Monday, December 31, 2012

A time for toasts

To mix the proper spirit to carry us into New Year's, I turn first to the old standby, Anthony Powell. Every year around this time I find the opening sentence of this passage from The Acceptance World running through my head:
It was that prolonged, flat, cheerless week that follows Christmas. My own existence seemed infinitely stagnant, relieved only by work on another book. Those interminable latter days of the dying year create an interval, as it were, of moral suspension: one form of life already passed away before another has had time to assert some new, endemic characteristic. Imminent change of direction is for some reason often foreshadowed by such colourless patches of time.
E. B. White, late in life, was even more bleak about the winding down of the year. In a letter sent to friends in early January 1984, White called Christmas and New Year's "the two long loneliest holiday weekends of the year." But he had a way to get past their air of, in Powell's terms, "moral suspension":
The year is only a few days old but I am already in my thoughts careening toward summer and fall, awaiting the day when I can boost my canoe on top of the car and set out for the lake.
Anyone viewing straight-on the snowbanks of a New England January is likely to look to spring, and then on to summer, but it takes a special temperament to already be thinking, mere days into January, of the gentle, wistful wane into autumn.

Ah, but if you're going out tonight, let Amor Towles remind you that that the martini is the only drink, and should be treated as such:
Casper placed a napkin on top of a silver shaker and rattled it good. Then he carefully began to pour. First, he filled my glass to the brim. The liquor was so cold and pure it gave the impression of being more translucent than water. Next he filled Eve's glass. When he began filling Tinker's, the flow of alcohol from the shaker slowed noticeably. And then trickled. For a moment it seemed as if there wasn't going to be enough. But the gin kept trickling and the surface kept rising until with the very last drop Tinker's martini reached the brim. It was the sort of precision that gave one confidence.
And, should you down too many martinis, I'll supply you, from Dawn Powell's diary entry of October 28, 1939, with this unimpeachable defense:
Coby, drunk, tie awry, coat half wrong-side out, hair tousled, inspires a "Good God!" from group. Why? he wants to know. "Go to a mirror," they suggest. "Just take a look at yourself." He shakes his head complacently. "I look alright," he says. "My genitals are covered, aren't they?"
Happy New Year, folks.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Reading Steerforth over at The Age of Uncertainty on the unpleasures of bookselling as the holiday sand drips through the hourglass of advent is sufficient to remind me to be grateful that I'm not working today, my days of shooing customers out the door just as the reindeer are touching down long over.

But before I turn out the lights on this little shop for the holidays, I've got a couple of modest gifts to distribute. First, this account of holiday skulduggery, from Anthony Powell's journal for Christmas Eve of 1987:
My tenant Adrian Andrews recently reported theft of a black ewe (only one in his flock), saying sheep-lifting by no means uncommon in this neighborhood. Today he arrived on doorstep (having grown beard so that I did not recognize him). . . . I remarked the black ewe had reappeared. He said police found her dumped in garden over Cranmore way. Like living in Wild West.
I don't think rocketlass and I are likely to get up to any sheep-lifting over Christmas, but if we do, we'll surely have the sense to stick to the white sheep, rendering our crime less likely to be detected. Good god, have these crooks never read any Holmes?

The party Dawn Powell (no relation to Anthony) attended on Christmas Day, 1932, and recorded in her journal may have been more civilized than sheep-lifting, but it was perhaps in some ways just as unbuttoned:
To a party at Cheryl's. Decided to do a rowdy modernist version of Aristophanes' "The Knights," which Cheryl was eager about--have hecklers, stooges, big placards through the house, "The Theater is Propaganda" across the curtain. Have the senate in back of house, sausages rushed through audience, passed-out Cleon and Sausage-Seller have fight of swear words across audience. Dress in stylized Greek costume, shirts, etc Have scenes described in play actually take place either by marionettes or by movies, have music, have people sell things between acts like a burlesque show.
As entertaining as that sounds, knowing my temperament I'd more often than not instead plump for a day like Thoreau's Christmas eve of 1856:
To Walden and Baker Farm with Ricketson, it still snowing a little.

It was very pleasant walking thus before the storm was over, in the soft, subdued light.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Enjoy the "soft, subdued light" of the ebbing of the year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The fun of contingent stuff, or, Looking around in the corners of Why Does the World Exist?

{If I may ask a favor: this post has been receiving an unusual amount of traffic, but I can't figure out where it's coming from. We're not talking "praised by the Queen in her Christmas speech" kind of numbers, but still a noticeable spike. If you were sent here by a link or a reference, and you've got a minute to drop a note about it in the comments, my curiosity and I would greatly appreciate it.} If you've been following me on Twitter the past couple of days, you've already realized that I've been enjoying Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?, a philosophical and scientific investigation into the question posed by its title. The fact that I read it at all beyond the first pages is a mark of its quality, as that's a question that has never interested me much--in philosophy, I've always been content to stop at Spinoza, with his elegant and logical positing of all things as part of one single, unitary substance. To try to get much beyond that has always seemed impossible, as it requires asking our perceptions and logic to move beyond every single one of the conditions that created them.

Yet Holt, as he travels the world interviewing philosophers and scientists, pitting their theories against one another and punching holes in their logic, makes the whole drama of inquiries into existence seem vibrant and important. Plenty of reviews out there cover the content of Holt's investigations, so what I'll share instead are some of the plethora of details, asides, and throwaway moments that help keep the book from ever seeming aridly intellectual.

There are the occasional snatches of entertaining non-philosophical dialogue, like this exchange with John Leslie:
"Of all the contemporary philosophers I've been reading,"I told him, "you've got to be the wittiest."

"You're very kind," he said. Then he added, "But I'm not sure that's much of a compliment."
Then there's the night when Holt is wandering the streets of Paris, having earlier happened across Karl Lagerfeld (with "one of his muses," who was wearing black lipstick). He passes Descartes' tomb and reminds us that not all of Descartes lives there: "The whereabouts of his skull and right forefinger is a mystery." A similar bit of utterly inessential but satisfying detail that Holt includes is this sighting in Oxford:
A woman cyclist passed me on the road, with a log and some tree branches strapped to her bike, reminding me of the log lady from "Twin Peaks."
A book whose primary concern is the existence or non-existence of the world ought to include some of the contingent nonsense that makes the universe worth bothering with in the first place, shouldn't it?

Probably the best set-piece of character and description in the book is Holt's visit to the home of Oxford philosopher David Deutsch. When Holt calls Deutsch to ask for an appointment, the response is not good:
I had reviewed Deutsche's book years ago in the Wall Street Journal--favorably, as I dimly recalled. Surely, I thought, he would be willing to talk to an admirer such as myself, especially one who had taken the trouble to come all the way to Oxford. So I e-mailed him, introducing myself and mentioning the nice review I had given his book in the United States more than a decade ago.

"I just checked on Google," Deutsch e-mailed me back. "Arrogant in tone and marred by leaps of logic--is that the one?"

Oh, dear. My memory seemed to have played me false. I googled the review myself. The full sentence he had quoted read, "Arrogant in tone and marred by leaps of logic, his book nonetheless bristles with subversive insights about virtual reality, time and time travel, mathematical certainty, and free will." That didn't sound so bad. In the review I had also called Deutsch "mad, bad, and dangerous to know"--a description originally applied to Lord Byron. E-mailing him again, I pointed out that this was meant, in a somewhat jocular vein, as a compliment.

"In my opinion Byron was literally mad, bad, and dangerous to know, not least because he was a willfully careless thinker," Deutsch replied.
Deutsch may be the first person in history to hold Byron's sloppy thinking as his most damning fault.

Deutsch does eventually relent, inviting Holt to his home:
After a few moments the door was opened by an improbably boyish-looking fellow with large mole-like eyes, rather transparent skin, and shoulder-length, albinoid hair. Behind him, I could see great moldering heaps of papers, broken tennis rackets, and other detritus. I knew that Deutsch was famous for, as one science journalist put it, "setting international standards in slovenliness," but these looked more like experiments in indoor composting.
Inside, Holt finds on the sofa
an attractive young woman with strawberry-blonde hair--she looked almost like a teenager--eating a plate of macaroni and cheese.
Introduced in cursory fashion as Lulie, she sits in silence, eating macaroni, while Deutsch raves about the nature of reality, a 1960s youth culture movie–style riposte to any sustained toying with the idea of nullity.

Oh, and throughout the book there is much drinking--including gin, whole bottles of wine, whiskey, splits of champagne--though enough of it takes the form of tea or coffee that at one point Holt raises a lament to the heavens:
Why did everyone but me seem to find caffeinated beverages more conducive than alcohol to pondering the mystery of existence?
I have to agree. Coffee suits for facing the morning, tea suffices for facing the afternoon, but only gin suffices for facing the infinite.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Working fast food

I wrote a bit on Monday about Antoine Wilson's novel Panorama City, and while I praised Wilson's eye for detail and care for his characters, as well as his nicely turned sentences, I don't think I made clear just how funny the book is. So today I'll share two passages that made me laugh, both from fairly early in the novel, when Oppen Porter has just taken a job in a fast food place.

On his first day, he meets Roger, his manager, and his new colleagues:
Roger had a bushy mustache, an unruly mustache, and he wore his shirt unbuttoned one button too far, which showed off his rough throat and dry Adam's apple, and where you would expect a hairy chest was a mysteriously hairless expanse, which my fellow employees spent much time speculating about. One the first day I was introduced to Melissa, who was round and black and a mother of two, Francis, who had thick glasses and was going to become a filmmaker, Ho, who was a refugee, and Wexler, who talked about cars and nothing else. Whenever Roger told my fellow employees to do something, they always said his name twice, after which he'd threaten to make them call him Doctor Macarona, he wasn't actually a doctor, but he was way the hell ahead of the rest of us in the school of life, his words, and we couldn't call him bachelor because he was married and we couldn't call him master, because Melissa was black and what kind of message would that send, his question.
Before he can start working, Porter is required to watch a training video, one that presents "two separate realities, two alternate universes," one a terrible restaurant and one a successful one. The key to the successful restaurant? That one follows "the fast-food place's five-point system, which was illustrated by a gold cartoon star, five points for five points, each one glinting as it was listed off":
One, smile even if you feel bad. When people smile back you will feel better. Two, do what you can to make others feel important, especially if they are angry about something. Three, take pride in your work. Four, the company, I'm not going to name it, is a great big family. Five, the customer is always right.
In other words, the sort of points that sound fine in the boardroom but rarely survive the grease-laden transition to the fry station.

But Porter, inclined to assume sincerity, takes the five points to heart and attempts to put them in practice with his coworker Ho:
Ho did not smile, not in the least. So I smiled at him the broadest smile I could, and to make him feel important I said thatI hoped to someday learn a few of the many skills he obviously possessed in the kitchen, and to make him feel like family I called him brother. When Roger came in, finally, a half hour later, the first thing he asked was what I had said to Ho. I repeated exactly what I'd said. Roger said that I had disturbed Ho. I explained that I was using techniques I'd learned in the video. Roger said that the only reason he'd shown me the video was so I could sign a paper saying I'd seen the video. . . . Roger said that I was now one of the troops. I thought it was interesting that he called us troops and said so. He said we were at war. I had no idea. I asked him with who? He said the customer.
You know, how I one in a while mention that there are things I miss about being a bookseller? Well, there's nothing I miss about my time in fast food. (Except the free bagels. And the fact that since I was the trainer of new employees, I could have them make whatever sandwich I wanted to eat. And the ten-gallon barrel of pickles. Okay, so maybe fast food wasn't so bad after all?)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Panorama City

Oppen Porter, the narrator and protagonist of Antoine Wilson's Panorama City calls himself a "slow absorber," which is as good a way as any of describing his limited mental ability. Though Wilson doesn't ever have him offer a name for or diagnosis of his condition, he's clearly developmentally disabled in some way. And what Wilson aims to do with him in the novel ought not to work. Telling a story from the point of view of a character of limited cognitive ability who is essentially innocent and well-meaning . . . well, it smacks of Rain Man, or any of countless other works that turn their characters into nothing more than a tool for helping us understand ourselves.

Wilson saves Panorama City from that fate by actually making it Porter's story, and clearly being more interested in him and his experience than in having him enlighten those around him or help us understand our own lives. This is Porter's book, the story of his life laid down on audiotape for his unborn son, and his voice and perspective carry it. In addition, Wilson sets him in a world of Portisean strangeness, surrounded by people who, though they instantly spot Porter's limitations, can't see a bit of their own failings and monomanias. The result is funny, engaging, and even, by the end, surprisingly moving.

The following passage displays both qualities, while also giving a glimpse of Wilson's way with sentences and description. Porter has just boarded an intercity bus, and because he's tall the driver has suggested he sit in the front row. But a "scrawny old man" is taking up both seats:
He had the look, I don't know how else to put it, his face looked like that of a newly hatched crocodile. His eyes were alive and penetrating at the same time, and his mouth seemed wider and flatter than most, he didn't have much in the way of lips, his mouth was like a straight line across his whole face, and yet you couldn't shake the sense that he was, at the very corners, smiling. Papers were spread all over the seat beside him, a disorganized pile of sketches and notes and diagrams. I had no way of knowing where he had boarded, but judging from the pleasure the bus driver took in asking him to collect his papers and make room for me he had been making a mess of his papers for many miles. He managed to stuff into what he called his briefcase, which was actually a flat cardboard box, he stuffed into the box the whole pile of papers that had been the mess on my seat, somehow that briefcase was bigger on the inside than on the outside, and then he asked the bus driver if he was happy now. The driver stated that he was.
That passage also shows another way that Wilson avoids potential pitfalls with Porter: he doesn't make him falsely naive about human relations, doesn't take advantage of his disability for the sake of cheap situational irony. Porter may not be brilliant, but he's not blind to what the people around him are doing and thinking; his failures are not so much ones of perception or ignorance as of trust and kindness.

I mentioned Charles Portis earlier, as there are characters and situations--and even simple descriptions, like this one--
Nick's hair was slicked back and he had a goatee, or part of a goatee, on the point of his chin and a tiny mouth compared to the rest of his face, it was fascinating to watch him eat pizza with it.
--that call him instantly to mind. But the greater influence on the book feels like Nicholson Baker: Porter's descriptions offer a similar attention to, and surprising but apt similes for, small physical details. Examples abound throughout the book, but the point where I actually put it down and e-mailed Ed Park with joy was this paragraph:
When I reached the grocery store parking lot, I returned the cart to an area about halfway in, where carts are supposed to be returned. I pushed the cart into the back of a long line of carts, the cart in front obliged by lifting its hinged back panel, one fit into the other, and the lonely cart I'd found became one with the others, returned to where it could fulfill its purpose.
The movement from attention to detail to the granting of agency to the inanimate--"the cart obliged"--is quintessential Baker, a moment that feels less like simple description and more like an ethical stance, a statement that things, have purposes and can be made (and used) well or ill. The same, Porter would likely say, is true of people.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A not quite SFW post on adjectives

I'll admit to being hesitant about posting this--though, really, what ground has any blogger who has used the term "grandmotherfucker" (In context! In its vampirism-causing context!) to stand on? And it's Friday, and my brain feels as if it's been microwaved, on the gentle but thorough magneto-massage setting, by the unrelenting past month or so of work . . . so here goes.

I should say at the start that it's hideously unfair to do what I'm about to do to Marco Roth's intelligent, richly self-analytic, impressive memoir The Scientists (2012). It's wrong to reduce it to a single question about a misplaced adjective--and by doing so, I really don't intend to belittle the book. It's a good book, and it deserves praise and readers.

But I've not been able to get this one little word out of my head since I read it a week ago. I'll give you the whole paragraph; let's see if you spot it:
From a hands-on perspective, my teenage sexual orientation had been neither home nor hetero but auto, from which, I supposed, one could plausibly conclude that my favorite sexual organ must be the penis. Yet it was plain to me that I wasn't interested in anyone's penis but my own, and my imagination liked to pretend I was actually stroking the fine long breasts of some eagerly glimpsed girl, or that my hand had somehow found its way between her stockinged thighs, which rubbed together as she walked away from me down the block.
Did you spot it?

"Long"? "Long"? Our breast-obsessed society has, post-Hefner, given us countless words to describe breasts, almost as many as Edmund Wilson collected for drunkenness: round, full, perky, high, pendulous, etc. But "long"? Has anyone ever before praised breasts as "long"? That would be like, I don't know, hailing a man's abs as "wide," or his . . . well, it's Friday and I must away.

Enjoy the weekend, folks.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Poet's Pub

Eric Linklater's comic novel Poet's Pub (1929) was one of the ten books selected by Alan Lane to comprise the first list published under the Penguin Books imprint. At first blush, you'd think that would make it odd that the novel is so little-known now--but, as Nancy Pearl points out in her introduction to last year's Penguin reissue, Lane's was a strange list, setting such lasting titles as A Farewell to Arms, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Dorothy L. Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club alongside such long-forgotten books as Andre Maurois's biography of Shelley, a memoir by playwright Beverley Nichols, and novels by Compton Mackenzie, Mary Webb, E. H. Young, and Susan Ertz, none of whom is likely to be familiar to contemporary readers.

I don't know about the works of the other forgotten writers on that initial list, but Pearl is right that Poet's Pub deserves to be remembered. It's endlessly quotable, as I attempted to prove on Twitter all last week:
From boyhood he had met trouble with taciturnity.

. . .

She inclined to low life and regretted that she knew so little about it.

. . .

She talked as a hound runs, by scent; though the fox that she followed changed into a bird and a water-beast and a dining-room table at will.

. . .

First novels are generally undigestible, like a soul and kidney pie that has been baking ever since adolescence.

. . .

He remembered that he had not long ago boasted of being democratic, and decided that he could be cosmopolitan as well.

. . .

Poets are really the most practical people on earth so long as they're allowed to do what they like. It's only when they're driven along uncongenial paths that they become woolly and distrait.

. . .

It's time that acrimony and bad taste came back to our criticism. Robust vilification is the proper meat for poets.

. . .

To keep a crime story from the newspapers would seem to a good American worse than keeping vitamins from a child.

. . .

When a bourgeois code comes between life and death, it's going to get squeezed out of shape.

. . .

"My first husband was a Cossack," she replied in a tone of definite rebuke.
If those aren't enough to convince you to give this book a try, well, I'm not sure we can be friends. But I'll keep trying! Take this, from a small-time con man's rambling, self-justifying account of his history of illicit impersonations of literary figures:
Mr. Wesson stopped the car, and contorting his features in a peculiar way, said to Joan: "Imagine that my head is bald and my eyebrows very bushy. Now, who do you think I am?"

"Bernard Shaw," Joan hazarded foolishly.

"Nonsense," said Mr. Wesson. "I was Rudyard Kipling. Now I am Bernard Shaw." And he assumed the expression of a milk-fed satyr.

"Of course," said Joan, "I would recognize you anywhere."

"Naturally I require a beard to complete the resemblance, just as I needed thicker eyebrows and a shaved head to become Mr. Kipling's double. Now who is this, do you think?"

Mr. Wesson blew and puffed out his cheeks till his face was all red and swollen, and in a rarefied, high-piping voice recited:
"They bred like birds in English woods,
They rooted like the rose,
When Alfred came to Athelney
To hide him from their bows."
"G. K. Chesterton!" said Joan.

Mr. Wesson smiled in a superior manner and restarted the car. "You see," he said, "that I have some qualifications for my self-invented profession."
Now you're convinced, and we can resume our friendship, surely?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sibling rivalry

I'm traveling for work this week, so posting will be more of the quote-and-run variety than the usual longform, print-and-bind-that-brilliance-and-be-sure-to-put-a-copy-in-the-next-Voyager-as-an-example-of-the-best-humanity-has-to-offer sort that you're used to in this space.

Today, I offer an example of why I love writers' letters. Oh, sure, barring Byron, you go to a writer's letters to learn more about the work, or his literary opinions, or her relationships with other writers. But while you're there, you're so often offered a bonus: ordinary scenes from everyday life observed and recorded memorably. Like this, found in the brand-new volume of William Styron's letters, from the closing of a letter to Robert Penn Warren of November 11, 1966, right after Styron's wife had given birth to a new daughter:
Our new offspring is just beautiful, and Tommy is meaner than hell about her. On the first day after she was born, when his grandmother called up to ask what he wanted her to bring him, he said quite slowly and deliberately, ‘Some wire . . . and some . . . batteries . . . and some nails . . . and some heavy weights.’ I really think he was building an electric chair for the baby in the cellar.
In a footnote, the editor cites a Styron quote found in James L. W. West's biography that reassures us that Styron's supposition was incorrect: in reality, said Styron,
after a long and sinister silence, he emerged with a wondrous artifact: a wooden bird with metal wings, a gift for Alexandra.
Had the boy emerged with an electric chair, would Styron ever have been able to shake the suspicion that he'd been cuckolded by Charles Addams?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Erich Kastner will not apologize for pulling no punches!

The recent NYRB Classics edition of Erich Kastner's corrosive, depressing novel of the excesses of late Weimar Germany, Going to the Dogs (1931), includes a preface that Kastner wrote for a 1950 edition of the book. Judging by the tone of the preface, the intervening years--marked, of course, by the war--had done nothing to dim his satiric fury at what he saw as the rampant moral failures of the era, moral failures that had, he clearly suggests, opened the door to the Nazis. After arguing that charges of immorality were in fact perfectly wrong--that the book makes no sense if it's not fundamentally a moral book--he closes with a ringing defense of moralists that remains powerful sixty years later:
The present book which depicts life as it was in the big city, is no poetic photograph album, but a satire. It does not describe what things were like; it exaggerates them. The moralist holds up not a mirror, but a distorting mirror to his age. Caricature, a legitimate artistic mode, is the furthest he can go. If that doesn't help nothing will. It is not unusual that nothing should help, nor was it then. But it would be unusual if the moralist were to be discouraged by this fact. His traditional task is the defence of lost causes. He fulfils it as best he may. His motto today is as it has always been: to fight on notwithstanding!
Am I right in thinking that this defense would apply to satirists as well? What are satirists, after all, if not bitter moralists fighting in the last trench?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Aspiration, reading, the 1950s, and the death of Dave Brubeck

I go see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field twenty-five or so times every summer. I always carry my shoulder bag, it's always full of books, and approximately every other time a member of the security staff riffles through it he'll jokingly say something like, "Now don't be doing your homework in there!"


When we had our condo on the market for a while a few years back, we pulled the books off our dozen bookcases and boxed them up at the behest of our realtor. He explained that, like any superfluous furniture or decorations, the books would be too distracting, drawing the attention of prospective buyers who should, instead, be thinking about how nice their stuff would look in the space.


I suspect, though, books are more than distracting to the average prospective buyer--that they're actually a bit deflating, unsettling. All serious readers have had guests ask the incredulous (and well-meaning but completely uncomprehending) question, "Have you really read all these?" For someone who's not a reader, I suspect that the sight of so many books calls forth memories of school, and pressure. Like the security guard, they associate them with homework. Not, our realtor would surely point out, what you'd think of as a buying mood.


Longtime readers will already know the pithiest description of the problem of books for the unbookish, from Anthony Powell's The Valley of Bones:
Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
It's not exactly like what I imagine it must be to have true religious belief and try to convince others of its value, but I suspect it's at least distant kin.


In Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1953), a sci-fi novel set in a future where citizens are known as "consumers" and advertising rules the world, an ad man who has wormed his way into a conservationist conspiracy finds himself unexpectedly in a conspirator's personal library:
I was conscious of Herrera's eyes on me, and I don't think I showed any of what I felt. I even stayed with him for an hour or so, while he devoured a wormy copy of something called Moby-Dick and I glanced through half a dozen ancient magazines. Some of those remembered classics went a long way toward easing my conscience--there was actually an early "Do You Make These Common Mistakes in English?" and a very fine "Not a Cough in a Carload" that would have looked well on the wall of my office. . . . But I could not relax in the presence of so many books without a word of advertising in them. I am not a prude about solitary pleasures when they serve a useful purpose. But my tolerance has limits.

In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, Anne Applebaum notes that in the wave of arrests that followed the Soviet entrance into Hungary at the end of World War II, significant numbers of people were arrested simply because they owned books.


I'm listening to Dave Brubeck tonight. He died today, a day short of his 92nd birthday. One of his earliest, most successful albums was named Jazz Goes to College (1953).


The linking of jazz and college--and the intellectually and culturally aspirational quality of that linkage--seems inescapably tied to that era, the postwar years and especially the 1950s. This was the period that saw Sinatra graduate from bowling over teens to singing for adults, when Nat King Cole could host a TV show, when a generation of veterans was emerging from college--courtesy of the GI Bill, which also send Brubeck to college--and finally, dammit, getting to truly begin their adult lives. Brute force had been turned back, and the years ahead would be the realm of the educated, the civilized, the cultured and calm. Adlai Stevenson was a presidential candidate, for God's sake.


The 1950s were the time of The Mentor Philosophers. Of, for better or worse, Hugh Hefner's certainty that mixing smart fiction with the naked ladies would lessen the shame. Of, probably for worse, the birth of Reader's Digest condensed books. Of, definitely for worse, Immanuel Velikovsky as a best-seller. Books, and by extension ideas, were still seen as essential parts of the cultured life--and the cultured life was seen as an essential part of the adult life.


In Frank: The Voice (2010), James Kaplan writes about Frank Sinatra's voracious reading at the start of the 1950s, as his career and marriage had both just crashed and burned. Frank, writes Kaplan,
kept reading. His nose was always in some tome or other, especially when he was flying (which was often). And there were a lot of good books to read in late 1951. There was John Hersey's Hiroshima and The Diary of Anne Frank and John Gunther's big book about the United States and Churchill's and Eisenhower's memoirs and Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and The Caine Mutiny. Then somebody gave him a great big doorstop of a novel called From Here to Eternity, James Jones's scathing postwar portrait of the prewar U.S. Army. Once Frank started reading it, he couldn't put it down.
Sinatra, Kaplan explains, became obsessed with the character of Maggio--and with the idea that he should play him in the soon-to-be-cast film version:
Now he was spending sleepless nights worrying about his career, taking downers and uppers, reading obsessively at From Here to Eternity, dog-earing pages, marking up the Maggio sections.
Frank Sinatra, an ill-educated hard worker from Hoboken, was obsessed with James Jones and his 864-page novel.


From Here to Eternity holds up remarkably well, I think--far better than Robert Gottlieb suggests in his recent New York Review of Books essay about Jones. Jones's language can at times be overly (and ineffectively) arty, but there's never a sense that he's pulling his punches or dumbing things down. It was a serious reckoning with what we'd just learned from sending millions of young men through the machine designed to produce warriors--and it was an instant best-seller. And a favorite of Frank.


Frank wasn't alone, of course. Marilyn Monroe, for example, was also a reader. The volume of her notes, letters, and other occasional jottings that was published a few years ago established that the photos of her reading Ulysses and Leaves of Grass weren't fakes--like Frank, she was committed to the idea of improving her intellect, and doing so through books.


I've quoted the following passage from Rex Stout's "Fourth of July Picnic" (1958) before, but it's apt. It's a description by Nero Wolfe's right-hand man, Archie Goodwin, of their ace operative Saul Panzer's apartment:
Saul Panzer, below average in size but miles above it in savvy, lived alone on the top floor--living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bath--of a remodeled house on Thirty-eighth Street between Lexington and Third. The living room was big, lighted with two floor lamps and two table lamps, even at seven o'clock of a July evening, because the blinds were drawn. One wall had windows, another was solid with books, and the other two had pictures and shelves that were cluttered with everything from chunks of minerals to walrus tusks. In the far corner was a grand piano.
Bookshelves. A piano. In the apartment of a private detective. Oh, 1958.


There's a serious risk of sounding like an under-forty Andy Rooney in saying this, but I'll go ahead: it's nearly inconceivable that major stars would strive so openly today, right? The culture has changed; books have been dislodged. Philosophy and novels are for undergrads of questionable hygiene rather than for the shelves of the den. Other things distract our magpie gaze; sophistication--called by other names--uses other measurements.


I'm an unashamedly casual jazz fans. I love Sinatra and a large group of vocal jazz (and pop) singers, but my knowledge of actual jazz beyond that, while not nothing, is fairly limited, not ranging much beyond what, speaking as I did earlier of Playboy, that magazine recommended as a method oh so long ago: get an album by Miles Davis, then one by each of his sidemen, then one by each of their sidemen, ad infinitum. I can listen to Bill Evans for days, and lament my own inability.

But what jazz unquestionably was, when I first dove in as a rural sixteen-year-old with eyes set far away, was aspirational and intellectual. It was part of what it might mean to go to college, to live in a city, to change and grow beyond what the limits of my tiny town would allow. And Dave Brubeck was a big part of that. For a precocious sixteen-year-old there's still nothing quite like working out the insane time signatures of the songs on Take Five. Jazz said elsewhere, and knowledge, and adult life.


Any time I write about the past, I want to be clear that I wouldn't want to live there. To brutalize Faulkner's lines, the golden age isn't over; it wasn't even golden. One reason people have long admired Dave Brubeck is that he ran an integrated band--and threatened, seriously, to cancel concerts when venues complained. The very fact that he had to take that stand should be enough to convince us that the 1950s were no golden age. But for those of us who love books, who work and live with books, there's unquestionably an aspect of it to pine for, a largely lost mainstream that, after an inconceivably destructive world war, was looking for answers--and thought they might be found in books.


When we took our condo off the market, we had friends over, poured some martinis, and with the assistance of both reshelved the books until 2 in the morning. We only reassembled ten of our twelve bookcases, however. My new piano needed the rest of the space.



Rest in peace, Mr. Brubeck.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Young Man with a Horn

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The best thing about the NYRB Classics book club--aside, that is, from knowing that once a month I'll get an NYRB Classic in the mail--is that the books they send aren't always ones I would have bought. I buy a lot of NYRB Classics, to the point that our house currently has twelve feet of shelf space dedicated to the series, but even so I don't come close to bringing home their entire list. Yet their editorial judgement is so reliable that I know I'm missing good books--and the book club offers a small step toward preventing that.

The best example thus far is Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn (1938), which I was quoting on Twitter all morning. Had I seen it in the store, I would have passed it right by, assuming it would be yet another cliched jazz novel about a talented but tormented soul . . . well, I'll just let Gary Giddens tell it:
The Jazz Novel, especially as produced by white writers, was not simply a novel set in the jazz world. It became associated with a rote cycle of banalities centered on a doomed, misunderstood genius, white or black; a wise black mentor or worshipful white acolyte; competing women (nice and marriageable versus evil and sexy); and friends who try in vain to impede his tragic demise. The hero is usually fixated on hitting a fatal high note, consumes alcohol or drugs, and is given to shuffling alone in the rain.
That's from Giddens's afterword, and it pretty much nails it. Nails, that is, what ails your typical jazz novel--none of which is a problem in Young Man with a Horn. Some of the elements are there: a drink-sodden hero, well-meaning friends, a high note. But none of them feels wrong, none feels unearned or overly demonstrative. Instead, what Baker gives us is a story of obsession that we can believe in, a man who only really comes alive when playing music and is essentially unfitted for the world in every other regard. As Baker offers brief, disconnected scenes from her trumpet player's life, some important, some not, she weaves what Giddens describes as a "sustained elegy," making us mourn his clearly inevitable demise because she makes us believe in his genius--and, more important his, bone-deep love of the music.

So if you're looking for a holiday gift for a reading friend that's on the cheap side, grab Young Man with a Horn. Or if you're up for spending more, plump for a six-month book club subscription. Maybe your friend will lend them all to you after he's done reading.