Friday, February 24, 2012

The sacred and profaned library

On Wednesday, I quoted a letter from Machiavelli about how he dressed up before entering his library, as an act of appreciation for the thought and learning it provided him. Today, a counterpoint, from the ever-caustic Lars Iyer, creator of the blog Spurious, which became the book Spurious and, now, a second volume, Dogma. I'll have more to say about the many pleasures of Dogma soon, but for today I'll just share a passage about a personal library, appropriate dress, and respect.

The library belongs to Lars's friend, interlocutor, and abusive rotten conscience, W., whom Lars is visiting.
Up another flight to the top floor, and the holy of holies: W.'s study. His bookshelves--not too many, since W. gives away most of his books ("I don't hoard them, like you," he says), but enough for all the essentials. His Hebrew/English dictionary. His volumes of Cohen. His collected Rosenzweigs.
W. is terrified that he will soon have to leave his house--that the humanities at his university are on the brink of being crushed by the overwhelming need to demonstrate value, that they'll soon be replaced by yet another Department of Sport. So he is attentive to his house now, savoring his moments there.

Nonetheless, he doesn't feel the same duty that Machiavelli does to wear his finest robes:
How does he dress himself for scholarship?, I ask him. He wears his dressing gown, W. says. He sits in his dressing gown and reads, looking up difficult German words (which is to say, most of them), in the dictionary.
But such a space can still be profaned:
This is the room where I sleep when I stay. W. pulls out a camp bed and makes it up. He has to fumigate his study after I've slept in it, he says. It has to be re-consecrated, his temple of scholarship.
This, this must be what the ancients meant when they wrote paeans to friendship!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Living the lush life

{Photos by rocketlass.}

"I have a theory," writes Lauren Cerand this week over at The Rumpus, "that elegant people have an aura of impenetrable private sadness, and that good taste and impeccable manners are life’s consolation." What follows is a wonderful essay that interweaves pithy, epigrammatic definitions of elegance and its kin--
Glamour is constructed, elegance is acquired, and charm is innate.
--with elements of her life story and her approach to matters of fashion, furnishing, and self-presentation. It's well-handled, with Cerand coming across as neither unduly proud of nor the slightest bit uncertain about her tastes; her appreciations and definitions are infectious, bolstering the often too timid thought that yes, the sensual details of life are worth your attention, though their value may largely be self-contained, non-transferable. The moment, the day, the existence, is worth it.

It brought to mind a passage from Cyril Connolly's appreciation of the archly over-ripe pleasures of Ronald Firbank, from The Condemned Playground. "For my part," writes Connolly,
I am secretly a lyricist; the works to which I lose my heart are those that attempt, with a purity and a kind of dewy elegance, to portray the beauty of the moment, the gaiety and sadness, the fugitive distress of hedonism.
Elegance gives us something to celebrate on days when little else is on offer--on, as Fitzgerald put it, those "metropolitan days and nights . . . as tense as singing wires." Even then one's tie can be tied, one's creases pressed, one's clauses delicately balanced.

Cerand mentions in passing that in a friendless childhood in the midst of a complicated, riven family, she turned to, of all people, Machiavelli, pulling "the leather-bound edition of The Prince down from the shelf in hopes of gaining insight on how to navigate it all." And, while in the popular portrait of Machiavelli everything takes a backseat to his recommendations for ruthlessness, he, too, understood the essential respect for the world around us that elegance conveys. In the best of his letters, written on December 10, 1513 to his benefactor, Francesco Vettori, he tells of how he enters his library at the end of a day of farming:
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which is only mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
And now to straighten my tie, pour a martini, settle in at the piano, and open my lounge player's songbook. And what do I happen to be working on tonight? Nothing else but Billy Strayhorn's unparalleled account of the louche ashes of faded glamour, "Lush Life."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels

I suspect the next couple of weeks are going to be hectic enough to impede blogging, and today's the first bit of evidence: with no time for a proper post, I'll instead simply register my pleasure that the last volume of Edward St. Aubyn's series of autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose, At Last, has finally arrived in the States and is getting attention.

I read it nearly a year ago when I was published in the UK, and now that it's arrived here, it seems a good occasion to try to bring new readers to the series. I've written about the first four books before, and in particular about their elegant, memorable, witty prose and St. Aubyn's viciously sharp satire. These are not comfortable books--the portrait of drug addiction is truly horrific at times--but they're also incredibly smart and perceptive about human life and failings. In a post about the first four books, I wrote,
There is a payoff, of sorts, for being willing to stomach the darkness of the first couple of novels, as in the most recent two we see Patrick—by no means free of his inherited demons—actively trying to become a better, more complete person, a person he would not instinctively loathe. Aside from the sharpness of the writing, that desire for self-understanding is the real reason to read these St. Aubyn novels. We get a sense, not just from Patrick but from other characters as well, of a real mind sifting through its impressions, feelings, and thoughts in a constant effort to understand itself, make its way forward, and both accept and rein in its worst impulses.
At Last holds true to its predecessors and carries that effort forward. I made the mistake of not making notes when I read it but Sam Sacks in the Wall Street Journal offers a good summary--along with an argument for the value of the whole series. What has stayed with me is the modest sense of hard-won, and still quite fragile, peace that Patrick Melrose has managed to achieve by the end of this fifth book. As Sam Sacks put it at the start of his review, "Patrick Melrose has survived. It was never a sure thing." After a lifetime that started with abuse, then slid into addiction and self-destruction, At Last finds him making what feels like the first truly substantial steps towards something that might be called a real recovery, and it's incredibly moving.

I'll close with the one passage that I do happen have to hand from At Last because I featured it over at the Annex last spring. It's typically well-written and funny, if a bit goofier than is usual for St. Aubyn:
“Uncle Vlad,” as Nancy called him, had helped to assassinate Rasputin, lending his Imperial revolver to Prince Yusopov for what was supposed to be the final kill, but turned out to be only the middle stage between poisoning the energetic priest with arsenic and drowning him in the Neva. Despite many pleas, the Tsar exiled Vladimir for his part in the assassination, making him miss the Russian Revolution and the chance to get bayoneted, strangled, or shot by Russia’s new Bolshevik masters. Once in exile, Uncle Vlad went on to assassinate himself by drinking twenty-three dry martinis before lunch every day. Thanks to the Russian whimsy of smashing a glass after drinking from it, there was hardly a moment’s silence in the house.
Picador has just re-issued the first four books in one volume; you could do worse than spend your week in it, then turn to At Last.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Hard-man

A busy week leaves me with nothing to share this Friday night except a bit more from Aubrey's Brief Lives.

It's from the entry for Captain Carlos Fantom, a mercenary captain of horse who served switched from Cromwell to the King during the Civil War. Asked about the switch, Fantom replied,
I care not for your Cause: I come to fight for your half-crowne, and your handsome woemen: my father was a R. Catholiq; and so was my grandfather. I have fought for the Christians against the Turkes; and for the Turkes against the Christians.
He was thought to be indestructible, the result of an incident in which several witnesses watched him defy bullets:
Sir Robert Pye was his Colonel, who shot at him for not returning a horse that he tooke away before the Regiment. This was donne in a field near Bedford, where the Army then was, as they were marching to the relief of Gainsborough. Many are yet living that sawe it. Capt. Hamden was by: The bullets went through his Buff-coat, and Capt. H. sawe his shirt on fire. Capt. Carl. Fantom tooke the Bullets, and sayd he, Sir Rob. Here, take your bullets again. None of the Soldiers would dare to fight with him: they sayd, they would not fight with the Devil.
That's a case where I wish Aubrey had been more clear: did the soldiers not want to fight against Fantom--didn't want to argue or brawl with him, in other words--or did they not want to fight alongside him? The latter seems like an odd reaction: I would think an indestructible comrade would bring a certain rise in morale, unless one fears that bullets follow some law of averages and will find out someone in the company regardless?

Aubrey, always to be relied on in matters supernatural, relates the prevailing theories about Fantom's powers. Fantom reportedly told a friend that
the Keepers in their Forests did know a certain herb, which they gave to Children, which made them to be shott-free (they called them Hard-men.)
Aubrey finds support for the concept in a "Booke of Trialls by Duell in foli (writ by Segar, I thinke)," and in a story from Martin Luther's Commentaries on the First Commandment ("or second Commandment, I thinke the First," continues Aubrey, as usual not troubling with much checking of his sources). A Hard-man, writes Luther, was brought to the court of the Duke of Saxony, where he was
commanded to be shotte with a Musquet: the bullet drop't downe and he had only a blew Spott on his Skin, where he was struck. Martin Luther was then by, and sawe the Bullet drop-downe.
Alas for Fantom, a Hard-man's skin, rumored not to be proof against either a silver bullet or death by cudgel, also turned out not to be immune to the noose: taken up a third and final time for "ravishing" the countryside during the war, he was hanged.

God, I love reading Aubrey. Enjoy your weekend, folks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"It brings him to a Loosenesse," Or, John Aubrey and Dr. John Pell

In the midst of poet Ted Walker's charming, modest memoir of childhood, The High Path (1982)--one of a number of minor memoirs I've read lately, the result of having falling for UK publisher Slightly Foxed's irresistible list of same--the author describes the poor quality of the school he attended as a teen, Steyning Grammar School, and its staff of "ungifted amateurs." World War II was partly to blame, competent teachers having been called away to address the realm's more pressing needs, and Walker acknowledges that by the 1950s,
better men were to replace most of--but not all--the incompetent, the cruel, the ignorant, the snobbish, the prejudiced, the mad, the dangerous, the sexually perverted.
Yet, puzzlingly, the school was well thought-of among parents in the region. Walker can't figure it out: Steyning seems to have shown no signs of academic distinction at any point in its three-plus centuries--its only claim to fame being
a former pupil [who was] a seventeenth-century mathematician who invented the division sign and earned himself a page in Aubrey's Brief Lives.
And that's where I had to put the book down for a bit--for if ever a passage called out, "Levi, investigate!", this was clearly it.

The mathematician is Dr. John Pell (1611–1685), and Aubrey's account of his life and achievements is a wonderful reminder of the strange and entertaining qualities that make Aubrey worth returning to again and again. He begins with the bare facts, in his usual fashion:
John Pell, S. T. Dr., was the son of John, who was the son of John. His father dyed when his son John was but 5 yeares old and six weeks, and left him an excellent library.
Am I wrong in imagining that Aubrey's presentation suggests that to be a reasonable tradeoff, to be fatherless but well booked?

Aubrey traces Dr. Pell's career, which leads him, against all his inclinations, to the church, for, as the Lord Bishop of Lincoln laments to him,
Alasse! what a sad case it is that in this great and opulent kingdome there is no publick encouragement for the excelling in any Profession but that of the Law and Divinity.
After at first turning down offers of benefices in favor of continuing his mathematical studies, Pell eventually was driven by poverty (brought about in part because Oliver Cromwell died before getting around to paying him for some work as envoy of the Protectorate to Switzerland) to accept two parishes, one from "Gilbert Sheldon, Lord Bishop of Lundon," and one from the newly crowned Charles II. The livings were far from auspicious: he was given
the scurvy Parsonage of Lanedon cum Basseldon in the infamous and unhealthy (aguesh) Hundreds of Essex (they call it Killpriest sarcastically) and King Charles the Second gave him the Parsonage of Fobing, 4 miles distant.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a smart pastor might want to make his seat in Fobing rather than in Killpriest, but you'd be wrong:
At Fobbing, seven curates dyed within the first ten yeares; in sixteen yeares, six of those that had been his Curates at Laindon are dead; besides those that went away from both places; and the death of his Wife, servants, and grandchildren.
And J. F. Powers's curates think they have it bad!

Pell not unreasonably thought this worthy of complaint, but when he put his case for the "unhealthinesse" of his benefice to Sheldon, who in the interim had been raised to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, he received scant sympathy:
[S]ayd my Lord, I doe not intend that you shall live there. No, sayd Pell, but your Grace does intend that I shall die there.
If a library is sufficient compensation for a lost father, perhaps the opening for a perfect bon mot is compensation for the ague?

Aubrey goes on to profess his personal friendship for Pell, and to display astonishment that one so learned should continue on so poor, living in
an obscure lodging, three stories high, in Jermyn Street, next to the signe of the Ship, wanting not only bookes but his proper MSS, which are many.
Poverty, however, seems not to have kept Pell from his studies in mathematics; while Aubrey fails to mention the invention of the division sign, he does note more vaguely that Pell "was the first inventor of that excellent way or method of the marginall working in Algebra." Oh, and that
Dr. Pell haz often sayd to me that when he solves a Question, he straines every nerve about him, and that now in his old age it brings him to a Loosenesse.
Money, nonetheless, continued to be a problem, and death found him "so indigent that he wanted necessarys, even paper and Inke, and he had not 6d in his purse."

The Life closes with an almost too perfectly Aubreyan touch, a bit of information seemingly out of nowhere, left on its own without support or clarification:
He dyed of a broken heart.
It is always a thing to be hoped that the gods pay little attention to the idle curses of ten-year-olds, but it seems especially important in this case, lest poor Pell be roasting in hell for all eternity on a spit shaped like this: ÷.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Youth's a stuff will not endure

Edmund Wilson, writing on Proust, said that the narrator of In Search of Lost Time
has proved the fatal impossibility of ever finding our happiness in another individual. A woman will not, and cannot, live in the world in which we would have her--that is, the world in which we live, which we ourselves imagine; and what we love in her is merely the product of our own imagination: we have supplied her with it ourself.
Proust's view is far gloomier than mine, but he does describe as well as anyone the sense of falling in love, not with a person, but with your projection of them. Young love is particularly susceptible to that mistake: we've simply not had the experience, in the years of our first, fumbling adulthood, to know better. In The Unquiet Grave Cyril Connolly writes,
Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learned to walk.
And in those years when we first take that wrong turning, we do so with such brash confidence, such certainty, that we wouldn't have consulted a map even if we'd had one.

That's what kept coming to mind as I read John Cotter's novel of misplaced love, vague artistic ambition, aimlessness, and drunken nonsense, Under the Small Lights (2010) in one long, absorbed sitting on Saturday. Jack, a twenty-year-old college student, spends a summer drinking and drugging with a pair of recently eloped friends, wasting away the warm days being tempted and teased by the wife of the couple. They skinny-dip in her parents' pool; they kiss in the kitchen when the party's in the den; she snuggles up to him in bed when her husband's away. He spends the summer convincing himself simultaneously that she wants to sleep with him as badly as he wants to sleep with her, that he's going to sleep with her, and that somehow they're also not going to do that because her husband is his best friend. Parties come and go; other girls offer alternatives; the relationship remains painful and impossible.

Cotter dresses the story in prose that matches the haze of drunken dreams with the precision of young memory. Listen to the consonance and assonance in this description of some ill-advised firing of bottle rockets:
I re-lit them and ran back, priding myself on how well my drunk legs hopped the trail. Back together, we saw them flare up then turn on us. Burning, they sent a blue streak straight our way. They hadn't been crooked wrong in the rock but the flare-up on take-off sent them looping, burning blue over gold. As we turned and streaked away I could hear Paul and Corinna panting in my ears. Then I was concentrating on my own running. By the time the flares went bang behind us, Corinna was ahead by twenty yards. I'd drifted off to the side of one of the warehouses. I knew all of our hearts must be pounding a fury but I could only feel my own.
The prose is particularly well-suited to what Cotter is trying to capture: that moment when youth teeters into adulthood, when the languorous pace and lifelong friendships of childhood begin to give way to the fast-flicker rush of adult life, with its consequences and regrets, and new, more subtle forms of monotony and change. The summer is one long deferral of responsibility and consequence, peopled with characters who are starting for the first time to see themselves plain, and really wonder whether who they are is who they want to be. Jack watches his friend Star:
Much of the Star I knew was composed of parts of Corinna she'd caught or memorized. Still, I felt at a loss to watch her change into someone more like Mara. I recognized her low threshold for imitation. Seeing how Bill paused a little before answering any question in a way that centered the action on his answer, I'd started doing it myself. Recently I'd noticed myself unconsciously copying the way Paul ran the tip of a cigarette around the inside rim of an ashtray, never tapping it. But to see Star taking on what I was convinced were Mara's tics (who else?)--the way she tossed her head to move the hair from her eyes, or wearing the same shirt three or four days in a row--made me feel unsteady.
None of this is new territory, of course--I found myself thinking of Edmund Wilson's portrait of dissolute, confused Bohemian New York, I Thought of Daisy, while a funny running scene of drunken artistic collaboration on the shores of Walden in winter called to mind Withnail and I--but Cotter makes it fresh and engaging, with characters whose mistakes make us ache.

Elsewhere in The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes,
Art is memory: memory is re-enacted desire.
Under the Small Lights convincingly takes us back to those years when all we were was an inchoate bundle of desire, and our every action was an attempt to figure out the forms we wanted it to take.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


In Monday's post I quoted an amusing bit from Frank Brady's biography of Bobby Fischer, Endgame, about Russian grandmaster David Bronstein. But for some reason Brady didn't describe Bronstein when he made his first appearance, so yesterday, as I made my way through the book, I encountered this:
Bronstein looked like what one might picture a chess player to look like. Bald-pated, with horn-rimmed glasses, and often dressed in a black suit and white shirt, he was actually the prototype of the grandmaster character Kronsteen in the James Bond film From Russia with Love (except that Kronsteen had hair) and the game played on-screen in that film was based on a real one Bronstein had against Spassky.
The photo below, however, makes him look a bit less sinister than that sounds.
I also really enjoyed this description of one of Fischer's early opponents, Milan Matulovic,
a twenty-three-year-old master who would become infamous in the chess world for sometimes touching a piece, moving it, and then--realizing it was either a blunder or a weak move--returning the piece to its original square, saying, "J'adoube," or "I adjust," and moving it to another square or moving another piece altogether. The "j'adoube" statement is the customary announcement when a player wishes to center or adjust one of his opponent's pieces, but according to the Laws of Chess this must be done before touching the piece, or the mover risks yielding a forfeit. . . . Matulovic "j'adoubed" his pieces after the fact so often that years later he earned the nickname "J'adubovic."
As someone with only a passing knowledge of the chess world, I like this revelation of such an odd quirk--it brings to mind baseball players and their endless variety of tics and rituals, some nearly as irritating as Matulovic's must have been. (I'm looking at you, Nomar.)

Brady's book is a delight overall, full of great scenes and offering as much insight as it seems possible to have into the sad, unpleasant mind of Bobby Fischer. I do wish, however, that there were more actual chess in it. I know that Brady, aiming at a mass audience, had to walk a fine line; a general reader--even one who is picking up a book about Bobby Fischer--can't be assumed to understand the intricacies of chess notation or even the game itself. When Brady tells the stories of key matches, he almost never mentions specific moves: a move is labeled daring, or a blunder, but it's rarely identified. The frustrating thing is that I know it's possible to tell more without getting bogged down. Walter Tevis's brilliant The Queen's Gambit, which tells of a Bobby Fischer–style female prodigy, draws much of its drama from carefully described moments in individual games, and Dorothy Dunnett's harrowing human chess game in Pawn in Frankincense begins and ends with clearly described moves*, such that you can visualize the board position, and thus what's at stake in this game where captured pieces are instantly garroted and Lymond's team is composed of people he loves.

What's strange is that even as Brady seems to deliberately avoid game detail, he nonetheless throws in the occasional term or concept without explanation. He refers to a pair of passed pawns without glossing them, for example, and it isn't until the fifth or sixth time that a game is adjourned partway through that he explains the sealed-move procedure (and he never takes the logical next step of explaining the thinking behind the rule).

I should be clear: these are quibbles, small flaws in a good book. Having pointed them out, it seems only right to end by highlighting one of my favorite parts. It comes in 1960, when Brady had dinner with the seventeen-year-old Fischer in New York, and it's a beautiful account of genius, obsession, and the palpable feeling of watching someone who's working on a different plane from the vast majority of us. Brady asks Fischer how he's going to prepare for an upcoming tournament, and Fischer perks up:
As he talked, he looked from me to the pocket [chess] set, back and forth--at least at first--and spat out a scholarly treatise on his method of preparation. "First of all, I'll look at the games that I can find of all the players, but I'm only really going to prepare for Bronstein. Spassky and Olafsson, I'm not that worried about." He then showed me the progression of his one and only game with Bronstein--a draw from Portoroz two years earlier. He took me through each move the two had made, disparaging a Bronstein choice one moment, lauding another the next. The variety of choices Bobby worked through was dazzling, and overwhelming. In the course of his rapid analysis, he discussed the ramifications of certain variations or tactics, why each would be advisable or not. It was like watching a movie with voice-over narration, but with one great difference: He was manipulating the pieces and speaking so rapidly that it was difficult to connect the moves with his commentary. I just couldn't follow the tumble of ideas behind the real and phantom attacks, the shadow assaults: "He couldn't play there since it would weaken his black squares" . . . "I didn't think of this" . . . "No, was he kidding?" . . . He then began to show me, from memory, game after game--it seemed like dozens--focusing on the openings that Bronstein had played against Bobby's favorite variations. Multiple outcomes leaped from his mind. But he didn't just confine himself to Bronstein's efforts. He also took me on a tour of games that Louis Paulsen had played in the 1800s and Aaron Nimzowitsch had experimented with in the 1920s, as well as others that had been played just weeks before--games gleaned from a Russian newspaper.

All the time Bobby weighed possibilities, suggested alternatives, selected the best lines, discriminated, decided. It was a history lesson and a chess tutorial, but mainly it was an amazing feat of memory. His eyes, slightly glazed, were now fixed on the pocket set, which he gently held open in his left hand, talking to himself, totally unaware of my presence or that he was in a restaurant. His intensity seemed even greater than when he was playing a tournament or match game. His fingers sped by in a blur, and his face showed the slightest of smiles, as if in a reverie. He whispered, barely audibly: "Well, if he plays that . . . I can block his bishop." And then, raising his voice so loud that some of the customers stared: "He won't play that."

I began to weep quietly, aware in that time-suspended moment I was in the presence of genius.
Which brings to mind two things--both reminders, for the pedagogically inclined reading instrumentalists among us (which I don't tend to be) that even adventure fiction offers lessons we can apply later. First is one of the main themes of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, stated most clearly in this scene from A Dance with Dragons:
There is always someone quicker and stronger, Ser Rodrik had once told Jon and Robb. He's the man you want to face in the yard before you need to face his like upon a battlefield.
The second is the most unforgettable moments in Lev Grossman's The Magicians and The Magician King, which are moments when the young wizards--full, as youth will be, of self-confidence and recklessness--are forced to confront the fact that there are powers in the universe, and to those powers they, with all their knowledge and bravado, are but gnats. I used the word harrowing above, so maybe here I'll resort to soul-shaking. In more mundane terms, those scenes, and Brady's account, call to mind that moment--a salutary one, let's be clear--when, at nineteen or twenty, we meet someone who is really, really smart . . . and we are forced to recalibrate everything we think we know about ourselves.

The almost infinitely consoling flip side of that realization is that the universe is capacious enough that rocketlass and I can enjoy playing terrible, blunderous, ridiculous chess together year after year nonetheless.

Monday, February 06, 2012

"Frank Lloyd Wright will not hear a word against the sauerkraut," Or, People are strange

{Photo by rocketlass.} I make no bones about the fact that one of the things I look for in books, and particularly in nonfiction, is simple human oddity. Oh, sure, there are other things to be learned from reading about the lives of others--facts about other times and places, information about how others have grappled with problems or questions we may be facing ourselves--but at base, what I tend to be looking for is the entertainment afforded by the strange ways people behave.

And, having encountered a number of good examples lately, the time seems ripe for a roundup. Lariats away!

1 Will Friedwald's Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (2010) is such a jam-packed, endlessly fascinating book that it makes me wish that I had a similar guide to every field of culture that interests me. I suppose that Bill James's Historical Baseball Abstract (2000), if he would ever update it again, would almost suffice for baseball, while John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists (2011) will do in a pinch for literature. But neither book makes the claim to completeness that Friedwald's guide does, nor does either offer nearly as much biographical information or critical analysis as Friedwald's book. It's a true joy, the product of decades of attending to vocalists, leavened with a distinct aesthetic and accompanying opinions, clearly stated but not intrusive.

And then there are the great lines, ranging from aphoristic descriptions (Tony Bennett is "the Pangloss of pop") to moments of insight, like "More than anyone else, Garland was Jolson's greatest heir." Though Bobby Short grew up in the Midwest and first became a star in Los Angeles, he nonetheless "embodied the Californinan's idea of New York elegance." "If there's such a thing as Anglo-Saxon soul," Jo Stafford's folk recordings are it. Chet Baker's singing
is, from the first note, utterly disarming. Yes, you can qualify a word like "disarming"--it may be true that either it is or it isn't, but some things are more disarming than others, and Baker's singing is one of them.
But I'm getting off topic! I was to focus on human oddity!

So you get this, from the part of the entry for Mary Martin that covers her time in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun:
It's been said that Martin is a more feminine Annie than Ethel Merman--which is kind of unfair. La Merm, blustery and brassy as she was, never struck me as butch. Could there be a more extreme way for a woman to prove her heterosexuality than to marry Ernest Borgnine?
Okay, so it's not exactly odd behavior: that wasn't really the reason Merman married Borgnine. But oh, the thought!

2 I've written about James Lees-Milne's charming biography Another Self (1970) before, but, prompted by a beautiful Slightly Foxed edition, I've been paging through it again. I think you'll enjoy this wonderfully bizarre portrait of an aged widow at Lees-Milne's boyhood church who served as bell-ringer:
Although really far too old and frail, Mrs Hartwell refused to relinquish the bell rope with its fluffy stripes in red, white and blue, called I believe the "sally." She regarded the pulling of it as her sacred duty, which she would surrender to no one, until the breath, as she put it, was out of her body. The act was sometimes attended by alarming manifestations. For bell ringing, even with one rope, necessitates a sense of rhythm in the ringer. Mrs Hartwell lacked this sense. Occasionally she would pull too soon, or too late. The rope thereupon gave a jerk and if she failed to let go--it was not in her nature to let go of things--she would be swept up the belfry. When this happened she would either cling to the rope until it came down again, or she would swing on it until her feet touched a ladder kept permanently fixed to the wall to enable workmen or builders to go up the tower. With astonishing agility for a person of her years she would scramble down the ladder and resume ringing as though nothing had happened.
The line that makes the picture is the aside, "it was not in her nature to let go of things."

3 For a fan of, a Michael Dirda once put it, "the higher gossip," Craig Brown's One on One (2011) is a great resource. Brown builds a daisy chain of 101 incidental meetings between prominent figures--most of them artists or writers, but also including religious figures, movie stars, and even Hitler--offering a brief, quote-rich account of A's meeting with B, followed by the same for B's meeting with C, C's meeting with D, and on. I'm about a third of the way through the book, and thus far the highlight, easily, is Evelyn Waugh's encounter with Alec Guinness, about which more sometime soon. Today, however, I'll share a bit from Frank Lloyd Wright's encounter with self-styled religious guru George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff doesn't come off well in either this account or the preceding one, which finds him meeting devotee P. L. Travers. In that entry, Brown writes about Gurdjieff's "unseemly" personal habits:
In his palatial flat at his institute in Paris, he often didn't bother to visit the lavatory, preferring to defecate willy-nilly. "There were times when I would have to use a ladder to clean the walls," recalls one of the residents."
The encounter with Wright is less disgusting, but only just. By invitation, Gurdjieff came to Taliesin, where he succeeded in roping in Wright within twenty-four hours; this famously stubborn and strong-willed man bowed to Gurdjieff in almost every realm. Including the kitchen:
Before his stay is over, he has made everyone cook great quantities of sauerkraut from his own recipe, involving whole apples, including their skins, their stem and their cores. Even his most devoted disciples find it hard to swallow. On his departure from Taliesin, he leaves behind two fifty-gallon barrels of the stuff. In the first flush of discipleship, Frank Lloyd Wright will not hear a word against the sauerkraut. He insists the barrels must be transported to his Fellowship's desert camp in Arizona, watching attentively as they are loaded onto a truck.
Wright's control only extends so far, however: somewhere in Iowa, the crew driving the truck dumps the barrels in a ditch.

4 The trip to Wright's kitchen serves nicely to bring us to the oddity that got me going on this theme today in the first place, a moment from Frank Brady's Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall (2011). Twelve-year-old Bobby Fischer is watching a high-profile tournament, with all the Cold War trappings, between a US team and a Russian team. Brady writes,
And then there were the players, gathering onstage, waiting for the signal from the referee to take their places and commence their games. Soviet player David Bronstein asked for a glass of lemon juice--no, not lemonade, but real lemon juice, he insisted--which he downed in what looked like one gulp.
Surely he at least made a face?

US Open champion Donald Byrne, on the other hand,
said he was so on edge that he spent the entire day before the match trying not to think of chess, reading the romantic prose of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Which seems like an error, no? Is anything quite black-and-white in Hawthorne?

Friday, February 03, 2012

"Boswell's perpetual doses of clap," or, Oh, thank the gods for the weekend

Is it in the jelly-side-down nature of things that a ten-hour workday, in which it's impossible for hours at a time to escape the computer's gravitational pull, will necessarily fall on a Friday?

Such, at least, has been today, and it leaves little time or mental capacity for blogging. So herewith, a bit about Boswell I happened across in Anthony Powell's journals the other day, from the entry for December 31, 1987:
Reread three vols of Boswell's Journals. . . . As with Pepys, tho' in quite different manner, I cannot really like Boswell, who undoubtedly had good points, capacity for taking keen interest in other people in spite of his own overweening egotism (of which he was completely aware, one of his good qualities) and ability to describe them. One can't really forgive him for behaving so odiously to the dog given him by the Corsican General Paoli. Also one gets rather sick of Boswell's perpetual doses of clap (unlike Casanova he probably never got cured by a severe regime, which Boswell was temperamentally incapable of keeping). At the same time he must be given credit for not suppressing his less attractive side.
It's no surprise that Powell is attracted to Boswell's "keen interest" in others, since that was Powell's most salient characteristic as a writer. I don't remember the dog Powell refers to, and a quick online search isn't turning anything up--anyone familiar with that story? It doesn't sound likely to be anything but awful, but I wonder whether Boswell's maltreatment of the dog would have seemed noteworthy in amid the more common animal cruelty of the eighteenth century?

The journal entry continues in a more somber vein:
This year ended on a pleasant note. I doubt it I would ever again have energy to write another novel, even a short one, trouble being largely identification of author's point of vie, vis-a-vis other people, so hard to establish in changing world as one gets older. Such ideas as one has must go into this journal.
Powell's final novel, The Fisher King had been published the year before, when he was eighty-one. It's his most Dance-like standalone novel, full of people speculating about the lives, histories, and motivations of other characters they only half know; it's funny and lively and effective. It doesn't feel like an ending, though it was. It does, however, close appropriately:
The rain had abated a little, though not altogether. In spite of foul weather there was exhilaration in the northern air. The leaden surface of the loch was just perceptibly heaving in the wind, still blowing from time to time in fairly strong gusts. On the far side of the waters, low rounded hills, soft and mysterious, concealed in luminous haze the frontiers of Thule: the edge of the known world; man's permitted limits; a green-barriered check-point, beyond which the fearful cataract of torrential seas cascaded down into Chaos.
And on that note, it's the hour for a martini and some time at the piano. May your reading this weekend keep Chaos at bay.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Simon Raven

A friend asked in an e-mail earlier this week whether I had read Simon Raven. The name was familiar, and I knew he was an English novelist, but that was about as far as I could get. But when my friend pointed out that there are those who plump for Raven over Anthony Powell--who say that Raven's roman-fleuve, Alms for Oblivion, is better than Powell's . . . well, I had to go check this out for myself.

I've grabbed the first novel in the sequence, The Rich Pay Late (1964), from the library, and it'll go to the top of my post–George R. R. Martin stack. Before that, however, I thought I'd take a quick trawl through the home shelves to figure out where I'd encountered Raven. I started with Powell's diaries and memoirs, but his only appearance there is as one of many who congratulated Powell on being named a Companion of Honor in the early days of 1988.

Raven does, however, turn up in Michael Barber's biography of Powell. Barber is describing the pervasively present absence of Nick Jenkins, Powell's narrator in A Dance to the Music of Time, and he brings in a "pungent" description by Raven of Jenkins's tone:
It's the tone of a gentleman's club, really, with a slight breath--not exactly of the slums creeping in--but a breath of corruption. It's a bit like sitting in, say, White's or Brooks's, and every now and then somebody opens the window and a rather nasty smell--not exactly of shit--well, yes, of shit, but also of corpses--comes into the room. And somebody makes a polite observation as to the nature, respectively, of shit and corpses and closes the window for the time being. That's how it strikes me.
Despite the tone of disapproval, Barber says that Raven admired Powell's novels--though from that account it's hard to escape the conclusion that he didn't get them. His example isn't wholly inaccurate, but it leaves out the breadth of Powell's range of subject and interest: the oddities that are simply oddities, not signs of corruption; the things done for love (often self-love) rather than power or status; the comedy of expressed individuality. Raven makes it sound like Powell seeks credit for exposing hypocrisy, while leaving the genteel world essentially intact. Far from it--rather, Powell is interested in making us see the complexity and strangeness that underlie even worlds (and people) we think we know well.

Barber goes on to draw what seems a useful distinction:
Raven is explicit. Powell is implicit. In Raven's fiction the source of the nasty smell--a steaming turd, a festering cadaver or whatever--is there on the carpet for all to see. In Powell's fiction we never really establish what it is or where it comes from, only that it stinks. Raven's characters simply ring for a servant to clear up the mess, following which they settle back in their armchairs as before. He is, for all his lurid effects, a cosy writer. Powell, most emphatically, is not. His characters will probably have to live with that smell whether the window is open or not because it may, after all, be the drains (but try telling that to the club secretary). "The world is never a very nice place," he said more than once. "Tony's far more melancholy and serious than I am," was Raven's comment.
Raven also turns up elsewhere in Barber's bio, and while neither of these instances is useful for comparison's sake, they're too irresistible to pass up. Of Violet Powell's ability to demolish the character of an absent person in conversation, Raven said, "Chop, chop, chop--until there was nothing left but a bit of gristle." And then Barber offers Raven's recollection of an excuse that Violet once told him Cyril Connolly had given for not being able to write: "He told her he couldn't write for a month after he'd come."

The Guardian's obituary for Raven was also written by Barber, and it's a joy, opening brilliantly:
The death of Simon Raven, at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke, is proof that the devil looks after his own. He ought, by rights, to have died of shame at 30, or of drink at 50.
Barber also described him as combining "elements of Flashman, Waugh's Captain Grimes and the Earl of Rochester."

The reference to Waugh made me think that even though they're of different generations surely Nancy Mitford would have encountered such a creature, or at least enjoyed gossiping about him. Initially I struck out in her letters, too, until I turned to the slim volume of her correspondence with bookseller Heywood Hill. Raven turns up there in a letter from Nancy of January 15, 1971. Having been asked by her neighbor, Mme. Suchard, to recommend some "light English books" for her nephew and godson of seventeen, "a lazy boy who is learning English," she had ordered some Penguins from the bookshop, which, on arrival, she dispatched to her neighbor.
The next day she loomed, saying, "These books--you know we are not very go-ahead in my family--could you very kindly see if they are really suitable for a young boy?" Well, two of them had disgusting naked women on the cover. I got away with them (as they were called things like Rose of Tibet) by saying the women were goddesses. The third had a picture of a boy dressed for cricket fondling a naked lady (my dear, lucky it was a lady, in view of the contents) & written on the cover "A novel of strange vices" which of course even Mme Suchard could translate. I simply grovelled--said I couldn't believe it of MY MOTHER's old bookshop, one of the most respectable in London.
And then there's the punchline:
Well, I couldn't be bothered to send back strange vices & I read it--too brilliant, screamingly funny & disgusting beyond belief. It's called Fielding Gray by S Raven--I do recommend it.
And that is why I knew and remembered Raven's name!

More to come on this front later, I expect.