Sunday, February 28, 2010

Scary, No Scary--or, the Quarterly Conversation Number 19!

The Spring issue of the Quarterly Conversation is here!

In this issue:
And much, much more! If your productivity at the office suffers all week, feel free to have your boss e-mail me to complain.

Friday, February 26, 2010

"How many secrets may the man of genius learn from literary anecdotes!", or, Isaac D'Israeli and the fortunate limits of method

The impressively unsystematic nature of Isaac D'Israeli's thought and writing is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that his clearest defense of his method doesn't appear until near the end of the first edition of his enormous (and ever-expanding) Curiosities of Literature. In the essay "Literary Anecdotes," he writes,
A writer of penetration sees connexions in literary anecdotes which are not immediately perceived by others; in his hands anecdotes, even should they be familiar to us, are susceptible of deductions and inferences, which become novel and important truths. Facts of themselves are barren; it is when these facts pass through our reflections, and become interwoven with our feelings, or our reasonings, that they are the finest illustrations; that they assume the dignity of “philosophy teaching by example;” that, in the moral world, they are what the wise system of Bacon inculcated in the natural knowledge deduced from experiments; the study of Nature in her operations. . . . For this reason, writers and artists should, among their recreations, be forming a constant acquaintance with the history of their departed kindred.
But D'Israeli doesn't rest his claims there--instead, he ups the ante a bit:
What perhaps he had in vain desired to know for half his life is revealed to him by a literary anecdote; and thus the amusements of indolent hours may impart the vigour of study; as we find sometimes in the fruit we have taken for pleasure the medicine which restores our health. How superficial is that cry of some impertinent pretended geniuses of these times, who affect to exclaim, “Give me no anecdotes of an author, but give me his works!” I have often found the anecdotes more interesting than the works.
A handful of writers featured in Javier Marias's catty, addictive Written Lives come to mind, though really one need only read D'Israeli to see his point: he tells of many a writer whose well-deserved literary obscurity does nothing to lessen the pleasures of the anecdotes retailed about him.

What makes this essay particularly interesting, however, is where D'Israeli carries his argument in subsequent paragraphs. First he recruits Dr. Johnson, avowed fan of anecdotes, to argue for his side, then he pivots on Johnson's acknowledgment that collectors "are not always so happy as to select the most important" in order to launch into a series of examples of anecdotes that offer little in the way of illumination:
Dr. J. Warton has informed the world that many of our poets have been handsome. This, certainly, neither concerns the world, nor the class of poets. It is trifling to tell us that Dr. Johnson was accustomed "to cut his nails to the quick." I am not much gratified by being informed, that Menage wore a greater number of stockings than any other person, excepting one, whose name I have really forgotten. The biographer of Cujas, a celebrated lawyer, says that two things were remarkable of this scholar. The first, that he studied on the floor, lying prostrate on a carpet, with his books about him; and, secondly, that his perspiration exhaled an agreeable smell, which he used to inform his friends he had in common with Alexander the Great!
It seems to me that D'Israeli gives the game away by that exclamation point at the end, if not by the earlier "I have really forgotten." Try as he might to make an argument that will bring him in line with Johnson and acknowledge a criticism he must surely have heard often from friends and acquaintances, he can't overcome his eye for a story: these tidbits are too good not to share--even when he's trying to select inanities, he can't help but choose entertaining ones.

In the essay's closing paragraph, D'Israeli even seems to acknowledge, if not the spirit of his disagreement with the point he claims to be trying to make, then at least a practical reason to object to overly assiduous weeding:
Yet of anecdotes which appear trifling, something may be alleged in their defence. It is certainly safer for some writers to give us all they know, than to try their discernment for rejection. Let us sometimes recollect that the page over which we toil will probably furnish materials for authors of happier talents.
Which seems worthy of a Friday night toast: to the literary magpies; long may they quest for shiny things in the quietest precincts of our libraries!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"It is a great conviction of youth from which some people never escape that everyone is having a better time than they are," or, Powell to Batuman

A tip for any aspiring bloggers out there: should you be on any given night too busy to put together a proper post, turn ye to Anthony Powell's grab-bag of notes, ideas, thoughts on character, and snippets of dialogue, A Writer's Notebook, and thereof shall ye feast!

Being in that situation myself tonight, I offer you this:
Love is like being seasick, you feel you are going to die, then when you walk down the gangway on to dry land you can hardly remember what you have suffered.
I shouldn't think a woman could ever really forget a man with breath like his.
Then there's a pair of bits about literary critics:
Having no opinions is a positive advantage for a literary critic.

A literary critic says, "It's rather exterior."
But, because I'm an old hand at this blogging thing, I'll go one more and also offer a passage from Elif Batuman's wonderfully strange and funny new book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them--which is full of literary critics like the ones Powell was imagining, and which might just as honestly be titled, OMG, Aren't Russians and Academics--Particularly Graduate Students--Weird? (with a subtitle of Lovably, Endearingly, Almost at Times Understandably So, That Is).

The book is absolutely stuffed with quotable oddities, which makes it a particularly good chaser for a week of Isaac D'Israeli. I've chosen the following passage, relatively pedestrian by the high standards of the rest of the book, to share tonight because of the brief, unexpectedly Powellian aside in its last line. Batuman is telling about the wedding of Peter the Great's niece, Anna Ioannovna to Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Courland:
At the wedding banquet, the tsar cut open two pies with his dagger. A splendidly dressed dwarf jumped out of each pie and together they danced a minuet on the table. The next day, Peter treated his guests to a second wedding: that of his favorite dwarf attended by forty-two other dwarfs from all corners of the empire. Some foreign guests saw a certain symmetry in the double wedding, one between two miniature people, the other between two pawns in the great game of European politics.

One the way back to Courland, the teenage duke died, of alcohol poisoning. One his last night in Petersburg, he had engaged--rashly, one feels--in a drinking contest with Peter the Great.
Yet another item to add to the list of things one ought not to do if one ever found oneself in possession of a time machine: engage in a contest of any kind with Peter the Great.

As for Anna--"'seven-foot, 280-pound Anna,' in the words of one courtier"--this would be far from her last experience with dwarves, who ended up playing many unpleasant parts in the litany of cruel whimsy that was her reign. Batuman's got plenty of jaw-dropping details there, too; Empress Anna and her ice palace alone are enough to make the whole book worth reading.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"He himself always remained a man of the eighteenth century," or, Powell weighs in on D'Israeli

{Portrait of Isaac D'Israeli, by Daniel Maclise, circa 1832.}

I can't believe I've been writing about Isaac D'Israeli for more than a week without checking in with my old friend Anthony Powell! Who, after all, is more likely to appreciate D'Israeli's towering piles of anecdote and gossip and oddity than that inveterate collector of same? Powell's love of pattern and recurrence, as well as his appreciation of self-willed complexity, is enough to have landed him in Robert Burton's melancholy camp rather than D'Israeli's cheerier one, but these are less warring armies than different regiments in the same, working together--if in styles as different as the cavalry and the infantry--to demonstrate the centrality of literature to the inner life of man.

Powell wrote about D'Israeli only once, in a review for the Daily Telegraph in 1969 of a biography by James Ogden, but even that brief account offers some new angles, as well as a pleasant dose of Powell's own preoccupations, such as D'Israeli's relatively scant references to John Aubrey.

From Benjamin Disraeli's introduction to his father's Curiosities of Literature, I knew that Isaac's father (also named Benjamin) had been a successful businessman, but from Powell I learned that he was one of the founders of the London Stock Exchange, his legacy substantial enough to keep his son in books and leisure despite his preferring the library over work. As Powell puts it,
Isaac seems to be a classic case of a young man given every opportunity for making a successful business career who for no particular reason decided he wanted to "write."
In the face of that--as I wrote on Sunday for the Constant Conversation, the new blog of the Quarterly Conversation--his father sent him away to Europe, which was of no use: Dizzy, as Powell calls him, was not destined to be any sort of businessman.

Powell also informs us that D'Israeli, as will not be surprising to anyone who's noted his skepticism about religion, was far from an observant Jew:
D'Israelie contributed liberally to synagogue funds and had certainly caused Benjamin to be given instruction in the Jewish faith, but he was not ardent in his religious observances. Accordingly the governors of the synagogue, as a call to order and much to his own annoyance, elected him as Warden; when he refused, they tried to fine him £40. This appears to be why Benjamin Disraeli was baptized at the age of twelve.
Which, given that Benjamin became Prime Minister of England, is quite a revenge.

Sadly, Powell also passes on a judgment that I'd rather not have heard:
There are indications that D'Israeli was regarded at times as a bore in his ceaseless asking of questions at dinner-parties.
Much as I'd have preferred to learn that D'Israeli was sparkling company, however, I'm selfish enough to be glad that he bored his contemporaries in order to entertain us, rather than vice-versa. To his dinner companions, I raise a grateful glass.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Angel urine is not conducive to spiritual growth, or, How not to create devotional paintings, courtesy of Isaac D'Israeli

While Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature is more frequently witty and wry than straight-up funny, one entry that made me laugh out loud was "Religious Nouvellettes." D'Israeli opens the essay by describing an illustrated prayer book from the fifteenth century, entitled Hortulus Animae, cum Oratiunculis aliquibus, superadditis quae in prioribus Libris non habentur (which my Internet Latin tells me means roughly "A Little Garden of the Spirit, with added short speeches not found in previous books").

The book's author calls his work "A garden, which abounds with flowers for the pleasure of the soul"--but, writes D'Israeli,
[T]hey are full of poison. In spite of his fine promises, the chief part of these meditations are as puerile as they are superstitious.
He saves his real scorn, however, for the accompanying illustrations--which, in their insipid mix of eras and beliefs, remind him of some truly hilarious-sounding devotional paintings:
We have had many gross anachronisms in similar designs. There is a laughable picture in a village in Holland, in which Abraham appears ready to sacrifice his son Issac by a loaded blunderbuss; but his pious intention is entirely frustrated by an angel urining in the pan. . . . [A]nother happy invention, to be seen on an alltar-piece at Worms, is that in which the Virgin throws Jesus into the hopper of a mill, while from the other side he issues changed into little morsels of bread, with which the priests feed the people. Matthison, a modern traveller, describes a picture in a church in Constance, called the Conception of the Holy Virgin. An old man lies on a cloud, whence he darts out a vast beam, which passes through a dove hovering just below; at the end of the beam appears a large, transparent egg, in which is seen a child in swaddling clothes with a glory round it. Mary sits leaning in an arm chair, and opens her mouth to receive the egg.
Is it just me, or does this all call to mind some definitely unholy mix of prog rock album cover art and these overly literal (and certainly overly competitive) depictions of Jesus?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spider, spider, spinning bright . . .

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In my post the other day that drew on Isaac D'Israeli's accounts of how some literary luminaries spent their leisure time, I didn't point out the one that I found the strangest: Spinoza's habit of relaxing by setting spiders to fight each other. An admirer of Spinoza, I tend to glorify him a bit, thinking of him as an essentially gentle, bookish soul much put upon by the world, but learning of this oddly violent pastime has made me wonder whether I might have him all wrong. For a placid soul, what fun could there possibly be in watching spiders fight?

These spideatorial combats also led me to another question: how on earth did Spinoza find spiders whenever he happened to need a break from his labors? Maybe the Lords of the Ma'amad were right about his "monstrous deeds" after all--maybe a man who can conjure spiders at will should be cursed by day and by night, when he rises up and when he lies down, when he comes in and when he goes out.

Fortunately, further reading in D'Israeli restored my faith in Spinoza, at least so far as conjuring fighting spiders was concerned. Apparently spiders were just more readily at hand back in ye olden days, as they make two other appearances in the Curiosities of Literature.

The first example comes from the essay "Medical Music," which features an account of an unnamed officer who, confined to the Bastille, charmed his non-human cellmates with his lute:
At the end of a few days, this modern Orpheus, playing on his lute, was greatly astonished to see frisking from their holes great numbers of mice, and descending from their woven habitations crowds of spiders, who formed a circle about him, while he continued breathing his soul-subduing instrument. He was petrified with astonishment. Having ceased to play, the assembly, who did not come to see his person, but to hear his instrument, immediately broke up. As he had a great dislike to spiders, it was two days before he ventured again to touch his instrument. At length, having overcome, for the novelty of his company, his dislike of them, he recommenced his concert, when the assembly was by far more numerous than at first, and in the course of farther time, he found himself surrounded by a hundred musical amateurs.
At this point, it all seems like a scene from Disney short--music hath charms and all, right? Ah, but this soldier hath more of the Nuge than of Saint Francis about him:
Having thus succeeded in attracting this company, he treacherously contrived to get rid of them at his will. For this purpose he begged the keeper to give him a cat, which he put in a cage, and let loose at the very instant when the hairy people were most entranced by the Orphean skill he had displayed.
Now if you want to talk about someone who deserves to be cursed when he rises up and cursed when he lies down, &tc. . . .

But rather than blacken our souls with curses, let us turn to an act of kindness toward spiders, from D'Israeli's account of Anthony Magliabechi, a reader so voracious as to be nicknamed "the Glutton of Literature." D'Israeli describes him thus:
His habits of life were uniform. Ever among his books, he troubled himself with no other concern whatever, and the only interest he appeared to take for any living thing was his spiders. While sitting among his literary piles, he affected great sympathy for these weavers of webs, and perhaps in contempt of those whose curiosity appeared impertinent, he frequently cried out, "to take care not to hurt his spiders!"
I don't know whether D'Israeli was a fan of spiders--though his attention to them in his book is suggestive--but the rest of that description could easily apply to the compiler of the Curiosities himself.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"For a last proof of the stranger's constancy and attachment, he extracts more clothes and more dogs," or, D'Israeli on odd customs

One of the many, many great pleasures of Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (about which I'll be writing soon for the Second Pass) is the author's decided skepticism, generated less by experience (for it seems he barely left his study) than by the receding waves of the Age of Reason. A lifetime of reading in history and philosophy left him with a healthy distrust of unlikely assertions, and in the Curiosities almost no area of human endeavor escapes unscathed, be it religion, history, science, myth, or even tales of "savage" cultures. Fortunately for us, in the battle between D'Israeli's desire for accuracy and his love of strange anecdote, the latter almost always wins--accompanied, perhaps, by a raised eyebrow, but retailed with zest nonetheless.

A reader of the Curiosities quickly becomes accustomed to D'Israeli's impressive eye for flummery, which makes the occasional instance of seemingly unwarranted credulity stand out. The most striking one I've encountered thus far is this bit of wild traveler's lore about hospitality rituals in Kamchatka, from "Singularities Observed by Various Nations in Their Repasts":
No customs seem more ridiculous than those practised by a Kamschatkan, when he wishes to make another his friend. He first invites him to eat. The host and his guest strip themselves in a cabin which is heated to an uncommon degree. While the guest devours the food with which they serve him, the other continually stirs the fire. The stranger must bear the excess of the heat as well as of the repast. He vomits ten times before he will yield; but, at length obliged to acknowledge himself overcome, he begins to compound matters. he purchases a moment's respite by a present of clothes or dogs; for his host threatens to heat the cabin, and oblige him to eat till he dies. The stranger has the right of retaliation allowed to him: he treats in the same manner, and exacts the same presents. Should his host not accept the invitation of him whom he had so handsomely regaled, in that case the guest would take possession of his cabin, till he had the presents returned to him which the other had in so singular a manner obtained.
Now, I suppose this could be an accurate depiction of Kamchatkan custom, but it sure sounds more like travelers' nonsense--unless, that is, one replaces "Kamschatkan," "cabin," and "eat" with "frat boy," "party," and "drink."

D'Israeli's unusual credulity about the Kamchatkans does give him an opportunity to display his surprising--for a late-eighteenth-century man--tolerance and openness to other cultures (a characteristic perhaps rooted in his own consciousness of being a Jew in a Christian kingdom). Immediately after parading the strangeness of this ritual before us, he makes a serious attempt to explain how it might have developed and what useful tests of true friendship it might entail, then closes with this thought:
The most singular customs would appear simple, if it were possible for the philosopher to understand them on the spot.
After which, he proceeds to describe some "barbarous" customs of the French court. Even D'Israeli has to draw the line somewhere!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Two sides of a coin, or, Parker and Dortmunder, Westlake and Stark

What better way to commemorate the St. Valentine's Day Massacre than by turning our attention to a heartless criminal?

Fans of Parker and Donald E. Westlake will enjoy this brief interview recently dug up by Trent, the proprietor of the Violent World of Parker site:

In one of the Parker novels--I think it's Plunder Squad--Parker explains why he has no problem with Brenda Mackey, wife and constant companion of his fellow heister Ed Mackey. Parker tends to view women as little but sources of trouble. He's a misogynist, but his misogyny, like all his other bad traits, is rooted in what he sees as practicality: time and again, he's watched men screw up a job because a woman turned their heads.

Brenda Mackey, however, escapes Parker's ire, and the reason is telling: she knows who she is, and, perhaps more important, likes who she is. As Parker puts it to himself, most people don't know who they are, and, if they do, they don't like who they are, wishing instead to be someone or something else, bigger or more impressive. Trying to be that person inevitably gets them--and those around them--into trouble. Brenda's self-knowledge, on the other hand, makes her a rock, reliable and safe.

That's what I love about the video above. There's nothing revelatory in Westlake's answers; his interviews over the years tended to feature a lot of the same questions, and thus the same well-rehearsed answers. Even so, it's a joy to watch him deliver them here, because he exudes a sense of pleasant contentment. It's impossible to watch that interview and not come away thinking that this is a man who knew himself and his place, and liked both--an impression that jibes with the testimony of friends and acquaintances. It's a quality I greatly prize, and to find it in someone who at the same time had the ambition to continually set himself complicated writing problems rather than resting on his laurels is remarkable.

The interview also seems like a good excuse to share a favorite passage from Jimmy the Kid, the Dortmunder novel that Westlake wrote in 1974, in which Dortmunder's crew attempts a kidnapping based on a plot they find in a crime novel called Child Heist, by none other than Richard Stark. Child Heist of course doesn't exist; in reality, the Stark novel that Westlake wrote that same year was the absolutely staggering Butcher's Moon, whose gripping, Red Harvest-like bloodbath would exhaust the Parker character for two decades.

What I love about this passage from Jimmy the Kid is the way that it reveals the continuity of approach between those two halves of Westlake's writing personality--tell me you can't imagine this description, soured by seriousness, being used to introduce a slightly corrupt businessman in a Parker novel who's about to find himself in over his head:
Herbert Harrington plucked his white handkerchief from his suit coat's breast pocket and patted the tiny bead of perspiration that gleamed on his pale high forehead. A calm, methodical, successful corporation attorney of fifty-seven, he was used to emergencies and crises that ran at a Wall Street pace: weeks of gathering storm clouds, spotted with occasional conferences or pubic rumor denials, then a flurry of phone calls, a massing of capital along the disputed border, and then perhaps three days or a week or even a month of concentrated buying, selling, merging, bankruptcy declarations and the like. Drama with sweep to it, emotional climaxes as carefully grounded and prepared for as in grand opera.

But this. They kidnap the boy at four o'clock in the afternoon, and by nine o'clock the same night they're demanding one hundred fifty thousand dollars for him. In old bills. In an equivalent situation on Wall Street, it would be three or four working days before anybody even admitted the boy had been taken. Then, there'd be a period of weeks or months when the kidnappers would publicly maintain the poster that they meant to keep the boy, had no interest in selling him, and wouldn't even consider any offers that might come their way. This logjam, assisted by continued denials from Herbert Harrington or his spokesmen that (a) he was interested in negotiating a repurchase, (b) that he was in a cash or tax position to make such a repurchase possible, or (c) that in fact he had ever had such a son at all, would eventually be broken by tentative feelers from both sides. Dickering, threats, go-betweens, all the panoply of negotiation would then be mounted and gone through like the ritual of High Mass, and it would be even more weeks before anything like a dollar amount was ever mentioned. And in fact dollars would be the very least of it; there would be stock options, rebates, one-for-one stock transfers, sliding scales, an agreement with some meat on it.
As for Butcher's Moon, well, you'll have to wait just a bit: it's on track to be republished by my employers, the University of Chicago Press, in the spring of 2011. Until then, you might occupy yourself by pre-ordering a copy of the final, long-lost Westlake novel, Memory, which Hard Case Crime will publish in April. As Parker would remind you, it's always good to be prepared.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"A continuity of labour deadens the soul," or, Thoughts for a Friday night

{Photo by rocketlass.}

At the end of what has, for me at least, been a long and busy week, tonight I offer you some thoughts on the importance of leisure, from an entry titled "Amusements of the Learned" in Isaac D'Israeli's inexhaustible Curiosities of Literature (1791):
Among the Jesuits it was a standing rule of the order, that after an application to study for two hours, the mind of the student should be unbent by some relaxation, however trifling. When Petavius was employed in his Dogmata Theologica, a work of the most profound and extensive erudition, the great recreation of the learned father was, at the end of every second hour, to twirl his chair for five minutes. After protracted studies Spinosa would mix with the family-party where he lodged, and join in the most trivial conversations, or unbend his mind by setting spiders to fight each other; he observed their combats with so much interest, that he was often seized with immoderate fits of laughter. A continuity of labour deadens the soul, observes Seneca, in closing his treatise on "The Tranquillity of the Soul," and the mind must unbend itself by certain amusements. Socrates did not blush to play with children. Cato, over his bottle, found an alleviation from the fatigues of government; a circumstance, Seneca says in his manner, which rather gives honour to this defect, than the defect dishonours Cato.
Seneca's take on Cato reminds me of the quip attributed to today's birthday boy, Abraham Lincoln, when people were nattering at him about Ulysses Grant's drinking:
I wish some of you would tell me the brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.
D'Israeli, as is his wont, continues in that vein for a couple of pages, laying example after entertaining example before the reader, and thereby demonstrating the very pleasures of leisure he describes. One other account that's worth pointing out, if only because it presents such a striking contrast to the stern, dangerous character established for the ages by Dumas in The Three Musketeers, is this picture of Cardinal Richelieu unbending a bit:
Cardinal de Richelieu, amongst all his great occupations, found a recreation in violent exercises; and he was once discovered jumping with his servant, to try who could reach the highest side of a wall.
And the very next sentence, too, is worth sharing, for it offers a reminder that we must ever be aware that even as we're playing, we can be sure that someone is working:
De Grammont, observing the cardinal to be jealous of his powers, offered to jump with him; and, in the true spirit of a courtier, having made some efforts which nearly reached the cardinal's, confessed the cardinal surpassed him This was jumping like a politician; and by this means he is said to have ingratiated himself with the minister.
But it is Friday night, and while we may have left the office behind for another brief spell, and leisure may thus appropriately beckon I'll let Seneca have the last word--a reminder that our jobs don't represent the only work to which we should attend, or its paycheck the only rewards on offer:
Seneca concludes admirably, "whatever be the amusements you choose, return not slowly from those of the body to the mind; exercise the latter night and day. The mind is nourished at a cheap rate; neither cold nor heat, nor age itself, can interrupt this exercise; give therefore all your cares to a possession which ameliorates even in its old age!"
And with that, I'll take Seneca's advice--halfway, that is--and twirl in my chair for a while with a book . . . and a martini.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Greate flakes of yce," or, Snow on snow on snow

In this winter of strange and abundant snows--multiple feet in DC, a whole island's worth in Britain--our snowfall here Chicago yesterday was nothing special: a foot or so, drifting down, gently but constantly, throughout the day. Still, it was a pleasure, its charm bringing to mind this account of wintry pursuits from Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man: Charles II's Restoration Game:
Towards the end of November [1662], Londoners woke to find their rooftops covered with snow, the first for three years. It was the start of weeks of icy cold. Charles took Catherine to St James's Park to watch people skating on the new canal. This was a novel diversion, learnt in Holland by many exiles who had brought back their iron and steel skates. The watchers were entranced, among them John Evelyn who waxed lyrical about the "strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders," how fast they sped by, "how sudainly they stop in full carriere upon the Ice, before their Majesties." Evelyn went home by water, "but not without exceeding difficultie, the Thames being froze, greate flakes of yce incompassing our boate."
I love the casual reminder in that episode of the vagaries of cultural change: Charles spent much of his exile in Holland, home of skating, so when his supporters returned to London, they took their first chance to show off their new toys, and their new skills. I also love the specificity of that whole scene--the flakes of ice described by Evelyn (to whom we lovers of British history owe so much)--and the sense of license and the carnival-like atmosphere that an unusual snow still brings with it today. The one winter I lived in London, we certainly could have done with some snow--anything to break up the grimy gray monotony.

I had intended to close this post there, but on looking at the book again just now, I realized that the very next paragraph features too much great detail not to share, especially given my recent return to Tolstoy. The snow happened to coincide with the arrival of a trio of envoys from Tsar Alexis, who had supported Charles in his exile. Uglow describes the impression they made on the London crowds:
The tall Russians in their great fur hats were dashing figures as they rode in their coaches through the crowded streets, their attendants following with hawks on their wrists to present to the King. At their audience in the Banqueting House the gallery was so packed that people feared it might fall. They wore tunics embroidered with gold and pearls and bore gifts of furs--sable, black fox and ermine--Persian carpets, cloths of gold and velvet and even "sea-horse teeth." Charles was given a gold glove, on which he held three hawks, while the chief envoy raised the letters from the Tsar ceremoniously on high and then prostrated himself full length at the king's feet.
After telling us all about the trappings of the visit, Uglow explains the more down-to-earth reasons behind it:
The envoys had come to bring congratulations and to ask for a loan. They did not get one, but Charles did repay the money that the Tsar had lent him twelve years before, when he was at his lowest ebb.
Good of him, that.

Monday, February 08, 2010

"The tightly packed books burned for a week," or, Yet another way in which it could be worse!

At the close of my post over the weekend about packing my library, I noted that it could be worse: I could be in the position of Robinson Crusoe, limited to a handful of books saved from the seas. Yesterday, however, while reading Jenny Uglow's incredibly good new book about Charles II in the 1660s, A Gambling Man, I was reminded that water is at most the second-greatest foe of books--and that, yes, things could always be much worse:
When the Great Fire roared down Ludgate Hill it swept into a printing house in King's Head Court, off Shoe Lane. John Ogilby's entire stock went up in flames, including the manuscript of his twelve-book epic Carolies--"the pride, divertisement, business and sole comfort of my age."
And that's not even the worst of it:
Many booksellers and publishers, whose shops clustered around St Paul's churchyard, were ruined the same day. Some had placed their stock in Christ Church and Stationer's Hall, where the loss amounted to over £150,000. Others had taken their books and the sheets ready for binding to St Faith's Church, in the cathedral crypt. The great private library of Samuel Cromleholme, High Master of St Paul's School, was also stored here. It was thought to be safe, but the burning roof timbers crashed through the floor into the vault and the tightly packed books burned for a week. Wren's mentor John Wilkins, who had been rector of St Lawrence Jury since 1662, lost his house, his possessions and the manuscript of the Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language on which he had been working for years, and which he had to reconstruct from a proof. Richard Baxter reported that the libraries of most of the ministers in the City were burnt and from his home, six miles from London, he could see "the half burnt leaves of books " whirling in the wind. Pepys's favorite bookseller Kirton lost his house, shop and thousands of pounds' worth of books. He died a year later, having never recovered from the shock.
Uglow's chapter on the Great Fire of London is incredibly gripping. I mostly know the fire from Pepys's irreplaceable eyewitness account, Peter Ackroyd's description in London: A Biography, and other assorted histories; the range of sources and perspectives Uglow brings to her telling brings the scope and ferocity of the fire to life like none I've encountered, from its origins--when the Lord Mayor said, "Pish! A woman might piss it out!"--to its end, when
All the City's finest buildings and churches had vanished: men were bemused and lost, lacking the familiar landmarks. Even the waters in the broken fountains seemed to boil, and evil-smelling smoke swirled up from wells and cellars like fumes from hell.
Uglow pays particular attention to the actions of Charles himself during the fire, which, remarkably, he fought on the front lines all night with his brother, the Duke of York:
[F]ilthy, smoke-blackened, and tired, Charles toured the fireposts, wielding buckets and shovels with the men. Many contemporary accounts mention his bravery and energy, "even labouring in person, & being present," as Evelyn put it, "to command, order, reward, and encourage Workemen; by which he shewed his affection to his people, & gained theirs." The king and duke, wrote Clarendon,
who rode from one place to another, and put themselves in great dangers among the burning and falling houses, to give advice and direction what was to be done, underwent as much fatigue as the meanest, and had as little sleep or rest; and the faces of all men appeared ghastly and in the highest confusion.
Where citizens had fled, Charles and James took charge themselves, exposing themselves to flames and smoke and the danger of falling buildings.
The most memorable of all the many anecdotes and details that Uglow assembles, however, appears at the end of the chapter--which one can't help but read in a rush, the end coming as an almost physical relief--when the fire has finally petered out:
It was a scene of horror, but also one of wonder, a natural curiosity drawing the observant men of the Royal Society. In the broken tombs in St Paul's, they observed the mummified bodies of bishops buried two centuries before, while in the tomb of Dean Colet, a more recent burial, his lead coffin was found to be full of a curious liquor that had conserved the body. "Mr Wyle and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and it was a kind of insipid taste, something of an ironish taste. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like brawn."
They made scientists out of some very stern stuff back in those days. And, to bring this post back around to where I started: I may have had to pack up all my books, but at least I didn't have to watch them burn, then drink insipid tombwater!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Books did furnish a room . . .

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From The Library at Night (2006), by Alberto Manguel
Like Machiavelli, I often sit among my books at night. While I prefer to write in the morning, at night I enjoy reading in the thick silence, when triangles of light from the reading lamps split my library shelves in two. Above, the high rows of books vanish into darkness; below sits the privileged section of the illuminated titles. This arbitrary division, which grants certain books a glowing presence and relegates others to the shadows, is superseded by another order, which owes its existence merely to what I can remember. My library has no catalogue; having placed the books on the shelves myself, I generally know their position by recalling the library's layout, and areas of light or darkness make little difference to my exploring. The remembered order follows a pattern in my mind, the shape and division of the library, rather as a stargazer connects in narrative patterns the pinpoints of the stars; but the library in turn reflects the configuration of my mind, its distant astrologer. The deliberate yet random order of the shelves, the choice of subject matters, the intimate history of each book's survival, the traces of certain times and certain places left between the pages, all point to a particular reader. A keen observer might be able to tell who I am from a tattered copy of the poems of Blas de Otero, the number of volumes by Robert Louis Stevenson, the large section devoted to detective stories, the minuscule section devoted to literary theory, the fact that there is much Plato and very little Aristotle on my shelves. Every library is autobiographical.
At the urging of our sympathetic but insistent realtor, rocketlass and I have spent the past week packing up and storing away nearly all of our books. Back in the autumn, when we first put the condominium in which we've lived for ten years on the market, we packed away a couple of bookcases worth of books that had been kept in one of the bedrooms, but we had hoped that we would sell before having to give up the rest.

Alas, four months and seventy boxes later, we now have a home that is, by our standards, denuded of books. Our living room is bare, and our realtor was right: it does look much larger. It also looks significantly less like home--which I suppose is the idea, after all: the less it looks like our home, the sooner it will no longer be, and the sooner we'll be able to re-establish our library in what we both hope, the gods willing, will be its final destination.

Of course, compared to our neighbors, for whom reading is an occasional way to pass the time rather than one of life's central activities, we still have a lot of books in our small apartment: one seven-shelf case, tucked away in a bedroom. It's a desert island case, I suppose, though not exactly, its holdings an atypical distillation of our vanished collection, a mix of the unread, the forever re-read, and the inexhaustible--from all of Anthony Powell to the letters of Byron to The Anatomy of Melancholy to Boswell's Johnson to Sherlock Holmes and the latest from Hard Case Crime. There's no reason it shouldn't be enough to get us through the next few months, though I'm already dreading the first time I need to look something up in a book that's been consigned to storage.

I take heart, however, from a passage found elsewhere in The Library at Night, a reminder that things could be much, much worse:
On one of the early days of October of the year 1659, Robinson Crusoe returned to the mangled remains of his craft and managed to bring ashore a number of tools and various kinds of food, as well as "several things of less value," such as pens, ink, paper and a small collection of books. Of these books, a few were in Portuguese, a couple were "Popish prayer-books" and three were "very good Bibles." His "dreadful deliverance" had left him terrified of death through starvation, but once the tools and the food had met his material needs he was ready to seek entertainment from the ship's meagre store of books. Robinson Crusoe was the founder--if a reluctant founder--of a new society. And Daniel Defoe, his author, thought it necessary that at the beginning of a new society there should be books.
Manguel's book resides in our remaining bookcase; Defoe's, readily available elsewhere, has been relegated to the ship's hold. (Did I mention that for all my carping in this post, we live half a block from an actual library? Okay, I'll admit it's not exactly the salt mines here . . . )

Thursday, February 04, 2010

"A march is clean business," or, Yet another reason to love your local bookstore!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about a catchphrase repeated by a character in War and Peace, and the different ways I have seen it translated. Not knowing the underlying Russian, I could only guess at the reason the translations varied . . . but last night Jeff Waxman, Joyland author and bookseller at my favorite bookstore, 57th Street Books, put the question to a Russian-speaking friend, Olga Romadin, and she offered a detailed and interesting answer:
My first language is Russian, but English is my primary language, and when I read Russian I always find myself struggling to translate some of the most interesting parts of the text. It's frustrating because there are many instances when a phrase or paragraph I want to share with my English-speaking friends just cannot be said with the same effect in another language.

Now, having said that, the case of the uncle with the verbal tic unfortunately happens to be one of those things that is untranslatable in any way that would make sense. Literally, it means "A clean business march." (Or "A march is clean business.")

I think it's correct to compare these idioms to a Dickens character because Tolstoy's characters, I noticed (I am currently reading Anna Karenina), as well as other gentry speaking in this era of Russian literature have these phrases that are essentially along the lines of British quips such as "I do say so" and cannot be understood by literal translation except as just decorational additions to their conversations. The author would never write a phrase like that except in dialogue, unless he/she was understood to be in a dialogue with the reader directly (like Dostoevsky does in many of his novellas, although I've never noticed him using these conversational "enhancers").

Also, I'd like to point out that the Russian word for "uncle" does not necessarily mean that the man referred to is even related to the person calling him that. It's a term of endearment for close friends of the family, mostly used by children. The same goes for aunts.

While I haven't read War and Peace completely and cannot verify the relation of the man in question to the Rostovs, I believe that it might be Dunnigan's reason for using the word in quotations, though I personally would have tried to squeeze in a footnote or mentioned in in a preface.
Many thanks to Olga, who managed to fill what I had thought were surely vain hopes for answers, and to Jeff, too, for putting her on the case. In a week when the debate about online versus independent bookselling has unexpectedly flared up once more, what better demonstration could there be of the importance of the local?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Archie and Bertie, Wolfe and Jeeves

I'm far from the first person to point out that Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe's right-hand-and-legman, bear similarities to Bertie Wooster--if, that is, you can imagine a Bertie Wooster who is capable, tough, and smart. Which, admittedly, is a difficult proposition. Really, the similarities usually begin and end at the two men's use of language: Archie is the best source of outdated slang I know of outside Wodehouse's world, able to work himself up to a dizzying pitch of idle--or, more frequently, needling--banter.

But every once in a while Rex Stout extends Wodehuose a nod that's a bit more overt, as in this passage from one of my favorite Nero Wolfe novels, The Silent Speaker (1946):
What Wolfe tells me and what he doesn't tell me, never depends, as far as I can make out, on the relevant circumstances. It depends on what he had to eat at the last meal, the kind of shirt and tie I am wearing, how well my shoes are shined, and so forth. He does not like purple shirts Once Lily Rowan gave me a dozen Sulka shirts, with stripes of assorted colors and shades. I happened to put on the purple one the day we started on the Chesterton-Best case, the guy that burgled his own house and shot a week-end guest in the belly. Wolfe took one look at the shirt and clammed up on me. Just for spite I wore the shirt a week, and I never did know what was going on, or who was which, until Wolfe had it all wrapped up, and even then I had to get most of the details from the newspapers and Dora Chesterton, with whom I had struck up an acquaintance. Dora had a way of--no, I'll save that for my autobiography.
Would Jeeves have done any less?

Which can't help but lead a reader to imagine the possibilities: what if Jeeves and Wolfe had met at some point, and teamed up? There's no question that they would have been a formidable duo, but would they have gotten along? Or would Jeeves merely have frustrated Wolfe, his silent efficiency eliminating any need for the drama and flourish that Wolfe loved so much?

Archie and Bertie, on the other hand. . . . Bertie would take one look at Archie and quail, seeing the inner tough guy beneath the dapper exterior, while Archie would instantly cross Bertie off any and all lists of both suspects and rivals, and thus would take barely any notice of him at all, methinks.