Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Against explanation

Sticking for another day with writers' letters, a genre I never tire of reading, here's a charming one from poet James Schuyler, written in response to a fan letter from a Miss Batie on March 25, 1969:
Thank you for your letter. It is always pleasant to learn that someone takes an interest in a work which one enjoyed writing. In the past I have declined to comment on my own work: because, it seems to me, a poem is what it is; because a poem is itself a definition, and to try to redefine it is to be apt to falsify it; and because the author is the person least able to consider his own work objectively. Though as for the last, one certainly has to try. . . . The aim of any poet, or other artist, is to first to make something; and it's impossible to make something out of words and not communicate. However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can't be much to it. (Someone, I believe, has said that 'what a poem communicates it itself.' This seems to me true.)
The notes to Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler explain that it's unusual that Schuyler took the time to write to a fan--and, in fact, the letter itself was discovered by Schuyler's friend John Ashbery in his papers years later, unsigned and, it seems likely, never sent.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Drink and dissipation--it is, after all, Monday

This week finds me still pressed enough by responsibilities that blogging will once again be light and unreliable. That situation seems likely to obtain until late July, at which point I hope to be back in form.

For today, I'll offer another quick dip into Penelope Fitzgerald's volume of letters, So I Have Thought of You. To her friend Hugh Lee, Fitzgerald, not quite twenty-four, wrote on November 13, 1940,
I hear Oxford is violently gay and in general suggests those bits in comedy films where you see champagne glasses superimposed on merry-go-rounds to suggest dissipation, so when I come up I do hope you will be able to show me some of it.
That image of drunken debauchery returned to my mind this morning when I was flipping through Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing and got to the section on drinking. In a paragraph rich with interpolated quotations that make for my favorite type of history writing, White writes,
Drink played a large part in the culture of every rank in eighteenth-century London. James Boswell's drinking bouts, for instance, faithfully but shamefacedly recorded in his diaries, might make a slim volume on their own. At the chaplain's table at St James's Palace in December 1793, "that exquisite wine" champagne confined to France by the wartime blockade, the company had to make do with "madeira, sherry, hock, port, and claret, and good malt liquor; and I took enough to warm me rather too much." "Madeira, sherry port, old hock circulated" at a private dinner given by a vintner two or three months later, "and we had a glass both of burgundy and champagne. And lastly came an elegant dessert and Scotch pints of very capital claret"--a Scotch pint some three times larger than the English variety: "The generous bottle circulated so as to produce in my a total oblivion till I found myself safe in my own bed next morning. "Even his twelve-year-old son Jamie, at Westminster School, was forced by the scholars "to drink burgundy until he was intoxicated." When John Yeoman, a Somerset dairy farmer and potter, spent a night in London on a visit in 1774, "we made to free with the Duce of the Vine. Mr. Forrester Was quite full, went home to his house Where he was so Sick that it flew out att both ends like a Bedlamite."
Some points:

1. Yes, please, to the one-volume edition of Boswell's indulgences and hangovers!

2. A Scotch pint is more than 48 ounces? Good god, no wonder Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo and Crawford of Lymond were such champion drinkers.

3. I did not know that among the stereotypical characteristics of inhabitants of Bedlam was dual evacuation. Ew.

Crossing the ocean, White quotes Ben Franklin, "a water drinker," who tells of his fellows at the printing house in which he worked as a young man:
We had an alehouse boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o'clock, and another when he had done his day's work.
As someone who usually regrets a second martini and always regrets--and thus nearly always avoids--a third, I am consistently astonished by the quantities put back by drinkers past. And it's not only the far distant--read the Johns O'Hara or Cheever, or Dashiell Hammett and attend to the drinking, and it's hard not to become queasy. To bastardize L. P. Hartley: the soaks of the past, they were another country.

I'll close with another line I happened to read today, from Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical novel My Struggle:
[W]e went out almost every night, and on one of the nights, I can remember [my older brother] Yngve was surprised but also proud that I could drink five bottles of wine and still more or less behave.
I'm guessing that "more or less" is doing quite a bit of work there. And it's important, for a full visual picture of the drunken teen, to know that this was Norway in 1985 or so and the prevailing style was punk-influenced new wave. Oh, and the novel is largely about how Knausgaard's father drank himself to death and how Knausgaard coped with that. As everyone from the Gin Lane reformers to the WCTU would tell you, there are consequences.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Alice Thomas Ellis

If work obligations weren't continuing to take up just enough of my time and brainspace to keep me from being able to form coherent thoughts about other books, I'd have a proper post for you today on Alice Thomas Ellis's wonderfully strange novel The 27th Kingdom (1982). I read it on the recommendation of Gregory Wolfe, who praised Ellis in response to a request from the New York Times for suggestions from readers for good religious fiction. Wolfe described Ellis as "like Muriel Spark but darker!", to which I'd add, "like Barbara Pym, but darker," and "like Waugh, but less misanthropic," and "like Ivy Compton-Burnett, but with a soul."

The 27th Kingdom is funny and clever, its sentences a careful blend of everyday flatness and matter-of-fact lunacy that is almost exactly what I'm looking for in comic writing and satire. Ellis, of whom I'd somehow never heard before, wrote thirteen novels, and if the others are anywhere near as good as this one, you're going to have to hear me championing her a lot in the months to come.

Tonight, however, I'll just share a particularly entertaining passage. I'm quoting at greater length than usual here because the humor of the passage develops so well and along such unexpected paths that it seems wrong to cut it short. The novel focuses on Aunt Irene, who runs an ill-defined not-quite boarding house where her nephew, Kyril, also lives. In this passage, they're chatting about evolution with Victor, a local who frequently stops by to unload some of the antiques and valuables that his sketchy family "recovers" from "abandoned" buildings:
"It's extremely difficult to explain," said Aunt Irene rather pompously, for she knew that if she actually udnerstood this theory it would be easier to propagate. The fact that she didn't believe a word of it herself was irrelevant at the moment. She wanted to convince and educate Victor and wipe that naughty look of amused and superior contempt off his face. It was suitable, she thought, for persons of her background and education to dismiss as potty as many theories as they liked, but it was very annoying when the unlettered did it.

Aunt Irene really inclined to that simplest of all views: the one expressed so cogently in the book of Genesis, which explained everything with appealing clarity. This was the only view that explained, for instance, mayonnaise. It was patently absurd to suppose that mayonnaise had come about through random chance, that anyone could ever have been silly or brilliant enough to predict what would happen if he slowly trickled oil on to egg yolks and then gone ahead and tried it. An angel must have divulged that recipe and then explained what to do with the left-over white. Meringues--there was another instance of the exercise of superhuman intelligence. To Aunt Irene the Ten Commandments seemed almost insignificant compared with the astonishing miracle of what you could do with an egg. As the angel had left in his fiery chariot he must have added, "And don't forget omelettes, and cake and custard and souffles and poaching and frying and boiling and baking. Oh, and they'r frightfully good with anchovies. And you can use the shells to clarify soup--and don't forget to dig them in round the roots of your roses," the angelic tones fading into the ethereal distance.

It was obvious therefore that the egg had come first. There was something dignified about a silent passive egg, whereas Aunt Irene found it difficult to envisage an angel bearing a hen--which, despite its undoubted merits, was a foolish and largely intractable bird. The concatenation of chickens' wings and angels' wings would have had about it an element of parody which would have greatly lessened the impact of the message.

There must have been three eggs, thought Aunt Irene, going into details. One to eat then and there, and two to hatch--a boy and a girl. It was quite possible to hatch an egg in a human arm-pit--it had been proved on various American campuses and went with swallowing live goldfish and putting ferrets in your trousers.

"Why are you looking like that?" asked Kyril.

"I was wondering why people put ferrets in their trousers," said Aunt Irene.

"Thanatos," said Kyril. "An illustration of the death wish."

"What I wish," said Aunt Irene, "is that you'd never read Freud. It's had a very leaden effect on your conversation."
Reading that, can you possibly not want to seek out the book and read the rest?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Doing it the right way

One of the great pleasures of reading Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels comes from realizing how much fun Westlake had writing them. It's impossible to miss: in addition to the loopy regular characters and ridiculous plots, he loads the book up with little jokes, observations, and comic ideas that you can tell were nearly as much fun to write as to read. It's hard not to picture Westlake laughing to himself at the keyboard as he went along.

My favorite example in Why Me (1983), which until this week was the last of the unread Dortmunders for me, comes early on, when Westlake introduces an FBI man:
Malcolm Zachary loved being an FBI man. It gave a certain meaningful tension to everything he did. When he got out of a car and slammed the door, he didn't do it like just anybody, he did it like an FBI man: step, swing, slam, a fluid motion, flex of muscle, solid and determined, graceful in a manly sort of way. Malcolm Zachary got out of cars like an FBI man, drank coffee like an FBI man, sat quietly listening like an FBI man. It was terrific; it gave him a heightened self-awareness of the most delicious sort, like suddenly seeing yourself on closed-circuit television in a store window. It we nt with him through life, everywhere, in everything he did. He brushed his teeth like an FBI man--shoulders squared, elbow up high and sawing left and right, chick-chick, chick-chick.
The description works on two levels: it serves up an effective picture of Zachary--we immediately know his type from movies, which is appropriate since that's probably where he assembled his self-conception from in the first place--and, as Westlake lays on example after silly example, we get to laugh at Zachary's high seriousness.

And in case that wasn't enough to give you a full picture of this guy . . . well, Westlake, like any good comedian should, saves the best joke for last:
He made love like an FBI man--ankles together, elbows bearing the weight, hum-pah, hum-pah.
Is there any part of that sentence that doesn't show the mark of genius? The concept, though sharp, might have come to all of us with time, but the execution is wonderful, as if lifted from the detailed instructions found in some Quantico-only special edition of The Joy of Sex. And then the sound effects! Hum-pah, Hum-pah, indeed. I'm sure there's a sanctioned way to deliver the peck on the cheek and the first quiet snores, too.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Penelope Fitzgerald writes her publisher

As summer, with its mix of work travel and personal travel (and, let's be honest, the occasional need to simply sit in the park and read Donald Westlake) gets into gear, I feel I should issue an advance apology: the next several weeks may see more sporadic blogging than usual.

Under cover of that excuse, all I have today is a passage from one of Penelope Fitzgerald's letters. In my day job in the marketing department at the University of Chicago Press, I send out a weekly roundup of the publicity garnered by our books, and I have taken to opening it each week with a quotation from a letter by a writer. I enjoy the excuse that gives me every single week to dip into yet another collection of letters and--in order that I not repeat any author until I absolutely have to--to explore collections I'd never before thought of looking into. Nine months in, and I have to repeat an author; we'll see as the months wear on how long I'm able to hold the line.

So here's last week's, found in So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, taken from a letter Fitzgerald sent to Richard Ollard, her American editor at Houghton Mifflin, on August 23, 1981:
I do want to ask whether you couldn't (or could) manage to get At Freddie's out in the summer, I'm sure it would make no difference to Collins because as you said to me hardbacks can't be sold anyway, I just feel I shall lose heart if it's got to wait till next autumn. Barbara (Pym) always used to come out in June . . . and you are in her group someone said to me firmly the other day you either have to be in hers or Beryl's. This made me vow never to go to a literary party again and I shan't, either. --But please if you can find a moment do see if you can shift me back from the autumn.
I love this letter for the link to Barbara Pym, of course, but also as an exemple of Fitzgerald's relationship to her publishers as seen through the letters: she comes across as simultaneously demanding and accommodating, knowing what she wanted and, often, being willing to push until she got it--yet at the same time not being too difficult and retaining a sense of perspective. In another letter to Ollard, she writes, after seeing finished copies of Human Voices,
my family tell me I was getting above myself anyway in objecting to the jacket and it serves me right that I've turned dark blue on the back flap.
And, lest you think that is simply passive aggression, I should explain that she goes on to thank him for the fact that the book's design bulks it up and makes it look longer, a good thing for a novelist whose works are as deceptively lean as Fitzgerald's.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Some disorganotes on the will and willpower

I've been thinking a lot lately, in a completely disjointed way, about the will and willpower. It's something that's never too far from my mind: for twenty years I've been running every other day, almost without fail, and I'm still regularly astonished at the interaction between my will and my physical capacities. I'm just going to keep going, I tell myself, and unless I've been operating at the limits of my abilities for hours--near the end of a marathon, say--my body finds the reserves it needs to obey. The interplay between will and body is as mysterious, and rewarding, as almost anything I know.

Of course one of the reasons we care about sports is because of the hyper-focused lens they offer through which to think about the less clear-cut challenges we face in everyday life. Thus, some jottings on will in sports and elsewhere.

1 It started with Sergio De La Pava, whose stunning essay "A Day's Sail," on boxing and Virginia Woolf, published in Triple Canopy last year, is as much about will and determination as anything. That theme also comes through in A Naked Singularity, taking its most explicit form in the interpolated essay on the career of Colombian boxer Wilfred Benitez. In an interview for the blog of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle De La Pava explained why he's drawn to boxing:
Boxing, when functioning properly, is the best vehicle I know of for the mass representation of a particular human’s naked will; what we gain from that is the result of extrapolation, because we need previews of what happens when your flimsy trappings melt away and it’s just you against unfeeling constants.
In "A Day's Sail," De La Pava broadens that point:
If we’re to then talk about greatness in relation to this pursuit we’ll have to make a perhaps counterintuitive distinction right at the outset. Bach, Gould, Tolstoy, Woolf, are giants so we rightly turn to their work to experience greatness in their fields. Not generally so in boxing. A partial list of the pursuit’s giants is something like Louis, Robinson, Ali, Duran, and Armstrong. All brilliant, all have signature moments, but with the exception of Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” none can match moments produced by far lesser personages. The reason is that two individuals in a boxing ring are fighting, and greatness there seems less a product of skill and talent than of concepts like will and tenacity—precisely the attributes you’ll need, not skillful intelligence, if diagnosed with cancer for example.
2 The summer I was twenty-three and first working in a Stateside bookstore, the first job I'd ever had that didn't have a definite end point--graduation, expiring work permit, etc.--I played a lot of basketball. Probably four nights a week I was out on the court, sometimes with friends, sometimes with strangers. Up that point, I'd barely played basketball at all. And I wasn't good at it, by any means. I'm short, first of all, and, second, while it's amazing what a lot of practice can do, you're never going to be skilled at a sport as difficult as basketball if you don't really start playing until your twenties.

But I loved it--and what I loved was exactly what De La Pava's saying about boxing above: more than any other team sport I'd played, it was about willpower and tenacity. I couldn't shoot, could barely dribble, but despite my height I could guard and was a strong rebounder--solely because I was unwilling to give up, unwilling to give ground, unwilling to stop working. Even now, when I don't really play any more, I get viscerally excited when I watch the pros playing great defense. They're so much better than me and anyone I played with that they might as well be playing a wholly different sport--but nonetheless there's a look in their eyes that's familiar, and thrilling.

Tom Ley wrote well about willpower and basketball for Deadspin the other day in an article about how Rajan Rondo was almost singlehandedly keeping the Celtics alive--despite being far from the best player on the floor. Ley writes,
Fans and writers love to talk about players "rising to the moment" or playing their best when the "lights are brightest." All of that talk us is usually bullshit. Nobody really has any idea what's going on inside the mind of an NBA player during the course of a game. Whether he is embracing the moment or scared shitless is hardly ever discernible.
And then he goes on to tell about a moment in the previous night's game where Rondo, facing down the best player since Jordan, made clear what was in his mind--and that it was all fight:
[H]e found himself defending LeBron James at the top of the three-point line as the fourth quarter was coming to an end, score tied at 99. Rondo stared James down and screamed, "Let's do it!" at him.
Willpower = swagger = the Celtics are still alive. Man, I love sports. It's worth clicking through to Deadspin to watch the clip of that moment--the look in Rondo's eyes is indescribable.

3 On the non-sports front, I keep thinking of LBJ. In the second volume of his four-and-counting-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro focuses on the 1948 Senate race. Early on, Caro reminds us of what LBJ drummed into his assistants:
If you do everything, you'll win.
In the 1948 campaign, that meant staying on the trail for weeks while suffering what ought to have been debilitating pain from kidney stones, shaking hand after hand despite his own being cracked and bleeding, and maintaining a schedule that wore out assistant after assistant. Writes Caro,
Dorothy Nichols was to be asked what she remembered about the 1948 campaign. "Three hours of sleep," she would reply. Three hours of sleep--or less.
Johnson slept even less:
Even when he was supposed to be resting, they came to realize, he wasn't. At the noon rest stop, Lyndon Johnson would indeed get into bed. But when someone came to waken him after an hour or so, he would almost invariably be awake--awake and ready with a long list of things to be done, things he had thought of during the hour. He had been "on the phone the whole time," Mrs. Nichols would say, or "he had somebody--local people or somebody on the staff--in there planning."
Aide Ed Clark put LBJ's relentless drive in perspective:
"I never saw anyone campaign as hard as [Johnson had in his 1937 campaign.] I never thought it was possible for a man to work that hard." If that campaign had been Johnson's main chance, this campaign, the 1948 campaign, might be his last chance. Was 1937 the hardest Lyndon Johnson ever worked? Ed Clark would be asked. "Oh, no," Clark said. "In 1948, he worked harder."
There is a lot about LBJ to dislike and disapprove of, and Caro's impressively nuanced portrait doesn't stint on revealing it. But his tenacity and willpower remain awe-inspiring--and just plain inspiring--throughout.

4 And finally to novels. I know of no authors who write better about physical exhaustion, and our ability to will ourselves beyond it, than Stephen King and Dorothy Dunnett. In book after book, their heroes are battered and bloodied and driven to exhaustion, but at the moment when the temptation to give up is greatest, they choose to fight on.

In King Hereafter Dunnett writes of a worn-out King Thorfinn's response to hearing that the day's battle has gone terribly against him:
To weep would solve nothing, or to fall into panic, or to obey the heave of the belly, the sudden gripe of the bowel, that came not only to messnegers.

But above belly and bowel was a controlling head.
Later, in a break in the battle, he pauses:
In action, you felt almost no pain at all. Out of action, you did.
And wounded, he fights on and leads his men on, beyond weariness, trying to protect his kingdom and his family.

King's heroes tend to be ordinary people thrust into horrors, Dunnett's extraordinary men driving themselves beyond exhaustion as they take on responsibility for the lives and safety of everyone who comes into their orbit. King aims to shock and surprise and terrify, Dunnett to entertain--but underlying the work of both writers is a simple but powerful theme: the body, damaged and broken as it may be, takes orders from the mind--and so long as those orders are to keep fighting, you haven't lost yet.

Monday, June 04, 2012

An invitation to Byron, were he alive

Most of the pleasure of the correspondence between George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis, aside from the pair's obvious joy in literary friendship, consists of pithy judgments, apposite and relatively obscure quotations, and references to books and authors long forgotten (a fate that seems to befall biographies, belles-lettres, and criticism with sad frequency). But once in a while there are unexpected gems of a different sort, such as the poem below, written by Duff Cooper, explains Hart-Davis in a letter of January 26, 1957, in response to a contest by “one of the newsweeklies,” asking for poems titled “On first hearing that Wordsworth had had an illegitimate child.”

I’ve written before about Wordsworth’s illegitimate child—and the tentativeness of judgment on the topic that mars Adam Sisman’s otherwise excellent book on Wordsworth and Coleridge, The Friendship—but I can’t imagine a better person to hammer the old Sheep of the Lake District for his hypocrisy than Byron, and I can’t imagine a better bugle call to the charge than this one:
Byron! Thou should’st be living at this hour, We need thy verse, thy venom and thy wit To castigate the ancient hypocrite. We need thy pith, thy passion and thy power— How often did that prim old face turn sour Even at the mention of thy honoured name, How oft those prudish lips have muttered “shame” In jealous envy of thy golden lyre. In words worth reading hadst thou told the tale Of what the Lakeland bard was really at When on those long excursions he set sail. For now there echoes through his tedious chat Another voice, the third, a phantom wail Or peevish prattle of a bastard brat.
The opening nod to Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” makes up for the inevitable “words worth” pun. None of which should obscure the truth that Lyttelton notes in his reply to Hart-Davis’s letter:
Wordsworth . . . must have been uniquely dried-up, stiff, dull, self-satisfied, arrogant, but at his poetic best—Who was it said “He stumps along by your side, an old bore in a brown coat, and suddenly he goes up and you find that your companion is an angel”, i.e. is at home in a region where Byron saw only George III and Southey having their legs pulled.
That said, I think that despite the perils, had I a single dinner invitation to send, it’d be Coleridge or Byron, not Wordsworth, who’d receive it.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"Each season is but an infinitesimal point," or, Reading Thoreau for my birthday

The briefest of posts today, for it's my birthday and I mean to do little but play the piano and read while watching the sparrows squabble with the squirrels over windowsill seeds. As usual on my birthday since NYRB Classics published Damion Searls's magnificent edition of Thoreau's Journals, I've turned to that book to keep me company today--a day that resembles one in June of 1857 that Thoreau described as a "mizzling and rainy day . . . a drizzling rain, or 'drisk,' as one called it."

I particularly like the entry for June 6 of that year, when Thoreau was just a couple of years older than I am. In it he expresses what I've always loved most about June, and about having a birthday that opens the month: it's a time of beginnings, the time when, most years, summer finally starts to feel truly imminent.
This is June, the month of grass and leaves. The deciduous trees are investing the evergreens and revealing how dark they are. Already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone. It has no duration. It simply gives a tone and hue to my thought. Each annual phenomenon is a reminiscence and prompting. Our thoughts and sentiments answer to the revolutions of the seasons, as two cog-wheels fit into each other. We are conversant with only one point of contact at a time, from which we receive a prompting and impulse and instantly pass to a new season or point of contact. A year is made up of a certain series and number of sensations and thoughts which have their language in nature.
And with that, back to books and birds. Enjoy the weekend, folks.