Sunday, February 27, 2011

Working my way through Westlake

I spent last week on one of my periodic Donald E. Westlake jags. At the library, I scooped up an armful of the W section, with some guidance from Ethan Iverson's indispensable checklist, and pushed myself over the top of the hill: there are now fewer Westlakes that I haven't read than I have read.

All of which got me wondering: What must it have been like to be Westlake's agent? You'd know you were going to get a manuscript to sell every nine months or so, and you'd know that it would never be less than a well-crafted piece of work . . . but that's about it. You'd hope, one assumes, for a Dortmunder novel or a Parker novel, but instead you might get, say, a Dortmunder novella, two novellas related to the film industry assembled into a single book, or a satire of the publishing industry. And those are just the ones I happened to read this week!

In the last of those, A Likely Story (1984), Westlake writes:
Publishing is the only industry I can think of where most of the employees spend most of their time stating with great self-assurance that they don't know how to do their jobs. "I don't know how to sell this," they complain, frowning as though it's your fault. "I don't know how to package this. I don't know what the market is for this book. I don't know how we're going to draw attention to this."
The Westlake name, of course, is the answer, but even so I would have some sympathy for the agent who had to pitch, say, Adios, Scheherazade. "Well, see, there's this guy who's been writing whack books, and it starts to get to him. Crime? No, there's no crime in it . . . unless you count the crimes against language the guy feels like he's been committing."

Though I had fun reading A Likely Story, it definitely qualifies as lesser Westlake. Since I work in publishing, I enjoyed the satire, but it's far from his funniest or most inventive work, and while the surrounding story--of an author's troubles with his estranged wife, his girlfriend and her sometimes-live-in husband, and the author's editor (with whom he's sleeping)--is entertaining and well-plotted, it's ultimately forgettable.

The best parts of the book are the light-hearted pokes Westlake takes at popular authors of the day (some of whom were his friends). The author in the novel is assembling an anthology of original Christmas stories, and he send solicitations to all and sundry. Stephen King replies with "a long enthusiastic sloppy letter" that's mostly suggestions of other things that could go in the book. Truman Capote and Norman Mailer both send works of reportage about Christmas as seen from Death Row; on learning this, each author demands to see the other's work, then pronounces it excellent--and both go into the book. Andy Rooney supplies a piece on how when he was a kid they didn't have all these different kinds of batteries, John Irving tries to repurpose another story (about a bear who has his eyes put out by feminists) by setting it on Christmas Eve, and from Jimmy Carter,
I got permission to do the book, I think. I'm not sure what his letter was, some sort of proclamation about the good and worthy work I was undertaking.
Then there's Isaac Asimov, who contributes a piece on the aerodynamics of Santa's sleigh. And, once that's been accepted, sends another, this time on the use and meanings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And then one on the scope of Mrs. Claus's duties at the North Pole. And then one on the etymology of the name "Santa Claus." "I think the man is trying to drive me crazy," Diskant writes.

Which just brings me full circle: Good god, what must it have been like to be Asimov's agent?!

Friday, February 25, 2011


This has been a bad week for what is ordinarily a reasonably satisfying relationship between me and the number of hours in a day, so all I have for tonight is this cover from the paperback of Donald Westlake's Enough (1977), an odd pair of novellas linked by the film industry.

Now, if you were Westlake and you saw this image, wouldn't you be tempted to retitle the book Sailor Take Warning?

Monday I'll be back with proper posts. Promise.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In honor of Chicago's new mayor, a proposal

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm cross-posting this from my Tumblr Annex. For that small number of you who read both, I promise I won't do this regularly; today's post, though only tangentially connected to books, was something I enjoyed working on enough that the duplication seemed justifiable.

Blame P.G. Wodehouse, whose character the Honorable Galahad Threepwood once said of a Mint Julep that “it sidles up to you as innocent as your baby sister, then it slips its little hand in yours and the next thing you know, the judge is ordering you to pay the clerk of the court $50.” In a Wodehouse story I read recently, Bertie Wooster was drinking a Manhattan. It got me thinking. New York already has so much to hold over us: more people, more tall buildings, winning baseball teams, the body of Illinoisan Ulysses Grant. Why should they also boast a signature drink, while we’re left with tallboys of Old Style?

Thus The Loop was born—but only in concept. The rest is up to you. In this city teeming with young sophisticates, surely there is a mixologist of sufficient imagination and taste to provide Chicago with its inexplicably nonexistent signature drink. Surely someone can chemistry up a concoction that allows us to give the soul of our city a good roll around the tongue, followed by a satisfied, flammable sigh. I have provided the 1% inspiration; a dedicated mixmaster will have to provide the 99% perspiration (but please keep it out of the drink).

As research, I ordered a Manhattan. It’s smooth. So smooth. A broad Fifth Avenue of sophistication. It knows how to tie a bow tie. It tastes like all the best parts of bourbon and none of the parts that used to be so helpful in battlefield surgery. Did I mention its smoothness?

The Loop should not be like that. Here’s how The Loop should be. The first sip opens your eyes wide, so you look like one of those just-graduated-from-UW kids falling for the dude running the shell game on the “L.” The second sip makes you wonder whether your shoulders are broad enough that you can read Carl Sandburg’s three-volume biography of Lincoln. The third sip knows a guy who knows a guy who can get you seasonal work driving a snowplow at O’Hare. The fourth sip has you fishing in your wallet for a Big Jackson so you can get in on some of that shell game action. The fifth sip convinces you to take out papers to run for alderman. The sixth sip convinces you that it’s not even worth taking the trouble to go vote. No one has ever taken an seventh sip.

The Loop could come with a little blown-out umbrella.

Alternatively, The Loop could reflect Chicago’s glorious summers: sweet and smooth, unbelievably refreshing, with hints of delicate flavors you never knew were there. One drink and you’re calling friends in San Francisco to laugh at them for paying those absurdly high rents, friends in New York to explain to them how sufficient provision of alleys enables a city to keep its garbage out of sight (and smell) in August. This version of The Loop closes O’Hare for ten weeks, because why on earth would you ever want to go anywhere else? And it should be served in a glass that is tall but deceptively narrow, so that it runs out just as you’re deciding that never could there possibly be a better drink. The next morning, it should feel like all eleven weeks of January have been jammed behind your eyes and left there to melt and trickle down your brainstem throughout the day.

Much more likely is that the city will co-opt the idea and sell The Loop at Navy Pier. It will be a phosphorescent drink flavored with imported fruit and cheap rum, served by a guy dressed as a Blues Brother. You’ll get to choose between a ceramic Daley head and a ceramic Bears helmet. If you leave it on your table long enough, a crew will arrive and erect a wrought-iron fence around it. It will be a huge success. In an attempt to recapture the joy tourists felt on seeing the Cows on Parade, the city will set up bars on the corners downtown to give away The Loop in the summer. It will become so popular that Daley will begin to fear it, and he’ll cast it into the wilderness of Springfield, getting it named to the state Liquor Control Board at a salary of $99,640 per year.

And then it will be ours again. But first we must invent. The hard part lies ahead. Go to work, City that Works! Immortality awaits. Let’s get Looped.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"A distressing habit of writing books and talking a good deal about them," Or, P. G. Wodehouse on publishing

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Given that the publishing world has spent the past several days rending its tweed jackets and gnashing its nicotine-stained teeth over the bankruptcy of Borders, I think we should start the week with some publishing humor!

Publishing, as an industry that has always taken itself very seriously, tends to lend itself more to tragedy than to comedy. (There's a reason the first printed book wasn't Joey Gutenberg's Big Book of Gut-Busters.) Think of the abattoir that is the remainder table--'nuff said?

But P. G. Wodehouse had the knack of finding comedy in anything, and in A Few Quick Ones (1959), a collection of stories featuring many of his best-loved characters, he gives the industry a few gentle pokes. Here, to start, from "Scratch Man," is his account of a small publisher who's facing the aggrieved (because jilted) fiance of the woman he loves:
His heart, as he gazed at this patently steamed-up colossus, missed not one beat but several. Nor, I think, can we blame him. All publishers are sensitive, highly strung men. Gollancz is. So is Hamish Hamilton. So are Chapman and Hall, Heinemann and Herbert Jenkins, Ltd.
A simple joke, but fun, and later Wodehouse rings a change:
Harold Pickering kissed Troon Rocket sixteen times in quick succession, and Macmillan and Faber and Faber say they would have done just the same.
In another story, "Joy Bells for Walter," he reminds us that, for all the talk about publishing's crucial role in our culture . . . a lot of what the industry turns out is, and has always been, crap:
Mrs Lavender Botts . . . had a distressing habit of writing books and talking a good deal about them. Her works were not novels. I am a broadminded man and can tolerate female novelists, but Mrs Botts gave English literature a bad name by turning out those unpleasant whimsical things to which women of her type are so addicted. My Chums the Pixies was one of her titles, How to Talk to the Flowers another, and Many of My Best Friends Are Field Mice a third. A rumour had got about that she was contemplating a fourth volume on the subject of elves.
She nearly makes Rosie M. Banks's oeuvre seem promising!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fixing cars in Siberia

Last week, during a drive from Chicago to Oklahoma with my siblings, I learned a lesson that may prove valuable should any of you find yourselves needing to travel across this great land of ours—in particular, across its more, um, distant and depopulated reaches: America at its highway-sprawl, tire-shop-and-Waffle-House, cows-and-barbed-wire worst improves considerably when viewed while you’re reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia.

It's a wonderful book, full of passages that made me laugh out loud, to the amusement of rocketlass. If you harbor the sort of irrational, exuberant love of Frazier’s writing that I do, you should go get this book immediately, before spring leads you to thoughts of warmer climes. (And if you don't already know Frazier's longer work, hie thee to your local bookstore and grab his Great Plains today. It, too, makes great company for long drives, while also being suitable for reading aloud to friends as you try to suppress your laughter.)

Keeping with today's automotive theme, I’ll share two of the many scenes in the book that involve car trouble and Siberia’s ever-present heaps of trash. First, a muffler problem that Frazier’s driver, Sergei, solves simply by knowing what resources are likely to be at hand:
A boulder in the path knocked away a foot or so of tailpipe. A worse bump on an uphill grade crushed and scraped away the remaining two or three feet, leaving no pipe extending from the muffler’s outlet to carry off the exhaust fumes. Immediately the air in the van, which had never been good, became unbearable. Now I could detect an actual blue fog. I tried to remember what the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning were. Sergei, as expected, refused to go to a muffler shop or do anything about the problem. That was not necessary, Sergei announced, sitting beside an open window and its plentiful incoming dust. Finally Volodya, the swing vote among us, switched to my side and told Sergei that we had to fix the tailpipe right away or we’d all suffocate. Sergei said he would fix it, and with some annoyance he pulled over to the shoulder.

He got out. Volodya and I watched. Sergei was just wandering around a weedy patch of ground that paralleled the road, looking down and kicking occasionally at the dirt. After a minute or two he bent over and stood up with something in his hand. It looked to be a piece of pipe. We got out to see what he’d found, and he showed us a somewhat rusty but still serviceable yard-long piece of tailpipe that must’ve fallen off another vehicle. It was exactly the same length as the one we’d lost.
A bit of wire, a few minutes under the chassis, and presto! Van fixed!

Sergei’s technique, in its silence and obscurity, calls to mind Sherlock Holmes—but Frazier is no Watson, perpetually surprised. When the van dies later, he watches Sergei’s repair effort with every expectation of success:
The driver seemed overwhelmed, but Sergei had taken a piece out of the engine and was strolling on the ice, hunting around. . . . After more tinkering by Sergei, the driver turned the key and the car started and ran at a rough idle. . . . Later I asked Sergei to describe how he had done it, and he said, “When the Uazik [the van] died at approximately four o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the great Lena River in traffic, the driver opened the hood and found with horror that in a most important part of the engine—the carburetor—a piece was missing. A screw had come off and the small rod that held the float regulating the gasoline level of the carburetor had fallen out and disappeared. Thus, the gasoline stream flew into the carburetor as if from a hose, gasoline was spilling on the ice, and naturally the car would not run.

“What was to be done? I looked all over on the ice road in the hope of finding our missing part. Instead of our part I picked up about half a bucket of other parts, but not the one we needed. I then disassembled the carburetor and it appeared that all we needed was to find a piece of wire or a nail of the right diameter in order temporarily to replace that rod on which the float of the carburetor was set. I did find such a wire nearby on the ice, I cut off a piece of this wire, and I inserted it where the missing part should be. I found a bolt of approximately the right size belonging to some other machine under our car’s wheels, and with this bolt’s help I fixed the rod in place. In truth, the carburetor did not work so well as before, but nevertheless we were able to drive from the ice road and reach our hotel. Thus I was once again convinced that the Russian car is the most reliable in the world, because it is possible under necessity to replace any part in it with a piece of wire or with a nail.”
Even the joyous extravagance of Sergei's explanation of his work is reminiscent of Holmes—which brings me to close by offering him some of Dr. Watson’s praise for Holmes: “You have an extraordinary genius for minutiae.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Against interpretation, against allegory, for Kafka

The problem with having a Tumbler annex to this blog is that occasionally when I'm wandering my bookshelves in search of some brief, interesting material to post, I get sucked into reading something I hadn't at all meant to spend my evening with.

That was the case last night, as, flipping through one of the Library of America's collections of Edmund Wilson's criticism, I started reading a piece from 1947, "A Dissenting Opinion on Kafka." It's ostensibly a review of a couple of volumes of Kafka odds and ends and criticism, A Franz Kafka Miscellany and The Kafka Problem; the latter in particular seems to have provoked Wilson. Its forty-one essays and memoirs of Kafka, Wilson writes, "finally give rise to the suspicion that Kafka is being wildly overdone." He continues:
One realizes that it is not merely a question of appreciating Kafka as a poet who gives expression for the intellectuals to their emotions of helplessness and self-contempt but of building him up as a theologian and saint who can somehow also justify for them--or help them to accept without justification--the ways of a banal, bureaucratic and incomprehensible God to sensitive and anxious men.
Leaving aside the swipe at the sensitivity of the critics, smacking as it does of some of the references to masculine toughness that occasionally mar Orwell's criticism, Wilson in that sentence reveals that his argument is more with the critics than with Kafka's work itself: other critics--"cultists," Wilson calls them elsewhere--have made of Kafka a minor deity and the The Trial and The Castle "something like sacred writings, finding in them religious implications that Wilson thinks are in reality "practically nil."

All of which is fair enough. Writers need to be rescued from their fans on occasion. But in condemning the too-grand claims made for Kafka, Wilson goes too far himself--"Kafka is impossible to take . . . as a major writer"--ending up trapped in the ways of thinking that he's deriding: he goes looking for explicit meaning in Kafka, and, not finding it--or not finding it in the way he's expecting--ends by dismissing the work:
If, however, one puts Kafka beside writers with whom he may properly be compared, he still seems rather unsatisfactory. Gogol and Poe were equally neurotic, in their destinies they were equally unhappy; and if it is true, as Mr. Savage says [in one of the essays in The Kafka Problem, that there is present in Kafka's world neither personality nor love, there is no love in either Gogol or Poe, and though there are plenty of personalities in Gogol, the actors of Poe, as a rule, are even less characterized than Kafka's. But, though the symbols that these writers generate are just as unpleasant as Kafka's, though, like his, they represent mostly the intense and painful realization of emotional culs-de-sac, yet they have both certain advantages over Kafka--for Gogol was nourished and fortified by his heroic conception or Russia, and Poe, for all his Tory view, is post-Revolutionary American in his challenging, defiant temper, his alert and curious mind. In their ways, they are both tonic. But the denationalized, discouraged, disaffected, disabled Kafka, though for the moment he may frighten or amuse us, can in the end only let us down. he is quite true to his time and place, but it is surely a time and place in which few of us will want to linger--whether as stunned and hypnotized helots of totalitarian states or as citizens of freer societies, who have relapsed into taking Kafka's stories as evidence that God's law and man's purpose are conceived in terms so different that we may as well give up hope of ever identifying the one with the other.
I enjoy Poe, but any analysis that leads to you plumping for him over Kafka is inherently flawed. The problem is that very one of interpretation: Kafka, at his best, is meant to be experienced rather than analyzed. As the Bible would have it, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." A freshman lit class can ever-so-painfully drag theme after theme from a reading of The Trial, and in some sense it's obviously far from inappropriate to do so: part of what keeps that novel alive for people is the ways they can use it to illuminate the contemporary world. But we are not students. We don't have papers due, and reading the book that way, with readers' guide–style questions in mind, strips it of much of its power as a strange work of personal expression, a fever dream that has no applicability to ordinary life, no explanation, because it has left the ordinary world far behind, a dim memory. The very raggedness that Wilson marks in the debit column is a feature when the book--and, even more, its neighbors The Castle and Amerika--is read this way: this novel is unfinished because finishing it is impossible, would close off too many possibilities, would trade a pretense of perfection for the inherent raggedness of individual experience. Theseus's bad example aside, we don't usually escape from labyrinths in this life.

That resistance to interpretation is even more true of the shorter fiction, which is what really draws me back to Kafka again and again.Wilson acknowledges that
Some of his short stories are absolutely first-rate, comparable to Gogol's and Poe's. Like them, they are realistic nightmares that embody in concrete imagery the manias of neurotic states.
And those stories are, again, at their best when taken as strange wholes, comprehensible only on their own terms of reference. Here, perfection does have its place: as a marker of the independent, singular existence of each of these tales.

Take "Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor," for instance, with the anxiety of its two jumping balls and the sulky, complicated assistants: read in a rush, it draws you inexorably into the claustrophobia of Blumfeld's world; interpreted, its power seeps out into banality (as is the case with its cousin "Bartleby the Scrivener"). Or the extreme case represented by the brevity of "Give it Up!":
It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was on my way to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized it was much later than I had thought and that I had to hurry; the shock of this discovery made me feel uncertain of the way, I wasn't very well acquainted with the town as yet; fortunately, there was a policeman at hand, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: "You asking me the way?" "Yes," I said, "since I can't find it myself." "Give it up! Give it up!" said he, and turned with a sudden jerk, like someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.
Sure, you could make the policeman the representative of the indifferent modern bureaucratic state, and--but good god, aren't you falling asleep already? And how do you account for the awkwardness of that "sudden jerk," and the impression of solitary laughter? The same goes for "Before the Law," "The Imperial Message," "Fellowship," or any of a dozen other of Kafka's shortest writings. Like dreams, they wither under analysis; like dreams, they offer us hermetic brilliance if we choose to accept them on their own terms.

I realize that such an approach risks abdicating the role of the critic entirely, and I want to be clear that I'm not advocating this position for the vast majority of writers. Kafka, "major" or not, is for me a special case, leading a class of his own whose other members include, on the lighter side, Calvino and the best of Murakami, and on the darker side, say, the Bible and the most inscrutable Greek myths. Halldor Laxness reaches this pitch at times; Steven Millhauser can, too, on occasion, if a bit self-consciously. And surely there are others? (Zachary Mason, I've got my eye on you!)

I realize, too, that this post is far from an adequate or considered rebuttal of Wilson. I'm taking advantage of the mutability of a blog and responding to Kafka as a reader and a writer rather than a critic, spinning out one evening's thoughts rather than marshaling an argument. Wilson was presenting a viewpoint, a position, an entry in an ongoing conversation about a writer whose reputation was still being developed. I'm giving disjointed impressions spiked with passion. But hybridity and awkwardness seem right for Kafka, leading me to close with this, from "Description of a Struggle":
So we walked on in silence. Listening to the sound of our steps, I couldn't understand why I was incapable of keeping step with my acquaintance--especially since the air was clear and I could see his legs quite plainly. Here and there someone leaned out of a window and watched us.
And, the scene, framed by that window, of two men walking together, awkwardly out of step, conveys no clear meaning; yet the watchers, silent, never forget it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lorenzo Da Ponte in New York

In a comment to the last in my recent string of posts about Casanova, noxrpm asked how Casanova's friend Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart's librettist, came to move to New York, where he finished out life as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia University. Turning to Da Ponte's Memoirs, I learn that it was all about money. Or lack thereof: having failed to heed Casanova's advice to stay away from London, Da Ponte found himself there, owing everyone in sight. A lunch with a number of men who owed him money was inconclusive (perhaps because together they put away twelve bottles of wine?), and the next night Da Ponte was awakened by a knock:
I knew it was a constable of the court; but since he was the only one among so many whom I believed to be honest, sincere, and capable of charity and friendship, I went at once to open to him. It was then that he told me, with tears in his eyes, that by ten o'clock on the following morning he would have eleven writs against me; that my creditors (twelve in all) had promised him a fine gratuity if he had me in his house of detention before noon; but that the cruelty of those treacherous wretches had so moved his heart, that he had come to warn me and advise me to leave London.

I thanked him as he deserved, and offered him several guineas, which he refused disdainfully, even insisting that I accept a few of him! I need not describe the confused emotions that assailed me at that moment. He embraced me, and went away. It was not yet midnight. I dressed hurriedly and ran to see Gould, who was then managing the Opera.
After some hurried discussion--and a 100-guinea loan--Da Ponte went looking for a ship and within days was off to America to join his wife and children, who had been living there for some months with some of her family. They settled in New York, where he continued to be reliably insolvent until chance brought a meeting in a bookstore with Clement C. Moore, future author of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and then-current trustee of Columbia:
I approached [the] counter and asked [the owner] if he had any Italian books in his store.

"I have a few," he replied, "but no one ever asks for them."

While we stood chatting, an American gentleman approached and joined in our conversation. I was soon aware from his remarks that he was admirably red in a variety of literature. Coming by chance to allude to the language and literature of my country, I took occasion to ask him why they should be so little studied in a country as enlightened as I believed America to be.

"Oh, sir," he replied, "modern Italy is not, unfortunately, the Italy of ancient times. She is not that sovereign queen which gave to the ages and to the world emulators, nay rivals, of the supreme Greeks."

He was then pleased to inform me that "five or at the most six" were the writers of fame, of whom the country of those great men could boast over the past six centuries. I asked him, not without a sarcastic smile, to name those authors; and he: "Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, . . . " And he stopped: "To tell the truth, I cannot recall the sixth."
Despite that inauspicious beginning, a friendship was struck, and from there the American infatuation with Old World high culture took over. As Arthur Livingston writes in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Da Ponte's Memoirs, the Da Pontes "were the find of the social season of 1807," and, as society rallied 'round this perpetually broke novelty, Moore soon wrangled him the position at Columbia.

Unlike his friend, Casanova seems never to have seriously considered shifting his perpetually mobile life to America. According to Ian Kelly, in his biography of Casanova, we can blame the pox:
Oddly he eschewed a trip to America for exactly this reason the disease was widely and correctly assumed to have originated there, and it was thought it attacked the body more efficiently west of the Azores.
Alas! Imagine the havoc Casanova could have wreaked in the high society of Colonial America! Casanova taking up arms against the British! Cuckolding the Founding Fathers! Oh, history, how you've let us down!

Friday, February 11, 2011

William Dean Howells and the pleasures of the minor writer

The brief mention of minor writers at the end of Wednesday's post reminded me that I've neglected to write about a book I read recently and loved, William Dean Howells's Indian Summer (1886). As I read it, marveling at its wit and insight, I kept asking myself, Why have I never read Howells before?

The answer is actually pretty simple: I thought of him as minor, a friend-and-editor sort who also also happened to write--sort of an American Edmund Gosse. Wendy Lesser gets it right in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Indian Summer: after quoting a letter from Twain in which he praises Howells for "making the feelings clear without analyzing the guts out of them" like George Eliot and Hawthorne (and, by implication, Henry James), Lesser writes,
It is exactly this sort of praise, taken too literally in most cases, which has damned William Dean Howells to his present obscurity. He is not Henry James, not George Eliot, he lacks their moral earnestness, their artistic intensity, therefore (this argument runs) we don't have to read him. But why? . . . Refusing to read Howells because he is not James or Eliot makes about as much sense as refusing to listen to Rossini because he is not Wagner. For some of us (and not only Mark Twain) the comic mode is not just a poor runner-up; it offers certain rewards that are unavailable in the tragic.
And Indian Summer is comic, even as it tells as very Jamesian story of misplaced love and failures of self-knowledge. Howells's dialogue is superb: he successfully creates a character who fancies himself, and is received by others as, a wit, a master of light-hearted banter--and whose dialogue is genuinely bubbly and funny. I quoted several examples on my Tumbler as I read the novel; they'll give you a good taste of the tone and verve of Howells's writing.

Then there's the additional, unexpected pleasure of Howells's allusiveness. The shadow of James is as inescapable in the novel as it surely was in the literary scene of the day; the book's setting and plot, which find American expatriates socializing in Italy, is as Jamesian as you can get. But Howells doesn't stop there: he deliberately plants a little joke keyed to his own minor status:
"This is deliciously mysterious. . . . Mr. Colville concealing an inward trepidation under a bold front; Miss Graham agitated but firm; the child as much puzzled as the old woman. I feel we are a very interesting group--almost dramatic."

"Oh, call us a passage from a modern novel," suggested Colville, "if you're in the romantic mood. One of Mr. James's."

"Don't you think we ought to be rather more of the great world for that? I hardly feel up to Mr. James. I should have said Howells. Only nothing happens in that case!"

"Oh, very well; that's the most comfortable way. If it's only Howells, then there's no reason why I shouldn't go with Miss Graham to show her the view of Florence from that cypress grove up yonder."
Does the metafictional ever get more gently self-tweaking than that? And all while keeping the characters firmly in character!

Indian Summer is a real pleasure, and it's unquestionably going to send me off after A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Rise of Silas Lapham. If winter is proving too much, might I suggest a brief jaunt to Florence in the company of Howells?

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The minor T. E. Lawrence

I want to stay with Michael Korda's T. E. Lawrence biography another day; but this post, you'll be glad to know, is focused not on key moments in the book but rather on particularly silly bits--which, as longtime readers will know, are a key marker of a good biography.

Such as this unforgettable description of military scholar and biographer B. H. Liddell Hart:
In every way the opposite of Lawrence, Liddell Hart was tall, elegant, storklike, fond of the good things in life, and so fascinated by women that he oversaw the smallest details of the lingerie for both his [presumably consecutive] wives, was exacting and deeply involved in the designs of their corsets, and regularly measured the waists of his two daughters. He was in fact a walking encyclopedia on the subject of lingerie--or as one of his biographers, Alex Danchev, refers to it wittily, "l'artillerie de la nuit"--as knowledgeable about bras and merry widows and garter belts as he was about war. A perfectionist in all things, he was obsessed by the ideal of the feminine wasp waist, which was the Schwerpunkt (to borrow a phrase from German strategic thinking) of his sexual desire.
Extending one's mania for perfection to one's spouse's waistline seems to be a step, or maybe several steps, too far. Which might explain the multiple wives . . .

I wish I could find online the photo that Korda uses of Liddel Hart and Lawrence, which illustrates perfectly the physical difference between the two men: Lawrence is standing on a bollard on a quay to bring him up to Liddell Hart's height, while Hart looks like a particularly well-dressed skeleton with a nicely groomed mustache. The photo of Liddell Hart below will at least give you an idea.


Then there's this bit, less amusing but nonetheless, I think, interesting--and featured here primarily for Ed Park, fan of the minor:
After the [translation of] Odyssey, Lawrence put in good order a compilation of poems he had liked over the years: Minorities, consisting, with his typical taste for paradox, of minor works by major poets, or major work by minor poets.
Frustratingly, however, Korda notes that not all the poets and poems included could genuinely be classified as minor--rather, he suggests, the anthology gathered poems that meant a lot to Lawrence, most of which were relatively minor. Which shouldn't surprise us: nothing Lawrence did, after all, was ever quite straightforward.

Monday, February 07, 2011

T. E. Lawrence

Michael Korda's huge new biography of T. E. Lawrence, Hero, is exactly what I wanted in a Lawrence bio: it's thorough, serious, fair-minded, and full of fascinating (and sometimes pleasantly ridiculous) detail. The Lawrence who emerges from Korda's pages is perhaps no more instantly apprehensible than the figure we've been trying to understand all these years, but his many, often contradictory, facets and desires make sense--they seem, perhaps for the first time, to really belong to a single figure. This is not a Lawrence seen through one lens or forced into one box; this is the man in the round, as strange and frequently admirable as ever.

Two sections in particular seem worth sharing as illustrations of the lengths to which Lawrence would go to hold up his idiosyncratic ideal of strength and honor. First, an incident from during the Arab Revolt that appears in Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, here retold by Korda:
In the last light of day, Lawrence rode alone close to the railway line and surprised a solitary Turkish soldier, who had left his rifle a few yards away while he took a nap. Lawrence had the soldier, "a young man, stout, but sulky looking," covered with his pistol, but after a moment he merely said, "God is merciful," and rode off, faintly interested to see whether the Turk would grab the rifle and shoot him. This is Lawrence at his best--not just the moment of mercy toward an enemy, but the moral courage (and perverted curiosity) to test whether the "Turk was man enough not to shoot me in the back." Not too Lawrence's distinction--the right thing for the Turkish soldier to do would have been to shoot Lawrence, but the manly thing for him to do was to spare Lawrence, as he himself had been spared. How many British officers would have felt that way? How many would have put their lives at risk to see what the outcome would be? It is one of the most interesting and consistent parts of Lawrence's character that he continually set himself these moral tests, in which he risked everything to see whether he could live up to his own ideals.
Korda's right: that one moment could almost be used as a key to Lawrence's entire personality, exemplifying his perverse devotion to what he understood to be right and his willingness to sacrifice everything of himself in its pursuit.

But if that moment is, if odd, at least impressive and admirable, this next one edges well over into masochism for its own sake:
In the spring of 1926, coming to the aid of a man whose car had been involved in an accident, he offered to start the engine and the man neglected to retard the ignition. The starting handle flew back sharply, breaking Lawrence's right arm and dislocating his wrist. Showing no sign of pain or shock, he calmly asked the driver to adjust the ignition, cranked the engine again with his left hand, then drove his motorcycle back to Cranwell. In Flight Sergeant Pugh's words, "with his right arm dangling and shifting gears with his foot, he got his bus home, and parked without a word to a soul of the pain he was suffering." The medical officer was away, and it was the next dy before he could see Lawrence, who still did not complain. "That is a man!" Pugh commented admiringly.
Agreed, but I'd also add "crazy" in there somewhere. Would a quick, "Say, chap, I don't mean to whinge, but you seem to have broken my arm," have dealt such a grievous blow to the cause of honor?

Friday, February 04, 2011

One a day keeps the plague away

The depths of winter always feel like a good time for a project, so I've launched into one: from a beginning as the snow started falling on February 1, and continuing for ninety-nine more days, I'll be reading a story from the Decameron every day.

The Decameron seems like a book I ought to have read long ago-it's right up my alley, a gaggle of stories that is sort of cross between Chaucer and the Thousand and One Nights, with a few more Black Death-inspired digs at organized religion. Yet somehow I'd never opened it, so two days ago I plucked a copy from my shelf--an old Modern Library edition, translated somewhat archaically by John Payne (and dedicated "To my friend Stephane Mallarme")--and dove in.

After a framing account of the descent of the plague on Italy, as gruesome, detailed, and hopeless in its outlook as Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, ten young survivors hole up in an abandoned country house to ride out the infestation. If the Decameron were being written now, they'd get drunk, have some sex, and by picked off one by one by a creatively sadistic madman. Fortunately, Boccaccio decides to have them tell stories instead, one a day from each person for ten days.

The first story is a simple account of a reprobate scrivener on his deathbed pulling the wool over the eyes of a priest, but the joy Boccaccio takes in enumerating the man's catalog of faults overwhelms any intended moral or point, pro- or anti-religion:
False witness bore he with especial delight, required or not required, and the greatest regard being in those times paid to oaths in France, as he recked nothing of forswearing himself, he knavishly gained all the suits concerning which he was called upon to tell the truth upon his faith. He took inordinate pleasure and was mighty diligent in stirring up troubles and enmities and scandals betwen friends and kinsfolk and whomsoever else, and the greater the mischiefs he saw ensue thereof, the more he rejoiced. If bidden to manslaughter or whatsoever other naughty deed, he went about it with a will, without ever saying nay thereto; and many a time of his proper choice he had been known to wound men and do them to death with his own hand. he was a terrible blasphemer of God and the saints, and that for every trifle, being the most choleric man alive. To church he went never and all the sacraments thereof he flouted in abominable terms, as things of no account; whilst, on the other hand, he was still fain to haunt and use taverns and other lewd places. Of women he was as fond as dogs of the stick; but in the contrary he delighted more than any filthy fellow alive. He robbed and pillaged with as much conscience as a godly man would make oblation to God; he was a very glutton and a great wine bibber, insomuch that bytimes it wrought him shameful mischief, and to boot, he was a notorious gamer and caster of cogged dice. But why should I enlarge in so many words? He was belike the worst man that ever was born.
A translator's note calls this, "A 'two-pence coloured' sketch of an impossible villain, drawn with a crudeness unusual in Boccaccio," which suggests to me that Payne may be a bit too serious for my taste. What makes the story a treat is that Boccaccio holds his scrivener to this character: when he discovers he's dying, he opts for nothing but baldfaced lies at his final confession, for, as he says, "I have in my lifetime done God the Lord so many an affront that it will make neither more nor less, and I do Him yet another at the point of death."

Pay attention, Darth Vader: there's a villain you can count on.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

"It takes an effort of the imagination to conjure up a rose," or, In the bleak midwinter

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Pleasantly housebound by the third-largest snowfall in Chicago history, I turn for today's post to some old favorites, all reliably sound on the subject of snow.

First, there's E. B. White, whose thoughts on snow have already graced my Tumblr and Twitter feeds today. A pleasantly rambling New Yorker essay from 1971, "The Winter of the Great Snows," offers plenty of thoughts on the stuff, so much a part of White's Maine winters. "When snow accumulates," writes White,
week after week, month after month, it works curious miracles. Familiar objects simply disappear, like my pig house and the welltop near the barn door, and one tends to forget that they are there. Our cedar hedge (about five feet high) disappeared months ago, along with the pink snow fences that are set to hold the drifts. My two small guard dogs, Jones and Susy, enjoy the change in elevation and the excitement of patrol duty along the crusted top of the hedge, where they had never been before. They have lookout posts made of snow that the plow has thrown high in the air, giving them a chance to take the long view of things.
A chance, at least when considered metaphorically, that I doubt they took--unless perhaps the secret of dogs' good natured satisfaction is a quiet far-sightedness? No, scratch that thought: the dog I saw romping in front of our building moments ago was unquestionably living only in, for, and of the present moment.

White comments on a phenomenon that rocketlass and I got to see firsthand this afternoon when we finally ventured out: the plight of those in the path of the plow. Writes White:
Every new swipe of the plow hurls a gift of snow into the mouth of a driveway, so that, in effect, the plowmen, often working while we sleep snug in our beds, create a magnificent, smooth, broad highway to which no one can gain access with his automobile until he has passed a private miracle of snow removal. It is tantalizing to see a fine stretch of well-plowed public road just the other side of a six-foot barricade of private snow. My scheme for town plowing would be to have each big plow attended by a small plow, as a big fish is sometimes attended by a small fish. There would be a pause at each driveway while the little plow removes the snow that the big plow has deposited. But I am just a dreamer.
The grade-school philosopher in me sees a risk of infinite regression, of ever-smaller plows followed by ever-smaller plows ad infinitum, but I suppose that, come February, a driveway owner in rural Maine would likely be willing to take that chance.

White's essay reminds me of a some moments from Nicholson Baker's wonderfully contemplative little book A Box of Matches (2003), such as this passage, in which his similarities to White are fully on display:
[L]ast month we had that very unusual snowfall that ticked against the window all night. It was an unusual snow, almost like Styrofoam in its consistency in some of the deep places, and when you dug in it, the light that it let through was an interesting sapphire blue--perhaps different prevailing temperatures during snowflake-growth result in a different shape of crystal, which absorbs and allows passage to different wavelengths of light. That Saturday Henry and I dug a tunnel through the snowplow pile. The duck became interested in our project--companionably she climbed to the top, beaking around in it for bits of frozen mud. When both of her feet got cold at the same time she sat down in the snow for a while to warm them. Once or twice she levitated, flapping hard. She didn't much want to walk through the tunnel, and we didn't make her.
Baker also reminds me of Thoreau in that passage, his ever-attentive eye trained on minute details of the snow, as his mind ticks away in the background trying to understand their whys and wherefores.

Thoreau himself, not unexpectedly, is good on snow: his Journals offer entry after wintry entry filled with descriptions of and inquiries about snowfall. In honor of today's Chicago, where last night's thundersnow has drifted in places higher than a man's head, I'll choose the entry of January 13, 1852:
Would not snow-drifts be a good study,--their philosophy and poetry? Are they not worthy of a chapter? Are they always built up, or not rather carved out of the heaps of snow by the wind passing through the chinks in the walls? I do not see yet but that they are builded. They are a sort of ripple-marks which the atmospheric sea makes on the snow-covered bottom.
Snow has fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, but from our cozy home here beneath the atmospheric sea the midwinter is far from bleak. Books and cats and tea, and snow as far as the eye can see--how can we complain?