Monday, June 29, 2009

"He was anything but great in personality."

Having mentioned in passing a few days ago the difficulties of Thomas Hardy's first marriage--so often attributed almost entirely to Emma's "very countryfied and scatter-brained" manner and high self-regard--it seems only right to close the week with a couple of accounts found in Thomas Hardy Remembered that remind us that there was plenty of social awkwardness on both sides, with Hardy himself was seen by many as less than scintillating company. First, a couple of passages from the diary of George Gissing, who, having known Hardy casually for years, stayed with the Hardys at Max Gate from September 14th to 16th, 1895:
He seems to me to be a trifle spoiled by success; he runs far too much after titled people, and, in general, the kind of society in which he is least qualified to shine. . . . Cannot let himself go in conversation, is uneasy and preoccupied.
Similarly, American novelist Gertrude Atherton, in her Adventures of a Novelist (1932), described her first conversation with Hardy as a bit of a struggle:
I floundered about, broaching one subject and another, but he never even glanced at me, much less made any response to my embarrassed efforts. He appeared to have fallen into a reverie, quite oblivious to his surroundings. Then, heaven knows how . . . I lighted upon cable cars in San Francisco. Abstraction fled. His face lit up. He turned to me eagerly. He asked me a hundred questions.
When she met Hardy again at a reception a fortnight later, he
drifted in, looking absent and weary as usual. But he no sooner caught sight of me than he was at my side, and plunged at once into the exciting subject of cable cars in San Francisco. I managed to divert him after a time, being heartily tired of the topic myself.
Not that Atherton has any good words for Mrs. Hardy, either:
In his wake was an excessively plain, dowdy, high-stomached woman with her hair drawn back in a tight little knot, and a severe cast of countenance. "Mrs. Hardy," said [Atherton's friend] T. P. [O'Connor.] "Now you may understand the pessimistic nature of the poor devil's work." No doubt Hardy went out so constantly to be rid of her!
Gissing, too, shares unpleasant interactions with Emma:
In a short private talk with Mrs Hardy, she showed me her discontented spirit. Talked fretfully of being obliged to see more society than she liked in London, and even said that it was hard to live with people of humble origin--meaning Thomas, of course. She then scolded her servants noisily for being late with lunch--oh, a painful woman!
Such accounts, relatively common among those who knew the Hardys, make their long-running collaboration on the production of his novels seem more impressive. Though Emma's habit late in life of hinting that she should be regarded as a coauthor is clearly absurd, her diligent copying, research, and occasional suggestions were unquestionably of great help, and the fact that he never deigned to dedicate a novel to her is perhaps the simplest summation of his own inadvertent cruelty.

The mutual wounding of the Hardys, though never rising to the gothically awful level of the Tolstoys, does bring to mind that toxic marriage; to this fan of quiet and domestic harmony, it's astonishing that either writer was able to extract from that antagonism the peace of mind required to write, let alone write so well.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thomas Hardy and Ford Madox Ford, as Thomas Hardy Week concludes . . . maybe?

As I explained earlier this week, thinking about Thomas Hardy has sent me back to the inexhaustible treasure trove that is Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), a collection of contemporary accounts of encounters with Hardy by a wide range of figures. Oh, would that we had such a book for all our favorite authors--it's a sheer joy to read these overlapping, kaleidoscopic descriptions of Hardy's conversation, appearance, demeanor, and preoccupations through the years.

Today, I'll share some observations from another I've Been Reading Lately favorite, Ford Madox Ford, which give insight into Hardy while also offering a taste of Ford's wonderful prose style. (And oh, if you've not read his Parade's End, quick, cancel your weekend plans and settle in! You won't regret it.)

Ford first met Hardy at age eighteen, when he'd just published his first book, a fairy tale called The Brown Owl, and continued to see him regularly thereafter; though editor Martin Ray notes that "Ford's reminiscences are notoriously unreliable," the following scene that Ford recounted in an article for H. L. Mencken's American Mercury in 1936 has the ring of truth:
But indeed the whole of his poetic work forms such another immense panorama . . . of the great landscape of the human heart. It is a matter of observation of minuteness rendered with an immense breadth and breath. You would imagine there is nothing human, hodden, and down to the ground that he had not noticed with his quick glances. They penetrated right in behind nearly all surfaces as if he had been an infallible sleuth of all human instance. I still remember my extreme amazement--as if of a Doctor Watson--when looking at a fisher boy who was patching an old boat, he told me that that boy whom he had never seen before was probably the stepson of a woman lately widowed--who got on well with him. . . . He had deduced it--and it was quite correct--from the boy's red canvas trousers which had been cut down and patched with blue cloth.
I like the image of Thomas Hardy as a rural Sherlock Holmes: they share a hatred of injustice, an appreciation for the implacable workings of fate, and, as discussed in the case of Hardy in the previous post, a near total lack of humor.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thomas Hardy and the tragic and the (lack of) comic

Thinking about Thomas Hardy this week sent me back to Anthony Powell's take on him, which found its fullest expression in a review of J. I. M. Stewart's Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography for the Daily Telegraph in 1971. Powell opened the review by quoting T. S. Eliot's unforgettable damning of Hardy the novelist,
What again and again introduces a note of falsity into Hardy's novels is that he will leave nothing to nature, but will always be giving one last turn of the screw himself, and of his motives for so doing I have the gravest suspicion.
I expect that anyone who has read Jude the Obscure, jaw dropping in horror and astonishment at the worst of its scenes, would have trouble refuting Eliot's statement.

If, however, we can separate the worst of Hardy's excesses from the overall thrust of his novels, it's hard to deny the power of his fundamentally tragic vision--and Powell agrees:
Hardy . . . had a real grasp of the genuinely grotesque things that happen in life, even if at times these may be clumsily expressed. To this he added an enormous sense of "seriousness" in the motives of his writing. He wanted to do nothing less than rival Aeschylus and Shakespeare in representing the eternal conflicts of right and wrong, duty and inclination, and so on. At the ame time he hoped to propagate the supposed "new truths" that were making themselves known.
Powell goes on to quote a marvelously compact and insightful passage from Stewart, which he rightly notes "states the whole critical situation of Hardy and his novels":
Hardy in his novel-writing practice seems almost unhesitatingly to assume somethign really far from clear: that the elaborately "made up" plot of the popular Victorian novel could be manipulated or refined or elevated in such a way as to subserve both these grave intents.
It's a realization that would certainly not necessarily flow from reading Dickens, Thackeray, or even the relative realist Trollope, but it does seem to have informed Hardy from the almost the very start of his career.

Powell also pinpoints Hardy's greatest failing--to which, really, could be ascribed the tendency that so frustrated Eliot--a failure ever to see that the flip side of the grotesque is the funny:
Hardy's failing was a total lack of humour, which, one feels, might have prevented some of the absurdities. He could do knockabout up to a point, or irony, but one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Conrad, to see the missing quality that is possessed by most of the great novelists in one form or another.
Which leads me to a side note, mentioned by Powell: Proust and Hardy were fans of each other's work, a pairing that I find very hard to get my head around, its clash of styles, temperaments, and eras almost too much to contemplate.

Anyway, back to the main point: Edmund Gosse, in a passage I've quoted before from his obituary appreciation of his friend Hardy for the Sunday Times of January 15, 1928 addresses the central paradox that confronts anyone who knows Hardy's novels and his biography:
[Hardy] needed all the natural magic of his genius to prevent his work, interpenetrated as it was by this resigned and hopeless melancholy, from becoming sterile, but joy streamed into it from other sources--the joy of observation, of sympathy, of humour. Yet, after all, the core of Hardy's genius was austere and tragical, and this has to be taken into consideration, and weighed in every estimate of his writings. It was a curious fact, and difficult to explain, that this obvious aspect of his temperament was the one which he firmly refused to contemplate. The author of Tess of the D'Urbervilles conceived himself to be an optimist.
In a generous world we must all, I suppose, allowed to be wrong about ourselves, so long as we accept the fact that our friends, if they're worth the label, will always know better.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"This quietest figure in literature," or, Back under Hardy's spell

{Photo of a grave in Dorset by rocketlass.}

The problem with happening across a reference to Thomas Hardy, like the one that inspired my previous post, is that no sooner have I consulted my favorite sources on Hardy's life than I find myself weltered by their countless worthy anecdotes--and in a blink, a week of planned posts go by the wayside. Interested in learning more about the delicious Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime? Charles Ardai's fun new swashbuckling adventure series starring Gabriel Hunt? The jeweled viciousness of Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution? Sorry, but you'll have to wait while I give Hardy his due.

For this first anecdote, at least, I can claim the excuse of continuity, as it does feature characters who figured in the previous post: not just Hardy, but also J. M. Barrie and Cynthia Asquith, the daughter-in-law of H. H. Asquith, the prime minister whose threat to ennoble Hardy and Barrie (alongside 498 others) so frightened the House of Lords in 1911. And surely not even the most hardened anti-Hardyite could begrudge me the sharing of a tale like this, from a 1956 article in the Listener by Cynthia Asquith, who at the time of this 1921 visit was Barrie's secretary:
I have such a vivid visual memory of Thomas Hardy. I see him on the threshold of the cottage in which he had been born. He is anxiously watching his friend, J. M. Barrie, climb a rickety ladder to get in through a window and open the locked door of the cottage from the inside, when Barrie was sixty-one years old.
Shades of Peter Pan there, no?

After a few dismissive comments about the architecture of Max Gate, typical of educated visitors to that odd abode that Hardy had designed for himself, Asquith remarks on Hardy's
resigned eyes, unforgettable. They looked as if nothing could ever surprise them again. They were sad eyes--very sad--but unflinching, as though, after long sorrow, a certain serenity had been arrived at.
The best part, though, comes with the appearance of Hardy's dog, Wessex:
The moment we arrived I was formally introduced to the most despotic dog guests had ever suffered under. This notorious dog, who was called "Wessex," had, I am sure, the longest biting list of any domestic pet. His proud master lost no time in telling us that the postman, who had been bitten three times, now refused to deliver any more letters at the door. The thick tousle of Wessex's unbrushed coat made it impossible to guess to which, if any, breed he was supposed to belong, and I did not think it would be civil to ask. Wessex was specially uninhibited at dinner time, most of which he spent not under, but on, the table, walking about unchecked, and contesting every single forkful of food on its way from my plate to my mouth.
Or perhaps (maybe for those of you who harbor unruly dogs of your own?) the most memorable--and undeniably the most telling--part of the article is Asquith's account of one of Hardy's morbidly self-obsessed quirks that Barrie had shared with her:
[H]e often smiled over Hardy's preoccupation with his plans for his own burial--plans which were perpetually being changed. "One day," said Barrie," Hardy took me to see the place where he wants most to be buried, and the next day he took me to see the place where he would like next best to be buried. Usually he says he is to be buried exactly in between his two wives, but sometimes he is to be so many inches hnearer to the first; sometimes so many inches nearer to the second."
If you suspect a little friendly exaggeration in Barrie's account, you're not alone: that was Asquith's response, too, until
the present Mrs Hardy, a little wearily, if unresentfully, told me that her husband had one day made her walk six miles to show her the bench on which he used to sit while he was courting her predecessor. I wondered, but did not like to ask, whether he kept her up to date with his changing arrangements for her burial.
Longtime readers will already have guessed that I found this article in Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), a compilation of contemporary accounts of Hardy so full of pleasures that I can't imagine a Hardy fan's bookshelves being complete without it, despite its libraries-only price of £57.00. If you're not yet convinced, just wait: as threatened, I'll share more from it in the coming days.

{And after all this talk of Wessex and burial, I must direct you to this photo by Flickr user Grueneman--which, its rights being sadly reserved, I can't reproduce here--of Wessex's grave in Hardy's pet cemetery. He truly was an honored friend, for all his incorrigibility.}

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Peer pressure, or, the Lord Novelist-Poet of Dorset

{Photo by rocketlass.}

While reading Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1941 (1966) last week, I was surprised to find that her account of a 1909 English Parliamentary crisis brought in an old I've Been Reading Lately favorite. The crisis came about when the Chancellor of the Exchequer,David Lloyd George, in need of extraordinary new revenue to make good on the Liberal Party's campaign promises while also continuing to build England's new fleet of dreadnoughts, proposed what became known as the People's Budget. The budget was one of the earliest salvos in the slow march of serious taxation on the hereditary holdings of the English nobility, and its proposed taxes on inherited and undeveloped land "aroused the whole of the landowning class in furious resentment, as it was intended to." Tuchman notes,
Lloyd George pressed it home in public mockery and appeals to the populace as blatant as when Mark Antony wept over Caesar's wounds. Personifying the enemy as "the Dukes," he told a working-class audience of four thousand at Limehouse in London's East End, "A fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts . . . is just as great a terror and lasts longer."
The budget was passed easily by the Liberal-dominated House of Commons, after which it was sent to the House of Lords, which at that point technically still exercised veto power over all legislation.

Traditionally, however, the House of Lords had always allowed finance bills to pass, for reasons that Tuchman explains:
[A]s Lord Salisbury had once pointed out over an earlier budget, there was no constitutional bar to the Lords throwing out a Finance Bill--only a practical one: they could not throw out the Government of the day along with it. To reject a budget and leave the Government in power would amount to deadlock.
As a budget, unlike other legislation, is absolutely necessary for the continued running of the government, its rejection by the House of Lords, if followed by the Commons standing strong and refusing to amend the bill, would have left England in an untenable position. The Government's response was to threaten the unthinkable: they would
advise the King to create enough Peers to provide a Liberal majority in the House of Lords, as many as five hundred if necessary, a deluge that would drown the hereditary peerage.
The next year saw wrangling and intransigence, followed by a general election that returned a similar majority for the Liberals, after which Prime Minister H. H. Asquith convinced George V to agree, at least in principle, to the creation of the necessary new Liberal Peers--which is where our literary friends unexpectedly enter the picture:
At some undated stage in the proceedings Asquith drew up, or caused to be drawn up, a list of some 250 names for wholesale ennobling, which, though it included Sir Thomas Lipton, did not altogether deserve Lloyd George's sneer about glorified grocers. On the list along with Lipton were Asquith's brother-in-law, H. J. Tennant, as well as his devoted admirer and future biographer, J. A. Spender; also Sir Edgar Speyer, Bertrand Russell, General Baden-Powell, General Sir Ian Hamilton, the jurist Sir Frederick Pollock, the historians Sir George Trevelyan and G. P. Gooch, the South African millionaire Sir Abe Bailey, Gilbert Murray, J. M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, and Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda.
The thought of any of those last three being named to the House of Lords is a definitely amusing, but of course it's Hardy who really caught my eye. It's so hard to imagine the odd, quiet, apolitical country man that Hardy was by the early 1900s being made a Peer--especially for such openly political reasons. I wonder if he would even have accepted the honor? Though Asquith knew him to be a Liberal supporter, following a meeting between the two arranged by Edmund Gosse, Hardy had just a few years earlier shown himself reticent about accepting honors, dithering to the point of stasis about a mere knighthood. As Claire Tomalin describes it,
Mr Asquith, as Prime Minister, offered Hardy a knighthood, an honour Englishmen traditionally accept with the excuse that they are doing so to please their wives. Hardy sent a curious reply to Asquith, expressing his warm admiration for his policies, but saying he would like to think over the proposed knighthood for a year. Although this was politely agreed to, it does not seem to have been brought up again, and Emma remained plain Mrs Hardy.
Oddly enough (but in keeping with the difficulties that Emma faced as Hardy's wife--and her tendency to carefully nurse them into thriving grievances), he later accepted the Order of Merit,
a much more distinguished award but one that carried no "Sir" or "Lady." The nearest she got to her wish was that among her Dorset neighbours some of the children called her "Lady Emma" behind her back, in mocking tribute to her sense of her own importance.
Thomas, Lord Hardy of Dorset--is that what he would have been had Asquith acted on his plan? And if, as despite my doubts is not impossible to imagine, Hardy had embraced his new role, how might that have changed his later career? Mightn't a public role, with all the renewed attention and even adulation that might have accompanied it, have mitigated the grief occasioned by his Emma's death, which seems to have fueled so much of his subsequent poetry? Is there, in some parallel universe, an aging Hardy who, fat and happy, recites patriotic verse to rapt society audiences on the eve of the Great War?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Desert Library Books?

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Being not much of a joiner, I generally fail to participate in online memes and list-making, but one that was passed on by Terry Teachout and CAAF of About Last Night earlier this week was impossible to resist:
Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
Below is the list I came up with; I've added a link to those about which I've written before on this blog.
Anthony Powell/A Dance to the Music of Time
Jorge Luis Borges/Labyrinths
Italo Calvino/Invisible Cities
Haruki Murakami/Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Wendell Berry/A Place on Earth
Homer/The Odyssey
Herman Melville/Moby-Dick
Roberto BolaƱo/The Savage Detectives
James Gould Cozzens/Guard of Honor
Leo Tolstoy/Anna Karenina
James Boswell/Life of Johnson
Thomas Hardy/Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Raymond Chandler/The Long Goodbye
Marcel Proust/In Search of Lost Time
Sarah Orne Jewett/The Country of the Pointed Firs

Some that nearly made the cut, and on a different day might have done so:
Iris Murdoch/The Nice and the Good
Evelyn Waugh/A Handful of Dust
P. G. Wodehouse/Summer Lightning
Charles Dickens/Our Mutual Friend
Rebecca West/The Fountain Overflows
Claire Tomalin/Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
John Crowley/Aegypt
F. Scott Fitzgerald/The Great Gatsby
Juan Rulfo/Pedro Paramo

I don't know that my list, even in its expanded version, tells you much about me; perhaps merely that my taste, though definitely biased towards the English, is fairly catholic, varying wildly depending on mood and circumstance.

Do take a look at CAAF's list (with which I have no titles in common) and Terry's list (with which I share three), both of which feature books worth recalling. Other lists worth checking out that I've come across so far are those of Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence (who eschews the term "meme," choosing instead the more pleasant and apt "literary parlor game"), who shares my fondness for Boswell and reminds me that Joseph Mitchell really ought to have found a place, and D. G. Myers, with whose list mine overlaps not a whit--though the titles I've read on his list are nonetheless favorites, which makes me think I ought to investigate the rest as well.

And yours, dear reader?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"There is an integrity in true worldliness which a saint would envy," or, Some Cyril Connolly gossip!

A couple of weeks ago I built a post about London around a couple of descriptions from Elaine Dundy's biting comic novel The Old Man and Me (1964), which the New York Review of Books Classics has just republished. When I decided the post needed fleshing out, I turned, as I so often do, to Cyril Connolly, taking a couple of lines from his amusing collection of wildly contradictory journal entries, "England Not My England."

Then a few days ago, nyrbsara--who runs the New York Review of Books Classics blog, A Different Stripe--left a comment on that post:
The choice of of Cyril Connolly for your quotes was intentional, right? If not, then you've just blown my mind!
Cryptic, no? And these days, what do we do when faced with something cryptic? We hie ourselves to the Google! . . . Where I learned, from the Guardian's 2008 obituary for Elaine Dundy, that The Old Man and Me was
derived from attentions paid to her by the critic Cyril Connolly.
Now, even after acknowledging that Connolly did more than his share of sleeping around and that I tend to fall back on Connolly regularly, in connection with all manner of other writers, I remain pleasantly surprised by the coincidence. And if I'm willing to imagine that the overweight, unhealthy, dissipated middle-aged literary critic C. D. McKee of Dundy's novel was such a faithful portrait of Connolly that it subconsciously brought him to mind, it does make me wonder just how obvious the portrayal must have been at the time. Imagine if she'd given McKee a lemur or two!

Interestingly, Jeremy Lewis's big biography of Connolly barely mentions Dundy; she's almost entirely relegated to a footnote:
Her first novel, The Dud Avocado, was a best-seller (Connolly unkindly suggested that it should have been called The Dud Dundy, by Elaine Avocado). A few year later, Dundy published The Old Man and Me, the heroine of which is a young American adrift in literary London. She falls in love with a stout, blue-eyed writer in his late fifties, beside whom all the young men in her life seem dull dogs indeed. He pores over menus in restaurants, has a passion for collecting antiques, and casts "dazzling and worshipful glances" in her direction.
I think I detect the fell hand of England's stringent libel law there, Lewis's circumspection surely prompted by fears that Dundy, still alive when the biography was published in 1997, might sue him.

Dundy, meanwhile, did mention Connolly in the new introduction she wrote for The Old Man and Me in 2005--but only to quote, without context, some advice he gave her about her private life:
"Make up your mind, you can either be a monster or a doormat." I opted for the former.
Advice that perhaps Connolly found occasion to regret?

Monday, June 15, 2009

To summer, such as it is--which, let's be honest, is surely good enough.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On a lovely, still night that I would call unusually cool if it weren't in keeping with what we seem to be being offered in lieu of summer this year, what better than open windows, Blossom Dearie, and very dry martinis--
great, wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the morning air,
as Elaine Dundy describes them in The Dud Avocado. I can't find Blossom Dearie's version of Irving Kahal and Harry Richman's "Moonlight Savings Time," the song that best captures tonight's mood, but this big band version by the High Hatters will surely do:

And if I may be allowed to trifle with the great Dr. Johnson's words, I'll swap gin for wine in these lines of conversation recorded by our friend Boswell, and be the happier for it:
Yes, Sir: but yet we must do justice to wine; we must allow it the power it possesses. To make a man pleased with himself, let me tell you, is a very great thing.
A glass to summer, and a glass, as always, to books.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Invisible Library shimmers into view

What do you call an Invisible Library whose books begin to appear in the real world? The answer, it seems, is art: the INK Illustration collective is mounting an exhibition at the Tenderpixel Gallery in London based on the Invisible Library that Ed Park and I have been compiling over the past year.

INK's press release explains how they've approached their task of bringing these nonexistent books to life:
INK has chosen forty imaginary book titles from the Invisible Library Blogspot and illustrated their covers. Working with some of Real Fits best selling writers and novelists, as well as high profile cultural and musical figures, the opening or closing pages of these forty empty books with illustrated covers, will be penned in advance of the exhibition. The collaboration continues throughout the exhibition as gallery attendees and workshop participants are invited to temporarily 'sign out' these library books and carry on writing the developing narratives within. Thus by the close of the exhibition, the once blank pages of each book will be enlivened with imaginative poly-vocal stories.
Iain Sinclair is also involved, which seems fitting, for in his introduction to London: City of Disappearances (2006), a strange and wonderful collection he edited, he wrote:
For the bookish, London is a book. . . . There must be a library somewhere . . . where all the missing books of London are assembled, three-deep on the shelf, welded together by subterranean ooze: a single volume, the great compendium of disappearances.
Given his love of the lost and obscure, what will he make of his chance to lift the wispy volumes of our Invisible Library out of their ghostly shadow lives?

The exhibit is up through July 12th. If any readers are in London and get a chance to visit the exhibit, I'd be extremely grateful for a report.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Poets and politics

Reading Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 (1965) this weekend, I came across an incident that can surely be entered as evidence on the side of those who argue that poets should stay out of politics. In the course of describing the interlocking circles of government and society in 1890s England, Tuchman tells of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury's decision in 1895 to fill the post of Poet Laureate, which had been vacant since the death of Tennyson in 1892.

The problem with that decision, however, was that Salisbury had almost no interest in anything beyond the work of government and the duties and privileges of the upper class; Tuchman cites earlier as a telling example Salisbury's blase approach to appointing churchmen:
Once when two clergymen with similar names were candidates for a vacant bishopric, he appointed the one not recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and this being sorrowfully drawn to his attention, he said, "Oh, I daresay he will do just as well."
His choice for Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, perhaps did not do quite as well as others. Tuchman, clearly enjoying herself, describes him thus:
A journalist of deep Conservative dye, founder and editor of the National Review, Austin was also the producer of fervent topical verse on such occasions as the death of Disraeli. When a friend pointed out grammatical errors in his poems, Austin said, "I dare not alter these things. They come to me from above."
A mere two weeks into his laureateship, Austin found himself coming under the scorn of the literary for a poem h published in the Times celebrating the Jameson Raid, Leander Starr Jameson's foolhardy attempt to provoke an uprising in the Transvaal (which, though it took a couple of years, did eventually erupt into the Boer War). The lines Tuchman quotes are impressively dreadful--and surprisingly mawkish, considering they're describing a violent raid:
There are girls in the gold-reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry, Hurry up! for pity!
So what could a brave man do? . . .

So we forded and galloepd forward,
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending northward,
Right over the rolling veldt.
I have to admit, though, that I like the sound of "hard as our beasts could pelt," and the way it rolls nicely into "First eastward, then trending northward"; though the fact that that second line essentially does no useful work makes it hard to approve.

If the writer of Austin's Wikipedia entry is to be believed, his nature poetry is better, if not brilliant. He doesn't rate an entry in the Norton Anthology of Poetry these days, but the one sample adduced in his Wikipedia entry, "To England," though its first half is awkwardly overwritten and cloying, does offer some memorable images and sounds in its final lines:
To England

(Written in mid-Channel)

Now upon English soil I soon shall stand,
Homeward from climes that fancy deems more fair;
And well I know that there will greet me there
No soft foam fawning upon smiling strand,
No scent of orange-groves, no zephyrs bland;
But Amazonian March, with breast half bare
And sleety arrows whistling through the air,
Will be my welcome from that burly land.
Yet he who boasts his birth-place yonder lies
Owns in his heart a mood akin to scorn
For sensuous slopes that bask 'neath Southern skies,
Teeming with wine and prodigal of corn,
And, gazing through the mist with misty eyes,
Blesses the brave bleak land where he was born.
Those "sleety arrows" are nice, and I admire the confidence shown by the simple repetition of "mist" and "misty" in the penultimate line, a good lead into the best moment of the poem, those harsh "b" and "k" sounds of its close, calling up as they do Dover's beautiful but unwelcoming sea cliffs.

Even in this poem, though, we can see how Austin's love of country and love of nature intertwined, so it's not hard to understand why he might have felt that forays into politics and topical verse were suitable, especially once he was the Laureate. Still, one has to wonder about a poet who, as Tuchman notes, when asked his idea of heaven, replies,
He desired to sit in a garden and receive a flow of telegrams announcing alternately a British victory by sea and a British victory by land.
I'm neither a poet nor a believer, but if I were, my idea of heaven would definitely involve more books and fewer battles, victories or not.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hail to thee, our alma mater!

As a Northwestern University alum, I can assure you that they don't tell you about this during orientation:
They called it "class rush." At sunset, the freshmen rallied in one place, the sophomores in another. It happened every September before classes began. Everyone carried ropes, wrapped around their waists, so they could tie their prisoners. Once it was dark, so dark no one could see who did what to whom, they attacked each other; packs of freshmen, gangs of sophomores, a mob of five hundred boys. The girls stayed inside, crowded around the windows of their dorms. The boys chased each other back and forth across the campus, through the streets of Evanston, down to Fountain Square, then back to the lake. Respectable people stayed inside. Local drunks and toughs joined in.

Whoever captured the other would force them to strip, then tie them up and march them off. If they captured their prisoners by the lake, they'd force them to jump in, or they'd row them out, a few at a time, to a raft or a jetty and leave them there--to untie themselves, swim ashore, find clothes before they were caught again. Worse than being dunked or marooned was to be kidnapped--stripped, tied, taken in a car to the forest outside of town, then left there.
Like me, do you hear echoes of the hijinks to be found in Tom Brown's Schooldays? To be fair, contemporary Northwestern officials probably don't mention "class rush" because it doesn't really happen like that these days, the most violent and combative impulses of the undergraduate population having been directed into the more contained arenas of fraternity hazing, binge drinking, and sports.

The account above, which describes the activities of students in 1921, comes from Michael Lesy's wonderfully strange Murder City: The Bloody History of Chicago in the Twenties (2007), which always rewards me when I pull it down from the shelf and flip through it. The story's presence in a book with such a title might lead you to suspect that things turned out poorly for at least one of the rampaging students that night, and you'd be right: a freshman from Evanston named Leighton Mount went missing, and in Lesy's hands, the story--which he draws from lurid newspaper accounts, supplemented, in his usual style, by evocative, even creepy photos--is sad and creepy and awkward and satisfyingly unresolvable.

Northwestern alums should check it out: it'll give you a grisly topic of conversation the next time you run into a fellow grad--say, one of hyper-careerists with whom you had little in common as an undergrad, and less now. They mention Mark Witte and their fraternity, you bring up poor Leighton Mount's corpse rotting under the Lake Street pier, and the next thing you know you'll be free to escape to the bar for another drink.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Charles Dickens meets Stan Lee

Back in March, at the end of Pickwick Week, I promised one last post on Dickens and Pickwick. It's taken me nearly three months, but I'm here today to make good.

Having come to Pickwick backwards, as it were, with almost all the rest of Dickens's novels under my belt, what struck me most was its quality of vibrant, youthful invention. The early numbers betray their origins as sketches commissioned to accompany illustrations: they are little more than fleshed-out versions of the "Sketches by Boz" that Dickens had been turning out for the Morning Chronicle, the loose links between the episodes offering little of the narrative pull that would lead a reader eagerly to seek out the next month's installment. Very quickly, however, it becomes apparent that Dickens has realized that he's stumbled onto something greater than he'd anticipated.

As John Lucas writes in Charles Dickens: The Major Novels (1992), from the satirical opening pages of the book, wherein Pickwick is presented as "a bumptious fool," Dickens quickly
comes to realize that his post of gentlemanly disdain for the Club members simply won't do. They may not be shabby-genteel but a twist of fortune would make them that . . . and anyway, they and their experiences are not to be despised. What this means is that for the first time in English literature a very large section of the population ceases to be invisible except as caricatural material. Just as it had recently won the right to vote, so, some four years later, it finds itself present in the pages of a kind of novel, not treated as a joke or an object of contempt, but with (albeit comic) respect.
Dickens is essentially making up the rules of this new type of novel as he goes along, and the rapidity of invention from that point is such that we can almost imagine him, pen in hand, exclaiming with delight as he hits upon new ideas. The character of Sam Weller, who becomes Pickwick's faithful, if irreverent servant, is the first of Dickens's countless unforgettable portraits, and the pleasure he takes in generating Weller's oddities of speech and logic is palpable. Once he begins to string out a rudimentary plot, the basic ground of a Dickens novel--which he would plow with increasing skill, inventiveness, and (sometimes to his detriment) moral seriousness for the next three decades--is apparent.

Oddly, in reading The Pickwick Papers I'm reminded of nothing so much as the early days of the Marvel Universe, when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, having decided to ignore all the rules of superhero comics, found their unfettered imaginations spiraling out in unexpected--and unexpectedly fruitful--directions. For anyone who grew up reading comic books, to turn back to the early years of The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, or The Incredible Hulk is astonishing: month after month, almost casually, the writers and artists are making stunning creative leaps--all while working on multiple titles and being constantly pressed by deadlines.

Which of course was always the case for Dickens as well, who continued to feel the press of monthly deadlines until near the end of his life. In fact, recently when I was flipping through the very satisfying Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens (1999), I was reminded of something truly astonishing: Dickens turned out a number of Pickwick every month from March 1836 to November 1837--but November of 1836, Dickens also took on the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany, and in January of 1837 he graced its pages with the first installment of Oliver Twist. From there on, for nearly a full year, Dickens wrote both novels simultaneously, a task which, the Companion rather flatly notes,
he accomplished by devoting the first two weeks of each month to the Miscellany and the latter half of the month to Pickwick.

It does make the whole "holding down a job while blogging" thing seem rather unimpressive, doesn't it?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Over at my temporary quarters

A reminder: I'm still filling in, with some solid co-bloggers, for Quarterly Conversation editor Scott Esposito at his Conversational Reading blog. Yesterday I wrote about a new series of short-story collections from Harper Perennial by some old masters, which JRSM of the Caustic Cover Critic blog put me on to. The Stephen Crane volume, which I heartily recommend, has an absolutely splendid title, taken from one of the stories: An Experiment in Misery.

Come to think of it, the tone of that title is entirely of a piece with most of the others in the series: the Dostoyevsky is A Disgraceful Affair, the Melville is The Happy Failure, and even Tolstoy's Family Happiness doesn't come close to fooling anyone, does it?

On a totally unrelated note: last night I dreamed that the New York Review of Books Classics series had published another book by Elaine Dundy to coincide with their re-issuing of The Old Man and Me. This one, however, was a big, thick travel guide . . . to Michigan's sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. Is it possible to imagine a region where Dundy would be more out of place?

Friday, June 05, 2009

"A well-bred mustiness"

As I opened the week by poking a bit of fun at the English, it seems right to close it that way. I'll let Elaine Dundy do the honors, with this passage from The Old Man and Me (1964):
The English postal service is one of the glories of its nation. You cannot go into a drugstore for some popular brand of toothpaste without being told they're sorry it's on order and will only take ten days. You have to face the fact that certain telephone exchanges are ungettable from certain other ones without begging the operator to intercede for you (KNIghtsbridge and MAYfair weren't on speaking terms when I was there.) Laundry or cleaning might take anywhere from three weeks to three years. But mail is delivered regularly, sometimes four times a day. Londoners think nothing of posting their letters in the morning for their friends to read at tea-time.
Fairness requires me to point out that most of the problems Dundy cites could be attributed to the postwar austerity that was only beginning to be shed at the time of her novel. So maybe we should select a complaint that's still valid? Let's see . . . a-ha. This will do:
Maybe it was the London air. I'm sure it's unhealthy. At least it had an unhealthy effect on me. . . . And when I say London air I am not talking about the fog, which of course was the exaggeration, the stirring up, the pouring out, the laying it on thick. I'm talking about the ordinary everyday London air, lying low through September and October, pretending anonymity, only to rise in November, pungent and dangerous. Come to think of it, it was C. D. that pointed it out to me. He sniffed the air and said, "Now it's beginning to smell like London again," and when I asked him what he meant he said that for instance Paris smelled like apples and French cigarettes and Seville like rancid olive-oil and hair-oil and Barcelona like decaying bodies and bull sweat. London, he said, smelled of a well-bred mustiness of old newspapers boiled with vegetables. But I thought it had an evil smell. I know it did: The Sulphur Fumes of Hell.
The description is apt even today, if you imagine adding a healthy dash of diesel fuel to the simmering pot of newsprint and cabbage. Nevertheless, even though I haven't lived in London for more than a decade (and even then for less than a year), when I get off the plane and take a deep breath of that toxic brew, it smells like home. London is, after all, awfully hard not to love. Even Cyril Connolly, who in the depths of dissatisfaction could write in his diary,
One cannot really love London. It is disappointing in every way. A foggy, dead-alive city, like a dying ant-heap
--a mere month later would make an entry that consisted solely of this line:
A wild month, intoxication of London as before.
Oh, the perils of writing a post about London: by the time I hit the "Publish" button, all I want to do is head to the airport . . .

Thursday, June 04, 2009


In an Introduction to a 2005 edition of her 1964 novel The Old Man and Me, included in the brand-new New York Review of Books Classics edition, Elaine Dundy wrote about revising the book for republication:
From today's prospect, I was able to cancel a word or half a line throughout, understanding what I didn't then: that in this novel, speech read is preferable to speech spoken. The latter is full of "um," "oh" and "ah"--dead foliage that smothers the text. I eliminated most but not all of them. Some were too stubbornly embedded in the text. Words such as the all-purpose "just" that runs around this book as in "you just want to, "just a moment," "just in time," just the wrong way." I cut some of the beginnings of sentences that use such weakening qualifications as "well" and "I'm afraid" followed by I, you, he, she, it. I cut "perfectly" and "definitely." These, being eliminated, I felt released the core of the text to glow. I wanted the two protagonists to express themselves through exchanges that are brisk, crisp, direct and unadorned, sometimes to the point, often around it, even at times, soul to soul.
To think she was making all those painstaking revisions to a book of which the Master himself, P. G. Wodehouse, wrote, "There isn't a dull line in it"!

Not having the 1964 edition to hand, however, it's hard to quibble with the results: The Old Man and Me is funny, biting, pithy, cynical, and sharp, a worthy successor to Dawn Powell (with, I can't help but hear, echoes of Eve Arden's gloriously self-deprecating and cheerily bitter Miss Brooks). And I suppose it's hard to argue with Dundy's impulse to correct and improve--after all, how many authors' work is still valued enough that they're even given that chance four decades later?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Two! Two! Two blogs in one!

Blogging may be light this week, but take heart!--for (Good god, it's fun to mix an em-dash with another piece of punctuation--what could possibly feel more eighteenth century, other perhaps than dying of syphilis?) the reason is that I'll also be filling in this week for the vacationing Scott Esposito, editor of the Quarterly Conversation, over at Conversational Reading.

My first post is on Gary Indiana, whose book of reviews and essays, Utopia's Debris (2008), is one of those admirable collections that convinces me to lay yet more books on the already vertiginous heights of my to-be-read pile. Because of Indiana, I'll soon be adding Mary Woronov, Caroline Blackwood, and Gavin Lambert. At Conversational Reading I've drawn on Indiana's essay about the last of those, and I want to share here one passage that I wasn't able to find a place for in that post. After acknowledging that many of the important characters in Lambert's tales of debased Hollywood can be tied directly to real-life models, Indiana makes an argument that will be familiar, and comforting, to any fan of Proust or Powell, among other writers:
The game of guessing who's really whom in a novel, however, despite its inevitability in cases like Proust (with whole albums of photographs devoted to the writer's familiars, who are thus rendered identical to their fictional incarnations), cheapens the whole enterprise of writing fiction, as if fiction has been invented simply to avoid libel suits.
He goes on to relate the following personal anecdote about Lambert, which I find both deeply touching and revealing of the empathetic insight required of great writers:
I knew Lambert personally, and well enough, to be impressed by his generosity, in print, toward certain people he privately couldn't bear; even one individual whom Gavin consistently referred to as "it" (keeping his back turned on "it" for an entire evening when the three of us happened to be at the same Los Angeles party), Gavin mentions in his writings without a hint of disdain. This could, I suppose, be dismissed as self-protective tact, but I think it had more to do with his understanding that his opinion might be true for himself, but was still just an opinion. (He did get a certain amusement from privately sticking pins in certain friends who weren't present--who doesn't?--but was also quick to credit their accomplishments and worthy personal qualities. His sense of fairness was exemplary.)
When a novel fails for me, it is most often because I feel that the writer is not being fair, that his thumb is in some way on the scales, distorting the distribution of his empathy; when a novel works, it is because, like Tolstoy, the god of fictional understanding, the writer has managed to make everyone's reasons, cares, and self-justifications comprehensible and compelling, even undeniable. It really is almost that simple, and at his best--as in the brilliant Do Everything in the Dark (2003), about which I've written before--Gary Indiana can almost overwhelm us with exactly that sort of clear-eyed and world-weary, yet fiercely unyielding love for his characters.