Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"We have had a good solid winter."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The lovely 70-plus-degreeness of the day, as unseasonal in its own way as the snow that fell two weeks ago, has reduced my brain to a froth, incapable of putting together a proper post. Instead, I offer some unconnected quotes from recent reading, in hopes of distracting you until such time as my brains have become accustomed to the absence of cold.

1 First, from Jill Lepore's look at the strange history of marriage advice, "Fixed," in the March 29th issue of the New Yorker:
History is hereditary only in this way: we, all of us, inherit everything, and then we choose what to cherish, what to disavow, and what to do next, which is why it's worth trying to know where things come from.
That's as succinct and convincing an argument for history as I've ever encountered. It could serve as a epigraph, for example, to the series of podcasts on the American Civil War by David Blight that I just finished listening to (and, as I've said before, highly recommend). It's particularly well suited to that war because the lessons we've drawn from it and the disavowals we've made have been very different in the North and the South since almost the moment the fighting stopped. And thus the path forward has never been quite so clear as we might wish it to be.

2 In the wonderful piece on Jonathan Swift's poetry that he wrote for me at the Quarterly Conversation, Patrick Kurp quoted from the introduction to Victoria Glendinning's 1998 biography of Swift:
He is extremely “nice” in the eighteenth-century sense. He is not always “nice” in our sense of lovable and pleasant. He is a disturbing person. He provokes admiration and fear and pity. All I can assure you is that in keeping company with Jonathan Swift you are not wasting your time.
Could there be a better way to introduce a subject--and a biographer--than such a clear-eyed appraisal? It offers instant assurance that your companion on this trip will be perceptive and truthful, and that, in addition, she can write. As someone whose natural tendency is to string clause upon clause, giving a sentence its leash until it pulls up, panting and confused, of its own worn-out accord, I admire the blunt punch of Glendinning's style, both in that passage and throughout the biography.

And if you've not read Patrick's article, you definitely should do so: it's smart and funny and, because it's about Swift, beastly and foul as well.

3 Finally, in honor of the weather that's so addled me, I return to the new New York Review of Books edition of Thoreau's journals, a book that belongs on every bedside. March 31, 1852 found Thoreau less lucky than we Chicagoans: it was "a cold, raw day with alternating hail-like snow and rain." But his mind roved on to spring nonetheless:
Perchance as we grow old we cease to spring with the spring, and we are indifferent to the succession of years, and they go by without epoch as months. Woe be to us when we cease to form new resolutions on the opening of a new year!
Thoreau had sins, no doubt, and awkwardnesses and failings, as we all do, but indifference, like inattention, was never of their number.

The next day he wrote,
We have had a good solid winter, which has put the previous summer far behind us; intense cold, deep and lasting snow, tense winter sky. It is a good experience to have gone through with.
Indeed. And now it's time for baseball.

Monday, March 29, 2010

"He had in an extraordinary degree the dramatic element in his character," or, Dickens as a performer

I'm very excited about a book I picked up today (which, by the way, in the Dodo Press edition I got, is easily the best-looking out-of-copyright print-on-demand book I've seen yet), Charles Kent's Dickens as a Reader (1872). It's a posthumous account, by a friend of Dickens, of the dramatic readings that consumed so much of Dickens's time, creativity, and energy in the final decade and more of his life, making use of Dickens's own notes and plans and describing the readings as seen
both from before and behind the scenes, from the front of the house as well as from within the shelter of the screen upon the platform.
I've only had a moment to flip through the book thus far, but this passage amused me enough to seem worth sharing:
So real are the characters described by Charles Dickens in his life-like fictions, and so exactly do the incidents he relates as having befallen them resemble actual occurrences, that we recall to recollection at this moment the delight with which the late accomplished lady Napier once related an exact case in point, appealing, as she did so, to her husband, the author of the "Peninsular War," to corroborate the accuracy of her retrospect! Telling how she perfectly well remembered, when the fourth green number of "Nicholas Nickleby" was just out, one of her home group, who had a moment before caught sight of the picture of the flogging in a shop-window, rushed in with the startling announcement--as though he were bringing with him the news of some great victory--"What do you think? Nicholas has thrashed Squeers!" As the Novelist read this chapter, or rather the condensation of this chapter, it was for all the world like assisting in person at that sacred and refreshing rite!
"Sacred and refreshing" sounds like the way Wodehouse might describe a miscreant receiving half a dozen of the best, doesn't it? Though if anyone ever had it coming, it was surely Squeers . . .

The remembrance as described makes me wonder what the bookshop window looked like: do you think the bookseller created or commissioned his own poster or stand-up of the scene, or did he just prop open a copy of the book to Phiz's illustration, reproduced above? It also reminds me of the oft-repeated tale that, during the publication of The Old Curiosity Shop, American readers greeted transatlantic passengers just off the boat with the urgent question, "Is Little Nell dead?" Caleb Crain, reliable haunter of libraries, looked into that tale a while back; you should click through to find out what he learned, and you'll get Oscar Wilde's wonderfully mordant take on Nell as a bonus.

{One last, unrelated note: I promise I won't do this often, but I think you might enjoy the post I wrote earlier tonight for the the blog of the Quarterly Conversation, the Constant Conversation. It's got Greeks, chutzpah, and Boswell--what more could an I've Been Reading Lately reader want?}

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Literary devotion

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On the recommendation of Ed Park, I've spent the past couple of days laughing out loud on the bus at Christopher Miller's Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank, a novel that takes the form of a reader's guide to the life and work of an imaginary sci-fi writer modeled on Philip K. Dick. The book is jammed with great jokes and absolutely brimming with ideas, primarily ideas (many surprisingly compelling despite their ridiculousness) for Dank's stories and novels--though, as the more skeptical of the guide's two authors points out in the entry for the story "Bacterial Rights," that's not to say the stories are good:
Many of Dank's stories would be better if they were shorter--the shorter the better. Often their very titles exhaust whatever interest their premises hold. "Bacterial Rights" is a perfect example: Dwell on that title for ten or fifteen seconds and it's safe to say you just thought up a better story than the one with which Dank, unencumbered by any real knowledge of biology or sociology, eked out to the length of something saleable (though only, be it said, to a magazine called Twat). "Bacterial Rights" is a cautionary tale about misguided hippies who, convinced that "Germs are Living Beings Too" (their battle cry) break into the R & D wing of "a top antibiotics factory," smash all the beakers and flasks, and are infected with a strain of meningitis so lethal that it barely leaves them time to beg for the life-saving antibodies they sought to destroy. Except perhaps as evidence that when he wrote it in 1972, Dank liked prescription drugs more than he liked hippies, the story is worthless.
I'll have more on this book--and how, if read in too close conjunction with Steve Hely's similarly hilarious How I Became a Famous Novelist, it could induce permanent literary paralysis in any aspiring writer--in the coming days. For now, however, I'll highlight one passage, the moment when the guide's primary author, a thoroughgoing Dank apologist, explains how he came to choose to study Dank in graduate school:
If literary scholars serve a purpose, it is not to count the adverbs in Ulysses or prove that Charlotte Bronte was a hermaphrodite or that the same versatile theory can enshroud both Henry James and Stephen King in jargon so interchangeably opaque as to obscure any reason to reading one and not the other. No--our raison d'etre is to call the world's attention to unnoticed beauties and profundities. I'd had my winter of discontent with Dank because I'd been demanding that he give me what I got from Joyce or Shakespeare (though in truth I've never had much use for either), rather than the thrills that Dank alone can give, and had always given me so generously when read on his own terms. In a midnight of the soul I date to March 18, 1991 . . . I vowed to love my fate, to love my dissertation, and to love the odd niche my advisor was driving me into. In other words, I vowed to love Dank, through thick and thin (and at his thickest--e.g., the 936 pages of Listening to Decaf--he did put that love to the test), in sickness (artistic) and in health, for the rest of my life. I took my vow so seriously that a few nights later I got into a fistfight with a drinking buddy who'd ventured to disparage Dank, though he was just repeating sentiments he'd heard me expressing all winter.

And yes, I know how odd it sounds to vow to love an author, but after all I'd loved him all along, ever since I first encountered his fiction at the age of fifteen. All I was doing now was solemnizing our relationship: putting a sacramental stamp on a teenage crush.
I know that Miller is exaggerating for effect, but even so, he captures some the reluctance that kept me out of graduate school: good god, how could I decide, in my early twenties, to specialize! To whom could I pledge fealty and unwavering interest? What author, or even period, all alone could hold my attention for a career against the ever-tantalizing pleasures of generalization and dilettantism?

The passage also reminded me of the lunatic--if at the same time admirable--devotion of the scholars who populate Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Some of the best examples come from the annual Tolstoy conference at Yasnaya Polyana, where Batuman, having lost her luggage, spends a week wearing the same flip-flops, sweatpants, and flannel shirt she'd traveled in; some of scholars, she explains,
assumed I was a Tolstoyan--that like Tolstoy and his followers I had taken a vow to walk around in sandals and wear the same peasant shirt all day and all night.
Batuman's accounts of the panels and literary arguments at the conference bring to life the pleasantly ridiculous flavor of academic obsession. For example:
At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy's editions of Kant. . . .

"Were there at least any good marginalia?" someone asked.

"No. He didn't write anything in the margins at all," the historian said. He paused, before adding triumphantly: "But the books fell open to certain pages!"
Then there's this account of a panel discussion:
[A] Malevich scholar read a paper about Tolstoy's iconoclasm and Malevich's Red Rectangle. He said that Nikolai Rostov was the Red Rectangle. For the whole rest of the day he sat with his head buried in his hands in a posture of great suffering. Next, an enormous Russian textologist in an enormous gray dress expounded at great length upon a new study of early variants of War and Peace. Fixing her eyes in the middle distance, consulting no notes, she chanted in a half-pleasing, half declamatory tone, like someone proposing an hour-long toast.
The best, however, may be the reaction to Batuman's own paper, in which she compares Anna Karenina and Alice in Wonderland. This causes some controversy when she is unable to say unequivocally that Tolstoy had read Alice before writing Anna. An argument breaks out:
"Tolstoy had a copy of Alice in Wonderland in his personal library," said one of the archivists.

"But it's an 1893 edition," objected the conference organizer. "It's inscribed to his daughter Sasha, and Sasha wasn't born until 1884."

"So Tolstoy hadn't read Alice in 1873!" an old man called from the back of the room.

"Well, you never know," said the archivist. "He might have read it earlier, and then bought a copy to give to Sasha."

"And there might be mushrooms growing in my mouth--but then it wouldn't be a mouth, but a whole garden!" retorted the old man.
The discussion goes downhill, steeply, from there.

All of which calls to mind the other reason I never turned to graduate school: in my early twenties, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of years working in a scholarly bookstore, where I met grad students from a wide range of departments . . . nearly all of whom carried themselves at all times like dead-eyed inmates of a nineteenth-century prison/mental asylum, as if their souls were slowly being squeezed out their pores--and criticized unrelentingly as they emerged.

It didn't take many cash-register conversations with these forlorn figures for me to realize that dilettantism, with its love of breadth and raffish unconcern for deeper knowledge--neither of which would necessarily preclude the occasional impulsive dive down an interesting-looking rabbit hole (see D'Israeli, Isaac)--was clearly the way for me. And, swagger stick twirling, that's the road I've been traveling ever since, and will keep traveling on this blog next week, and the week after, and the week after--that is, as Batuman's Tolstoy scholars like to say in imitation of their master, "if we are still alive!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Westlake on datedness

In my interview with Charles Ardai that was posted on the University of Chicago Press's blog yesterday, Ardai explained one of the reasons that Donald Westlake never published Memory, his early 1960s novel that Hard Case Crime is publishing next week:
Years later, Larry [Block] says he urged Don to unearth the book and show it to publishers again, on the theory (surely correct) that Don's stature as a writer had grown to the point that publishers would have been glad to see a serious mainstream novel from him. But Don declined, telling Larry he feared that the book had become too dated in the intervening years. That may or may not have been a reasonable criticism then, but it certainly isn't one now. In the early 1970s, a book written and set in the 1960s might have seemed a bit stale, like it had been intended for earlier publication and just left on the shelf too long … but today, with almost fifty years having passed, what might once have felt dated is now a period novel, one that not only works at the level of character and plot but also as a time capsule of an era long gone.
When I conducted the interview last month, I hadn't yet read Levine (1984), a book of short stories about an NYPD cop that Westlake wrote here and there over three decades. In the introduction to the book, he describes the dilemma he faced in writing the final story twenty years after he'd written the previous one: should he update the earlier stories, or should he make the final story a period piece? His thought process, and his conclusion, fall in line nicely with Ardai's position:
I've thought about the problem of updating before this, and generally speaking I'm against it. I believe that television has made a deep change in our perception of time--at least of recent time--and that in some way all of the last fifty years exists simultaneously in our heads, some parts in better focus than others. . . . Without our having realized it--and without the academics yet having discovered it as a thesis topic--we have grown accustomed to adapting ourselves to the time of a story's creation as well as to its characters and plot and themes.
He goes on to explain that updating is far from simple anyway:
The assumptions of the moment run deep; removing them from a generation-old story isn't a simple matter of taking the hero out of a Thunderbird and putting him into a Honda. It's root-canal work; the moment of composition runs its traces through the very sentence structure, like gold ore through a mountain. . . . It is equally unlikely for me to erase the last twenty years from my own mind and write as though it were 1962 in this room, I am twenty-nine, and most of my children aren't alive yet. If I write a story now, this moment will exist in it, no matter what I try to do.
What he decided on, then, was essentially to split the different: the final Levine story offers no obvious indication its period, neither overtly pretending to be from the '60s nor embracing the '80s. It's hard to say whether that would work if it were a standalone story, but because of the assumptions we bring to it from having read the other Levine stories, the lack of specific period cues easily goes unnoticed.

As Ardai goes on to say in the interview, the authentic period detail--the stuff that was included not to set an era, but to set a scene--is a big part of the draw of Hard Case Crime: given the gloriously retro design of the books,
Nobody who picks up a Hard Case Crime book ever says, "Hey, that's dated!" if they see that the book is set in the '40s or '50s or '60s. It's what they're looking for.
And it's certainly part of the interest of the Parker novels: in The Hunter (1962), Parker can forge a driver's license just by swiping a form from the DMV and making a stamp; by the time of Dirty Money (2008), he has to buy that sort of identification from a specialist in forgery. Watching him adapt in order to negotiate a world that's become that much more regimented and documented is a big part of the fun.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"He was incapable of writing an e-mail that wasn't funny," or, Charles Ardai and I talk Westlake

Over at the blog of my employer, the University of Chicago Press, an interview was posted today that I conducted with Charles Ardai, editor and co-founder of Hard Case Crime, on the occasion of his publication of Westlake's never-before-published novel Memory and Chicago's publication of Parker novels ten through twelve (The Black Ice Score, The Green Eagle Score, and The Sour Lemon Score), all of which should be on the shelves of your local bookstore any day now. I think you'll enjoy checking it out.

And, oh, lordy, if you've not read The Sour Lemon Score, let me warn you: it really should be titled in the Old Testament style, something more like The Sour Lemon Score of Sour Lemon Scores. It goes that badly. Which, let's be honest, is what us Parker fans are always looking for anyway, right?

Monday, March 22, 2010

"For some are so gently melancholy, that in all their carriage, and to the outward apprehension of others it can hardly be discerned."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The fickleness of Chicago's perennial false spring, as perhaps best evidenced by the delusions of returning robins and the stubborn redoubts of filthy snow curled about the gravestones in the cemetery behind my apartment, brought on a thoughts of melancholy on Sunday--thoughts which, as they tend to do, led me to Robert Burton, who reminds us that "It comes to many in fits, and goes; to others it is continuate:many in spring and fall only are molested." Burton himself led, inevitably, to Anthony Powell. It is time, hints the weather, to recommence my perpetual re-reading of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Next up is the fourth volume, which, while I've defended it before from its overly ardent detractors, is nonetheless the least overtly satisfying of the batch. There are pleasures, many pleasures, to be found there, but they are for the most part the pleasures of life drawing in rather than of life setting out: if the first two books are about discovery and attempts to set the terms on which one is to enter the lists of adult life, and the third about the catastrophes and losses that begin to assail us, then the fourth is about realizing that the shadows of our day are growing longer, even as we watch closely those who are still learning the earliest steps of the dance.

So it seemed right to begin the fourth volume by returning briefly to the close of the third, the end-of-war memorial service at St Paul's that closes The Military Philosophers. It's a moving scene, less for what happens there than for the way that, prompted by the familiar hymns and ritual words of the service, narrator Nick Jenkins lets his mind wander, memories of the war and its losses side by side with casually habitual close readings of the lyrics, a reminder that even at life's most solemn moments, it is twined about with the words we've used to try to understand it.

Early in the service, Nick recalls his old friend Stringham:
Hymns always made me think of Stringham, addicted to quoting their imagery within the context of his own life.

"Hymns describe people and places so well," he used to say. "Nothing else quite like them. What could be better, for example, on the subject of one's friends and relations than:

    Some are sick and some are sad,
    And some have never loved one well,
    And some have lost the love they had.

The explicitness of the categories is marvellous. Then that wonderful statement: 'fading is the world's best pleasure.' One sees very clearly which particular pleasure its writer considered the best."
For an incurably rackety and fragile character like Stringham, such kidding carries notes of whistling past the graveyard; he would have fared far, far better in a world of precision and order.

A quotation from Blake--"as impenetrable as Isaiah; in his way, more so"--brings on general reflections on poetry, "its changes in form and fashion," which leads to the recollection of some lines from Abraham Cowley:

    Thou with strange adultery
    Doest in each breast a brothel keep;
    Awake, all men lust for thee,
    And some enjoy thee while they sleep.

No poet deserved to be forgotten who could face facts like that, the blending of conscious and unconscious, Love's free-for-all in dreams.
The service, as one would expect, ends with "God Save the King," all three verses:
God save our gracious King!
Long live our noble King!
God save the King!
Send him victorious
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us;
God save the King!

O Lord, our God arise,
Scatter his enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.

Thy choicest gifts in store,
On him be pleased to pour;
Long may he reign:
May he defend our laws,
And ever give us cause
To sing with heart and voice,
God save the King!
Which leads Nick into a reflection that brings out many of his characteristics as a narrator: honesty, attention to detail, a fine discrimination of feeling, an eye for historical resonances and anachronism, and, most of all, an acceptance of things as they are:
Repetitive, jerky, subjective in feeling, not much ornamented by imagination or subtlety of thought and phraseology, the words possessed at the same time a kind of depth, an unpretentious expression of sentiments suited somehow to the moment. It would be interesting to know whether, at the period they were written, "reign" had been considered an adequate rhyme to "king"; or whether the poet had simply not bothered to achieve identity of sound in the termination of the last verse. Language, pronunciation, sentiment, were always changing. There must have been advantages, moral and otherwise, in living at an outwardly less squeamish period, when the verbiage of high-thinking had not yet cloaked such petitions as those put forward in the second verse, incidentally much the best; when, in certain respects at least, hypocrisy had established less of a stranglehold on the public mind. Such a mental picture of the past was no doubt largely unhistorical, indeed, totally illusory, freedom from one sort of humbug merely implying, with human beings of any epoch, thraldom to another. The past, just as the present, had to be accepted for what it thought and what it was.
Burton reminds us that we, like Powell's characters, "according to the continuance of time . . . have been troubled"; but without that trouble, where would we be?

And now I think I'm ready for volume four.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Evolutionary invective

All winter, my entertainment while I run along the lakefront has been podcasts of David Blight's introductory course on the Civil War and Reconstruction from Yale. I'd recommend them heartily to anyone interested in the subject: as someone who found it almost impossible to stay awake in lectures as an undergrad, I've found Blight's class to be a pleasant reminder that a good lecturer can add substantially to what can be learned from books (to say nothing of how well he can distract from the cold and fatigue on long-distance runs in the depths of winter!)

In one of the final lectures, he shared a great description of Ulysses Grant from Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams. As you read this, don't forget that Adams wrote his autobiography in the third person, so the "him" referred to is Adams himself:
Grant fretted and irritated him . . . as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called--and should actually and truly be--the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as commonplace as Grant's own commonplaces to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President! Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Education became more perplexing at every phase. No theory was worth the pen that wrote it. America had no use for Adams because he was eighteenth-century, and yet it worshipped Grant because he was archaic and should have lived in a cave and worn skins.
The glorious viciousness of that description is outdone only--to this Grant apologist--by its absurdity. By most accounts, Grant was far more refined than nearly any general who came before him: while he had little patience for the trappings of civilization, dressing abominably and having no interest in ceremony, he understood that the soldiers under him were real people, and he knew just what he was asking of them and their families and their nation as he sent them, time and again, to their deaths. If, as the southerners said, he was a butcher, then he was at least a butcher who knew the details of his bill, and who was willing to take responsibility for the pain that had gone into assembling it. It would, certainly, be far more civilized to have had no war, but given the war, the idea that America would have been better served by replacing Grant's grim determination with a more superficially refined or intelligent leader is hard to countenance.

That's not meant to take away from my appreciation of Adams's invective, which borders on genius; it's hard to top an insult that is based on the idea that someone "should have been extinct for ages."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Like the thing that gives fairy tales their tension," or, Westlake cuts loose with the "likes"!

Continuing this week's unexpected run of Donald Westlake posts . . .

Part of the reason the Parker novels are so effective is their spare hardness, the sense that Westlake's writing (as Stark) gives that not a single word is being wasted. Westlake's Dortmunder novels, on the other hand, are the polar opposite of the Parker novels, so it seems appropriate that a big part of their appeal is the sense they give of an author who is flat-out having a blast stringing words together and seeing where they lead him. Not that Westlake is being careless or wasting words, by any means; rather, in the Dortmunder books he never foregoes a chance to enjoy the pleasures, incidental though they may often be, that well-chosen words can offer.

As evidence, I offer the following list of every simile in Westlake's wonderfully winning collection of Dortmunder stories Thieves' Dozen (1994). It starts with one from the preface, then moves through all eleven stories:
my handwriting looks like a ball of string a kitten has played with.

they could look down and see Yerba Buena Ranch spread out below, like a pool table with fences.

this horse heist was looking less and less like what the newspapers call a "well-planned professional robbery" and more and more like hobos sneaking into backyards to steal lawnmowers.

[The horse] reared back and looked at these humans with distaste, like John Barrymore being awakened the morning after.

Snort, whuffle, paw, headshake, prance; the damn beast acted like he was auditioning for A Chorus Line.

The pickup seemed to think it was a horse; over the fields it bucked like a frying pan trying to throw Dortmunder and Kelp back into the fire.

Lines of ragged punctures had been drawn across the wall and the Lucite upper panel of the tellers' counter, like connect-the-dot puzzles.

Dortmunder's arms shot up like pistons blowing through an engine block.

When he turned around, all five of the robbers were looking at him, their expressions intent, focused, almost hungry, like a row of cats looking in a fish-store window.

Dortmunder's toes, turning into high-tension steel springs, kept him bounding through the air like the Wright brothers' first airplane, swooping and plunging down the middle of the street, that wall of buses getting closer and closer.

Dortmunder took off like the last of the dodoes, flapping his arms, wishing he knew how to fly.

So everybody else shuffled back into the barn and Dortmunder stayed outside, like the last smoker in the world

Forgetting dignity, Dortmunder gazed on his former friend like a betrayed beagle.

His eyes were eggy, with blue yolks, and his thin hair was unnaturally black, like work boots.

The third regular's arms dropped to his sides, like fish off a delivery truck.

Arnie, who smelled mostly like a giant package of artificial sweetener gone bad.

For one horrible moment, the loupe stared straight at Dortmunder, like someone looking out a door's peep-hole without the door.

Conversation ceased after that, like a plant that's never been watered.

Dortmunder dropped into the chair by the window like something that had fallen out of an airplane.

Faint party sounds wafted out like laughing gas.

Three Finger Gillie looked like the creature that gives fairy tales their tension.

These eyes were pale blue and squinty and not warm, and they peered suspiciously out from both sides of a bumpy nose shaped like a baseball left out in the rain.

Then he smiled up at the actor turned waiter who materialized before him like a genie out of a bottle.

Regardless, Big walked forward, slicing a V through the gawkers like a bowling ball through lemmings.

the cop tensed all over, like a sphincter.

the dog thudded like a locomotive against the door.

with a small pivot like the hippopotami in Fantasia, he curled around the opening he'd made.

he turned to the three men on the floor, flopping around down there like caught fish in a bucket

In a voice like a funeral director
I would never argue that these descriptions are all brilliant, but at their best--the ball of string, the tensing cop, the baseball in the rain, the betrayed beagle--they offer exactly the mix of instant comprehensibility and utter unexpectedness for which a comic metaphor should alway strive. And it's impossible not to picture Westlake laughing to himself as he typed them out, caught up in the joy of a craftsman working well with the tools he knows best.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Sometimes poetic justice is just comic; maybe we should call it doggerel justice," or, More from Westlake's intros

In Sunday's post I wrote about an aside in Donald Westlake's introduction to Levine (1984), his collection of interlinked short stories about a New York cop. That was only one of many asides, however--the whole twelve-page intro is worth searching out for any fan of Westlake for its string of brief anecdotes about his early writing days.

Here, for example, he tells of his one non-Supertrain television credit, when a Levine story, highly influenced by Ed McBain, was adapted for the McBain-derived 87th Precinct:
Sometimes poetic justice is just comic; maybe we should call it doggerel justice. At the time "The Feel of the Trigger" was published an 87th Precinct series was on television; the only story of mine ever bought to be the basis of an episode in a television series was "The Feel of the Trigger." It ran as an 87th Precinct story on February 2, 1962. . . . Unfortunately, I couldn't be home that night, but a friend offered to tape the program for me. Remember, we're talking about 1962, not 1982, and the tape he was talking about was sound. He did record the program, and some time later I heard it, and my memory of it is a lot of footsteps and several doors being opened.
That doesn't sound all that bad: add Orson Welles and you've more or less got The Shadow, right?

Later, Westlake talks about starting, unexpectedly, to write comedy:
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was never a comic. All through my life, in grammar school, in high school, in college, I was never the funniest kid in class. I was always, invariably, the funniest kid's best friend. Out of college and in New York and beginning to make my career as a writer, I got to know a couple of funny writers and I was their best audience. I wasn't the guy with the quick line; I was the guy who loved the quick line.
The turn to comedy happened around the time Westlake started writing about Parker, which does seem like a sufficient reason: no one but Parker could endure all that grimness without needing to balance it somehow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Westlake on Dickens? Alas!

Reading Donald Westlake's introduction to Levine (1984), a collection of his short stories about NYPD cop Abe Levine, I was gobsmacked by a passing mention of a project that fell by the wayside as he was working on those stories:
In the spring of 1982, [Otto Penzler] and I were talking about another project I don't seem to be working on, which is a book about Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Jasper didn't do it).
Really? Donald Westlake was contemplating writing a book on Edwin Drood? Oh, to see that! While it would take a lot to talk me out of wanting to snap the cuffs on Jasper--David Paroissien's introduction to the Penguin edition of Edwin Drood is convincing in its contention that everything we know about Dickens's habits as a writer argues for Jasper's guilt--I would love to see what arguments and ingenuities of plot Westlake would muster in his defense.

Sadly, the context suggests that the project never got very far. Anyone out there happen to know any more about this one?

Friday, March 12, 2010

"I started without butlers and I'll die without butlers, no less a happy man."

In writing about Anthony Powell's Venusberg last weekend, I quoted a passage wherein the protagonist, Lushington, gets saddled, entirely against his will, with a valet named Pope. Described as "a curious character," by the time he actually shows up, he turns out to be far worse than even that description might suggest, more like a demonic Jeeves, with hints of Dickens. His first appearance in Lushington's service comes with the flick of a light switch in Lushington's bedroom well before dawn, when his new master is still far from finished with sleeping off a late night of carousing:
"Who are you?" said Lushington, still with his eyes shut.

"I'm Pope, sir. Mr. Da Costa's man. I expect Mr. Da Costa mentioned that I was going to call you."

He coughed behind his hand. Lushington tried to adjust his memory. The man's face was certainly familiar, so he said:

"Oh, yes, he did. But you have called me rather early, haven't you? What is the time?"

"Mr Da Costa told me to call you first. Mr. Da Costa goes to the chancellery rather late sometimes. He said that he thought it would be better if I called you first. Those were his orders."

"By all means call me first. Very likely Mr. Da Costa does not get up until lunch. But is it necessary to be as early as this? This is an unearthly hour."

"I'm afraid it would be very inconvenient to call you at any other time sir. I am sorry."
That settled, Pope moves to the task of laying out Lushington's clothes for the far-from-dawned day:
"Which suit will you wear?"

"The blue one."

"The one you wore yesterday?"


Pope hesitated. He said:

"If you did not wear the suit you wore yesterday, sir, I could brush it."

"All right; I'll wear the other one."

"The brown one?"


"The brown one needs pressing terribly, sir."

"I know."

"Shall I press it for you, sir?"

"Will you?"

Uneasily Pope watched Lushington in bed. He said:

"Would it be better if you wore the blue suit today and then I can press the brown one? Would that be convenient?"

"Yes, yes, I'll do that."
For Powell fans, this recalcitrance calls to mind Smith, the resentful, alcoholic butler who plagues Erridge and the Jeavons family in A Dance to the Music of Time. Smith's untimely death (from an infected monkey bite) prompts Ted Jeavons to launch into a rambling eulogy that quickly transforms into a disquisition on the entire profession:
Smith tried to take a biscuit away from that tenacious ape. Probably wanted it himself to mop up some of the gin that he'd drunk. God, the way that man used to put back our gin. I marked the bottle, but it wasn't a damn bit of use. . . . Smith'll probably be the last butler I'll ever find myself employing--not that there's likely to be many butlers to employ, the way things are going. That fact doesn't break my heart. Taking them all in all, the tall with the short, the fat with the thin, the drunk with the sober, they're not a profession that greatly appeals to me. Of course, I was brought in contact with butlers late in life. Never set eyes on them in the circles I came from. I may have been unlucky in the butlers I've met. There may be the one in a hundred, but it's a long time to wait. Read about butlers in books--see 'em in plays. That's all right. Have 'em in the house--a very different matter. Look what they do to your clothes, apart from anything else. I started without butlers and I'll die without butlers, no less a happy man. There's the bell. No butler, so I'll answer it myself.
To which Jeeves would say . . . nothing, for that is what a well-husbanded reticence is for.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Surely there's a German word for this?

So . . . back on Monday I promised that, come today, proper blogging would resume. You know, the usual: some aptly chosen passages, maybe some wry commentary mixed with earnest enthusiasm and bone-deep nerdy love of books?

Well, it turns out that I lied: I'm here once again only to point you elsewhere. But rest assured that the link is far from tenuous; rather, I'm pointing you to yet more of my writing about Isaac D'Israeli and his glorious Curiosities of Literature. This time, I'm writing about the book in honor of the first anniversary of the online literary magazine the Second Pass, as part of a group of people gathered to rave about their favorite out-of-print books. The whole piece is well worth checking out . . . and if any of you happen to be chummy with the editors of the NYRB Classics line, I hope you'll give Mr. D'Israeli a good word on my behalf.

Surely the Germans have come up with a word for lying about your plans to blog? Well, if so, they won't have to use it on Friday: I double super-promise to be back Friday with a post about butlers. Butlers! What more could you want?

Monday, March 08, 2010

I've been packing boxes; Donald Hall's been unpacking them.

Today's post is more a directional sign than a real post (a signpost?): I've got a review over at Identity Theory of Donald Hall's recent memoir, Unpacking the Boxes. Go there to see what confession I consider damning for a memoirist!

Blogging proper resumes Wednesday--promise!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The early steps of the Dance, or, The young Anthony Powell

Finding myself in need of a bit of literary comfort food last weekend, I turned to my old standby, Anthony Powell. Rather than diving back into my perpetual re-reading of A Dance to the Music of Time, however, this time I opted for one of his earlier novels, Venusberg (1932).

Venusberg, Powell's second novel, is much like his first, Afternoon Men: slight but worthy, showing equally the influence of Hemingway and Waugh, its spare prose and emotional aridity reminiscent of the former, the satire they serve clear kin to the work of the latter. While Dance is frequently very funny, the early novels are a reminder that, had Powell chosen, he might have become as straight, and nearly as vicious, a satirist as Waugh: in these books his eye for absurdity is married seamlessly to the affectless, listless cynicism that Waugh attributed to their entire generation.

For example, this bit of dialogue, between two English expatriates, Da Costa and Lushington, in an Eastern European nation, could easily have come from Waugh:
"And how are the Communists?"

"Splendid. They blew up the new gas-works the other day. At least that is supposed. Either that or the works manager, who was, it appears, a very erratic man. As everything is blown up it is hard to say. It is a pity, because architecturally they were of considerable beauty."

"Do you ever come in contact with the Soviet legation?"

"Not as a rule. But you ought to. I met one of their secretaries the other day at a tea-party. We were both lodged in a corner and he thought I was an American engineer on his way to some mines out in Russia and I thought he was a French author on his way back. They have invented an entirely new form of boredom, like the worst moments of being in the boy scouts at one's preparatory school. He was a fine example of it."
This exchange, too, between the same two men, feels distinctly Wauvian:
"That was Pope. I've arranged for him to valet you. He doesn't have much to do and he said he'd like to take the job on. I inherited him from the last man who was here. He's a curious fellow, as you see. Rather a character."

"But I don't like characters."

"I know you don't. Neither do I. But we can't always have what we like."
What I found most interesting, however, reading Venusberg for the second time, was a passage late in the novel that comes after Lushington's secret lover has been killed inadvertently by a political assassin:
Lushington stood and looked through the doorway of the bedroom. Here then was that rather astonishing mystery about which so much had been said that, when the fact itself was there, no further comment was possible. For the moment no near-at-hand formula seemed at all adequate. This was something well-defined and at the same time not easy to believe in. It seemed absurd, overdone. Lacking in proportion, like other people's love affairs. Here were all the signs of a loss of control. A breakdown of the essential machinery. The sort of thing no one could be expected to be on the look-out for.
That paragraph reads like nothing else in the novel, and, to my memory, nothing else in any of Powell's pre-war novels; rather, it reads like an early, slightly hesitant working out of the more serious approach he would take to matters of love and loss in Dance.

Many of the basic elements of the style Powell would reveal in Dance are there. Powell would both polish his style and significantly broaden his emotional range by the time he wrote Dance, but this passage makes surprisingly clear the fact that the seeds of the later work were already present before he'd turned thirty.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Don't say the Louvin Brothers didn't warn you!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Now, if I know my Bible, it's the day of the Lord that so cometh like a thief in the night, and we should watch therefore for we know not the hour of his arrival . . . but this week it's been not the Lord, but Satan who's been sneak-sneak-sneaking into my reading!

His first appearance of the week was courtesy of the satirical pen of Wilkie Collins, who turns one portion of the narration of The Moonstone (1868) over to the wonderfully entertaining, pious, and hypocritical Miss Clack. In hopes of saving her dying aunt's immortal soul (and, if it should just happen that way, securing a small monetary legacy for herself), Miss Clack comes loaded for bear--heathen bear, that is:
Here was a golden opportunity! I seized it on the spot. In other words, I instantly opened my bag, and took out the top publication. It proved to be an early edition--only the twenty-fifth of the famous anonymous work (believed to be by precious Miss Bellows), entitled The Serpent at Home. The design of the book--with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted--is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives. The chapters best adapted to female perusal are "Satan in the Hair Brush"; "Satan behind the Looking Glass"; "Satan under the Tea Table"; "Satan out of the Window"--and many others.

"Give your attention, dear aunt, to this precious book--and you will give me all I ask." With these words, I handed it to her open, at a marked passage--one continuous burst of burning eloquence! Subject: Satan among the Sofa Cushions.
Sadly, like that of Onan, Miss Clack's seed falls on fallow ground: her aunt is not saved, her legacy remains but notional. The Invisible Library, however, is not so hard-hearted: we'll be cataloging this veritable gazetteer of Satanic hideouts as soon as our next shift clocks in!

For his next appearance, Satan chose Uzbekistan. Elif Batuman, in her hilarious new book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, tells about a summer she spent in Samarkand, a city whose glory has faded a smidge since Tamerlane's day. There to study Old Uzbek language and literature, she lived with her boyfriend, Eric, who was pretending to be her husband, in the house of a woman whose actual husband, she was told, was in California studying to be a yogi--a story that was given the lie by his arrival on the scene:
Shiny-headed, with muscular shoulders and a paunch, Sharif indeed projected the impression of someone who had never lived in California, which he thought shared a border with New York.
He may not be a yogi, but Sharif, it turns out, is interested in Satan:
Another statement Sharif liked to repeat was that Satan wasn't outside us, in the world, but within us. "You think Satan is out there" (pointing in the bushes); "but Satan is everywhere--above all, inside us!" (pointing at his stomach).

"What's wrong with his stomach?" Eric asked.

"He thinks Satan lives there," I told him.

"Tell him!" Sharif urged me. "Tell your husband! Satan is everywhere!"

"He wants me to tell you that Satan is everywhere, including his stomach."

Eric narrowed his eyes, assessing Sharif's stomach.

All of which sent me back to Zachary Schomburg's strange and impressive new book of poems, Scary, No Scary, which I reviewed for the Quarterly Conversation earlier in the week--and to its handy index, which led me to the dreamlike prose poem "The Darkness and the Light," where I once again found the conniver lurking. After a few lines describing a house that is nothing but light inside and nothing but darkness outside, around which a parade marches noisily, Schomburg's speaker reveals:
There is only one thing that can be seen: Satan. Satan is floating endlessly, tirelessly, a few feet above the ground along the parade route outside of my house, arms crossed across his fiery chest. He looks like he's made of glowing rock, cracking with the pressure of hot gaseous lava. Lava is spilling out of his hollowed eye sockets. His hair is wind-swept wild-fire. The heat that radiates from his body keeps my house very warm. Like a clock, he slowly floats past the front window of my house at noon and midnight. It is how I keep time. It is Satan's job to keep time. It is Satan's job to be the only light in the darkness. Some people think it is Satan's job to make what is wrong with this world, but those people are wrong. It is Satan's job to make us choose between the only two things that are right with it.
And should we choose wrong, well, as Elif Batuman tells us, Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What? You said one blog wasn't enough?

In conjunction with the new issue, the Quarterly Conversation has launched a blog! Founding editor Scott Esposito has put together a solid team of contributors, including booksellers, poets, publishing professionals, and critics, and together we'll be blogging regularly under the name the Constant Conversation.

I'll probably be writing one or two posts per week, generally trying to focus on poetry, since that's my editorial role for the Quarterly Conversation. I've just now put up a post about verse novels and Ernest Hilbert's Sixty Sonnets, and last week I wrote about . . . what else but Isaac D'Israeli? You can take the boy out of his blog . . .

Add it to your RSS reader--I think you'll be pleased at the range of writing you find there.