Friday, May 28, 2010

Two bookish bits for your holiday weekend

{Photo by rocketlass.}

To send you into the weekend, I'll share a couple of passages of bookish appreciation that I've come across in my reading this week. First, from Lev Grossman's Codex (2004), a moment when the protagonist, charged with the task of cataloging a vast library of rare books, reflects for a moment on the volumes around him:
He went back for another stack of books: a three-volume English legal treatise; a travel guide to Tuscany from the '20s crammed with faded Italian wildflowers that fluttered out from between the pages like moths; a French edition of Turgeniev so decayed that it came apart in his hands; a register of London society from 1863. In a way it was idiotic. He was treating these books like they were holy relics. It wasn't like he would ever actually read them. But there was something magnetic about them, something that compelled respect, even the silly ones, like the Enlightenment treatise about how lightning was caused by bees. They were information, data, but not in the form he was used to dealing with it. They were non-digital, nonelectrical chunks of memory, not stamped out of silicon but laboriously crafted out of wood pulp and ink, leather and glue. Somebody had cared enough to write these things; somebody else had cared enough to buy them, possibly even read them, at the very least keep them safe for 150 years, sometimes longer, when they could have vanished at the touch of a spark. That made them worth something, didn't it, just by itself? Though most of them would have bored him rigid the second he cracked them open, which there wasn't much chance of. Maybe that was what he found so appealing: the sight of so many books that he'd never have to read, so much work he'd never have to do.
As someone who hasn't thought of reading as a duty, well, ever, and who just yesterday used the excuse of the Seminary Co-op's annual member sale to bring yet more books into the house, I think of the stacks of unread volumes differently: I'll get to all of these someday, and oh, the pleasures that await!

Which leads nicely into this passage from Gene Wolfe's "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (1970):
The drugstore is as big as a supermarket, with long, bright aisles of glassware and notions and paper goods. Jason buys fluid for his lighter at the cigarette counter, and you bring him a book from the revolving wire rack. "Please, Jason?"

He takes it from you and replaces it in the rack, then when you are in the car again takes it from under his jacket and gives it to you.

It is a wonderful book, thick and heavy, with the edges of the pages tinted yellow. The covers are glossy stiff cardboard, and on the front is a picture of a man in rags fighting a thing that is partly like an ape and partly like a man, but much worse than either. The picture is in color, and there is real blood on the ape-thing; the man is muscular and handsome, with tawny hair lighter than Jason's and no beard.
Be it pulp or something pleasantly snootier, enjoy your reading this weekend. I'll be back here as normal on Tuesday.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"He lies under a world's weight of incubus and nightmare," or, Literary lassitude

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Emerging from ten days utterly absorbed in Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter--and thus in the drama and dangers of eleventh-century Scotland--I find myself, perhaps inevitably, a bit out of joint, troubled by a between-books feeling of the worst sort, one that is only compounded by a heat-and-humidity wave that would be more appropriate for August.

I think the apt word is "torpor," a word that always brings to mind Thomas de Quincey, and this description of the prostration brought on by opium addiction:
The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities or aspirations; he wishes and longs as earnestly as ever to realise what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of proposing or willing. He lies under a world's weight of incubus and nightmare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of paralysis, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love:—he would lay down his life if he might but rise and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot so much as make an effort to move.
Okay, so I'll admit that a between-books feeling, however frustrating, is nowhere near that bad--and, fortunately, it's also far more susceptible to remedy. A remedy that could perhaps be provided by de Quincey himself, even?

Let me turn to his anecdotal, gossipy Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1840), which recently entered my library through a bit of beyond-the-grave hand-selling by Sylvia Beach, and see what I can find . . .

Ah, yes: now that I look at the book, I see that its label clearly notes that the following "ludicrous instance" of the shortsighted absentmindedness of Parson Coleridge, father of Samuel Taylor, is indicated as an effective remedy for all literary lassitude:
Dining in a large party, one day, the modest divine was suddenly shocked by perceiving some part, as he conceived, of his own snowy shirt emerging from a part of his habiliments, which we will suppose to have been his waistcoat. It was not that; but for decorum we will so call it. The stray portion of his own supposed tunic was admonished of its errors by a forcible thrust-back into its proper home; but still another limbus persisted to emerge, or seemed to persist, and still another, until the learned gentleman absolutely perspired with the labour of re-establishing order. And, after all, he saw with anguish that some arrears of the snowy indecorum still remained to reduce into obedience. To this remnant of rebellion he was proceeding to apply himself— strangely confounded, however, at the obstinacy of the insurrection—when the mistress of the house, rising to lead away the ladies from the table, and all parties naturally rising with her, it became suddenly apparent to every eye that the worthy Orientalist had been most laboriously stowing away, into the capacious receptacles of his own habiliments—under the delusion that it was his own shirt—the snowy folds of a lady's gown, belonging to his next neighbour; and so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady's own use ; the natural consequence of which was, of course, that the lady appeared inextricably yoked to the learned theologian, and could not in any way effect her release, until after certain operations upon the vicar's dress, and a continued refunding and rolling out of snowy mazes upon snowy mazes, in quantities which at length proved too much for the gravity of the company. Inextinguishable laughter arose from all parties, except the erring and unhappy doctor, who, in dire perplexity, continued still refunding with all his might—perspiring and refunding—until he had paid up the last arrears of his long debt.
Should your symptoms persist, you are recommended to take this brief account of the "lisping Whig pedant" Dr. Parr, who, despite being "without personal dignity or conspicuous power of mind," was a frequent guest of Coleridge's friend Mr. Montagu:
Him now—this Parr—there was no conceivable motive for enduring ; that point is satisfactorily settled by the pompous inanities of his works. Yet, on the other hand, his habits were in their own nature far less endurable than Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ; for the monster smoked ;—and how did the "Birmingham Doctor" smoke ? Not as you, or I, or other civilized people smoke, with a gentle cigar—but with the very coarsest tobacco. And those who know how that abomination lodges and nestles in the draperies of window-curtains, will guess the horror and detestation in which the old Whig's memory is held by all enlightened women.
Those in need of a further medicament are probably, I'm afraid, beyond hope. 'Tis limericks and the limehouse for you, my friend.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The perils of friendship

{Photo by rocketlass, whose generally benign intentions I'm perhaps impugning by linking this photo to a post that's largely about the joys of misanthropy.}

In the most intense friendships of childhood, we want our friends to be just like us: we're looking for a twin, someone who reflects ourselves back to us with the added glow of both acknowledgment and appreciation. In adult life, however, we are willing to settle for--or, more accurately, prefer--significant, rather than total, overlap in tastes, opinions, and habits. More than that, and you get this:
I once had a friend who, over the long course of many years, gradually began to take on, as if by a process of osmosis, all of those quirks, opinions, and traits of character that I had always considered to be most deeply my own.

When I first made his acquaintance, for example, he had shown a marked preference for the sentimental excesses of the films of Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age” over the headier intellectual pleasures that characterize Italian neorealist cinema. After several years, however, he began to espouse, with equal fervor, precisely the opposite opinion; that is, a preference for Antonioni and Visconti over Capra, Hawks, and Sturges—an opinion that I had myself defended against all comers on occasions too numerous to mention.

Indeed, it would not be exaggerating the point to say that my friend’s entire worldview incrementally conformed itself to my own.
That's from Joseph Clayton Mills's "Insult," which I published a couple of years ago at Joyland. I selected "Insult" from a sheaf of stories, all about difficult, wayward, and/or recently dead friends, and I'm pleased to announce that the whole batch has now been published in a chapbook, Zyxt, by Entr'acte. The stories, which are all quite brief, most of them running to less than a page, are reminiscent of Borges in their playfulness, Calvino in their precision and concision, and, most important, Bernhard in their wry misanthropy. For, like those friends we invented when we had to describe our symptoms to the school nurse, these friends have problems, and--because their problems lie less with themselves as individuals than with humanity as an excrescence, suicide is frequently the only solution. Yet nearly as frequently as they are attempted, these suicides are botched, though, for better or for worse, more often in some aesthetic sense than in their basic, and thus final, execution.

The very short story "Ennui" is a good example:
I have a friend who, having hurled himself from a great height, was annoyed to discover that, in marked contrast to what he had been led to expect, the brief moments in which the ground hurtled up with ever greater clarity to greet him were marked by neither a heightened intensity of sensorial experience nor by a mystical epiphany of the preciousness of life. Rather, the rapid seconds of his fall were quite as suffused with boredom and ennui--and passed just as slowly--as every other moment in his short, yet interminable, existence.
"Graduate School," on the other hand, despite beginning with all the frustration and failure embodied in its titular subject--
On the verge of earning a PhD in economics from one of the more prestigious of the second-tier universities, having assiduously devoted himself entirely to academic study for a dozen years to the exclusion of all else, and indeed having sacrificed any semblance of a so-called personal life for the sake of his scholarly pursuits, a close friend of mine was struck a severe blow when his mentor--to whose groundbreaking theories my friend had long been a fanatical adherent and to the defense of whom all of my friend's own work was slavishly devoted--committed suicide at the age of eighty-three by placing his head in an oven.

Compounding my friend's misfortune, his beloved mentor had left for posterity a lengthy suicide note in which he completely repudiated all of his former work,demonstrating with the aid of recent insights derived from game theory that the ostensibly groundbreaking work to which he owed his considerable fame in academic circles was completely nonsensical.
--ultimately ends on a note of successful defiance. That said defiance involves yet another suicide is, though perhaps deplorable from a human point of view, ultimately only to be expected.

The book fairly runs over with the under-appreciated joys of misanthropy mixed with a fundamental love of human strangeness. The Randall Jarrell of Pictures from an Institution would have loved this book.There is no escape: these are our friends, trouble though they may be, and what are we without our friends? "I once had a friend with whom I found myself in complete agreement on every subject," says the narrator, but you can trust that things don't end well. At the same time, the friend who "was regarded by even his closest acquaintances as a horrible specimen of misanthropy" feels misapprehended; like Swift, his misanthropy comes from the disjunction between his idealistic vision of mankind's capacity and
what he invariably characterized as "humanity's beastly propensity for the base and vile" so difficult to endure in silence.
The disjunction does not end well.

The back cover of Zyxt is taken up by an index. If I haven't yet convinced you to order a copy, perhaps the index's four subdivisions of "Suicide" or its nine subdivisions of "Murder" will. Or its entries for Spinoza and Preston Sturges--if those twin brilliants of the pantheon, wild opposites even at the same time as they are both utterly indispensable, don't do it, then perhaps the misanthropists have the right idea after all.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lovecraft and loving New England

{Photo of the Giambi Zombie by rocketlass.}

One of the reasons I started this blog was so that I would be less inclined to read aloud, an activity which is only barely acceptable even in the presence of the most carefully chosen audience. Fortunately, that need not stop rocketlass, who launched me on tonight's post by reading aloud to me the following passage, which opens H. P. Lovecraft's "The Picture in the House" (1920):
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.
A sentiment with which Hawthorne, our great chronicler of New England's secret desires and corruptions, would surely agree.

The Lovecraft passage also reminds me of a page from Thoreau's journals (the new edition of which, edited by Damion Searls, should be on every bedside table as we ease into summer). On October 29, 1857, Thoreau, then forty years old, wrote:
There are some things of which I cannot at once tell whether I have dreamed them or they are real; as if.they were just, perchance, establishing, or else losing, a real basis in my world. This is especially the case in the early morning hours, when there is a gradual transition from dreams to waking thoughts, from illusions to actualities, as from darkness, or perchance moon and star light, to sunlight. Dreams are real, as is the light of the stars and moon, and theirs is said to be a dreamy light. Such early morning thoughts as I speak of occupy a debatable ground between dreams and waking thoughts. They are a sort of permanent dream in my mind. At least, until we have for some time changed our position from prostrate to erect, and commenced or faced some of the duties of the day, we cannot tell what we have dreamed from what we have actually experienced.

This morning, for instance, for the twentieth time at least, I thought of that mountain in the easterly part of our town (where no high hill actually is) which once or twice I had ascended, and often allowed my thoughts alone to climb. I now contemplate it in my mind as a familiar thought which I have surely had for many years from time to time, but whether anything could have reminded me of it in the middle of yesterday, whether I ever before remembered it in broad daylight, I doubt. I can now eke out the vision I had of it this morning with my old and yesterday forgotten dreams.

My way up used to lie through a dark and unfrequented wood at its base,—I cannot now tell exactly, it was so long ago, under what circumstances I first ascended, only that I shuddered as I went along (I have an indistinct remembrance of having been out overnight alone),—and then I steadily ascended along a rocky ridge half clad with stinted trees, where wild beasts haunted, till I lost myself quite in the upper air and clouds, seeming to pass an imaginary line which separates a hill, mere earth heaped up, from a mountain, into a superterranean grandeur and sublimity. What distinguishes that summit above the earthy line, is that it is unhandselled, awful, grand. It can never become familiar; you are lost the moment you set foot there. You know no path, but wander, thrilled, over the bare and pathless rock, as if it were solidified air and cloud. That rocky, misty summit, secreted in the clouds, was far more thrillingly awful and sublime than the crater of a volcano spouting fire.
I'm surely not alone in having fallen for the New England of Hawthorne, Lovecraft, Thoreau, and Emerson, feeling it as home--ancient and corrupt as it might be--despite never having lived there?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Leonard, Lev, and the servants

After Tuesday's post about Lev Grossman's Believer article about Leonard Woolf, fantasy, and modernism, Ed Park (who was Grossman's editor for the piece) sent me to a post on Grossman's new blog where he offers some background to the article. It's worth reading the whole post, in which, among other things, Grossman reveals that the article's origin lies in a conversation with his mother from nearly twenty years ago. But what stood out for me was this admission:
I’m pretty tired of writing these truncated little 650-word nuglets for Time. It felt good to type knowing that I didn’t have to stop when I came to the end of the little box.
I've always wondered about that, about how someone as talented and well-read as Grossman adapts to hammering out the briefest of summaries week after week.There's an art to it, unquestionably; writing short and on deadline can in its way be as difficult as writing long. But I'm not surprised to find that it can also be frustrating, especially as more and more online options emerge, with their--theoretically--unlimited word counts.

Grossman's adept use of the material of Leonard Woolf's volumes of memoir having tempted me to seek them out, I returned to my bookshelves to see what I could learn about them. Anthony Powell, no friend of Bloomsbury, wrote of the first volume, Sowing, for the Daily Telegraph in 1966 (when, almost unbelievably, Woolf was still alive), that
The narrative of the early years which culminated in Cambridge is extraordinarily well done. . . . Woolf writes in an incisive, rigorous rose, suited to his own uncompromising view of life. He gives the reader a clear idea of his own upbringing and what he was like as a boy. . . . At the same time one has the feeling that the author's at times almost brutal directness conceals a good deal of sensitiveness that has suffered in the past some hard blows.
From there he moves to analysis of Bloomsbury that seems indisputable even for a reader who, like me, is more inclined to appreciate the circle:
Accordingly, like others of the group, he found, in what was perhaps a certain basic lack of self-confidence, support in becoming a member of Bloomsbury; that community which had about it something of a small religious sect in the attitude of its adherents towards each other and to the outside world.
All of which, in the disjointed way that blogs are, with the reader's forbearance, on occasion allowed to be, leads me to share a moment from Alison Light's book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants (2008). The whole book is fascinating--I can't recommend it too highly--but the moment that most stood out for me came in this account of the summer of 1929, when the Woolfs had just purchased a rural cottage:
With Nellie away, Annie came in the mornings and made lunch, often leaving a pie for Virginia to cook for dinner. By three o'clock the Woolfs were alone--a complete and utter novelty. It is worth emphasizing. They had never been alone before in their own home. Thus the life of the British modern couple was inaugurated.
They had been married for seventeen years at that point.

As I washed the dishes tonight after a long day at the office, I'll admit to having temporarily dreamed of a life with servants, but Light reminds me that such a life is far, far from the right one for me.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"We think of fantasy and modernism as worlds apart, but somehow they always end up in the same place," or, Lev Grossman and Leonard Woolf

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Fresh off Sunday's post about Virginia Woolf, today I'll direct you to Lev Grossman's article about Leonard Woolf, "The Death of a Civil Servant," in the May issue of the Believer.

The essay is built around Woolf's time as a young civil servant in Ceylon, and this description of what he found when he arrived will give you a good idea of how well Grossman makes use of interesting details from Woolf's autobiographical writings:
Ceylon was a giant step forward into adulthood and independence for Woolf, but it was also a great leap backward--backward in time. Ceylon had yet to enter the twentieth century, at least as it was known in the Western world. "Before the days of the motor-car," Woolf wrote, "Colombo was a real Eastern city, swarming with human beings and flies, the streets full of flitting rickshas and creaking bullock carts, hot and heavy with the complicated smells of men and beasts and dung and oil and food and fruit and spice." The alien heat and gargantuan insects appalled Woolf. The day after he arrived he was reunited with [his terrier] Charles at the docks. Charles promptly peed on a passerby, who seemed not at all troubled by this, then threw up from the emotion and the sun. Crows flew down to eat the vomit. Welcome to Ceylon.
Grossman tells of Woolf's awkward friendship with another colonial official, a policeman and would-be poet and intellectual, B. J. Dutton, and he uses that friendship--and Woolf's near-horror at Dutton's fairy-and-fantasy-filled poems--as the ground from which to argue a convincing, fascinating case for modernism and fantasy as dark twins, born of the same moment and reacting to the same changes in society. As Grossman puts it,
Fantasy is a prelude to the apocalypse. Modernism is the epilogue.
That Grossman has a deep knowledge of and interest in fantasy won't surprise any readers of his novel from last year, The Magicians, in which a young man who has long dreamed of escaping into a fantasy world gets his chance--only to discover that the problems and weaknesses and disappointments and betrayals of ordinary life are not, after all, particularly amenable to magic. As Grossman puts it in his Believer piece,
Much of fantasy literature arises from this essential truth: that magic is not the end of all your problems, it's the beginning. Travel deeper into the realms of gold--farther up and farther in, as Aslan says--and you leave reality behind, but only to re-encounter it in transfigured form.
Given Grossman's nuanced understanding of fantasy, what's odd about The Magicians is that the occasional frustrations in this otherwise very satisfying novel seem to come from Grossman's rejection of one of the now-standard characteristics of fantasy literature: the carefully balanced, multi-book story arc. It's as if, because there can be no truly heroic quest in The Magicians, because the world--even, or perhaps especially, the magic world--simply isn't like that, then the story itself can't be made to fit the same the heroic shape we're used to. The result is that portions of the novel feel compressed, bits of its impressively imaginative world-building more suggested than fully worked out: the relationship, for example, between the magic school of Brakebills Academy and the larger world; or the mostly alluded-to post-graduate careers of its alumni; or the faculty, who are so intriguing a group that you wish they were allotted more space. A sequel apparently is in the works, and perhaps Grossman will flesh out some of these aspects in its pages, but within The Magicians itself I felt the lack.

All of which is not to take away from Grossman's achievement: The Magicians is completely captivating, and it's absolutely crammed with creative, surprising ideas and inventions, nearly all of which cohere impressively. A magical ordeal that involves a transformation from human into animal is wonderfully rendered, convincing in its depiction of the physical and mental alterations alike. The admission exam taken by potential students is simultaneously jaw-dropping and totally believable in its context--it's hard to imagine anyone who remembers being a talented student not smiling at its challenges (and sort of wishing they could take a crack at it). And a scene where an evil creature unexpectedly emerges in a classroom is one of the most intense and frightening scenes I've ever read. I read the book soon after it was published last spring, and it's stayed with me; now I'm impatient for the sequel.

{While you're waiting, you could do worse than to pick up the May Believer--the Grossman piece alone is worth the price of admission!}

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"What strange intoxication was it that he drew from books?"

From "The Pastons and Chaucer," by Virginia Woolf:
[S]ometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants, Sir John would sit, in broad daylight, reading. There, on the hard chair in the comfortless room with the wind lifting the carpet and the smoke stinging his eyes, he would sit reading Chaucer, wasting his time, dreaming--or what strange intoxication was it that he drew from books? Life was rough, cheerless, and disappointing. A whole year of days would pass fruitlessly in dreary business, like dashes of rain on the window-pane. There was no reason in it as there had been for his father; no imperative need to establish a family and acquire an important position for children who were not born, or, if born, had no right to bear their father's name. But Lydgate's poems or Chaucer's, like a mirror in which figures move brightly, silently, and compactly, showed him the very skies, fields, and people whom he knew, but rounded and complete. Instead of waiting listlessly for news from London or piecing out from his mother's gossip some country tragedy of love and jealousy, here, in a few pages, the whole story was laid before him. And then as he rode or sat at table he would remember some description or saying which bore upon the present moment and fixed it, or some string of words would charm him, and putting aside the pressure of the moment, he would hasten home to sit in his chair and learn the end of the story.
I think most people who have briefly encountered Virginia Woolf's novels think of her prose as suffering from a lack of forthrightness, a wispiness--that, trapped by her efforts to reconstruct the tattered patterns of human thought, her writing never quite gets anywhere, leaving us where we started, in the undifferentiated fog of consciousness. And, despite being a Woolf fan and ready to defend her against such charges, I do understand how a reader who makes but casual acquaintance with her work could feel that way: her fiction is far from immediately welcoming, offering few of the comfortable footholds we have come to expect as we ease into a novel.

But her nonfiction, oh, that's a different story. Clear, balanced, precise, full of rich description and memorable scenes, yet, at its best, nearly as surprising in its approaches and conclusions as her fiction. The passage above comes from the opening essay in The Common Reader (1925), and its springboard was a six-volume collection of fifteenth-century letters of the Paston family. The Pastons lived on a manor that had been bought from a son of Chaucer, and from that--and Margaret Paston's continual complaints about her son's neglect of his duties in favor of his reading--Woolf spins out a detailed, lively vision of a lonely existence in "the most desolate part of England," where there is but a single road, with a hole in it "big enough to swallow a carriage," where the chimney smokes and the drafts wail, where
Tom Topcroft, the mad bricklayer, has broken loose again and ranges the country half-naked, threatening to kill any one who approaches him.
The desolation of her scene deliciously set, she brings on Chaucer--and, oh, if we've fallen into a habit of taking for granted the joy and escape found in reading, by the time Sir John is ensconced in his library as if in a fortress Woolf has made it impossible for us to do so any longer.

She moves on to do the same for the charms and surprises and humor of Chaucer:
To learn the end of the story--Chaucer can still make us wish to do that. He has pre-eminently that story-teller's gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day. Nothing happens to us as it did to our ancestors; events are seldom important; if we recount them, we do not really believe in them; we have perhaps things of greater interest to say, and for these reasons natural story-tellers like Mr Garnett*, whom we must distinguish from self-conscious story-tellers like Mr Masefield**, have become rare. For the story-teller, besides his indescribable zest for facts, must tell his story craftily, without undue stress or excitement, or we shall swallow it whole and jumble the parts together; he must let us stop, give us time to think and look about us, yet always be persuading us to move on.
Having been myself in the clutches of a great storyteller--Dorothy Dunnett--all weekend, with that I will close this and return to sitting on my back steps with my book. What better way to spend these last few hours of sunny weekend daylight?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rob a bookstore . . . get some books!

Usually, business owners want Parker to stay as far away as possible. My local bookstore, 57th Street Books, is inviting him in. Sort of. They're having a contest, calling for people to write and submit stories about Parker knocking over a bookstore--and because Parker hates wasted effort, they're only accepting stories of 350 words or less.

The winner will receive a set of the first twelve Richard Stark reissues from my employer, the University of Chicago Press. Second prize is a copy of Darwyn Cooke's graphic adaptation of The Hunter, and third will get you a Parker poster. You can find all the details here.

Oh, and I'm going to be one of the judges. Get writing, Parker fans!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back to the Cardboard Universe

The announcement late last month that this fall Houghton Mifflin Harcourt would be publishing an edited version of Philip K. Dick's 8,000-page notebook of spiritual visions, Exegesis, sent me right back to Christopher Miller's Dick-based satire, Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank. I wrote about the new Dick and Miller's book for the Constant Conversation earlier tonight, but as I flipped through The Cardboard Universe, I kept finding more bits that I really wanted to share.

Like this sample of Dank's writing, drawn from F for Fatal, a novel about a murderous professor whose gradebook includes a column headed "Obnox," in which most students have at least one mark, and all the murdered students have ten:
In retrospect, the newspapers and other media would later come to wittily refer to this as the "Obnoxiousness Score," being as the students testified that the notorious professor never showed the least annoyment in the classroom, but, instead, that any time that a pupil said or did something in class that was obnoxious, the poker-faced professor would thoughtfully nod and, then, make a cryptical notation next to the offending scholar's name in his notorious grade book.
The guidebook is written by two Dank experts, one of whom--the one behind this entry--can't stand Dank or his work. He writes of the above passage:
Where to begin with such a sentence--such an embarrassment of poverties? The redundancy of "later" and "in retrospect"? The solitary "this," shipwrecked an ocean away from the homeland of its antecedent? The self-congratulating "wittily" with which Dank splits his infinitive? The clunky repetition of "notorious," or the even more ham-fisted effort to avoid a repetition of "students"? The way that those on the far side of the lectern--be they students, pupils, or scholars--know not only that the poker-faced professor's notation concerns the most recently obnoxious of their number, but also that it is "cryptical"? The annoyment of the non-words that made up so big a part of Dank's vocabulary? I could go on, but suffice it to say that F for Fatal is composed entirely of sentences, or "sentences" like the above, and so it's quite a slog--"like wading through glue," as Tennyson said of Ben Jonson.
The vitriol is bracing, no?

More succinct, but just as vicious, is the entry for "If Looks Could Kill":
Short-short story. Should be shorter. Title says it all.*
The asterisk, meanwhile, leads to a footnote by the guide's other editor, a fawning Dank apologist. The footnote gives an idea of the interplay that drives the plot that emerges from the guide as it moves through the alphabet:
* If my collaborator din't want to summarize the piece in question, he should have let me. "If Looks Could Kill"--inspired by my explanation of a game called Laser Tag to which I'd just been introduced by my students--imagines a terrifying world where people can kill one another just by glaring hard enough.
The book is long--522 pages--and it's a mark of Miller's inventiveness and humor that despite the constraints of its format it held my interest throughout. Between this book and Steve Hely's How I Became a Famous Novelist, last year was a good one for the comic novel.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Descend the stairs of humility!" or, more on Jack Sheppard

Saturday's post about Jack Sheppard left out one important part: the role God played in Sheppard's jailbreaking exploits.

Kelly Grovier opens his account of Sheppard's career in The Gaol with a sermon that was delivered from a London pulpit soon after Sheppard's fourth and final escape:
Oh, that ye were all like Jack Sheppard! Mistake me not, my brethren--I don't mean in a carnal, but in a spiritual sense; for I propose to spiritualize these things. What a shame it would be if we should not think it worth our while to take as much pains, and employ as many deep thoughts to save our souls as he has done to preserve his body!

Let me exhort ye, then, to open the locks of your hearts with the nail of repentance! Burst asunder the fetters of your beloved lusts! --mount the chimney of hope! --take from thence the bar of good resolution! --break through the stone wall of despair, and all the strongholds in the dark entry of the valley of the shadow of death! Raise yourself to the leads of divine meditation! --fix the blanket of faith with the spike of the church! let yourselves down to the turner's house of resignation, and descend the stairs of humility! So shall you come to the door of deliverance from the prison of iniquity, and escape the clutches of that old executioner the Devil!
Leaving aside the silliness of the sermon's central conceit, I have to admire some of the imagery. For every one that doesn't work--"the leads of divine meditation," "the chimney of hope"--there's one that works beautifully, like "the blanket of faith" and "the stairs of humility." (Is it a mark of immaturity and prurience that when the word "mount" follows the word "lusts," it's not a chimney I expect to be mounted?)

Sheppard, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy invoking God's name throughout his public career. Of his wife, Bess, who at one point betrayed him to Jonathan Wild, he said,
There is not a more wicked, deceitful, lascivious wretch living in England. God forgive her. I do.
More brazen by far was Sheppard's testimony in the Old Bailey when he was offered immunity in exchange for testimony against his unknown co-conspirators. According to Grovier,
Jack refused to co-operate and took umbrage at the suggestion that his prison breaks were in any way staged. His only help, he exclaimed to gasps of horror from the bench, had come from God.
It wasn't confidence in God, however, that gave Sheppard at least an appearance of calm as he faced the gallows:
Hopeful that the resuscitation efforts that would inevitably take place immediately after the hanging might actually succeed, Sheppard turned down the opportunity to address the crowd at length and invited those in attendance to purchase the pamphlet entitled A narrative of all the robberies, escapes, &c., of John Sheppard, written by himself and printed by John Applebee of Blackfriars, which he said contained his final confession and which he stood to profit substantially from if he were to be revived.
The press of the crowd, however, prevented any real efforts at resuscitation, unlikely as their success might have been.

Within two weeks, however, Sheppard had been resurrected--with the help, though, not of any god, but of a mere dramatist. He was the main character in a play called Harlequin Sheppard; A Night Scene in Grotesque Characters that was "a bizarre balletic reconstruction" of his final escape, with the lead played by an actor who went so far as to visit Sheppard in Newgate days before his execution. To repeated questions about the details of his escape, Sheppard reportedly replied, "I should be glad to have it in my power to play my own part."

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Jack Sheppard escapes . . . and escapes . . . and escapes . . .

{Portrait of Jack Sheppard by James Thornhill, 1724}

Feeling imprisoned by gray and gloomy weather, I spent the morning flipping through Kelly Grovier's recent popular history of Newgate Prison, The Gaol (2008). The best story I've come across thus far is that of thief and highwayman Jack Sheppard, who escaped from prison four times in seven months in 1724, including twice from Newgate.

His escape from St. Giles, a relatively pedestrian matter of digging through the ceiling of his cell, made him famous, but it was easily topped by his subsequent escape from Clerkenwell with his wife, a "pudgy cutpurse and prostitute" named Bess. Grovier's account reveals the lax standards of security that prevailed at the prison, as
a steady stream of visitors succeeded . . . in slipping Sheppard sharp tools--bits of broken-off saw and picks. Before long their cell was strewn with iron filings and oak shards as Sheppard cut his way through fourteen pounds of fetters and the nine-inch wood plank that barred the window. Strips from Bess's petticoat and ripped-up sheets were knotted into a makeshift rope down which the two abseiled into the adjoining exercise yard of the Bridewell House of Correction. What happened next would instantly enter local legend. Hoisting Bess--which was itself a challenge--on to his shoulder, his feet groping in the moonlight for a grip on the slippery bolts and hinges of a conveniently situated gate, Sheppard scaled the twenty-two-foot wall that separated the couple from freedom and whirled his rotund mistress down to the street below. . . . "It has been allow'd by all the Jayl-Keepers in London," one pamphlet would relate, an escape "so Miraculous was never perform'd before in England; the broken Chains and Bars are kept at New Prison to Testifie, and preserve the Memory of this extraordinary Villain."

Perhaps not quite as impressive on its face as Casanova's escape from the Doge's Palace over the leads, but then Casanova didn't have to bring along any of his lady friends.

Partly through the offices of the endlessly fascinating double agent Jonathan Wild (whom Fielding immortalized), Sheppard was soon recaptured, having returned to crime, as Defoe put it, "like a dog to his vomit." Remanded to Newgate, he quickly escaped yet again, this time dressed (with the aid of Bess, who remained free) as a woman.

Brought in one more time, placed in "the Castle," Newgate's central cell, and facing certain hanging based on perjured--if accurate in spirit--testimony cooked up by Wild, Sheppard proceeded to mount one last escape. Grovier's account delivers the full drama of the scene, alongside Sheppard's impressive determination. He jimmied his handcuffs with a nail, escaped his leg irons through some contortions, and climbed the chimney to the disused room above his cell. But he was still far from free:
The locks presented little challenge to Jack, nor did a series of others on his way to the prison chapel. Finding the chapel door bolted from the inside, Jack rammed the door repeatedly with the crow bar that he had [pried from the chimney and] brought with him. Eventually, he punched a hole large enough for him to slip his slender hand through and he was able to reach in and slide back the bolt. So he went, through door after bolted door without so much as a match to help him see in the darkness, anxiously expecting to hear the clatter of boots galloping after him at any moment. Eventually, Jack found himself standing on the ledge of the Upper Leads of the prison, too high above the roofs below to leap safely.

Teetering precariously on the brink of either freedom or death, Jack Sheppard made on of the most remarkable decisions of his short life. He climbed back inside the prison to retrace his footsteps to the Castle and retrieve the bedclothes from his cell, out of which to fashion a rope. Back down the chimney and up again, trampling broken door handles and bolts as he ran, Jack made it back to the ledge, tied the end of the riped sheets to a pennant hook and lowered himself down on to the roof of William Bird.

Now that escape does seem worthy of Casanova; Wild's determination reminds me of Casanova;s answer to a fellow prisoner the night he made his escape attempt:
He asked me my plans at once, telling me he thought I had taken my first steps too lightly.

"I only ask," I answered him, "to carry on until I find freedom or death."
Unlike Casanova, who escaped to Paris and a long life of debauchery, Sheppard found not one but both--or, rather, he found freedom, and death found him, as he was eventually recaptured and hanged before an enormous crowd at Tyburn.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

"So many potty ladies, so many biographies!"

I wrote quite a bit about So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald when it was published in England in 2008, so I was pleased to discover today that it finally reached America officially last month, being published in paperback by Fourth Estate.

I wrote about the book for the Constant Conversation tonight, but no volume of letters worth its salt is ever exhausted, so I've got a couple of additional bits to share here.

First, this paragraph from a letter Fitzgerald sent to Colin Haycraft, her editor at Duckworth, on April 11, 1978, when she was in the midst of her ultimately unsuccessful attempt to write a biography of L. P. Hartley:
I did succeed in getting invited to LPH's childhood home, unchanged since 1900, with the old brass electric light fittings and baths &c., and by talking to his sister I got the psychological key to his novels, every novelist has one, I suppose, the situation his mind goes back to when he's alone--and I also discovered that his manservant was trying to poison him with veronal and that was why his bank manager locked him up and forced him to make a will, not in the manservant's favour--I was surprised when Frabcus [King, her friend] commented on this, that surely anyone would prefer to be murdered by someone they loved, rather than have them leave and blackmail you--these seemed to him the only alternatives, but I can think of so many other duller ones.
Good god, can I ever!

Then there's this line from a note she sent her editor, Richard Ollard, after a domestic accident that sent her to the emergency room:
The next case brought in after me was an O/D-M/D--overdose, marital disagreement.
DSo I Have Thought of You is so full of pleasures that no one who has fallen for Fitzgerald's brilliantly lean, piercingly perceptive novels should be without it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Glamorous World of Publishing, Revealed!

The press of work--which, for all its pleasures, Jules Renard was apt in describing as
a little like a prison: how many pleasant, passing things it keeps us from seeing!
--is rendering blogging difficult this week. So what better to do than, in honor of my employer's semi-annual sales conference, hew, however briefly, to a theme of publishing!

First, from David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), I offer you an awkward encounter between a vanity publisher and one of his authors, an unreconstructed British gangster who is upset that his book isn't being sufficiently promoted or appreciated:
I explained to him for the hundredth time how an author-partnership set-up like Cavendish Publishing simply cannot fritter away money on fancy catalogues and team-building go-karting weekends for sales forces. I explained, yet again, that my authors derived fulfilment from presenting their handsomely bound volumes to friends,to family, to posterity. I explained, yet again, that the gangster-chic market was saturated; and that even Moby-Dick bombed in Melville's lifetime, though I did not deploy that particular verb.
Being a gangster, the author quickly salvages the situation with a spot of spectacular violence, the resulting publicity from which sells out print run after print run.

Which leads nicely into this jotting from the notebooks of New Directions founder James Laughlin, published in his odd little posthumous semi-memoir The Way It Wasn't (2006), about an author who found a much more humane way to boost sagging sales:
WOW! Guess who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry! Our little old George Oppen. Totally a surprise, but nice . . . His sales on the book which won were negative for 1968, i.e.--more returns than sales. Salesmen begged me last year--"No more Oppen, please"--we just can't sell him. Waiting to see their Rosy Visages this Thursday at Sales Meeting in Phila.
And Oppen, a few of whose books are currently in a box in my basement while we wait (and wait and wait) to sell our condominium, leads me to a dream I had a week or two ago:
I woke to find Ruk, the tall, menacing android from the Star Trek episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of?"*, looming over my bed. "Come," he said, and then he led me into our second bedroom. Pointing to the bookcase--the one lonely bookcase, of twelve, that we've retained in our newly spare, depersonalized condo--Ruk shook his head and said, "Not one bookcase. One bookshelf."

Fortunately I woke for real before I had to begin the agonizing process of further winnowing, and Ruk hasn't paid any subsequent visits to check my compliance.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

"Golden-skinned boys and girls playing roulette with highballs in every hand," or, Sunday morning coming down

Like the raucous seagulls circling Wrigley Field in the ninth inning of yesterday's game, preparing to scarf up the inevitable hot dog puke, Sunday morning waits patiently for the weekend reveler, knowing he will require its quiet for rest, regret, and recovery. For those readers who fall into that category, I offer this morning some dissipated selections from Edmund Wilson's journals of the 1920s.

I'll start with a scene, interpolated by Wilson years later as he re-read his notebooks, that is enough to strike horror into the heart of any man who can recall his first illicit visit to a certain carefully monitored drug store aisle:
I decided that I had now been innocent long enough and decided to buy a condom. I went to a drugstore on Greenwich Avenue and watched nervously from outside to be sure that there were no women there. I then went in and inquired. The clerk withdrew to the back counter and produced a condom of rubber, which he highly recommended, blowing it up like a balloon in order to show me how reliable it was. But the condom, thus distended, burst, and this turned out to be something of an omen. I soon got over my shyness with women, but I was a victim of many of the hazards of sex--from which I might have been saved by previous experience: abortions, gonorrhea, entanglements, a broken heart.
What I wonder is whether that druggist put on the same demonstration for every young man who asked for a condom, or if he sensed a particular susceptibility to embarrassment in Wilson? And, with that in mind: might it all have been a prank, the condom intentionally ruptured to throw a fright into the affected fop who'd had the temerity to inquire about it?

Along those lines, this account of Wilson's friend Ted Paramore, from 1921, is lively and ridiculous in its portrayal of uncertain young male sexuality:
The girl he got away from Donald Douglas. --"She wasn't very good. She wasn't very pretty but she had a good body." --She finally made him feel so ashamed, however, that he gave her up: "She said, 'You make me feel as if I were on a barren plain whipped by a bitter wind!' --And I ---!" --business of hanging his head in abasement. --But the first time he had been to see her, he was enormously set up the next morning--he came in to see me, beaming, and said it had restored his self-confidence. She had "made him breakfast and everything."
It strikes me that any woman who can come up with that image of the barren plain probably deserved better than the apparently feckless Paramore, who, elsewhere in the journal, is seen attending a ball as a "vulture,"
that is, he went as a stag and spent the evening trying to pass out old men and steal their young mistresses.
Now, in reverse of the way things usually progress, we'll move from sex to drink. Having expressed doubt about Ted Paramore, it seems only fair to let him offer a bit of irrefutable wisdom:
"At these parties they get absolutely soused, then they begin to get Ritzy, and at the same time they keep falling off the chairs. You can't try to high-hat everybody and fall off chairs at the same time."
Then, a brief look in on a 1921 party at the apartment of Cleon Throckmorton, a theatrical set designer:
I came in and found the room full of people whom I took at first to be the cast of Orpheus. I went over to Catherine Throckmorton and we sat down together--she was just drunk enough to be partly speechless and to have assumed, as she often does under those circumstances, a bogus foreign accent.
Finally, because a night of drinking with Edmund Wilson wouldn't be complete without Ring Lardner and Scott Fitzgerald, here's an early morning--following a late-night--scene at Lardner's house:
Zelda had gone to sleep in an armchair, and covered herself with a shawl. . . . Lardner read teh golf rules aloud. (This was a little book put out by the local golf club. Lardner read these rules at length with a cold and somber scor that was funny, yet really conveyed his disgust with his successful suburban life.) --Then we went back to the Fitzgeralds' Lardner and I started talkign abotu the oil scandal, and Fitz fell asleep in his chair. Lardner and I went on talking about baseball, Heywood Broun, Lardner's writing, the Americanized Carmen, the Rascoes, etc. Deep blue patches appeared at the windows. I couldn't at first think what they were--then I realized it was the dawn. The birds tuned up one at a time It grew light. It was seven o'clock. Scott asked what we had been talking about. Lardner said we had been talking about him. --"I suppose you analyzed me ruthlessly."
Am I wrong, when I picture the livers of that generation, in imagining something just sub-Lovecraftian in its inchoate horror?

Now that we've reached the morning after, lest you harbor hopes that your gentleman's gentleman might sidle quietly into your room with a restorative, you first might want to be reminded that not all servants are as reliably comforting as Jeeves:
At dinner, Mrs Murphy sat mumbling about the butler-they always did manage to have such sinister servants, don't you now? "I really feel there's something wrong about him--I'm really afraid of him--even though his wife is such a good cook, I really think I'll have to discharge him!" "Well, Mother, I really don't think you're very good if you allow yourself to be intimidated by your own servants!" "Well, but you don't have to be in the house with him continually as I do--I really don't think it's safe to be in the house alone with him--I really think I'll have to let him go!"
Perhaps, like Wilson himself, you're fortunate enough to need little restorative aside from the Sunday itself:
That vague and charming feeling of coming to (no doubt a dose of aspirin contributed to these sensations) after having been drunk the night before, very late in the day--of going out and finding the warm May day, the people out on the Avenue in their Sunday clothes and riding on the top of the buses; of lying inside and hearing, from behind the lowered shades, where a bright sun comes in through a hole, the cries of children playing in the street and the sound of boat whistles. We leave the windows up during the day and the shades up at night: we don't need to shut ourselves up any longer.
And, if you can make it through the fog-headed morning,
At night, the park in a warm obscurity plaited with the bright pearls of lamps, the taxis moving on their errands--they seem more genial, more attractive now--the first soft mysteries of the city summer.
Swozzled or sober, enjoy this first real summer Sunday of the year, secure in the knowledge that there are plenty more to come--maybe not that endless string that stretched before us in childhood, but a sufficient number for the more modest ambitions of adulthood.