffs of MacCarthy's soft shirt, which became deeply stained. Barrie appeared at the doorway, took one look at them, and withdrew. Kind-hearted though he was, he was obliged to send down a message that he could not see them.
For that matter, how would Jeeves himself have handled it? Bertie's scrapes, though plentiful and harrowing, were rarely the sort to draw blood. Most likely, I suppose, is that no such incident would have occurred, Jeeves having quietly sanded all the corners of the mantelpiece at some point in the past in anticipation of just this sort of danger.

Monday, November 09, 2009

On Doubles

In the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews, Haruki Murakami offers an interesting analysis of his relationship to his protagonists:
Your protagonists often seem to serve as projections of your own point of view into the fantastic world of your narratives--the dreamer in the dream.

Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us--the other one--was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven't seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven't seen each other for a long time. It's a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA we are the same, but our environment has been different, so our way of thinking would be different.
That description is sure to resonate with longtime readers of Murakami--though when I think of his obsession with doubling and twinning, I tend to think not of his mid-30s male protagonists but of the young, attractive women who enter their lives. The interviewer, too, picks up on that, and later asks Murakami about it:
There seem to be two distinct types of women in your novels: those with whom the protagonist has a fundamentally serious relationship--often this is the woman who disappears and whose memory haunts him--and the other kind of woman, who comes later and helps him in his search, or to do to the opposite--to forget. This second type of woman tends to be outspoken, eccentric, and sexually frank, and the protagonist interacts with her in a much warmer and more humorous way than he had with the missing woman, with whom he never quite connected. What purpose do these two archetypes serve?

My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. In the spiritual world, the women--or men--are quiet, intelligent, modest. Wise. In the realistic world, as you say, the women are very active, comic, positive. They have a sense of humor. The protagonist's mind is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take. I think that's one of the main motifs in my work. It's very apparent in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, in which his mind is actually, physically split. In Norwegian Wood, as well, there are two girls and he cannot decide between them, from the beginning to the end.
"Split," though Murakami is applying it here to his male characters, seems the appropriate description: to my mind, it's less that Murakami's offering polarities than that he's sorting the elements that make up one person into two different characters, as if his protagonists' understanding of the ultimate complexity of others is fundamentally limited, affecting his ideas of how to relate to them--and, perhaps, even precipitating the losses he endures.

Soon after reading that interview, I read Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem's fantastic, creepy story "The Man on the Ceiling," which is included in Poe's Children: The New Horror (2008, edited by Peter Straub), and this passage, written in Steve's voice, jumped out at me for obvious reasons:
As a child I was a persistent liar. I lied slyly, I lied innocently, and I lied enthusiastically. I lied out of confusion and I lied out of a profound disappointment. One of my more elaborate lies took shape during the 1960 presidential election. While the rest of the country was debating the relative merits of Kennedy and Nixon, I was explaining to my friends how I had been half of a pair of Siamese twins, and how my brother had tragically died during the separation.

This was, perhaps, my most heartfelt lie to date, because in telling this tale I found myself grieving over the loss of my brother, my twin. I had created my first believable character, and my character had hurt me.

Later I came to recognize that about that time (I was ten), the self I had been was dying, and that I was slowly becoming the twin who had died and gone off to some other, better fiction.
What's particularly fascinating about this--in light of Murakami's talk of a twinned self and intentionally doubled or split characters--is that "The Man on the Ceiling" is written by a husband-and-wife team, authors of many books, who are working together for the first time, telling a story about the fears, nightmares, and strengths of their marriage and their family. Steve Tem may have lost his imaginary twin, but as becomes apparent in the story, in his wife he has found, if not a replacement, then at least a reflection; the story's honest appraisal of the odd combination of intimacy, trust, fear, and ultimate separateness that turns a pair into a couple is moving and unforgettable.