Friday, December 31, 2010

The year is dead! Long live the year!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I can never decide whether I find myself thinking of D. J. Enright each New Year's Eve because I know that he died on one--December 31, 2002--or because his thought and writing seem so right for the mix of endings and beginnings the day represents. Flipping through Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995), one of his three indispensable volumes of musings, meditations, and jottings, I find many thoughts that seem worth carrying out into this night of deadlined revelry.

Here, for example, is a bracer of sorts for those who, like me, tend to be reluctant to abandon couch and book for the often questionable pleasures of a party:
One advantage of company, not the only one but considerable . . . It's pleasanter to agree with other people and exchange harmless little lies than to quarrel with oneself and exchange large hurtful truths.
Nonetheless, Enright remains as skeptical of parties as of most occasions that tempt us to perform, rather than live, our selves:
Often heard at parties: "Nothing shocks me any more." Who wants to be thought the kind of simpleton who can go on being shocked? But in truth everybody has something--needs something--to be shocked by. Baudelaire tells of taking a "five-fran whore" to the Louvre, which she had never visited before. As they passed the paintings and statues, she blushed and hid her face in her hands. Tugging at his sleeve, she kept asking how such indecencies could be displayed publicly.

"Nothing shocks me anymore": the sort of gesture proper to social gatherings,, bold fearful, and futile.
But as it's time, surely, for you to be tying your bow tie, buttoning your waistcoast, and haring off in pursuit of fizz and fuss, I'll leave you with this, a more general reflection that seems to suit the night:
It's not so much that one is out of sympathy with the age, it's the only age one has, as that the age is out of sympathy with one.

But then, the age is out of sympathy with itself.

Still, once everybody is alienated, nobody will be alienated.

"Unsettling": another favorite fiction-reviewing epithet. As if we were nicely settled before we opened the book.
Happy New Year's, folks. May your 2011 reading be grand.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Barbara Pym

By chance, my January reading looks as if it will be dominated by biographies: James Kaplan on Sinatra, Michael Korda on T. E. Lawrence, and Edmund Morris on Teddy Roosevelt. And while all three are subjects of great interest to me, people whose lives and works are fascinating enough that even merely passable biographies remain interesting, as I look at that stack of books I worry that I might tire of reading about ostentatiously manly men doing Great Things.

So tonight I turn, and will turn again in January, betwixt and between those avatars of masculine achievement, to Barbara Pym. I've written before of the pleasures of Pym; her world of women and the mostly hapless men they alternately coddle and chivvy along couldn't be farther from the perspective I expect I'll find in these biographies of men who self-consciously bestrode the world. Pym's compass is narrow, her casts drawn from a reliable stable of curates and widows, unmarried older ladies and feckless younger men--but from that small range of people and experiences she creates fiction of unforgettable empathy and beauty. Ellie Wymard put it perfectly in an essay in "All This Reading": The Literary World of Barbara Pym:
Pym keeps faith with life itself, even its trivialities.
I'm not sure I could find a better way to draw a contrast between the big biographies and Pym's world than to quote a couple of jottings of plots from her notebooks:
For my next--the middle-aged, or elderly novelist and the young man who admires her and is taken in by her.

A woman living in the country who has had a hopeless love for a man (wife still living perhaps or religious scruples), then, when he is free she finds that after all he means nothing to her--is this the reward of virtue, this nothingness? Or an enviable calm--(He then, presumably, goes and marries a young girl.)

An old woman living in a village with her two husbands (a modern instance of polyandry) one divorced--but, poor thing, unable to cope on his own.
From those bare bones even a newcomer to Pym can begin to get a sense of her approach, of her points of similarity to more highly stylized writers such as Iris Murdoch or even Thomas Hardy, for example--and, more important, her wry, ironic sense of humor. Pym is never caustic like Ivy Compton-Burnett, another influence, and she rarely judges, as Jane Austen occasionally does. We are all, in our ways, silly blunderers in Pym's eyes; how we handle the blundering, and limit its damage, is what matters.

Nearly all of her dozen novels are in print once again, most from Moyer Bell; I plan to spend the interstices of January reading the four I've not read. You could do far worse for winter reading than to join me.

I'll leave you with a bit from a letter Pym wrote on February 25, 1962 to Philip Larkin, whose championing of her work reestablished her reputation (and career) in the 1970s. Its self-effacing honesty never fails to charm:
If you feel like asking me anything about my 'works' please do--the less great are probably far more explicit than the great, so it wouldn't be like asking Mary McCarthy. On the other hand it is often better not to know things.
To which the only sensible reply is, "Indeed."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas in Jail

What better way to ease you into Christmas than a visit to the jail? Donald E. Westlake's warm, funny, at time hilarious Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974) tells the story of a practical joker sentenced to prison for a joke gone awry, and through his eyes we get to experience a prison Christmas, which features some of the inmates putting on a show:
This was my first experience with the world of the theater, and I found it interesting and bewildering. An incredible amount of running, screaming, arguing, weeping, jumping, chaos and frenzy seemed to be required in the backstage area before one small quiet moment could be presented out front. And even when the show was on, with the wise men in procession, for instance, there was still whispering, rustling, rushing about, finger-pointing and hair-tearing taking place just out of sight of the audience--to such an extent that a returning wise man lifted his own voice once he'd exited to ask how anyone expected him to maintain a performance out there with all of this clatter going on. I didn't hear him get a useful answer.

The show itself was a series of tableaux on The Meaning of Christmas, with here and there a nod to Chanukah for the benefit of Jewish prisoners, plus an occasional bewildering reference to Islam for the sake of any Black Muslims so frivolous as to have attended. Actually they weren't really tableaux, as one of the shepherds that watched by night explained to me when his stint was over. "In a tableau," he said, "you just stand there and don't move." He demonstrated, with a pose that seemed more pin-up than shepherd. "Sort of like a living painting," he said. "And usually there's a narrator or somebody to read something out loud that tells the audience what it's all about. What we're doing is sort of moving tableaux; we walk on an off, and go through our little movements, like when I pointed at the star in the east--did you see that part?-but we don't say anything. Except for Santa Claus, of course."

Of course.
He also offers a bit of commentary on the actors, including an unforgettably pithy description of Joseph:
I thought the fellow doing Mary was an absolute knockout, if maybe just a little too flouncy, and Joseph had just the right nebbishy feeling I've always thought appropriate to that exemplar of passive inactivity.
Merry Christmas, folks. May you find many good books beneath your tree. I'll see you next week.

Friday, December 17, 2010

I'm a tumblr

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Inspired by the incomparable D. J. Enright, I started my Twitter account as an on-the-go commonplace book, a place to post the countless memorable passages I encounter in my daily reading that don't make their way into my blog posts.

But I quickly became frustrated by the 140 -character limit on tweets; so many great thoughts simply can't be expressed with that brevity. So after a couple of years of frustration, this week I started a tumblr. My plan with the tumblr is expressed in its title: it's an annex to this blog, a repository for material that is well worth sharing but that doesn't fit into my thrice-weekly posts here. More quotes, less commentary, is the short description.

Though I expect in the future it will represent a true grab bag of my current reading, this week I've decided to draw solely from the various collections of letters found on my bookshelves. That's been fun, so I may spend another week in the same vein, but you should eventually expect the proper sort of unclassifiable, if unquestionably Anglophilic chaos.

In other words: if you like this blog, you can get more of it over there. You can follow the tumblr in your RSS reader, or via the Follow function if you are a tumblr yourself.

Oh, and Mitford fans? Believe it or not, there's a Fuck Yeah the Mitfords tumblr just for you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Just Kids

On the forceful recommendation of a coworker, I'm currently reading Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids. Despite the praise that's been showered on the book, I likely wouldn't have picked it up had my friend not pressed it on me: I admire Smith but wouldn't count myself a fan, and the dream of hand-to-mouth bohemian youth is one I've never shared. Even when I was twenty, I knew it wasn't for me. All I've ever really wanted was stability, and the time and mental space to read, a combination I was able to find right out of college in bookstore work and have been lucky enough to retain in my work and home life since.

What makes Smith's memoir work for me, instead, is its unabashedly open heart. She doesn't glorify the hungry years, but she deeply loves the Chelsea Hotel and the New York scene and she's grateful for what she learned there. What come through is her unwavering commitment to her art, and to Robert Mapplethorpe and his art. Everything else is secondary--but Smith's genius comes in her willingness to let that fact be, for the most part, implicit: we are trusted to feel that way ourselves, which frees her from the risks of spelling it out and letting pretension seep into what is really a story of finding one's artistic and emotional way, and watching as someone you love develops as an artist and a person.

And amid the stories of hunger and lice and stoned friends and plastic cups for peeing in because there's no toilet in the loft apartment, there are here and there moments that shine even for someone of my bourgeois lifestyle. This scene, for example:
A few evenings later Matthew appeared out of nowhere with a boxful of 45s. He was obsessed with Phil Spector; it seemed like every single Phil had produced was in it. His eyes darted nervously across the room. "Do you have any singles?" he asked anxiously.

I got up and rummaged through the laundry and found my singles box, which was cream-colored and covered with musical notes. He immediately counted our combined collection. "I was right," he said. "We have just the right number."

"The right number for what?"

"For a night of one hundred records."

It made sense to me. We played them, one after another, starting with "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman." Each song was better than the next. I leapt up and started dancing. Matthew kept changing the sides like some deranged disc jockey. In the middle of it all, Robert came in. He looked at Matthew. He looked at me. He looked at the record player.

The Marvelettes were on. I said, "What are you waiting for?"

His coat dropped on the floor. There were thirty-three more to go.
I had no brief for youth even when I was one, but oh, the thought of a hundred-record party. . . . It makes sense to me.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's White Fang or Nothing!

One of the great pleasures of Deborah Mitford's charming and funny new memoir, Wait for Me!, is its portrait of David Mitford, Baron Redesdale, whom Mitford fans long ago came to know in the guise of Uncle Matthew in Nancy's The Pursuit of Love. Deborah acknowledges that in many ways her father really was like Matthew, but she paints him in a much gentler light:
Nancy made him sound terrifying but there was nearly, though not always, a comic undercurrent not apparent to outsiders. I adored him. He was an original, with a total disregard of the banal or boring.
In other words, exactly the sort of character best met in the pages of a novel or memoir--and for all Deborah's attempts to show her father's lighter side, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that, yes, he was essentially terrifying. If he was more bluster than anything, well, that's still an awfully large quantity of bluster to live with on a daily basis.

But in a memoir? Oh, there he's vastly entertaining. As when he went to the dentist in his mid-thirties,
and asked him to take out all his teeth. The dentist refused, saying it was dangerous. "All right then," said Farve impatiently. "I'll go to someone who will." An hour or so later there was not a tooth left in his head. Thereafter "my good dentures" chewed up Muv's excellent food.
Or his inordinate "horror of anything sticky":
I once asked him what his idea of hell was. "Honey on my bowler hat," was the answer.
Or this exchange about his brother-in-law, Denis Farrer, the Old Dean:
Fare was once talking to an acquaintance about the Farrers and said, "The only trouble with the Old Dean is that he married a ghastly woman." "Oh?" said the acquaintance. "I thought she was your sister?" "Yes, she is. A poisonous creature."
Or his brutal manners when Nancy brought home friends:
[M]y father waited for a pause in the conversation and said loudly to my mother at the other end of the table, "Have these people no homes of their own?"
The anecdote that made me laugh the loudest, however, also happens to be the most suitable for this blog: it's about books, and, specifically, about one of my old favorites, Thomas Hardy. According to Deborah, her father read only one book in his life, White Fang, "which he enjoyed so much he vowed never to read another." Learning this soon after their marriage shocked Mrs. Mitford, and she came up with a plan:
She persuaded him to listen to her reading aloud some classics, starting with Thomas Hardy. She chose Tess of the d'Urbervilles with its descriptions of farm and heath land, which she thought he would enjoy. When she got to the sad part, my father started crying. "Oh, darling, don't cry, it's only a story." "WHAT," said my father, his sorrow turning to rage, "do you mean to say the damn feller made it up?"
Which makes one wonder: Is it possible that David had misunderstood the nature of White Fang?

I suspect that Hardy--who was alive and well at that time--of all people would have enjoyed knowing that Tess was selected because of its depiction of the humble activities of rural life. The dismissal of it all as made-up, and thus pointless, however? I expect he would have replied with the self-righteous asperity of this passage from his explanatory note to the first edition of Jude the Obscure:
I would ask that any too genteel reader, who cannot endure to have said what everybody nowadays thinks and feels, to remember a well-worn sentence of St Jerome's: If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

"You now have Siegfried's life on your hands!", or, The Perils of the Reviewing Life

What better way to close out a week that saw the publication of a new issue of the Quarterly Conversation than to offer up a couple of tidbits about the perils of reviewing?

First, a wonderfully catty letter that Lytton Strachey sent to Virginia Woolf on February 21, 1917:
That wretched woman, the Lady O[ttoline] Morrell writes to me as follows--"Do you think you could write to Virginia, & ask her if she could get Sassoon's book of Poems, and if she would review it kindly. . . . I think if he heard that his work had 'Promise' it might make him want to Live--to do things in the Future. But it is all ghastly and he can hardly bear it. Shall I shoot Lloyd George?"

It is indeed "all ghastly", and probably you could hardly bear it. but you see that you now have Siegfried's life, to say nothing of Lloyd George's, on your hands. I suppose you don't as a rule review what they all "poetry". Perhaps if you wrote to Richmond [editor of the TLS] suggesting that the bloody book should be noticed, it would suffice. Or what?--Let me know so that I may send some reply to that creature, who is now I think almost at the last gasp--infinitely old, ill, depressed, and bad tempered--she is soon to sink into a nursing-home, where she will be fed on nuts, and allowed to receive visitors (in bed).
I like to think I always take my responsibility to an author seriously when I write about a book, but good god--to have not just the fate of his book but his very life placed on your shoulders! That's pressure!

And it looks as if it worked--at least so far as getting her to review the book: she wrote a piece for the Times Literary Supplement titled "Mr. Sassoon's Poetry" on May 31, 1917, and another called "Two Soldier-Poets" in 1918. Whether she came through with sufficiently fulsome praise I won't know until I dig up the appropriate volumes of her essays . . . but whatever her verdict, the notice seems to have been sufficient to achieve Ottaline Morrell's ends: Sassoon found a way to hold on for a few more years, dying in 1967 at the age of 81.

Anthony Powell, so far as I know, never told any stories of such grave weight being placed on his reviews, but he did acknowledge the frustrations of churning out reviews in an interview that ran in the Paris Review in 1978:
Do you still do any reviewing?

Yes, I do two pieces a month for the Daily Telegraph.


You don't find it a chore?

On the contrary, I find it extremely stimulating. I get two really pretty serious books a month--and I must say they're extremely good at trying to give me something that I like--and I really think it's rather good for you to have to review, say, a book about the organization of the Roman Army in the first half of the month and then the life of Christina Rossetti in the second. So far from being bad for you, I think it's very educative and it really makes your mind work. In fact, as I said before, I'm really rather lost now if I don't have something like that that I've got to do. . . . But of course there are demoralizing forms of literary journalism, and I've done my stint of reviewing five novels in a column and so on. You know how it is: Your friends say, “Are you mad saying this terrible book is quite good?” But you can't week in, week out keep saying this is all absolute rubbish.
Ah, the benefits of being a blogger: I'm never so pressed for space or copy as to be forced to praise inferior books. If something turns out to be rubbish, I can just reshelve it in silence and spend my time instead telling readers of books they might actually enjoy.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Let the cold winds blow--we'e got reading to do!

The Winter issue of the Quarterly Conversation is here!

Some highlights:
  • Geoff Maturin reviews Ananios of Kleitor, a strange, inventive, and admirable book of scholarship about an ancient Greek poet . . . who never existed.
  • Not to be outdone, Damion Searls writes about the best Japanese writer you've never heard of, Yasushi Inoue. Searls writes, "Certainly no Japanese writer between Natsume Soseki and Haruki Murakami, in my view, including Japan’s two excellent Nobel prize winners, gives such intense and consistent literary pleasure."
  • Matt Jakubowski offers a lengthy article whose title gives a sense of his vexed, extended engagement with the work at hand: "Spoiler, Or, A Reckoning with Sentimental Habits by way of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet." Jakubwoski wrestles with the genius of Durrell and the evil of Durrell in equal parts; I'm only midway through that article, and thus far I'm not sure whether I'm going to leave it more or less likely to read Durrell, whose books have been sitting on my shelf giving me a decadent eye for a while now.
And there's much, much more. Now you have no excuse for going outside in this horrible weather!

Monday, December 06, 2010

"Of course my objection to letters is that they were all written in the 18th Century, an age I find unlovable," or, Lytton and Virginia

While in the library recently to pick up a volume of Virginia Woolf's essays, I spied a volume of her correspondence with Lytton Strachey that the Hogarth Press published in 1956. Tempted by its manageable slimness--it's not even two hundred pages long--I plucked it from the shelf, and I've been pleasantly rewarded for the decision as I wandered through it this weekend.

The correspondence is, while unquestionably friendly, at the same time a bit mannered; as Leonard Woolf and James Strachey note in their introduction,
[I]t occasionally gives an impression of self-consciousness--even of stiltedness--which was very far indeed from being usual in their letters. The fact was, no doubt, that each was a little wary of the other: in writing to each other they were always on their best behaviour, and never felt so much at ease as they did in their dealings with people whom they admired or respected less.
The resulting letters, however, give less the sense of guardedness or caution than they do of performance, of two people who, even as they dashed off notes, tried to bring all their intellect and wit to bear. What we lose in intimacy we gain in fun and insight; these are closer to, say, the composed, circumspect letters of E. B. White than they are to the endearing gushings of a Mitford sister.

Take, for example, this passage from a letter sent by Strachey on January 3, 1909. He had recently moved for a time to Rye, in Sussex,
spending the time since in a semi-stupor, among mists and golfers, so that by this time I'm feeling so much a la hashisch that I can hardly imagine that anywhere else exists. however, by an effort of will I can just bring to my mind a dim vision of Bond Street, the Heath, and a Square or two.
After some savage reflections on the idiocy of the local lawyers and clergy ("all golfers as well") and some reflections on Merimee, he notes,
Talking of Great Authors, I've seen Henry James twice since I came, and was immensely impressed. I mean only seen with the eye--I wish I knew him! He appeared at his window as I passed the other day--most remarkable! So conscientious and worried and important--he was like an admirable tradesman trying his best to give satisfaction, infinitely solemn and polite. Is there any truth in this? It has since occurred to me that his novels are really remarkable for their lack of humour. But I think it's very odd that he should have written precisely them and look precisely so. Perhaps if one talked to him one would understand.
It's unclear whether Strachey thinks James does or doesn't look like he ought to based on his novels; at a century's remove, he seems perfect for them, almost to the point of parody.

Woolf didn't address the question of James in her reply, but she did mention him in a letter of October 22, 1915:
I should think I had read 600 books since we met. Please tell me what you find in Henry James. I have disabused Leonard of him; but we have his works here, and I read, and can't find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane & sleek, but vulgar. . . Is there really any sense in it? I admit I can't be bothered to snuff out his meaning when it's very obscure.
More fun is the closing of her letter, which was written during a recuperation from one of her many bouts of poor health:
Nurse now thinks I must stop writing. I tell her I'm only scribbling to a relative, an elderly spinster, who suffers from gout, and lives on scraps of family news. "Poor thing!" says nurse. "Arthritis it is", I remark. But it won't do!
In another letter, sent from Richmond on July 25, 1916, Woolf offers an account of the difficulties of composition that ought to cheer any slow-working author:
My industry has the most minute results, and I begin to despair of finishing a book on this method--I write one sentence--the clock strikes--Leonard appears with a glass of milk.
Then there's this, from a letter she sent on October 12, 1918:
I'm extremely sorry to hear distressing accounts of your diseases. . . . However, you must consider that boils, blisters, rashes, green and blue vomits are all appointed by God himself to those whose books go into 4 editions within 6 months. Shingles, I can assure you, is only a first instalment; don't complain if the mange visits you, and the scurvy, and your feet swell and the dropsy distends and the scab itches--I mean you won't get any sympathy from me.
Later in the letter, she turns, as in most of the letters, to books:
I read the Greeks, but I am extremely doubtful whether I understand anything they say; also I have read the whole of Milton, without throwing any light upon my own soul, but that I rather like. Don't you think it very queer though that he entirely neglects the human heart? Is that the result of writing one's masterpiece at the age of 50? What about your masterpiece?
Strachey didn't answer the question, perhaps because he knew that he'd already published his masterpiece: Eminent Victorians was at that time a mere five months old.

The letter wherein Strachey gave his first indications that he was kicking around ideas for kicking around the Victorians ("They seem to me a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites, but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-grandchildren."), sent on November 8, 1912, quickly spins off into wonderfully vibrant visions of the future of literature:
I should like to live for another 200 years (to be moderate). The literature of the future will, I clearly see, be amazing. At last it'll tell the truth, and be indecent, and amusing, and romantic, and even (after about 100 years) be written well. Quelle joie!--To live in those days, when books will pour out from the press reeking with all the filth of Petronius, all the frenzy of Dostoievsky, all the romance of the Arabian Nights, and all the exquisiteness of Voltaire! But it won't only be the books that will be charming then.--The people!--The young men! . . . even the young women! . . .
In this age that seems to prefer professions of doom for the world of literature, Strachey's optimism, so gleefully expressed, is bracing.

Early in the correspondence, Woolf wrote to Strachey, "Really, if you go on writing, you will vitiate John Bailey's stock phrase, 'the art of letter writing is dying out--'." We should all be so lucky as to have such a correspondent; I'm fortunate enough to have a couple--and with Strachey's industry as my example, I'm off to put pen to paper. It's best not to enter the holiday season in arrears.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Anthony Powell at the Paris Review

In the course of doing publicity work at my day job for Wednesday's launch of the new e-books of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time--including the free edition of the first novel, A Question of Upbringing, I stumbled across an interview that Michael Barber conducted with Powell for the Paris Review in 1978. The interview is full of interesting material for a Powell fan; I hope the Paris Review is considering it for inclusion in their fifth collection of their interviews.

The interview occurred right as the final volume of Dance was being published in the States, and it features both discussion of the series and of Powell's memoirs, on the writing of which he was just embarking.

I was surprised by the following exchange:

When you first considered doing a long novel, did it occur to you that this might be rather a gamble?


Yes, I think that is perfectly true. I think that really until the last page of the last volume was finished one never knew whether one was going to be able to bring it off, you see. You always have this terrible feeling, “Am I going to dry up?” Apparently Kipling felt the same: He never got up from his chair without feeling that he was never going to be able to write another line.


How far ahead did you plan?


That's a very difficult question to answer, because it's perfectly true that you set out in advance with a certain number of characters, but as they do different things, inevitably you have to trim your sails to what they've done, just as you do in real life. And I think that if the book has any vitality, it's due to recognizing this fact: that if you've got your character right, then up to a point what he or she does is fairly logical . . . But of course as you advance with your book, you're advancing on a wider and wider front, and there are all sorts of things that have to be taken into consideration. And I wouldn't for one moment suggest that it was easy to correlate all that, but in that does consist the hard work of writing a long novel.


Did you keep a card index?


I made one on the first volume, but it was such hard work that about halfway through the second I concluded that if I had the energy to write a card index, I really had the energy to write the book. So that was that.
I suppose I may have known at one time that Powell didn't keep a card index, but if so I'd forgotten--and it's almost impossible to conceive, with the dozens and dozens of characters and the long span of time. It's a testament, I suppose, to how real the world he was creating appeared to him, and how well he knew the characters he was leading through their paces.

Then there's this portion, which covers three bits of ground that I find interesting or amusing in Dance: the lack of children--specifically, the way that the characters have children who, for the most part, are never seen nor mentioned again; Powell's circumspect, yet effective and unsqueamish, treatment of sex; and, finally, Nick Jenkins's reticence about his wife and his own marriage:

There are scarcely any children in the novel. Is this significant?


Well, I think children are extremely difficult to deal with, you know. And I would generally avoid dealing with children simply because I haven't got the capacity. Very few writers have—though Gerhardie pulled it off in The Polyglots. The children in The Polyglots are brilliantly done. But I think most children in novels are embarrassing to a degree. I introduced them once or twice in my earlier prewar novels, but I think not perhaps very happily. And again, as you work you get to know up to a point what you can do and what you can't do . . . and one rather steers clear of things one can't do.


Remembering what you said earlier about writers and their treatment of sex, I think it's interesting the way you manage to introduce a very strongly erotic element, but do it elliptically.


Well, I think that really is the only way you can do it. I mean I've no strong feelings about people giving detailed descriptions of people going to bed except I never really feel it's the right way to do it. Oddly enough, when I was in London yesterday I was passing a cinema and there was a still outside of a chap sort of lying on top of a girl. And I thought, Well, really, you know, I'm not sure that I really particularly want to see him having her. I think my own imagination would be better about that than him doing it. People are awfully odd about that. But I'm glad you think the erotic bits are erotic—one always hopes they are.


I think Nick's first clinch with Jean in the car stands out. In fact I think their affair is one of the central things of the whole novel—more so than Nick's marriage to Isobel.


Well, there again it's frightfully complicated, but clearly people don't tell you what their life with their wife is like if they're at all satisfactorily married. Therefore apart from any other considerations there'd be a great unreality in the narrator talking about this, you see. This is one of those instinctive things you've got to remember, I think, if you're writing a novel. You are simply telling a story and you want it to be convincing. Well, very often the greatest amount of detail is not the way to be the most convincing. After all, there's such a lot one goes through life not knowing when people are talking to you about something—you've got to guess and so on. And I think up to a point the novel wants to be like that, too. You get stronger effects.
That final answer reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the whole of Dance, when Nick reflects on his marriage while on his way to visit Isobel, who is in the hospital recovering from a miscarriage:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing some of the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects. To think at all objectively about one's own marriage is impossible, while a balanced view of other people's marriages is almost equally hard to achieve with so much information available, so little to be believed. Objectivity is not, of course, everything in writing; but even casting objectivity aside, the difficulties of presenting marriage are inordinate. Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such--and a thousand more--dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
That very acknowledgment of marriage's impenetrability is, I think, what makes Powell so good at writing about it: Nick's married friends surprise us like our own do, suddenly presenting him with facets and conceptions of their union that he would never have suspected, while giving the lie to comfortable illusions we may have, often unconsciously, grafted onto it. And because Nick (like Powell), never presumes to know the ultimate truth, he is perpetually attendant to what he can make out of the vicissitudes of the marriages around him; the glimpses he thus gets of their interiors remains murky, but it nonetheless affords insights of the sort that allow fiction, at its best, to inflect our daily lives.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A free ticket to the Dance

As longtime readers of this site know, in my day job I’m the publicity manager at the University of Chicago Press. I try to keep that work as separate from my blogging as possible, but every once in a while the two spheres overlap—which is pretty much inevitable, given that two of my favorite authors, Richard Stark and Anthony Powell, are published by my employer.

The past week has found me getting to work on both: the new Parker novels coming out in the spring (including the elusive (and brilliant) Butcher’s Moon), and, even more exciting, brand new, e-book editions of all twelve individual volumes of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

I’ve written plenty here about Dance; in some ways, this blog is one big ever-growing essay on Powell’s magnum opus. But as someone who’s spent all that time proselytizing, I can tell you that the biggest obstacle to attracting new readers is Dance’s sheer bulk. A lot of people are too daunted by the total page count to try picking it up.

That’s why I’m so excited about the new e-book—and, in particular, about the promotion Chicago is using to launch them: for the month of December, the first novel in the series, A Question of Upbringing will be available as an e-book for free. There’s more information at the University of Chicago Press’s site; you can get the book directly from them or from most e-book retailers, including such outlets as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If you’ve been reading my encomiums to Dance all these years but haven’t been willing to try it, now’s your chance—you’ve got nothing to lose but a few hours, and your possible reward is a book that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

I’ll leave you with one of the best descriptions of Dance that I’ve come across lately, from Jonathan Ames’s Wake Up, Sir!:
"Jeeves and I were reading together, as a sort of two-person book club, Anthony Powell's epic, twelve-volume A Dance to the Music of Time. It's absolutely a stupendous work—almost nothing of moment occurs for hundreds of page, thousands, even, and yet one reads on completely mesmerized. It's like an imprint of life: nothing happens and yet everything happens."
As Jeeves himself might say, “Indeed.”