Friday, March 30, 2012

Two epigrams for a weekend of proofreading

In honor of the 300-plus pages of seasonal catalog proofreading that are keeping me from blogging (and piano playing, and bread baking, and and and), two thoughts from Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet:
We worship perfection because we can't have it; if we had it, we would reject it. Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect.

How tragic not to believe in human perfectibility!
And how tragic to believe in it!
Note for those stocking zombie-proof shelters against the inevitable brain-eating apocalypse: A shelf consisting solely of The Anatomy of Melancholy and The Book of Disquiet would suffice for a good long time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The King . . . and the Mad Monk

Pressed for time, today I'm simply going to share a single sentence that blew my mind and that, while not representative of the book it came from, could at least stand for some of the pleasures to be found in its pages. Herewith, from Craig Brown's One on One:
Elvis is staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright house he rents from the Shah of Iran.
Reading that sentence, all I can think is, if only there were more parts to it! Couldn't the house have a garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, surrounding the tomb of Howard Carter, and its tenancy be shared with Edna St. Vincent Millay and Adlai Stevenson? (Then there's the mind-boggling attempt to imagine Elvis's over-the-top aesthetic crammed into a Wright house. It's probably good for Wright to roll over in his grave every once in a while, and I suspect when the King started gold-plating everything and stacking TVs in every room, he surely took some righteous spins.)

Brown's book, which daisy-chains casual encounters between 101 writers, artists, and cultural and historical figures, building anecdotes from memoirs and biographies, really is a lot of fun. I'm finding it well suited to the kind of reading I've been giving it since I brought it home from London in January: two stories at a time every once in a while. That method allows you to always carry one figure forward--P. L. Travers, for example, worships Gurdjieff, who then briefly controls the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Wright--then close the book knowing you'll start back up with one of the people you ended your last reading with.

And now that I've mentioned semi-mystical control, I don't think I can end this post without drawing on another of Brown's chapters, this one on a meeting between Noel Coward and Prince Felix Youssoupoff. Youssoupoff, a Russian exile, comes across as a character that Anthony Powell would have had great fun with: his claim to fame, and--title aside--ticket to society, is that he is one of the assassins of Rasputin, and, even more, was the person who lured him to his death. Brown writes,
Until his death at the age of eighty in 1967, Youssoupoff knows full well that his murder of Rasputin is the signature tune that accompanies his entrance into any gathering. He embraces his notoriety. In his Knightsbridge home in the 1920s he regularly entertains guests with increasingly melodramatic renditions of that fateful night in 1916. He even submits paintings of bearded men with evil grimaces to an art exhibition. So identified are he and his wife Irina with the death of Rasputin that a New York hostess mistakenly introduces them as the Prince and Princess Rasputin. Around the same time, Helen Izvolsky, the daughter of the Tsar's former ambassador to France, visits Youssoupoff and notices "something Satanic about his twisted smile. He talked for several hours about the assassination, and seemed quite pleased to reminisce, going over all the horrifying details. In conclusion, he showed me a ring he was wearing, with a bullet mounted in silver. He explained that this was the bullet that had killed Rasputin."
Now, we've all got stories we break out in certain company, old favorites with a track record as proven crowd pleasers. But good god--re-enacting the murder of Rasputin in your parlor? Who could possibly hope to top that?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Proust, his mother, and humor

The March 22 issue of the London Review of Books features a piece by Michael Wood on Proust and his mother that has reads as if Wood is actively thinking through the problem he's set for himself as he writes. I know that's not what's going on, actually, that any essay along those lines that is even halfway readable is going to be much more a performance of thought than a representation of actual thought processes, but it's a quality I love to find in criticism nonetheless, that sense that, rather than bring us a settled question or a completed argument, the writer is letting us see his mind at work. It's familiar, in more slapdash fashion, from the blogosphere, and even in the more formal confines of the LRB it retains one of the key animating qualities of the blogosphere: the feeling that even as we're doing nothing but read, we're participating in this projet of thought.

Wood opens with a couple of lines that I'll be carrying with me for a good while:
There are texts that seem to require a certain craziness of us, a mismeasure of response to match the extravagance of their expression.
Proust, clearly, is one. Another that comes to mind--despite the stagnation of the World's Least Popular Book Club--is Marguerite Young's Miss Macintosh, My Darling. How, after all, but by craziness can one respond to the extravagance of this passage?
Thus in that night of my fourteenth birthday, night which should be greater revelation than the sunlight which conceals so much--I stood by the tumultuous sea, listening to the long, melancholy roarings of the waters under the near sky where, in the partings of the curtain of streaked fog, the bloodless moon was like a white, thin skull drifting without purpose over the many roofs, the dark towers, the abandoned golf course, the grassy tennis courts, the hidden archery ranger, over the foaming headlands, the saddle of rock, the spur. The waves broke like primal memories of things unknown breaking on my consciousness. I was filled with an almost unbearable excitement as I realized the immensity of life, that which, through its necessary imperfections, might weave a higher perfection than the faultless and restricted days such as I had known. What if everything should be false and nothing true, nothing true of these humped, naked dunes wreathed with seaweed, patched with bayberry and beach rose and meadows of billowing Queen Anne's lace and clumps of wild grass, nothing true of the low, stunted, blackened spruce and hemlock, the leaping tides, the tongues of surf, the sudden sparks of diminished stars? Then all false things should be true, I thought, as true as Miss Macintosh who was so very truthful, her red hair gleaming in the sunlight, in the stale nimbus of familiarity, her eyes severe with a resigned but cheerful purpose, her ways methodical even though the winds should blow her athwart. If all false things were true, however, then all true things should be false like my false mother who postulated merely as her theory the outer world, the blowing cherry trees beyond the surf line, the lanes where she had never walked. Where was the truth which should not fail?
But I'm getting sidetracked. Wood applies that lens of mismeasured response to Proust, and, specifically to Proust's relationship to his mother. It's a wonderfully interesting essay, bringing in a number of different critical and biographical opinions on Proust and drawing on letters to and from his mother, including this one, which Jeanne Proust wrote to Marcel after a vigorous family quarrel that had ended with Marcel slamming the door hard enough to break the glass in its panels:
My dear little one,

Your letter did me good--your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things. I must tell you that I had not thought for a moment of saying anything at all in the presence of Jean [the servant] and that if that happened it was absolutely without my knowledge. Let's think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple--the symbol of an idissoluble union.

Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.


I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don't walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass.
Wood points to the episode's fictional analogue in Jean Santeuil and cites a couple of different opinions from critics and biographers on the significance of the episode and Jeanne Proust's invocation of the broken glass of Jewish marriage ceremonies. Of the postscript, he writes, "there is something about [it] that makes it a sort of mockery, probably just a bit of what we would now call passive aggression: patent further talk about what we are not going to talk about." But I'm inclined--without, mind you, a shred of actual evidence--to take that a step further: what I hear when I read that postscript is perfect Proustian humor. Proust's mother is making a sort of joke that Marcel would make in In Search of Lost Time, a combination of the joke built simultaneously on what we can't help but say even as we're boldly proclaiming that we won't be saying it and on the kernel of absurdity that lies at the heart of our grandest, most self-important gestures. It's the part of Proust that I think would have enjoyed this passage from Edward St. Aubyn's Bad News:
Diplomats, thought Nicholas, long made redundant by telephones, still preserved the mannerisms of men who were dealing with great matters of state. He had once seen Jacques d'Alantour fold his overcoat on a banister and declare with all the emphasis of a man refusing to compromise over the Spanish Succession, "I shall put my coat here." He had then placed his hat on a nearby chair and added with an air of infinite subtlety, "But my hat I shall put here. Otherwise it may fall!" as if he were hinting that on the other hand some arrangement could be reached over the exact terms of the marriage.
It's easy to see that absurdity in others, much harder to acknowledge it in ourselves, as Jeanne Proust is doing by deflating the passion of the family argument. Her joke is nonetheless most obviously at Marcel's expense, and, in context, is unlikely to have been seen as funny. But at this remove what it suggests to me is that mother and son shared not just all the emotional ties and dependencies we know about, but also (even more so?) a sense of humor.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"One can claim protection from the street-grinder, but who's going to interfere with the man next door suffering from jim-jams?", or, More on neighbors

Emily Cockayne's first task in Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours is to decide just what a neighbor is: "Medieval villagers farmed strips of common land," she writes, "and the word 'nigh-bour' originally meant "the man who tills the next piece of ground to mine." That's not a particularly helpful definition for today, where, in urban spaces at least, the person who tills the next piece of ground to you is likely a friendly hippie from 'round the hill rather someone you would think of as a neighbor. But even recent usage can be frustratingly vague:
Early-modern neighbours could be anybody in the parish, albeit they might live a mile from each other. The looseness and geographical vagueness in the terminology makes it difficult to uncover much about what it meant to live very near to somebody. . . . Even in more recent times some biographers have been cavalier with the term "neighbour." Some have used it to mean "from the same town," or even "the neighbouring shire." These writers sent me on wild goose chases, tracking down "neighbours" who actually lived miles apart.
Then there's the problem of who counts as neighbor, exemplified by this passage from Elizabeth Taylor's biting, strangely affecting novel Angel (1955):
Lady Baines was Angel's nearest neighbour, she had declared on her first visit, ignoring the dozens of cottages, the doctor's house, the Vicarage, which lay between Paradise House and her own home. "No one between us and Lady Baines at Bottrell Saunter," Angel told people, doing the same.
Cockayne settles on a definition that seems utterly reasonable for both past and present:
One of my own neighbours told me that "a real neighbour is someone you can visit in your slippers" (he was wearing his at the time).
From there, Cockayne is off to the races, telling story after story of neighborly disagreement and disaster (and, occasionally, camaraderie or even romance). She acknowledges that the balance between bad and good neighbor stories may be skewed to the bad by the available sources, as no one goes to court to sing his neighbor's praises, but that's almost beside the point. Certainly Cockayne is mounting an argument--more deliberately than in her previous book, Hubbub--this time about how changes in living conditions have always been intertwined in complicated ways with changing notions of privacy, personal space, wealth, and social duty. But the nasty stories are what give the book life, and while perhaps the occasional account of neighbors helping with childbirth or sharing food may be necessary to the survival of our faith in human nature, what we really want is to read more disputes over dunghills and such.

And, oh, do we get those!
Dunghills were heaped up wherever they could be contained, sometimes against the neighbour's house. Rain saturated these stinking piles, encouraging damp to penetrate indoors and creating the potential for flooding. A London inkeeper heaped dung against his neighbour's wall in 1677 and the moisture from it soaked through the wall "to the great damage and the Annoyance of her house."
In this case, I might have listed "annoyance" first. Then there's the general nuisance of shared toilets--especially when combined with bored children:
Walter Greenwood and his chums interrupted their neighbours' motions by waiting until the shared toilet was occupied and then, "armed with a slat from an orange box at whose end stood a candle stump fixed in its own grease," they would slide it through the emptying flap and toast the occupant's bottom. Becoming a victim of "arseon" was only one of the many risks faced by neighbours sharing a toilet.
Then there's the more general nuisance of the loony neighbor:
In May 1883 [Henry] Kirkham "made divers loud offensive and alarming noises . . . beating and hammering with pokers hammers and other Instruments . . . and screaming, groaning and making other noises and also heating melting and dissolving divers large quantities of brass." His neighbours also complained of the smells and effluvia from his house.
It gets worse:
Ten neighbours were listed, who were also disturbed by his habit of "deliberately exposing himself naked in a most indecent posture situation and practice to divers liege subjects both male and female."
And that's well before the invention of the trench coat, the flasher's friend!

Familiar names turn up as well. George Gissing's diary provides some wonderfully grumpy, even catty moments, enough to make me wonder whether I should read the whole thing. "Fine days," he writes in August 1891,
but rendered utterly miserable by vile squabbles here in the house. The Rockett people behaving with every kind of vulgar malice. It makes me ill; I pass the time in sick, trembling rage unable either to read or think -- Yet i do think in a way; there has come across me, out of these miseries an idea for a volume of short stories, to illustrate the wretchedness of life in lodgings, to be called "At a Week's Notice."
Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, is positively charming in his neighbor-baiting:
In Oxford, Samuel Johnson was reported to have reprimanded Sir Robert Chambers for gathering snails and throwing them over onto his neighbour's garden, rebuking his "unmannerly and unneighborly" behaviour. Chambers argued that his neighbour was a dissenter, so Johnson changed his tune--"if so, Chambers, toss away, toss away, as hard as you can."
Cockayne's book loses a bit of steam as it approaches the present. That's less a fault of her writing or her material--a brief discussion of Silver Jubilee parties amusingly calls to mind the block party for Charles and Diana that Adrian Mole relates in his first diary--than a result of the fact that our own era's stories are always going to be less interesting, and more inflected by the familiarity of the actual frustrations they relate, than the past. A tale of an armorer who "built a forge made of earth and timber next to a neighbour's house" and "sledghammered armour plating and shook the neighbour's walls, ruined beer and wine in their cellar and filled their home with smoke" is, at four centuries' remove, as amusing as it is shocking; a £5,000 fine for noise pollution issued in 1993 over a crying baby simply elicits wincing sympathy for everyone involved.

But then, even though--or perhaps because?--I grew up in a small town, I've never really been the neighborly sort myself. I like having a neighborhoodl=. I like going into shops and knowing the people there and being known in return, and I like recognizing the dogs and stray cats of our streets. But I'm not one to look for communion or friendship from my neighbors. I understand the utopian impulse that would have us all sharing lawnmowers and trading services, but I want to choose the people in that circle myself, not have geography and real estate patterns do it for me. I think of a man quoted in David Kynaston's marvelous Family Britain: 1951–1957 after a tour and a sales pitch for the just-being-built New Towns:
The sort of thing the planning boys dream up, but which doesn't work out. . . . Then, there's no privacy--think of it, front gardens in common. And the back gardens divided only by wire, so your neighbour knows all about you. And to think of it on washing-day. And there's going to be a community centre. Yes, it's not a joke, there really is. A community centre! Planners are nuts on palliness.
I've turned to Kynaston before when I've been on the theme of neighbors, and I'll close with a line I quoted then, from a set of sociological interviews conducted in 1950s Britain. An interview subject says of a neighbor:
I never thought I'd come to hate anybody like I do her.
To avoid that risk, I'm inclined to stay at the level described by a 47-year-old housewife from Sunbury-on-Thames when asked if she knew her neighbors:
Lots I suppose but only to say "Good morning etc" or to have "the daily grumble" with either on the road or perhaps on the bus, wherever we happen to meet.
We may be dung-heap free, the smithys and slaughterhouses are far away, and my neighbors, I'm confident, are perfectly nice and good people . . .but I hope you'll forgive me if, Cheek by Jowl in hand, I continue to be a tad circumspect despite.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spring is here!

The Spring issue of the Quarterly Conversation has arrived! The previous issue was my last as poetry editor, as I reluctantly gave up the post after deciding that my attempts to juggle writing here, reading everywhere, and playing the piano (in the privacy of my own home) weren't leaving me the time the magazine deserved from its poetry editor. But while my formal connection may be severed, I remain a reliable reader and champion of TQC, and this issue, as usual, is full of good stuff. Our old friend Patrick Kurp is there, writing about Eric Ormsby's new book of poems. Aashish Kaul writes on the genesis of W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, and Donna Stonecipher reviews Jorge Carrera Andrade's Micrograms. Editor Scott Esposito hosts a roundtable discussion of the re-emergence of Clarice Lispector. And that's just a start!

In addition, this week sees the release of the first in what is planned to be a regular series of podcasts discussing world literature, That Other Word. The inaugural episode features co-hosts Scott Esposito and Daniel Medin talking with Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.

The traditional book review may, as the alarmists would have it, be on some form of grudging life support, but for literature in translation and other works that have for years been flying under the radar of most review editors, the Internet is more than making up for it. Take some time tomorrow when you ought to be doing your job and read the Quarterly Conversation. I bet you'll find some books to add to your stack.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Nuisances, neighborly

A couple of months ago the publishers of Emily Cockayne's new book, Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours, sent me a galley. Having greatly enjoyed her first book, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England 1600–1770, I was excited about this one, and I've been pleased with what I've found as I've dipped into the galleys here and there over the past couple of months while the publication date neared. Cockayne in both books reveals herself to be a delightful archive mouse with a taste for anecdote, joyfully mining memoirs and histories and court records for minor moments that are usually passed over but which, carefully selected and assembled, can reveal wonderful new facets of life in the past.

And that all got so much better today with the arrival of the finished book--for, unlike the advance galley, it includes an index! My current obsession with the piano and my fears that my only barely competent playing might be annoying the neighbors more than they let on, I turned first to that entry. It could be worse, it turns out: while pianos are healthily represented in the annals of neighborly complaint, with nine entries (five of them under the subcategory of "noisy pianos"), that's not nearly so bad as some other sources of irritation. Children, for example, merit thirty-one entries--and that's before taking into account the separate entry for "Noises, children," with its seven. Or take the entry for pets:
Pets, 132, 149; see also birds; cats; dogs; monkey in the garden next door
No normally curious human could fail to follow up on "Monkey in the garden next door":
One couple were forced to endure a rather peculiar nuisance. The person who lived in the adjoining house owned "a large-sized, old and artful monkey," which had been won as a prize. Although kept on a chain, the monkey could escape and on occasiona had pursued the man's wife, who had to jump over a fence to avoid it." The couple requested that the Greenwich Police Court ensure that the monkey be secured. They were informed that they would need to make a civil case because the law covered dogs, not monkeys.
It's not a fair cop.

From there, the index led me, understandably, to "Murder," which is subdivided neatly:
Murder 7, 186; committed by a neighour, 83–84, 110, 195; overheard by neighbours, 17, 34–36, 102–3
Elegant as that is, it can't compare to the perfection of the entry for Sex, in which the order of the alphabet happens to set up the punchline:
Sex: hearing a neighbour having, 3, 197–8, 223; seeing a neighbour having, 14–16, 197; with a neighbour, 48, 72, 210–2
Sadly, it doesn't look like Cheek by Jowl has a Stateside publication date lined up yet, but it will be available any day now from the UK. I'll definitely have more to share from it in the coming weeks, but for the moment you'll have to excuse me: I haven't annoyed my neighbors with a runthrough of "Lush Life" for more than a day!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Alan Grofield takes the stage

It’s been a good spring for fans of Donald Westlake. First, Hard Case Crime published a never-before-seen Westlake novel, The Comedy Is Finished, which I wrote about a couple of weeks back. And now my own employer, the University of Chicago Press, has released the four novels that Westlake wrote about Parker’s sometime-partner Alan Grofield. We’ve put out three in paperback—The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird—and one, Lemons Never Lie, will soon be available as an e-book only (since you can get the paperback from Hard Case Crime).

No fan of Parker or Stark would pretend that these four books are as good as the best of Parker, but that’s a tall order—they’re plenty good and well worth reading in their own right. What’s most fun about them is Grofield himself: ladies’ man, actor, wit, and, equally important, fully capable heister. As Sarah Weinman writes in her introduction to the series,
Grofield was a lab rat for Westlake, who liked to experiment with tone—veering, somewhat wildly, between dark violence, witty banter, and absurdist humor—and plot.
In these books, Grofield finds himself in romantic adventures, locked room mysteries, espionage plots, and straight-up heists—and, always the actor, he casts himself as the heroic leading man in each.

The opening paragraph of The Damsel (1967) is the first indication that things in Grofield's world are different than in Parker’s. Whereas the best-known Parker opening line, from Firebreak, is “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man,” Grofield’s book opens with the girl:
Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window. He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there.
She brings trouble, of course, but in the life of a faithless Romeo like Grofield, what lady doesn’t?

The window is in Grofield’s hotel room in Mexico City, where he’s recovering after nearly being killed in The Handle. He’s still a bit punchy, which gives the humor in this exchange, from later in the first chapter, an entertainingly absurd edge:
She said, “Are you one of them?”

“That depends. Sometimes I’m one of them and other times it doesn’t seem worth the effort. I haven’t been one of them lately because I haven’t been well.”

The glitter was slowly fading from her eyes. In a more human voice she said, “What are you talking about?”

“Be damned if I know. Are we supposed to be talking about something?” He tried to sit up, but the wound in his back gave him a twinge. He grimaced and shook his head. “It gets worse,” he said. “Before it gets better, it gets worse.”
Moments later, still completely confused, the visitor decides Grofield’s no danger:
“I’ll trust you,” she said, taking another step closer to the bed. “God knows, I have to trust somebody.”

“You wouldn’t talk like that if I had full use of my faculties.”
As the girl will soon learn, Grofield’s both right and wrong: he’s not the sort of man her mother would trust, for example, but he can definitely be counted on to get her out of a jam. And any damsel (or reader) in distress will find him great company along the way

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Silence is golden, or at least smiled upon by the law

Lately, any time I find myself between novels on a weekend--Saturday suddenly stretching before me without an any endings beckoning--I open up the The Third Rumpole Omnibus (1997) and continuing my slow journey through the complete career of John Mortimer's perpetually amused barrister. Rumpole definitely isn't for everyone: leaving aside the fact that, were he to actually be one's colleague, the irritation would be endless, there's the problem that Mortimer's stories about him all hew to a simple formula wherein Rumpole takes on a case whose themes end up resonating in his interactions with his colleagues, wife, and acquaintances. It's all very schematic and repetitive, with Rumpole making the same sort of jokes and observations about the same sort of human failings story after story. In their reliance on the tried and true, the Rumpole books are close kin to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories, but it's a comparison by which they suffer greatly: Stout created two truly unforgettable characters and a host of lesser ones, and his stories ripple with linguistic verve in a way that Mortimer's never do.

Yet, in this world of imperfection, the Rumpole stories are plenty good enough. Rumpole may be no Nero Wolfe, but who is? He's funny, smart, convincing, and never less than good company. Even the weakest Rumpole stories are entertaining, and in aggregate they're an achievement of which John Mortimer could justly be quite proud, and in which readers can take real joy.

Last Sunday morning found me reading a story that quickly became one of my favorites in Rumpole's whole ouevre, "Rumpole and the Right to Silence." It's a well-assemble, well-thought-out, smart, funny story, and it would be a solid place to start with Rumpole if you've not tried him.

Today, though, I'm simply going to share the opening, which, as is common with Rumpole, establishes the current cultural, political, and legal scene (in this case, circa 1990):
What distresses me most about our times is the cheerful manner in which we seem prepared to chuck away those blessed freedoms we have fought for, bled for and got banged up in chokey for down the centuries. We went to all that trouble with King John to get trial by our peers, and now a lot of lawyers with the minds of business consultants want to abolish juries. We struggled to get the presumption of innocence, that golden thread that runs through British justice, and no one seems to give a toss for it any more. What must we do, I wonder. Go back to Rumnymede every so often to get another Magna Carta and cut off King Charles's head at regular intervals to ensure our constitutional rights? Speaking entirely for myself, and at my time of life, I really don't feel like going through all that again.
Rumpole goes on, explicitly stating the theme of his story, to note that the right most under attack at that moment is the right to silence.

Which leads me to my other between-books weekend reading: the aforementioned Nero Wolfe. I followed "Rumpole and the Right to Silence" on Sunday with "Method Three for Murder," from Three at Wolfe's Door (1960). In that story, Archie lays out for a client (his own client, unusually enough, as the story opens with him angrily leaving Wolfe's employ and . . . well, it's complicated, and it ends with Wolfe technically working for Archie, which is fun to watch) her options when she's taken up for questioning:
"There are only three methods that are good in the long run. You have strong fingers."

"I'm sorry." Her grip relaxed a little, but she held on. "What are the three methods?"

"One. Button your lip. Answer nothing whatever. Two. Tell the truth straight through. The works. Three. Tell a simple basic lie with no trimmings, and stick to it. If you try a fancy lie, or a mixture of truth and lies, or part of the truth but try to save some, you're sunk. Of course I'm just talking to pass the time. In the present situation, as far as I know, there is no reason why you shouldn't just tell the truth."
And if you believe that last, well, Archie'd like you to see if you can get Inspector Cramer's job.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Science!, which I suppose is appropriate for a novel called By Blood

Today, let's try an experiment! The first step is to read this passage from the first page of Ellen Ullman's By Blood (2012):
My involvement with the young woman in question began several years ago, in the late summer of 1974, while I was on leave from the university. I sought to secure for myself a small office in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides—The Kindly Ones—the third play in Aeschylus’s great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge of a rough, depressed neighborhood. And my first sighting of the prospective office building,—eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time—nearly caused me to retrace my steps.

Yet there was no question of my turning back. Immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descended upon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in the area. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man of fifty years, the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions of my preadolescence, as if I remained unchanged the desperate boy of twelve I had been. Indeed, the very purpose of the office was to act as a counterweight to this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out of the house, to force me to walk on public streets among people, to immerse myself, however anonymously, in the general hum of society; and in this way, perhaps, sustain the gestures of normal life.
From those few sentences, do you get a sense of claustrophobia, of someone who's been living too long inside his own head? Of an inner--and thus an outer--world that's not quite right? Like perhaps this narrator isn't entirely to be trusted? By the end of the second paragraph, I think there's no doubt, but it seems to me that the cracks are beginning to show long before the explicit reference to the "nervous condition," the spell already being cast. The "rough, depressed neighborhood" and "begrimed gargoyles" even seems to spread their murk backwards, infecting the possibly innocent "on leave" and highlight the finickiness of "sought to secure for myself."

Or at least that's what I experienced. But it's possible I'd been primed--here's where the science comes in--for those are not the first and second, but the second and third paragraphs of the novel. The book opens with this:
I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, though I never learned her name.
So here's my question: did you, encountering the paragraphs I first revealed, read them like I did? Or, without those two creepy opening sentence that I just revealed, are the subsequent signs less obvious?

I ask in part simply because this specific type of narrative voice has always interested me as the most attractive solution to the problem of first-person narration: you turn the narrative over to someone who, it is clear, can't help but write it all down for us, obsessively and deliberately. And even as the voice lifts us over many of the hurdles of first-person narration and allows us to believe in it, it opens up at the same time for a writer the possibility of playing with our inherent instinct to trust the account we're reading. Doubt creeps in, and every word we read begins to carry with it a darker valence.

The other reason I'm curious about your reaction to that passage is that at first read it brought to mind two others. First there's the opening to James Lasdun's psychological horror novel The Horned Man (2002):
One afternoon earlier this winter, in a moment of idle curiosity, I took a book from the shelf in my office and began reading it where it fell open on a piece of compressed tissue that had evidently been used as a bookmark. I’d only had time to read a few sentences when I was interrupted by a knock on the door. Reluctantly—the sentences had looked interesting—I closed the book on its marker and returned it to the shelf.

The next morning I took it down again, intending to continue reading where I had left off, only to find that the marker was no longer at the page it had been on the day before. Leafing through the book, I found my sentences thirty pages earlier. Either I had moved the marker inadvertently myself or some night visitor had been reading the book in my absence. I settled on the first as the more likely explanation, though it seemed odd that I could have moved a bookmark forward thirty pages without noticing it.
The doubt sown here is perhaps even less explicit than what's found in the opening of By Blood: it rests in the single line about the "night visitor"--and in the fact that such an idea instantly presented itself to the narrator as a real, if less likely possibility. It's a hairline, but it's nevertheless a crack.

The second book I thought of was Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938), whose opening, strong on its own, was made immortal by Joan Fontaine's delivery of it at the start of the Hitchcock fim:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw the lodge was uninhabited.

No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end.
Du Maurier, who understood mood as well as any writer I've read, makes the situation explicit--it's a dream--but leaves the menace implicit. Locked out, alone, we "of a sudden" are allowed in, and we find . . . nothing but the absent hand of human care, and its reminder that all our works will end in dust. How could you not want to continue reading after that opening?

That's also how I felt about the opening of By Blood. I'm only about 75 pages into the book, so it's still far from clear where it's headed--or even where its concerns will ultimately rest--but it's compelling thus far. And it all starts with those first paragraphs and the spell of fragility and uncertainty they weave. Which brings me back, to close the post, to the experiment: did you react as I did to the quoted passages, even without the first paragraph to guide you? Or was that paragraph crucial for priming me find the dark spots in the subsequent lines?

Friday, March 09, 2012


In Arthur Phillips's smart, funny, touching The Tragedy of Arthur, a book that cleverly delights in ambiguity, playing with the distinctions between fiction and memoir, real and fake, the protagonist--successful novelist Arthur Phillips--writes,
[T]he evaporation of jealousy is as pleasurable an emotion as any I know; it is a release as profound and shuddering as any physical sensation. It is the erasure of fear, the removal of worry, the shimmering tingle once danger--for which your body has tensed--is past. It is not the arrival of permanent courage or trust; jealousy is tidal, and it flows and ebbs forever; and acceptance that it will return is part of the pleasure while it recedes. There is no happy ending, but nor is there eternal pain. Something is still going to happen, so the timing of the dropping of a curtain is largely arbitrary.
Even though my nature tends not to jealousy--I'm much more made of blood and phlegm than black or yellow bile--I recognize what Phillips describes: the rinse of relief that accompanies a certainty, however temporary that you were worrying over nothing.

The arch-anatomist of jealousy, of course, is Proust, but I don't immediately call to mind any passages where he describes the pleasure of its assuaging so clearly. I haven't had much time to investigate today, so I certainly would welcome additional citations, but this passage from Swann's Way, describing one of the many tidal movements of Swann's jealousy over Odette, does at least edge up to the same territory:
And if--instead of letting her go off on bad terms with him, without having seen him again--he were to send her this money, if he were to encourage her to undertake this journey and go out of his way to make it agreeable for her, she would come running to him, happy and grateful, he would have the joy of seeing her which he had not known for a week and which nothing else could replace. For once Swann could picture her to himself without revulsion, could see once again the friendliness in her smile, once the desire to tear her away from every rival was no longer imposed by his jealousy upon his love, that love became, once again, more than anything a taste for the sensations which Odette's person gave him, for the pleasure he took in admiring as a spectacle, or examining as a phenomenon, the dawn of one of her glances, the formation of one of her smiles, the emission of a particular vocal cadence.
With jealousy out of the way for the moment, Swann can see Odette again, remember why he cares in the first place--and start the cycle over again.

I suspect that Phillips--or at least the "Phillips" within the book--would probably also agree with this thought of Marcel (or "Marcel"), from elsewhere in Swann's Way:
For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion.It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each one of which is ephemeral, though by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity.
Our self is but a unity achieved by main force applied to successive states of perpetual change, our passions the same, and both are deployed without quarter--self on the passions, passions on the self--as needed to keep the whole in line.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Diving into Henry James

Over at his blog, Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader has announced that he is embarking on a Henry James bender--diving into the sixteen (16!) volumes of James's writing published by the Library of America with the intention of reading all the major works and a bit more. He writes,
How does the neurotic reader deal with this vast mass of stuff, much of it likely mediocre? By overcoming his neurosis, I hope, by not reading all five books of the short fiction, by not reading Watch and Ward or Confidence or the five volumes of Leon Edel’s biography of James, but instead restricting myself to the one-volume abridgement, and to only the best dozen or so of his novels, and only the most famous thousand or two pages of the tales. A good plan until the twelfth-best novel turns out to be interesting enough to make me curious about the thirteenth.
The threat in the final line, of the trail tripping ever onward, is echoed by an amusing realization that's emerged in the comments: even those (and I would count myself in that number) who think of ourselves as not having read that much James have actually read a lot of James. My tally? The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, What Maisie Knew, Washington Square, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and another 500 pages of his ghost stories, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and most of the NYRB Classics collection of his New York stories. That's a lot of James--but set against the monumental whole of his work, it seems but a speck.

Amateur Reader has taken on this sort of task before (his slog through 2,800 pages of Poe being the extreme example), and it's always been well worth following. I have too much of the magpie in me to be able to dedicate myself to one author so wholly, so I won't actually join him, but I do suspect he'll at least inspire me to dive into a couple of new James novels before he's done. Tonight, he's caused me to dip once more into Simon Nowell Smith's The Legend of the Master (1948), a volume from a genre that I find I enjoy more and more each year, collections of anecdotes and memories of a great writer.

The first piece I alighted on tonight is a memorable description from Edith Wharton of what it was like to hear and see James recite poetry:
James's reading was a thing apart, an emanation of his inmost self, unaffected by fashion or elocutionary artifice. He read from his soul, and no one who never heard him read poetry knows what that soul was.
Wharton goes on to reveal something that surprises me, though perhaps I should have known it: James thought Whitman "the greatest of American poets." It's hard to reconcile Whitman's galloping verve and James's tightly buttoned prose, though a moment's thought allows you to start seeing similarities in perspective, the shared sense that the interior life is at least as complicated and fascinating as--and in some crucial way constitutes--the world around us. Wharton goes on to offer a memorable description of James reading "Out of the Cradle,"
or rather crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold invocation to Death tolled out like the knocks in the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony.
Though Nowell Smith draws on many dozens of sources, Wharton is unquestionably the star of this collection, sharing the choicest anecdotes in the best prose. Her account of James's response, when asked by a friend why he'd "dealt so summarily" with D. H. Lawrence in his Notes on Novelists is so well told that it's hard not to feel that you're actually seeing the scene in question:
James's reply was evasive and unsatisfactory, and at last his interlocutor exclaimed: "Come, now! Have you ever read any of Lawrence's novels--really read them?" James's most mischievous smile crept down from his eyes to his lips. "I--I have trifled with the exordia."
Which leads me to this question: Am I right in thinking that James probably heard that phrase--"Come now!"--as often as anyone who has ever been born? At least it's a tad more polite than "Get to the point, man!"

Then there's this story, told by Stephen Spender, that feels like James simultaneously is almost openly playing the part of "Henry James" and actually revealing his discomfort with marriage:
Sometimes, in a friendly spirit, people would bait him. Once someone, to do so, asked him what must have been the feelings of Mr. Cross, the husband of George Eliot, on hearing that his wife had died. James considered it intensely, and answered slowly: "Agony . . . Dismay . . . Amazement . . . Fear . . ." Then suddenly his face lighted. He threw up his hands and almost shouted: "Relief!"
Given Spender's own complicated sexuality, that story might be filed under "You get the story you're looking for," which would also apply to this one from E. F. Benson, who was known for, among other writings, his ghost stories:
He described a call he paid at dusk on some neighbours at Rye, how he rang the bell and nothing happened, how he rang again and again waited, how at the end there came steps in the passage and the door was slowly opened, and there appeared in advance on the threshold, "something black, something canine."
I'll close with a passage from another book I happened to pluck from the shelves tonight, one that couldn't be more different but which, on being opened nearly at random, brought James immediately to mind, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Read this passage on "Shameful Things" and think of James's attempts to apprehend and describe consciousness:
A thief has crept into a house and is now hiding in some well-chosen nook where he can secretly observe what is going on. Someone else comes into the dark room and, taking an object that lies there, slips it into his sleeve. It must be amusing for the thief to see a person who shares his own nature.
Now read this passage from "Men Really Have Strange Emotions":
Men really have strange emotions and behave in the most bizarre ways. Sometimes a man will leave a very pretty woman to marry an ugly one. Surely a gentleman who frequents the Palace should choose as his love the prettiest girl of good family he can find. Though she may be of such high standing that he cannot hope to make her his wife, he should, if he is really impressed by the girl, languish for her unto death.

Sometimes, too, a man will become so fascinated by a girl of whom he has heard favourable reports that he will do everything in his power to marry her even though they have never even met.

I do not understand how a man can possibly love a girl whom other people, even those of her own sex, find ugly.
With James on the brain, I find I can't help but read that as anything but a list of possible or actual James plots. Though let's be clear; Sei Shonagon would surely have found James finicky beyond all bearing. Good god, they would not have gotten along.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Back in 1977, or, The Comedy Is Finished

In his book The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, which I wrote about last week, Josh Wilker quotes the following passage from Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979:
We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our nation and ourselves.
At this remove in time, the speech seems unfairly maligned: not only did Carter, famously, not actually use the word "malaise," his diagnosis of the country's ills seems dead-on: directionlessness, distrust, uncertainty, a "growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and . . . the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation." A "crisis of confidence."

But America, as usual, didn't really want to hear the truth--and they certainly didn't want to hear it from Carter, whom they'd written off as ineffectual early in his presidency. Instead, they turned to Reagan, with his vision of a world stripped of shades of gray, where America's confidence and goodness were taken for granted, and where her best years unquestionably lay ahead of her. Knowing my politics and my preference for nuance, I can't imagine the pitch would have worked on me, but I can't wholly blame America in general for falling for it. When you're down, and worried about what's next, you don't want to be told that you're probably right to feel that way; you want someone to assure you that it's going to be okay.

All of which is by way of a long preamble to talking about Donald E. Westlake's The Comedy Is Finished. Westlake wrote it in the late 1970s, but when Martin Scorsese released his film The King of Comedy, which, like the novel, centered on the kidnapping of a comedian, Westlake shelved the book, and it remained unpublished until Hard Case Crime brought it out this month.

The delay was good for the book: what at the time would have been a relatively straightforward crime novel has now become a time capsule, capturing a moment of borderline national despair that would be aggressively scrubbed from our memories by the go-go '80s--the exact moment, the late summer of 1977, that Josh Wilker took up in his Bad News Bears book. To read them back to back is to feel, briefly, like the 1970s are with you again, Wilker conjuring them up from the child's-eye-view that I remember, and Westlake showing the sour sea of curdled hopes whose noxious swells we sensed our parents were trying to ride out.

Westlake's plot is simple: Bob Hope gets kidnapped by a group like the Symbionese Liberation Army. Oh, his name's Koo Dsvis instead of Bob Hope, and his kidnappers don't really have a name, but Westlake doesn't try too hard to hide his characters' real-life counterparts. (Particularly impressive is Westlake's spot-on imitation of Hope in the jokes he writes for Davis.) Davis has been singled out because of his vocal support for the establishment and its aims, especially his support for the Vietnam War, and the kidnappers demand the release of ten "political prisoners"--fellow movement members who are in prison for offenses ranging from murder to arson--before they'll turn him loose.

The prolonged negotiations let Westlake show us every side of the confrontation: Davis's confusion and sense that he's suffering unfairly; one kidnapper's certainty that if he can just explain dialectical materialism clearly enough, Davis will join them; an alcoholic FBI agent's obsessive desire to regain his footing after getting burned in Watergate; and more. And what they all have in common, despite wildly varying points of view, is doubt. Nearly every character in The Comedy Is Finished is fissured by doubt. The leader of the kidnappers is at a loss to understand why the radical leftist movement has petered out, consumed by the impatience typical of failed millenarian movements. A borderline psychotic fellow kidnapper wonders why she's even keeping going after she's seen friends die and lovers imprisoned. And Koo Davis struggles to figure out why the nation has turned on his oh-so-American schtick--and maybe even against America itself.

Westlake in his novels--such as his Mitch Tobin book Murder among Children--tends to come across as more sympathetic to the youth of the 1960s than one might expect of someone just old enough to already have been a working writer as the movement exploded. But perhaps it shouldn't be surprising: in Westlake, power and authority are to be questioned--where not deliberately malign, they're at a minimum rarely working for anything much beyond their own perpetuation. With The Comedy Is Finished, he shows us what happens when that questioning becomes reflex and, calling to mind the painful later parts of Olivier Assayas's Carlos, violence moves from last resort to first. It's a hell of a book, wholly convincing and a reminder of just how smart and perceptive Westlake was: he saw what was happening around him and put it down clearly and carefully enough that reading it collapses time and takes us right back to that moment when America stood at a crossroads, failing flashlight in hand, and chose between painful, possibly pathological introspection, and blithe confidence. We chose the confidence--but thirty-five years later it's obvious that no matter how loudly it may have gotten us clapping, it was never going to be able to erase the gnawing doubt.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Josh Wilker on the 1970s, baseball, and the Bad News Bears

A year late, I'm finally reading Josh Wilker's little book in Soft Skull's Deep Focus series, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, and what a joy it is. Wilker first came to my attention several years back through his blog, Cardboard Gods, where he uses his large collection of beat-up 1970s and early '80s baseball cards as entry points into a running narrative about sports, success, America, family, failure, and the 1970s. The blog was transmuted and expanded into a memoir, also called Cardboard Gods, a couple of years ago; it's nearly equal parts funny and moving, telling the story of a family riven by divorce but held together--tenuously and painfully at times--by their impressively tenacious love for one another. It captures the spirit of the 1970s better than anything else I know, that sense that no matter where you turned the adults were no longer even pretending to have the answers, and the kids were thus utterly on their own.

And, like I said, it's funny. Click through this link to look at Bo McLaughlin's card, which is accompanied by this description:
In the 1970s, everyone was in one way or another a stranger in a strange land. The clear cultural battle lines of the shrill, combative ’60s had blurred. Everyone had sideburns and a mustache. Everyone was aging. Everyone worked a regular job and dabbled in jogging and cocaine. Everyone bought their children faulty mood rings and overly cheerful sex education handbooks. Everyone filed for divorce. Everyone wore rainbow colors and succumbed to depression. Everyone was Bo McLaughlin.
The next page opens with the line: "Everybody except Steve Garvey." Any baseball fan from that era can tell you that there could be no better juxtaposition between the aggressively clean-cut, secretly slimy Garvey on his 1976 All-Star card and McLaughlin's confused embodiment of the let-it-all-hang-out ethos of the era.

I somehow failed to write about Cardboard Gods when it was published, despite raving about it to friends. If you want more on that book, check out John Williams's piece at the Second Pass, in which he exchanges e-mails about the book with a friend who was also a baseball fan in those years.

Here, though, I'll turn to the newer book. I can't imagine anyone better suited than Wilker to take on a Bad News Bears movie--and, even better, to take on not the first film, which is quietly a great movie, remarkable perceptive and funny, but the little-regarded sequel. Failure, disappointment, and diminishing returns, after all, are among Wilker's recurrent themes. And the book is as good as I'd hoped: he mounts an argument, not that The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is a good film, but that it played a key role for him as a child, and that, properly (but not overly) analyzed, it has a lot to tell us about the exhaustion and confusion of the late '70s.

Here's Wilker, early in the book, on the feel of the decade, a meditation prompted by the refusal of Tanner, the team's loudmouth shortstop, to leave the field when some officials come out to tell them they've run out of time to complete the game:
In 1977, everything was unraveling. Families, hopes, economies. What to do? Some drifted, others flailed. The overwhelmed president seemed to be aging at an alarming rate. Skylab, a dull echo of the space program's earlier glory, circled the globe in a repetitive, empty progression toward the inevitable disintegration of its orbit. Everyone stared at TV reruns.

Who wouldn't capitulate if authorities in suits appeared and reported that time had run out? If they pointed to their watches and said, apologies, the game is over, please clear the field, who wouldn't exhale and maybe grouse or grieve but then obey?
I could share passages from this book ad infinitum. Here's the first iteration of Wilker's thoughts on sequels, a concept that gets examined in depth through the course of the book:
There is something inherently cancerous about sequels. The cell of the original is doubled, often with an eye toward a further doubling, tripling, quadrupling, and so on: action figures and clothing and cereal and cartoons, novelizations and trading cards and Happy Meals and video games. The ultimate success, in economic terms, would be that these lesser, misshapen mutations of the original proliferate exponentially, spreading through the culture like an epidemic.
Then there's his description of Kelly Leak, the cool kid who is the primary link between the casual brilliance of the first Bad News Bears film and whatever good qualities remain in the second:
There was a Kelly Link in every town, and in every grade. Or versions of Kelly Link, echoes of the prototype, but still figures of awe. The one in my grade, Mike, had a white coral choker necklace kind of like Kelly's and hung out with older kids and had dominion over mechanized things--not only minibikes and snowmobiles but even, somehow, knowing how to drive. He partied.
I'll close with a more extended passage, one that takes a bit of close analysis of what was designed to be--and, frankly, is--a throwaway film and draws out of it a juxtaposition between the relative innocence of the dissolute '70s and the deliberate jadedness of today:
But there is a moment earlier in that scene that I love; it's not even anything I consciously noticed until I'd seen the film many, many times. Carmen dismounts from the back of Kelly's bike, then enters the field of play by vaulting over the fence. The beauty of this action is that he vaults over a part of the fence immediately adjacent to an open gate. He would have had to move a matter of inches to walk through it simply and easily. Instead, he vaults, and not in a particularly graceful way, either. It's not something anyone in their right mind would have done, ever, in the history of earth, and I love it.

A similar moment occurs in the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. Ben Stiller's character, action movie hero Tugg Speedman, needs to move from point A to point B to rejoin his cohorts, and though the direct line between those points is clear and would require him only to move straight ahead, he veers slightly to the right to leap over a chunk of burning scenery. It's a brief hilarious moment in a very funny movie about film fakery, but the moment itself comes out of an extremely mannered and deeply entrenched sense of irony that is part of the cultural air we now breathe. When Carmen Ronzonni unnecessarily clambers over the fence, it's not done as a commentary on the laughable fakeness of cinematic poses but as the sincere, creative expression of a fictional character who is completely, beautifully full of shit.
If you, too, find yourself on occasion strangely wistful for the awkward mix of hope, openness, experimentation, emptiness, exhaustion, and uncertainty that was the 1970s--and your desire to actually understand it is sometimes so fierce as to almost make you ache--I recommend you read Josh Wilker every chance you get.