Friday, July 31, 2009

Gabriel Hunt to the rescue!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Ah, the slow summer afternoons of adolescence, my twelve-year-old self whiling away the hours with an adventure novel and desperately wishing that my life was more like this:
He had a vintage Zippo lighter in his jacket pocket. He didn't smoke, but he'd found it handy to carry a lighter anyway. There was always a chance you might come across a beautiful woman who needed a light--or a Molotov cocktail.
That's from Hunt at the Well of Eternity, the first volume in a new series edited by Charles Ardai. Five years ago, Ardai started Hard Case Crime, with the aim of revitalizing the pulp crime novel; now he's launched a new series of adventure novels starring swashbuckling adventurer Gabriel Hunt, who, supported by the vast funds of the Hunt Foundation, travels the globe to keep mysterious artifacts--and beautiful women--out of the clutches of a gallery of evildoers.

Seemingly inspired in equal parts by Indiana Jones, Doc Savage, and Allan Quatermain, the books are aimed squarely at that summer afternoon kid in all of us; this sort of moment is typical:
For an instant, as he fell through the air, Gabriel found himself thinking about how much of his adult life he'd spent jumping from high places with people who wanted to kill him close behind. It was a topic, he decided, that might reward reflection sometime, when he could think about it at his leisure.
Reading these novels makes clear how far the adventure genre is from noir. A true hard-boiled novel is usually at least as much about the conditions of life that drive people to desperate acts as it is about the desperate actors themselves; it's a commentary, social and moral, on our times and the mess we've made of them. A true adventure novel, on the other hand, is interested in none of that; it's interested in the girl and the treasure, period, though not always in that order. In serious crime novels, killing always has consequences, not the least of them emotional, while in Gabriel Hunt's world, bad guys are dispatched without a second thought. From noir we may learn, and we may even emerge changed; from an adventure novel, we simply get a few hours of relatively mindless pleasure. I wouldn't want my whole library to be like that, but at times that sort of escapism is just what's called for.

As in the new novels he's selected over the years to go alongside his reprints at Hard Case Crime, Ardai isn't approaching the genre with irony--no winking or playing with genre conventions here. These are true adventure novels, not ironic updatings, and they're retro only insofar as they reflect new steps in an old tradition--here, swords and ziplines exist side-by-side with GPS devices and laptops. As with noir, Ardai takes his genre seriously, and it pays off; we're never worried that our investment in an action scene will be undercut by a lapse into parody.

That's not to say that these books are always serious: Hunt, like Indiana Jones (and some incarnations of James Bond), is fully willing to acknowledge the absurdity of the situations in which he frequently finds himself--though that doesn't lessen his determination to come through them alive despite. (That humor is a stark contrast to the grim determination of Doc Savage, one of the reasons that Indiana Jones has always felt more like an immortal character than Savage does--and one of the reasons that Philip Jose Farmer's odd biography of Savage, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, is so much fun: by pretending to take Savage fully seriously, Farmer reveals just how bizarre and even unsettling his relentless pursuit of perfection can be.) Gabriel Hunt is, after all, the good guy, and if we can't count on the good guy to have a way with a quip, what kind of world are we living in?

The first two installments are out now, both credited to Gabriel Hunt himself: Hunt at the Well of Eternity, ghosted by James Reasoner, and Hunt through the Cradle of Fear, by Ardai. They're a good start, revealing key bits of Hunt's complicated back story amid the action and surprises, as well as quests of sufficient scope to hold our interest. The Reasoner volume starts off strong, with a party straight out of Bruce Wayne's nightlife, and features nice nods to Doc Savage (a Mayan connection) and Indiana Jones (bullwhips), though it flags a bit later on, the prose sometimes slipping into a pedestrianism that seems inadequate to the action being described.

Hunt through the Cradle of Fear
, however, is written with exactly the brio and panache that Hunt's adventures should have: you get the sense that Hunt is having just as good a time as we are as his adventure hurtles along to a final showdown of unexpectedly breathtaking stakes. If that's the standard for the series, this is going to be a lot of fun, and the quarterly publication schedule seems about right: who couldn't use a perfect popcorn book every three months?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"A dilettante and a practical joker, but . . . a wise man all the same," or, Some pleasures from Lord Berners

On a whim recently, I ordered a Faber Finds reprint of Mark Amory's biography of composer, writer, and painter Lord Berners, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998). Before reading Amory's book, I only knew Lord Berners as the model for the wildly strange Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and for his wonderfully comic yet slightly creepy The Camel, which Michael Dirda calls
the novella equivalent to an Edward Gorey album, at once witty, slightly off-kilter, a bit camp, and perfectly pitched.
Amory's book--which is full of delicious anecdotes that I'll try to share in the coming weeks--sent me to Berners's slim volumes of memoir, which, though not, it seems displaying complete fidelity to the truth, are charming and funny litle books.

Two brief scenes, one gorgeous, one comic, stood out in the early pages of the first volume, First Childhood (1934); both seemed worth passing on. First, a moment of chance beauty Berners experienced in his bedroom one afternoon as a boy:
[O]ne afternoon my day-dreams were interrupted by an extraordinary phenomenon that took place on the ceiling. Everythign that was happening outside the house within a certai nradius appeared upon it, mirrored in vivid shadow-play. As I lay on my bed I could see, reproduced on the ceiling, the moving figures of servants, gardeners, or grooms. A dog trotted across and a cat appearead and sat licking itself. I saw the carriage coming up to the door and my mother going out for a drive. It was a complete cinematographic representation in silhouette. The curtains had been drawn in a certain way which allowed a small shaft of light to penetrate, and the ceiling of the room had been converted into a cinema screen.
Anyone who's ever seen a camera obscura in action can imagine how thrilling such a magical occurrence in one's childhood bedroom would be. Sadly, Berners was never able to recreate the effect.

Then there's an account of Berners's grandmother, Lady Bourchier, whom Berners describes as having been born with "the seeds of a baleful asceticism in her heart," a figure of forbiddingly intolerant religion:
The only subjects Lady Bourchier allowed to be discussed in her presence were the less sensational items of general news and those preferably of a theological nature. It must be confessed she sometimes appeared to take an interest in local scandals. She seemed to derive a certain pleasure from hearing instances of other people's godlessness. It gave her satisfaction, no doubt, to hear of yet another of God's creatures obviously destined for Hell.
That's not to say that Lady Bourchier wasn't of a giving nature:
Lady Bourchier spent a good deal of her time in paying minatory visits to the sick and the poor. She would set out on these charitable raids in a small pony-chaise which she used to drive herself, armed with soup and propaganda. The rest of the day she passed in meditation in her grim little study overlooking the moat. There was always an immense pile of cheap, ill-bound Bibles on the table and these she would give away whenever she got a chance. "Let me see, child, have I given you a Bible?" "Yes, Grandmother," one would hastily reply. But you never managed to get out of the room without having one of them thrust into your hand. Disposing of a Bible was no easy matter. It would, of course, be sacreligious to burn it. If deliberately left behind or lost it would invariably be returned because she always took the precaution of writing one's name and address on the title-page. I remember once when I dropped one of them into the moat being horrified to find that it refused to sink and continued to bob up and down on the surface like a life-buoy. Even this contingency, I felt, must have been foreseen by my grandmother and in consequence she had had it lined with cork.
The bobbing Bible is like a foundational nightmare of childhood paranoia, our relatives finding us out in our every little misdeed; it's no wonder Berners never took to religion.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dortmunder's last job, or, Donald Westlake Week concludes!

If you've never read one of Donald E. Westlake's comic caper novels starring tough-luck heister John Dortmunder, the opening lines of Get Real (2009), the fourteenth and final book in the series, will give you a good sense of their tone:
Dortmunder did not like to stand around on street corners. A slope-shouldered, glum-looking individual in clothing that hadn't been designed by anybody, he knew what he looked like when he stood for a while in one place on a street corner, and what he looked like was a person loitering with intent. The particular intent, as any copy casting an eye over Dotrumunder would immediately understand, was beside the point, and could be fine-tuned at the station; the first priority was to get this fellow in charge.

Which was why Dortmunder didn't like standing around on street corners: he hated to give cops the feeling there was duty to be done.
Though Westlake has never been quite as funny (nor as ridiculous) as P. G. Wodehouse, the precision of his prose has often brought Wodehouse to mind, as both men root a lot of their humor in getting phrasings just right, mixing high and low diction, slang and proper speech, surprising us by the juxtaposition. The above paragraph strikes me as being even more Wodehousian than usual--the "get this fellow in charge" could have come straight from any number of Wodehouse's self-righteous constables, who would gladly have sent Dotrmunder to prison for several years "without the option."

As the opening suggests, Westlake was still fully engaged with his craft as he wrote this, his final novel. And he's come up with an ingenious premise: a chance run-in leads to a TV producer hiring Dortmunder and the gang to star in a reality show about their work, a proposal so ridiculous that they go along with it. They've got nothing on tap at the moment anyway, and Dortmunder figures that while of course they're not going to actually commit any crimes while this self-important goofball's looking over their shoulders, they can at least take his money while they secretly figure out another job.

Complications and absurdities ensue--the most amusing of them being Murch's gleeful stealing of a car a day from the studio's disorganized, overcrowded garage of prop cars--the whole as light and gentle as we've come to expect from Dortmunder, the greatest pleasure coming not from the well-turned plot but from the fun of seeing the world through Donald Westlake's observant, perpetually amused eyes. Take the following description, for example, of a short, fat, extremely minor character known as My Nephew, named for the chain of shady discount stores he runs:
Now My nephew got to his feet, a complicated maneuver in three distinct sections. In section one, he leaned far forward with his broad palms flat on the desktop. In section two, he heaved himself with a loud grunt upward and back, becoming more or less vertical. In section three, he weaved forward and back, feet on floor and palms on desk, until he found his equilibrium. Then, lifting the palms from his desk and taking a loud breath, "Be right back," he said, turned, and waddled more briskly than you would have thought possible to a metal fire door in the wall behind the desk. He opened this door, stepped through a space barely wide enough for the purpose, and left, the door automatically shutting behind him.
We see this same sort of attention to--and care for--the details of the world and its people throughout Westlake's work, in serious, pyschologically acute form in the Parker novels, played for wry comedy in the Dortmunder novels.It's what makes him such great company.

Throughout Get Real, Dortmunder's biggest frustration is that the other guys unexpectedly come to like acting in the reality show, staging conversations in the fake bar that the producers have created, discussing fake plans with the pretty actress who's playing a girlfriend, actually getting to talk about their work a bit to people who are interested. At one point, when it looks as if the job they're secretly planning isn't going to come off, the other guys decide that they'd like to go ahead and do the show anyway. Dortmunder is appalled. "Money from wages," he reminds them,
is not the same as the same money from theft. Money from theft is purer. There's no indentured servitude on it, no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants, no obedience. It isn't yours because you swapped it for your own time and work, it's yours because you took it.
If Parker ever felt that much need to explain himself, that speech could have come out of his mouth; it could serve as a heister's credo. "You people have completely forgot who and what you are," Dortmunder laments. But he hasn't: he's a heister, always has been and always will be. And if it's unsettling to think that Westlake's death left the cold steel of Parker out there on the loose, forever unapprehended and forever planning, it's a corresponding comfort to know that Dortmunder will remain free, too, walking around New York in his schlubby, put-upon way, the two of them maybe managing to keep the universe in some sort of rough balance.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

ITEMS!, or, just barely managing to keep Donald Westlake Week going!

Only time for a couple of quick notes today. Maybe if I dress them up with snazzy ITEM! tags, they'll seem more substantial?

ITEM! Almost Darwyn Cooke's blog, which has been soliciting readers' visual interpretations of Parker to celebrate the release of Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of The Hunter, has gathered all the submissions in a gallery. If you're a Parker fan, you should definitely go check it out; there are a lot of great ones to choose from, but my favorite is this re-imagining of the original pulp paperback of The Hunter.

ITEM! I wrote a post about Westlake for the blog of my employer, the University of Chicago Press, on Friday. There's not much there I haven't covered here in recent days--though I do call Dortmunder a schlimazel--but if you want to see me in straight-up shilling mode, or if you're a Levi Stahl completist {which even rocketlass knows better than to be}, head on over there and check it out.

ITEM! At the risk of derailing Donald Westlake Week, I have to point out Ed Park's essay from this Sunday's New York Times Book Review on the Invisble Library. The strictures imposed by the Times prevented him from mentioning our actual Invisible Library or the recent exhibit by INK Collective in London, but that didn't keep him from writing a great essay. He also talked about the concept on the NYTBR's podcast this week.

Oh, and Westlake is in the collections of the Invisible Library, thanks to Charles Ardai, who included a ghost-written Westlake novel in his Fifty-to-One. So there, we're right back on track!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Darwyn Cooke takes on Parker, as Donald Westlake Week continues!

{Parker, as drawn by Darwyn Cooke.}

I think I have to just give in: this week has unexpectedly become Donald Westlake—and thus Richard Stark—week. {There are worse weeks in which to find oneself.} Right after posting Tuesday’s news about the lost Westlake novel that Hard Case Crime is going to publish next spring, I picked up the new graphic adaptation of the first Parker novel, The Hunter, by comics artist Darwyn Cooke--a book that, as a fan of The New Frontier, Cooke’s beautiful and thoughtful reimagining of the DC Universe’s Silver Age and the origin of the Justice League, I’ve been looking forward to for nearly a year.

With that series, Cooke showed that his style is perfectly suited to depict late 1950s-early 1960s America—the sleek, futuristic design; the skinny ties and tight skirts; the cocktails and hi-fis and wood paneling. But those of us who followed his work on Catwoman know that he also has a feeling for noir, taking pleasure in the accommodating shadows and odd angles that let a touch of Depression-and-wartime darkness leach into the shiny new world of jet-setters and playboys.

His Hunter doesn’t disappoint. Through page after page, Cooke translates Stark’s terse prose into imagery that, while never distracting from the action that is the heart of Stark's book, immerses the reader in a sort of visual tour of the details of 1962 New York City. The opening spread of the Manhattan skyline is marvelous, while the first page of the book, which depicts Parker crossing the George Washington Bridge, is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling--and if you're familiar with the illustration style of the period, that page will give you chills: it doesn't so much feel like Cooke has imitated the old techniques and approaches as that he's imbibed them, or even transported us back to when they were new, stylish, and full of endless promise.

Cooke’s Parker, meanwhile, moves through these panels with all the ruthlessness and danger that he displays in Stark's novels. If anything, his power and relentlessness are even more clear in this adaptation than in the original, visible in the reactions of bystanders, the quivering of his enemies, the efficiency and speed of his movements. If you're a Parker fan, you really don't want to miss this. A second volume--possibly interweaving the second and third novels--is scheduled for next summer, and I'm hoping beyond hope that Cooke sticks with this project at least long enough to get to the wild settings and grim determination of Slayground.

Meanwhile, this month also sees the publication of the next three Parker novels in the reprint series that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, embarked on last year: The Handle, The Seventh, and The Rare Coin Score--which introduces Claire--should be hitting the shelves of your local bookstore any minute now. They've even got a great introduction by I've Been Reading Lately favorite Luc Sante!

I recommend you make sure your hideout is well-stocked with gin and vermouth, take your phone off the hook, and settle in for the weekend.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Donald Westlake lives on in Memory

Those of you who spend as much nose-to-monitor, laptop-warming-lap time as I do may have seen this elsewhere already, but it's such good news that it's worth sharing nonetheless: Charles Ardai, publisher of Hard Case Crime, put out word over the weekend that he is going to publish a previously unknown Donald E. Westlake novel, titled
Memory, next April. The novel, writes Ardai,
is the story of a man who suffers an assault (after being caught in bed with another man's wife) and wakes up in a hospital bed suffering from a peculiar form of brain damage that doesn't make him unable to function but does make it hard for him to form new memories or retain old ones. Stuck far from home (and struggling even to remember where home used to be), paranoid about the attentions of the police, and desperate to reconstruct his lost life, Paul Cole sets out on an extraordinary private investigation: a missing persons case in which he himself is the missing person.
It's an explicitly existential novel, and a long one, and I think these were the reasons his then literary agent advised him to shelve it and concentrate instead on the more commercial sorts of crime fiction he was becoming known for.
According to Ardai, Lawrence Block, who passed on the manuscript with the blessing of Westlake's widow, had urged his friend to send the book out for publication many times over the years, but Westlake never got around to it; the opening chapter is available at the Hard Case Crime site, if you want to judge the book's quality for yourself.

Admittedly, for most of us (or maybe all of us except Ethan Iverson?), there was still plenty of Westlake left to read even before the discovery of Memory. The thought of an addition to the canon is exciting nonetheless, especially if it's as much a departure for Westlake as Ardai suggests; given how many approaches, how many variations on themes Westlake attempted over his career, exploring a new one will surely be a pleasure. And a writer who can immediately follow a stripped, yet rhythmic passage like this--
After the show, they went back to the hotel room, and to bed, for the seventeenth time in three weeks. He had chosen her because, being on the road with him, she was handy; and additionally because she was married, had already clipped the wings of one male, and could therefore demand nothing more from him than he was willing to give. Why she had chosen him he neither knew nor cared.
--with a description as straightforward, yet fine-tuned as this--
clench-faced sweaty blindness of physical passion
--is worth following almost anywhere he chooses to go.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pistols and Peter Fleming

A closing bookstore is always a sad sight, but that sadness is mitigated significantly when the closing is driven by a desire to retire rather than a failure to profit, and it's further mitigated by a last-days free book bonanza . . . especially if one of the books on offer is by Peter Fleming!

That's what rocketlass happened across at a used bookstore in South Haven, Michigan last week when we were off on a family vacation, Fleming's My Aunt's Rhinoceros and Other Writings (1958), a volume of essays and short pieces. I've championed Fleming--Ian's less well-known older brother--in this space before, but you needn't take my word for it: he's recently turned up in posts on the wonderful Times Archive blog and, in honor of his just-passed centenary, the Telegraph.

I know him primarily as a writer of travel books, the best example of which is his Brazilian Adventure (1933), in which he, like many before and after him, goes off three-quarters cocked in search of Percy Fawcett's lost expedition. His rackety, danger-courting, pre-liability insurance adventures are a pure joy, their occasional somewhat dated imperialist pretensions more than made up for by Fleming's very British self-deprecating dry wit.

I've not yet read My Aunt's Rhinoceros, but the following passage from it, which rocketlass, in a neat reversal of roles, couldn't help but read aloud to me, is a nice distillation of Fleming's charms as both writer and traveling companion:
"Have you," said the note from a friend, "a spare revolver I could take with me to Kenya?" Obscurely gratified by the assumption underlying this request, which was that I am the sort of chap who (a) owns several revolvers and (b) needs at least one of them in the conduct of his day-to-day life, I fell to pondering on pistols and on how they have come down in the world. They are still carried by criminals and by army officers; but they have, I think, ceased to be a gentleman's weapon.
He continues from there to Anthony Hope and Bulldog Drummond all the way to Martians in the space of less than two pages. Really, why are you still reading this rather than ordering yourself a copy? Are you not convinced? How about this, from his essay "Hero-Bashing":
One of the worst occupational hazards of being a modern hero, whether self-made of State-manufactured, must be that your doings become--and remain--news. In the old days, after slaying your dragon, you married the king's youngest daughter and rested on your laurels. You were not immediately involved in a number of activities--such as being interviewed, writing your autobiography,, making after-dinner speechers and advertising ball-point pens--for which you had neither aptitude nor relish. You were not, in other words, either exploited or encouraged to exploit yourself.
A sentiment to which his brother's great creation, James Bond, would surely at least give an agreeable raised eyebrow.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Politics as soap opera . . . then and now

Though Trollope's Palliser novels, the fifth of which I've been reading this week, draw their cast of characters from Parliament, its Members and the various Ministers who make up successive governments, the books are ultimately far less about politics than they are about the society and culture that grow up around politics. Trollope's focus is on the members of society rather than its problems, and while political issues do arise in the novels, the important votes and debates to which they give rise are far more likely to be hinges of plot than occasions for deeper thought.

In that sense, Trollope's account of the political life of his time isn't all that unlike our experience of our own politics: though I'll admit to flat-out enjoying the soap opera aspect of politics, I'm at least a casual policy wonk, and this speech from Lady Glencora, Duchess of Omnium and wife of Prime Minister Palliser, sounds distressingly familiar, almost as if it could have come from the mouth of a Sunday morning talk host today:
Of course I don't mean about politics. Of course it must be a mixed kind of thign at first, and I don't care a straw whetehr it run to Radicalism or Toryism. The country goes on its own way, eithe for better or for worse, which ever of them are in. I don't think it makes any difference as to what sort of laws are passed. But among ourselves, in our set, it makes a deal of difference who gets the garters, and the counties, who are made barons and then earls, and whose name stands at the head of everything.
Thus, I suppose, has it always been, frustrating as that may be.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Trollope's characters

One of the great pleasures of reading Anthony Trollope, whose Palliser novels I've returned to this past week, is his abiding trust in the techniques of realist fiction. If Trollope ever felt or worried about the limitations of his medium--or thought of possibilities beyond it--you'd never detect it from his novels, which are rich in the sort of straightforward descriptions of people and places that we think of as the backbone of Victorian fiction.

From The Prime Minister (1876), the fifth of the six Palliser novels, two early characters sketches stood out as worthy examples of Trollope's skill with authorial description. First, from his introduction of Ferdinand Lopez, an untrustworthy adventurer who, through determination and skillful manipulation makes his way into the upper reaches of English political society, there's this paragraph:
For he was essentially one of those men who are always, in the inner workings of their minds, defending themselves and attacking others. He could not give a penny to a woman at a crossing without a look which argued at full length her injustice in making her demand, and his freedom from all liability let him walk the crossing as often as he might. He could not seat himself in a railway carriage without a lesson to his opposite neighbour that in all the mutual affairs of travelling, arrangement of feet, disposition of bags, and opening of windows, it would be that neighbour's duty to submit and his to exact. It was, however, for the spirit rather than for the thing itself that he combated. The woman with the broom got her penny. The opposite gentleman when once by a glance he had expressed submission was allowed his own way with his legs and with the window. I would not say that Ferdinand Lopez was prone to do ill-natured things, but he was imperious, and he had learned to carry his empire in his eye.
With those two examples, Trollope conjures up the character of a self-righteous, domineering man; from there on, all the actions and descriptions of Lopez are essentially embellishments.

Then there's Trollope's description of Lady Glencora Palliser, the Duchess of Omnium, whom we've come to know through the earlier novels in the sequence:
She already possessed all that rank and wealth could give her, and together with those good things a peculiar position of her own, of which she was proud, and which she had made her own not by her wealth or rank, but by a certain fearless energy and power of raillery which never deserted her. Many feared her, and she was afraid of none, and many also loved her,--whom she also loved, for her nature was affectionate. She was happy with her children, happy with her friends, in the enjoyment of perfect health, and capable of taking an exaggerated interest in anything that might come uppermost for the moment. . . . She had a celebrity of her own, quite independent of his position, and which could not be enhanced by any glory or any power added to him. Nevertheless, when he left her to go down to the Queen with the prospect of being called upon to act as chief of the incoming ministry, her heart throbbed with excitement.
The Duchess--formidably strong-willed, enthusiastic, personable, and intelligent--is one of the strongest, most memorable female characters I know in Victorian fiction, a reminder that, while Trollope unquestionably lacks the formal invention or linguistic verve of his contemporary Dickens, he does offer some pleasures that Dickens, whose female characters almost all remain ciphers, cannot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blogger Leaves Basement! Film at 11!

Any of you folks who've been dying to meet me will finally have your chance if you can get to Iowa City next weekend: I'll be giving a talk on reading and writing about books online at the inaugural Iowa City Book Festival next Saturday, July 18th, at 6 p.m. I can't promise genius--or, really, anything but enthusiastic amateurism--but I'll try to be relatively informative and entertaining nonetheless, and I guarantee you'll see at least one LOL Cat.

If you do come, please remember to restrict questions to my areas of expertise and/or obsession: Anthony Powell, Thomas Hardy, Roberto Bolano . . . um, Barbara Pym . . . or maybe you should just stick to Powell, in which case I'll be much more likely to buy you a drink in gratitude later.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dickens, Byron, and executions

In Wednesday's post I noted that though Peter Ackroyd in his biography of Dickens described the writer's horror at the behavior of the crowd watching the hanging of murderer Francois Benjamin Courvoisier in July of 1840, if the act of hanging itself had any effect on Dickens, Ackroyd didn't mention it. Reading Dickens's own account of that night, published six years later in the Daily News, I find that it did--though the effect is so intermixed with Dickens's reaction to the crowd that it only seems right to quote the whole passage:
Whether public executions produce any good impression on their habitual witnesses, or whether they are calculated to produce any good impression on the class of persons most likely to be attracted to them, is a question, by this time, pretty well decided. I was present, myself, at the execution of Courvoisier. I was, purposely, on the spot, from midnight of the night before; and was a near witness of the whole process of the building of the scaffold, the gathering of the crowd, the gradual swelling of the concourse with the coming-on of day, the hanging of the man, the cutting of the body down, and the removal of it into the prison. From the moment of my arrival, when there were but a few score boys in the street, and those all young thieves, and all clustered together behind the barrier nearest to the drop—down to the time when I saw the body with its dangling head, being carried on a wooden bier into the gaol—I did not see one token in all the immense crowd; at the windows, in the streets, on the house-tops, anywhere; of any one emotion suitable to the occasion. No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of ‘Hats off!’ when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a Play—to see the Stage the better, in the final scene.

Of the effect upon a perfectly different class, I can speak with no less confidence. There were, with me, some gentlemen of education and distinction in imaginative pursuits, who had, as I had, a particular detestation of that murderer; not only for the cruel deed he had done, but for his slow and subtle treachery, and for his wicked defence. And yet, if any one among us could have saved the man (we said so, afterwards, with one accord), he would have done it. It was so loathsome, pitiful, and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse; being very much the stronger, and shedding around it a far more dismal contagion.

Disgust is always warring with sympathy and pity in Dickens, so his reaction, though complicated, isn't all that surprising. What is surprising is the way that Dickens's account echoes the closing line of Lord Byron's graphic and gruesome account of an execution he witnessed, sent from Venice in a letter to his publisher and friend, John Murray, on May 30th, 1817:
The day before I left Rome I saw three robbers guillotined. The ceremony--including the masqued priests--the half-naked executioners--the bandaged criminals--the black Christ and his banner--the scaffold--the soldiery--the slow procession--& the quick fall rattle and heavy fall of the axe--the splash of the blood--& the ghastliness of the exposed heads--is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty "new drop" and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence. Two of these men--behaved calmly enough--but the first of the three--died with great terror and reluctance--which was very horrible--he would not lie down--then his neck was too large for the aperture--and the priest was obliged to drown his exclamations by still louder exhortations--the head was off before the eye could trace the blow--but from an attempt to draw back the head--notwithstanding that it was held forward by the hair--the first head was cut off close to the ears--the other two were taken off more cleanly;--it is better than the oriental way--& (I should think) than the axe of our ancestors.--The pain seems little--& yet the effect to the spectator--& the preparation to the criminal--is very striking & chilling.--The first turned me quite hot and thirsty--& made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close--but was determined to see--as one should see everything once--with attention) the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things become indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me--as a horror--though I would have saved them if I could.
"If any one among us could have saved the man . . . he would have done it;" "I would have saved them if I could." The latter--Byron's line--unforgettable, I first came across as the title of a short story by Leonard Michaels that brilliantly incorporates Byron's account; it alone is sufficient reason to seek out Michaels's Collected Stories.

What's unexpected--though perhaps not from the mercurial Byron--is that his response to an earlier execution, the first he'd ever seen, is callous to the point of disregard: in a letter to his friend Thomas Moore of May 20th, 1812, he wrote:

On Monday, after sitting up all night, I saw Bellingham launched into eternity, and at three the same day, I saw *** launched into the country.
From which point he continued to matters of less gravity, closing with a line that clearly shows the hanging made no impression on him:
I meant to have written you a long letter, but I find I cannot. If any thing remarkable occurs to me, you will hear it from me--if good; if bad, there are plenty to tell it.
We do, fitfully, seem to make some progress as a civilization: the cessation of public execution of criminals as entertainment--and of robbers at all--is at least one way in which we can claim to have bettered our ancestors.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fightin' words

Over at the Second Pass, the editors have assembled a post calling out canonical novels that they can't stand. The contributors issue merciless beatdowns to ten novels, from Victorian classics (A Tale of Two Cities) to recent sensations (The Corrections).

As should be the case in a fight-picking post such as that one, the writing is at its best when it hits a novel you instinctively want to defend, but suddenly, cringingly, find you can't. Like D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, about which I have many fond memories, but about which the anonymous contributor writes,
The book was yanked [from circulation] for ostensibly racy sex, but you won’t find much of that here. Instead, much of what it contains — redundant, stultifyingly interior, almost eventless — is reminiscent of nothing so much as the things an English prof endures on the way to getting into a sensitive student’s pants: the gushing, the journal reading, the unedited first drafts. Viz:
She could be very happy. And she wanted to be happy. She resented it when he made her unhappy. Then she could kill him, cast him out. Many days, she waited for the hour when he would be gone to work. Then the flow of her life, which he seemed to dam up, was let loose, and she was free. She was free, she was full of delight. Everything delighted her.
But . . . but . . . I sputter--then I find myself wondering whether the one novel that I had believed good enough to transcend the humorless self-importance that suffuses Lawrence's every word may actually be just as purple and melodramatic as the rest.

I was, after all, merely nineteen years old when I read it: some people, at that age, fall for Bukowski; others of us, nerdier, fall for Lawrence. {And, in the spirit of the Second Pass's post, I can't help but point out that at least us Lawrentians get over him eventually . . . }

Go check out the list, then register your complaints and/or approbation in their comments section.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Dickens, Thackeray, and a hanging

On the blog that she began as an accompaniment to The Magician's Book (2008), her well-regarded book on C. S. Lewis and the Narnia books, Laura Miller recently wrote about the "petrifying depiction of mob violence" and the "street lynching of a heartless aristo" in A Tale of Two Cities. After quoting Dickens's account--
Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike . . .
--Miller writes,
I don't know much about Dickens' background, but this has made me wonder what he'd seen before writing these passages.
Which, you'll not be surprised to learn, sent me to my bookshelves! I had a vague memory of Dickens having witnessed a hanging at Tyburn gallows (which was located where Marble Arch is today), and Peter Ackroyd's giant biography didn't disappoint, revealing that in July 1840 Dickens, essentially on a whim--"Just once, I should like to watch a scene like this, and see the end of the drama"--left a dinner with friends to attend the hanging of Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, a valet who had killed his employer by slitting his throat.

Ackroyd writes,
Dickens said later that there was "nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have felt any large assemblage of my fellow creatures so odious." It is like a scene out of Dore; the mob of the poor and the outcast, the ragged clothes, the swearing and the debauchery, the loud cries, the smell, and Dickens himself looking down from the upper room at the spectacle of these, his countrymen, the surging mob living in the shadows cast by his civilisation and inseparable from them.
If Dickens was troubled by the hanging itself, however, Ackroyd doesn't note it, which surprises me given how horrible is his depiction of the hanging in A Tale of Two Cities. Still, it's not hard to believe that he had these grotesque mob scenes in mind the next January when he began writing his long-stalled Barnaby Rudge in earnest.

An odd coincidence about that hanging seems worth noting: across the crowd, Dickens spotted Thackeray, who was in attendance with the aim of writing about the hanging. Thanks to the glories of the Internet, I can share Thackeray's letter offering the piece in advance to Alexander Blackwood (who was, I believe, at the time the head ofthe Blackwoods publishing firm), which is interesting if for no other reason than the way that it lumps the hanging in with other "fun" pieces "of a spicy nature" that Thackeray might write:
I should be glad to do something of like nature if you are disposed to accept my contributions. No politics, as much fun and satire as I can muster, literary talk and criticism of a spicy nature, and general gossip. I belong to a couple of clubs in this village and can get together plenty of rambling stuff. For instance, for next month Courvoisier's hanging (I'll go on purpose), strictures on C. Phillip's speech, the London Library, Tom Carlyle, the Times and account of Willis that may be racy enough.
Despite this pitch, Blackwood's Magazine never ran the piece, but it eventually saw the light of day in Fraser's Magazine later that year. Dickens, meanwhile, wouldn't write about Courvoisier for nearly six years, finally broaching the topic in the second of the Five Letters on Social Questions he published in the Daily News, a new daily political newspaper that he briefly edited at the start of 1846.

And I think that's surely enough time spent down this particular rabbit hole for tonight, no?

Monday, July 06, 2009

From the notebooks of Edmund Wilson, Anglophobe

Because I inadvertently posted on Friday the piece I had intended for today--damn my too-casual use of Blogger's auto-post function!--today all I have for you are some bits I encountered in Edmund Wilson's journal The Forties this afternoon.

First up is this anecdote, which seems almost too good to be true, from Wilson's time reporting from Italy in 1946. Passing on a story from fellow journalist Philip Hamburger, Wilson writes,
Lieutenant colonel who arrived in a staff car in Venice and asked a soldier to show him how to go: "Sir, you've had it: from here on the city is built entirely on water."
It sounds like something that could easily have come out of the mouth of one of Anthony Powell's imagined officers, no?

This, too, is acute, once you discount a tad for Wilson's marked Anglophobia:
English devices: They set out quietly to put over something so outrageous that you can't imagine any decent person would have the gall to attempt it, then, if you seem to be taking alarm, they try to make you feel that, if you objected, you would be behaving badly.

The Oxford brush-off: getting rid of importunate and troublesome questions by laughing gently about some aspect of the country or class or person which is totally irrelevant to the question in hand, and creating the impression that one had discredited it or him, that it is not to be taken seriously.
Later on that page, Wilson is reminded of this exchange, which surely both parties appreciated:
I left a party in London with Evelyn Waugh and some lady related to the Churchills, and we took a taxi together. He said in his well-tuned way--a lovely voice redeems his ugliness: "The Americans are politer than anyone else." I said, "Only than the British."
Which jibes with Randall Jarrell's aside, in Pictures from an Institution, that "to Americans English manners are far more frightening than none at all."

Friday, July 03, 2009

Three German notes

Following Wednesday's Thomas Mann post, by sheerest coincidence I happen to have three German notes for today:

1 Among the many memorable anecdotes that adorn Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower (1966), the mordant, grotesque black comedy of this brief scene from the life of Kaiser Wilhelm II is nearly unmatched:
[T]he Kaiser retired to the estate of his friend Prince Fursternberg, where, in the course of an evening's festivities, Count Hulsen-Haeseler, chief of the Military Cabinet, appeared in a pink ballet skirt and rose wreath and "danced beautifully," affording everybody much entertainment. On finishing he dropped dead of heart failure. Rigor mortis having set in by the time the doctors came, the General's body could only with the greatest difficulty be divested of its ballet costume and restored to the propriety of military uniform.
If only the Kaiser's friends had been as resourceful as Bernie Gunther, hero of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, who, when confronted with a body that needed dressing and moving, knew to bend and twist and essentially massage the man to slow the onset of rigor mortis.

2 Describing the Kaiser on his accession to the throne at age twenty-nine in 1888, Tuchman writes,
His firs proclamation on his accession was addressed, not like his father's, "To My People," but, "To My Army." It announced, "We belong to each other, I and the Army; we were born for each other." The relationship he had in mind was explained in advice to a company of young recruits: "If your Emperor commands you to do so you must fire on your father and mother." His sense of personal responsibility for the affairs of Germany and of Europe was expressed in the frequent "I's" and "My's" that bedizened his talk. "There is only one master in the Reich and that is I; I shall tolerate no other." Or, some years later, "There is no balance of power in Europe but me--me and my twenty-five army corps." He was willing, however, to make room for the Almighty who figured as the "ancient Ally of my House."
Which leads me to a question: did the Kaiser have any good qualities? I'm far from an expert, but in my reading about the period, I can't recall anyone having a single good thing to say about him--and that's before we take account of the fact that he was the model of the "strong man" for whose leadership many Germans yearned in the years just before Hitler' rise. Anyone willing to offer even a partial a defense of Kaiser Bill?

3 Speaking of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir, I finally read it over the weekend on the recommendation of Sarah Weinman, and it didn't disappoint. The three novels it comprises, set in pre- and post-war Germany, show, through the eyes of a Nazi-hating former police detective, how Hitler transformed Berlin into
a big haunted house with dark corners, gloomy staircases, sinister cellars, locked rooms and a whole attic of poltergeists on the loose,
and then how American and Russian bombs made it a desperate ruin. The novels are dark, emotionally and morally complicated, and fundamentally serious--to the point that when Kerr pointedly evokes Graham Greene's The Third Man in the final volume he doesn't lose by the unavoidable comparison.

One of the most memorable aspects of Berlin Noir was also one of its most casual: Kerr's constant use of unusual slang, presumably German words that were current in the period. Some examples: safe is a "nut"--and a safecracker therefore a "nutcracker"--a person in jail is "in the cement," a gun is a "lighter," a prostitute is a "snapper" or a "chocolady," a madman is a "spinner," and fingers and fingerprints are "piano players." In a book that is careful and evocative with language--where an enemy is described as showing a "razor blade of a smile"--the slang stands out, adding verisimilitude to Kerr's meticulous recreation of the mood and milieu of wartime Berlin.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

John Crowley and the Second Pass

Just in time for the holiday, I'm up at the Second Pass with a review of John Crowley's new novel, Four Freedoms, one of the most quietly, thoughtfully patriotic novels I've ever come across.

As I've done before, I figure I might as well use this space to share a passage that I marked in my notes, but wasn't able to find a place for in the review; I initially flagged it for the lovely little slang term Crowley throws in at the end, but the elegant beauty of its closing sentence is worth noting, too, a reminder of Crowley's skill with descriptive prose. The scene finds the book's protagonist, Prosper Olander, deep into a night of drinking with a young woman he's recently met:
"Well if you want to take a walk, maybe we can get a car."

"Swell," she said. "One more drink."


"Oh Prosper," she said rising. "Don't be a better-notter."

The band was playing a waltz as Prosper and Diane went out, and the three women were singing mournfully about love and loss, and Pancho and his friend were turning to each other with regal care.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Raise a glass to our forefathers (and mothers), and I'll see you again Monday.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

"The sad thing about Thomas Mann is that he really believed that he did not take himself seriously."

{Photo by Flickr user Libär of the Thomas-Mann-Haus in Lübeck. Used under a Creative Commons license.}

On the heels of a discussion with a friend over the weekend about the fact that, despite my love of Thomas Mann's other novels, I've never been able to scale the heights of The Magic Mountain, Maud Newton wrote about her recent decision to take up the novel again. She--and A. S. Byatt's introduction to the Modern Library edition, from which Maud quotes--just may have convinced me to finally give it another try.

Thinking about Mann sent me back to Elizabeth Hardwick's essay about him at his centenary, collected in Bartleby in Manhattan (1983). It's a perceptive essay, fundamentally admiring but not failing to note Mann's faults. The whole essay is worth seeking out, but its high point is this bit of potent analysis:
Mann has the rare gift of creating characters out of ideas, prejudices and cultural affectations. . . . Mann's artists and thinkers are marked by a sense of separateness, but they are also attacked from time to time by the rash of envy. Their great loneliness is a calling, and in solitude they honor that part of themselves Goethe called his "sacred earnestness." Nevertheless the exalted person will be brought down to envy the easy and unreflecting sexuality of the "normal." Mann's characters are cut off from love by illness, by a chastity that is either circumstantial or temperamental, by an overwhelming sublimation.
I also pulled down from my shelf Javier Marias's wonderful little volume of writers' lives, Written Lives, for I remembered that Marias loathed Mann as a person and a writer--and when Marias loathes someone, his vitriol is so pointed and unstinting that it becomes a thing of dark beauty. Take, for example, the opening sentence of his account of Yukio Mishima's life:
The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life, as if his previous non-stop exhibitionism had been merely a way of getting people's attention of the culminating moment, doubtless the only one that really interested him.
Of Mann he writes,
Any writer who leaves behind him sealed envelopes not to be opened until long after his death is clearly convinced of his own immense importance, as tends to be confirmed when, after all that patient waiting, the wretched, disappointing envelopes are finally opened. In the case of Mann and his diaries, what strikes one most is that he obviously felt that absolutely everything that happened to him was worthy of being recorded. . . . They give the impression that Mann was thinking ahead to a studious future which would exclaim after each entry: "Good heavens, so that was the day when the Great Man wrote such and such a page of The Holy Sinner and then, the following night, read some verses by Heine, that is so revealing!" It is perhaps harder to foresee the astonishing, revelatory impact of the prolonged reports on how his stomach is doing.
And Marias is just getting warmed up. Later, he writes,
The sad thing about Thomas Mann is that he really believed that he did not take himself seriously, when what leaps out at you, from novels, essays, letters and diaries alike, is his utter belief in his own immortality. One one occasion, in order to play down the merits of his novella Death in Venice, which an American was praising to the skies, all he could think of to bring his admirer down to earth was this: "After all, relatively speaking, I was still a beginner. A beginner of genius but still a beginner." . . . Speaking to an old school friend about death, he commented, "As immortalized by me in The Magic Mountain."
Still, much as I love gossipy biography, we read the work and not the man--thank god for Anna Karenina that such is the case!--so I've pulled The Magic Mountain off my shelf, and I'm considering attempting another ascent.

{Though the temptation remains simply to re-read Doctor Faustus instead. Of it, Hardwick writes, aptly:
It is very slow, hard, and yet it has the power to move the feelings in the odd way of something dense, muddy, thick and grandly real. It is very European, one of those moments of the fabulous, written one imagines in a heavy overcoat, amidst the cold stone and marble of the great libraries.
When I read it in my early twenties, over the course of mere days while living in a grotty house in London, it gave me chills.}