Friday, August 31, 2012

Branwell Bronte, the bottle, and a bit of blasphemy

One of the chief aims of Juliet Barker's The Brontes is clearing up longstanding misconceptions about the family in general, and Barker pays particular attention to Branwell Bronte's bad reputation. She is fairly convincing on that point, making a strong case for the potential of his early poetry and a reasonable one for doubting that his dissipation began as early as is often assumed.

At times, however, she seems to push a bit too far against the familiar storyline: again and again she'll quote a passage from one of Branwell's letters to friends in which he details drinking bouts--
I gave some stiffish toasts. . . . till the room spun round and the candles danced in our eyes. . . . I found myself in bed next morning with a bottle of porter, a glass, and a corkscrew beside me.
--only to dismiss it:
No doubt in bragging about his exploits, the twenty-year-old Branwell exaggerated them to suit the older and more worldly John Brown: indeed, the whole account sounds suspiciously like one of the bar-room brawls in the his Angrian tales.
Twenty-year-olds do exaggerate, but they also quite frequently drink to excess, even the ones who don't go on to be alcoholics. It doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that when Branwell told a friend he'd been drinking a lot, he'd probably been drinking a lot.

The above reference to Angria, the imaginary world of Branwell's and Charlotte's extravagant juvenilia, reminds me to share an earlier, fictional account of drinking that Branwell wrote. It tells of a rowdy drinking session among some of the leading men of the fictional nation, one of whom opens this passage by proposing a toast (the poor spelling is Branwell's):
"Its speedy entombement in our stomachs and its ressurection with us in another world!"

The President himself contradicted such a toast swearing that He had enough to do with resurrection of its ghost next morning and Crofton had been vowed that after a full dinner and flowing glass he had too often been troubled with its resurrection the next minute.
Having grown up in the northern reaches of the Bible Belt, among a broadly Baptist-inflected temperance culture, I find Branwell's gentle blasphemy here quite amusing. Given his bad end, like any of his writings on drinking it's tinged with sadness, for we know what's to come. But much like Kingsley Amis's writings on the same subject, it's clever enough that it seems a shame not to share it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Brontes at home

Juliet Barker's The Brontes is satisfyingly rich in quotations, drawing on letters, diaries, later accounts by friends and neighbors, and, at length, the Bronte children's copious juvenilia. The selection that's pleased me most thus far is a diary entry by Emily and Anne commemorating the utterly ordinary day of November 24, 1834, when Emily was sixteen and Anne was fourteen. Written with Anne's "dreadful handwriting and spelling," which all the siblings seem to have shared, it skips and wanders through the day with the casual confidence of youth:
November the 24 1834 Monday Emily Jane Bronte Anne Bronte I fed Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake Jasper phesant (alias this morning Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert peel was going to be invited to stand for Leeds Anne and I have been peeling Apples [for] Charlotte to make an apple pudding. and for Aunts and apple Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but lim[i]ted intellect Taby said just now come Anne pillopatate (IE pill a potato Aunt has come into the Kitchen just now and said where are you feet Anne Anne answered on the florr Aunt papa opened the parlour Door and gave Branwell a Letter saying here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte--The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine Sally mosley is washing in the bak-KitchinIt is past Twelve o'clock Anne and I have not tid[i]ed ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play We are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips potato's and applepudding the Kitchin is in a very untidy state Anne and I have not Done our music excercise which consists of b majer Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O Dear I will derictly that I get up, take a Knife and begin pilling.
All misspellings, misgrammarings, mispunctuatings are Emily's own, but the charm comes through, does it not? That feeling, familiar to anyone with siblings, of a closed, but permeable, shared universe? A sense that we're being given the play-by-play of a comfortable evening at home, with the world's cares far from the door? And would I be stretching a point to say that the people who rail against blogs and Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook &c. for being little but the record of our increasing self-obsession might look at this ephemera and, were they to be honest, acknowledge that it was always thus?

A few lines later, the diary entry turns unexpectedly, retrospectively sad:
I say I wonder what we shall be like if all be well and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874--in which year I shall be in my 57th year Anne will be going in her 55th year Branwell will be going in his 58th year And Charlotte in her 59th year hoping we shall all be well at that time.
By 1874, there would be no Brontes in England. Branwell was the first to go, in September of 1848, followed by Emily in December and Anne the following March. Charlotte nearly made it, dying in March of 1855, just before her 39th birthday.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Things I've learned in just the first 200 pages of the new edition of Juliet Barker's The Brontes

1 That biographers are insane. Barker writes in her introduction:
I have made it a point of honour to go back to the original manuscripts of all my material wherever possible, quoting them in preference to printed versions.
And she did that despite the fact that the manuscripts are for the most part "written in the Brontes' minute and cramped hand," which they developed in order to mimic, as closely as possible with a quill pen, the small type they found in printed books.

Biographers are insane, and I'm endlessly grateful for that fact.

2 That February 28, 1810 was named a Day of National Humiliation in England in recognition of the nation's poor efforts against Napoleon and France. Patrick Bronte wrote a 265-line poem in honor of the day, but the day otherwise seems to have been more or less lost to the mists of time--or at least a quick Google search hasn't blown them away and revealed it.

The idea stood out for me if for no other reason than because I had a hard time imagining the United States ever making the same choice. Circumstances, I realize, are different--national humiliation would have a much different sense in a kingdom with an official establishment of religion than for a nation without an official religious (and thus penitential) tradition--but it was still difficult to picture a president or Congress telling the nation to bow its head for even a single day.

Yet my search unexpectedly turned up three American instances: May 11 1775 and May 15, 1776, in the early, dark days of the Revolutionary War, and April 30, 1863, five weeks before Gettysburg. Lincoln's shouldn't, I suppose, surprise us. As we know, he was not averse to casting the Civil War in biblical tones, and the suffering thereof as a judgment, as in the closing paragraphs of his Second Inaugural:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Still, it's hard to imagine such a day being declared in the present--even leaving aside the religious complications in a secular nation. America is not one to admit its mistakes or submit itself to judgment. Our besetting sin, stronger it seems every year, remains one that would be familiar to literary figures from Melville's Confidence-Man to Lewis's Babbitt: incessant, even frenzied boosterism. We only do good; we only are the best.

3 That Patrick Bronte was almost certainly a much more loving father than he's generally given credit for. Barker makes a convincing case for his involvement and interest in the lives of his children, and his concern for their welfare. Oh, and along the way she clears up the strange old story--told often as a mark of his temper or even mania--about him firing a pistol out the window of the parsonage every day: Haworth was at the time in the midst of a region unsettled by Luddite activity, often violent, and Bronte took to keeping a loaded pistol by his bedside at night. The gun, however, was so primitive that the only way to unload it was to fire it, which he did, apparently, rather than leave a loaded pistol in a house of six children. (But let's not pretend that he also didn't enjoy it--who wouldn't enjoy having the excuse to send a shot ringing harmlessly over the misty moors every morning?)

4 That in 1830, when Patrick, a minister, was sick in bed with a serious lung ailment, the following very strange incident occurred, which fourteen-year-old Charlotte wrote down:
Taby & I were alone in the Kitchen, about half past 9 anti-meridian. suddenly we heard a knock at the door, Taby rose & opened it, an old man appearing standing without, who accosted her thus,

OM does the parson live her?
T yes
OM I wish to see him,
T he is poorly in bed.
OM indeed I have [a] message for him.
T who from?
OM from the LORD.
T who?
OM, the LORD, he desires me to say that the bridegroom is coming & that he must prepare to meet him; that the cords are about to be loosed & the golden Bowl broken, the Pitcher broken at the fountain & the wheel stopped at the cistern.

here he concluded his discourse & abruptly went away. as Taby closed the door I asked her if she knew him, her reply was that she had never seen him before nor any one like him.
The man was surely, as Charlotte herself concluded, merely a religious fanatic--Patrick Bronte's Evangelical brethren were no strangers to apocalyptic talk--but the experience must nonetheless have been quite creepy. It's one I'll remember on Halloweens to come.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Henry James, beset by ladies!

Having spent last weekend reading, with great pleasure, Colm Toibin's astonishingly good novel of Henry James, The Master, and looking forward to getting a copy of Michael Gorra's brand-new book, Portrait of a Novel, about James and the writing of The Portrait of a Lady, tonight I'll simply share one of the countless entertaining anecdotes from Simon Nowell-Smith's 1948 volume of recollections of James, The Legend of the Master. This one comes from Elizabeth Robins and seems to date to the early 1890s:
There was a general impression that Mr. James was much beset by the attention of ladies. One story dates fromt he days when domestic electric lighting was not yet fully under control. The first of the great London establishments to install the new luxury was, if I remember, Grosvenor House. At the subsequent evening party when the scene was at its most brilliant, suddenly the lights went out. As suddenly they came on, to discover--so the story went--thirteen ladies clinging to Mr. James.
Henry, one presumes, was discomfited but polite. William, on the other hand, would surely have been visibly delighted.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On falling for Ivy Compton-Burnett

I've spent some time the past few days flipping through Memorable Days, a selection of letters between novelist James Salter and critic Robert Phelps, who became epistolary friends after Phelps wrote Salter an admiring note in 1969. Like all good letters collections, it's full of interesting thoughts, quotable lines, and casually well-put judgments of writers and books.

My favorite example of the last of those components comes when Phelps starts reading Ivy Compton-Burnett. I pulled out the best lines from those letters for my Twitter account a few days ago, but in case you don't follow that along with the blog (I know, I know: it's difficult to imagine, but people have been known to make bad choices with their lives.), I want to reproduce it here. It starts with a letter from Phelps of April 27, 1974:
On the other hand, I seem to have discovered a new (for me, that is) author: Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose father was a homeopath, who described herself as sexually a “neuter,” who died in 1969 at 85 leaving 19 books and 15,000 pounds to keep them in print. I have tried unsuccessfully to read her since about 1951. This week, to my surprise and moderate joy, I am about in the middle of A Family and a Fortune.
Either the £15,000 wasn't invested well or Compton-Burnett's sales were poor enough that the publisher burned through it regardless, for few of her books are in print these days, in the UK or the States. Sadly, I suspect it's the latter, for Burnett is, well, not exactly an acquired taste, but a taste that will appeal to few. She's so incredibly astringent, so venomous, so delicate even as she's portraying violence and betrayal, and so adept at hiding her remarkable wit behind a flat delivery that I fear she'll never appeal to most readers.

Including, I'm sorry to say, James Salter. On May 1, he replied,
I’ve read I. Compton-Burnett; it was so long ago I can’t even remember what it was like. I opened one of her books at Peggy Clifford’s last night to have a little reminder and I promptly toppled into deathlike sleep.
No surprise, really: while I could imagine Salter appreciating Compton-Burnett's spare prose, it's hard to imagine him getting much out of her strange, late-Victorian family quarrels and villainies. Violence, danger, and passion in Salter, even where characters are attempting to subject them to iron-willed control, are more explicitly acknowledged and rendered.

By that fall, however, Phelps was trying again, having fallen so far under Compton-Burnett's spell that he seems to have forgotten that he'd already mentioned her--and that Salter had dismissed her. In a letter of September 6, he calls her "my new literary love," and writes,
At Foyle’s I bought 14 of her 19 books (she shrewdly left her publisher 15,000 pounds to keep them all in print), and I reverently passed her apartment in Cornwall Gardens (now the Dominican Embassy) every day. She requires absolute concentration, but every page is like a brand on the memory. She is ruthlessly unsentimental, fiercely true to egotistical side of human nature, and at the same time, funny. She is exhausting to read, but her mind is unique: like a hypnotized child, she speaks the unspoken, the unspeakable, and it’s a constant, curious shock.
That's as good a description of Compton-Burnett's unsettling novels as any I can imagine, and that evocation of "a brand on the memory" is the reason that I simultaneously think of her as one of my favorite, most admired writers--and am reading my way through her work so slowly that I've only read three of her nineteen novels. Taken too quickly, I suspect she could overwhelm.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates

For a bookseller, the greatest pleasure is surely hand-selling a favorite book. Thirteen years after I worked my last retail shift, I still miss a lot of things about bookselling, but that's the one I miss most: that feeling of bringing a new reader to a book you love.

Robin Romm isn't a bookseller, but she deserves to have that feeling: a short piece by her in the Summer issue of Tin House on Alison Lurie--and specifically on The War Between the Tates, her 1974 novel of infidelity, marital collapse, changing mores, and general bad faith on the campus of Corinth (read: Cornell) University in 1969--has introduced me to a writer who, if this book is indicative, seems likely to be a favorite.

Of Lurie, Romm writes:
She has high expectations of her readers; she writes up to them, never down. But the most arresting thing about her is that she’s so wildly observant. Nothing gets past her--no academic theory, no gesture, no political movement, no outfit or mustache or pigtail. And it’s not empathy with which she sifts through all this flotsam. She has another task in mind: to criticize smartly, to comment on the absurdity of our collective endeavors—empathy be damned. The blurb on The War Between the Tates calls Lurie “a baleful comic artist . . . at her most corrosive.”
A novel of faculty-and-spouse life at the turn of the 1970s could easily be a time capsule of the worst sort, exuding whiffs of used bookstore bargain bins and discarded lifestyle choices. Instead, The War Between the Tates astonishes by its percipience, Lurie's ability to suss out, more or less as it was happening, what the generational rupture meant and--more important--how its unequal knocking off of the shackles of convention affected men and women differently. In an election year that has seen the fundamental facts--which one might reasonably presume to have been settled by now--of women's rights brought bizarrely, crudely to the fore again and again, the struggles of Lurie's women to manage the blind demands of the men in their lives and chart a way forward are unexpectedly potent. (A scene where a woman convinces herself of her rapist's good intentions is particularly chilling read in light of the inadvertent revelation of Senate candidate Todd Akin's cruel and benighted views over the weekend.) All of which risks making Lurie seem like merely a political novelist. She's not: her concerns are personal, interpersonal, and social--but when in our century have those been extricable from the political?

I've shared some lines from the book through my Twitter account, but Lurie's prose is best taken in larger chunks. Here's one that demonstrates her ability, on show throughout the book, to spin an elaborate, effective, wry metaphor. It comes early in the novel, when the parents are merely irritated with each other, mostly because their teenage children have become such unmanageable horrors:
"I don't want strangers taking care of The Children," Brian announced, his tone capitalizing the noun like an honorific or divine title--which it was. Though they considered themselves agnostics, during the course of their marriage the Tates had worshiped several gods, of whom the most prominent were The Children. Like most divinities, they were served only intermittently. At certain moments, to express disrespect for The Children would have been blasphemy. At other times they were treated as ordinary beings called Muffy and Jeffo--and sometimes even (under the names Mouse and Pooch) as household pets.

Mouse, Pooch, Muffy and Jeffo had long ago left the house on Jones Creek Road, to be replaced by two disagreeable adolescents; but The Children remained. Public observance of the faith continued, though they were worshiped less frequently and more formally--mainly at religious holidays such as birthdays and Christmas, and during visits to and from relatives. That Brian should call upon them now seemed to Erica unfair. Still, if he could summon the old gods, so could she.

"Darling, strangers take care of The Children all day," she said in a clear soft reasonable voice. "Their teachers at school are strangers, as far as you're concerned," she added, alluding to the fact that Brian had declined to go to any PTA meetings for the past year.
That "clear soft reasonable" voice, with no commas between its adjectives, alluding--perfect, no? Later in the conversation, Lurie describes Brian's voice as
beginning to get tight, as if a heavy rubber band of the sort which propels toy fighter planes were being wound up in his throat.
Erica knows that "if the topic of conversation didn't change soon, he would take off." But, ginned up for a fight, she can't bear to change it.

Lurie's dissection of Brian's tortuously self-deluding path to adultery is similarly attentive to the vagaries of internal score-keeping and goalpost-moving. It's too long to quote in full, but Brian's conclusion, after months of trying to ignore the attentions of a comely undergrad, will give you a sense of the moral backflips at its heart:
Therefore, Brian argued with himself as the soapy waves of false logic sloshed toward the shore, what he really ought to do was to sleep with Wendy himself, as soon as possible. She would see then that he was only a man like other men; her disease would be cured. He owed it to her to provide this cure, even at the cost of deflating his value in her eyes and ruining his moral record. He didn't want to commit adultery, he told himself, but it was his duty. It was a choice between his vanity, his selfish wish for moral consistency, and Wendy's release from a painful obsession.
That self-deception is reminiscent of the writer who has come to mind most often as I've read this novel: Iris Murdoch. Lurie is simultaneously less silly and less deliberately intellectual than Murdoch, while being much funnier and definitely more interested in the actual goings-on of her time. In Murdoch, eros is the driver, and farce its mode; our failure to get beyond our own sense of self and our own desires is what dooms our relationships. With Lurie, that solipsism, much more than passion, is the problem. All Lurie's characters evince it, seeing others almost exclusively through their own needs--though, as Barbara Pym could have told her, the men are the only ones to unquestioningly assume that vantage as their birthright.

And that blindness to the reality of others brings with it a desire to punish, a cruelty, even, that doesn't appear in Murdoch much outside the characters of her explicitly malevolent enchanters. Love in Lurie is not the playful, transformative, incidentally dangerous force that it is for Murdoch, or her muse, Shakespeare; in Lurie's world, love is barely spoken of, falling into it something that only the less than rational would do. The rational, instead, cut and claw and bite. The only way out of the hole is by climbing over someone else. Time and pain are the only transformative powers here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Nicholson Baker, Platonic forms, and things I've read aloud lately to rocketlass

{Photo by rocketlass. I'm actually laughing at Wodehouse, not Nicholson Baker, in this photo, but it serves.}

As it's Friday night and I'm in the mood to sit at the piano, I had intended to do little tonight in this space other than share a couple of passages from the essays in Nicholson' Baker's new collection, The Way the World Works. Like this one, from "String," about the street he lived on as child:
Some parts of the Strathallan sidewalk were made of pieces of slate that sloped up and down over the questing roots of elm trees (one had a mortal wound in its trunk out of which flowed, like blood, black sawdust and hundreds of curled-up larvae), and some parts of the sidewalk were made of aged concrete, with seams cut into them so that they would crack neatly whenever a growing tree required it of them. These seams made me think of the molded line running down the middle of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, which you could buy in a tiny candy store in the basement of an apartment building near where we lived: the silent man there charged a penny for each piece of gum, machine-wrapped in waxed paper with triangular corner folds. It had a comic on an inner sheet that we read with great interest but never laughed at.
The close grain of the memories, the associative leaps, the care in description matched with a deliberate inventiveness of word choice--that is what I love about Nicholson Baker, the sense that everything in the world deserves our attention, especially those parts of it, both physical and verbal, that we barely even bother to notice anymore.

By the time I was a kid, nearly twenty years after Baker, Bazooka was offered in two sizes, a 3-cent or a 5-cent, and also in grape. Grape, though tempting, always led to regret, in strict defiance of a later friend's oft-repeated certainty--known in my circle as Pete's Axiom--that "Whatever can be made grape should be made grape." What hadn't changed in the intervening years was the relationship to the comic wrapped around the gum: slipshod as it was in every respect, from concept to printing, it received our rapt attention nonetheless. Young, we knew little of the world and its infinity of things, so how were we to judge what merited our scrutiny?

The guy who sold us Bazooka was named Earl, and he ran the Bunnyhop Cafe in the New Hope Hotel, a rundown terra-cotta oddity behind our middle school. He was far from silent. Old and round-nosed and laughing, rather, always wearing a floppy fisherman's hat and frequently seen tooling about town in his '54 Plymouth.

And I'd planned to share this one, from the same essay:
Sometimes my mother let me take the spool off the sewing machine and thread the whole living room with it, starting with a small anchor knot on a drawer handle and unreeling it around end tables and doorknobs and lamp bases and rocking-chair arms until everything was interconnected. The only way to get out of the room, after I'd finished its web, was to duck below the thread layer and crawl out.
Such kindly parental indulgence, so well-attuned to the desires of the child, reminds me of Ray Bradbury's stories of his Aunt Neva, who built with him a model of the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in the backyard, dressed him (and herself) in costumes, and generally encouraged him to keep imagination's door always propped open.

And I was going to share some bits from my favorite essay in the book, "One Summer," which consists of short, separate paragraphs all starting with the two words of the title. I was going to share only those I read aloud, with giggling joy, to a simultaneously amused and bemused rocketlass last night. Like this one:
One summer my daughter learned how to read the word misunderstanding.
And this one:
One summer I went to Italy with my girlfriend and her family. My girlfriend's uncle brought a set of dissolvable capsules containing foam circus animals. Every night at cocktail hour we dropped one capsule into a glass of water. As each foam leg emerged, we would say, "There's another leg!"
Or this one, which I had trouble reading because laughter--mine--kept interjecting itself:
One summer I was on the verge of making a baloney sandwich. I had the tomato in my hand and I'd opened the door of the refrigerator and I was looking down at the jar of mayonnaise on the bottom shelf, and then I thought, No, no baloney right now. And I closed the refrigerator door. I was able to resist that baloney and put it out of my mind.
And, finally, this one:
One summer a raisin stuck to a page I was writing on, so I drew an outline of it and wrote, "A Raisin Stuck Here--Sunmaid."
And that was to be it. Post posted. Piano beckoning.

But then I read Michiko Kakutani's review of the book from Monday's New York Times. Oops.

She didn't get it. I suspect there's no way she ever could have--Baker simply seems not to be her kind of writer, his book not her kind of book. Kakutani is serious; Baker is (mostly) silly. Kakutani writes (mostly) about novels; Baker writes novels that read like nonfiction, and nonfiction that reads like no one else's. Kakutani is looking for the point; for Baker, looking frequently is the point.

All of which might still not been enough to prompt me to even mention the review, had it not been for this passage:
The individual essays not only carom around the world in subject matter, they also vary greatly in quality. Some showcase his eye for detail and his ability to nail down those details in velvety, Updikean prose. Some read like parodies of self-absorption that highlight Mr. Baker’s apparent need — shared with his idol, John Updike — to capture even the most trivial of his jottings between the covers of a book. “One Summer,” a list of things the author did over various summers, actually contains this paragraph: “One summer a raisin stuck to a page I was writing on, so I drew an outline of it and wrote ‘A Raisin Stuck here — Sunmaid.’ ” And later on, this sentence: “One summer I was on the verge of making a baloney sandwich.”
"Those bits you liked, Levi, enough to read aloud, I disliked." If there is a Platonic form of the ideal Baker reader, Kakutani may well be the necessarily-existing-in-a-dizzying-undergraduate-seminar-way Platonic form of its opposite.

Tastes vary, of course--the Venn Diagram of mine and rocketlass's overlaps but little, yet the gap diminishes our passion for our favorites not a whit. Baker, admittedly, is not to all tastes, and his fans won't be swayed away by a review that pulls quotes for opprobrium that they'd pull for appreciation.

But the failure to connect, my certainty that Kakutani's wrong, burns despite. Baker writes elsewhere in the book, in "The Nod," an appreciation of Updike delivered at a memorial, of reading Updike's story "The City" to his thirteen-year-old daughter:
And as I was reading it to my daughter, I came to the moment in the story that I remembered from when I first read it. The man is lying in his hospital room in the middle of the night and he hears people moaning on either side of him and then there's a sound of "tidy retching," and then comes the sentence: "Carson was comforted by these evidences that at least he had penetrated into a circle of acknowledged ruin." The word ruin there was so amazingly good and well-placed--"acknowledged ruin." And maybe it was that I gave it a special inflection as I read it aloud, but I don't think so. My daughter said, "Oh, that's good." Right at that moment. She liked and she was excited by the very same phrase in the story that I'd been excited by. It seemed so reassuring to know that there is sometimes an absolute moment in a story that many people will independently discover and remember, even across generations, and that this may have been one of those moments.
Products of a century of mass-production and mass-marketing, iconoclasm may be our aspiration, but nevertheless we ache for others to like what we like; the harmony thus generated can be so abundantly joyful.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Craft, sentences, and "banal miracles"

I as I was reading and enjoying Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (2012) the past few days, I found myself thinking a lot about craft. When we describe a writer as a craftsman, that's often a way of acknowledging skill or accomplishment while also relegating the author to a lesser plane of achievement--as if the ability and care and determination to put a piece of writing together well were all tools with which to hide the fact that it's not accomplishing anything new or important.

It's unfair, and I suspect it's a legacy of the ascendence of the moderns, who--while unquestionably craftsmen themselves--convinced a large part of the culture that difficulty equals importance and clarity should be questioned. For in some ways that's what we're talking about when we praise craft, as separate from skill, or flash, or talent: prose that's assembled well, and clearly, and put in service of something, usually a somewhat traditional story.

I thought about it as I read the following passage from Beautiful Ruins:
Jet tires chirp, grab the runway, and Shane Wheeler jerks awake and checks his watch. Still good. Yeah, his plane's an hour late, but he's got three hours until his meeting, and he's a mere fourteen miles away now. How long can it take to drive fourteen miles? At the gate he uncoils, deplanes, and makes his way in a dream down the long, tiled airport tunnel, through baggage claim and a revolving door, onto a sunlit curb, jumps a bus to the rental-car center, falls in line with the smiling Disney-bounders (who must've seen the same $24 online rental-car coupon), and when his turn in line comes, slides his license and credit card to the rental clerk. She says his name with such significance ("Shane Wheeler?") that for a deluded moment he imagines he's traveled forward in time and fame, and she's somehow heard of him--but of course she's just happy to find his reservation. We live in a world of banal miracles.
I love the sound and bounce and rhythm of that passage, its consonance and movement, the way that, while conveying the basic information about Shane's progress and always keeping us in his head, it manages to mimic the movement and disorientation of the modern airport experience. The jet tires that "chirp" and "grab," the "deluded" moment, the travel in both "time and fame"--it all works to lift these sentences above their very basic duty of carrying the character from one place to another.

One of the most interesting qualities of the novel as a form is that, most times, nearly everything in one could be thrown out--in theory. All the background details and the descriptions of weather and clothing and houses, all the ancillary characters and scurrying hither and yon are there solely to cocoon the infinitely more compact ideas and people at its heart, to give them a home and make them matter more when revealed to us. At the same time, in reality you can't strip it away and actually be left with anything. The novel, like everyday life, is its details. So when an author lifts his sentences above the functional, when he makes them into living, important things of their own while not rendering them unfit to perform their work, we should appreciate and acknowledge it. "We live in a world of banal miracles." The workings of good sentences in good novels are among them.

And if a well-crafted novel featuring interesting characters (and a convincing portrait of a drunken but not-yet-too-far-gone Richard Burton) turns out to be a tad more romantic than realistic, more hopeful and sweeping than strictly true-to-life--well, when that book begins with a beautiful actress stepping from a boat into a fading Italian fishing village in 1962 under the watchful eyes of a twenty-two-year-old dreamer, what more should we expect?

And, really, what more should we want?

Monday, August 13, 2012

M. R. James, the kindliest of frighteners

Over the weekend, I spent some more time dipping into the second volume of the correspondence of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis, and I happened across a couple of brief references to Lyttelton's friend M. R. James, scholar and writer of ghost stories, that seemed worth passing on.

First, from a Lyttelton letter of September 13, 1957 ("Friday!" interjects Lyttleton in his own dateline):
It is time we met again and had a long crack, feet on fender. . . . A monstrous suggestion to make to an overworked publisher--or would be if I didn't know you have that engaging and impressive trait of M. R. James, i. e. however busy he was, he was always ready for a talk.
A trait to aspire to, no?. And one that is particularly irritating not to possess, for the only things preventing us are our solipsism and our well-nurtured sense that the world should accommodate itself to our timetables, other folks be damned. How better to be like James, ready to listen at any time.

That accords with a further sketch of James's personality that Lyttelton presents in a letter from October 9, 1957:
I was particularly pleased to meet Edmund Blunden again. One gets in his company the same--what shall I call it?--easeful satisfaction that one used to get from Monty James. It comes--doesn't it?--when great kindliness of heart accompanies great distinction of mind. I remember M.R.J.'s cordial listening to a story which I knew he knew, and on another occasion to a man making assertions about the history of some cathedral which were so wrong that they had to be corrected, but how gently and beautifully M.R.J. did it.
Interestingly, it seems that many of James's contemporaries, while agreeing about his kindness, wouldn't have said the same about his "distinction of mind." Darryl Jones, in the introduction to the recent Oxford University Press of James's Collected Ghost Stories (1931), writes,
His extraordinary intellectual capacities were matched by a commensurate anti-intellectualism which amounted, at times, to a genuine fear of ideas--a fear which his stories, with their consistent themes of the danger of knowledge, reflect quite clearly.
He offers an amusing example:
His longtime King's colleague Nathaniel Wedd recalled James's admonishing two students who were discussing a philosophical problem: "He rapped sharply on the table with his pipe, and called out: 'No thinking gentlemen, please.'"
James's friend A. C. Benson, who also wrote ghost stories, said of him,
[His] mind is the mind of a nice child--he hates and fears all problems, all speculation, all originality or novelty of view. His spirit is both timid and unadventurous. he is much abler than I am, much better, much more effective--yet I feel that he is a kind of child.
Children of course can be terribly cruel, but a kind child can be a marvel, ready to take the time to talk, and listen, and be patient with others.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Michael Chabon, in his introduction to a pocket collection of James's stories from OUP, Casting the Runes, tries to figure out the roots of the frightening visions that came from the pen of this writer who "seems, for the entire duration of his life, to have considered himself the happiest of men.":
And what of the childhood fascination with the tortures suffered by Christian martyrs, each date and gruesome detail of beheadings, immolations, and dismemberments lovingly memorized the way some boys memorize batting averages? And the spectral face at the garden gate, pale and wide-eyed, reeking of evil, that one evening peered back at the young James across the lawn as he looked out through the windows of the rectory? And the intimate eleven-year friendship with a man named McBryde, illustrator of some of James's best stories, traveling companion and inseparable confidante, whose rather late marriage in 1903 was followed, scarcely a year later, by his untimely death? And the boys, the tens upon hundreds of thousands of boys of Eton and King's on whom James had lavished his great teacherly gifts, cut down in the battlefields of Belgium and France? And the empty lawns, deserted commons and dining halls, the utter desolation of Cambridge in 1918?
But perhaps we don't need to look that far, or dig that deep, to find the origins of James's horrors. For really, who better to write ghost stories than the timid, who if he looks can find fear in everything? Or, as Chabon concludes:
Violence ,horror, grim retribution, the sudden revulsion of the soul--these things, then, are independent of happiness or suffering. A man who looks closely and carefully at life, whether pitiable as Poe or enviable as the Provost of Eton, cannot fail to see them.
On a drizzly August Monday, hints of autumn are in the air. October, with its darkness and its stories, is just around the corner.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Maqroll the Gaviero and Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships

Over the weekend, I returned yet again to Alvaro Mutis's stories of Maqroll. I've written before about Maqroll, the merchant mariner and weary world traveler, and the fact that he
Maqroll doesn't so much have adventures and love affairs as that they have him; the reverse would require a bit too much active desire, too much engagement with this decrepit dinosaur of a world.
As with many a hero, one of Maqroll's strengths is simple knowledge: he's been everywhere, met everyone, has a memory or story for every occasion. But where James Bond, for example, takes the world as known and thus his, Maqroll takes the world as known and thus no one's, with nothing to offer but memories of what's been lost and anticipations of the losses to come. He's much more Marlow than Indiana Jones, more fatalist than flaneur:
For Maqroll, life has long ceased to have a meaning beyond one's connections to friends and lovers--who, in the face of his best efforts to keep them close, are perpetually being lost to such rivals as distance and death. Yet he continues to plod on nonetheless, driven by inertia and a curiosity, barely acknowledged as such, that continues to seek new experiences and new answers, despite knowing that every time, they will be revealed to be the same as the last, simultaneously dangerous and disappointing.
I've been slowly reading my way through the 700 pages of Maqroll stories and novels that NYRB Classics collected in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, and this time out, I read Abdul Bashur, Dreamer of Ships, a section that's primarily focused on Bashur, the Gaviero's oldest and closest friend. In a passage early in the volume that Mutis clearly had fun writing, he sets out the differences between the two, and in the process reveals both in loving detail:
I had already heard a good deal about his friendship with Maqroll; when I met Bashur, it was easy enough to understand. It was rooted in an interplay of their ways of behaving, some contrary, others complementary or consonant, but in their totality creating an unbreakable harmony between the two men. Maqroll acted on the conviction that everything was already hopelessly lost. We are born, he would say, with a vocation for defeat. Bashur believed that everything was waiting to be done and that those who lost were the others, the irredeemable fools who undermine the world with sophistry and camouflaged ancestral weakness. From women Maqroll expected friendship without commitment or any trade in guilt, and in the end he always left them. With infallible regularity Bashur fell in love as if for the first time; he accepted, without analysis or judgment and as though it were an inestimable gift of heaven, everything that came from women. Maqroll only rarely confronted his adversaries; he preferred to leave punishment and reprisals to life and its changing fortunes. Abdul reacted immediately and brutally, not calculating the risk. Maqroll forgot offenses and therefore never thought of revenge, but Bashur cultivated vengeance as long as necessary and took it without mercy, as if the offense had just occurred. Maqroll had absolutely no money sense. Abdul was immeasurably generous, but at bottom he kept a running balance of profits and losses. Maqroll called no place on earth home. Abdul, a distant descendant of Bedouins, always yearned for the nomadic encampment where he would be welcomed with familial warmth. Maqroll was a voracious reader, especially of history and the memoirs of illustrious men, liking in this way to confirm his hopeless pessimism regarding the much vaunted human condition, concerning which he held a rather disillusioned and melancholy opinion. Abdul not only never opened a book but did not understand what possible use such a thing could have in his life. He had no faith in humans as a species but always gave each person the opportunity to prove to him that he was wrong.

That is how the two friends traveled the world together, engaging in the most outlandish enterprises, sowing both intimate and legendary memories in their wake.
If that doesn't make you want to read these books, then they're definitely not for you.

Though the pair gets into adventures, these are not books that depend upon their plots, which are often more suggestions of plot than fully worked-out mechanisms. The men embark on a scheme, things go poorly, and in the face of Maqroll's fatalism--"The Gaviero, faithful to his principle of always allowing things to happen regardless of consequences, would not intervene under any circumstances."--the strands of plot eventually just fall away, sinking quietly back into the waves. But as with Alan Furst's novels, which I love more each year as he has less and less actually happen in them, Maqroll's adventures are all the better for their gauziness. They seem to confirm the Gaviero's take on the world: whereas a plot that pops and springs and locks into place suggests a world of cause and effect, of inherent meaning, Mutis's plots remind us that in life, things happen, and then other things happen, and the waves continue to crawl up and down the sands.

Late in Abdul Bashur, when schemes have come to naught and Maqroll is once again looking for a ship, he says, "I can't hold on to anything. It all slips away between my fingers." The only plot, the only fact, is loss. I'm dreading the day I turn the last page of the last Maqroll story.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Ethel Wodehouse, spy?

Ben Macintyre's Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is, as expected, full of drama, surprise, and interesting tidbits--just seeing Anthony Burgess and Kim Philby pop up as members in good standing of MI5, commenting on reports from double agents, is fascinatingly creepy. What I didn't expect, and something I haven't seen noted in any of the reviews, is that it also goes a ways toward rehabilitating P. G. Wodehouse's wife, Ethel, from the lingering charge of collaboration during the couple's internment.

The last I'd read on the issue was in Robert McCrum's 2004 biography of Wodehouse. McCrum builds a convincing case for what is now, I think, the general assessment of Wodehouse's own level of culpability for his pro-German broadcasts: Wodehouse, McCrum argues, was guilty at most of gullibility and ignorance, rooted in naivete and a desire to please. He should have known better, but he certainly didn't intend worse.

Ethel, however, doesn't come off so well in McCrum's book. Major Cussen, the M15 officer assigned to interrogate the couple after the war, McCrum writes, was strongly critical of Ethel:
"From what I have seen of Mrs Wodehouse," he wrote, " I expect to learn that she conducted herself [in Germany] in a flamboyant manner and that she accepted all the attention which was no doubt paid to her by German officials."
Macintyre, drawing on security service documents, paints a different picture.

The Wodehouses enter Macintyre's account because, while living in France in the pre-war years, they became friends with a German agent, Johnny Jebsen, who was quietly anti-Nazi and eventually became a double agent for Britain. Among his many shady activities, Jebsen ran a minor currency scam, accepting forged British banknotes from Nazi officials to trade for dollars, while skimming a substantial amount--some of which he used to help support the Wodehouses, who knew nothing of Jebsen's secret job or the source of the money.

Macintyre doesn't offer any new information about Wodehouse himself, but Ethel appears very differently in this report from MI6 operative Charles de Salis, written in conjunction with an analysis of Jebsen (whose codename was Artist):
Mrs. Wodehouse is very pro-British and is inclined to be rude to anyone who dares address her in German. She has on occasion said loudly in public places: "If you cannot address me in English don't speak at all. You had better learn it as you will have to speak it after the war anyway." Artist thinks she might be a useful source. . . . Wodehouse himself is entirely childlike and pacifist.
Here's how MaciMntyre glosses the report:
It is not known whether MI6 acted on this suggestion and recruited Ethel Wodehouse, but Jebsen's suggestion casts a new light on their time in Paris. . . . Jebsen's report proves that while Wodehouse himself may have been passively apolitical, his wife was so anti-Nazi that she was considered a potential spy.
Though I realize that security service files, with their purging and blackouts, don't allow for a lot of certainty, it does seem reasonable to assume that if Ethel Wodehouse had actually been recruited that fact would have emerged in the subsequent decades. Regardless, for a Wodehouse fan it's good to see this report--anything that further clears the cloud of collaboration is welcome.

Monday, August 06, 2012

The D-Day spies and their echoes in Lisbon

A lot of the double agents who play leading roles in Ben Macintyre's Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (2012) are controlled from Lisbon (on the Nazi side), and reading that book you'd be forgiven for thinking that perhaps every single person in 1940s Lisbon was a spy, probably a double or even triple agent. Take the following account of a dinner party thrown by von Karsthoff, the German control of Dusko Popov, a double agent who was secretly working for the British. The names aren't important; just attend to the cat's cradle of secret connections:
[Von Karsthoff] threw a dinner party in Popov's honor and invited Jebsen, Aloys Schreiber (the new head of counterintelligence), and their secretaries. It was a bizarre occasion. Two of the guests were German intelligence officers, and two others were secretly working for British intelligence; Jebsen was sleeping with Schreiber's secretary, who was spying on her boss; the married von Karsthoff was having an affair with his secretary, Elizabeth Sahrbach, while ripping off the Abwehr. Popov was conducting at least six love affairs. Everyone was involved in the lying and cheating game.
I don't know nearly enough about Portuguese history to be sure of this, but the incidental sense I get of neutral Portugal from MacIntyre's book is of an utterly louche, feckless netherworld, a sort of fascist Monte Carlo of the soul, blithely untroubled by the fears, dangers, shortages, and existential threats faced by the rest of Europe at the time:
An Abwehr office who arrived in Libson shortly before Jebsen was shocked by the behavior of his new colleagues, who "were leading a rather loose and immoral life in Lisbon," with little concern for their duties." Some were sleeping with their secretaries. Others were cocaine abusers. "All had enormous amounts of money, most had their own cars, made frequent pleasure trips throughout Portugal and spent their evenings gambling in the casinos."
It's been at least fifteen years since I read Cees Nooteboom's wonderfully compact little meditation on death, The Following Story (1991, English translation 1994), but its vision of a haunted, hushed, exhausted Lisbon has stayed in my mind--the hangover of neutrality and fascism?
Evening in my memory, evening in Lisbon. The lamps in the city had been lit, my eyes were like a bird flying above the streets. It had grown cool, up there; the voices of the children had gone from the gardens; I saw the dark shadows of lovers, statues locked in embrace, lazily moving double-people.
Nooteboom presents the town as labyrinth, of frustrated plans and forgotten intentions, leading to the only exit: death.

The most striking aspect of the Lisbon component of the XX, or Double Cross, group, however, is the network of fake spies set up by Portuguese double agent Juan Pujol, known by the British as "Garbo." Pujol, who "possessed what his case officer, Tomas Harris, called a 'remarkable talent for duplicity'," not only convinced his Nazi handlers that he was supplying them good information even as he was doing the bidding of his English paymasters, but also had them believing in an entire network that he'd made up out of whole cloth. MacIntyre explains:
By the end of 1942, the Garbo network included an airline employee, the courier who supposedly smuggled Garbo's letters to Lisbon, a wealthy Venezuelan student named Carlos living in Glasgow, his brother in Aberdeen, a Gibraltarian waiter in Chislehurst whose anti-British feelings were said to be exacerbated because "he found the climate in Kent very disagreeable," a senior official in the Spanish section of the Ministry of Information, an anti-Soviet South African, and a Welsh ex-seaman living in Swansea described by Pujol as a "thoroughly undesirable character." The personality, activities, and messages of each spy were carefully imagined, refined, and entered in a logbook. Some of these subagents were supposedly conscious collaborators, while others were unwitting sources of secret information; some were given names, while others remained anonymous. . . . Pujols's subagents were able to correspond with the Germans independently after he was authorized to supply them with secret ink; those agents then began recruiting their own sub-agents. The network began to self-replicate and metastasize, until the work of Pujol and Harris came ot resemble a limitless, multicharacter, ever-expanding novel.
Who else could possibly come to mind than Lisbon native Fernando Pessoa, who, in the words of translator Richard Zenith,
wrote under dozens of names, a practice--or compulsion--that began in his childhood. He called his most important personas "heteronyms," endowing them with their own biographies, physiques, personalities, political views, religious attitudes and literary pursuits. . . . The many . . . alter egos included translators, short-story writers, an English literary critic, an astrologer, a philosopher and an unhappy nobleman who committed suicide. There was even a female persona: the hunchbacked and helplessly lovesick Maria Jose. At the turn of the century, sixty-five years after Pessoa's death, his vast written world had still not been completely charted by researchers, and a significant part of his writings was still waiting to be published.
Or, as Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet,
And all this, in my walk to the seashore, was a secret told me by the night and the abyss. How many we are! How many of us fool ourselves! What seas crash in us, in the night when we exist, along the beaches that we feel ourselves to be, inundated by emotion! All that was lost, all that should have been sought, all that was obtained and fulfilled by mistake, all that we loved and lost and then, after losing it and loving it for having lost it, realized that we never loved; all that we believed we were thinking when we were feeling; all the memories we took for emotions; and the entire ocean, noisy and cool, rolling in from the depths of the vast night to ripple over the beach, on my nocturnal walk to the seashore . . .
Ah, though the pleasures of multiplicity might tempt, the intrigues of spies are not for Pessoa:
I've always felt an almost physical loathing for secret things--intrigues, diplomacy, secret societies, occult sciences.
No, for Pessoa, multiplicity was too hermetic to be part of an external scheme. "Every gesture, however simple, violates an inner secret." He could be no spy.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Counting all this money is so tiresome!

'Tis a Friday of virtual hobnobbing with the wealthy and titled . . .

We'll start with the diary entry of Count Harry Kessler for June 20, 1911:
Dinner at Madame Edwards's. D'Annunzio, Boni de Castellane, Rejane, Bakst, Romain Coolus, Tata Golubeff, Sert, the lover of Rejane Nicodemi, and an Argentinian, Quintana, the son of a former president, were present. After dinner came Maupeou, Gloria, Ricciotto Canudo, and the Russian Baryton Kedroff, who sang wonderfully. The apartment of Edwards is one of the most tasteful I have ever seen. Many chinoiseries from the time of Louis XV and Louis XVI, everywhere expensive old laces as curtains and tablecloths and on the walls, like tapestries, decorations by Bonnard. In between a mass of roses, big and small. D'Annunzio had said he would come after dinner but arrived during the fish course. He seemed to enjoy our surprise. Rejane who is a ruin, but still of a refined elegance and very amusing, allowed D'Annunzio to pay court to her. They disappeared together after dinner into a boudoir as Rejane, in leaving the salon, cried out, "When you hear the first cry, you will come . . . no, not the first, but at the third."
Those of us who generally move in less refined circles can take solace from the fact that most of those names mean nothing today, even when annotated--but it's hard to begrudge Kessler his society and name-dropping, as he at least seemed to appreciate it and make good use of it, working with von Hofmannsthal and spending time with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Nietzsche, Rilke, Verlaine, Richard Strauss, Shaw, and others of impressive accomplishment.

But mightn't we, were we to be suddenly dropped, Quantum Leap–style, amid all that glamor, simply get bored? Ben Macintyre, early in his new book about the D-Days spies, Double Cross, offers an example:
Boredom stalked Elvira Chaudoir like a curse. Her father, a Peruvian diplomat, had made a fortune from guano, the excrement of seabirds, bats, and seals, collected off the coast of Peru and exported as fertilizer. Elvira grew up in Paris, where she was expensively educated and tremendously spoiled. In 1934, at the age of twenty-three, to escape the tedium, she fled into the arms of Jean Chaudoir, a Belgian stock exchange representative for a gold-mining firm. Jean turned out to be a crashing bore, and life in Brussels was "exceedingly dull." After four years of marriage and a number of unsatisfactory love affairs with both men and women, she came to the conclusion that "she had nothing in common with her husband" and ran away to Cannes with her best friend, Romy Gilbey, who was married to a scion of the Gilbey gin dynasty and very rich. Elvira and Mrs. Gilbey were happily losing money made from gin in a casino in Cannes when the Germans invaded France; they fled, in an open-top Renault, to St. Malo before taking a boat for England.

In London, Elvira moved into a flat on Sloane Street, but the tedium of life swiftly descended once more. She spent her evenings shuttling between the bar at the Ritz and the bridge tables, losing money she did not have. She would have borrowed from her parents, but they were stuck in France. She tried to join the Free French forces gathering around the exiled Charles de Gaulle but was told she was unsuitable. She did a little translating for the BBC and found it dreary.
Chaudoir eventually turned to the elixir that has stemmed the ennui of so many of the idle rich over the centuries: spying.

Finally, lest you assume that our jet-powered, ever-connected, new Gilded Age has freed the poor wealthy from the besetting curse of boredom, I'll leave you with the unimpressed glories of the Pierces.

Milton's ending to Paradise Lost--
The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest
--was surely intended to be equivocal, perpetual grace traded for free will--but little did he know those centuries gone that with but the appending of a weary sigh his lines could be adapted to the pitiful plight of the privileged.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Continuing to fall for Alice Thomas Ellis

With every book of hers I read--in hideous large-print editions because that's all Chicago Public Library has--it becomes more clear that Alice Thomas Ellis is nearly a perfect writer for me. She's funny, mordant, and impressively dark, much of her whiplash humor coming from the combination of her characters' terseness and their seeming lack of social filters. Ivy Compton-Burnett, her most obvious influence (who knew that a writer as sui generis as Compton-Burnett had a legacy?), shares that trait, but Ellis also brings to mind the social comedy and satire of Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald, and the clear-eyed believer's often-comic understanding of religion that we find in J. F. Powers.

One writer I'd not linked her to until the most recent book I've read, Pillars of Gold, is P. G. Wodehouse. Yet there are a number of Wodehousian attitudes or turns of phrase in the book. Even as simple a bit as this description of an emotionally disconnected husband listening to his wife--
Scarlet said much more, and while he had not listened closely, he had got the gist.
--smacks of Wodehouse, whose characters, distracted, apprehend the world largely as a gestalt rather than a concatenation of specific details.

Then there's the borderline criminality of so many of Ellis's characters, and the sense that even murder is a problem only to the extent that it will out. Wodehouse's characters would never stoop to murder, of course--blithe violence being much more the territory of Compton-Burnett's family jealousies--but they do fret an awful lot about the depredations of the long arm of the law. Read the following passage from Pillars of Gold and imagine that Constance is a Wodehouseian aunt--in the brash, Aunt Agatha mold:
"It's not your fault," said Constance. "If you was anyone else, I'd say, get divorced, but you did that once and then you went and got married again. You can't help yourself. It's your destiny--all writ up in your stars. You could kill him, I suppose, but you've got to remember this: if you do, what you have to do next is ruffle up your hair and mess up your garments and appear howling and all distressed at your local nick, saying you don't know what came over you. On no account look out your passport and make for the airport because they'll catch you in customs and the judge will be cross and tell you you're a calculating murderess and give you twenty years. If you follow course one, you'll get off with a caution or three month's community work. That's today's Helpful Home Hint."
And to think I've got another ten books to read!