Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday cheer

To take us into Christmas, I'll share a few lines of introductory material that Robert Irwin quotes in Visions of the Jinn, from The Child's Arabian Nights, published in 1903 with illustrations by William Heath Robinson:
When reading these stories, all children will do well to remember the following:

First of all they are only for good boys and girls; and if you, small reader, do not happen to be good, then put the book down at once and go to bed.

Secondly, if you have already gone to bed, and are reading there, then you must know that you are not doing the right thing; so close the book as well as your eyes and go to sleep.

Thirdly, they are not to be read in bed in the morning, when all should be up and getting ready for breakfast.

Fourthly, you must not cry at the stories, nor laugh too loud; or, perhaps, they will be taken from you.

Fifthly, and lastly, you are not to turn up the pictures before reading the stories; or you will be like the boy who picked out all the plums from his cake, and did not care to eat it afterwards.
Bit of a killjoy, that Robinson, no?

Well, the holidays being upon us, I'm going to advise you to ignore all the above advice. If there's ever a time for reading in bed, and for laughing and crying out too loudly at stories, it's Christmas. May Scrooge bring you the goose as big as the errand boy. "There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked."

With this post, I'm closing down the shop for the year; I'll see you in 2012. Merry Christmas, folks. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Visions of the Jinn

I don't usually go in for assembling a best-of-the-year list. It's neither my own style nor the style of my reading: I tend to be reading at least as many old books as new, and my trawling through the contemporary is haphazard enough that I couldn't presume to offer an authoritative assessment.

But this year I'm going to break with tradition because there's one book that, in this age of e-everything, deserves to be singled out for great praise: Robert Irwin's Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights. Published by Oxford University Press, it's a huge--nearly 10" x 13"--and absolutely stunning, with more than 150 full-sized color reproductions of illustrations created for old editions of The Arabian Nights. It's a lavish, eye-popping, amazing book.

I wish I had images to share. They run the gamut of style and technique: the detailed engravings of Dore; the lush paintings of Maxfield Parrish; the black-and-white seductiveness of Beardsley; the solitary, menaced figures of William Heath Robinson; and much more, all beautifully reproduced. Any fan of book illustration will find something here to cherish. Irwin points out that the Nights provided an unusually open field for illustrators:
The material came from diverse sources and was put together by different hands. There was no single narrative voice and this had an important consequence for its later illustration in the West, since unlike other texts that were popular choices for illustration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the amount of visual cuing provided by the narrative varied considerably from story to story. For example, in "The Story of the Semi-Petrified Prince," the interior of the palace is evoked in some detail, but in other, later tales a palace is often just a palace. So with some stories the illustrators must have found themselves constrained by the text in front of them, while with other stories the austerity of the narrative might set their imaginations free.
What becomes clear very quickly is just how much our impressions of these stories are tied in with the history of their illustration; these are the images that come to mind when we hear of Sinbad and Ali Baba and Haroun al Raschid.

Alongside the reproductions, Irwin presents brief assessments of the key illustrators, including some biographical detail and setting them in the context of their era and their peers. Once in a while, the tracing of influences offers a wonderful moment of the unexpected conjunction of different artistic worlds like this one:
Aged only fifteen, [Frank Brangwyn] worked for a while for William Morris. Late in life, Brangwyn would still recall the tremendous impact that the pattern of a Persian carpet in Morris's house made upon him.
And thus is born an Orientalist artist; Irwin quotes Theophile Teinlen as saying of Brangwyn's work,
One can truly say that these things are painted by a child of the North whose eyes, having seen the Orient, have stayed forever dazzled, marvelling, and filled with sunshine.
Irwin himself is a great scholar of the Arabian Nights (having published a companion whose only flaw is that it's not 1,001 pages long) and of the history of Orientalist scholars and late-Victorian engagement with the East; when he brings all that knowledge to bear on this specific facet of that history, the result is dazzling.

The only drawback of Visions of the Jinn is the price: at $225, it's clearly aimed at libraries and collectors. But if you've spent a lifetime loving these stories and the history of how they entered--and forever changed--the literary history of the West, it's an unforgettable book. I'll be turning to it again and again and again over the years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Apologies to Trollope

After Friday's post that took issue with Trollope's complaint about Dickens's prose style, a reader wrote to argue that I was being unfair to Trollope. And he's right: Trollope's complaint was specifically about the idea of Dickens's prose as a model for beginning writers--which, even today, when the buzzing, wild genius of Dickens's descriptive energy is more widely recognized, it would be disastrous for a young writer to attempt to mimic. It would lead to pastiche at best; baggy, affected nonsense at worst.

But it was for the closing of my post that I owe Trollope the real apology: after he recommended Thackeray as a better model, I noted that at least he hadn't nominated himself. I was being flip on a Friday night, and Trollope deserves better. By all accounts, Trollope was a man of appropriate self-assessment, neither over- nor under-selling his achievements. He was a working writer who found success, and he was proud of that fact, but he didn't make claim to be a genius. In a piece on Trollope's autobiography, Michael Dirda quotes a couple of assessments from the book:
Above all, he is surprisingly harsh about his own creations. Take those two novels mentioned above, Doctor Thorne and The Bertrams. The first soon ranked among his most popular titles; the other long lay among his most ignored. Yet, says their author, "I myself think that they are of about equal merit, but that neither of them is good." His own favorites among his books are those about the politician Plantagenet Palliser, especially The Prime Minister--which the critics damned. Orley Farm, he observes, possesses his best plot, but "taking it as a whole," The Last Chronicle of Barset is "the best novel I have written."
Dirda also includes a great anecdote that I can't help but pass on:
Once, when he overheard two clergymen complain that the celebrated Mrs. Proudie of the Barsetshire novels had grown tiresome, he went up and told them that she would be dead within the week. And so she was.
Almost anyone involved, even peripherally, in the literary should also appreciate Trollope for being what he was: a writer who lived a life with relatively little drama, worked for the Post Office every day for decades while still finding time to write, and matter-of-factly turned out prose. No sturm und drang here. Dirda uses Trollope's own account to calculate that at Trollope's pace of 3,000 words per day, every day, he would have turned out a novel the length of Gatsby in a month. John Sutherland, in his magnificent new Lives of the Novelists, says that Trollope's reliability and speed ended up working against him:
He had produced too many novels too quickly for the public's appetite. Sales and payments fell--not catastrophically but palpably.
Crime fiction fans will recall that one of the reasons Donald E. Westlake always gave for writing under so many pen names was that he was writing too fast for his publishers' taste; they didn't want to flood the market with Westlake books. Trollope, one assumes, never considered that option--and wouldn't a Trollope novel be recognizable under any name, regardless?

Sutherland claims that the falling sales led to a "gloom [that] found magnificent expression in his mordant satire on the morals of his age an the decay of Englishness, The Way We Live Now." He goes on to point out something else that distinguishes Trollope from the best of his contemporaries:
The title [of The Way We Live Now] points to a salient feature of Trollopian art. Thackeray, Dickens and George Eliot consistently antedated the action of their novels by decades. Trollope invariably writes about "now." Sic vivitur, as his favourite Latin proverb put it--thus we live.
And with that, The Duke's Children goes into my bag for my next trip. That's another point--and not a minor one--in Trollope's favor: he's reliable enough that, if pressed, you can pack nothing but a book by him for a trip and still depart with confidence. He's certainly not going to let you down.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Like a cat on your lap

{Photo by rocketlass.}

After spending more than a week wholly wrapped up in Middlemarch, with its ambition to paint a vivid, emotionally and intellectually rich portrait of the life of an 1830s village, it was with real pleasure that I sat down last night with a book of much more modest aims, Jacques Poulin's Mister Blue (1989, translated from French by Sheila Fischman in 2011).

Whereas Eliot wanted us to take in the world, and, having done so, understand it, all Poulin is asking of us in Mister Blue is to pause a moment, attend to the world, and reflect. The novel is told in the quiet, contemplative voice of Jim, a writer who says of himself,
I'm not very good at introspection. Generally what I do is glide along the surface of things like a drifting raft that knows nothing about what goes on in the depths of the sea.
And while that's an exaggeration, it's not terribly far off the mark: Jim lives alone with his cat, Mister Blue, on a cliff overlooking a river outside Quebec City. He plays tennis with his brother. He tries to write every morning. He watches the fog roll in and the sky change with the seasons. He thinks, but he is at the same time relatively untroubled by thought.

And that's about it--until he notices a boat anchored in the river, and, on investigating a nearby cave, finds a bedroll, some supplies, and a copy of The Arabian Nights with the name Marie K. inside. He soon develops an obsessive love for the book's mysterious, missing owner, and that love is but the first change in a summer that will see him meet new people, turn his novel in a new direction, and open his house--and eventually his heart--to a damaged orphan girl, La Petite.

I suspect that sounds hideously treacly, so I should rush to reassure you that it's not like that at all. Poulin's narration is reticent, controlled, even elegant, and as far from sappy as you can imagine. There is nothing so cut-and-dried as "healing" in this novel; what there is instead is care, and dailiness, and the ways they can effectively interact. There is a love of stories, and an acknowledgment of their power (that doesn't oversell it); there's a wry humor, and a nod to the silly ways we can act when we're chasing ghosts and obsessions of our own creation. And there's a sense of gentle, melancholy mystery, as well. Not for nothing is La Petite reading Le Grand Meaulnes: the whiffs of fairy-tale strangeness that emanate from that book are here, in muted form, as well.

Gentleness is a key word here. Late in the novel, La Petite tells Jim,
"I'm a person . . . who always wants to bite. I'm like an alley cat that everybody's mistreated: my normal reaction is to want to bite and scratch. But when I read your books, it's as if I've been given permission to be not so aggressive, to be gentle for a little while. As if somebody had told me: Be gentle if you want, nothing will happen, no one will harm you."
To project an air of gentleness without boring a reader--to wrap a reader inside it and make them glad for it--may be a small ambition, but when it's achieved, the result can be marvelous. I've mentioned already that Mister Blue called to mind Le Grand Meaulnes, but I also found myself thinking of a pair of very different books, of similarly narrow compass that belies rich self-knowledge: J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country, which shares Mister Blue's sense of fruitful solitude, and Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest, which has a similarly captivating atmosphere and idiosyncrasy of thought. Both are deliberately modest; both are lasting favorites.

At this time of year, when the air crackles with stress, one could do worse than set aside two hours to spend with Mister Blue and Jim. If you can take in some of their gentleness and calm, you'll be a good ways towards the best of the holiday spirit.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Trollope on Dickens

I'm still really enjoying dipping into Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, which I drew on a couple of times last week. Today, I turned to some thoughts on Dickens that Anthony Trollope (whose brother, Thomas, was married to the sister of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan) contributed to the magazine he edited, St Paul's Magazine on the occasion of Dickens's death. It's hard to imagine how Trollope as a writer could be less like Dickens: Trollope's language is calm, even stately. His casts are large, but he makes no pretense to take in the breadth of classes and conditions that Dickens does. His plots are effective, but contained, rarely straining credulity. And whereas Dickens, even at the height of his success, wrote as if he were an outsider--an outsider who, having seen how poorly the system worked, never quite believed that any real answers could come from within it--Trollope wrote of the very people who were making that system run, and, ever-so-slowly, improving it. That last difference is what Trollope gets at in this passage, while also nicely identifying Dickens's radicalism, not specifically with his championing of the poor, but with his general distrust of all those who hold and use power:
He thoroughly believed in literature; but in politics he seemed to have no belief at all. Men in so-called public life were to him, I will not say insincere men, but so placed as to be by their calling almost beyond the pale of sincerity. To his feeling, all departmental work was the bungled, muddled routine of the Circumlocution Office. Statecraft was odious to him; and though he would probably never have asserted that a country could be maintained without legislative or executive, he seemed to regard such devices as things so prone to evil, that the less of them the better it would be for the country,--and the farther a man kept himself from their immediate influence the better it would be for him. I never heard any man call Dickens a radical; but if any man was ever so, he was a radical at heart,--believing entirely in the people, writing for them, speaking for them, and always desirous to take their part against some undescribed and indiscernible tyrant, who to his mind loomed large as an official rather than as an autocratic despot.
That seems impressively acute for having been written in the moment and by a temperament so opposed. But having written in praise of Trollope's assessment I feel I should also point out where he goes wrong (though I'll cop to sharing this next passage largely because its air of bafflement is so much fun to quote):
Of DIckens's style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules--almost as completely as that created by Carlyle. To readers who have taught themselves to regard language, it must therefore be unpleasant. . . . No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens. If such a one wants a model for his language, he can take Thackeray.
At least he had the restraint not to suggest himself as a model.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Winter is here!

So sayeth the Quarterly Conversation, at least. The Winter issue is here! Some highlights: --Ellen Welcker writes of Matthew Henriksen's book of poetry Ordinary Sun, "And oh, this is humanity: it doesn’t end, but multiplies. We destroy and desecrate, we slander and libel, and all the while we love the world, we love it blindly." --The always wonderful Patrick Kurp calls Denise Gigante's new book The Keats Brothers, "a detailed, fast-moving life of this strong-minded poet and the siblings who helped sustain him." --Andrew Wessels calls Daniel Tiffany's The Dandelion Clock "a poetic-punk fusion of Middle English, contemporary spoken English, and lyric meditation." And that's just the poetry reviews! There's also a review of the new Cesar Aira book, a review by Daniel Green of Magdalena Tulli's In Red (which has been getting great reviews all over the place), and a review of 1Q84 by TQC editor-in-chief Scott Esposito. (And of course much, much more.) Sadly, this issue marks my last as poetry editor; other obligations--primarily work and the piano--have left me lately scrambling to devote the time to it that it deserves. It's been a real pleasure, and honor, to be associated with the magazine, and I feel grateful for the chance it has given me to work with so many strong writers. I'm definitely planning to continue to be a supporter and reader, and I hope you will, too.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Dickens and Eliot

Last week I quoted from an anonymous review of The Mystery of Edwin Drood that appeared in the Spectator on October 1, 1870, written in response to some early critical reviews. The reviewer--thought to be R. H. Hutton--did a good job of arguing for Dickens's strengths, but he also acknowledged Dickens's reliable weak points:
No doubt there are all Mr Dickens's faults in this story quite unchanged. He never learned to draw a human being as distinct from an oddity, and all his characters which are not oddities are false. Again he never learned the distinguishing signs of genuine sentiment; and just as nothing can be vulgarer than the sentimental passages of Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewith, so nothing can, at any rate, be much falser or in worse tase than the sentimental scenes in Edwin Drood. Mr Dickens could not get over the notion that a love scene was a rich and luscious sort of juice, to be sucked up in the sort of way in which a bowl of punch and a Christmas dinner are so often enjoyed in his tales; and not only so, but all beauty, all that he thinks lovable, is apt to be treated by him as if it were a pot of raspberry jam, something luscious to the palate, instead of something fascinating to the imagination and those finer powers by which harmony of expression is perceived.
While I'd argue that to say that "all his characters which are not oddities are false" is going way too far--what about Pip, or David Copperfield, or, to dip into the second ranks, Steerforth or Jaggers?--the reviewer's description of Dickens's susceptibility and approach to sentiment is right on.

I've found that weakness coming to mind again and again over the past week as I've been reading Middlemarch, a novel that, after a diet of Dickens, seems fully to justify Virginia Woolf's oft-repeated claim that it is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Eliot has none of the linguistic verve of Dickens, and when she tries to introduce the traditional dramatic elements (secrets from the past, for example) of which he makes such inventive use, the attempt feels mechanical. But she makes up for all of that with the acuity of her insight and her willingness to speak honestly and plainly about human feelings and failings. Nearly a century and a half on, it's still bracing. She has Henry James's interest in the shadings of thought and emotion, and if she doesn't have quite his fineness of perception, she also doesn't suffer from his finickiness.

Almost every page of Middlemarch offers something worth noting, from an aphoristic flash ("Duty has a way of behaving unexpectedly"; "The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots") to a fully fleshed-out passage of a character's thought. Here, for instance, is a scene that seems right to set against the above indictment of Dickens's treacle:
Dorothea had again taken up her abode at Lowick Manor. After three months, Freshitt had become rather oppressive: to sit like a model for Saint Catherine looking rapturously at Celia's baby would not do for many hours in the day, and to remain in that momentous babe's presence with persistent disregard was a course that could not have been tolerated in a childless sister. Dorothea would have been capable of carrying baby joyfully for a mile if there had been need, and of loving it the more tenderly for that labour; but to an aunt who does not recognize her infant nephew as Bouddha, and has nothing to do for him but to admire, his behaviour is apt to appear monotonous, and the interest of watching him exhaustible.
The irony is gentle, but the undercutting of the home-and-hearth cliches is genuine and serious.

Mere pages later comes the following exchange, in which the well-intentioned Mrs Cadwallader offers Dorothea advice, privately:
"You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of then. But you must not run into that. I daresay you are a little bored here with our good dowager; but think what a bore you might become yourself to your fellow-creatures if you were always playing tragedy queen and taking things sublimely. Sitting alone in that library at Lowick you may fancy yourself ruling the weather; you must get a few people round you who wouldn't believe you if you told them. That is a good lowering medicine."

"I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did," said Dorothea, stoutly.

"But I suppose you have found out your mistake, my dear," said Mrs Cadwallader, "and that is proof of sanity."

Dorothea was aware of the sting, but it did not hurt her. "No," she said, "I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion."
Mrs Cadwallader couches her advice in humor, but she's no less serious about it; the oscillation between the two tones--and Dorothea's restrained bristle at the guidance--seems so natural, so convincing, and so much more subtle than Dickens could ever have hoped for. This feels like the realism, the attempt to explicate the reality of human interactions, that novelists continue to grapple with today, hardly dated at all.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Dickens and a debt of gratitude

I mentioned in Wednesday's post that the bibliography for Claire Tomalin's new Dickens bio included Philip Collins's collection of period reviews of Dickens's novels, Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1986)--but I didn't even begin to convey the excitement I felt when I saw that listing. I think it likely that as I read the bibliography I briefly looked like a Loony Toons character, eyes popping, spine straightening, ears twitching. I'd been looking for that book off and on--not knowing its title or editor--for years, ever since I saw it in the hands of a favorite English professor when I was an undergraduate. It was in my undergrad years when I really fell for Dickens. Northwestern offered a course in Dickens, taught by Lawrence Evans, who had been on faculty there since 1962; Evans was an unapologetic avoider of fashion and theory, a slightly frumpy, slightly affected lover of literature who entered the ranks of the English Department in simpler times and stayed, never losing his enthusiasm or ebullience, for decades. His publication record tells you that he came from a different era: he published but one book, with Oxford, The Letters of Walter Pater (1970), which seems likely to have been a revision or extension of his Harvard dissertation (1961). Is there a less fashionable author than Pater? Is it possible to conceive, these days, of a near-half-century career at a major university that sees but one publication? The above should not be taken as a slight against Evans. He was a wonderful teacher of undergraduates, exactly the sort of English teacher regularly encountered in movies but rarely seen in real life--the one who leaves you loving literature, inspired and challenged by it, more than ever. Decades into his career, he still brimmed over with love for all manner of English literature. And if he had little truck with theory, he had less truck with shirking. In his nine-week Dickens class, we read Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorritt, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend--4,500 pages in total, and we were expected to know it cold for class discussions, papers, and even quizzes. He expected us to share his enthusiasm for reading and commitment to these books, which was a good way of weeding out the slackers. For someone like me, whose essential nature as a reader and a student is that of a dilettante who loves fiction beyond all description and simply wants to know better how and why it works, Evans's method of close reading combined with just enough historical and biographical information was a dream. By the end of that nine weeks, I was a Dickens fan for life. Add the fact that other of his courses were the first to introduce me to Ford Madox Ford, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene, and you've got a debt I could never hope to repay. As students will do, I lost touch with Professor Evans years ago. I knew him for a time as a graduate, when I worked in a scholarly bookstore near campus that sold books for his courses, but since I left the store more than twelve years ago, I hadn't been in touch. I remembered hearing several years ago that he'd had a stroke, and that he'd subsequently retired. Looking him up tonight, prompted by the joy that the volume of Dickens criticism had brought me, I learned that he died not quite a fortnight ago, on November 20, as, halfway through Tomalin's biography, I was as wrapped up in Dickens as ever. So in memory of your own English teachers, the ones to whom you owe a lifetime of reading and re-reading a favorite author, please join me tonight in raising a glass to Lawrence Evans. In exchange, I'll promise to regularly share the best of what I learn from this volume of Dickens criticism. Tonight, I'll close with this, from the Autobiography of Henry James--who could be as cutting a critic of Dickens as anyone, but who here acknowledges the Inimitable's glories:
There has been since his extinction no corresponding case--as to the relation between benefactor and beneficiary, or debtor and creditor; no other debt in our time has been piled so high, for those carrying it, as the long, the purely "Victorian" pressure of that obligation.
Thank you, Professor Evans. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dickens and Drood

{Photos by rocketlass.}

One of the few misjudgments in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life--which is for the most part very good at suitably pointing out what is bad within Dickens while praising what is good and original--is her assessment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The incomplete nature of Drood almost guarantees it a place as one of the most contested of Dickens novels, and while I won't make grand claims for it, I do think it's unquestionably a remarkable return to form from a man who had been nearly five years away from serious fiction. Tomalin acknowledges its "haunting and melancholy descriptions of Rochester, the city of [Dickens's] childhood," but she gives Dickens's comedy short shrift. It's only "moderately funny," she writes; the only thing she has to say about its most creatively absurd character is that he is a "nicely done bad child who throws stones and pronounces cathedral 'KIN-FREE-DER-EL,' which Dickens may have heard and appreciated on the streets of Rochester."

That's selling the boy, Deputy--and the target of his stones--well short. Take this exchange, which I quoted a couple of years ago, fresh off a visti to Rochester. Mr. Durdles, having been discovered in the act of being stoned, explains the who and why of the constant pelting he receives:
"Own brother, sir," observes Durdles, turning himself about again, and as unexpectedly forgetting his offence as he had recalled or conceived it; "own brother to Peter the Wild Boy! But I gave him an object in life."

"At which he takes aim?" Mr. Jasper suggests.

"That's it, sir," returns Durdles, quite satisfied; "at which he takes aim. I took him in hand and gave him an object. What was he before? A destroyer. What work did he do? Nothing but destruction. What did he earn by it? Short terms in Cloisterham jail. Not a person, not a piece of property, not a winder, not a horse, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a bird, nor a fowl, nor a pig, but what he stoned, for want of an enlightened object. I put that enlightened object before him, and now he can turn his honest halfpenny by the three penn'orth a week."
Today as I flipped through a book that Tomalin's bibliography turned up for me--after years of fruitless searching based on a one-time sighting of it in college--Philip Collins's Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, I was pleased to discover a contemporary reviewer who agreed with me that Drood, while far from perfect, is nonetheless quite good. An unsigned review for the Spectator of October 1, 1870, argues that it deserves to take its place with Dickens's stronger works:
We sincerely believe that the picture of Durdles, the Cathedral stonemason, and of the young imp who stones him home at night, would have been welcomed twenty-five years ago with as much delight as was at that time the picture of Poll Sweedlepipes, barber and bird-fancier, and his distinguished customer, Bailey Junior.
Drood, the reviewer (thought to be R. H. Hutton), goes on to say,
shows his peculiar power of grasping the local colour and detail of all characteristic physical life, in the exceedingly powerful sketch of the den of the East Indian opium smoker; it shows a different side of the same faculty in the abundant and marvellous detail as to the precincts and interior of the Cathedral; while all his old humour comes out in the picture of Miss Twinkleton's girls'-school, of Billicken the lodging-house keeper, and in the figures to which we have before referred, the Cathedral stone-mason and his attendant imp.
Usually even the best of Dickens's comic characters verge on wearing out their welcome by the end of his doorstoppers; to me, the fact that they don't get that chance is--far more than the unsolved mystery--the strongest reminder of the loss signified by the unfinished Drood.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dickens meets Victor Hugo

Today, a story I learned from Claire Tomalin's new biography of Charles Dickens. In 1846, the thirty-four-year-old Dickens, having just written the chapter of Dombey and Son that ended poor Paul Dombey's life, wandered Paris with his best friend, John Forster, and called on Victor Hugo. Tomalin's account, which draws on Forster's biography of Dickens, shows Dickens to have been simultaneously impressed and amused:
Hugo made a profound impression on both of them with his eloquence, and Forster observed that he addressed "very charming flattery, in the best taste" to Dickens. Dickens thought he "looked like the Genius he was," while his wife looked as if she might poison his breakfast any morning; and the daughter who appeared "with hardly any drapery above the waist . . . I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays, but for her not appearing to wear any."
The casual references to murder sent me to my shelves to see what I could learn about the life of Hugo, whose work I've barely read. And the journals of the Goncourt brothers didn't disappoint. Here, from August 5, 1873, is a reflection that follows a visit to the Hugo household:
Left to myself, I started thinking about that family, about that father, that genius, that monster--about that first daughter who had been drowned, and that second daughter who had been carried off by an American and brought back to France raving mad--about those two sons, one dead and the other dying--about Mme Hugo, committing adultery with her son-in-law--about Vacquerie, marrying one daughter, sleeping with the mother, and practically raping his sister-in-law--and finally about that Juliette, that Pompadour of the poet's, still pursuing, with her kisses, at his late date, the dying son. A Tragic Family, such is the title the dying man gave a novel he once wrote--and such is the title of the Hugo family.
Wow. A helpful note from editor Robert Baldick puts a little more detail behind this litany of disaster:
Leopoldine and Charles Vacquerie had been drowned at Villeguier on 4 September 1843, six months after their marriage. Hugo's surviving daughter, Adele [the one who caught Dickens's eye] had followed an English officer called Pinson to America in 1863; brought back by Francois-Victor Hugo [Hugo's son, who was dying at the time of the Goncourts' visit], she had been committed to a lunatic asylum where she died in 1915. The author of Une Famille tragique was not Francois-Victor, but his elder brother Charles, who had died in 1871. Francois-Victor himself was to die soon afterwards, on 26 December 1873. No evidence has come to light to substantiate the accusation levelled by Goncourt at Mme Victor Hugo.
The tone of the Goncourts' reflection--and especially its opening sentences--brought to mind Anthony Powell and A Dance to the Music of Time. So when the editor's note cleared Madame Hugo alone of all charges, I found myself thinking of a passage from the Book of Revelation that Powell's narrator, Nick Jenkins, recalls as he reflects on some ancient debauchery:
Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
A suitable reward, perhaps, for resisting the urge to match her husband affair for affair--to say nothing of the more serious urge, detected by Dickens, to slip a soupcon of poison into his morning crepe.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Charles Baxter's strange, beautiful, moving novel The Feast of Love (2000) is full of passages worth quoting: unusual and striking images, perceptive thoughts. I've used some of them recently over at the Annex, and to take us into Thanksgiving--and what will probably be a subsequent week of at best spotty blogging--I thought I'd share a couple of lines that give a sense of the novel's abundance of heart. They are written in the voice of an old professor of philosophy, a specialist in Kierkegaard, and they come late in the book, when he's wrestling with grief over his estrangement from his son:
Every night I take up my watch by the front window. I have my lamp and my book. I listen to Schubert on the phonograph. Next to my family, Schubert is the love of my life; if he were to return to earth, he could come to my house and take any of the objects here he wanted.
I spend a lot of time thinking about--and feeling thankful for--what I owe to my cultural heroes, writers and musicians and artists, but I've never thought of it quite that way. But I like it, the idea of opening the door to an admired revenant and saying, "Here, what's mine is yours. Take, and be welcome." Our household gods could be shared.

After the surprise appearance at his door not of Schubert, but of one of the book's other characters, the professor goes on to think to himself,
I think of a poem I had to memorize in college: "Love makes those young whom age doth chill,/And whom he finds young, keeps young still." Something like that.

The unexpected is always upon us. Of all the gifts arrayed before me, this one thought, at this moment of my life, is the most precious.
On my way home tonight, with Baxter and gratitude and generosity on the brain, I happened to turn to a piece Baxter wroter for A William Maxwell Portrait, a collection of memories of a writer for whose work I feel immense gratitude. Baxter's account of Maxwell is perceptive and gentle and convincing; its best moment is this scene, which is so vivid and inviting it makes me ache with that longing that accompanies good history writing--oh, to have been there.
As the afternoon went on, the light began to fail, and by evening the apartment was almost completely in darkness. We were still talking, even though we could hardly see each other. Maxwell did not seem to want to turn on any of the lights. He said he loved the darkening and the departure of the light from the room because it made the objects in it more lively, and when his wife came home, flipping on the switch as she came in, I saw his face again, rapt with attention. He told his wife that it was as if he and I had gone for a walk in the woods.
Elsewhere, Baxter draws from Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow a line that seems suitable to send us to the Thanksgiving table, that "generosity might be the greatest pleasure there is."

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Enjoy your families.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dreaming in words

In an essay about friendship with William Maxwell in A William Maxwell Portrait, poet Michael Collier writes of Maxwell's intense involvement with words, especially late in life:
Toward the end of his life, reading and writing came together in a kind of painful synesthesia. In the spring of 2000, one of his letters admitted, "I can't find anything to read that isn't overstimulating. I am about half way through War and Peace and if I read that after dinner I go on living it in my dreams. Awful things that I know are going to happen, scenes I have made up in my sleep and sometimes just writing."
This is something I struggle with as well: any reading I do in the time leading up to going to bed is guaranteed to stay with me through the night. My dreams become suffused with the language of the author I'd been reading; I spend hours in some nebulous state between reading, writing, and living the words of the novel, wrestling (often stressfully) with its problems and thinking in its language. The most recent book to take me over like that was Murakami's 1Q84, which did not make for restful dreams--the oneiroi made sure that Murakami's flat language was even more freighted with dread than it is in daylight hours.

I had always assumed this was common among serious readers, but Collier's account makes Maxwell's case sound unusual. Am I wrong? Is this something you experience? And is it, like with me, bad enough that it makes you avoid in bed much of the time?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Naked Singularity

For nearly a year now, I've carefully avoided mentioning on this blog one of the best novels I read last year--one of the best novels I've read in a good while--Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity. I read it over Christmas last year, and for nearly a week this 700-page debut novel had me completely captivated, laughing and worrying and being surprised and amazed. Ordinarily, I would have been quoting from it here--like I quoted from it relentlessly to rocketlass as I read--and praising it to the rooftops. But I didn't.

I had my reasons. Or, really, reason: A Naked Singularity was self-published, and I wanted to convince my employer, the University of Chicago Press, to publish it. In May, we will, and I couldn't be more excited.

The whole thing started with a review by Scott Bryan Wilson in the Quarterly Conversation (for which I serve as poetry editor). As editor Scott Esposito pointed out in a note accompanying the review, "This book review tends closer to an endorsement than we would usually publish." It was a rave. Scott called A Naked Singularity, ""One of the best and most original novels of the decade," and he went on from there:
If you like The Wire, if you like rewarding, difficult fiction, if you like literary, high-quality artistic and hilarious yet moving novels that are difficult to put down, I can’t recommend A Naked Singularity enough.
I knew Scott's taste well enough to trust his opinion . . . but still--a 700-page self-published debut novel? That's a commitment I wasn't quite ready to make. So I set a Google alert for the book, to see whether other people might share Scott's enthusiasm. And they did. Lian Hearn, author of the Tales of the Otori series, wrote a long post on her Facebook page titled "A Naked Singularity: Why I Love This Book." Dan Visel at With Hidden Noise wrote, "This is a book that deserves to be read more widely; in a better world, people would be reading this rather than Freedom." Others followed, with similar praise.

So I got a copy, and they were right: it's a wonderful novel. It's linguistically inventive and simmering with anger at social and legal injustice, all told in the unforgettable voice of the protagonist, Casi, a wunderkind public defender in Manhattan who's never lost a case. It's as funny and smart as anything I've read since Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, and it ranges widely in its concerns, scenes, and style: it offers courtroom drama, media satire, a ridiculously long scat joke, snappy dialogue, immigrant stories, boxing commentary, and even a heist worthy of Richard Stark. It's indebted to Melville and Dante, kin to David Foster Wallace and William Gaddis, and still not quite like anything else I've ever read.

And now I'm going to get a chance to introduce it to the book world at large. You can read more about A Naked Singularity, including the copy I wrote to describe it, at the Press's website. You should be able to pre-order it at your local bookstore or from Amazon.

As I've explained before, I try not to let my work and nonwork lives intersect on this blog any more than absolutely necessary. I won't ever write here about a book that I wouldn't have written about had I come to it through other means. This is a case where the two worlds overlap completely--and where, in the midst of the constant litany of bad news about the death of publishing, the loss of community, the end of reading, and whatever other gleefully masochistic bad cultural news is currently clogging your Google Reader, this is a story where it all actually worked. A writer wrote a singular book that stayed true to his vision, and, because it was good enough to draw the attention of some seriously dedicated readers, it's now getting another shot.

So trust me on this one. Order up a copy and clear your reading decks in late April/early May. Until then, if you want a taste of De La Pava's intense, energetic prose, check out this piece he wrote for Triple Canopy on Virginia Woolf and two brutal boxing matches.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Christa Faust's noir world

Christa Faust's new novel from Hard Case Crime, Choke Hold, opens with some questions:
Do the things you've done in the past add up to the person you are now? Or are you endlessly reinvented by the choices you make for the future? I used to think I knew the answer to those questions, Now, I'm not so sure.
Boiling noir down to a simple definition is a mug's game: it's got too many facets and allows too much room for creative reinterpretation for such an exercise to be anything more substantial than a barstool time-passer. But by nearly any definition, those questions would be near the heart of noir, which has always been concerned with how we bury, reconcile, lie about, and live through our pasts; throw in a dose of postwar pop existentialism that gives you the idea of reinvention--and the shakiness of edifices (truth, honor) that long seemed solid--and you've got the building blocks of noir.

Faust gets it, in other words, and Choke Hold lives up to its opening. That opening is actually looking back, to the events of her first novel, Money Shot (2008), which introduced reluctant heroine (and former porn star) Angel Dare, who spent that novel trying to escape from Croatian sex traffickers who mistakenly thought she'd stolen their money. Money Shot falls into the subset of noir novels that show a protagonist thrust into mortal danger and surprising himself with his own ruthlessness. That "himself" was intentional: part of what's fun (and important) about Faust's book is that it's another weight placed in the ever-so-slowly balancing scales of noir, a genre whose greatest weakness has long been its masculine focus and attendant misogyny. Dare's no classical feminist, but she's a strong female character who insists on being in complete control of her destiny even before things go south--and in fact, once they do, she wrestles with frustration over (and tries to escape from) her temporary dependence on a male bodyguard. Eventually, she does, and she turns out to be the toughest person in the book.

Choke Hold picks up a few years after the events of Money Shot, and it's immediately impressive if for no other reason than that, in a way that's reminiscent of Richard Aleas's novels, Faust makes her character live with the consequences of the decisions she made in the first book. Dare survived her killers, but she lost the life she knew. Anything less would have been a cop-out, and untrue to the overall feel of these novels, one in which there's no false sense of security: when bullets start flying, people die, including bystanders, supporting characters, and good guys.

Dare has lost her livelihood, and we leave the world of porn behind for a new subculture: mixed martial arts. Crime novels are a great vehicle for pulling back the curtain on areas of contemporary life that outsiders rarely see, and this pair of books offers detailed, and fairly gruesome, portraits of both those worlds and the tolls they take on young bodies. As Dare gets inadvertently drawn into trying to save a young MMA fighter's life (to say nothing of her own), we meet sleazy gun nuts, south-of-the-border fight promoters, and punch-drunk white knights, in out-of-the-way locales whose sordidness is palpable. My favorite moment along those lines is when a forger--whom two earlier violent sleazeballs have described to Angel as too dangerous for her to deal with directly--turns out to be a quiet, melancholy gay painter of hyper-realistic cowboy portraits.

Faust shows us a world where money and psychological need distort and destroy people; where a fear of commitment is reasonable because the people and things you love will be taken away from you; where there will never be a shortage of men willing to point a gun, slam shut a van door, or drive a prisoner away without giving a thought to where she'll end up. Through two books, that world has brutalized Angel Dare, and she's fought it to a draw. It's not a world you want to live in, but I look forward to the next time Faust guides us through it.

Friday, November 11, 2011


General mid-November, good-god-how-is-it-mid-November-already busy-ness has stolen away my blogging time this week. But I will take a moment and share an eye-popping bit of information gleaned from my first foray into Michael Dirda's lovely little book On Conan Doyle just now:
Sedentary and precise in his routines--"Mycroft [Holmes] has his rails and he runs on them"--this supposed minor bureaucrat actually functions as "the central exchange, the clearing-house" for all government intelligence. "In that great brain of his everything is pigeon-holed, and can be handed out in an instant." In essence, Mycroft is a human computer like Spock. With his sharp analytic intelligence, impressive bulk, and insistence on a regular schedule, he also closely resembles Rex Stout's gruff consulting detective Nero Wolfe. Years later, I would learn that some Sherlockian scholars believe that Wolfe's mother was Irene Adler and his father either Sherlock or Mycroft.
How did I not know this? That nugget of info about Wolfe's rumored parentage is more than enough to convince me to let Dirda's go slip about Spock. (He's a half-human computer, sir, as Bones would gladly tell you.)

And let's be clear: it's Mycroft, surely. For all that Irene Adler sets Holmes a-dither, could he really . . . ? No way.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

I know where to hide those ludes!, or, Place-based boredom

In Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit (1983), there's a scene where the protagonist, a chess prodigy who at the time is eight years old and living in an orphanage, is trying to break into a locked office to steal some tranquilizers (liberally used to quiet the orphans). She gets into the office, then realizes that, rather than simply stuffing her pockets, she could conceivably take the whole jar:
She knew, too, where she could hide it, on the shelf of a disused janitors' closet in the girls' room. There was an old galvanized bucket up there that was never used; the jar would fit into it. There was also a short ladder in the closet, and she could use it safely because a person could lock the door on the girls' room from the inside. Then, if there was a search for the missing pills, even if they found them, they couldn't be traced to her.
When I read that passage earlier this week, it unexpectedly called up vivid memories of large, mostly forgotten swathes of childhood. Not that I was a tranq-stealing rebel--it won't surprise you to learn that I was the farthest thing from it. No, it's the girl's instant recall of the perfect hiding space that did it, that evocation of hitherto useless knowledge that can only be the product of hours of place-based boredom. If we're lucky enough to end up in even moderately interesting jobs, as adults we don't have to endure boredom all that often, and certainly not the reliable, week-after-week boredom in a small number of repetitive locations that seems inescapable in childhood. Think back to school, and to how fully you knew every corner and quirk of the classrooms you daydreamed in. Or church, and the way that, bored by all this talk of souls and eternity*, you memorized the floor plan, entrances and exits, closets and storage rooms, classrooms and kitchens of the whole church rather than listen. The mind is rarely truly at rest, especially when we're young and have less self to rest it on, so week after week and hour after hour, we focused on the details of the places that bored us. So I knew as I read that, where in my own grade school I would have hidden a bottle of tranquilizers had I needed to. The school's still there, the hiding place still vivid in my mind. I could even suggest a backup spot or two, if needed. All of which reminded me of my favorite side effect of reading a large number of Richard Stark's Parker novels in quick succession: you start to see the world differently, and to pay attention to the odd non-spaces that we pass through every day without noticing. As I wrote a couple of years back, after reading Parker,
don't be surprised if you find yourself looking at your city just a bit differently come Monday. As you head out on your usual route to work or the store, for the first time you'll find your eye drawn to service entrances and side doors, Brinks trucks and window bars, inattentive security guards and indolent clerks . . . And what about that hard-looking man in the pea coat who seems to be casting his gaze ever so casually at the very same thing?
I don't lament never having occasion to be bored in my adult life, but I do like sometimes being called to attend to those spaces in urban life that, by their anonymity, practically beg us not to give them a second glance. There are a lot of unmarked doors in the city, and we owe it to ourselves and our city to once in a while imagine what's behind them. {Oh, and I should say that The Queen's Gambit is a really impressive novel, one that makes chess seem as gripping as a duel to the death and shows a remarkable understanding of how head-to-head sports works on the levels of mind, body, and will. In addition, Tevis's ability to convey the feeling of having a gift is astonishing: from the very first time his protagonist sees a chess board, we believe, wholly, that she grasps it intuitively like he says she does. His sentences are straightforward, declarative, undramatic--I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Donald Westlake was a fan, as there are real similarities in the prose--and their effect is powerful. A book about sports, to be successful, needs to convince us that the sport in question is, for the length of the book, the most important thing in the world; The Queen's Gambit leaves no doubt. My thanks to Ed Park for the recommendation.}

Monday, November 07, 2011

Murakami and Marcel

The world of Haruki Murakami's novels is always crowded with items from Western culture--references to jazz albums, books, and movies abound. But I think 1Q84 wins the prize for my favorite reference, partly because the two gentle jokes that accompany it made me smile. It comes in a telephone exchange between Tamaru, a skilled bodyguard, and Aomame, a woman who is hiding out in a safe house under his protection:
"I think I have everything I need."

"How about books and videos and the like?"

"I can't think of anything I particularly want."

"How about Proust's In Search of Lost Time?" Tamaru asked. "If you've never read it this would be a good opportunity to read the whole thing."

"Have you read it?"

"No, I've never been in jail, or had to hide out for a long time. Someone once said unless you have those kinds of opportunities, you can't read the whole of Proust."

"Do you know anybody who has read the whole thing?"

"I've known some people who have spent a long period in jail, but none were the type to be interested in Proust."

"I'd like to give it a try," Aomame said. "If you can get ahold of those books, bring them the next time you bring supplies."

"Actually, I already got them for you," Tamaru said.
Jokes aside, there is thematic resonance in the selection of Proust, as Murakami's novel deals quite a bit with the mutability of time and the desire to recover lost moments. Aomame goes on to read In Search of Lost Time, diligently and attentively, and she does appreciate it, though she has trouble--reasonably--understanding the lost world of French salon culture that Proust describes. She tells Tamaru,
It's like reading a detailed report from a small planet light-years away from this world I'm living in. I can picture all the scenes described and understand them. It's described very vividly, minutely even. But I can't connect the scenes in that book with where I am now.
"It's not boring," she tells Tamaru,
It's so detailed and beautifully written, and I feel like I can grasp the structure of that lonely little planet. But I can't seem to go forward.
Instead, she finds herself constantly having to go back and re-read sections to understand them. But perhaps, she thinks, in the limbo in which she finds herself, waiting into the future for a visitation from her past, that mode of reading is right for her,
rather than the kind of reading where you forge ahead to find out what happens. I don't know how to put it exactly, but there is a sense of time wavering irregularly when you try to forge ahead. If what is in front is behind and what is behind is in front, it doesn't really matter, does it? Either way is fine.
Finally, she lights on a regular preoccupation of Murakami, and of this novel, the distance that necessarily separates us from others:
"It feels like I'm experiencing someone else's dream. Like we're simultaneously sharing feelings. But I can't really grasp what it means to be simultaneous. Our feelings seem extremely close, but in reality there's a gap between them."

"I wonder if Proust was aiming for that sort of sensation."

Aomame had no idea.

"Still, on the other hand," Tamaru said, "time in this real world goes ever onward. It never stands still, and never reverses course."

"Of course. In the real world time goes forward."
Except, of course, as Proust knew, when it doesn't, or when its relentless forward motion is made a mockery of by the palpable loss that is the past and that we carry with us, at times almost unbeknownst to ourselves, and that occasionally springs to such undeniable life that it takes over our present, or even our future.

A final note: don't let Tamaru--who is a wonderfully drawn character, a highlight of the book--fool you. You need not wait until you're jailed or on the run to read the whole of Proust. It's always there for you, funny and moving and insightful and unforgettable. Ask your favorite bodyguard for a set today.

Friday, November 04, 2011

"A pool of mysterious question marks"

I'm deep in to Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 now, and the desire to return to it--which last night took me on a twenty-minute roundtrip walk from my bus stop to my office, where I'd left it, and back--is going to keep me from blogging substantially tonight.

One thing I thought was worth noting, however, is a section that feels like a brief apology--in both senses of that word--from Murakami for the fact that his novels are often difficult to interpret or pin down to any definite meaning. One of the main characters, Tengo, is reading reviews of the novel Air Chrysalis, which has been published as the work of a seventeen-year-old girl but in actuality was expanded and rewritten by Tengo, and he quotes from one:
"As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious questions marks. This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of 'authorial laziness.' While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture."

Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story "put together in an exceptionally interesting way" that "carries the reader along to the very end," who could possibly call such a writer "lazy"?

But Tengo, in all honesty, had nothing clear to say to this. Maybe his thoughts on the matter were mistaken and the critic was right. He had immersed himself so deeply in the rewriting of Air Chrysalis that he was practically incapable of any kind of objectivity. He now saw the air chrysalis and the Little People as things that existed inside himself. Not even he could honestly say he knew what they meant. Nor was this so very important to him. The most meaningful thing was whether or not one could accept their existence as a fact, and Tengo was able to do this quite readily. . . . Still, Tengo's reading of the story was his and his alone. He could not help feeling a certain sympathy for the trusting men and women who were "left in a pool of mysterious question marks" after reading Air Chrysalis. He pictured a bunch of dismayed-looking people clutching at colorful flotation rings as they drifted aimlessly in a large pool full of question marks. In the sky above them shone an utterly unrealistic sun. Tengo felt a certain sense of responsibilty for having foisted such as state of affairs on the public.
But Tengo--and perhaps Murakami?--is only willing to extend his sympathy and sense of responsibilty so far. The world, Tengo thinks to himself, is a complicated and confusing place, with few answers. Should a novel aspire to be anything less than that, or more than a riveting story?
As a story, Air Chrysalis was fascinating to many people. It had fascinated Tengo and Komatsu and Professor Ebisuno and an amazing number of readers. What more did it have to do?
On a Friday night when I've got 350 pages to go, I'm not going to complain.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The harvest is in

{Photos by rocketlass.}

It's hard to top a month that brings a Cardinals world championship, the first new book by Helen DeWitt in more than a decade, Claire Tomalin's Dickens bio, 900 pages of new Stephen King, and 900+ pages of what seems to be regarded as Haruki Murakami's masterpiece, 1Q84. The harvest is in, folks.

I'll have more to say about Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods later. For now, I'm immersed in the Murakami. (On the train tonight, a woman saw me reading and said, "You're so far already!", just as I'd been thinking, "Oh, I wish I'd been able to find more time to read this the past few days!") Not surprisingly, it's full of his typical points of interest--ears, young girls, sex, detailed bachelor cooking, music, doubles--all described in his usual deliberately flat, affectless prose, sentences which, like those of Bolano, manage simultaneously to be plainspoken and pregnant with unarticulated deeper meaning (and often dread).

Three hundred and fifty pages in, I've got no real sense of where the story is going, or even what Murakami's planning to draw out of his usual themes of memory, trauma, and the way that an ordinary life can suddenly--and sometimes catastrophically--be catapulted into a new, strange realm. What's fun (and new? or am I forgetting an earlier book?) is how deliberately he foregrounds his use of that sort of slippage between realities. In the opening pages, a woman in a taxi is stuck in traffic on one of Tokyo's elevated expressways. She's going to be late for a meeting, so the driver suggests a shortcut down a hidden service stairway. Be careful, he tells her,
"And also," the driver said, facing the mirror, "please remember: things are not what they seem."

Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. "What do you mean by that?" she asked with knitted brows.

The driver chose his words carefully: "It's just that you're about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day--especially women."

"I suppose you're right."

"Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I've had that experience myself. But don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality."
That warning--familiar, if in different, nearly reversed form, from the warnings that pepper fairy tales and folk tales just before the hero chooses a fateful turn in the road--reads almost like a dare: yes, Murakami seems to be saying, I'm going to be doing this again, splitting the world and asking you to choose. Come along.

Monday, October 31, 2011

To close out this month of haints and scares, here's a link to a piece I edited for my friend John Williams's lit site, The Second Pass. I asked a number of writers, critics, and bloggers with whom I've discussed scary stories before--Ed Park, John Crowley, James Hynes, Jenny Davidson, Joseph G. Peterson, James Morrison, Andrea Janes, John Eklund, and Will Schofield--to write a couple hundred words about a favorite. The selections vary nicely, from the Victorian golden age of the ghost story to the present, Mars to Maine, psychic visions to psychological trauma. I hope you're as pleased as I am by the recommendations; I also find myself quite cheered by the realization that the Internet made this whole article possible: of the nine contributors, six are people I met first or know solely because of the world of online writing about books.

I picked "Desideratus," a story by Penelope Fitzgerald in which she turns her love of ambiguity and keen eye for strangeness to an incident that, while wholly natural, feels as chillingly strange as any good ghost story. Fitzgerald's too often lumped casually with influences like Jane Austen and Barbara Pym, but she loved M. R. James--to the extent of including a great James pastiche in her novel The Gate of Angels, and the collection from which "Desideratus" is taken, The Means of Escape, actually includes one story, "The Ax," that's constructed with all the precision and chills of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents sort of ghost story. Like all of Fitzgerald's work, it's well worth seeking out.

WIth Halloween upon us, you could do worse than to light your jack-o-lantern, set the bowl of candy on the porch, bar the door, and settle in with this collection of recommendations. Make sure your cat is on your lap when you start: you know how they love to jump out at exactly the heart-stoppingly wrong moment--I do, after all, want you with us, in non-ghostly form, for next year's stories.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dickens the disbeliever

In honor of Claire Tomalin's new biography of Dickens, which hits stores this week, our October travels turn to Boz on this blustery autumnal night. Casting my memory back through the biographies of Dickens that I've read, I don't recall any incidents of Dickens encountering any ghost more substantial than the memory of the blacking factory, but as Scrooge is always there to remind us, the idea of spirits was one that interested him. In The Victorian Supernatural, Louise Henson notes that John Forster, in his 1874 biography of Dickens,
recalled that Dickens "had something of a hankering" after ghosts, and "such was his interest generally in things supernatural that, but for the strong restraining power of his common sense, he might have fallen into the follies of Spiritualism." Forster, however, also recognised that "no man was readier to apply sharp tests to a ghost story or a haunted house though there was just as much tendency to believe in any 'well-authenticated' [sic] as made perfect his manner of telling one."
For all his creativity and imaginative sympathy, the sense one gets of Dickens from biographical writing is that he was so consistently busy and engaged with the things of this world--and, to put it bluntly, so self-involved and self-distracting--that the world of ghosts would hold little allure for him. His world is our world, absolutely bursting with physicality and--even in its most far-fetched coincidences--ultimately comprehensible almost solely as a manifestation, not of the spirit, but of the ever-growing and bustling new industrial city. Henson quotes what seems reasonable to think of as Dickens's basic position on the question from an 1848 review for the Examiner of a collection of ghost stories, Catherine Crowe's The Night-Side of Nature:
Dickens protested against this common fault of "seeking to prove too much," when the independent existence of ghosts rested on "independent grounds of proof [and] in vast numbers of cases [spectres] are known to be delusions superinduced by a well-understood, and by no means uncommon, disease. . . . [I]n a multitude of others, they are often asserted to be seen, even on Mrs. Crowe's own showing, in that imperfect state between sleeping and waking, than which there is hardly any less reliable incident to our nature."
His position on the ghost as it shades into fiction, meanwhile, Henson locates in his rejection of a set of ghost stories submitted by Francis Elliot to All the Year Round in 1867:
He recognized among them "an old one, perfectly well known as a story. You cannot tell it on the first hand testimony of an eye-witness." Dickens explained that were he to print them with her claims to authenticity, "I would deservedly be pounced upon. If I were to put them in without your claim, I would be merely republishing a stereotyped set of tales."
Originality above all, in other words. So for all his inventiveness in the genre, we can't count on Dickens for a personal ghost story. But his friend Wilkie Collins . . . well, the stories of Collins's belief that he was stalked by a doppelganger are numerous, but William M. Clarke's account in The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is the most satisfyingly garish:
[H]e spoke openly to his friends of ghosts standing behind him, and of a green woman with teeth like tusks who appeared on the stairs, along with other ghosts "trying to push him down." He also spoke of "another Wilkie Collins" appearing before him if and when he worked into the night. As the story goes, "the second Wilkie Collins sat at the same table with him and tried to monopolise the writing pad. Then there was a struggle, and the inkstand was upset; anyhow, when the true Wilkie awoke, the inkstand had been upset and the ink was running over the writing table. After that Wilkie gave up writing of nights."
You can always count on an opium addict for a nicely blood-curdling story of apparitions.

Monday, October 24, 2011

“The era of the haunted house has long been on the wane.”

{Photo by rocketlass.}

“There is too much intellectual priggishness prevalent nowadays for the fine old crusted tales of the Moated Grange and its spectral inhabitants to attract more than an amused tolerance, as things only fitting for children.” So wrote Charles George Harper in 1907, in the “Introductory” to his book Haunted Houses--though certainly didn’t let that stop him from retailing story after story of visitations and haunting. Had he been able to look ahead, to the slaughter of the Great War and the swell of emotionally raw spiritualism that came in its wake; the atomization of contemporary society and its resulting isolation and psychological strain; and the slowly growing suspicion that, whatever science explains, we’ll only find that more needs explaining, perhaps he would have been more sanguine about the possibilities facing haunter and hauntee alike. Perhaps he would even have anticipated those of us who, a century on, still enjoy the prospect of a good fright.

One interesting tidbit from the introduction is that as of Harper’s day as in Scrooge’s, ghost stories were still considered Christmas entertainment. He writes of the “ideal haunted house, or Christmas scene of ghost-stories,” and frets that
In times such as these, when the traditional robin on his snow-clad spray of holly has been banished from the Christmas card, and such un-Christmassy things as roses and tropical flowers are pictured instead, the time-honoured tales of Christmas parties are outworn and disregarded, and hair-raising stories of ghosts, told by the flickering fire before the lights are lit, no longer form a delightfully appetizing prelude to the Christmas dinner; nor, later, send the guests to bed with raw nerves that jump at every shadow.
Halloween rates nary a mention.

Harper also laments the encroachment of modernity, and the destruction—which would pick up pace because of and following the wars—of ancient houses. Ghosts, he points out,
do not very appropriately haunt houses less than a hundred years old. Ghosts and newly completed—even newly furnished—houses are antipathic things.
There are requirements:
[F]or a moderately complete installation, a manor house, with wine-cellars, a butler, old family portraits (not necessarily those of your own family), and if you can manage old oak paneling and tapestry hangings, (let them, if possible, be “arras”) so much the better.
That, however, is the bare minimum—a list that grudgingly takes into account the limits of the contemporary. In the ideal haunted house,
the guest, primed with ancestral horrors, went to bed with apprehension, leaving the warm dining-room for some vast woebegone chamber, with a bed like a catafalque and hangings of a bygone age; with mysterious cupboards in which a dozen family skeletons might reside, and with a floor whose every board had a separate and distinctive squeak. It would nowadays be difficult to secure a house-party on such terms.
In the Ikea century, perhaps the best we can do is to hope for the opposite of that: spareness that verges on asperity; an open, untouched white space so well-lit that it leaves no place to hide secrets—but also nothing to absorb them, leaving them to ricochet and echo and feed back in an inescapable din of psychic vibrations; a soullessness that denies the very existence of a soul . . . with all the psychological repercussions inevitably generated by denial. Come on in and have a seat on the sterile white expanse of the bleached-wood daybed. I’ve got a story or two for you . . .

Friday, October 21, 2011

I realize that a haunting can vex, creating situations for which one has no experience to draw on, no codes of behavior to fall back on, no axioms to call up. A ghost by its very nature upends all our certainties, so it’s no surprise that encountering one can lead to a lapse of manners.

Nonetheless, I do have to find fault with the homeowners in the following account found in Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres through Time, taken from John H. Ingram’s late-Victorian Notes and Queries. A Mr. T. Westwood tells of a visit to a country house inhabited by two elderly maiden sisters. He opens his tale with a bit of proper English mood-setting:
I well remember my walk thither. It led me up a steep ascent of oak avenue, opening out at the top on what was called the “ridge road’ of the Chase. It was the close of a splendid afternoon. On reaching my destination the sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the eastern front projected a black shadow at its foot.
Greeted by a servant, he’s taken to a quiet room and left to spruce up for dinner, then:
No sooner was he gone than I became conscious of a peculiar sound in the room—a sort of shuddering sound in the room, as of suppressed dread. It seemed close to me. I gave little heed to it at first, setting it down for the wind in the chimney, or a draught from the half-open door; but moving about the room I perceived that the sound moved with me. Whichever way I turned it followed me. I went to the furthest extremity of the chamber—it was there also.
The sound accompanies Westwood “on the landing, on the stair,” even to the dinner table, where, “when conversation flagged [he] heard it unmistakably several times,” so near as to seem as if he were likely sharing his chair with the source. No one else, however, seems to notice the sound at all. When the party breaks up and he heads for home, he is grateful beyond belief to be able to leave the noise and its presumably ghostly source behind.

Now we get to the breach of manners. When next Westwood meets the maiden ladies who had been his hosts, they’re at someone else’s house, and he feels free to mention his experience:
On my telling them what had occurred to me, they smiled and said it was perfectly true, but added that they were so used to the sound that it had ceased to perturb them. Sometimes, they said, it would be quiet for weeks, at others it followed them from room to room, from floor to floor, pertinaciously, as it had followed me. They could give me no explanation of the phenomenon. It was a sound, no more, and quite harmless.
I could imagine a situation in which it is the proper response of a host to pretend not to notice a spirit—when, for example, a spirit arrives with a guest and hovers malevolently about, hurling imprecations or oozing ectoplasm, it is the better part of manners to ignore it. But when the spirit is local to one’s home, and familiar enough to be disregarded, it’s no less than one’s duty to afford one’s guests a warning at the same time that they are extended an invitation. Delicate guests should always have the chance to opt out of a possible haunting. Then, when the haunting itself is occurring, I can’t imagine Miss Manners or Ann Landers wouldn’t advise a host to politely acknowledge the problem, apologize for the distraction and discomfort, and reassure the guest that no harm is likely to befall them. Then offer to pour them another, perhaps stiffer, drink.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The English Ghost

{Photo by rocketlass. A wee bit The Turn of the Screw, no?}

When I picked up Peter Ackroyd's The English Ghost (2010), I expected the usual sort of magpie archive mouse approach* we're accustomed to from Ackroyd: all the famous English ghosts we've known since the Scholastic Book Fair sold us a slim volume on Anne Boleyn's severed head back in second grade, plus a healthy dose of obscure historical notes, lost stories from East London, and little-known specters.

There is some of that in the introduction, where Ackroyd reveals, for example, that "The word [ghost] is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, yet, curiously enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not see ghosts." And that
Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, remarks upon "the spook, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, Tom Thombe, Tom Tumbler Boneless and such other BUGS."
And that
In south-western England ghosts were known as "hobs." They often performed the role of nightwatchmen, and under cover of night and darkness their footsteps could be heard. One Somersetshire woman became so accustomed to the tread that she would call out "Hello there, I'm quite all right, thank you." Then the hob would depart.
The hobs, Ackroyd goes on to note, were known in Yorkshire and the North Midlands as hobbits.

But the bulk of the book is something else entirely--and, much as I enjoy Ackroyd's style of history, it was a pleasant surprise:The English Ghost is truly a book of ghost stories, from the sixteenth century on, reprinted from old books and periodicals and presented in their original words. Though the styles vary, for the most part the accounts share a satisfying matter-of-factness, a plainspoken evidentiary tone that generates a sense of reasonable indifference: this is what happened, these tellers seem to be saying, and if you choose not to believe it, I'm not going to press you on it.

So we get the following account, from a 1774 issue of the Gentleman's Magazine, about a haunting in the village of Beamish. Some boys who were playing outside their school were startled by the sound of preaching, then of a choir. On entering the school to retrieve a pen, one boy spotted a coffin lying across the benches, and, on returning with his playmates, saw the figure of a recently deceased schoolmate, John Daniel.
The first who knew it to be the apparition of their deceased school-fellow was Daniel's half-brother; and he, on seeing it, cried out "There sits our John, with such a coat on as I have!" (in the lifetime of the deceased boy the half-brothers were usually clothed alike) "with a pen in his hand and a book before him, and a coffin by him. I'll throw a stone at him."
Which would of course be your reaction on seeing the ghost of your six-weeks-dead half-brother? I was once a ten-year-old boy, I suppose. It worked, at least--the boy shouted, "Take it," as he threw, and the ghost disappeared.

I was also charmed (if not wholly convinced) by this account, quoted from a newspaper (whose name has been lost) in the Reverend Frederick George Lee's Glimpses in the Twilight, from 1884, the height--at least until World War I--of ghost mania. In the course of telling of a poltergeist that broke dishes, threw saucepans, and even set clothes on fire at a farmhouse near Ellesmere, the Reverend relates,
Mr. Lea decided to get some of the things outside, as they were being damaged, and accordingly he took hold of a barometer and carried it out. He returned, and was in the act of reaching for the gun, when he was struck by a loaf of bread, and at the request of his wife he left the house.
Mr. Lea returned to the house later, and,
with assistance, succeeded in getting a number of articles out of the house; and once, when he was coming out, a large kitchen table which stood under the window followed him to the door, and it probably would have gone further if the width of the door would have allowed it.
The image of the table banging fruitlessly against the door frame conjures up one of my favorite Onion headlines: Haunted Tape Dispenser Unsure How to Demonstrate Hauntedness. Oh, and no knowledgeable follower of poltergeists will be surprised to learn that a fourteen-year-old girl is involved. Such, it seems, has always been the way with that sort of spirit.

I'll probably draw on this book more before the month is over, but for now I'll leave you with these lines, emblematic of the position in which a well-told ghost story should leave us, from a late nineteenth-century account of a haunting that appears in a memoir of Sir John Sherbroke:
The reader of the above story is left in the difficult dilemma of either admitting the uncertainty of the facts or of doubting the veracity of those whose word it were impossible even for a moment to suspect.
Quoth the raven, "Indeed."

Monday, October 17, 2011

"The Haunters and the Haunted," by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (he of "It was a dark and stormy night" fame) tells a variation on the classic ghost story form of the haunted house dare: a person (almost always a young man) tries to be the first to last out the night in a haunted house that has sent all previous residents screaming out the door within hours. In Bulwer-Lytton's version, the house is definitely of that caliber, but the decision to stay the night is less the usual dare--there's no counterparty and no prize--than a bit of ordinary Victorian English derring-do.

And its oh-so-late Victorian aspect is what brings out the story's best moment, as the narrator, having secured from the landlord the right to make the attempt, heads home:
Impatient for the experiment, as soon as I reached home I summoned my confidential servant--a young man of gay spirits, fearless temper, and as free from superstitious prejudice as anyone I could think of.

"F-----," said I, "you remember in Germany how disappointed we were at not finding a ghost in that old castle which was said to be haunted by a headless apparition? Well, I have heard of a house in London which, I have reason to hope, is decidedly haunted. I mean to sleep there to-night. From what I hear, there is no doubt that something will allow itself to be seen or to be heard--something perhaps excessively horrible. Do you think, if I take you with me, I may rely on your presence of mind, whatever may happen?"

"Oh, sir; pray trust me!" said he, grinning with delight.

"Very well then, here are the keys of the house; this is the address. Go now, select for me any bedroom you please; and since the house has not been inhabited for weeks, make up a good fire, air the bed well; see, of course, that there are candles as well as fuel. Take with you my revolver and my dagger--so much for my weapons--arm yourself equally well; and if we are not a match for a dozen ghosts, we shall be but a sorry couple of Englishmen."
Ah, for such a confidential servant! I know that life in service was not all ghost-hunts and Wooster-wrangling, that the power relations between master and servant could get ugly (and as a side note: if you've not read Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, you should seek it out immediately; it's one of the most impressive, insightful, and even moving works of social history and biography I know), but admit it: isn't that combination of decisiveness and enthusiasm alluring? When you add in that the narrator also takes his favorite dog--"an exceedingly sharp, bold, and vigilant bull-terrier, a dog fond of prowling about strange ghostly corners and passages at night in search of rats, a dog of dogs for a ghost"--and that of course he keeps his revolver and dagger close to hand . . . well, I at least find myself wishing I had a haunted house to explore and a gentleman's gentleman to lead the way.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The gods always keep their bargains, or, Orpheus and Eurydice

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I hadn't intended to read Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination this week. It's October, after all: I'm supposed to be reading of ghosts and ghouls.

But the book drew me in--and, unexpectedly, offered some areas of thought suitable for October. I wrote about two earlier in the week, and here's another: Orpheus's descent into Hades.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has long bothered me for one simple reason: Orpheus's lack of discipline. Discipline--in its complicated interactions with habit, routine, and commitment--is the foundation of my understanding, and living, of day-to-day life. Discipline is difficult when its rewards are vague, the punishment for lapses uncertain or manifest only over a longer term, or when it is forced to wrestle with strong competing imperatives. But when it takes the form of a singular requirement--do not look back at your wife, or you will lose her--discipline should simply take over; it should, ultimately, not be hard. Yet Orpheus, with everything in the balance, couldn't follow a single command. As Mazur writes, setting Orpheus in contrast with Virgil's agricultural concerns in the Georgics:
But never has there been someone more unlikely to follow instructions than Orpheus. He is a genius, a poet, a musician, not a farmer, and his instruments are the imagination, language, and the lyre, never the plough. Descended from and inspired by the Muses, he is not one for prudent behavior or stolid obedience.
And that's how I understood the story of Orpheus . . . until about a year ago, when I was struck, wildly, by the realization that Orpheus didn't turn back because of a failure of discipline, but because he had no choice:
Orpheus pulls himself up one more step. It feels as if he's been climbing forever, with no memory but of this hunched-over, claw-fingered, back-straining scrabble up the mountain, wreathed in sulfurous smoke that has left his lungs ragged, nostrils streaming, and his beard smelling of foul fire. The endless razors of the rough rock have turned his hands and feet into burning ribbons of bloody flesh; his knees, too, are lacerated almost to the bone.

When they started their climb--the last time he was able to gaze on Eurydice--the summit of the blackened mountain way above them, which would lead to the remote cave that would eventually spill them out once more into the land of the living, was wreathed in smoke, invisible. And in the hours (days? weeks?) of climbing since, it has not once appeared; if anything, the darkness has closed in even more tightly. Aside from the occasional, brutally tantalizing glimpse of a few feet further up offered by the occasional break in the clouds, Orpheus might as well be wearing a hood.

And why not wear a hood? For the one thing he wants to see, lives to see, descended--good gods--into Hades to see, he cannot see. In the early stages of the climb, Orpheus could at least hear Eurydice behind him, picking her way carefully up and over the rocks. Once, early, he even felt a puff of her breath against his neck, deliciously cool in Hades's hot toxicity, shivering him with an emotion that felt utterly foreign to this place: joy.

But now he has not heard her for he doesn't know how long. Not a word, not a breath, not a step. It is impossible to climb this mountain without sending a clatter of rocks sliding to the bottom with every step. But from Eurydice, for lo these many hours, there has been no sound.

The gods always keep their bargains. The gods always keep their bargains. Orpheus continues to climb, up and on. Up, and on.

Then Eurydice cries out. Orpheus. He stops. Help me. I'm so tired. I don't know if I can keep going. I'm afraid I'm going to fall all the way back down. Lifting a hand, a foot, continuing to climb, Orpheus throws words of reassurance over his shoulder. But they don't reassure; rather, they seem to inflame. Orpheus!

He tries singing. It has always worked. It has always been the answer to any situation in which he's found himself. But it does nothing, and for the first time--remarkably, insanely, for the first time in this entire journey into the land of the dead--Orpheus feels fear.

The gods always keep their bargains. Eurydice cries out again. This time it is a cry of pain. And Orpheus begins to feel his control of his mind slip, begins to wonder. When they get to the cave, and on to the world of the living--and they will, he has no doubt; the gods always keep their bargains--will he find himself, not the brave husband who descended into Hades to retrieve his lost love, but, rather, the cruel husband who callously ignored all his wife's entreaties, hardened his heart to her pleas when she was in utmost despair? Will Eurydice--while in her rational mind knowing, or at least telling herself, that he had no choice--hate him in her secret heart, nurse, year after year, a cancerous canker that will slowly poison their marriage, blanch then poison their love? Doubt is a worm that never stops eating. Burrowing. Orpheus falls to his knees, trembling, racked by uncertainty.

Eurydice is screaming. The gods always keep their bargains. But do they keep the spirit along with the letter? They promise to return your wife, but do they promise to return her whole, sane, unbrutalized, unflayed? What commitments do they honor? What commitments ought Orpheus honor, to himself, his love, his wife?

Eurydice screams. Orpheus turns.

The gods always keep their bargains.
This is why the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a horror story at heart, suitable for October: it is about being left with only impossible choices, only evil outcomes, yet still feeling responsible. Having been thinking about Orpheus in this new (to me) way for a while, I was pleased to find Mazur working along similar lines, but with an additional, interesting twist:
In the end Orpheus may prove to be wiser than most heroes. Even when he looks back, I think he knows what he is doing. . . .

Orpheus is fully aware of the relative time--momentary versus infinite--spent above and below. In fact, it may be the opposite of greed and impetuousness to do what he does, for by looking Orpheus is ensuring an infinite joy with his beloved, rather than the short-sighted not-looking that would have gained her momentarily, but always, during life as well as for the infinite afterlife, with the marital strife and blame of inconstancy: "You never once looked at me."
If there's one thing that October stories teach us, it's that, while the gods always keep their bargains, we mortals should avoid those deals if we have any choice at all. Chance and fate may be implacable, but they also offer fewer cruel illusions.