Friday, February 27, 2009

"Everything has to come to an end sometime, even pure unadulterated terror--particularly if there is nothing whatever to be done about it."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

This week's New Yorker features a "Talk of the Town" piece about the producers of a new staging of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit asking a group of working mediums to attempt to conjure the spirit of Coward himself as part of an audition for a job as advisor to the actress portraying the medium in the play. The piece reminded me of an odd story I read this fall, when, deep into my annual autumnal ghost story binge, I took James Hynes's advice and bought an old copy of yet another of those Robert Arthur-edited Hitchcock anthologies, Stories for Late at Night (1961). The volume is the usual mixed but very satisfying bag, its handful of truly chilling stories–Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" and John Collier's "Evening Primrose" among them–more than justifying the minimal cost of a used copy.

The story that returned to mind today was "Lady's Man" (1961), by early film actress and novelist Ruth Chatterton, which, from the point of view of Chatterton herself, relates a ghostly encounter that she had at Noel Coward's country house, Goldenhurst. In the story, Chatterton is invited to Goldenhurst for a weekend visit with a few others of Coward's circle, including his longtime close friend Joyce Carey; put up in a first-floor room that she's never seen used as guest quarters before, she senses a male presence enter her room late in the night:
I shut my eyes but they wouldn't stay shut. Even though I tried not to look, they kept wandering to that inky vaccum beyond the wide-open door. That was when the noise began, or when I became aware of it. Tap-tap-tap, as if a fingernail were tapping on the glass of the pictures on the wall, one after the other. Then the floorboards began to creak. Someone seemed to be pacing back and forth beside my bed. I could hear it plainly.
What's most striking about the story is that, rather than a piece of fiction crafted to thrill the readers of Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine or Astounding Science Fiction, "Lady's Man" appears to be a straight-up ghost story. Though it builds to a delicious concluding line, it nevertheless has all the unaffected appeal of a ghost story recounted to a friend over October campfire drinks, its simple chronology and incidental details giving it the casual verisimilitude crucial to such tales–it's the sort of story that, if told by a trusted friend, one would have to file in the "I don't believe in ghosts, but . . . " drawer. In the midst of stories with steel-trap plots and inexorably building tension, it's a breath of fresh–if undeniably creepy–air.

Chatterton died later that same year, 1961, and my relatively cursory searching turns up no other mention of this encounter. Philip Hoare's 1998 biography of Coward, however, does mention hauntings at Goldenhurst, though in a different, newer room:
Here guests–who had included Maugham just a few months before–reported odder events. Lilia Ralli, the Greek-born friend of the Duchess of Kent, had a restless night in the French Room, a new guest room built off the long passage. Coward came to the conclusion, based on other disturbed nights, that local tales of a suicide walking the path over which the room had been built were true and that it was haunted by a lovelorn Kentish lad.
Hoare, understandably, can't resist adding in a footnote:
Subsequent tenants of the house describe a feeling of being watched when playing the piano, which they ascribe to Coward's continuing presence. His ghost has also been reported in more unlikely venues: the bar manager of the Little Theatre in Wells claimed to have seen his spectral form, clad in a smoking jacket during an amateur production of Cowardy Custard.
To return to the "Talk of the Town" piece (in which one of the producers says that the most effective of the mediums, "scared the shit out of me"): I wonder whether the producers' desire for additional coaching for their medium was a result of their having read last year's fascinating collection of Coward's letters, in which he registers vigorous disapproval of the actress who originated the role in the first London run of Blithe Spirit:
The great disappointment is Margaret Rutherford, whom the audience love, because the part is so good, but who is actually very, very bad indeed. She is indistinct, fussy and, beyond her personality, has no technical knowledge or resources at all. She merely fumbles and gasps and drops things and throws many of my best lines down the drain. She is despair to Fay, Cecil and Kay and mortification to me because I thought she would be marvelous. I need hardly say she got a magnificent notice. So much for that.
If a producer wants to avoid being haunted by Coward, perhaps it's worth taking a little extra effort over the medium?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Some dilate upon the number and kind of books suitable for a journey . . . "

{Photo by rocketlass.}
As travelling companions books have no corrival. If they lacked other purpose or defence, this alone would justify them before men. How many hours they have scattered pleasantly on lone and long journeys; what limitless tedium they have relieved or circumvented, how they have filled the waking hours, or composed the weary brain for sleep, every reader can support.
Those lines from Holbrook Jackson's seventeenth-century-style The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1948) seem right for this post, the last that I've lined up in advance to run while I'm off in Japan. For while the 600-plus posts on this blog surely put my love of books beyond question, I have to part with Jackson here: were the choice necessary, I would always select congenial living companions over books on a journey.

The following, too, seems worth quoting, if only to remind me that, however much my shoulders may ache from the weight of too many books at this point in my trip, my bibliomania could always be worse:
Some have gone so far as to construct travelling libraries for themselves, like Sir Julius Caesar, Master of the Rolls in the reign of King James I. His library went wherever he did. It was arranged in a box, shaped like a folio volume, covered with olive-green morocco, finely tooled in an elaborate pattern. On the inside lid was a catalogue of the forty-four books which comprised the library.
Which leads me to this closing line, the italicized part of which Jackson draws from Edmund Gosse's Library of Edmund Gosse:
I might here insert many more opinions, but they all tend to one conclusion: books are not entirely valued or intimately loved unless they are ranged about us as we sit at home.
And that is where, to sit quietly with my martinis and my cats, I am headed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"The writer of half a century has outlived his critics; and, alas! has survived those whom he once had an ambition to please."

One of the most rewarding of my many current fascinations is Isaac D'Israeli's monumental collection of literary opinion, quotation, gossip, and anecdote, Curiosities of Literature, which D'Israeli shepherded through nine editions between 1791 and 1834. The preface to the ninth edition supplies the title to today's post, which finds me looking at Isaac's son, novelist and, later, prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Benjamin published his first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), at age twenty, and while it sold well, the critical response was savage. The worst of the reviews, in Blackwood's Magazine, called Disraeli "an obscure person for whom nobody gives a straw," and according to the The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, we can read the following passage from Disraeli's later novel Contarini Fleming (1832) as a lightly fictionalized account of the effect it had on him at the time:
With what horror, with what blank despair, with what supreme appalling astonishment did I find myself for the first time in my life the subject of the most reckless, the most malignant and the most adroit ridicule. I was sacrificed, I was scalped. . . . The criticism fell from my hand. A film floated over my vision, my knees trembled. I felt that sickness of heart that we experience in our first scrape. I was ridiculous. It was time to die.
Though the elder D'Israeli was, according to Benjamin's most recent biographer, Adam Kirsch, so wrapped up in his books as to be "an almost ethereal presence," Isaac does strike me as the sort who would at least take note of the bad review, and perhaps even think to send his son a note directing him to the wisdom offered in the Curiosities under "Sketches of Criticism."

In that essay, D'Israeli displays his admirable habit of getting straight to the point:
It may perhaps be some satisfaction to show the young writer, that the most celebrated ancients have been as rudely subjected to the tyranny of criticism as the moderns. Detraction has ever poured the “waters of bitterness.”
After which he offers us a ringing catalog of the calumnies under which the most celebrated of ancient authors have suffered, both in their lifetimes and after their deaths. Regarding Plato, for example, we are given a catalog of epithets that gathers momentum as it descends from the heights:
Plato, who has been called, by Clement of Alexandria, the Moses of Athens; the philosopher of the Christians, by Arnobius; and the god of philosophers, by Cicero; Athenæus accuses of envy; Theopompus, of lying; Suidas, of avarice; Aulus Gellius, of robbery; Porphyry, of incontinence; and Aristophanes, of impiety.
An account of Horace, on the other hand, reminds us that, as JT still assures us these many centuries later, what goes around comes around:
Horace censures the coarse humour of Plautus; and Horace, in his turn, has been blamed for the free use he made of the Greek minor poets.
D'Israeli's account of the criticisms of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gelius (who himself, you'll recall, had the temerity to call Plato a robber) are worth including both for their turn of phrase and for their invocation of an old favorite, Robert Burton:
The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, and the Deipnosophists of Athenæus, while they have been extolled by one party, have been degraded by another. They have been considered as botchers of rags and remnants; their diligence has not been accompanied by judgement; and their taste inclined more to the frivolous than to the useful. Compilers, indeed, are liable to a hard fate, for little distinction is made in their ranks; a disagreeable situation, in which honest Burton seems to have been placed; for he says of his work, that some will cry out, “This is a thinge of meere industrie; a collection without wit or invention ; a very toy! So men are valued! their labours vilified by fellowes of no worth themselves, as things of nought; who could not have done as much? some understande too little, and some too much.”
As the ghost of Robert Frost will surely haunt me for writing, one could do worse than be a botcher of rags and remnants.

But perhaps the sweetest consolation came far too late for either father or son to see it: Blackwood's Magazine itself offered praise for Vivian Grey in its February 1905 issue. In an unsigned article titled "Musings without Method," the magazine wrote of a recent rise in the critical opinion of Disraeli's novels--and specifically of Vivian Grey:
That it has the faults of inexperience is obvious. "Books written by boys," said Disraeli, "which pretend to give a picture of manners, and to deal in knowledge of human nature, must be affected." And Vivian Grey is affected in style, in plot, and in character. Nevertheless, it possesses the quality of sincerity--a sincerity to youth and high spirits.
While the journal acknowledges that,
It is Byronic, it is lackadaisical, it is fantastic. Its hero cares not for dinner so long as he is in time for the guava and liqueurs.
--at the same time it admires the fact that
[U]nder the velvet glove of aestheticism there is the iron hand of action, and Vivian Grey, when he is not displaying his eloquence, is ready to manage mankind "by studying their tempers and humouring their weaknesses." In other words, he has always a smile for a friend and a sneer for the world. But to whatever page you turn in this romance you find traces of the life and energy which were characteristic of its author. He tried many things in his life and save in poetry he always succeeded.
I, for one, would be happy with such an epitaph as that last.

Assuming D'Israeli senior continues to hold my interest, I just may have to also dive into the works of Disraeli junior; I'll report back what I learn.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What should I tell the alien survey team?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

When someday the aliens beam me up and start asking questions, I fully expect them to ask me--once they've gotten beyond the obvious ("Did adults really watch The Dukes of Hazzard?"; "How did no one realize Cheney was a Skrull?"; "Can we hate the Yankees, too?")--what it is we readers enjoy in novels. And after I rave about the capaciousness of the form, its ability to accommodate both Moby-Dick and A Month in the Country, both A Dance to the Music of Time and Tlooth, I'll talk about how its very filler, the clutter of objects and incidental descriptions and necessary transitions that begins to really thicken up in the Victorian era, can itself here and there beautifully capture and hold our world as we pass it by--as the very action of the novel itself passes it by.

This all came to mind a few days ago because as I was reading Abraham Rodriguez's strange, staccato, stylized crime novel South by South Bronx (2008), I decided I'd hit upon the perfect illustration of that aspect of novels. In the opening pages of the book, a young blonde woman in a soaking wet minidress, trying to escape from some unknown peril in a South Bronx downpour, climbs a fire escape, and as she's climbing she's afforded a momentary, anonymous glimpse of intimacy:
Through the open window on the third floor she spotted a couple, dancing. Luis Vargas playing soft on the stereo. The one candle flickered unreliably. The woman was in a red dress, fringe splashing her thighs like water. The guy was bare-chested. Black dress pants, like a matador. She watched them dance slow and close. Took a moment before she realized the guy was wearing an eye patch.
It's a perfect little snapshot of the other lives that exist, quietly, in the eddies of a realist novel; even as they serve their essential purpose of coloring and fleshing out the world of the story we're following, they also necessarily represent directions not taken, stories unexplored.

Yet it turns out I was wrong: later in the novel it's revealed that that's not a throwaway scene, that the man with the eye patch is an important character. And though that fact essentially destroys the utility of this scene for my demonstration, at the same time it makes me even more impressed with Rodriguez's talent: how rare it is to have a secretly important detail conveyed so smoothly, so casually, yet at the same time in a way that insures it will be remembered when the time comes? It's a sign of the invention and dynamism that runs throughout the novel; South by South Bronx is impressive enough that I'll soon be heading to the bookstore in search of Rodriguez's previous novels.

But that still leaves me needing a scene to share with the inevitable aliens--unless, that is, I am willing to assume that they won't ever read all of South by South Bronx. Which, come to think of it, sure sounds like how Han Solo would handle the situation.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Perhaps . . . a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning."

Aside from John Bellairs, I don't think any writer cost me more childhood sleep than Robert Arthur. Arthur wrote ghost stories and mysteries, as well as episodes of the suspense radio drama "The Mysterious Traveler," but it wasn't his own works, good as they were, that kept me up at night. Rather, it was his work as a unnamed editor of a legion of Alfred Hitchcock anthologies from the 1950s and '60s--especially a series of anthologies aimed at young readers that were republished in the early 1980s. Through those volumes I made acquaintance with any number of writers whose works I've continued to enjoy through the years, including Lord Dunsany, Agatha Christie, E. F. Benson, Eric Ambler, Shirley Jackson, Robert Bloch, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ray Bradbury.

But the story that affected me the most, read first when I was about ten and turned to again and again over the next several years, was Daphne du Maurier's "The Birds." Long before I saw the movie--which, when I did finally watch it, disappointed me greatly--I read and re-read "The Birds," to the point where I knew large stretches of it by heart.

Why did I fixate on this story, of all the stories in the volumes, many of which were far more blatantly creepy or surprising? I think it's likely that I was responding to rural isolation of the Cornish farming community that du Maurier portrays so well, the sense that, when nature unexpectedly--and inexplicably--turns against farmhand Nat Hocken and his family, they have little to fall back on but themselves. Though the rural landscape in which I grew up possessed none of the dramatic wildness of the Cornish seascape of du Maurier's story, there was always a similar sense, even in the age of television, that we were at the edge of the world, far from the important dealings and decisions of big cities. So while there was much in the story I didn't even understand--I remember struggling with "pension," "council houses," and even "wireless" when I first read it--I instantly grasped the terror of feeling cut off from the world, and not having a reason to expect anything resembling rescue to come over the horizon.

And then there's du Maurier's relentless return to the physical, her foregrounding of sensation over theme or speculation. Though I was asked to do very little work on the farm as a boy (my father's memories of having to do too much work on the farm at that age having convinced him to shield us to some extent), I knew the bone-penetrating cold that could overtake you in a field in the bitterness of spring, which gave the opening of a passage like this a familiarity and force that then naturally carried over to its more gruesome aspects:
When he reached the beach below the headland he could scarcely stand, the force of the east wind was so strong. It hurt to draw breath, and his bare hands were blue. Never had he known such cold, not in all the bad winters he could remember. It was low tide. He crunched his way over the shingle to the softer sand and then, his back to the wind, ground a pit in the sand with his heel. He meant to drop the birds into it, but as he opened up the sack the force of the wind carried them, lifted them, as though in flight again, and they were blown away from him along the beach, tossed like feathers, spread and scattered, the bodies of the fifty frozen birds. There was something ugly in the sight. He did not like it. The dead birds were swept away from him by the wind.
Which suggests another reason this story stayed with me: death in "The Birds," whether avian or human, is concrete and horrible. It takes something beautiful and right--a living, moving, even graceful creature--and it replaces it with a broken thing, a perversion, an object of horror. It is irreversible, and, as the tension mounts, page by page, it seems increasingly inevitable. To a child, that knowledge is as chilling as anything. I read the story again and again, knowing the bleak ending would never change.

I recently reread "The Birds" for the first time in years, possibly even decades, in the new collection of du Maurier's short stories from the New York Review of Books, Don't Look Now (2008), and was pleased to find its power hasn't diminished. If anything, du Maurier's refusal to provide an explanation, or even to hint at one, impressed me more than it did years ago. And while it's unquestionably the best story in the collection, the whole volume is impressive. "Don't Look Now," on which the Nicholas Roeg film was based, is a tight, creepy suspense tale, while both "Split Second" and "Kiss Me Again, Stranger" reminded me of Muriel Spark's ghost stories. The most inventive story is also the most sadistically chilling: "The Blue Lenses," in which a woman who's just undergone eye surgery wakes to find that everyone has the head of an animal--and her husband's animal head is not one that inspires trust.

Aside from "The Birds," I think the last story in the collection, "Monte Verità," is the one most likely to stay with me. An almost novella-length tale of a pair of friends and the beautiful, ethereal woman they both loved and lost, it is shot through with longing and an almost naive mysticism, a willingness to believe that the hidden places of the world and the bounds of human potential have not necessarily all been mapped. Its sense of interwar rootlessness brings to mind Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel writings, and it is told with an asperity and patience that seem suitable to its remote mountain setting.
They told me afterwards they had found nothing. No trace of anyone, living or dead. Maddened by anger, and, I believe, by fear, they had succeeded at last at breaking into those forbidden walls, dreaded and shunned through countless years--to be met by silence.
Even though it's sitting on my shelf, safely bound, I think of "Monte Verità" as the sort of story you happen across in a magazine and are completely swept away by, your whole afternoon dissolved into its enchanting strangeness. But you fail to note the name of the author, and for years afterward, you mention it to friends here and there, breathlessly relating its seductions, but you never meet with anyone who recognizes it. You begin to doubt your own memory . . and then one day in a used bookshop, you pick up a musty anthology--maybe even a Hitchock anthology edited by Robert Arthur--and there it is, a treasure returned. A life of bookstore browsing offers few better moments.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There is no Joyland in childhood . . .

{Photo by rocketlass.}
When he wasn't torturing animals, he was actually a pretty nice guy. We usually talked girls. Our tastes in them diverged considerably. He was an ass man, and preferred blondes. I, on the other hand, hadn't yet formulated an opinion on what I liked. Besides girls, we also shared an interest in the Steve Miller Band. We loved his sound, and his lyrics spoke to us where we live: I really like your peaches want to shake your tree. It was a music that was surreal, low key, and cool all at once. We'd play Steve Miller tapes, and hang out in his garage where his father had a device for making shot-gun shells. We spent hours hand-making twelve gauge shot gun shells.
That's from "Berkowitz," by Joe Peterson, a conversational, rough-hewn, moving story of boyhood longing, risk, and violence that's one of my favorites among those I've published in my brief tenure as Chicago editor for Joyland.

Which is my way of reminding folks that I'm still happily taking submissions from Chicagoans and/or former Chicagoans; if you fit that simple criterion and have a story you think well of, drop me a line. {In particular, I'm looking for some female contributors--surely all writers who've passed through Chicago in recent years aren't male, right? I know the whole "city of broad shoulders" thing, but seriously . . . )

Meanwhile, Joyland in general is definitely worth checking out, if you've not yet done so. It continues to grow--a London editor, Benjamin Wood, has just joined the stable--while offering more than half a dozen good stories online every month for free. In the midst of the New Austerity, what more could you reasonably ask for?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"One cross is bad enough, but I hadn't ought to carry a whole god-dang lumberyard around with me!"

When I picked up Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 (1964) in an attempt to begin fulfilling one of my reading resolutions for 2009, I'll admit I didn't expect it to open anything like this:
Well, sir, I should have been sitting pretty, just as pretty as a man could sit. Here I was, the high sheriff of Potts County, and I was drawing almost two thousand dollars a year--not to mention what I could pick up on the side. On top of that, I had free living quarters on the second floor of the courthouse, just as nice a place as a man could ask for; and it even had a bathroom so that I didn't have to bathe in a washtub or tramp outside to a privy, like most folks in town did. I guess you could say that Kingdom Come was really here as far as I was concerned. I had it made, and it looked like I could go on having it made--being high sheriff of Potts County--as long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'.
That voice--jokey, casual, yarn-spinning--is about as far as you can get from the hard-boiled bleakness I'd expected. Cornpone folksiness? Really?

Well, yes, as it turns out--but also, and more importantly, no. Sheriff Corey's narrative voice, with its mix of homespun wisdom and nonsense, never wavers, taking control of the book from the first page and holding the reader rapt (and often laughing) throughout. But at the same time, Thompson slowly, and with remarkable control, lets us see that there's far more to the sheriff than meets the ear. Though Corey agrees early and often with everyone's assessment that he's stupid and simple--
I couldn't really argue about her saying I was stupid and spineless--who wants a smart sheriff--and I figure it's a lot nicer to turn your back on trouble than it is to look at it.
--over the course of the novel we realize how dextrous he is at using that impression to hide what lies beneath it: a scheming mind with a preternatural understanding of human nature and an uncanny ability to find its lowest common denominator. He's like an amoral Davy Crockett or a frontier Odysseus, distracting everyone with a wink and a whirl of words while he manipulates people into unwittingly participating in his dirty work.

Thompson manages the dual register of Corey's narration remarkably well, introducing more and more dissonant notes over the course of the novel, so that by the time we've realized the full extent of his cunning, we've nearly been suckered ourselves. Idiocy masks hypocrisy, laziness masks self-dealing, innocence masks violence, and throughout, the sheriff barrages everyone with folk wisdom--
I mean, well, which is worse, George, the fella that craps on a doorknob or the one that rings the doorbell?
--and faux ignorance--
I ain't saying you're wrong but I ain't saying you're right, either. Anyways, even if I am stupid, you can't hardly fault me for it. They's lots of stupid people in the world.
The result is a black comedy with the body count of a Renaissance tragedy, one which at the same time skewers the hypocrisies and structural brutalities of the rural south. And on top of all that, we get a dictionary's worth of ridiculous countrified slang; lines of dialogue like the following would almost make the novel worth reading all on their own:
"What's the matter," Rose said. "You screw Myra all the time, and don't tell me you don't, you stupidlooking jackass! You've tossed it to her so often you've thrown your ass out of line with your eyeballs!"

I've been told that my instincts were correct, that Pop. 1280 is atypical of Thompson. But assuming his other novels demonstrate anything like this level of skill and control in prose and voice, I can see why Donald Westlake was a fan, and I have no doubt that he'll be joining my list of favorites.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Es el tiempo para premios, or, says my poor Spanish: It's Awards Time!

Though many of you have probably heard about this elsewhere, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't make sure to mention the soon-to-be-awarded Best Translated Book of the Year award. An initiative of the indefatigable Chad Post and the international literature boosters at the University of Rochester's Three Percent, the award has already done a great job of raising the profile of the ten poetry and fiction finalists.

Both lists of finalists are below; it's a credit to the judging panel that for every prominent book from a major trade house (2666) there are at least a couple of lesser-known titles from small, independent houses. Though the only ones I've read so far are the two Bolaño titles, several of the others have caught my eye at various times in my browsing, and the spirit of the award would seem to require that I work my way through the lot this year. After all, while the major prizes may ultimately be about sales and publicity, this prize seems fundamentally about readers, writers, and translators, and the hard but rewarding work of bringing them together.

The winners will be announced at a party at the offices of Melville House Publishers in Brooklyn on Thursday, February 19th; as">this post, which has more details, notes, you're all invited.

The ten fiction finalists in alphabetical order:

Tranquility by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago)

2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)

Voice Over by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories)

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Overlook)

Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago)

Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books)

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House)

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review Books)

The ten poetry finalists in alphabetical order:

Essential Poems and Writings by Robert Desnos, translated from the French by Mary Ann Caws, Terry Hale, Bill Zavatsky, Martin Sorrell, Jonathan Eburne, Katherine Connelly, Patricia Terry, and Paul Auster (Black Widow)

You Are the Business by Caroline Dubois, translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Burning Deck)

As It Turned Out by Dmitry Golynko, translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebecca Bella, and Simona Schneider (Ugly Duckling)

For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu (New Directions)

Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud, translated from the French by Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky (Black Widow)

Night Wraps the Sky by Vladimir Mayakovsky, translated from the Russian by Katya Apekina, Val Vinokur, and Matvei Yankelevich, and edited by Michael Almereyda (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

A Different Practice by Fredrik Nyberg, translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida (Ugly Duckling)

EyeSeas by Raymond Queneau, translated from the French by Daniela Hurezanu and Stephen Kessler (Black Widow)

Peregrinary by Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Zephyr)

Eternal Enemies by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"It is delightful when there has been a thin fall of snow."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Having mentioned Sei Shonagon the other day, it seems right to draw on her to commemorate the passing last weekend of the snow that had been our companion here in Chicago for the past month. Amounting to nearly two feet by the time it began to give up the ghost, the snow showed a tenacity unmatched in my memory of sixteen Chicago winters, while the occasional addition of an inch or two of lake effect snow kept it looking lovely, effectively masking the depradations to which it was subject as punishment for having chosen to fall in this urban environment.

In her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon mentions snow several times, but today I'll stick to my two favorites. First, this list, which I enjoy in part because of the material picture it gives of Sei Shonagon's surroundings:
Things That Fall from the Sky

Snow. Hail. I do not like sleet, but when it is mixed with pure white snow it is very pretty.

Snow looks wonderful when it has fallen on a roof of cypress bark.

When snow begins to melt a little, or when only a small amount has fallen, it enters into all the cracks between the bricks, so that the roof is black in some places, pure white in others--most attractive.

I like drizzle and hail when they come down on a shingle roof. I also like frost on a shingle roof or in a garden.

Then this, a simple description of the way snow throws objects seen against it into powerful relief:
One Day, When the Snow Lay Thick on the Ground

One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground and was still coming down heavily, I saw some gentlemen of the Fourth and Fifth Ranks who had a fresh complexion and a pleasant, youthful look. Their beautifully coloured Court robes, which they wore over their night-watch costumes, were tucked up at the bottom and showed the marks of their leather belts. Their dark purple trousers stood out beautifully against the white snow. I could also see their under-jackets, some of scarlet, others dyed a beautiful rose-yellow. The men had opened their umbrellas, but since it was very windy the snow came at them from the side and they bent forward slightly as they walked. The sparkling white snow covered them all the way to the tips of their lacqurered leather shoes or short clogs--a magnificent sight.
Unlike winter itself, assuming it someday deigns to depart, the snow will be missed.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"So--when was it--I, drawn like blown cloud, couldn't stop dreaming of roaming . . . "

{Photo by rocketlass.}
The boy lost some of his shyness after that and began to point out landmarks on the road, a mountain where goblins lived, a shrine whose water healed the deepest wounds, a roadside spring that had never dried up in a thousand years.
That's from Brilliance of the Moon (2004), the third volume of Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori, a fantasy series set in a magical version of feudal Japan, which rocketlass has been re-reading in anticipation of our upcoming holiday in Japan. While I don't expect we're likely to come across such marvels, I would certainly rather encounter them than some of the ghosts and demons with which I've become familiar through the work of Lian Hearn's namesake, Lafcadio Hearn. Like the flesh-eating jinkininki:
He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, and devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat,--beginning at the head and eating everything: the hair and bones and even the shroud. And the monstrous Thing, having thus consumed the body, turned to the offerings, and ate them also. Then it went away, as mysteriously as it had come.
Or the dread Mujina, whose regular appearances blighted the nights of a certain neighborhood in Tokyo:
Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset.
Hearn's account of that ghost is one of my very favorite scary stories, brief and effective. I won't tell you more for fear of ruining the surprise; the brave among you can find the whole story here, while the rest can simply read what they will into my fervent hope that rocketlass and I don't accidentally find ourselves alone on a dark stretch of the Akasaka road . . .

I expect, however, that the closest we'll come to wild spirits will be the snow monkeys we plan to visit in Jigokudani. So now to pack, in anticipation of which Bashō offers a reminder:
Thin shoulders feeling pack's drag. Body enough, but burdened with a set of kamiko (extra protection at night), yukata, raincoat, ink-stick, brushes, as well as unaviodable hanamuke, etc. somehow hard to let go of, part of the trouble in traveling inevitably.
The edition of Bashō's Back Roads to Far Towns from which I've taken that passage glosses kamiko as "strong paper clothing," yukata as "light summer clothing," and hanamuke as "farewell gifts." Note that Bashō didn't even touch on my biggest problem as a traveler: packing too many books.

On that front I am attempting to be more reasonable than usual, and having taken some good advice, I think I've settled on my library. Marie Mutsuki Mockett was kind enough to confirm me in my intention to bring The Tale of Genji; though I've read nearly 200 pages of it over the years, that still leaves more than enough to see me through. To accompany Genji, I've taken the advice of Maud Newton and have packed some Tanizaki (Seven Japanese Tales and Some Prefer Nettles), while Sam "Golden Rule" Jones led me to an unorthodox selection: Haruki Murakami's Underground, which he says is great for reading in Japan because of its portraits of ordinary Tokyo residents.

Now if someone can recommend a Japanese mystery novel, I think I'll be all set, ready to test my ability to apologize, in halting Japanese, for my halting Japanese--which would not, I am certain, find a place on any of Sei Shōnagon's lists of pleasing things.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

That bloke Shakespeare

After I quoted a bit of P. G. Wodehouse deploying Shakespeare for comic effect in Thursday's post, I couldn't bear not to share this exchange from another of his Mulliner stories, "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald":
"All right," [Archibald] said, "I'll try to remember. Tell me about her. I mean, has she any fathers or mothers or any rot of that description?"

"Only an aunt. She lives with her in Park Street. She's potty."

Archibald stared, stung to the quick.

"Potty? That divine . . . I mean that rather attractive-looking girl?"

"Not Aurelia. The aunt. She thinks Bacon wrote Shakespeare."

"Thinks who wrote what?" asked Archibald, puzzled, for the names were strange to him.

"You must have heard of Shakespeare. He's well known. Fellow who used to write plays. Only Aurelia's aunt says he didn't. She maintains that a bloke called Bacon wrote them for him."

"Dashed decent of him," said Archibald, approvingly. "Of course, he may have owed Shakespeare money."

"There's that, of course."
There's a lesson for comic writers there that's old, but worth restating: the more ridiculous your premise, the more contained and straightforward your language should be. "For the names were strange to him"--can comic genius get more sublimely simple?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Where everybody knows your [drink's] name, or, "We do not often get Americans in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest."

Most of the time when people write about P. G. Wodehouse, they focus on either his stories about Bertie Wooster and his omnicompetent gentleman's gentleman, Jeeves, or his tales of the inhabitants of Blandings Castle. That's not inappropriate: after all, Jeeves and Bertie are the creations that have guaranteed Wodehouse's immortality, while the Blandings Castle stories constitute a rich, interconnected skein that features some of his most inspired plotting.

Lately, however, I've been greatly enjoying a less-celebrated bywater of Wodehouse's work: the stories told by Mr. Mulliner at his club, the Angler's Rest. Comprising collections of stories--Meet Mr Mulliner (1927), Mr Mulliner Speaking (1929), and Mulliner Nights (1933)--plus a handful of additional stories scattered across other volumes, they all feature a protagonist from Mr. Mulliner's seemingly endless stock of young relatives. As the Wikipedia entry for Mr. Mulliner explains, they
are mainly about love lost and found; about fortunes made and failed; and about opportunities sought and missed.
In other words, they are typical Wodehouse stories.

What sets them apart is primarily the simple but effective frame in which they are set: Mr. Mulliner is at the Angler's Rest, where his fellow patrons--identified solely, and ingeniously, by their libation of choice--are chewing over some topic of love, adventure, or contemporary life. After listening for a bit, he takes up the topic on offer and, Ancient-Marinering any opposition, relates an apposite story, rich with Wodehousian complications and comedy. Mulliner's stories are the draw, but the process of getting there is half the fun. Take this late evening scene, which opens "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald":
The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest, which always tends to get deepish towards closing-time, had turned to the subject of the Modern Girl; and a Gin-and-Ginger-Ale sitting in the corner by the window remarked that it was strange how types die out.

"I can remember the days," said the Gin-and-Ginger-Ale, "when every other girl you met stood about six feet two in her dancing-shoes, and had as many curves as a Scenic Railway. Now they are all five foot nothing and you can't see them sideways. Why is this?"

The Draught Stout shook his head.

"Nobody can say. It's the same with dogs. One moment the world is full of pugs as far as the eye can reach; the next, not a pug in sight, only Pekes and Alsations. Odd!"
Or this, from "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court," which opens with "the poet who was spending the summer at the Angler's Rest" going green at the sight of some dead rabbits in the hands of a hunter:
Mr Mulliner regarded him sympathetically over his hot Scotch and lemon.

"You appear upset," he said.

"A little," admitted the poet. "A momentary malaise. It may be a purely personal prejudice, but I confess to preferring rabbits with rather more of their contents inside them."

"Many sensitive souls in your line of business hold similar views," Mr Mulliner assured him. "My niece Charlotte did."

"It is my temperament," said the poet. "I dislike all dead things--particularly when, as in the case of the above rabbits, they have so obviously, so--shall I say?--blatantly mad the Great Change."
Or, what may be my favorite Angler's Rest discussion, this one that opens "Came the Dawn":
The man in the corner took a sip of stout-and-mild, and proceeded to point the moral of the story which he told us.

"Yes, gentlemen," he said, "Shakespeare was right. There a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will."

We nodded. He had been speaking of favourite dog of his which, entered recently by some error in a local cat show, had taken first price in the class for short-haired tortoiseshells; and we all thought the quotation well-chosen and apposite.
Even given Wodehouse's deliberate absurdity, there's something about the slow-moving, gently tipsy conversation of the Angler's Rest that speaks to what we go to bars for: to remove ourselves briefly from the world of our everyday cares into an agreeable other place, where you never know who might pop in with an amusing story in which everything works out okay in the end. Which, come to think of it, is the reason we visit Wodehouse's world, too.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Joseph Conrad and Lew Archer

Last weekend, as I was reading Joseph Conrad's spooky, gripping short novel The Shadow-Line (1917), I found my thoughts unexpectedly drifting to Ross Macdonald. I've praised Macdonald recently, impressed anew by his talent after reading three of his Lew Archer novels in the space of a week, and while I'll admit that it's at least a tiny bit of a stretch, I do find similarities between the two writers. Conrad's protagonists tend to be isolated men who are racked--or even undone--by questions of honor, which is often all they have to cling to in a society that fails to understand its necessity, let alone its value. Their isolation can be geographical, but these are men who would discover--or generate--that isolation even in a crowd: finding their fellow men wanting, they would choose, rather than judging them, to look for signs of that same failing in themselves, and to use any hint of it as an unholy combination of hair shirt and armor. They are loners by trade, hopeful fatalists by nature, and they prefer a noble failure to a tarnished success.

All of that could describe Lew Archer, too--that is, if you could find a way to make room for his sense of external duty, his deep-rooted belief that someone must be the champion of the afflicted, and that a flawed champion who is honest is at least marginally better than none at all. But last weekend I realized, in reading a blog post from trusted reader Jon Faith, that Archer's qualities are cumulative, not necessarily apparent on first acquaintance. The first Archer novel I read, several years ago, didn't impress me all that much. I enjoyed it--a well-told crime story is always a pleasure--but I didn't understand why people praised Macdonald so highly. It was only when I read a second, and even a third, that I realized that somewhere along the line, without quite realizing it, I'd gotten to know Lew Archer.

Macdonald's technique is cumulative, even pointillist. Whereas someone like P. D. James will alternate chapters of plot with chapters focusing on the lives of her recurring characters, Macdonald is content to sneak in a sentence here and there in the midst of his narrative. We learn about Archer through quick asides, judgments of character, expressions of regret, moments of self-recrimination. These accumulate, novel by novel, so that by the time we've read half a dozen or so, we ache in advance every time Archer decides--ignoring the wisdom gained from his long experience--to trust. Yet we also understand why this romantic cynic insists on trusting, understand that for him the short-term cost of external betrayal is always less than the long-term cost he'd have to bear to avoid it entirely.

So if you read one Macdonald novel and aren't convinced, I'd urge you to consider trying at least one more. It's what Lew Archer would do, after all.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Wodehouse speaks

In the course of my day job, I've recently gotten to work on two new audio collections from the British Library, The Spoken Word: British Writers and The Spoken Word: American Writers. Culled from the archives of the BBC and the Library, the sets offer clips of authors being interviewed or reading from their works or occasional pieces, and for literature fans, they really are a treasure--for example, hearing Arthur Conan Doyle, in the only known recording of his voice, discussing his spiritualist beliefs is itself almost like a visitation.

Lest I begin to seem like a shill for my employer, I'll leave it at that for now--if you want more detail, you can check out this overview from the Guardian. I'm really writing today as a P. G. Wodehouse devotee, for his interview, with which I started my Sunday morning in fine fashion, is my favorite thus far. Simply hearing his voice is a pleasure: it is mild and refined, though without that Edwardian preciousness that is inescapable in the accents of, say, E. M. Forster and Somerset Maugham; the interviewer, the BBC's longtime American correspondent Alistair Cooke, described it at the time in an article for the Guardian as "secure and genial," "tuned entirely in C major." Throughout the interview, Wodehouse's tone carries exactly the hint of amusement that a fan would expect, as if, even as he answers questions, some other part of his mind is perpetually working on a joke--and enjoying doing so.

The interview, conducted in August of 1963 when Wodehouse lived on Long Island, is for the most part easy and conversational, though there's one very brief moment that anyone familiar with Wodehouse's history can't help but hear as awkward: when Cooke asks whether Wodehouse misses living in England. The question was bound to be sensitive, for at that point--and for the rest of his life--Wodehouse viewed himself as an exile from England, persona non grata because of the comic broadcasts he made from a German prison camp during World War II.

Though time has to some extent softened the initially (and understandably) harsh judgement of the broadcasts, with Robert McCrum arguing fairly convincingly in his recent Wodehouse biography that the transgression was the result of Wodehouse's utter, child-like naivete rather than any desire to curry favor with his captors, at the time they were still a definite sore spot for many English, and a source of confusion, frustration, and shame for Wodehouse himself.

After a pause, Wodehouse responds politely, though with an unquestionably hesitancy and even a bit of fumbling for words:
Well, not really, I, I, you see I never ha-have lived in England very much, I was in France . . . for so many years, and then I was over here.
To Cooke's credit, his response to Wodehouse's answer suggests that the question was likely unplanned and unthinking: seeming to realize the touchiness of the subject, he pauses, then moves on to more benign topics.

As for those benign topics, the interview is chock-full of them, from questions of translation to uses of slang to the re-emergence of butlers. A wonderful (or perhaps terrifying image) is conjured up when Cooke asks whether Bertie Wooster was modeled on anyone specific and Wodehouse replies:
I wouldn't say any definite individual, but that type was very prevalent in the days when I was in and about London, ah, 1911, 12 and 13.
Good god, a whole society of Bertie Woosters--and only one inimitable Jeeves!

A question about whether the communist countries of Europe buy the books in translation leads to an amusing exchange:
COOKE: Do the communist countries buy them?

WODEHOUSE: Ah, they've started again now; I was banned in Hungary. Do you remember a few years ago now, a great number of English authors were banned in Hungary? I was one of them. I suppose they thought my stuff was too little about the proletariat and too much about the earls and dukes and so on.

COOKE: But couldn't the, uh, couldn't, for instance, a communist country pretend to, uh, the readers, that this was an accurate depiction or a devastating picture of the decadence of the upper classes?

WODEHOUSE: [Talking over end of question, chuckling] Yes, I suppose they could. Yes.
My favorite bit of the interview, however, has to do with the frozen-in-amber quality of the blithe, early Edwardian world that Wodehouse created and peopled so brilliantly:
COOKE: Are you ever inclined to make a big jump into completely contemporary material?

WODEHOUSE: Well I'm not sure that I can manage it. This one's coming out next year, there's nothing to date it at all, it could all have happened yesterday.

COOKE: But, I mean, you're not moved by things like astronauts or urban renewal?

WODEHOUSE: [Laughing] Oh, no. No. No, I feel much happier with the sort of atmosphere I'm accustomed to.
Astronauts in Wodehouse! Actually, I could almost imagine an astronaut penetrating the hallowed precincts of Blandings Castle . . . but of course, he wouldn't be an astronaut at all, but rather a nephew or a suitor who, through some utterly absurd but flawlessly logical turn of events, found himself wearing a space suit as a disguise. Perhaps he'd even get some astronaut ice cream in his fake moustache.

And now the rest of my Sunday beckons. Who better to spend it with than Jeeves?