Monday, November 29, 2010

Thoreau's late November

As Thanksgiving approached last week, I spent a bit of time thumbing throughthe NYRB Classics edition of Thoreau's Journal, which Damion Searls edited last year. I was looking, lazily, for a mention of Thanksgiving, but--as is so often the case with this endlessly rewarding book--I got distracted.

First, I got caught up in a trip to New York, on November 22, 1854:
Left at 7:30 A.M. for New York. Went to Crystal Palace, admired the houses on Fifth Avenue. . . . Greeley carried me to the new opera-house, where I heard Grisi and her troupe. First, at Barnum's Museum, I saw the camelopards, said to be one eighteen the other sixteen feet high. I should say the highest stood about fifteen feet at most (twelve or thirteen ordinarily). The body was only about five feet long. Why has it horns, but for ornament? Looked through his diorama, and found the houses all over the world much alike.
I love the range of that entry: has anyone--even those of us who know Thoreau to be more complicated than the caricature of the woodsy hermit--ever imagined him actively admiring the houses of Fifth Avenue? Yet how quickly, at Barnum's Museum, he's the familiar Thoreau again, instinctively analyzing and questioning the fauna on display, while seeing to little differentiate the human habitations on offer.

Then I got pulled in by the entry for November 19, 1853, which brought to mind recent, weather-prompted thoughts of my own:
What is the peculiarity of the Indian summer? From the 14th to the 21st October inclusive, this year, was perfect Indian summer; and this day the next? Methinks that any particularly pleasant and warmer weather after the middle of October is thus called. Has it not fine, calm, spring days answering to it?
Then, traveling backwards in Thoreau's time and forwards, weather-wise, in my own, I ended up at this entry, from November 25, 1851:
That kind of sunset which I witnessed on Saturday and Sunday is perhaps peculiar to the late autumn. The sun is unseen behind a hill. Only this bright white light like a fire falls on the trembling needles of the pine.
One of the side benefits of my regular running routine is that, as the days draw in with the autumn, it makes me attend to the daily changes in the early evening light. Two weeks ago, the light along the lakefront after work was breathtakingly golden, playing along the lingering leaves with all the warmth of a Maxfield Parrish painting; now the leaves are gone, and the best we can hope for, on a clear day, is the sunset Thoreau describes, attenuated and sickly, but enough--just enough, because it has to be--to hold on to until the thaw.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving just isn't complete without a visit from Parker

The day before Thanksgiving was forever changed for me back in 2007, when I stopped at 57th Street Books on my lunch hour and picked up my first Parker novel, Ask the Parrot (2007) . . . which I spent the next five hours reading furiously. I've written before about that day and its aftermath, in which I got to help convince my employer, the University of Chicago Press, to bring the Parker series back into print, to both great sales and great acclaim. Next spring we'll publish the sixteenth through the eighteenth volumes in the series--including the elusive, brilliant Butcher's Moon--and, as Thanksgiving rolls around, I remain thankful that I've been able to be a part of introducing so many readers to Parker's violent, amoral oeuvre.

So today, in honor of Parker, and the unexpected gift that his creator, Donald E. Westlake, bestowed on me that Thanksgiving, I'll share a passage from another of Westlake's books, the strange, borderline brilliant Adios, Scheherazade (1970). Drawn from Westlake's own experience as a young writer-for-hire, the book is told from the point of view of a man who has been writing soulless, formulaic sex novels for a paycheck for too long; in ten chapters that are at times funny, at others distinctly uncomfortable, it tells the story of his disintegration--and, just maybe, re-integration and renewal.

The passage I want to share is one of those self-referential notes that the multi-pseudonymed Westlake loved to scatter through his work:
The movie I saw last night was called Point Blank, which could also be the title of my life, particularly if you reverse the order of the words, and it was about Lee Marvin being a gangster of some kind and the gangster syndicate owes him ninety-three thousand dollars and he wants it. The whole movie is about him trying to get his ninety-three thousand dollars. It was sort of spoiled for me because all the way through I kept thinking, Lee, what if you get the ninety-three thousand dollars? Do you think that'll make you happy? It won't. You'll just spend it, and then next month you'll need ninety-three thousand dollars more, and you'll have to go through all this shit all over again, and after a while you'll just give up and move to San Francisco and jump in the bay, because San Francisco has the highest suicide rate in the nation, and I know why. It's because when people are desperate they move somewhere else, and because the sun goes from east to west so do people, and eventually they wind up in Los Angeles, where they either go crazy or move to San Francisco. If they go crazy they can live in Los Angeles for the rest of their lives, but if they go to San Francisco there's no place to go after that, the only thing westward is the ocean, so plunk they go. So forget the ninety-three thousand dollars, Lee, you and me and all the rest of us we're just rats in a maze, the only thing to do is stop the world I want to get off. Therefore, Lee, go to San Francisco, go directly to San Francisco, do not pass Go, do not collect ninety-three thousand dollars.
Point Blank, you'll remember, is what the John Boorman movie of Westlake's first Parker novel, The Hunter, was titled.

What Parker fan hasn't wondered the same thing about Parker? Someday the heists have to end, and then what? Parker's associate Handy McKay retired to Presque Isle, Maine, but can any of us imagine that for Parker? As the Restless Kind wondered last week, "Where do these guys end up? What and who are they in 2010 and what have they left in their wake?"

I like to think that retirement is still ever-distant on the horizon, and that Parker and Claire will sit down to a turkey tomorrow in their house by the lake, the quiet and peace of the winter evening broken only by the calls of geese. A knife and gun are, ever, close to hand, but the knife is for carving the turkey, and the gun is for another day, another problem.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Woolf on Hazlitt, or, The art of complicated admiration

I praised Virginia Woolf's essays last week, but I can't let the topic go without drawing attention to the brilliance of her essay on William Hazlitt, himself one of our greatest essayists. Found in Woolf's The Common Reader, the essay opens like this:
Had one met Hazlitt no doubt one would have liked him on his own principle that "We can scarcely hate anyone we know." But Hazlitt has been dead now a hundred years, and it is perhaps a question how far we can know him well enough to overcome those feelings of dislike, both personal and intellectual, which his writings still so sharply arouse. For Hazlitt--it is one of his prime merits--was not one of those noncommittal writers who shuffle off in a mist and die of their own insignificance. His essays are emphatically himself. He has no essays and he has no shame. He tells us exactly what he thinks, and he tells us--the confidence is less seductive--exactly what he feels.
Good god, can you get a better opening to an essay? Acknowledging uncertainty while nevertheless making confident, declarative statements; balancing oppositions; and, in a few short lines, beginning to give a real sense of the tumultuous, strange, divided personality about whom you're writing--this, it seems to me, a Hazlitt fan, is about as good as it gets.

And Woolf backs it up: her essay shifts easily between biographical detail and literary analysis, showing how, in this prickly, principled man ("He had quarrelled with all his old friends, save perhaps with Lamb"--but, we should remember, almost no one quarrelled with Lamb, the gentlest of souls.) person and idea weren't so separable as the ancients would have had it, the former fully subservient to the latter:
[H]e was a man of divided tastes and thwarted ambition; a man whose happiness, even in early life, lay behind. His mind had set early and bore forever the stamp of his first impressions.
Woolf continues,
And Hazlitt felt with the intensity of a poet. The most abstract of his essays will suddenly grow red-hot or white-hot if something reminds him of his past. . . . [H]ow violently we are switched from reason to rhapsody--how embarrassingly our austere thinker falls upon our shoulders and demands our sympathy!
Yes--and yet that's exactly what I love in Hazlitt: his essays are not the product of Wordsworth's "emotions recollected in tranquility"; they are instead tranquility forever troubled by the bubbling under of those emotions--and that bubbling under, that admixture of the personal and the impersonal, is what makes him feel so much our kin, our contemporary, at shining moments our friend.

And Woolf gets that, even as she also catalogues Hazlitt's faults. How rare that ability is--how I wish I had more of it--to truly, rather than grudgingly, appreciate the merits of one whose faults you also find glaring. Woolf evinces it time and again in her essays, and that alone is enough reason to seek them out.

But while you're at it, seek out, if you've not, Hazlitt, whose voice rings out as strong for us a century after Woolf as it did for her a century after his death. If I've not convinced you yet, perhaps the conclusion of her essay will:
When he lay dying a hundred years ago in a lodging in Soho his voice rang out with the old pugnacity and conviction: "Well, I have had a happy life." One has only to read him to believe it.
Read Woolf's essays, read Hazlitt's essays--start with "The Indian Jugglers" or "The Fight", both of which can be found on On the Pleasure of Hating--and next Thanksgiving you'll have one more reason to be grateful.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Virginia Woolf the essayist

Many's the reader who has been put off by Virginia Woolf's fiction. Her style--in one sense like a looser, more deliberately experimental Henry James--is simultaneously occluded and jumbled, James's reticence and obsessive circumspection replaced with a sort of jumble-sale approach to consciousness that relies on the reader to pluck from a flowing stream the burning brand that will show forth the point. Patrick Kurp--not one to pull punches--has called her fiction "effete, self-regarding, and beside the point." Cyril Connolly called her characters,
lifeless anatomical slices, conceived in all the same mood, unreal creatures of genteel despair.
Anthony Powell, in his journals, called The Waves "twaddle," writing that it had
all the artificiality of a Compton-Burnett background, without any of the wit, willingness to grapple with real human problems, general grasp of novel-writing material
Having filled that side of the balance to overflowing, I will put on the positive side of the ledger merely my own appreciation of Woolf's fiction, which, exercising the host's prerogative, I will deem sufficient. Like the aforementioned Henry James, she is not for every day, but there are times--when one is feeling introspective, quiet, uncertain, even slightly fuddled, say---when no one else will do.

What is odd (and what is, ridiculously deep into this post, the point) is that her voice in her essays is utterly different, so straightforward, clear, and declarative--a point that even her detractors would, I suspect, have to concede. (As, to his credit, Patrick Kurp has graciously done.) Woolf's essays, the majority of which, it seems, were written as book reviews, and thus to some extent in the moment and on deadline, are remarkable for their clarity and authority. Woolf displays a quality that I greatly prize--perhaps to my peril--in an essayist: an ability to make a declarative aesthetic statement about a writer that one can't help but nod along to, even if somewhere in the mother board of one's brain the logic circuits are screaming.

Take this passage, from a piece on De Quincey from the September 16th issue of the Times Literary Supplement:
A prose writer may dream dreams and see visions, but they cannot be allowed to lie scattered, single, solitary upon the page. So spaced out they die. For prose has neither the intensity nor the self-sufficiency of poetry. It rises slowly off the ground; it must be connected on this side and on that. There must be some medium in which its ardours and ecstasies can float without incongruity, from which they receive support and impetus.
To which the attentive reader finds himself insisting upon exception after exception . . . but only on reflection, for at first blush--and in some sense forever--Woolf is right and pithily apt there.

Or this, less questionable, on Jane Austen:
She knew exactly what her powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with as material should be dealt with by a writer whose standard of finality was high. There were impressions that lay outside her province; emotions that by no stretch or artifice could be properly coated and covered by her own resources.

Lest I simply go on forever drawing out examples of Woolf's acuity, I'll turn to my old favorite Thomas Hardy and declare him the home stretch of this post. Woolf writes:
Some writers are born conscious of everything; others are unconscious of many things Some, like Henry James and Flaubert, are able not merely to make the best use of the spoil their gifts bring in, but control their genius in the act of creation; they are aware of all the possibilities of every situation, and are never taken by surprise. The unconscious writers, on the other hand, like Dickens and Scott, seem suddenly and without their own consent to be lifted up and swept onwards. The wave sinks and they cannot say what has happened or why. Among them--it is the source of his strength and of his weakness--we must place Hardy. His own word, "moments of vision," exactly describes those passages of astonishing beauty and force which are to be found in every book that he wrote.
Having been primed to question Woolf's assertions, I expect you found plenty at least to raise an eyebrow at in that passage. (Dickens unconscious of his effects? Really?) At the same time, however, I think Woolf is basically right; the more one learns about Hardy, specifically, the more his successes begin to seem like the product of an alchemy that was likely unfathomable even to him.

To close, I can't resist sharing a passage from Woolf's diary about her first meeting with Hardy (outside, that is, her natal crib, as Hardy was acquainted with her father), collected in the indispensable Thomas Hardy Remembered:
There was not a trace anywhere of deference to editors, or respect for rank, an extreme simplicity: What impressed me was his freedom, ease, & vitality. He seemed very "Great Victorian" doing the whole thing with a sweep of his hand (they are ordinary smallish, curled up hands) & setting no great stock by literature; but immensely interested in facts; incidents; & and somehow, one could imagine, naturally swept off into imagining & and creating without a thought of its being difficult or remarkable; becoming obsessed; & living in imagination.
Hardy signed a copy of Life's Little Ironies for Woolf . . . though he spelled her name "Wolff," "wh. I daresay had given him some anxiety."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Time, change, and the King

Last Saturday, I indulged my semi-annual desire to read Stephen King by sitting in our front room and reading Christine (1983)*, barely moving as the autumn day swept by, ever darker. Reading King is in a lot of ways the closest I can get to feeling like I’m back in high school, as if I have all the time in the world and there’s nothing better I can do with it than immerse myself in his world and watch the pages fly by.

Back then, I was reading to be scared. And while King at his best can definitely still scare me, I usually find myself more interested in the way he connects our fears to everyday life, and the way that he relies on a well-realized background of ordinary life to simultaneously ground his horrors and throw them into sharper relief. The premise of Christine--evil spirit possesses a teenager through an indestructible ’58 Plymouth Fury—is among his most ridiculous, but it works, primarily because the larger story (and the real fear that underlies it) is about the way that adolescence wreaks havoc with what we oh-so-temporarily thought was a settled world. The narrator realizes that he’s losing his best friend to the car—and its supernatural powers—but it’s impossible for an adult reader not to also see the loss as an allegory for any of the changes that tear friendships apart, from relationships to religion to, looming largest in this case, addiction. (Yet at the same time, one thing that I admire about King is that he never surrenders to his allegory, never lets it detract from the actual horror he’s trying to put across. Sure, the automotive possession in this case may be an allegory for addiction, but it’ll still smear you across the pavement if you don’t watch out.)

Is there any other point in our lives where we’re simultaneously so future-oriented and so unable to look beyond the present moment as in high school? We know we’ll eventually be leaving all this behind, yet at the same time we can’t imagine life without these friends, these trappings, our selves as they are right this minute. And, as someone who seems to never have forgotten what it was like to live through high school, King gets it. He describes high school in Christine as a very conservative place underneath the surface glitz, with most high school students, deep down, being “about as funky as a bunch of Republican bankers at a church social.” He writes:
What's now is forever--ask any Republican banker and he'll tell you that's just the way the world ought to run.

High school kids and Republican bankers . . . when you're little you take it for granted that everything changes constantly. When you're a grown-up, you take it for granted that things are going to change no matter how much you try to maintain the status quo (even Republican bankers know that--they may not like it, but they know it.) It's only when you're a teenager that you talk about change constantly and believe in your heart that it never really happens.
Christine was marvelously exciting; I blew through the last fifty pages of it with barely a blink. But what I’ll remember from it is that passage, that reminder of just what it was like to live that often-unrecognized high school contradiction.

All of which is a long preamble to a notice that tomorrow marks five years since I started this blog. Growing up, we get used to measuring out life in four-year chunks: get through high school to go to college, get through college to . . . and then the four-year chunks stop. The easily sliced-up and labeled chunks of any kind stop. The years pile up—pleasantly, but with a sometimes disturbing quiet and rapidity, too.

So occasionally it’s good to be reminded that once upon a time, four years seemed like an eternity, five years nigh unfathomable. For any of you who’ve been reading this blog that long, please accept my thanks. Newer readers have my thanks as well. If I’ve drawn you to a book or two you’ve enjoyed, then I’ve not been wasting my time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"It belongs to to a time when people read books. Nobody does that now," Or, Edith Wharton on publishing's long death watch

After last week's post about the remarkably long time that people in publishing have been pointing out that publishing is dying, I was pleased to come across a passage that extends the book's morbidity another half-century.

The passage comes from Edith Wharton's "Expiation," which was originally published in Cosmopolitan in 1908; nowadays it can be found in the wonderful NYRB Classics collection The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. "Expiation" is a brief, slightly mechanical satire on authorship, publishing, and respectability, and it tells the story of Mrs. Fetherel, who has just published her first novel, the racily titled expose of upper-class immorality Fast and Loose . . . to disappointingly non-censorious reviews. She laments to her friend Mrs. Clinch, who replies:
"Oh, the reviewers," Mrs. Clinch jeered. She gazed meditatively at the cold remains of her tea-cake. "Let me see," she said, suddenly: "Do you happen to remember if the first review came out in an important paper?"

"Yes--the Radiator."

"That's it! I thought so. Then the others simply followed suit: they often do if a big paper sets the pace. Saves a lot of trouble. Now if you could only have got the Radiator to denounce you--"

"That's what [my Uncle] the Bishop said!" cried Mrs. Fetherel.

"He did?"

"He said his only chance of selling [his own book] Through a Glass Brightly was to have it denounced on the ground of immorality."

"H'm," said Mrs. Clinch, "I thought he knew a trick or two." She turned an illuminated eye on her cousin. "You ought to get him to denounce Fast and Loose!" she cried.

Mrs, Fetherel looked at her suspiciously. "I suppose every hook must stand or fall on its own merits," she said in an unconvinced tone.

"Bosh! That view is as extinct as the post-chaise and the packet-ship--it belongs to the time when people read books. Nobody does that now; the reviewer was the first to set the example, and the public were only too thankful to follow it. At first they read the reviews; now they read only the publishers' extracts from them. Even these are rapidly being replaced by paragraphs borrowed from the vocabulary of commerce. I often have to look twice before I am sure if I am reading a department-store advertisement or the announcement of a new batch of literature. The publishers will soon be having their 'fall and spring openings' and their 'special importations for Horse-Show Week.' But the Bishop is right, of course--nothing helps a book like a rousing attack on its morals; and as the publishers can't exactly proclaim the impropriety of their own wares, the task has to be left to the press or the pulpit."
The golden age was never as golden as memory's made it, the fallen present never as tarnished as the Jeremiahs would have us believe.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The sea, the sea

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In honor of my recently renewed membership in the Hakluyt Society--a group dedicated to travel writings from the Age of Exploration--after more than a decade's lapse, how about a voyage? Before the weather turns and locks us all in our harbors, with nothing but the stories we've already told and retold for company, why don't we push off into the trackless waves of my recent reading and see where the sea appears?

We'll start with The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages (2010), by Robert Fossier, who reminds us of the mystery and fascination of the ocean in the days before longitude and proper charts:
In spite of its dangers, the liquid immensity of the ocean fascinated men and inspired wonder. As with nautical sports and oceanic competitions today, people of those centuries saw the sea as fully charged with marvelous and dreamlike qualities. The shore was a line of contact with the unknown and the imaginary; the ocean, and even the more modest bordering sea, were a world of adventure, of the silence of men, and of the perpetual movement of things. the ocean was where the paradisiac worlds or the marvelous islands sung of in Celtic, Scandinavian, and ancient folklore--the myths of Atlantis, Thule, or Greenland--were to be found. It was the thought that by confronting danger one might reach Purgatory, or perhaps even Paradise, that sustained the soul.
From there, we'll take ship with the most recent publication of the Hakluyt Society, William Robert Broughton's Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific, 1795–1798. In his entry of May 17, 1797, Broughton recorded the loss of one of the expedition's primary vessel, the poorly named Providence:
At 1/2 past 7 White water was seen ahead and upon each Bow and reported to the Officer of the Watch (Lieutenant Vashon) and almost immediately after the Ship Struck upon a Reef of Coral Rocks. Having plainly felt the Shock I instantly went upon Deck (& met in the passage Mr Vashon coming to acquaint me with our disaster). . . . The Ship began to make water fast and the Violent Shocks she receiv'd render'd it doubtful whether the Masts wou'd stand while getting the Longboat into the water. . . . At daylight we had Fresh breezes & hazey weather from the NNW & we dispatch'd our Boats under the Masters directions to save every thing that might be of future use from the Wreck. . . . Every moveable Article was floated away. Nor was there any sign of Books, Mathematical & Nautical Instruments of any kind remaining to my great disappointment and Mortification. . . . The Master finding no Provisions, Liquor or any other useful Stores cou'd be got at by our remaining near the Wreck in the Schooner & our Water in board being very trifling for our Numbers it became a principal consideration to procure some at the Islands, as our existence depended upon it and we knew the Island to be inhabited we accordingly cleared the Boats.

To the Island, then . . . which leads to one of the most visually stunning, unusual, and rewarding books of the year, Judith Schalansky's Atlas of the Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. The Providence wrecked farther north than Macquarie Island, off Australia, but would, it seems, have found ample company had it come to rest there:
It is only with great difficulty that, in January 1840, the crew of the Peacock manage to land without losing their ship. The men explore the steep rocky ground, gathering specimens of the sparse vegetation. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes comes to the conclusion that Macquarie Island offers no inducement for a visit. Only the midshipman Henry Eld is overwhelmed when he walks down to Hurd Point on his own. Grass-covered shipwrecks moulder in every bay and on every beach, skeletons of ships in a sea of penguins, of which the island has millions.
They might have done better on Antipodes Island, off New Zealand--for at least from there they would have known that all ways were the way home:
When Captain Henry Waterhouse discovers it on his way from Port Jackson to England, he calculates that the island is almost directly opposite the zero meridian of Greenwich. A reflection of a place, he thinks, a tiny doppelganger of the British Isles. London, his birthplace, is as far from here as the North Pole is from the South, and so it does not matter which route home he takes. England and this place are points at either end of a skewer through the globe, an imaginary line through the centre of the earth.
Knowing that, let's chuck the compass overboard, let the sextant sink, and let our course be determined solely by a desire to keep winter at our backs and summer in our sights. Give 'er some sail; let's see how long we can outrun this beast!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

City v. Suburbs

Monday I drew some thoughts on the death of publishing from David Karp's novel of suburban New York life in the 1950s, Leave Me Alone (1957). Tonight, I want to share a couple more passages that get closer to the city vs. suburbs conflict that is at the heart of the novel.

At the start of the book, the novel's protagonist lives with his family in a small apartment on 52nd Street in a building which,
in more scientific societies, would have been bulldozed; it was an affront to the moral, hygienic, and artistic sensibilities of thinking men.
And his authors--many of them needy and/or drunk--have a habit of dropping by. Thus, this note, left for him by his wife:
Kids at mother's for TV. Went to dentist for six pm appt. Gibsons in the frig. Pls don't nibble. L. B. phoned. Wants to see you. Pls do not ask him over tonite. If you must, we're low on liquor. If you must, get gin. Cheap gin. Only if you must. Mucho amor. E.
I love that note; it bounces along in a progression from hope to resignation, appeal to lesser appeal, in a way that makes it quietly funny at the same time as it's wholly believable as a marital communique. Needless to say, L. B. comes over.

Then they move to the suburbs, where we get this reminder that the horrors of the lawn are long-standing, and us city-dwellers should be grateful that we're spared them:
There always seemed to be something that had to be done for the grass. When it was not browning out because of lack of rain, it developed bald spots, which made them worry about grubs; and the appearance of some moss on the lawn upset Eleanor, since it indicated acidity in the lawn, and they had to add lime. When they were not adding lime they were adding fertilizer and they were constantly watering Arthur picked himself up, sometimes after having gone to bed, to go outdoors, slosh through standing pools of water and turn off sprinklers which had been forgotten. The grass, whether it was browning or thinning or allowing alien weeds to creep in, kept right on growing and so it had to be cut. But not merely cut, but edged so that where it met the sidewalk and the driveway and the walks to and around the house it would look neat and not straggly. Where grass grew into hedges and bushes and planting strips it had to be rooted out like an evil and wherever it had been rooted out or cut, it left a debris which had to be stuffed into sacks and soggy cartons and left for the once-weekly pick-up by the garbage trucks. Grass became, after a while, a sort of tyrant which demanded his time and energy and thought.
And it goes on, and on, from there.

Oh, yes, the city's the place for me: I'll take the sozzled drop-in over the empire of lawncare any day.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Now this looks like a comfy coffin to spend a career in!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

It's hard to go anywhere on the Liternet these days without encountering someone lamenting the death of publishing. Which led me to smile on encountering this exchange, from David Karp's Leave Me Alone:
"Now this is interesting"--Arthur said, folding his arms. "If Searington and Company [Publishing] is not a business then what the devil do you think it is?"

Eleanor moved her hands helplessly. "God knows what it is. Some sort of medieval left-over--like people who trace coats of arms, or the last armorer left in the world who makes chain mail for MGM movies about knights. All I know is that it isn't a business--what sort of business is it that tries to supply a product that no one wants? Who reads books today? You've told me yourself that fiction sales have fallen away to nothing--that eight of ten novels you publish you lose money on."
Leave Me Alone was published in 1957.

Later in the book, the protagonist recalls that in his first interview for a publishing job, a storied, Maxwell Perkins-like editor said to him, "Why do you want to be in publishing? It's a dying occupation."

All of which leads me to assume that Gutenberg, as he unscrewed the press to reveal his first printed page, was probably already worrying about format changes, delinquent payments, catastrophic returns . . . oh, and the possibility that his entire audience just might up and die of cholera at any moment. Even the heartiest grumblers would have to agree that least some things are better today.

Friday, November 05, 2010

James Wood and the comic novel

This week’s issue of the New Yorker features one of James Wood’s most interesting reviews in a while, a dismissal of Howard Jacobson’s Booker-winning novel, The Finkler Question. The novel is one I wouldn’t have been likely to pick up anyway; rather, what’s interesting about the review is how Wood uses it to characterize a particular type of bad comic writing--and thereby define a different, better version as well.

After explaining that The Finkler Question “is always shouting at the reader,” as if it needs to make sure we’re getting the joke, Wood states his broader case:
The problem might be put like this. There is comedy, and then there is something called the Comic Novel, and these are related to each other rather as the year is related to a pocket diary--the latter a meaner, tidier, simpler version of the former. Comedy is the angle at which most of us see the world, the way that our very light is filtered. The novel is, by and large, a secular, comic form: one can be suspicious of any novelist who seems entirely immune to the comic. But the Comic Novel flattens comedy into the bar code of “the joke”--a strip of easy-to-swipe predictability. The Comic Novel might imagine itself descended from Cervantes and Fielding, but it is really the stunted offspring of Waugh and Wodehouse, lacking the magic of either. In the work of English comic writers like David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, and Tom Sharpe, there is, too often, a tiresome need to be always seen to be funny. The novel’s prose may be calm enough, but the novel’s form will seem exaggerated, because it is monochromatically devoted to funniness, as a fever is devoted to heat.
I think the phrase he's looking for here is "flop sweat."

Wood is at his best when he’s writing on the comic; though his book on comedy, The Irresponsible Self, is just a collection of review essays, it is more consistently interesting--and convincing--than his other two books. And he makes an important, useful distinction here: most novels worth reading are comic; not all of them are comic novels. Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is unquestionably comic, though you would be hard-pressed to find anything that could be called a joke in it. There is comedy in Iris Murdoch (though it’s overwhelmed by romance), in Barbara Pym, in Trollope, and in Halldor Laxness--to pick just four writers off my shelves. Those four are wildly disparate, but all in their own ways are practicing a form of psychological realism, and all realize that such an approach to the world requires them also to acknowledge their characters' occasional absurdities, smallnesses, and failures. Even such grim writers as Hilary Mantel or Roberto Bolano find room for comedy--hell, Richard Stark, in his Parker novels, some of the hardest-edged books I know, can’t help but allow glimmers of comedy to peek through, simply because he’s attending closely to the ways of people.

None of those writers (with the exception of Powell) are as funny as J. F. Powers, another of my favorites--nor did they set out to be--but a description of Powers’s writing from Wood’s essay about him in The Irresponsible Self would seem to apply to them as well, if in lesser form:
Powers is at his most comic when catching, as if by luck, this brackish overflow of people’s souls. . . . Powers shows again what comic realism can do: how it attends to the human exception, how it scathes our pretensions and blesses our weaknesses.
Wood’s other category is also clear--and, not unsurprisingly, it overlaps quite a bit with his other bete noir, the bustling, capacious, cosmopolitan genre he calls “Hysterical Realism.” It is the “cartoonish and inauthentic reality” he has complained of in Rushdie, the “pursuit of vitality at all costs” that he notes in Pynchon and others; you could take this description of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and apply it, nearly unchanged, to Wood’s demolition of The Finkler Question:
As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic.
By pointing out the overlap between the two, I don’t intend to criticize, or even seem to be making a particularly revelatory point: I appreciate that Wood is consistent, and I expect that, pejorative labels aside, Howard Jacobson wouldn’t balk at a categorization scheme that placed The Finkler Question with White Teeth. To a large extent, I share Wood’s point of view: I prefer the quiet comedy of the former category to the manic madcap of the latter; I prefer classic psychological realism, because what I’m most interested in in fiction is the age-old question of how we are to live in this world.

Yet I feel that Wood’s division leaves something out--that for someone who truly values comedy, who loves Fielding and Wodehouse and Waugh and Ivy Compton-Burnett and Kingsley Amis and others, who enjoys bursting into laughter on the subway (which I can’t quite imagine Wood ever doing), there are other novels that don’t quite fit the dichotomy of good/bad, gentle/madcap, natural/trying too hard that Wood sets up. They’re novels whose comedy--or perhaps satire--is not incidental, but the point, yet at the same time they neither use Wodehouse’s trick of unmooring us from all reality nor do they fall into the pit Wood identifies of rendering reality unintentionally unbelievable (and therefore unfunny).

Two recent examples give a clue as to how such a book can succeed: Personal Days, by my friend Ed Park, and The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. Of the two, Personal Days is by far the more sucesssful; The Ask, like Lipsyte’s previous book, Homeland, eventually collapses under the weight of its awkward plot. But along the way Lipsyte wraps the reader up in language so carefully polished that the jokes--and yes, there are jokes, a few of them awful--for the most part don’t feel like impositions, or demands for laughter, but instead feel more like the hidden sting in the sentence’s curved tail. And sting is the right term, for the rest of the genius of The Ask lies in its self-loathing, whose acid can dissolve any pretense; as you read it, you alternate between laughing and cringing. Laugh:
Bernie and Aiden slipped from their respective parental grips and commenced conversation about an action hero, something not quite human that maybe transformed or transmogrified but in any event could easily exsanguinate any mother or father or adult guardian, which was the crucial part, the takeaway, as TV commentators put it. It would have been hard to tell, witnessing the boys together now, that one had recently tried to bite off the other's penis. The flipside to the fickleness of children was their ability to transcend grudge, adjust to new conditions. Innocence, cruelty, rubbery limbs, amnesia, successful nations were erected on these qualities.
We knew the price of Christine’s criminally low price [for daycare], namely that under her supervision, or lack thereof, Bernie was becoming a criminal. Child care was like everything else. You got what you paid for, and your child paid for what you could not pay for. . . . A few seasons in Christine’s cement yard with Queens County’s puniest toughs and Bernie had the strut of an old-time dockside hustler. It was hard to imagine the boy completing kindergarten; remarkably easy to picture him in a tangle of fish knives and sailor cock under some rot-soft pier.
The satire of Personal Days is much gentler, but no less on point, and it's given strength by the formal inventiveness of the novel, which allows for a sneaking accretion of emotion that unexpectedly explodes in the novel's rushing final section. Along the way, there's some truly wonderful comedy. Here, for example, is a passage that distills the frustrations of modern office life into a few short lines:
Lizzie drags an icon out of a cluttered corner of her screen but lets go too soon. It falls into the document she's working on, which happens to be her resume. The icon bounces back to its starting place with a boinggg noise she's never heard before. She learns that Word cannot insert a file into itself.

Word can seriously go fuck itself, she mutters. She's been talking to herself a lot lately but maybe we all have.

Later she's trying to put a chart into a different document but gets scolded: That is not a valid action for footnotes.

This is funny--the quick response, the finger-wagging strictness--but it also creeps her out. She calls up Pru except she accidentally dials her own extension and the little screen says, You cannot call yourself.

Our machines know more than we do, Pru thinks. Even their deficiencies and failures are instructive. They are trying to tell us something about the limits of the human, the nature of the possible. Or something like that, says Pru, who has been reading a novel about cyborgs set in the year 2012.

The message that kills us is the one that pops up on the rare occasions when we remember to shut everything down for the weekend, just before we turn the computer off.

Are you sure you want to quit?
Then there's this description of the enigmatic boss, Maxine, which absolutely revels in the pleasures of language, its shifting rhythms and registers:
Maxine's new outfit was completely inappropriate for winter, in fact for any season or situation. It had two kinds of pink going on, and ornate beaded strappy things, and a fairly explicit bondage motif. There were parallelograms of exposed flesh that were illegal in most states, a bow in the back that looked like a winding key. One area involved fur. Her hair had a fresh-from-salon bounce that clashed with the rest of the getup, but this being Maxine, everything kind of went together in the end. . . . Pru and Lizzie instinctively flinched. They might as well have been rolling on the ground like bowling pins, with xs for eyes.

With her female competition out of the way, Maxine leveled her extremely hot gaze right at Grime, who stood his ground. He swayed in place, gently rocking on one heel. Maxine was saying something about Wednesday, but it wasn't clear whether she meant tomorrow or last Wednesday.

Grime's not-flinching was making Maxine flinch. It looked like a nod but it was actually a flinch. Lizzie and Pru saw it all unfold. They're filing away the subtleties for Jack II and his blog. Maxine lost the thread of what she was saying, eyes gleaming in panic. She could have been talking about the general concept of Wednesday, its status as a hump day, its complicated spelling. No one had seen her quiver like this before. It was like she'd been set in italics.

There was a historical vibe to the scene.
Though the two books are, themselves, wildly different--it would be hard to convey just how much less corrosive Pesonal Days is than The Ask, while being no less insightful--at the same time they're more like each other than they are like either of Wood's categories. They are neither hysterical realism nor comedy that is trying too hard: instead, they're well-grounded satire written in language of almost Nabokovian polish--and they put that language in service of a story about recognizably human characters. I wonder what Wood would think of them. Would he see that they're different from the books he's writing about--or is there, as I suspect, a limit to his sense of the comic?

All I know is that I want more novels like these, books that manage to dedicate themselves simultaneously--and almost equally--to comedy, carefully wrought prose, and the basic problems of being human. What more can a reader ask for?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"It is truly ghoulish of me not to have written ages ago," Or, The letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Mitford

I've spent the past two days dipping into In Tearing Haste, the new collection of letters between travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and Mitford sister Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, and it's been a real treat.

My love of books of letters is nearly indiscriminate, but as most collections consist of the correspondence of a single writer, they tend to offer nearly as many frustrations as satisfactions: I find myself regularly wanting to know what the writer's interlocutors are writing, what words he or she is responding to. The solution, so rarely available, is this sort of dual edition, one that presents a lifetime's exchanges between a single pair of correspondents. Debo and Paddy have been friends since the 1950s, and it's a lot of fun to watch them toss ideas and stories and jokes and impressions back and forth over the decades.

As editor Charlotte Mosley (who has for more than twenty years now admirably fulfilled her charge of keeper of the Mitford legacy) explains in her introduction, the two couldn't be more different in their approach to letter-writing:
Unless Paddy was making a plan or asking a quick question--in which case he would scribble a few lines headed "In unbelievable haste" or "With one foot in the stirrup"--his letters are sustained pieces of writing, as detailed and beautifully wrought as his books. With the eye of a painter, the pen of a poet and a composer's ear for language and dialogue, in his letters he often sounds like a musician practising scales before launching into a full-blown symphony. . . . In complete contrast, Debo's letters are breezy and spontaneous. Dashed off almost in telegraphese at times, they are sharp, idiosyncratic and funny. Where Paddy is dazzlingly erudite, widely read and a polyglot, Debo is defiantly (at times disingenuously) a non-reader, puncturing any intellectualising or use of a foreign word with, "Ah, oui", or "quelle horrible surprise."
The contrasting styles, which could be dizzying, instead are charming; reading the book, you quickly settle into the rhythm of the correspondence, feeling, because of Patrick's lush descriptions, more as if you're sitting with Deborah receiving these reports and dashing off answers than as if you're trekking the world with Patrick.

The best bit from Fermor that I've encountered so far is a letter describing some of the people he met while in Africa working on the film The Roots of Heaven, for which he wrote the screenplay. His description of director John Huston, which jibes with what others tended to say about him, is concise and memorable, even chilling:
John Huston. Wildly bogus, charming, complicated, boastful and ham. I like him very much and don't trust him a yard. He has to be kept under pretty strict control; he would trample on one if he saw the faintest flicker of a flinch, and does so when he does see it. This entails keeping on the offensive quite a lot, i. e. diagnosing his weak points and, when occasion arises, hitting hard and often. This establishes an equivocal and amusing kind of truce and makes life quite fun, a rather dangerous game which both sides divine by an amused look in each other's eyes: thin-ice work & figure skating. He sings "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You" beautifully.
In a few short lines, he makes you want to stay far away from that man--even as you realize how great a character he would make in a novel.

Fermor's sketches of actors Trevor Howard and Erroll Flynn are also nicely turned:
Trevor Howard. Have you ever seen him?--sorry, of course you have. I only asked because I'm so ignorant in such matters. He is playing the lead--Morel, the elephant defender--and seems to me wonderful. A very nice man, but as with nearly all actors, there is something missing: --'A bit of a bore' doesn't quite cover it, somehow. It's something missing somewhere else, which I have yet to put my finger on. He drinks like Hell, starting at breakfast, and goes through his part in a sort of miraculous trance.

Errol Flynn. All the above strictures about actors do not apply here. He poses as the most tremendous bounder--glories in being a cad--but is intelligent, perceptive, and, in a freak way, immensely likeable. We are rather chums, to my bewilderment. Sex rules his life, and very indiscreet and criticisable and amusing he is about it.
Deborah's pen portraits, on the other hand, tend to be more like this:
I've been to dinner at the White Ho[use] twice. Jackie Kennedy was there. she is a queer fish. Her face is one of the oddest I ever saw. It is put together in a very wild way.
But, like her sisters, she also has a great eye for amusing oddities; elsewhere in the letter I've just quoted, she writes,
A rich lady said to me she needed a secretary who understood her "nervouswise." The lingo is very nice indeed but takes a bit of learning.
In another letter, from May of 1974, Deborah writes,
I had a jolly day with a burly team of woodmen, who were doing some clearing. We got to some thick ivy & stuff & I said look out, there might be some birds' nests in that. The foreman said "Oh of course you have that commitment as well." Do admit.
Not that Patrick's letters, polished though they are, are all seriousness and culture; the tale of the woodmen and the birds makes a nice pair with this bit from one of his letters of a few years later, sent from his home in Greece:
We've got two owls here, very close to the house, who hoot like anything just beyond the sort of arched gallery where we dine. I'm very jealous of Joan [his wife], because she's an ace at imitating them through clenched palms, as I bet you can too. I can't do it, like being unable to whistle, because of two front teeth being too far apart, I suppose. Anyway, when Joan breaks into their dialogue, there is an amazed or embarrassed silence, then bit by bit they answer, until an enthusiastic three-sided exchange begins, which it is hard to break off.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

There's much, much more in the book--including some of what Patrick calls "terrible gossip column stuff," which no real Mitford fan can deny being interested in. For now, though, I'll leave you with a bit of properly autumnal description, from an October 2006 letter sent by Patrick from Greece:
The olive harvest has begun. Ladders are propped among the branches of each tree and olives come pattering down on to coloured rugs and tarpaulin, with lots of children and dogs skipping about, and pillars of pale blue smoke from the sawn-off branches floating up into the autumn sky.
And now, speaking of olives, time to go put a few of them into their natural habitat . . .

Monday, November 01, 2010


Now that all the ghosts have packed up their coffins and departed for scarier climes until next October, n we can get back to the usual business of this blog--which, I have to admit, all too often means highlighting fairly trivial aspects of the literary culture of England.

Thus today's post, which comes out of Alathea Hayter's A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (1965). The book is exactly what the title promises: a day-by-day account, built from diaries and memoirs and letters and such, of what the lights of literary London were doing over the course of one month in the summer of 1846. It's full of names you know--the Carlyles, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett (not yet) Browning, Wordsworth, Dickens--and the pleasures of dailiness, of discovering just how much a dedicated researcher can piece together about the occurrences, most of no consequence, of a few relatively ordinary days in the distant past.

I suspect this is a book about which there will be little waffling: either you find the above description enticing, and you have already gone to the Book Depository to order your copy, or you can't believe anyone would waste their time with such banality when there are good novels still unread. Longtime readers won't be surprised to learn that I'm in the former camp; this is one of those wonderfully rare books that feels like it was written just for me. I'm mere pages into it thus far, but Hayter has already charmed me utterly by the details she picks out of her detective work.

What I'll share today is a silly, funny bit about the prevalence of nicknames in the literary set in this time. Nicknames seem always to have been more prevalent in England than in the States, and Hayter explains that the 1840s were a high point:
The use of abbreviations for Christian names was common at all levels, up to the highest; the Empress Frederick's letters are sprinkled with the ludicrously familiar nicknames--Mossy and Fishy, Missy and Tutsiman--of her royal relations all over Europe. Everybody had nicknames. Forster was "Fuz" or "The Hippopotamus" or "The Beadle of the Universe"; Cruikshank was "Genial George"; Dickens was "The Inimitable" and his children had innumerable and ever-changing nicknames such as "Chickenstalker" or "Plornishmaroontigonter"; Mrs Procter was "Our Lady of Bitterness"; Macready was "Mac" or "The Eminent Tragedian" to his friends, "Sergeant Macready" or "The Bashaw" to his enemies. The use of nicknames for a socially successful figure like Richard Monckton Milnes was almost a status symbol; you might give yourself away by not recognizing him under references to "The Cool of the Evening" or "London Assurance" or "The Bird of Paradox"--or equally by continuing to use those particular nicknames when they had got too widespread and had begun to bore their originators.
"Our Lady of Bitterness" trips quite nicely off the tongue, but I think my favorite on that list has to be "The Cool of the Evening"--oh, the changes I would have to make to my public personality in order to be able to pull that one off!

I don't encounter a lot of nicknames in my daily life, but when I was working in bookstores, we had nicknames for many customers, my favorite being "Darkness at Noon," assigned to a particularly stormy-faced regular. And an old friend has a wonderful family history of nicknames: his mother and her siblings all have nicknames--only, while everyone knows everyone else's nickname, no one knows his or her own nickname, which seems like quite a feat.

All of which brings to mind the family that might be the world's champion nicknamers, the Mitfords. In addition to having a shared family language, the six Mitford sisters positively overflowed with nicknames: Deborah was "Debo," Diana was "Honks" or "Honkers," Jessica was "Decca," and on and on. And ending this post with the sisters seems appropriate, as Mitford fans have plenty to celebrate this fall: in addition to the new editions of Nancy's novels that Vintage has recently published, Deborah Mitford is about to publish a memoir and, even more exciting, has just released a volume of her letters with travel writer and raconteur Patrick Leigh Fermor. As Nancy would say, it's positively blissipots.