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.