Friday, July 30, 2010

Churchill and the bottle

One of the books I'm taking on my vacation is the first volume of William Manchester's monumental biography of William Churchill, The Last Lion (1983), a book that one of my coworkers loves so much that he practically tears up when talking about how much he envies me for the fact that I still get to look forward to reading it for the first time.

Thus far, all I've read is the introduction, which, as advertised, is masterly and captivating. Today I'll just share a brief note about Churchill's drinking:
[H]e continued to build the image of a tireless embodiment of machismo who ate, smoked, and drank, all to excess. It survives to this day. Actually, most of the stories of his alcohol intake are myth. It is true that he started each day with a scotch and soda. What is not generally known is that he made that drink last until lunch, and that the amount of liquor he put away over a twenty-four-hour day was surprisingly modest. You would never have known it to hear him talk. He wanted to be remembered as a two-bottle man, like Pitt, and he cultivated the yarns about his drinking with characteristic aplomb. Once he asked Frederick Lindermann--"the Prof," a scientific wizard who later became Lord Cherwell--how many boxcars could be filled with the champagne he had drunk in his lifetime. The Prof replied: "Only part of one." Churchill sighed. He said: "So little time and so much to achieve."
My ambitions, fortunately, for my health, are much smaller.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

One of the many attractions of writing a crime novel . . .

. . . would be getting to write scenes like this one, from Nic Pizzolatto's impressive, dark new novel, Galveston:
The girl said her name was Raquel and everyone called her Rocky. She was mostly terrified, and given what she'd been through, a lot of people might have switched off, but she talked like a mynah bird. I suspect that sometime before the night's events, she had learned that you can lie with anything. "My last name's Arceneaux." She pronounced it Arson, oh. "Are you going to kill me?"

"No. Stop asking me that."
Live through? Preferably not. Write? Hell, yes.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Golden Rule, as described to God

You can never go wrong reading Stephen Burt's posts on poetry from the London Review of Books blog, and last week's, about an old anthology compiled by Auden was particularly good. It deserves your attention if for no other reason than that it passes on the following lovably odd bit of verse:
Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:
Ha’e mercy o’ my soul, Lord God,
As I wad do, were I Lord God
And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.
The tiniest bit of searching reveals that the lines come from an 1863 novel by George MacDonald, David Elginbrod. They appear as an epitaph for an ancestor of the hero, and are, apparently, more or less the only reason the novel is now remembered at all.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Circumspection, trust, and Dorothy Dunnett

I'm off on vacation next week, and all this week as I've been thinking through what books I would bring with me, I kept telling myself that I wouldn't bring the fifth volume of Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo Rising series. I needed a week away from early Renaissance Europe, I told myself--and {SPOILER ALERT!} as I made my way through the final pages of the fourth volume, Scales of Gold, that seemed completely reasonable: it really seemed as if, at the halfway point in the series, Dunnett was going to let Niccolo find some peace, allow him a sort of emotional plateau from which she could begin the second half of her extended account of his life and adventures. But oh, after 2,750 pages I should have known her better: the final half-dozen pages of the novel delivered such incredible, unexpected body blows . . . and now I find myself tucking volume five into my bag for tomorrow's drive . . .

Which leads me to what I promise is my last Dunnett note for a good while. Late in Scales of Gold I encountered a passage that I think gives a good sense of a quality of Dunnett's writing that I've not yet touched on: her preference for obliqueness and circumspection, which, if one makes allowances for the fact that she's writing historical adventure novels, rivals that found in The Tale of Genji. If a point can be made indirectly, if a revelation can be delivered sidelong, then that is how Dunnett prefers to give it, and in doing so she demands an attention from her reader that would be utterly foreign to most popular fiction.

Sometimes this approach turns up as simple foreshadowing, characters noticing something that we don't have the awareness to see; at other times, it's more difficult and impressive, with discoveries or facts or even major plot points presented through elliptical references that rely on a close attention to and understanding of the characters involved. She relies on this approach frequently enough that I might call it a tic, or a flaw--if, that is, I weren't so impressed by the confidence in her reader that it demonstrates.

Which is all by way of preamble to my unimportant, but telling example. Scales of Gold finds Niccolo's company scattered across Europe, tending to various parts of the trading enterprise. The following scene comes as Niccolo has returned to Bruges from three years in Africa. The entire company has endured a long day of ceremonial welcomes, which means the end of the day finds much business still to be discussed with Gregorio, one of the company's managers, who himself has just that day returned to Bruges and been reunited with his mistress. Late in the evening, Nicholas visits the room of his friend and traveling companion, Father Godscalc,
after he had spent time with Tilde and Catherine and Diniz, and had told Gregorio not to wait, since he was too tired to see him tonight.

Godscalc smiled when Nicholas reported that to him. The priest was not in bed but, wrapped in a robe, was resting in a chair with a back, his feet propped on a stool. He said, "If you had not brought him Margot, he would be a sorrowful man. Are you tired?"
Now that I've called this out, the meaning is obvious. Nicholas told a white lie to Gregorio in order to free him to hurry to his much-missed mistress--but picture this as one little paragraph in a 520-page novel, in a 4,000-page series, and you surely will begin to see what I mean: Dunnett trusts in--counts on--her readers paying attention and knowing her characters. And, as with a trusting parent or a hands-off boss, she makes us want to be the reader she supposes us to be.

Next week will be light--probably just a few quotes, at best, while I'm away. See you in August.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Yet I love him when he is kind and normal and full of human weakness," or, The Terrible Tolstoys

If you haven't seen it, you should check out the great article by James Meek in the July 22nd issue of the London Review of Books about the Tolstoy marriage and its end. Prompted by a handful of new books, including a new edition of Sofia Tolstoy's diaries that will be published here in the fall, the piece offers all the jaw-dropping craziness and mutual torment that we're used to encountering any time we look into that endlessly fascinating (and troubling) marriage:
There was happiness and love between the couple, particularly in the early years; despite his increasingly Talibanic public stance about even conjugal sex, they kept making love into old age. But from the beginning their marriage was punctuated by mutual jealousy, by fights by a sense that they were suffocating each other, by Sofya Andreyevna's fear that he was withholding both his mind and his heart from her, and that, if she withheld her mind and heart from him, he wouldn't care.

"If I could kill him and create a new person exactly the same as he is now, I would do so happily," she wrote a few months after they were married.
I'm not actually sure what Sofia means by that statement--unless that the act of murdering her husband would be pleasing if it could be undone--but its impossibility, following as it does here Meeks's succinct account of the basic, intractable problem of their marriage, seems emblematic.

And then there's the fundamental sadness--and crazy, curdled idealism--of the couples' mutually shared diaries:
Sofia Andreyevna’s voice as she writes about the Kreutzer episode indicates the evolution of her idea of her audience; that she might be addressing posterity, or her husband’s audience, as well as herself and her descendants. From the beginning, she was addressing Tolstoy. As a prelude to their marriage, Tolstoy asked if she kept a diary and, when she said she had kept one since she was 11, asked if he could read it. She refused, and let him read a short story she had written instead. In the week between his proposal and their wedding, he gave her his diaries to read. She read of his drinking, gambling and sexual adventures and of the child he’d fathered with a peasant woman. She was, she wrote later, ‘shattered’ by his ‘excess of honesty’.

So the idea was set in motion of the mutual reading of supposedly personal diaries, and at times the entries in the diaries of husband and wife reflect the fact that they are speaking to each other while pretending to have secret thoughts. As relations between the couple became stale and formal, Sofia Andreyevna valued free, exclusive and continuous access to Tolstoy’s diaries as a surrogate for the great man’s love and friendship.
Any ground would do for the site of a battle between the two, so I suppose had they not shared their diaries, they'd likely have found another way to score all the points and mount all the defenses contained therein. But what must it do to a relationship--to a self--to have to actively reconstruct and shape it retrospectively, day by day, as part of a never-ending offensive? To pretend to openness yet know, even as you deny it to yourself, that you're mounting an argument at least as much as you're recounting events?

Oh, 'tis a good thing the Tolstoys aren't with us in the age of the blog. Now that would get ugly, fast.

Monday, July 19, 2010

And now let us praise Dorothy Dunnett. Again.

This weekend, as I made my joyful way through Scales of Gold (1991), the fourth volume of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, I realized that I've now read more than 2,500 pages by Dunnett since I first picked her up in May. Even for someone who spends nearly every spare minute reading, that's a lot of pages by one author, and that realization made me think I should take another pass at explaining just what it is about her books that's captivated me so completely.

I wrote about her deft handling of intrigue a while back, and that's definitely what initially drew my interest. But what's kept me reading her, and what makes her stand out from other historical novelists I've read with less pleasure, is her ability to present the fruits of her copious research in such as way as to simply make them part of the story, and often of the mere backdrop of the story.

Her characters and settings are all obviously historical--early Renaissance, in the case of the House of Niccolo series, which follows a merchant adventurer from Bruges--but her presentation of that history is remarkable for its combination of confidence in her storytelling and in her readers. She is never guilty of over-explaining, whether it's a question of historical events or of terms that are sure to be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. Rather than break the flow of her narrative--and our belief in her setting--with explanations, she trusts that her reader will simply look up what they don't know. And it is in large part, I think, that refusal to pander, to contextualize and explain, that allows her to present her scenes, be they of everyday life or high adventure, commerce or warfare, with a confidence and clarity that belies our knowledge that she can't know firsthand of what she writes.

So, for example, her depiction in Niccolo Rising of the celebrated arrival in Bruges of the year's trading ships from Venice is vivid and fascinating; her sixty-page telling in King Hereafter of a day-long battle in eleventh-century Scotland is as clear, harrowing, wearing, and believable as any historical account of the last century's wars; and her incidental descriptions of the operations of fifteenth-century dyeworks and sugar mills give a strong sense of the ins-and-outs of running such businesses.

Along the way, she offers many beautifully detailed descriptions of unimportant moments, scenes that, in the hands of an author more focused on making a point, or drawing parallels to our own time, or simply less confident in the attention span of her audience, would have been passed over briefly. And that is where I want to turn in this post. I'm quoting the scene below at far greater length than I usually would, but I think it's worth it to give a full sense of the powers Dunnett brings to her writing, the way she tells history without ever seeming like she's telling history.

The scene comes early in Scales of Gold, and it tells of the launching of a newly commissioned ship, with which Niccolo, the Bruges merchant, plans to sail on a trading mission to Africa:
The ship rode in deep water, her masts rocking, her passengers out of the way as she made ready to sail. They had practised this, the formal routine of departure, and Nicholas knew it by heart. He took his place on the high vestibule of the poop, watching without seeming to watch as the orders passed from captain to mate, and from mate to the helm and the mariners. The bare feet thudded on deck: stowing the companionway; hooking the tackle and hoisting the ship's boats inboard.

A whistle blew and was followed by jerks of racketing noise: the anchor-chain coming in, bringing the new, two-hundred-pound anchor strewn with weed and sand that would be unlike the weed and sand of its next bedding. Then a rush and a chanting of voices and the ship trembled as the triangular foresail rose and broke out, followed by the great racking heave as the mainsail began to ride up.

The helm stirred. The caravel moved, the sea bathing her flank. The smell of paint struck Nicholas for the last time, and the odours of sawn wood and resin and pristine white hemp, and the great flaxen draught of new canvas as the mainsail shook out its folds and was pulled in and bellied, and the mizzen sail followed.

Then the wind found her and nudged, and for the first time the San Niccolo heeled, dipping her gleaming black flank in the sea, and all the limp smells of earth were blown through her and vanished. The second mate, gripping a trumpet, came up the ladder and stood, his gaze switching from the captain to the six handgunners dodging across to the rail, match in hand. Nicholas turned his eyes to the shore, slowly receding.

The wharf was crowded, and the rough beach, and the path along the edge of the estuary. Not only the King's representatives but the whole of Lagos had come to watch the San Niccolo leave; for those who had not built her had equipped and provisioned her, and those who had done none of these had stood on the shore waving off other ships bound for Bilad Ghana, the Country of Wealth, and had seen them return as, God willing, this pretty caravel would, laden with parrots and feathers and ostrich eggs, and Negroes, and gold.

On board, the trumpeter's fanfare rang out: a strong one, for he had good lungs, and he did it for pleasure. Then, gay as fireworks, there came a crackle of fire from the red-capped schioppettieri on deck, hazed in smoke and coughing and panting from their stint in the yards. Behind them, stamping into rough line, stood those seamen who could be spared.

On shore, the Governor lifted his hand. A grey posy of smoke showed itself on the wall of the fort, heralding the thunder of its number one culverin, followed by the second and third, up to six. The noise knocked from end to end of the bay, sending up screaming birds and punctuating the roar from hundreds of throats as, bonnets in hand, the town of Lagos bade them Godspeed.
Can't you see it? It's the certainty that strikes me most strongly: this is the way it was, she is saying. The smells, the sounds, the incidental sights--the "grey posy of smoke," the second mate's "gaze switching from the captain to the six handgunners," the seamen "who could be spared," "stumping into rough line."

If this doesn't convince you to give Dunnett a try, I don't know what will. But if it does, be warned: if you're like me, you'll start fretting about running out before you're even a third of the way through her oeuvre.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"This perfect thing is made of gin and vermouth," Or, A toast to Bernard DeVoto

{Photo by rocketlass of our talented nephew happily making a drink he wouldn't be drinking.}

From Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade (1955), by Patrick Dennis:
My advancement that summer of 1929, if not what Every Parent's Magazine would recommend, was remarkable. I learned to make what Mr. Woolcott called a "Lucullan little martini" and I had learned not to be so frightened of Auntie Mame's most astonishing friends.
I briefly mentioned Bernard DeVoto's wonderful little treatise, The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (1951) last week, but in honor of a quiet Friday night of piano playing and baseball on the radio, it seems right to offer up some more pleasures from its pages.

Here, for example, is DeVoto, with a clarity and ethical certainty rarely seen outside of Jeeves, explaining away some of the many damaging myths that have tendriled 'round the world's greatest drink:
For instance there is a widespread notion that women cannot make martinis, just as some islanders believe that they case an evil spell on the tribal fishnets. This is a vagrant item of male egotism: the art of the martini is not a sex-linked character. Of men and women alike it requires only intelligence and care--oh, perhaps some additional inborn spiritual fineness, some feeling for artistic form which, if it isn't genius, will do quite as well. Or take the superstition, for I cannot dignify it as a heresy, that the martini must not be shaken. Nonsense. This perfect thing is made of gin and vermouth. They are self-reliant liquors, stable, of stout heart; we do not have to treat them as if they were plover's eggs. It does not matter in the least whether you shake a martini or stir it. It does matter if splinters of ice get into the cocktail glass, and I suppose this small seed of fact is what grew into the absurdity that we must not "bruise the gin." The gin will take all you are capable of giving it, and so will the vermouth.
Such gentle suasion alternates with a vigorous campaign of naming and shaming, designed to set the wayward back on the path of cocktail righteousness. The third chapter, titled simply "The Enemy," opens starkly:
We can't sit around all afternoon; there is evil to be dealt with.
From there, DeVoto proceeds to savage sweet cocktails--the end result of a youth spent downing "soft drinks that would corrode any plumbing except a child's"--and publishers of cookbooks, which can be trusted to have execrable drink sections:
Presumably when the plates are worn out and a new edition [of a cookbook] is called for the publisher hires someone to go over and check the recipes in all sections but one. If he finds some solecism about chervil, out it comes. I dare say, even, that they sometimes actually make and taste the white sauce to see whether someone has pulled a howler. But the section fraudulently labeled "Beverages" has stood unmodified since it was first perpetrated; no one has bothered to so much as correct the typographical errors. Furthermore, it is the same in all cookbooks, having gone out of copyright in 1895. And if the time when it was written was the lush days of four pounds of butter in the pantry, it was also the holy-horror era in our drinking mores. As I have shown, the basic idea was to see how many ingredients you could put into a drink, especially a cocktail, and still survive. Year by year, that mania of our national adolescence killed more Americans than smallpox, the Colt revolver, or the Indians. Yet publishers go on indorsing the same toxins to more than a million women a year.

{Photo by rocketlass of Asta, displaying the intelligence we've come to expect from him.}

Throughout the book, the vitriol runs as freely as the gin. Yet, as with the admonitions and disdain of Jeeves, it is leavened, crucially, by a clear and abiding love. DeVoto can rail against the vulgar drinkers of terrible drinks--lament that "the stimulation they get is not the benevolence of alcohol but systemic poisoning, a rebellion of the stomach against the filth they pour into it"--without tiring the reader because his loathing is clearly the flip side of his deep appreciation. "The proper union of gin and vermouth," he writes, "is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth." When the violet hour brings you the first sip,
The rat stops gnawing in the wood, the dungeon walls withdraw, the weight is lifted. Nerve ends that stuck through your skin like bristles when you blotted the last line or shut the office door behind you have withdrawn into their sheaths. Your pulse steadies and the sun has found your heart. You were wrong about the day, you did well enough, you did well. The day was not bad, the season has not been bad, there is sense and even promise in going on.
And with that, I lift a cold, narrow-stemmed glass and return to my book; may your evening hold as much promise.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spies of the Balkans

Surely one of the great pleasures of being Alan Furst would be getting to write opening paragraphs like this:
In autumn, the rains came to Macedonia.

The storm began in the north--on the fifth day of October in the year 1940--where sullen cloud lay over the mountain villages on the border of Bulgaria and Greece. By midday it had drifted south, heavier now, rolling down the valley of the Vardar River until, at dusk, it reached the heights of the city of Salonika and, by the time the streetlamps came on, rain dripped from the roof tiles in the ancient alleyways of the port and dappled the surface of the flat, dark sea.
With a couple of sentences, Furst transforms a bit of research of historical weather conditions into a slow, silent, romantic tracking shot that serves as the perfect opening for his newest spy thriller, Spies of the Balkans.

Spies of the Balkans is one of the best Furst novels I’ve read--not as impressive or ambitious as Dark Star, by any means, but offering plenty of the drama and action we’ve come to expect from Furst’s work. He can be a bit romantic at times, his heroes a bit too beloved by the ladies to be fully believable, but that’s nicely balanced by two key things he does very well: shifting the focus from the American role in the war to the European, and especially to lesser-known, yet crucially important regions, and submerging readers in the story so completely that it seems completely natural that these characters don’t know what’s coming next. Again and again, Furst has his characters risk their lives on operations that fail, or that succeed, but that our long historical view tells us couldn’t have been of any real importance. We know better, but they don’t, and while the irony inherent in that situation gives Furst’s narrative voice some of its fatalistic power, he never uses it, intentionally or by accident, to rob his characters of their agency.

Before I close, I want to share one more passage, one that puts the reader in the head of Greek police detective Costa Zannis, the book’s protagonist:
Walther. Yes, the time had come, work the slide, arm it, assume Gabi kept it loaded, assume he’d put the bullets back in the clip when he’d got done [using it as a hammer when] hanging up his pictures. For he’d surely unloaded it, knowing full well that banging loaded weapons on hard surfaces wasn’t such a good idea--the very least you could hope for was embarrassment and it quickly got worse from there. Grampa! The cat! No, Gabi had done the right thing because Gabi always did the right thing. No?

Zannis closed the umbrella and set it by the wall, freed the Walther’s clip, found it fully loaded and locked it back in place.
I love the depiction of the thought process there, and the easy way it moves from self-reassurance to the thought that Gabi can be relied on to always do things properly . . . to a realization, and acting out, of the very lesson that that the example of Gabi’s conscientiousness should teach.

It’s a professionalism and carefulness worthy of Parker, and it goes a long way towards explaining why we’re confident that ultimately Zannis will manage to elude the Nazis and live to fight another day.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Shelving and Sorting

{Photo by rocketlass.}

In Luis Fernando Verissimo's witty and playful little novel Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, the cloistered, not necessarily reliable protagonist, whose life has been "spent among books," explains his status as a single man like this:
It didn't take much persuasion to keep me single. I had always thought of a permanent domestic commitment to any woman other than Aunt Raquel as an intellectual threat. Not that another woman would steal my soul, but she would fatally interfere with the organisation of my books, for which Aunt Raquel had a reverential respect that she had transmitted to a long line of terrified cleaning ladies. The "young master's books" were not to be touched, wherever they were in our small Bonfim apartment, and the shelf containing my editions of Borges was a kind of reliquary which, if profaned, could cost them their hands.
I think that's taking one's organizational schemes a bit too far.

Later in the novel, in Borges's library--which the narrator is surprised to find less organized than he'd expected, with piles of books on the floor--the master relates a tale that implicitly argues for the pleasures of a bit of disorder:
You told how in the King of Bohemia's fantastical library they resorted to coincidence in their attempts to evoke the spiritual language that circulated in the spheres and in dreams and that sought expression and significance in words, in vowels and consonants. With eyes closed, they would remove a book from the shelves, open it at random, choose a line, and then immediately copy this down. The process was repeated until they had a reasonably coherent paragraph or one that was promisingly incoherent and open to interpretation.
Which, of course, sends me to my shelves:
Never settle in a city where there aren't Jews: the food will be terrible and there'll be no culture. "What's the next move," asked Bunce, the pot-bellied dwarf. (This claim is anyway partly borne out by the standard dictionary of Ancient Egyptian.) Or there, about thirty-five feet in the air, I was in love with a girl who read my fortune in my hand and infuriated me by predicting that I would be the least important of the three great loves of her life. The houses have that peculiarly wintry aspect now on the west side, being all plastered over with snow adhering to the clapboards and half concealing the doors and windows. Perhaps in a broken, nocturnal, past-haunted city of solitary wanderers and lunatic leagues, like this one, such universal fantasies and the fellowship they provide are no longer possible.
For the sake of those who prefer their sortes IBRL unexplicated, I've hidden the citations here. I claim no predictive quality--except, that is, for melancholic, solitary wanderers and members of lunatic leagues who've been disappointed in love.

And, pray tell, what do your shelves have to say?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Notes from the Anthony Powell Society

A few months ago I received a note from Stephen Holden, editor of the newsletter of the Anthony Powell Society, requesting permission to reprint a post I’d written about Venusburg, which I gladly granted. So many people have written about Powell that I tend to doubt whether I have anything new to offer aside from a lure to new readers, so I was pleased to learn that a devoted Powell fan thought I’d hit on something interesting.

I now have the new issue of the newsletter in hand, and it makes me wonder why I’ve never joined the Society. Its thirty-two pages are full of thoughts and tidbits sure to interest and amuse any Powell fan. The most interesting article is one from Jeffrey Manley that clears up something I’ve long wondered about: whether Powell was a Barbara Pym fan--as he clearly should have been--and, if so, why he never reviewed any of her novels. It turns out that, like many readers, he came to her late, and even then took a while to fully appreciate her. By 1992, however, he was writing in his journal,
From being merely tolerant of [her] as a novelist, I have now got into the swing of her style and characters, find the books very amusing. . . . She is one of the few novelists I regret never having met.
In addition to that article, in the Cuttings section we get an amusing anecdote from the life of Lady Violet Powell, taken from a March 26, 2010 obituary for one of her sisters, Lady Mary Clive:
On her return to London she shared a studio with a friend on the top floor of a house in Jubilee Place, Chelsea. Her younger sister, Violet (who was to marry the novelist Anthony Powell), posed nude for her, until news reached them that the mechanics at the motor-works across the road were making ribald remarks about “the young lady they could see undressing in Lady Mary’s studio.”
From Cuttings, we also learn that Hilary Spurling, whose new biography of Pearl S. Buck has just arrived in stores, still plans to tackle Powell next. In addition we get a quote from a blog post by Lance Mannion that nicely marks the primary difference between Powell and Waugh:
For Waugh, bad behaviour is mainly defined as what other people do to offend people like him. For Trollope and Powell, bad behaviour is what we all do as a matter of course along with the good.
The most unexpected perspective on Powell comes from the opening article by Nick Birns. Adapted from his foreword to a new collection of writings on Dance by high school students, it manages to make that seemingly unpromising concept sound interesting--one student decodes the economic references in Widmerpool’s excruciating Old Boys speech!--while reminding us that reading Dance attentively when young could offer advantages:
But reading Dance so early will give these young women and men important gifts to have at their disposal throughout their lives, a gift that will never stop giving. They will have a stock of archetypes with which to associate acquaintances. When they have to talk about current politics as a way of breaking the social ice, they will reap the humour of the resemblance to uttering “It seems the nationalists have reached Peking” in 1928. They will learn how to deal unflappably with the wide range of preposterous situations, all the while facing melancholy ones with poise and resolution, having been partially made immune to the depredations of the world’s Blackheads and Widmerpools and Pamelas and Murtlocks, and made receptive to the joys of the world’s Stringhams, Morelands, Barnbys, and Umfravilles.
I tend to think of lessons learned from literature as a secondary benefit at best, but looking back on my teenage self, I do think he could have used a dash of the patience, perspective, and openness to idiosyncrasy that he could have learned from Nick Jenkins.

And now to go join the Society!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Cutting class with Geoffrey Household, Paul Fussell, and Bernard DeVoto

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Is it possible to get a more reliable book recommendation than a staff pick at your local bookstore that’s in the NYRB Classics series? The right-wingers may tell you that gold is the only lasting store of value, but I’m putting my money on that combo.

Halfway through Geoffrey Household’s brief thriller Rogue Male (1939), it hasn’t steered me wrong. The book wastes no time with set-up, plunging us right into a very bad situation, as an unnamed English big game hunter tries to elude capture by Nazi-like thugs; from there, it shifts between spy story, adventure novel, and survival story, calling to mind Graham Greene’s entertainments and Conrad’s honor-drenched tales.

But what I want to share tonight is an odd little digression that appears right after a ship’s cook has responded to a query from the bruised and battered hunter by calling him sir. The hunter thinks,
That “sir” was curious and comforting. In spite of my shabby foreign clothing and filthy shoes, the cook had placed me at a glance in Class X He would undoubtedly describe me as a gent, and Mr Vaner would feel he ought to see me.

I say Class X because there is no definition of it. To talk of an upper or ruling class is nonsense. The upper class, if the term has any meaning at all, means landed gentry who probably do belong to Class X but form only a small proportion of it. The ruling class are, I presume, politicians and servants of the State--terms which are self-contradictory.

I wish there were some explanation of Class X. We are politically a democracy--or should I say that we are an oligarchy with its ranks ever open to talent?--and the least class-conscious of nations in a Marxian sense. The only class-conscious people are those who would like to belong to Class X and don’t: the suburban old-school-tie brigade and their wives, especially their wives. Yet we have a profound division of classes which defies analysis since it is in a continual state of flux.

Who belongs to Class X? I don’t know till I talk to him and then I know at once. It is not, I think, a question of accent, but rather of the gentle voice. It is certainly not a question of clothes. It may be a question of bearing. I am not talking, of course, of provincial society in which the division between gentry and non-gentry is purely and simply a question of education.

I should like some socialist pundit to explain to me why it is that in England a man can be a member of the proletariat by every definition of the proletariat (that is, by the nature of his employment and his poverty) and yet obviously belong to Class X, and why another can be a bulging capitalist or cabinet minister or both and never get nearer to Class X than being directed to the Saloon Bar if he enters the Public.

I worry with this analysis in the hope of hitting on some new method of effacing my identity. When I speak a foreign language I can disguise my class, background, and nationality without effort, but when I speak English to an Englishman I am at once spotted as a member of X. I want to avoid that, and if the class could be defined I might know how.
There seems to be a bit of protesting too much in this account, and I wonder how the narrator’s (and presumably Household’s) notion of England as not particularly class-conscious might have been altered by the great postwar attempts at redistribution and class leveling. But at the same time, much of what he says rings true, and reminds me of something Paul Fussell wrote in his book on the subject, Class: A Guide through the American Status System (1992):
Actually, you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle-class and nervous about slipping down a run or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love the topic to come up: the more attention paid to the matter the better off they seem to be. Proletarians generally don’t mind discussion of the subject because they know they can do little to alter their class identity. Thus the whole class matter is likely to seem like a joke to them--the upper classes fatuous in their empty aristocratic pretentiousness, the middles loathsome in their anxious gentility.
I, on the other hand, prefer whenever possible--when not, for example, discussing political or socioeconomic policies or dissecting the subtle shades of privilege found in A Dance to the Music of Time--to reduce class to a simple test, found in Bernard DeVoto's lovely little book The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (1951). DeVoto writes:
There are only two cocktails. The bar manuals and the women's pages of the daily press, I know, print scores of messes to which they give that honorable and glorious name. They are not cocktails, they are slops. They are fit to be drunk only in the barbarian marches and mostly are drunk there, by the barbarians.
Whiskey and martinis, in other words, mark us as belonging; all other drinks and drinkers are beyond the pale. It is a hard rule, worthy of the Old Testament God at his most pestilential and least forgiving, but that is how one holds the line under withering fire; that is how one beats back the forces that attempt to undermine civilization's gains. Had the Romans but known of gin and vermouth, Rome's glory might still stand today.

And now it's time for the incomparably lovely sound of shaking ice . . .

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A post for the evening's second cocktail

Though I’m back from my travels, they’ve left me a tad behind, so today all I’ve got to offer are two bits from Daniel Okrent’s endlessly entertaining history of Prohibition, Last Call.

First, a detail that’s tucked away in a footnote: for fifty-two years, the trade organ of the Chicago liquor dealers was called The Champion of Fair Play. I think I could spend a lifetime trying without ever topping that name.

Second, a brief moment from the long, strange, passionate, and prim life of William Jennings Bryan:
For William Jennings Bryan, the spectacle of Prohibition-induced tourism was all too vivid. After his humiliation at the 1920 Democratic convention in San Francisco, he had started his withdrawal from political life, moving to Miami and settling in a Spanish-style waterfront mansion he called the Villa Serena. Bryan spent some of his time in Florida holding weekly Bible classes for audiences numbering in the thousands and some of it making a living. In The Perils of Prosperity, William E. Leuchtenberg describes how, during the great Florida land boom, a Coral Gables real estate operator hired Bryan “to sit on a raft under a beach umbrella and lecture on the beauties of the Florida climate.”

But Bryan was less rhapsodic about the view from the lawn of the Villa Serena, where he could watch ships from the Bahamas hook up with the rumrunners of Biscayne Bay: His 1921 call for an invasion of Bimini had gone unheard, so the following year he turned his attention to the perfidy of those American citizens chasing the bottle on foreign soil and in some cases trying to bring it back home. For thus “conspiring” against the Constitution, Bryan told Representative W A. Oldfield of Arkansas, such malefactors should be stripped of their citizenship.
A real estate man who thinks that the way to part people from their money is to subject them to harangues--sermons, even--by Bryan on the glories of beachfront property! Bryan quietly fuming at the flouters of Prohibition! The casting of alcohol tourism as the equivalent to treason! A call for an invasion of Bimini! Good god, what glorious absurdities does that passage not have?

I’m really going to have to read a biography of Bryan one of these days.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Frankenstein in the East End

{Photo and paintings by rocketlass.}

Fresh off a trip with family to the nearby, not particularly well-known Lake Geneva, I traveled in fiction to the real thing--and in much more storied company. Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, which I failed to notice when it was published here last fall, but was put on to by the the Little Professor recently, brings Victor Frankenstein to Romantic London and introduces him into the circle of Shelley, Byron, et al. He travels with the Shelleys to their famous summer sojourn on the shores of Lake Geneva, where in our world Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was born, all the while haunted by the real monster that he has created through his experiments with galvanism.

The portraits of Frankenstein's companions are great fun: Byron is wonderfully insufferable, Shelley dynamic and charismatic yet clearly dangerous to be around, and even Dr. Polidori, the least famous member of the Lake Geneva troupe, comes to seedy, sponging life. (Speaking of whom, has anyone read The Vampyre, the book that Polidori wrote in response to the challenge that led to Frankenstein? Is it at all worth looking at?} Though the prose is a disappointingly flat by Ackroyd's standards, only perking up in descriptions of hisbeloved London, the conception and the cast of characters are so etertaining that I enjoyed the book regardless.

I particularly enjoyed one of the minor characters whom Ackroyd invented out of whole cloth, Frankenstein's cockney boy-of-all-work, Fred. Fred's unjaded but experienced worldview and wry humor make for important moments of levity in the course of Frankenstein's descent. This exchange amused me enough to share:
Fred was waiting up for me. "There is a funny smell in the room," he said as soon as I entered.


"Of drink, and tobacco, and something else, and something else, all mixed."

"I have been in a tavern," I said. I took off my coat and jacket, and put them on a chair in the hallway.

"Mr. Frankenstein in a tavern. Whatever next?"

"Mr. Frankenstein in bed."

"I was warned against taverns," he said, "when I was a boy. They are too low. You were not robbed, sir, were you?"

"No, Fred, I was not robbed. I was cheated. Porter is threepence a pint. But I was not robbed."

"Porter was the ruin of my father, sir. It was not the donkey that killed him. It was the drink. He never was sober after the dustcart came by."

"What had the dustcart to do with it?"

"He shared a drink with the dustman. He was a regular toper, he was. Never knew which side of the street he was on."

"I have come to the conclusion, Fred, that all Londoners drink."

"They an be very cheerful, sir." He sighed. "They like the flowing bowl."

"You are a poet, Fred."
And with that, I leave you for the holiday weekend. Enjoy blowing things up in honor of our great nation's founding!