Monday, January 30, 2012

Whatever it is I think I see, or, Some resemblances from the weekend

Let's start with the one that seems least likely to be intentional. From George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons:
The cheesemnonger laughed so hard that Tyrion feared he was about to rupture. "All the gold in Casterly Rock, why not?"

"The gold I grant you," the dwarf said, relieved that he was not about to drown in a gout of half-digested eels and sweetmeats, "but the Rock is mine."
I'm surely not the only one who immediately thinks of Mr. Creosote, right?

Okay, fine: that's just a case of me seeing what I want to see, like when I mistake a windblown plastic bag in a vacant lot for a cute bunny hopping happily along. (Still, the Pythons did have a thing for cheesemongers and dwarves, no?) But what about this one, also from A Dance with Dragons:
His fellow drinkers were talking about dragons now. . . . "Wasn't there some princess, too?" asked a whore. She was the same one who'd said the meat was grey.

"Daena," said the riverman. "That was the sister. Daena of Dragonstone. Or was is Daera?"

"Daena was old King Baelor's wife," ssid the oarsman. "I rowed on a ship named for her once. The Princess Daena."

"If she was a king's wife, she'd be a queen."

"Baelor never had a queen. He was holy."

"Don't mean he never wed his sister," said the whore. "He just never bedded her, is all. When they made him king, he locked her up in a tower. His other sisters, too. There was three."

"Daenela," the proprietor said loudly. "That was her name. The Mad King's daughter, I mean, not Baelor's bloody wife."

Now, for all his overuse of the word "jape," Martin isn't much of a one for jokes--but that said, doesn't this exchange call to mind the perpetual, booze-clouded, fact-free discussions overheard at the O. J. in the Dortmunder novels? A deliberate allusion? Perhaps not, but I do find it comforting to think that drunken discourse never changes much, across centuries or imaginary continents.

Finally, an allusion that I do think is surely deliberate. Penelope Lively's new novel, How It All Began, a gently comic and unassuming look at the ramifications of one small change in the lives of a number of contemporary Londoners, features as its most fun character a self-regarding retired historian, Lord Peters. He is of course writing his memoirs; they are of course little more than the lightly fleshed-out contents of his Rolodex. After lost lecture notes lead to a debacle that leaves him feeling old and out of touch, he happens across a Simon Schama program and is inspired. "One has vastly underestimated television, I've come to realize," he tells his assistant. Then he turns to his niece, who is an interior decorator, and tells her of his plans for a series of half a dozen hour-long programs about the Augustan age:
"So where you come in, my dear, is to sort out some key person I should be getting in touch with. I'm not particularly au fait with that world, and you have so many contacts all over the place, don't you? You are always telling me about your prominent clients."

Marion stared across the table at him. Challenged, it would seem. Hoist with one's own petard, is that it? Trust Uncle Henry to put you on the spot when it suits him.

"Well . . . actually, I'm not at all sure that I . . . "

"Someone well established at the BBC, or the other outfit--whatever it's called." He waved a deprecating hand. "One of those in charge of program making. I wondered initially about going straight to the top chap at the BBC, the . . the . . ."

"Director-General, I think."

"Quite. Find out who he is and put the proposal to him--but, on second thought, it makes more sense to deal with the people who're going to actually do the program, don't you think? So--who do you suggest?"
It won't surprise you to learn that getting a TV show made involves a bit more than calling up the right man. In the process of being turned down, Henry makes the acquaintance of a recently minted PhD in history named Mark, who decides that Henry could be his meal ticket for a while. On seeing Henry's study, Mark says, wholly without irony, "Books do furnish a room, don't they?" Anthony Powell fans will of course recognize the reference, and if the name Mark hasn't already brought to mind Powell's character Mark Members, Mark's next step surely will: he insinuates himself as Lord Peters's archivist, a sinecure that will secretly leave him plenty of time to turn his dissertation into a book. "It's Henry now, no more Lord P.," notes Lord Peters's personal assistant, whom Members has elbowed aside a bit. "Got his feet properly under the table, he has."

Which, Powell fans will surely agree, is a very Mark Members thing to do. And that makes me, scoring generously, one for three in the allusion department for the weekend. Given all the nonsense floating around the brain at any given point, that doesn't seem like too bad a score.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Nero Wolfe stoops to ask

Let's stick with Rex Stout one more day. After all, the weekend is upon us, and while Nero Wolfe, from all I can tell, doesn't let that interfere with his usual schedule, for the rest of us that means shedding the routine, loosening up a bit, and enjoying good company--like that of Nero, Archie, and the gang.

Speaking of the gang, check out Archie's description of the apartment of Saul Panzer, ace operative for hire, in "Fourth of July Picnic" (1958):
Saul Panzer, below average in size but miles above it in savvy, lived alone on the top floor--living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bath--of a remodeled house on Thirty-eighth Street between Lexington and Third. The living room was big, lighted with two floor lamps and two table lamps, even at seven o'clock of a July evening, because the blinds were drawn. One wall had windows, another was solid with books, and the other two had pictures and shelves that were cluttered with everything from chunks of minerals to walrus tusks. In the far corner was a grand piano.
Let's pause for a moment to raise a glass to 1958. Oh, I know that many things were worse then, and I harbor no substantial illusions about wishing I could go back to that time. But to think of the days when an detective op for hire, even one who, as Archie would point out, is the best in the business, would have 1) a wall "solid with books" and 2) a grand piano in 3) his spacious Manhattan apartment! It's hard not to let just wee bit of those-were-the-days creep in, no?

Thinking of Saul brings me to another moment found in the same book, And Four to Go, which collects four holiday-themed Wolfe stories. In Wednesday's post I quoted an exchange from the first page of the story "Easter Parade" in which Archie was refusing Wolfe's request that he try to snatch a rare orchid of which Wolfe is envious from the coat of a woman in an Easter Parade. Nero asks whether Ollie Cather, another of their regular operatives, might be willing to do it instead.
"I doubt it. Not just for the two C's, but he might as a personal favor to you."

Wolfe made a face. "I won't solicit a favor."
Instead, Archie agrees to find a man of looser morals and lighter pocketbook whom he can convince to do the deed. Wolfe, however, would also like Archie to be there with a camera as a backup. The problem is that it's Sunday, and Sundays are Archie's day off, sacrosanct when there's no big case on. "It's no go," says Archie,
"because as you say, my Sundays are mine, and I would only do it as a personal favor for you, and you won't solicit a favor. Too bad."

"I should have qualified that. There are only four people of whom I would ask a favor, and Orrie is not one of them. You are."

"Then go ahead and ask. Call me Mr. Goodwin."

His lips tightened. "Mr. Goodwin," he said coldly, "I solicit a favor."

It's amazing what lengths a man will go to for envy.
All of which leads to an obvious question: who are the four people? Archie is one, but who else? Saul, perhaps? He definitely ranks above Orrie, or Fred Durkin, the other operatives, in Wolfe's esteem. Fritz Brenner, the cook? Theodore Horstmann, the orchid specialist who lives in the brownstone so as to be close to Wolfe's orchids? Other ideas? The Wikipedia offers a nicely fleshed-out list of supporting characters, if you need a refresher. I'm open for suggestions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Time, change, and the comfort of some illusions of permanence

The January 13 issue of the Times Literary Supplement included a really nice, brief piece by Will Eaves about his new job teaching English and creative writing at Warwick University and the memories it's called up of his own undergraduate days. These lines in particular caught my eye:
I want to have settled into my new life the way I wanted to be grown up. That's the trouble with second chances and new lives: they are usually only mildly variant copies of first chances and old lives, and it's the mildness of the variation that induces vertigo, the small change heading for the large consequence.
I was struck by this passage not so much because of its actual content, but because of the way it harmonized with thoughts I've had recently about time and change. If I were somehow to encounter my seventeen-year-old self, I think what would surprise him most (aside perhaps from my disdain for the mullet he wore with such pride) is that adulthood doesn't entail some sort of final arrival, a reaching of a point beyond change. I would never have formulated my conception of adulthood that way back then, but looking back it's obvious that's what I thought: you work through high school, and you work through college, then you find something to do and you do it. And on and on.

Which, in a lot of ways, I have. My life is for the most part ridiculously stable: I've had the same employer for thirteen years, the same home for twelve, the same wife for eleven. That stability is what I want and what I like, and I'm extremely fortunate to have it. But--and this is what would have surprised my teenage self--that still leaves a lot of scope for continual challenge and change, at work and in the rest of life. You may be good at your job, but every day presents a new set of problems to be handled if you want to keep the ball rolling smoothly along; the same for marriage, or friendships, or even hobbies or habits. There is a sense in which every day we must make our world anew, coping with the small or large changes that go on in the background--and affect the texture--of even the most stable life. I've encountered religious believers who say that we should give thanks that every day god deigns to continue creating the world; to some extent, adult life feels like that to me--that if we want our lives to keep going and keep being the way we hope they'll be, every day we're challenged to address them as if they're new and need our full, focused attention.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying thank god for Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe. When I was picking books to read over Christmas--the holiday when, in the midst of my family, I most clearly can see and be grateful for the unchanging foundations of my life--I chose some of Stout's many stories of Wolfe and Archie and the gang at West 35th Street. At Christmas you want comfort food, you want to support yourself in that illusion that this happiness will never change, this group of people will never not be around you in the glow of the tree.

Thus Nero Wolfe is perfect, for his world is beautifully static. Oh, there are alterations--by 1958, for example, Wolfe has a TV (with a remote, no less!)--but they are extremely minor. In a larger sense, nothing at all changes: Archie neither ages nor worries about it; Wolfe never mellows; the staff of Wolfe's brownstone never turns over; even the police who curse his interference and meekly accept his collars neither get promoted nor retire. Stout offers the pleasures of permanence and reliability. The fretting and stress in Stout is about cases and criminals and Wolfe's mood, never about planning for the future or coping with the fact that nothing lasts forever.

"Nothing doing," says Archie, on the first page of "Easter Parade."
"If you wanted me to hook something really worth while, like a Mogok ruby, I might consider it. For what you pay me I do your mail, I make myself obnoxious to people, I tail them when necessary, I shoot when I have to and get shot at, I stick around and take every mood you've got, I give you and Theodore a hand in the plant rooms when required, I lie to Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins whether required or not, I even help Fritz in the kitchen in emergencies, I answer the phone. I could go on and on. But I will not grab an orchid from a female bosom in the Easter parade. There is--"

"I haven't asked you to," Wolfe snapped. He wiggled a finger at me. "You assumed I was headed for that, but you were wrong. I only said I wanted to hire someone for such an errand--someone adroit, discreet, resolute, and reliable."

"Me, then," I insisted.
We wouldn't want it any other way.

Other writers can be similarly comforting in their fashion--ones as different as Barbara Pym and Ross Macdonald come to mind--but no one else other than P. G. Wodehouse (another favorite Christmas author) offers such a complete world, almost medieval in its unchanging perfection and assurance that everything has and always will have its place. It's a comforting illusion for these darkest days of winter.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Just one more book . . .

One more book . . .
One more book, he had told himself, then I'll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I'll go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. I'll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he'd think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it.
That's Samwell Tarly, speaking, a bookish boy stuck in a warrior's world in George R. R. Martin's A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in his ongoing Song of Ice and Fire series. After several years of avoiding the series--primarily because rocketlass thought Martin's prose would likely bother me--I dove in just after New Year's. And now, like Samwell, I find I finish one book and think, well, I'll just take a look at the next one before I pick up something else . . .

They're far from perfect novels. They're too long, Martin's technique of shifting the narrative viewpoint among more than a dozen characters brings nearly as many frustrations as it does pleasures, and rocketlass is right: Martin's sentences aren't mustering a challenge to the likes of Nabokov. If I never read the word "jape" again, or read another description of a festering sword wound, I'll be happy. But they are compelling: Martin's muddy, bloody, vicious medieval world is more convincing than Tolkien's, his characterizations are much richer, as are his battle scenes, and his plotting is spectacular. I often say that one of the things I like best about sports is that you truly don't know how things are going to turn out, a pleasure that even the best literature, the most thrilling of novels or films, doesn't often afford. Narrative arcs are too familiar, and they're broken too rarely, to offer the pleasures of real uncertainty. But that's what Martin delivers: his world is actually dangerous, and by the end of a book or two, you start believing that any character really could die at any time.

On top of that, Martin does retain some of Tolkien's Norse-borrowed sense of the long march of history and the tales that accompany it. This passage, from A Storm of Swords, isn't typical, but it's a nicely compact example of the way his characters are constantly thinking about, and living in a world inflected by, the tales of past heroism:
The Nightfort had figured in some of Old Nan's scariest stories. It was here that Night's King had reigned, before his name was wiped from the memory of man. This was where the Rat Cook had served the Andal king his prince-and-bacon pie, where the seventy-nine sentinels stood their watch, where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered. This was the castle where King Sherrit had called down his curse on the Andals of old, where the 'prentice boys had faced the thing that came in the night, where blind Symeon Star-Eyes had seen the hellhounds fighting. Mad Axe had once walked these yards and climbed these towers, butchering his brothers in the dark.
If that doesn't stir some remnant of the fantasy-loving twelve-year-old in you, then these books aren't for you. It reads like a flight of authorial fancy, like Martin started in on that paragraph and was having so much fun he just kept going--"the thing that came in the night" and "butchering his brothers in the dark." But it's better than that: many of these stories are ones we've heard, in whole or in part, already; of others we'll hear later. Martin has created a world, written its history, and peopled its present. It's quite an achievement.

So now I have not quite two novels to go before I find myself in the position of the readers Neil Gaiman chided on his blog and the New Yorker raised a puzzled eyebrow at last year: waiting and waiting and waiting for the sixth novel in order to find out what happens next.

Which does set A Song of Ice and Fire apart from the book that finally drives poor Samwell Tarly to get up and see to his duties: Septon Jorquen's Annals of the Black Centaur, an "exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch":
There was a page for each day of his term, every one of which seemed to begin, "Lord Orbert rose at dawn and moved his bowels," except for the last, which said, "Lord Orbert was found to have died during the night."
If you're interested in reading more about Lord Orbert and his bowels, Jorquen's history can be found, alongside a number of other books from Martin's world, available for checkout in the Invisible Library.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pym, Powell, Murdoch, Bayley

John Bayley's introduction to the 2009 Virago edition of Barbara Pym's A Glass of Blessings (1958) might as well have been written specifically for me, as it brings in two writers very close to my heart, Anthony Powell and Bayley's wife, Iris Murdoch.

Powell, as I've noted before, was a fan of Pym, writing in his journals in 1992,
From being merely tolerant of [her] as a novelist, I have now got into the swing of her style and characters, find the books very amusing. . . . She is one of the few novelists I regret never having met.
But Bayley reveals much more:
Addicts of Pym tend to get together to discuss their heroine, and that happened to me with Powell. We agreed, for example, that his own immortal character Kenneth Widmerpool might have walked out of a Pym novel, together, of course, with his mother in her famous "bridge coat," a garment that much delighted Pym.
I think Widmerpool is ultimately too grasping to fit in a Pym novel, but his mother--good god, yes!

About Murdoch, Bayley offers the passing observation that she was "never a fan of Pym's novels," but liked her greatly as a person. His invocation of the pair in his introduction is perfect, for A Glass of Blessings is simultaneously the most Powellian and most Murdochian of the Pym novels I've read (which at this point is most of them).

The Powell links are easy to trace--indeed, it's hard to imagine any Powell fan not perking up at a couple of points in the novel when the narrator and protagonist, Wilmet Forsyth, a thirty-five-year-old married housewife, reflects, Nick Jenkins&8211;like, on the people around her. Here, for example:
At that moment I heard the bell ring and shortly afterwards Sir Denbigh Grote came into the room, rubbing his hands together as if it were a cold afternoon. He looked so much like a retired diplomat is generally supposed to look, even to his monocle, that I never thought of him as being the sort of person one needed to describe in any detail. What did seem unusual was his friendship with Miss Prideaux, who in spite of being a gentlewoman had only been a governess in some of the countries where he had served in a much higher capacity. It could only be supposed that retirement, like death, is a kind of leveller; and that social differences had been forgotten in the common pleasure of recalling garden parties at the embassies to celebrate the sovereign's birthday, and other similar functions which few people would have been capable of discussing at all knowledgeably.
It's Powell to a T--especially from "It could only be supposed" on; the internal reflection is pure Nick Jenkins, especially in its focus on the effects of the passage of time on status and class relations. Pym even uses a semicolon, like Powell, where an ordinary writer would use a comma! The Murdoch echo is more muted, but ultimately, I think, just as inescapable for a fan of both writers. A Glass of Blessings, like many Pym novels, turns on a character who fails to imagine the full scope of the lives of those around her--and is thus surprised when they a revealed to be fully rounded humans, acting on emotion and sentiment, instead of plodding along on the familiar paths she's assumed they'd follow. Late in the novel Wilmet lies abed, thinking about some news she's just had delivered about an acquaintance:
I lay awake for rather a long time, either because of the coffee or my confused thoughts. It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road. Sybil and Professor Root, Piers and Keith, Marius and Mary--the names did sound odd together--all doing things without, as it were, consulting me.
One of Murdoch's great themes is the way that our solipsism blinds us to the reality--and separateness, difference--of other people, and, while usually stated more quietly than in Murdoch's novels, it's also one of Pym's recurring points. Even people we think of as good friends can regularly surprise us with their actions--and, more, with the reminder those actions bring that we're not after all the center of the universe. (Of course--what supplies much of the humor in Pym--we would never think of ourselves as the center of the universe . . . it just happens that only rarely can we achieve the critical distance required to escape our own glorious shadow.)

That said, I'm not surprised that Murdoch wasn't a fan of Pym's novels. She should have been, clearly: the two were working different sections of the same field. But Pym had none of Murdoch's glittering skill with--and love of--plot, none of her excessive qualities, none of her confidence in (and fear of) the tranformative, even demonic powers of love and passion (to say nothing of true eros, which has a deliberately muted place in Pym). Pym, as Bayley puts it in "Barbara Pym as Comforter," an essay he contributed to "All This Reading: The Literary World of Barbara Pym (2003), "offers the comfort of total non-insistence." She simply presents lives as they are, with the absolute minimum of drama required to sustain a novel; one of the most impressive things about A Glass of Blessings is how little of note happens in the book. Where Murdoch is everywhere overflowing, Pym is everywhere restrained.

And yet perhaps there was a late rapprochement. Bayley concludes "Barbara Pym as Comforter," with a few words about his late wife:
The novel is, ultimately, a very personal form, so I will conclude on a personal note. My wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, suffered in the last years of her life from Alzheimer's disease. When she had been well and writing her own novels, I would sometimes read her bits of Pym that had amused or delighted me. I continued to do this when she was ill, and she always smiled at me or at the writer, even if she did not understand. After I had put her to bed, I came down for my own drink and supper, during which I usually and avidly read a Pym. The novels not only sustained but calmed and satisfied me during those days, as nothing else could.
A key thing that we learn from Pym is that one should take what comfort one can; the world offers little, and we should hold tight to it. Who knows what Iris Murdoch understood, much less appreciated, of what her husband read her, but the comfort the thought brought him was as real as anything.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Serendipity--or divine intervention?

One of my favorite books of 2009 was Karl O. Knausgaard's A Time for Everything, a moving, disturbing, haunting Norwegian novel about evil and good, history and myth, angels and man, and our age that tries so strenuously to deny the existence of all but the last of those subjects. Two years ago, I wrote that the book reminded me of Tolstoy:
Imagine Tolstoy's ruminations on history shifted to ruminations on the role of angels; his empathy applied to a Cain who watches Abel, crazed by visions of angels, begin to lose his moorings. Imagine a Tolstoy who chooses to retell the story of the flood, not from the perspective of Noah, but from that of his doomed sister. There is real horror here: the human cost of divine anger has never, in my experience, been more clearly, achingly described. At the same time, the loving attention lavished on characters whose fates we know--and dread--reminds us of the necessary role of love in all creation, authorial or divine.
In a review for Bookforum, Eric Banks doesn't evoke Tolstoy, but he does discuss its fundamental earnestness--Knausgaard is serious about these stories--and places it in an old tradition:
Knausgaard's rotund novel seems itself out of time, a throwback to the grand European novel of midcentury; it is at once a sort of faux theological disquisition; a philosophical quest for the meaning of time, decay, and exile; and an unabashedly literary excursion into storytelling, with digressions narrating the psychological dynamics of Cain and the deprivations of Noah's extended family in Nod. 
The intertwined sadisms of God and man in A Time for Everything call to mind a line from E. M. Cioran's Tears and Saints: "The creation of man was a cosmic cataclysm, and its aftershocks have become God's nightmares." From the earliest days, when God posted an angel with a flaming sword at the edge of Eden, through the devastation of the flood, to the present, when the the book's narrator mutilates himself in hopes of understanding the infinite, Knausgaard makes us see the strange dance of divine and human. Two years on, what comes to mind most often are the horrors of a world where divine punishments is believed in because it is seen in undeniable action; the dread conjured up by Knausgaard's image of a mad Noah stumping around the farmyard or a sadistic Abel tormenting a wounded shepherd remains vividly with me.

Just after Christmas, I was thinking about A Time for Everything--prompted, I think it's safe to assume, by the more benign angels of Christmas decorations--and wishing another book by Knausgaard might appear in English. And (to stick to appropriate language) lo, and behold, when I got home that night, I found in the mail a galley of a new book by Knausgaard that Archipelago Books will be publishing in May! My prayers had been answered! (Well, as nonbeliever, I hadn't exactly prayed, but if any deities attend to half-formed hopes, it's surely the Gods of the Book-Drunk, right?)

And, um, it's called My Struggle. Really. That can't be ignorance, so it must be a joke, but wow, that's gutsy. Oh, and it's Book One. According to the copy, it tells the story of novelist Karl O. Knausgaard's struggle with self-doubt after his father has drunk himself to death, as Knausgaard "breaks his own life story down to its elementary particles, often recreating memories in real time, blending recollections of images and conversation with profound questions in a remarkable way."

The title makes me a bit skeptical, the subject a bit more so, but Knausgaard earned so much credit with me through A Time for Everything that I'm inclined to trust him. And then, on page two, a passage like this--
The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death. At one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, mountains, clouds, the sky. None of these is alien to us. We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death.
--reminds me of why. The book won't be published until May, so you probably won't hear more from me about it until then, but suffice it to say I'm grateful to the Gods of the Book-Drunk for delivering it to my doorstep.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Shakespeare and the Baconians

James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010) isn't quite the book its title and subtitle would suggest: Shapiro isn't particularly interested in the question itself, taking it as established that, yes, Shakespeare was the author of the works commonly attributed to him (and when Shapiro finally gets around to laying on the evidence for that position, it's like watching a rested boxer casually rain blow after cruel blow on a tottering rival). Rather, he's interested in why fairly large numbers of intelligent people since the eighteenth century have raised the question, and seized on other claimants.

The result is an absolutely fascinating book about changing ideas of art, authorship, and genius; more than anything, it's about the risks of ahistorical thinking, and of looking at people in the distant past as if they were our contemporaries, their thoughts, emotions, and actions as clearly understandable and interpretable as our own.

The book is full of interesting figures and incidents, some of the best having to do with the Baconian camp and their search for coded evidence of Francis Bacon's authorship. Key for the Baconians was The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the so-Called Shakespeare Plays (1888)--a book whose title could hold its own with those of any of today's sensationalist pop histories--by Ignatius Donnelly. Donnelly's explanation of how a laborious application of Bacon's cipher to Shakespeare's works revealed hidden messages caught the eye of such luminaries as Mark Twain and Helen Keller, despite the fact that, Shapiro explains, his use of the cipher was a complete mess:
Even with his complex arithmetical scheme, Donnelly had to fudge his word cipher, which was based on the numerical distance between his arbitrarily chosen key words. Worse still, he constantly miscounted in order to arrive at satisfying results. Cryptologists who have examined his method have concluded that he "described Bacon's own cipher without understanding it" and "showed a fatal inclination to sieze on whole words which happen to be in both the vehicle and the message to be deciphered." It also turned out that his cipher could produce virtually any message one wanted to find.
As I read, I kept thinking of one of the funniest moments in all of P. G. Wodehouse's work: when, in "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald," a young Mulliner nephew gets buttonholed by a Baconian:
The aunt inflated her lungs.

“These figure totals,” she said, “are always taken out in the Plain Cipher, A equalling one to Z equals twenty-four. The names are counted in the same way. A capital letter with the figures indicates an occasional variation in the Name Count. For instance, A equals twenty-seven, B twenty-eight, until K equals ten is reached, when K, instead of ten, becomes one, and T instead of nineteen, is one, and R or Reverse, and so on, until A equals twenty-four is reached. The short or single Digit is not used here. Reading the Epitaph in the light of the Cipher, it becomes: ‘What need Verulam for Shakespeare? Francis Bacon England’s King be hid under a W. Shakespeare? William Shakespeare. Fame, what needst Francis Tudor, King of England? Francis. Francis W. Shakespeare. For Francis thy William Shakespeare hath England’s King took W. Shakespeare. Then thou our W. Shakespeare Francis Tudor bereaving Francis Bacon Francis Tudor such a tomb William Shakespeare.’”

The speech to which he had been listening was unusually lucid and simple for a Baconian, yet Archibald, his eye catching a battle-axe that hung on the wall, could not but stifle a wistful sigh. How simple it would have been, had he not been a Mulliner and a gentleman, to remove the weapon from its hook, spit on his hands, and haul off and dot this doddering old ruin one just above the imitation necklace.
Shapiro is sensitive enough to human foibles and the turns of history that his portrayals evoke not murderous rage but, most often, sympathy, and even pity for hours and years and lives wasted in fruitless search of a chimera. Sure, there are forgers and charlatans aplenty, but they're outweighed by the number of genuine seekers who latched onto this idea out of misguided feelings of affinity with the author of such great works, and a misplaced certainty that genius could never have had so humble a human home as that suggested by the meager facts of Shakespeare's biography.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A loaf of bread, a quart of milk, a stick of butter . . .

Okay, one last tidbit from Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything before I file it away in the proxy memory of my bookshelves. In the course of setting the scene of ancient memory science, Foer cites Pliny the Elder's Natural History,
the first-century encyclopedia that chronicled all things wondrous and useful for winning bar bets in the classical world, including the most exceptional memories then known to history. "King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army," Pliny reports. "Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people. King Pyrrhus's envoy Cineas knew those of the Senate and knighthood at Rome the day after his arrival. . . . A person in Greece named Charmadas recited the contents of any volumes in libraries that anyone asked him to quote, just as if he were reading them."
And to think I used to be impressed by my ability, years after I was out of college, to remember the names and rooms of everyone who lived in my freshman-year dorm. Sheesh. Clearly I've got to step up my game.

Monday, January 09, 2012

John Sutherland and James Hogg

For the past few weeks, I've been taking great delight in dipping into John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, which was published in the fall in the UK by Profile Books and will appear stateside from Yale in the spring. Here's how much fun it is: Sutherland's survey, which he acknowledges is idiosyncratic, leaves out Penelope Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Dunnett, Donald Westlake, Rex Stout, and others of my favorites, while including such far less interesting figures as Michael Crichton, Paul Auster, Patricia Cornwell, to name just a few; Sutherland also evinces a very English casualness about grammar that sees him peppering the page with dangling and misplaced modifiers; in addition, when he approvingly quotes the best, most laugh-out-loud funny line in Lucky Jim, he misquotes it and leaves out the most important, funniest word ("the smallest glass Jim had ever been offered" rather than "the smallest drink he'd ever seriously been offered"); and on top of that he mistakenly identifies Nick Charles as the "thin man" of the title of Hammett's novel about him--yet despite all of those reasonably serious quibbles, I heartily recommend the book to any lover of literature and biography, especially Anglophiles. It's witty, it's perceptive, it's crammed full of great lines and unusual bits of information conveyed in the best telegraphic brief lives tradition. It's clear that it's a book I'll be consulting and enjoying for years to come.

Today, I'll share a tidbit from Sutherland's entry on James Hogg. Hogg, explains Sutherland, wrote his masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, "[i]n a desperate attempt to raise money for family dependants now as numerous as a small clan." Perhaps he should have chosen a more straightforward tale, something like what his friend and patron Walter Scott was retailing from nearby, for Hogg's truly strange, powerful tale of predestination and the devil at his work in rural Scotland,
failed spectacularly to hit the public taste of the time. It earned the author £2 in "profits" (miscalled) in the two years Longman kept the book in print. There were moves on their part to recover the £ advance. The few reviews the novel received concurred in finding it "trash"--and indecent. It was certainly far rawer meat than most fiction offered the circulating libraries. One strains, for example, to imagine Isabella Thorpe and Catherine Morland reading it together before going off to their morning session at the Bath Pump Room.
Even a century later, the book was still dividing readers: Edmund Gosse, in a piece taking up a book published in praise of Hogg, wrote,
When it first appeared, in 1824, it was received very coldly and suspiciously, but it presently found admirers, and has never completely lacked them. Those, however, who have occupied themselves with it have always done so cautiously. They have admitted its incoherence, but have insisted on its vigour and intensity. They have apologised for its faults of construction.
Goss, after actually stooping to a "whole Hogg" joke, continues,
But there are many readers who are not affected by inconsistency of handling, and are indifferent to logic if a tale amuses them. They may still find entertainment in the imbroglio of the unfortunate Colwin family, many of whose remarkable adventures are told with great vigour and picturesqueness.
Gosse does acknowledge that it is "an extraordinary book," but he closes his essay by questioning Hogg's purported literary bravery--he "was no Moliere."

It seems sadly appropriate that, after skating on the thin ice over poverty for nearly his entire career as a writer, Hogg, Sutherland tells us, "while curling, . . . fell through the ice on Duddingston Loch, below Arthur's Seat, and never fully recovered." For most of the dead, even this nonbeliever can't help but vaguely wish that they spend eternity in something approximating heaven; for Hogg, I find myself also wishing that he at least got to stop off for a bit in Hell and receive the thanks of its monarch for his unforgettable, convincing portrayal.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Giulio Camillo's Theater of Memory

Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) doesn't hold a lot of surprises for anyone who's already familiar with the ancient mnemonic device of the memory palace, but it's a fun book nonetheless, full of such odd characters as contemporary savants, wildly nerdy mental skill competitors, and historical promulgators of memory enhancement techniques.

The most fascinating member of that last category is Guilio Camillo, an Italian philosopher who in the sixteenth century convinced Francis I of France to fund the construction of a "Theater of Memory" that would essentially be a physical representation of the sort of mental memory palaces that had been crucial to orators, philosophers, and others in the days before printing. Here's how Foer describes what Camillo proposed:
Camillo's wooden memory palace was shaped like a Roman amphitheater, but instead of the spectator sitting in the seats looking down on the stage, he stood in the center and looked up at a round, seven-tiered edifice. All around the theater were paintings of Kabbalistic and mythological figures as well as endless rows of drawers and boxes filled with cards, on which were printed everything that was known, and--it was claimed--everything that was knowable, including quotations from all the great authors, categorized according to subject. All you had to do was meditate on an emblematic image and the entirety of knowledge stored in that section of the theater would be called immediately to mind, allowing you to "be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero." Camillo promised that "by means of the doctrine of loci and images, we can hold in the mind and master all human concepts and all the things that are in the entire world."
As you might guess from the mention of the Kabalah, there was to be a mystic, magical component to the memory theater as well, one which Camillo promised he would reveal to no one except Francis I.

It seems a scale model was built and stuffed with, if not the entirety of human knowledge, then at least a substantial number of data cards. Frances Yates, in The Art of Memory (1966), offers a bit more detail:
When next Viglius writes to Erasmus, he has been to Venice and met Camillo, who has allowed him to see the Theatre (it was a theatre, not an amphitheatre, which will appear later). "Now you must know," he writes, "that Viglius has been in the Amphitheatre and has diligently inspected everything." The object was thus clearly more than a small model; it was a building large enough to be entered by two people at once; Viglius and Camillo were in it together.
Viglius's letter continues:
He calls this theatre of his by many names, saying now that it is a built or constructed mind and soul, now that it is a windowed one. He pretends that all things that the human mind can conceive and that we cannot see with the corporeal eye, after being collected together by diligent meditation may be expressed by certain corporeal signs in such a way that the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind.
At this distance of time and culture, it's hard to know how seriously to take Camillo's own protestations--for all we know, he may have been wholly sincere in his belief that the proper facts and symbols, properly arranged, could unlock occult secrets. But to modern ears, he certainly does sound like a huckster, doesn't he? And, sadly if not surprisingly, the theater was never built to full scale, and the model disappeared to history before the sixteenth-century was out, so we have little more than tantalizing, if eyebrow-raising, glimpses of Camillo's plans and system.

Yates tells another story about Camillo that, while not bearing on his theater, seems worth sharing:
Camillo and his theater were as much talked about at the French court as they were in Italy, and many legends about his stay in France are extant. The most intriguing of these is the lion story, one version of which is told by Betussi in his dialogues published in 1544. He says that one day in Paris Giulio Camillo went to see some wild animals, together with the Cardinal of Lorraine, Luigi Almoni, and other gentlemen, including Betussi himself. A lion escaped and came towards the party.
The gentlemen were much alarmed and fled hither and thither, except Messr Giulio Camillo, who remained where he was, without moving. This he did, not in order to give proof of himself, but because of the weight of his body, which made his movements slower than the others. The king of animals began to walk round him and caress him, without otherwise molesting him, until it was chased back to its place.
Camillo's own explanation, apparently repeated regularly, was that the lion, a creature of the sun, recognized the "solar virtue" that Camillo bore because of his role as a magus. Did I mention that he comes across like a snake oil salesman?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

"With the most possible vigor and imagination," Or, To the new year!

I'll let Dmitry Samarov lead off the new year, with this bit about the holiday from his book Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab:
No one threw up in the cab. In other words, my most fervent New Year's wish had been granted. An indication of a fairly restrained evening. The hordes went about their celebrating with workman-like efficiency; collecting fares did not present any special challenge or above-and-beyond effort, every last rider remembering where he or she lived with a bit of encouragement, no unwelcome advances nor invitations to tussle.
I tend to refer to New Year's as my least favorite holiday of the year, for the simple reason that any holiday whose high point is pegged to an hour that represents the outer limits of my potential bedtime is inherently suspect.

It's not as if parties are really my kind of scene to begin with. I'm much more of a quiet-drink-with-a-friend, long-dinner-party kind of socializer; full-scale parties always leave me a bit at sixes and sevens, feeling that I ought to make an effort to meet strangers but stymied by the fact that they're, well, strangers.

That basic discomfort caused me to smile when I read, in Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, about the plans that Ed Cooke, a memory contest champion from England, drew up for his twenty-fifth birthday party. Held in a barn on his parents' estate (always a good first item for the party checklist, no?), the party was designed as "an experimental vessel fo his philosophy of parties," a framework, in Cooke's words, "for manipulating conversation, space, movement, mood, and expectations so that I can see how they influence one another." Foer, drawing on notes presumably taken early in the evening's imbibing, explains how Cooke did it:
Glittery textiles hung from the rafters to the floor, dividing the room into a collection of small rooms. The only way in or out was through a network of tunnels, which could be navigated only by slithering on one's belly. The space under the grand piano was turned into a fort, and a circle was formed around the fireplace out of a collection of raggedy couches that had been stacked on top of tables.

"The people who actually get through the tunnel networks have been through an adventure. They have had to struggle a tiny bit, and therefore upon arrival, they feel a sense of gratitude, relief, and accomplishment, and are committed to the project of having a good experience, with the most possible vigor and imagination." . . . I crawled behind him through a ten-foot-long pitch-black tunnel and emerged into a room filled neck-deep with balloons. Each room, he explained, was supposed to function like a chamber of a memory palace. His party was designed to be maximally memorable.
Clearly, Cooke's party wouldn't be for everyone, but I find it attractive: a party with an unusual purpose, a focus, an odd component or three would at a minimum provide strangers with a few minutes of conversational material before the awkward pauses begin to predominate.

This new year's found me laid up with, judging by my cough, some vigorously horrible bastard child of TB and the croup, so I was already asleep when the neighborhood's symphony of illicit fireworks and wailing sirens was just warming up. Dmitry Samarov, I trust, was out all night, just as on that earlier new year's:
The sky is beginning to lighten when I open the mailbox. A letter from the AARP, complete with member's card, awaits my attention. Had this night really lasted a decade? In any case, it is time to reset the calendar and start the whole damn thing over again . . .
Here's to 2012, folks. May it bring you good reading.