Sunday, August 30, 2009


I've only got time for a quick note today, a suggestion that you hie yourself over to the Quarterly Conversation's Facebook page and enter our Fall contest. Full details are here, but the short version is:
1 To enter requires almost no skill beyond typing and Web navigation, at which I presume you're all adept.

2 The prize, a copy of Zak Smith's Pictures Showing What Happens on Every Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel "Gravity's Rainbow", is quite a book, stunning to look at even if, like me, you've never found Pynchon to your taste.
Meanwhile, the new issue of the Quarterly Conversation will go up right around Labor Day. I've been proofreading articles and reviews this weekend, so I can tell you there's some great stuff therein, including a nice piece bringing together I've Been Reading Lately Favorites Javiar Marias and Proust.

And well, now that you've sat through all that obviously promotional folderol, I feel like I ought to give you some sort of bonus. How about this, from Anthony Powell's A Writer's Notebook:
One of the great points about people who have an eye to the main chance is that their interest in one cannot fail to be acceptable, beacuse it is of necessity flattering.
Now go enter that contest!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Proust and Powell

In the rush of artistic exhilaration and literary speculation that makes the last half of the last book of In Search of Lost Time such a moving, memorable experience, the following passage, where Marcel first lays out his nascent narrative approach in detail, stood out:
It would not be possible to recount our relationship, even with a person we hardly knew, without recreating a succession of the most diverse settings of our life. So each individual--and I was one of these individuals myself--became a measure of duration for me each time he completed a revolution not just around himself, but around other people, and in particular by the successive positions he occupied in relation to me. And no doubt all these different planes, in relation to which Time, as I had just grasped in the course of this party, arranged my life, by giving me the idea that in a book whose intention was to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use, in contrast to the flat psychology people normally use, a sort of psychology in space, added a new beauty to the resurrections that had taken place in my memory, by bringing the past into the present without making any changes to it, just as it was at the moment when it was the present, suppresses precisely this great dimension of Time through which a life is given reality.
Proust's description of a character making "a revolution around himself" and "the successive positions he occupied in relation to me" called to mind Anthony Powell, a writer who openly acknowledged his debt to Proust.

The well-known opening scene of A Question of Upbringing, the first novel in Powell's sequence A Dance to the Music of Time shows that influence as clearly as any other passage in Powell's work; after a description of some workmen warming their hands over a trash-barrel fire, Powell's narrator slips into a meditation:
[S]omething in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked graybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality; of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
As with Proust, I'm in some sense always reading Dance: I'd been thinking already of someday soon picking up where I'd last left off--with the third volume--and seeing Powell again through the lens offered by Proust has convinced me that now's the time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Proust in the blackout

My knowledge of wartime blackouts mostly comes from World War II London, from Anthony Powell's furtive rooftop conversations and Julian MacLaren-Ross's drunken pub crawls. Neither offers a moment of beauty like that found in this description of the blackout in Paris during World War I, taken from Finding Time Again, in the recent translation by Ian Patterson:
The moonlight created effects that are normally unknown in the city, even in the middle of winter; its beams spreading across the snow on the boulevard Haussmann that there was nobody now to shovel away, just as they might have done on a glacier in the Alps. The outlines of the trees were revealed, sharp and pure against the golden-blue snow, with all the delicacy of a Japanese painting or a Raphael background; as shadows, they stretched out over the ground from the very foot of each tree, as one often sees them in the country when the rays of the setting sun flood the meadows, creating reflections of their evenly spaced trees. But by a wonderfully delicate subtlety, the meadows over which these tree shadows, weightless as souls, extended was a paradisal meadow, not green but of a white so dazzling, by virtue of the moonlight which shone on to the jade snow, that it might have bee woven entirely from the petals of flowering pear trees. And in the squares, the divinities of the public fountains holding jets of ice in their hands looked like statues made of some twofold material, for whose creation the artist had set out to make a pure marriage of bronze and crystal. On rare days such as these the houses were all completely dark.
Lyricism in Proust is usually associated with memory or emotion, or with scenes that evoke the two; this freestanding bit of appreciation of beauty is rare enough to make the reader stop and admire.

Then it gets even better, as the human element re-enters the scene:
But in the spring, on the other hand, every now and then, in defiance of police regulations, a private town house, or just one floor of a house, or even just one room of one floor, not having closed its shutters, appeared, as if independently supported by the impalpable darkness, like a projection of pure light, like an apparition without substance. And the woman whom, lifting up one's eyes, one could make out in that gilded shadow, took on, in this night in which one was lost and in which she too seemed cloistered, the veiled and mysterious charm of an oriental vision.
I don't usually think of Proust having much in common with Borges, but am I wrong in linking the wisftul, romantic tone of that passage with some of Borges's suggestions of fleeting moments of knowledge, even of prescience? Or, if you don't buy that comparison, how about the urbane, modernist evening pleasures of Jacques Tati's Playtime?

Finally, as in life, the vision must end:
Then one walked on, and nothing else interrupted the monotonous tramp of one's constitutional in the rustic darkness.
But the walk continues with the knowledge--always there, but most often dormant--that the stars and the shadows are all around us, silent sharers of the city night.

Monday, August 24, 2009

East Village noir

Any post about Russell Atwood's new crime novel Losers Live Longer (2009) has to start with the cover design: freed from traditional orientation by the extinction of the drugstore spinner rack, Robert McGinnis lets his long-legged lady (and, oh, how long-legged his ladies always are!) recline, a snub-nosed pistol resting in her hand almost as comfortably as she's resting in (and out of) her robe. It's one of the most striking covers Hard Case Crime has produced--booksellers, you should stock this one for the cover alone.

Fortunately, the contents prove worthy of the cover. As much fun as Hard Case's reprints and rediscoveries can be, it's the new books that are the most exciting, because it's always interesting to see the noir sensibility adapted to contemporary life--and because a good book by a working writer always holds out the promise of more. Russell Atwood's contribution to the genre is perhaps best summed up by the update of Raymond Chandler that passes through the head of his detective, Payton Sherwood, as he follows a lead through the East Village: "Down these gentrified streets a man must go . . . "

Sadly for Sherwood, those streets--his stomping ground--haven't been so productive lately, and as the novel opens he's sold most of his furniture, is in hock to his parents, and it looks like his days as a detective just might be numbered. (A former colleague, seeing his primitive computer setup, cracks, "What, you still using dial-up? Shit, Payton, churn your own fucking butter, too?") But then he gets five clients in one day.

Of course, a couple of them die, a couple of others pull guns on him and/or crack him over the head, and they're all, to no one's surprise (including his) connected . . . but you take what you can get, right? Atwood's plot is brisk and nicely complicated; this is the sort of novel wherein it occurs to you and the detective at the same time that a whole day has passed since you opened the book and he hasn't had a moment to take a deep breath, let alone eat or sleep.

The East Village got its moment in the reading public's sun last year with Richard Price's Lush Life. But whereas Price bore down on the neighborhood like an anthropologist, sussing out its various tribes and traditions, and the complicated commerce among them, Atwood simply immerses us in the streets, from Alphabet City all the way to the Hudson. This novel is about the city not because it can teach us important lessons about The Way We Live Now, but because the city is home, its quirks and dangers a part of the character of those who live there.

That doesn't mean Atwood's not interested in commenting on the urban environment--where would a hardboiled detective be without some ruminations on place and change?--but it does mean he approaches the subject with a lightness, and a humor, that is entirely absent from Price's work. This passage, which follows Sherwood rushing out the door of his office without his keys, or his shoes, is a good example:
But not to worry, this was the East Village. There'd be shoes. Time was you couldn't turn a corner in this neighborhood without coming across a tossed-out pair of two-tone loafers, or snakeskin cowboy boots, or zebra-striped high-tops, or glittery platform pumps. Things couldn't have changed that much.

This is the East Village, I told myself, there'll be shoes.

Unless, of course, the neighborhood had changed that much, like the rest of the city around it, desecrated and desiccated, its character and flavor all but gone. If so, then I was lost here.

Your neck of the woods, Owl had said. Yeh, 'cept these weren't my woods anymore, and now there was only my neck.
With that sort of wry sensibility, buttressed by self-deprecating humor and pleasantly understated pop culture references (I particularly enjoyed a throwaway reference to Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life."), Payton Sherwood is good company: bull-headed, unlucky, a sucker for attractive brunettes, with just enough of the knight-errant about him to ensure that a steady supply of beatdowns will keep coming his way.

In addition, Atwood offers just enough hints of a convincingly detailed backstory to suggest that Sherwood really does have a life beyond the novel; though his earlier novel featuring Sherwood, East of A (1999) is out of print, I've just ordered a used copy and will be interested to see what else Atwood has to tell us about him. Here's hoping it doesn't take him ten more years to write a third.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"All are sick with some form of the ideal," or, It's time again for Proust

August is waning, and the air carries a feeling that, as Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence pointed out earlier this week, Tove Jansson described perfectly in The Summer Book:
It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin.
The weather suits my annual August return to Proust, a tradition I copied from a poet friend, Carrie Olivia Adams; this year, I'm closing out my second time through the whole cycle, reading Finding Time Again in the 2002 translation by Ian Patterson.

In anticipation, I turned last week to Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise (1948), because I vaguely remembered Connolly expressing dissatisfaction with In Search of Lost Time. I was surprised at how close he comes to outright dismissal:
He exhibits, beyond all others, the defect of the Mandarin style; the failure of the writer's intellectual or emotional content to fill the elaborate frame which his talent plans for it. The honeycombs continue to develop, but fewer and fewer pollen-bags are emptied into them. There are many great passages where the complexity is worthy of the emotion expended on it, where very subtle and difficult truths are presented in language that could only express them if difficult and subtle.

Notwithstanding, now that the element of novelty and cult-snobbery has worn off, much of Proust, as of his master Ruskin, must stand condemned. He is often repetitive and feeble; the emotions of envy, jealousy, lust, and snobbishness around which his book is built, though they generate an enormous impetus, are incapable of sustaining it through twenty or thirty volumes; Swann's jealousy of Odette is enough without Proust's jealousy of Albertine, Saint-Loup's of Rachel and Charlus's of Morel and if the emotions repeat themselves, so also do the stories, the situations, the comments, parentheses, and cliches. Proust will remain a great writer, but his titles to fame my have to be reconsidered.
Few would argue that there are not parts of In Search of Lost Time that could be trimmed or tightened, but Connolly's critique is far, far too broad. In so coolly dismissing the repetitive patterns of the book, he reduces what is in reality recurrence, echo, and commentary to something akin to laziness or failure of imagination. More important, what he identifies as "envy, jealousy, lust, and snobbishness" might more productively be grouped together under the more general--and more important, for far more empathetic--concept of longing, an emotion with which one would assume the perpetually dissatisfied Connolly to be quite familiar.

Edmund Wilson is far more generous, and far closer to correct, in his treament of Proust in Axel's Castle (1931):
All [Proust's characters] alike are suffering from some form of unsatisfied longing or disappointed hope: all are sick with some form of the ideal. Legrandin wants to know the Guermantes; Vinteuil is wounded in his love for his daughter; Swann, associating the beauty of Odette with that of the women of Boticelli, ridiculously and tragically identifies his passion for her with his neglected aesthetic interests.

Connolly is much closer to the mark in his indictment of the slash-and-burn nature of Proust's satire:
He was modern enough to attack the values of this world but he had nothing to put in their place, for their values were his own, those of the narrator in the book who spends his life in going to parties and watching snobs behave but is never a snob himself. . . . [W]hat in fact he declares is that nothing changes except the small social set which he admired in his youth and which fell to pieces. . . . There was a new face with an old title in a box at the opera--but the title and the box are always there, coveted and prized by the ruling class of six or seven countries; there are no new ideas, no revolution in wisdom, no reversals of taste, nobody to declare that they never want to see an opera again.
This is a version of the common criticism of the satirist: that by destroying everything and offering nothing to replace what he's savaged, he leaves the reader feeling inclined, not to revolution or fundamental change, but to resignation. If it's all really that bad, why bother trying to change anything?

Here, too, Wilson provides a strong rebuttal. After describing some of the scenes of greatest cruelty in the novel--including the Guermantes's callous disregard of Swann's awkward confession of his impending death--Wilson first offers a more suitable and balanced assessment of the aims of Proust's satire:
Proust has destroyed, and destroyed with ferocity, the social hierarchy he has just been expounding. Its values, he tells us, are an imposture: pretending to honor and distinction, it accepts all that is vulgar and base; its pride is nothing nobler than the instinct which it shares with the woman who keeps the toilet and the elevator boy's sister, to spit upon the person whom we happen to have at a disadvantage. And whatever the social world may say to the contrary, it either ignores or seeks to kill those few impulses toward justice and beauty which make men admirable. It seems strange that so many critics should have found Proust's novel "unmoral"; the truth is that he was preoccupied with morality to the extent of tending to deal in melodrama. Proust was himself (on his mother's side) half-Jewish; and for all his Parisian sophistication, there remains in him much of the capacity for apocalyptic moral indignation of the classical Jewish prophet.
From there, he reminds us that, contrary to Connolly's assertion, Proust does offer us counter-examples:
[W]e begin to understand why Proust finds these realities so inacceptable, as we become aware of the standards by which he judges them. These standards are supplied, on the one hand, by such artists as Bergotte, the novelist, and Vinteuil, the composer; but on the other hand, by Swann and by the narrator's mother and grandmother. . . . The world is different from Combray, not merely because Combray is provincial, but because the world is the world and occupied with the things of the world. It is not really Combray itself, but the example of his mother and grandmother, with their kindness, their spiritual nobility, their rigid moral principles and their utter self-abnegation, from which Proust's narrator sets out on his ill-fated adventures among men.
Against the cynical and grasping world of society, Proust sets a conception of strength of character, of a kindness and dignity so fundamental that even when our longings make us ridiculous--as Swann's pursuit of Odette can't help but do--they can never make us cruel or small.

It is, as Wilson notes, a deeply moral vision, and while its backwards-looking, conservative vision may not be the first step towards the revolution for which Connolly seems to be asking, it unquestionably answers his charge that Proust offered no alternative to the values of the society he condemns.

And now to submit to Proust's obsessions and watch this late-summer Saturday slip away.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Literary Life

Today's entry, like Tuesday's, is offered with apologies: this has been one of those very rare weeks when I've been unable to find the usual amount of time to devote to blogging. I expect that all will be back to normal by next week, but for now I'll simply share a passage from The Literary Life: A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950 (1968), edited by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane.

The book addresses the literary events and personages of each year in that span through lists of births, deaths, publications, and major events, supported by quotations and a wonderful selection of author photos. It's a Anglophilic bibliophile's dream, a book nerd's delight, as the following rhapsodic passage from the preface suggests:
And while his pen is in hand, there is something else he can try, another use to which such an Almanac as this can be put. Or perhaps "use" is too serious a word; perhaps "game" is better, a personal game, to be played by one reader at a time, for his own sake, his own self-knowing. What it amounts to is relating the mainstream of Anglo-Americna literature to his own secret history. This is not as frivolous as it may sound. For each of us--in his own rememebring, at least, cannot help coloring all the august public events with his own homely private ones.

Take a milestone from your own annals--your birthday, your graduation from college, your loss of virginity; a broken leg, a trip to Paris, your first cigarette--and see what was going on simultaneously around you that same year, or month, or week. It is an egocentric but also an exhilarating, harmless, and curiously satisfying experience. What it makes--or recovers--is a connection, a modest link, between your own life and literature's , a community, you might say, that has always been waiting there.
Though I wasn't alive during any of the years covered by this almanac, I can see the appeal nonetheless of an imaginary almanac of my own years: twenty-two years old and reading the new Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey at just the right time, when I was myself, like Odysseus but without the drama, trying to figure out where my home would be; twenty-three and employed at a small bookstore, setting down the Beckett I had been flipping through and slicing open the carton from Random House that contained the first English-language edition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; twenty-six and plucking Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai off the New Arrivals shelf at the library, then mere days later pressing it excitedly into the hands of my new wife; and so many, many more. Surely you have your own, too?

I'll write more about the pleasures of this book in the coming weeks; for now, you can read about Phelps at the Neglected Books Page, where I first learned of him, and in Michael Dirda's appreciation of him in the American Scholar.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Honest Abe and marginalia

This evening was spent away from the computer, out in Grant Park watching Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)--which, though it could charitably be said to be based on Lincoln's life, could not under even the most generous of readings be said to evince a familiarity with the law: the film's climactic courtroom scene is among the most preposterous ever filmed. Still, Henry Fonda gives a surprisingly convincing portrayal of the popular pre-war conception of Honest Abe as folksy savant, and no evening spent thinking about Lincoln is ever wasted.

That does mean, however, that I've got no proper post for you tonight. Instead, I suggest you take a look at the title page of the copy of Henry W. and Frank G. Fowler's The King's English (1906) that Google Book Search scanned from the University of Michigan Library. The marginalia on that page won't disappoint, I promise.

I should be back with a proper post tomorrow.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"The stilly woods / grow dark and deep, and gloom mysteriously. /Cool night winds creep, and whisper in mine ear."

{Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885), by John Singer Sargent.}

I was pleasantly reminded of the painting above, an old favorite, by the following passage in A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book (which, though I've had a UK edition sitting on my shelf for months, won't be available here until October):
Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks. And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.
While I take Byatt's point that this era {which she recreates brilliantly}, was unique--at least for the children of the upper class and newly developing middle class in England--I nonetheless recognize elements of my own childhood in her description. Growing up in a house surrounded by trees, in a small neighborhood surrounded by country, my brother and sister and I were fortunate enough to be given a lot of the freedom--and respect--that the parents Byatt describes afforded their children. And while our woodland rambles never encompassed anything so grand as a landed estate or wild as late-Victorian countryside, for children to feel themselves rulers of a private, near-magical domain requires a surprisingly small area of land, so long as the adults are willing to relinquish control within its bounds. I'm fully an urbanite now, with no regrets about the fact, but that country boyhood was a glorious way to grow up.

While I can look back on my childhood with fondness and gratitude, it's hard for a contemporary reader to imagine the children of the 1890s without aching for the horrors--of Passchendaele, the Somme, and more--towards which their generation hurtles unawares. I'm only halfway through Byatt's novel, so I don't know if she'll be carrying the stories of these children through the war years, or will instead leave us to dread their fate.

Thus far, however, I'm quite impressed, carried away with the ferment of art and thought and idealism and innocence that make the twilight of the Victorian era and the early Edwardian years so endlessly fascinating. I find that it brings to mind Penelope Fitzgerald--despite its 600 pages, a length to which it's impossible imagining Fitzgerald's ruthless concision extending--and that is some of the highest praise I can bestow on a novel.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dreaming of London

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Some wonderful descriptions in Nick Laird's new novel Glover's Mistake (2009) have me wishing I were visiting my friends there right now. First, this prospect, from the steps of the National Gallery:
The rain had eased but not stopped, and the vista from the portico was still uniquely uninspiring: London done by Whistler, arranged in black and grey. Ragged, pewter clouds turned on Nelson's head, so that he alone was all that held the heavens up. Lutyens's limestone fountains were blown to spray and rain danced on the surface of their pools.
Dismal, yes, but seductive nonetheless to us hopeless lovers of London. Later, Laird describes a "wet, dark, inteminable Wednesday, one of those winter days that lacks an afternoon"--such a familiar London feeling.

Then there's this picture from Millennium Bridge, looking out over the river to the north:
The view from the bridge was spectacular. The restive black river, slicing through the city, granted new perspectives. The buildings on the other side were Lego-sized, those far squiggles of trees on the Embankment walk. Even though Larry and the taxi driver were waiting, Ruth stopped for a second to inspect the night, and stood gripping the rail. The normal sense of being in a London street, of trailing along a canyon floor, was replaced by the thrill of horizons. The sky was granted a depth of field by satellites, a few sparse stars, aircraft sinking into Heathrow.
Laird has it just right: what the Thames offers is an escape from the warren, an imposition of proper scale on the city that is all too often visible only piecemeal. I always get a similar feeling from a climb to the top of the Monument or a glimpse north from the hills of Sydenham or Crystal Palace, a reminder that the city nestles in the Thames valley, and everything runs down to the river, as Alan Moore describes in Iain Sinclair's strange, compelling collection, London: Book of Disappearances (2006):
Black on silver-dusted black the hill pokes up its positive yang terminal into the night's electrolyte, played across the centuries with urban dream in a metallic rind. Seabed before the ice age, residues of fossil night-sweat crown the tumulus, a cradle-cap of gravel sheltering the clay and chalk beneath while all around wore down to lowland, marine aeons half-remembered still in seaside decors that incongruously dot the closes and steep lanes. Its sickle-shaped mass crystal-shot with Selemites Rhomboidalis, Shooters Hill is dreaming London, dreaming London up: low on its northern slop a chalk fault that collapsed creating the Thames valley, gouging out a life-sump for the Neolithic swill to fill, the pallid Morlock scrum, chalk-mining chavs blowing their barter on bone bling in settlements at Plumstead, Woolwich, barnacled below the sleeping hills' north flank.
As fighter jets roar overhead here in Chicago in preparation for this weekend's Air and Water Show, I think wistfully of being in London instead, finding quiet along the Thames, my favorite place to find peace there, aside from the Sunday-morning emptiness of the City.

Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, makes a case for the city's graveyards, in The London Scene:
The only peaceful places in the whole city are perhaps those old graveyards which have become gardens and playgrounds. The tombstones no longer serve to mark the graves, but line the walls with their white tablets. Here and there a finely sculptured tomb plays the part of garden ornament. . . . Here one might drowse away the first days of spring or the last days of autumn without feeling too keenly the stir of youth or the sadness of old age. For here the dead sleep in peaces, proving nothing, testifying nothing, claiming nothing save that we shall enjoy the peace that their old bones provide for us.
Perhaps the Thames was simply not to Woolf's liking, or perhaps it was still too busy a highway for commerce in her day; much as I love the river, it's hard to argue with Woolf's contention that "These garden graveyards are the most peaceful of our London sanctuaries and their dead the quietest." Would that I were there.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"What I like about books within books is that they never can prick my conscience. It is extraordinarily comfortable that they don't exist."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Today was yet a great day in my ongoing love affair with the Internet, one of those days that, in a real-life love affair, you mark with sappy little stars and hearts (or some impenetrable code, if you're that sort) in your daily planner, the better to remember it years later when age and familiarity have dulled the power of that moment's passion.

Quite a build-up, no? Well, see what you think . . .

It started with a Tweet yesterday from Chicago blogger (and Robert Walser booster) Sam Golden Rule Jones:
One thing I learned from [Derwent] May['s history of the TLS]: Max Beerbohm wrote an article on imaginary books (like Ed Park's recent NYT piece) in 1914.
Those of you regular readers who are familiar with Ed's and my Invisible Library project will instantly see why I perked up: Ed remembered coming across the term "Invisible Library" several years ago in the wonderful OuLiPo Compendium edited by Harry Mathews, and soon after we launched our library we learned of some earlier attempts, but if Beerbohm was already on the case back before World War I, that would dramatically extend the pedigree of Invisible Librarianship!

Alas, neither Sam nor I had access to the TLS archives, so it appeared a trip to the library was in order--and then the library came to me, in the form of a kindly e-mail from Dave Lull, Omnipresent Wisconsin Librarian, who had found Beerbohm's article, "Books within Books," originally published in the 12 March 1914 issue.

And oh, the pleasures to be found therein! Beerbohm, always a pleasant stylist, has great fun with the concept:
They must, I suppose, be classed among biblia abiblia. Ignored in the catalogue of any library, not one of them lurking in any uttermost cavern under the reading-room of the British Museum, none of them ever printed even for private circulation, these books written by this and that character in fiction are books only by courtesy and good will.
After bringing in Charles Lamb for some pointed commentary about books that actually do get published, regardless of their deficiency of merit, Beerbohm admits that,
I am shy of masterpieces; nor is this merely because of the many times I have been disappointed at not finding anything at all like what the publishers expected me to find.
No, even the recommendation of "a few highly literary friends" can be more problematic than helpful:
But so soon as I am told that I "must" read this or that, and have replied that I instantly will, I become strangely loth to do anything of the sort.
The appeal of books within books, as the quote I've taken for the headline of this post indicates, lies partly in their not being there looming over us, unread, on our shelves. They can never, however inadvertently, make us feel inadequate or ill-informed . . .
And yet--for, even as Must implants distaste, so does Can't stir sweet longings--how eagerly would I devour these books within books!
So true: what I would give to read J. G. Quiggins's Unburnt Boats or Nick Jenkins's Fellow Member?

Beerbohm goes on to run through an extensive gathering of invisible books, taking the simultaneously frustrating and admirable approach of rarely noting the real-world books in which they appear. Any fan of the Invisible Library will find the whole essay worth reading; it's convinced me to order a used copy of the Beerbohm collection in which it appeared, And Even Now (1921).

Now back to my opening contention: though I've met Ed Park, our friendship came about primarily because of the Internet (with an assist from a shared appreciation of John Crowley); Sam Golden Rule Jones I know only through his online writing; Dave Lull I know only through the traces he leaves--of intelligence, wide reading, discriminating taste, and unstinting generosity--throughout the Internet. Could even the most technophobic deny that this is a red letter day for this greatest of communications media?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lord Berners, builder of follies

{I pose for an author fauxto in a folly somewhere in England. Photo by rocketlass.}

A couple of weeks ago, I shared a few passages from First Childhood (1934), a volume of memoirs by Lord Berners, the eccentric English composer, writer, and painter, and I promised to share some of the amusing scenes from Mark Amory's splendid biography, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998). One of my favorites concerns what must surely be Berners's most ridiculous achievement: the building of the last traditional folly in England, in 1935.

Amory writes, "The struggle to achieve his whim was long and fierce and included much comedy." A county governing body initially refused Berners permission to build the tower, even once he offered to scale back its height to 100 feet, writing in their report that the
"fail to see the object or benefit of the tower, if erected," which is reasonable enough. As Berners himself said, "The great point of the Tower is that it will be entirely useless."
But that was far from the end of the story. Berners appealed, and the planning committee's back-and-forth was paralleled by a discussion in the local paper, including a letter from nearby resident
Vivian Lobb . . . saying that Lord Berners planned to install a siren that could be heard from twenty-five miles away and would go off every two hours to waken the sick and dying.
Eventually Berners got his way--most likely to no one's surprise, given his wealth and position--and the tower was built, complete with the following warning above its entrance:
Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.
The tower was square, brick, and incongruously gothic, with a wooden staircase and lots of arched windows in its high-level rooms; a viewing platform surrounded by a stone parapet crowned the folly, offering an impressive view of the countryside.

Berners celebrated the opening of the tower with a party, which
was a great success, with splendid fireworks more than making up for the logn walk to and from the house on a cold evening. Guests were allowed up to six effigies of enemies to be burned on the bonfire; this was deemed "most inadequate."
That last probably gives as succinct a sense as possible of the Berners wit, the same wit that animates the work of Nancy Mitford, the letters of Evelyn Waugh, and even the melancholy reflections of Cyril Connolly; as wearying as it might have been to have lived in the milieu that generated it, reading about it all these years later is nothing but pleasure.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Other books

As I was looking for the copyright date on the library copy of Donald E. Westlake's Bank Shot (1972) the other day, I happened to notice the page facing the title page, which reads:
Other Books

A Tale of Two Cities
The Magnificent Ambersons
So Big
W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Merry Devil of Edmonton
An Account of Corsica
The Love Machine
Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature
An obvious joke, perhaps, but I'll admit to laughing out loud.

So Big
and The Love Machine, in case you're wondering, are not examples of the soft-core erotic novels that Westlake wrote with his friend Lawrence Block when both were hungry writers back in the early 1960s; they're novels by Edna Ferber and Jacqueline Susann, respectively (and, according to a listing at alibris, the love machine "is Robin Stone, a TV-network titan around whom women flock.")

Those soft-core novels will soon be seeing the light of day once again, however: via Sarah Weinman I recently learned that, according to Block, Subterranean Press will be reprinting all three in one volume titled Honey Girls and Hellcats next year.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Life lessons from Donald Westlake

From Donald E. Westlake's Bank Shot (1972):
"Just because you've been working a con," Kelp said, "you figure everybody else is too."

"That's right," Dortmunder said.
Reading the second novel in Donald Westlake's Dortmunder series today, I was reminded of the fact that Westlake's books can in some ways serve as dramatized self-help or advice books: the Parker novels are better than any of poor Richard's aphorisms at conveying the virtues of hard work and dedication, while the Dortmunder novels . . . well, they're more like that class of self-help books that patiently teaches you how to cope with the world when everyone and everything seems to be conspiring to drive you insane. There's lots of counting to ten, or even to twenty:
Dortmunder had learned patience at great cost. The trial and error of life among human beings had taught him that whenever a bunch of them began to jump up and down and about at cross-purposes, the only thing a sane man could do was sit back and let them sort it out for themselves. No matter how long it took. The alternative was to ttry to attract their attention, either with explanations of the misunderstanding or with a return to the original topic of conversation, and to make that attempt meant that sooner or later you too would be jumping up and down and shouting at cross-purposes. Patience, patience; at the very worst, they would finally wear themselves out.
The risk of taking the time to count to ten, of course, is that it's always possible that by the time you get to eight, Parker will have sneaked in and taken all your stuff.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Is New York Here?, or, Weinberger v. White

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Though I enjoy E. B. White, especially his carefully crafted letters--which are entirely unrevealing but thoroughly charming nonetheless--I would never list him among my favorite writers, and I'm far from his biggest fan. Yet back in the spring I found myself defending him from what I saw as a misguided attack on his and William Strunk's The Elements of Style, and now I unexpectedly find myself called back into the lists again, this time by an essay in writer and translator Eliot Weinberger's excellent new collection Oranges and Peanuts for Sale (2009).

In "Where Was New York?", which was originally published as an afterword to a German translation of White's celebrated essay "Here Is New York" (1948), Weinberger excavates the essay itself from the decades of praise that have barnacled it, and in the process ruthlessly reveals it to be somewhat less than, as Russell Baker called it, "The finest portrait ever painted of the city at the height of its glory." Weinberger highlights the insularity and provincialism of White's New York, especially his lack of interest in (or even acknowledgment of) immigrants, minorities, and the outer boroughs. White, he points out, was writing as a man who had left New York behind; his account of 1948 New York is really a depiction of his nostalgia for the 1920s New York of his youth, and "To be nostalgic in New York means that one has stopped living as a New Yorker, that one is no longer thrilled by the new, that one's expert knowledge has become out of date."

Weinberger's essay is by turns sharply perceptive and tendentious; it is the sort of essay to which one can't help but respond, "Yes, but . . . " He is unquestionably right on nearly every point: White's New York is by no means everyone's New York--it wasn't then, and it isn't now, and like any vehicle for nostalgia it should be questioned relentlessly. But at the same time, title aside, White's essay doesn't really claim to be much more than it is: an impressionistic account of a middle-aged man's summer weekend revisiting the beloved city of his youth. If its ambit is circumscribed, the faces of the city it turns up are nonetheless real: White is no Joseph Mitchell, but then he also doesn't claim to be--he is "a transient, or vagrant, in from the country for a few days." So when he walks through the Lower East Side, he doesn't engage, but simply describes:
At the corner of Lewis, in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on-some sort of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency. Women push baby carriages in and out among the dancers, as though to exhibit what dancing leads to at last. Overhead, like banners decorating a cotillion hall, stream the pants and bras from the pulley lines. The music stops, and a beautiful Italian girl takes a brush from her handbag and stands under the street lamp brushing her long blue-black hair till it shines. The cop in the patrol car watches sullenly.
For nearly every moment of regret or nostalgia in "Here Is New York," White offers a counterbalancing scene like that one, of life going on in New York even as he has opted out.

While Weinberger is correct to note that White doesn't explicitly engage with any of the vast numbers of immigrants that are so crucial to New York's continuing vitality (and it is hard to imagine him doing so comfortably--Weinberger's critique of the fundamental insularity of New Yorker culture is his strongest point), he ignores the fact that White does make a point of highlighting their importance to the city's conception of itself:
The collision and intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races, creeds, and nationalities make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world. The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.
Moreover, White not only, as I noted above, acknowledges his own outsider status, but he openly argues that the arriviste New Yorker is the essence of the city:
There are roughly three New Yorks, there is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter--the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last--the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.
White's New York may not be Weinberger's New York, but then again, it wasn't really White's, either, and he knew it; nostalgia can be toxic, but nostalgia inoculated by an open relinquishing of the ground of the past to the succeeding lives of the future is as close to harmless as you can get. "Here Is New York," in isolation, would be a lousy way to understand New York, but as a piece of the puzzle--a puzzle that should also include Weinberger's rebuttal--it still has a part to play.

{The White essay, by the way, is not the only reason to seek out Weinberger's collection: his blow-by-blow indictment of the Bush administration, the media, and the American public, "What I Heard about Iraq in 2005," alone would earn it a place on my bookshelves--but in addition he offers a brief, personal account of the life of poet George Oppen; an entertaining look at James Laughlin's wonderful sort-of autobiography, The Way It Wasn't; the cryptic and unsettling "Questions of Death" ("10. Is self-mutilation practiced by the mourners?"); and more.}

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Like a visit from an old, strange, slightly creepy friend.

My regular wander through 57th Street Books yielded a very pleasant surprise on Thursday: The Skating Rink (1993), the newest volume in New Directions's ongoing Robert Bolaño translation project, which I'd not been expecting to arrive for at least a month.
I heard his deep, velvety voice, the one thing that hasn't changed over the years. He said: This is just the night for Jack. He was referring to Jack the Ripper, but his voice seemed to be conjuring lawless territories, where anything was possible. We were adolescents, all of us, but seasoned already, and poets, so we laughed.
Forty pages in, and it's already intriguing, vague, a bit ominous, and multivocal; everything I've been missing in the year or so since I last read Bolaño.
The campground was called Stella Maris (a name reminiscent of rooming houses) and it was a place where there weren't too many rules, or too many fights and robberies. It was frequented by working-class families from Barcelona and young people of modest means from France, Holland, Italy and Germany. The combination was sometimes explosive and would have blown up in my face for sure if I hadn't immediately adopted El Carajillo's golden rule, which consisted basically of letting them kill each other. His harsh way of putting it, which struck me as funny at first, then disturbing, didn't reflect a contemptuous attitude to the clients; on the contrary, it sprang from a profound respect for their right of self-determination.
Ah, it's good to be back in the Bolañoverse.