Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Convergence

Several years ago Lawrence Weschler published a little book called Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, in which he described the strange, unexpected connections he often finds in art, history, literature, and the like across eras and cultures. It's a strange and satisfying book, the product of a restless mind and an accepting, intuitive eye.

I thought of that book recently as I was reading Iris Murdoch's The Philosopher's Pupil (1983). The moment of recognition I had while reading it isn't strange enough, or clear enough, to rise to the level of Weschler's examples, but it surprised me regardless, as it brought together two writers whom I'd until that point thought of as wholly different.

The passages in question come from early in the novel, when the coy narrator is describing the hot spring–fueled spa that is the central feature of the town in which the book is set:
The spring has been the victim of periodical puritanism, and Ennistonians had, and to some extent still have, oddly mixed feelings about their chief municipal glory. Before the first war a Methodist minister even managed to have the spring closed for a short period on an allegation, never proved, that it had become a secret centre of heathen worship. A vague feeling persists to this day that the spring is in some way a source of a kind of unholy restlessness that attacks the town at intervals like an epidemic. . . . No alcohol is served in the Institute. This rule is maintained in spite of periodic protests by younger citizens. It is held that a bar would radically alter the atmosphere of the place, and no doubt this is true. . . . The Indoor Bath used to be hired out for private parties, but after a gathering which was reported in the national newspapers this custom was discontinued.

On the left of the Promenade a door leads to a large and curious octagonal room known as "the Baptistry." This room enshrines the entrance, complete with pseudo-classical pillars and pediment, to the great "machinery" or "engine room," to use the traditional terms, of the installation. These machines, now modernized of course, were the pride of a well-known nineteenth-century engineer, and the huge subterranean area which they occupy used to be on show to the public. Now, however, for a variety of reasons (thought by those who canvass matter regularly in the Gazette to be sinister) this area is closed and the way into the Baptistry is marked PRIVATE. The Baptistry is used as a store-room, and the great hot bronze doors, studded with pseudo-nails, which guard the access to (as we say and imagine) "the hot spring itself," are locked against all except "authorized personnel." Even to glimpse these doors, through which steam eternally seeps, is a rare treat for citizens peering in from the Promenade. . . .

The Institute occupies a central place in the social life of Ennistone. Its role has been compared to that of the agora in Athens. It is the main rendezvous of the citizenry where people idle, relax, show off, hunt for partners, make assignations, make business deals, make plots. Marriages are made, and broken, beside these steamy pools. It is like what going to church used to be, only it happens every day. This aspect of our lives is of course described by responsible citizens in high-minded terms. Swimming is the very best kind of exercise for old and young, and is undoubtedly also good for the soul. This lofty conception of the spiritual utility of swimming battles constantly with the (also recurrent) notion of many citizens that the Baths is a temple of hedonism. The old thes dansants (with three-piece orchestra) upon the Promenade have long ceased to be. But the danger always remains that innocent and healthy disciplines may degenerate into pure pleasure.
The description of a strange, insular town and its odd central feature; the use of a narrative "we" and quoting of received opinion; the hints that a history recent enough that it ought to be recoverable is nonetheless mist-shrouded and mysterious; a sense that perhaps there are powers at work, making decisions, that are far beyond the ken of the ordinary citizen; the suggestions of sex, and of tacitly approved abandonment of social constraints--it all calls to mind Steven Millhauser. Compare it to the opening of his story "The Barnum Museum":
The Barnum Museum is located in the heart of our city, two blocks north of the financial district. The Romanesque and Gothic entranceways, the paired sphinxes and griffins, the gilded onion domes, the corbeled turrets and mansarded towers, the octagonal cupolas, the crestings and crenellations, all these compose an elusive design that seems calculated to lead the eye restlessly from point to point without permitting it to take in the whole. In fact the structure is so difficult to grasp that we cannot tell whether the Barnum Museum is a single complex building with numerous wings, annexes, additions, and extensions, or whether it is many buildings artfully connected by roofed walkways, stone bridges, flowering arbors, booth-lined arcades, colonnaded passageways.
Or, from a few pages on:
The enemies of the Barnum Museum say that its exhibits are fraudulent; that its deceptions harm our children, who are turned away from the realm of the natural to a false realm of the monstrous and fantastic; that certain displays are provocative, erotic, and immoral; that this temple of so-called wonders draws us out of the sun, tempts us away from healthy pursuits, and renders us dissatisfied with our daily lives; that the presence of the museum in our city encourages those elements which, like confidence men, sharpers, palmists, and astrologers, prey on the gullible; that the very existence of this grotesque eyesore and its repellent collection of monstrosities disturbs our tranquility, undermines our strength, and reveals our secret weakness and confusion.
Anyone who's read Murdoch and Millhauser knows they're not really very much alike--Millhauser's a fabulist and tale-spinner, Murdoch, for all her love of farce and magic, fundamentally a realist--but I'm pleased to discover this tiny point of convergence. It seems to suggest that at a minimum the two would agree that there are strange places in our world, locations that by their very nature loosen strictures and allow eros, and all his attendant powers and mischief, free rein.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Howards End

Re-reading Howards End nearly twenty years after first reading it is a good way to remind yourself of all that you didn't know at nineteen. From facts (the political struggle of the time over limiting the power of the House of Lords, to take just one) to emotions (which, if one is honest, includes nearly all of those incident upon serious relationships), the difference that comes with having doubled one's store of experience is impressive. What struck me most this time through--perhaps no surprise to those who've read Forster as adults--was how fundamentally decent Forster is to all his characters, his "patient recognition that human beings are usually awful, but must be given a chance not to be," as Samuel Hynes put it in his 1985 introduction to the Bantam edition. As Forster himself puts it, it's "Cynicism--not the superficial cynicism that snarls and sneers, but the cynicism that can go with courtesy and tenderness," the cynicism that knows that people most often will disappoint, but that refuses to build its world around that fact.

Throughout the novel Forster argues against excessive preparation for the worst outcome. "Those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy," he writes. Elsewhere, in the passage that most explicitly links that idea with his argument that we should believe in people despite the evidence, his heroine, Margaret Schlesinger, describes her father's approach to trust. When her aunt worries that a visitor might easily have stolen their "apostle spoons," Margaret replies:
"Yes, I think the apostle spoons could have gone as rent," said Margaret. Seeing that her aunt did not understand, she added: "You remember 'rent.' It was one of father's words--Rent to the ideal, to his own faith in human nature. You remember how he would trust strangers, and if they fooled him he would say, 'It's better to be fooled than to be suspicious'--that the confidence trick is the work of man, but the want-of-confidence-trick is the work of the devil."
That thought appears in a variety of permutations in the novel, situations that test its aptness and its consequences. But, at least this time through, it stood out most strikingly for me in the following passage, where its interest is more historic than novelistic:
Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere .With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of a man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.
Forster wrote the novel between 1908 and 1910, a period which saw Parliament authorizing the construction of four new capital ships on the lines of the Dreadnought, which itself had triggered an increasingly intense naval arms race with Germany; 1910 saw the keels laid for four more. Forster surely saw what others saw: that Europe was bristling with arms. But--to the extent that we can legitimately read this passage as standing in for his thought, and expand the personal to the national--he seems not to have seen the outcome.

That's far from unreasonable, of course; there's a reason that the most recent history of the run-up to the Great War is called Sleepwalkers. It's only interesting in context of Forster's ability to see incipient change elsewhere--specifically, in Howards End, in the creeping expansion of London, the ongoing destruction of rural life, and the suburbanization of the land. The novel, full as it is of railway and motor-car journeys, understands that London's stain is unstoppable, that it will spread and spread and the result will be nothing England has known before. Near the end of the novel, Margaret stands outside Howards End, which not so long ago was a farmhouse and is now a country retreat, and points
over a meadow--over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red dust.

"You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now."
And Surrey is now London, Hampshire far from rural.

Yet Forster couldn't see the smash coming. England over-arming itself, all Europe doing the same--and Forster's worry was what was being lost, what being foreclosed in favor of preparation that, he seems to think, is needless. It certainly can be argued that the pre-war preparation was detrimental--that it even to a large extent precipitated the war--but how wonderful to imagine a world where it had turned out to be useless!

Instead, we're left to picture Margaret and Helen rolling bandages; Charles and Paul Wilcox (for all the little, let's be honest, that we care for them) enlisting, puffed with patriotism; and even Tibby, ineffectual Tibby, who "had never known young-manliness, that quality which warms the heart till death," who is "untroubled by passions and sincerely indifferent to public opinion," who is "affected in manner, but never posed," who "disdained the heroic equipment," swept up in the patriotic, romantic fervor, like so many of his generation, trading his indolence and study for a kit bag and helmet and the squalor of the trenches.

Did he survive? Did any of them? Great is the novel that can make us wonder, and greater still make us care.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Henry Fielding on Vanity

Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742), while not nearly as entertaining as Tom Jones--an unfair bar to ask a book to clear--is nonetheless great fun, a rambling goof on hypocrisy, vanity, and desire that in its paper-thin organizational scheme is one step up from the picaresque.

It's amusing throughout--what led rocketlass to pick it off the table at Daunt Books when we were in London was a scene of fisticuffs that had her laughing out loud--but my favorite moment is this vertiginous encomium to/damnation of vanity:
O Vanity! How little is thy Force acknowledged, or thy Operations discerned? How wantonly dost thou deceive Mankind under different Disguises? Sometimes thou does wear the Face of Pity, sometimes of Generosity: nay, thou has the Assurance even to put on those glorious Ornaments which belong only to heroic Virtue. Thou Odious, deformed Monster! whom Priests have railed at, Philosophers despised, and Poets ridiculed: Is there a Wretch so abandoned as to own thee for an Acquaintance in public? yet, how few will refuse to enjoy thee in private? Nay, thou are the Pursuit of most Men through their Lives. The greatest Villainies are daily practised to please thee: nor is the meanest Thief below, or the greatest Hero above, thy notice. Thy embraces are often the sole Aim and sole Reward of the private Robbery, and the plundered province. It is, to pamper up thee, thou Harlot, that we attempt to withdraw from others what we do not want, or to withhold from them what they do. All our Passions are they Slaves. Avarice itself is often no more than thy Hand-maid, and even Lust thy Pimp. The Bully Fear, like a Coward, flies before thee, and Joy and Grief hide their Heads in thy Presence.

I know thou wilt think, that whilst I abuse thee, I court thee; and that thy Love hath inspired me to write this sarcastical Panegyrick on thee: but thou are deceived, I value thee not of a farthing; nor will it give me any Pain, if thou should'st prevail on the Reader to censure this Digression as errant Nonsense: for know to thy Confusion, that I have introduced thee for no other Purpose than to lengthen out a short Chapter; and so I return to my History.
That's right: Fielding tricked Vanity into helping him fill out a chapter . . . by appealing to Vanity's vanity. Well played, sir.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mark Twain leads by example, or, Out, d---n'd swears!

Longtime readers know that while I try not to work blue here, I am an unabashed fan of swears. I hold with Mark Twain, who argued that we all swear--sinning in our hearts, if not in our mouths:
For it is not the word that is the sin, it is the spirit back of the sin. When an irritated lady says, "oh!" the spirit back of it is "damn!" and that is the way it is going to be recorded against her. It always makes me so sorry when I hear a lady swear like that. But if she says "damn" and says it in an amiable, nice way, it isn't going to be recorded at all.
I depart from Twain (as, based on his more considered writings on the subject, he seems to have parted with himself) when it comes to the image of a goodly recording angel, but it's hard to disagree with the sentiment. He continues with his argument:
The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent way.
Or, I would add, a creative way. Creativity in swearing, it's important to note, is not a risk-free endeavor: while the well-timed, unexpected combination of vulgarity, punch, and descriptive force can be an unmitigated joy, if you get too creative you risk having your auditors, angelic or otherwise, suspect you of idling away the day imagining swears, which is not a situation in which one wants to be pictured after reaching, say, fifteen. Life, it's been said, is a goddam struggle.

Twain was a wonderful man for giving advice, less a one for following it, even when it was his own. Edgar Lee Masters records an incident of less than nice swearing as an aged Twain wrestled with a balky faucet in a DC hotel room in 1906:
God damn the Goddamned son of a bitch that invented that faucet. I hope he'll roast in hell a million years.
I think describing those swears as benevolent would also constitute a stretch. Masters uses the tale as an example of Twain's decline. Calling him an "irritable, foolish old man" on the verge of "spiritual collapse," he points out the faucet's true inventor:
It was God, you see, who created the fool who invented the faucet. And at that Twain may merely have failed to operate the faucet properly.
In schoolyard parlance, Twain here would be rubber, Masters glue. When he's done outwitting Twain, I've got a stack of Stephen King books out from the library in which Masters can white out all the F-words.

Speaking of F-words, what started me off on this path tonight was an elided swear word in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews. A connoisseur such as myself ought not to be tripped up by the em-dash–filled shells of words too shocking for eighteenth-century eyes, and for the most part I've not been: "B---" and D--n'd" present no problems. This one, however, from the foul mouth of an innkeeper's wife whose attentions Joseph Andrews spurned, stumped me:
"My dear," said [her husband], "common Charity won't suffer you to do that." "Common Charity, a F--t!"says she.
All day this bedeviled me . . . but, in an instance that would lend support to the arguments of those who urge us to work through puzzles and problems by writing about them, the mystery has been solved. As I was typing, rocketlass asked what I was working on, and I pointed out the expurgated expletive. "It's 'fart,'" she instantly said. "Did my annoying coworkers put you up to this?"

Monday, February 18, 2013

Dear fans of epistolary novels,

Dreams, diaries, and letters pose risks for the novelist. It's easy to see why they're tempting: they can break narrative tedium, introduce new voices and new perspectives, and offer new, perhaps more explicit, ways of treating themes and plot points. But those are also the very reasons that they're risky: their status as something from outside the established narrative voice can't help but disrupt the tacit pact we've entered into, that if the writer will maintain a certain level of plausible tone and detail (to say nothing of basic narrative felicity), we'll forego such discussion section questions as, "Who is the narrator telling this to?" or "Why are we being given this information?"

Introduce a letter or a dream, however, and all that goes by the wayside. Our skepticism, long dormant, perks up. And all too often, writers fail to allay that skepticism--because they make use of these interpolations. They want to use these new elements as instruments with which to move their plot or characters, and in doing so they often deform them beyond recognition. We all know dreams, all know letters--and we know that they don't generally do things in as straightforward a manner as novelists would have them do. Dreams are weird, freighted, inexplicable. Letters are rough, heterogeneous, unclear, full of unannotated references to earlier scenes and unfamiliar people, made up as much of the noise of chatter as the signal of intent. In that regard, both are like the novel itself: contraptions made of jumbles of seemingly inessential stuff--but stuff that, if pared away or honed too ruthlessly quickly reveals itself to be integral.

A writer who wants to employ either has to walk a fine line between letting the thing be what it is--or would be, were it real--and forcing it to serve his purpose. And they so often fail. Wallace Stegner'sAngle of Repose features a dream so overweighted with meaning, so unconvincing, that it casts a pall over my memory of that otherwise moving, even breathtaking novel. Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, which moves through different minds and locales with an ease and confidence that feels as if it belongs to an earlier century, stumbles only when it comes to reproducing letters.

All of which is by way of getting to Carlene Bauer's wonderful new novel, Frances and Bernard, which consists entirely of letters, the majority of them between the title characters, a female poet and a male novelist. The jacket copy explains that the pair were inspired by Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, but while that information does give the reader some subtle help (establishing, for example, distinct physicalities for both characters and a sense of their never-seen creative work)--and is of course a nice marketing hook--the characters never seem beholden to their origins, which they quickly transcend to become memorable figures in their own right.

The key to the book is that the letters never feel like anything but letters, the interactions they depict anything other than real correspondence. The pair meet at a writers' workshop, and their initial exchanges are essentially pedestrian feelings-out of each other. Bernard's third letter is a good example:
Dear Frances--

Point taken. My enthusiasm over finding someone with whom to talk these things over got the better of me.

My sin is poetizing. Can you tell?

As much as you protest, I think I have a better understanding now of the H.S. [Holy Spirit].

Why do you despair?

Italy has ceased to be musical. It now feels decrepit and entombing, and I'm glad to be leaving next week. I'm not even taking pleasure in the fact that my Italian is now as musical as my German is serviceable. I don't feel indolent anymore either; I feel crushed by effort. I feel that I'm toting slabs of marble around from second guess to second guess.
He goes on to speak a bit of his parents, to talk of where he'll be living when he returns, and to request that she send part of her novel-in-progress--"I command you."

It's that mix of throwaway and thoughtful, quotidian and lasting, direct response and spinning of thoughts that makes a letter, and that Bauer captures so incredibly well. The early letters are simultaneously tentative, calling to mind the deliberately begun epistolary friendship of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davies, and performative, not unlike the exchanges of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. And it's reflected in their language, a mix of simple, declarative statements and casual, but striking metaphors and images. To take but one example: Bernard, describing the women's boarding house in New York where Frances is living, calls it "that aqueduct built to conduct the flow of girls from Westchester straight into Connecticut while keeping them far above the catacombs of dead dreams." These are the letters of two writers, yes, but also of two people jotting thoughts down when they have a moment, building a friendship mostly out of absence, thinking through their days as they write them out. I read collections of writers' letters voraciously, and the astonishing achievement of this novel is that there was never a point where I felt like I was reading anything else. Instead, I enjoyed, again and again, that slightly illicit thrill of peeking behind the curtain, of seeing the private side of a public mind. All writers perform in their letters--some (E. B. White) more than others (Julian Maclaren-Ross)--but no matter the polish and care, intimacy emerges.

Which it does in Frances and Bernard. Within pages, we're caught up with these characters--these minds, which, in alternating letters, always do feel like two separate, different consciousnesses--as we watch them taking modest, tentative, yet undeniably bold steps towards friendship, and eventually love. (And, in Bernard's case, towards, and then away from, Frances's Christian belief; this novel is a relative rarity in taking religious belief seriously, and presenting it with intelligence--it would fit nicely on a shelf with such writers as J. F. Powers, Alice Thomas Ellis, and Rumer Godden.) Bauer's one concession to the need for plot is the interpolation of occasional letters from Frances and Bernard not to each other, but to their best friends, which gives a venue for sharing essential details and perspectives that wouldn't fit in their correspondence, but even those letters are so carefully wrought that they convince us of their truth and, just as important, their necessity--not to the plot, but to their writers.

Reaching the end of a biography or memoir, or collection of letters, brings an ache that is different from what comes when we close a novel, as the frisson created by its basis in reality gives way to the sad realization that it's an actual person on whose life we've just turned the final page. Frances and Bernard manages, while also delivering the pleasures of art--of invention, imagination, surprise--to infuse its fictional characters with that feeling of real loss. We believe these letters, so we believe in these characters, and in their hopes, fears, and pain. It's a stunning book. I was recommending it to friends when I was but 100 pages in, and I'll be continuing to do so for a long time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"The mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting," or, Anthony Powell reads William Gerhardie

As Michael Holroyd points out in his introduction to the new edition of William Gerhardie's The Polyglots in Melville House's Neversink Library series, Anthony Powell was an avowed fan. In a review for the Daily Telegraph in 1970, Powell called the book "immensely enjoyable," writing that in the decades since its 1925 publication it had "lost none of its freshness." He also makes the entertaining--and too-rarely noted--point that too much praise can easily put a dedicated reader off a new book:
The extraordinary burst of praise on the part of Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and a row of other pundits, that greeted The Polyglots when it appeared put me off as such pontifical recommendations do when you are young.
Powell didn't end up reading the book until 1928, when it came across his desk in a professional context through his work at Duckworth.

I think it's reasonable to say that Gerhardie's book was an influence on Powell's early novels. The most important models for those books are Evelyn Waugh and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Firbank, neither of which are much disguised--but now that I've read The Polyglots I see Gerhardie's influence, too: the air of indolence, of action detached from meaning, of uncertainty about the future and certainty--in a negative sense--about the institutions and honors of the past that are found in, say, Afternoon Men and From a View to a Death are fully present in the bizarre world of exiles, sharps, and failures Gerhardie creates.

The most obvious legacy of Gerhardie in Powell's work, however, comes later, in the figure of one of the most memorable minor characters in A Dance to the Music of Time: the military bureaucrat Blackhead. Major David Pennistone introduces Blackhead by saying that "Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word 'bureaucrat' will have conveyed no meaning to you." And while Nick Jenkins is skeptical, given "Pennistone's taste for presenting individuals in dramatic form," he soon finds that "the picture was, if anything, toned down from reality." Blackhead's ability to "evolv[e] a really impregnable system of obstruction and preclusion" turns out to be so far above the field as to make him, in the philosopher Pennistone's words, "a man apart. . . . His minutes have the abstract quality of pure extension." In fact, reflecting on Blackhead's power and seemingly uncheckable bureaucratic immobility, Nick speculates,
It was as if Blackhead, relatively humble though his grading might be, had become an anonymous immanence of all their kind, a fetish, the Voodoo deity of the whole Civil Service to be venerated and placated, even if better--safer--hidden away out of sight: the mystic holy essence incarnate of arguing, encumbering, delaying, hair-splitting, all for the best of reasons.
The ever-inventive Pennistone--one of the few kindred souls Nick encounters in the relative intellectual wasteland of the Army command--does get a bit of his own back, however:
Blackhead pointed severely to what he had written. Then he turned the pages several times. It was a real Marathon of a minute, even for Blackhead. When it came to an end at last he tapped his finger sharply on a comment written below his own signature.

"Look at this," he said.

He spoke indignantly. I leant forward to examine the exhibit, which was in Pennistone's handwriting. Blackhead had written, in all, three and a half pages on the theory and practice of soap issues for military personnel, with especial reference to the Polish Women's Corps. Turning from his spidery scrawl to Pennistone's neat hand, two words only were inscribed. They stood out on the file:

Please amplify. D. Pennistone. Maj. GS.
This does not, you can imagine, sit well with Blackhead. Nor is it easy for Nick to keep from laughing, "which would have been fatal, an error from which no recovery would have been possible." Powell's spinning out of the angry, threatened intricacies of Blackhead's reaction is a brilliant piece of comedy.

It's one of my favorite moments in the whole of Dance, and I think of it every time I come up against entrenched bureaucracy. So imagine how I perked up when I read the following passage from The Polyglots, which I'm quoting at length both because the whole paragraph is good and because the joke requires the context:
My chief was a lover of "staff work," and besides the many ordinary files he had some special files--a file called "The Religious File," in which he kept documents supplied by metropolitans and archimandrites and other holy fathers, and another file in which he kept correspondence relative to some gramophone records which had been taken from the Mess by a Canadian officer. And much of our work consisted of sending these files backwards and forwards. And sometimes the gramophone file would be lost, and sometimes the religious file, and then Sir Hugo would be very upset. Or he would write a report, and the report--so intricate was our organization--would also be lost. Once he wrote a very exhaustive report on the local situation. He had it corrected very carefully, had, after much thought, inserted a number of additional commas, had erased some of the commas on secondary consideration, had had the report typed, and had corrected it again when it was typed, inserting long sub-paragraphs in the margins which he enclosed in large circles, and so attached them to wherever they belonged by means of long pointed arrows trespassing on each other's ground, thus giving the script the appearance of a spider's web. Then he had read it through once again, now solely from the point of view of punctuation. He inserted seven more commas and a full stop which he had previously omitted. Sir Hugo was most particular about full stops, commas and semicolons, and he was very fond of colons, which he preferred to semicolons, by way of being more pointed and incisive, by way of proving that the universe was one chain of causes and effects. In order to avoid any possible mistakes in the typing of his manuscript, Sir Hugo surrounded his full stops with little circles, and in producing commas he would turn his pen so as almost to cause a hole in the paper and then slash it down like a sabre. The colons were two dots, each surrounded by a circle, and a semicolon was a combination of an encircled full stop and a sabre slash of a comma. There could be no possible mistake about Sir Hugo's punctuation. And would you believe it? After he had dispatched the report, marking the inner envelope in red ink "Very Secret and Personal," and placing the inner envelope in an outer envelope and sealing carefully both envelopes--the report was lost.

Sir Hugo had, of course, made enquiries. he established a chain of responsibility, and it seemed that each link had done its duty: yet the chain had failed. But Sir Hugo would not give in. He had accumulated a pile of unshapely correspondence on the subject of the prodigal report and had collected the papers in a file named "The Lost Report of Sir Hugo Culpit," and when he collected a scrap of evidence on the subject he would scribble it down on a buff slip and then send it in to me (whom he had now entrusted to keep the file), with the words: "Please attach this slip, by a pin, to confidential file, entitled "The Lost Report of Sir Hugo Culpit." And in a humorous vein I had written on the slip in imitation of Sir Hugo's manner:
Please state what pin:

1 (a) An ordinary pin; (b) a safety-pin; (c) a drawing-pin; (d) a hair-pin; (e) a linch-pin.
2. What make and size
and sent the slip back to Sir Hugo.
Gerhardie's narrator's victory isn't nearly so satisfying as Pennistone's, however. Rather, he is reprimanded, which reminds him that
Sir Hugo hated people like himself, because they acted as a sort of caricature of himself: served to remind him of a fact of which in his more open moments with himself he was dimly conscious--that he was to a large degree absurd.
Surely Powell recalled this scene, even if subconsciously, as he wrote of Pennistone's defeat of Blackhead?

I've quoted enough now to make my small point, and god knows this post is long enough already . . . but I can't resist quoting the denouement of The Lost Report of Sir Hugo Culpit:
And yesterday--two months later!--the prodigal report had returned to the office. To the unspeakable horror of Sir Hugo it was found in an empty oat sack at the distant wharf of Egersheldt, and Sir Hugo now broke his head as to how it could have possibly got there. He was determined to trace back its journey to the office, even if that should cost him his health.

He had convened a special conference comprising all the heads of departments and told us of the mysterious circumstances. "We must begin," he said, "right at the beginning. There is, in fact, many a worse point to begin at. I am not entirely pessimistic. We've got the sack. That is all right. Beyond the sack we know nothing. Now here is the sack." He stretched out the sack. "I suggest, gentlemen," he said, "that you work backwards. The first thing to do is to trace the manufacturers of the sack."
Pennistone aside, it's a sad truth of life that the martinets and bureaucrats usually have the last word. Duly notarized in triplicate.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Out, damned damp!

Despite reasonably good intentions, I find myself once again up against it tonight, without the time I'd hoped to set aside to blog. Fortunately, however, I have in hand more good bits from Exodus, the newest novel in Lars Iyer's Spurious trilogy. Herewith, in hopes of convincing anyone who's ever worked in even the fringes of academia (or even, say, culture in general) that they should buy these books, one of my favorite bits thus far:
Spital Tongues, Newcastle. There it is, W. says, as we walk past the allotments. There it is, the terrace where my flat is buried. The dampest row of flats there ever was, W. says. The dampest Tyneside flats, built atop a culvetted river, atop a coal tunnel now used for sewage, atop old mine workings, now full of water. The dampest, most rat-infested flats, which should have been demolished a hundred years ago, but have been allowed to survive in their degradation. The last of the slums after all the slums have been cleared . . .

And then there’s my flat, the centre of the catastrophe, W. says. My flat, a swamp in the shape of a flat, a flat-plague, interred in its pit. My flat that the sun doesn’t reach, deep underground like a mausoleum to the world’s greatest idiot. My flat, like a barrow for the greatest of imbeciles. . .

‘What possessed you to buy an underground flat?’ W. says. To be close to the earth, he says, was that it? To be close to the toads and the worms, to the creatures of the earth?

Slug trails along the floorboards. . . Curled up woodlice in room corners. . . — ‘The flat’s being taken back by nature,’ W. says. He’s right. The walls are green. Mushrooms grow from the ceiling. And then there’s the damp, of course. The ever-present damp. Is it alive? Is it dead? It’s beyond life, and beyond death, W. says. They should send scientists out to study it, my damp, W. says. They should try to communicate with it, like the scientists in Solaris. It’s more intelligent than us, W. says, he’s sure of it. My damp has something momentous to say, something profound. In fact, isn’t it speaking now, to those who have ears to hear? Isn’t it rumbling in the darkness? I should know, W. says. I live with it.—You understand the damp,’ W. says. Or rather, the damp understands itself in me.

. . .

What next?, W. wonders. What will be the next plague? There are the slugs, of course, but they’re scarcely a plague. There are the ants — and the mushrooms. But he believes something more dreadful is gathering itself in my flat, W. says. Something Lovecraftian. Something cosmic.
It's barely even February, but I suspect I can already mark this one down as the funniest novel I'l read this year. And the most entertainingly biting.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Lars Iyer is not getting any more hopeful.

The gray and drippy depths of winter are the perfect time to read Lars Iyer. His new book, Exodus, the third volume in his Spurious trilogy, was just published, and in honor of that I'll share a brief piece about the middle book, Dogma, that I wrote a while back for a year-end-favorites wrap-up at my office that we didn't end up needing.


"You should never learn from your mistakes, W. says. He never has, which is why he associates with me."

That's how Lars Iyer opens his novel Dogma, and that's the tone—lacerating, ironic, dismissive, fatalistic—that runs through the whole book. An account by a low-rung British academic (named Lars) of his friendship and intellectual collaboration with W., a professor of philosophy, the book largely consists of W.'s caustic enumeration of Lars's many failings as a thinker, friend, and human being. But what other than failure, W. suggests, can we expect other in this decrepit world of hollowed-out universities ("The rumour is they're going to close down all the humanities, every course. . . . They'll probably make me professor of badminton ethics."), sham intellectualism ("All our books, all our philosophies, are only articles in some gossip magazine"), and commercial pseudoreality ("Pigeon Forge. The end is nigh.")? Like a demented, brainy cousin of Withnail and I crossed with the early, blithe and vicious Waugh, the book is hilarious, rude, and deeply pessimistic, yet at times moving and even profound, the kind of satire that razes our sordid reality and then takes the extra step of salting the earth, lest we take it in our heads to let any of that nonsense grow up again.


Spurious was one of my favorite books of 2011, Dogma of 2012, and I fully expect Exodus to hold a similar position for 2013. Hell, I'm only about twenty-five pages in and I'm already quoting it in e-mails. The following went out to a friend this morning:
My living room. W. takes his place on the Chair of Judgement: "Bring me gin!" It's going to be a long night. He has a lot to get through, W. says, leaning his chair back against the wall.

My failings, my failures: the usual topic. The failure of my life, of my thought. The failure of my books. Familiar topics. My past failures, my present one: yes we know about those, W. says. but my future failings . . . that's what W. wants to talk about tonight.

"Where will you have gone wrong?", he says. "What will you have done? What crimes have you yet to commit? How will you have managed to have failed anew?"

It's quite a tense, isn't it, the future perfect?, W. says. Who will I have disappointed? Him, of course, W. says. Whose hopes will I have defiled? His, of course, W. says. His hopes.

Ah, what will I have done to him, W., in the future? What terrors await him? -- "Will you have written another book? Will you have come up with another escape plan? Ah, but he know what will have happened. I know. We'll have been sacked, and living on the dole.
If that's whetted your appetite, you can get more of Iyer's inimitable writing at his blog--and after a bit of wandering there, I expect you'll want to make unseemly haste to your nearest bookstore and buy up the trilogy.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

De La Pava to Baker to DeWitt, which deserves, methinks, an Oh, my!

When I asked Sergio De La Pava a couple of years ago what his goals were as a writer, he said that he wanted all of his books to be completely different from each other--which admirable goal got us to talking, trying to figure out what writers, if any, could claim that for their work. After dismissing a lot of possibilities, I finally came up with one: Nicholson Baker. Baker has written novels about feeding a baby, a trip to the drugstore over lunch, lighting a fire, a child's thoughts on grade school, assassination, failing to write poetry, stopping time (and using that power for sex), phone sex, and sex sex. Each one takes its own form, some feeling, structurally, like a fairly typical novel, others feeling more like freely conceived essays or memoirs.

I was thinking about Baker again this week because I just read his novel The Everlasting Story of Nory for the first time, prompted by an appreciative essay by Jeremy Noel-Tod in Slightly Foxed that said it was "a bedside book in the best sense: it comforts and amuses, and translates the world with dream-like lucidity." Which is accurate, and, in an odd way, could be said of most of Baker's otherwise disparate books. And I kept coming back to the idea of all his books being different--yet, at the same time, all feeling like kin. So what holds them together--what are Baker's primary qualities as a writer?

I'll try three:

1 He's not embarrassed by any of his thoughts.

2 He thinks nearly everything in the world is worthy of thought.

3 He thinks the words used to describe that world, or those thoughts, are at least as important as the things described.

The most amazing of these is, of course, the first one. We all are embarrassed by our thoughts, because we all have plenty that are banal, or nonsensical, or, most embarrassing, solipsistic. That last is at its worst when it comes to sex, one of Baker's recurrent topics. There's simply no way to write about sex without revealing more than we want to of ourselves, laying ourselves open to ridicule. Yet that doesn't stop Baker.

Such freedom is admirable, but--especially allied to the second point--it also could easily make for unbearable writing. And that's where Baker's congenial, approachable, fundamentally likeable mind comes in. The unbearable version would parade his most idiosyncratic (and/or dirtiest) thoughts as if they were TRUTHS (think D. H. Lawrence, whom I love at times, at his phallocentric worst); Baker presents them as if he knows he should be embarrassed, but he's so excited by them, so wholly engaged with following them where they're leading, that he can't help but share them, and share his confidence that we'll enjoy the chase, too. He's giggling, quietly. When you add the third point, a prose as lush, precise, and worked-over as any since Nabokov, the combination can be incredibly winning.

It doesn't always work, and sex is, not surprisingly, where it most often falls down. In The Fermata, a book that is mostly quite good, the parts where Baker explicitly and deliberately sets out to write pornography are the only truly dull stretches in his oeuvre. And even the much better (when it comes to porn) House of Holes: A Book of Raunch (2011), his most recent novel, while at times a lot of fun for its sheer linguistic and scatological inventiveness, ultimately falls a bit flat. Baker, clearly, is taking unabashed joy in letting his smuttiest imagination fly--and, again, he's wholly unembarrassed about its contents--but someone else's fantasy, however well-honed, is ever going to do for you what it does for them.

All of which, by the roundabout ways that reading and thinking about books works, brought me to Helen DeWitt, an author who, in the hyper-logical intensity of her sentences, has some affinities with our starting point, Sergio De La Pava. The same year that House of Holes came out, DeWitt published her second novel, Lightning Rods. It, too, was, in a way, about sex--in fact, one of the masturbatory fantasies with which its down-and-out salesman protagonist consoles himself at the start of the novel could almost be plunked down into Baker's book. But in every other way, DeWitt's book is different, and superior.

Baker writes about sex as it might be if we could strip it of consequence and inhibition both; it's an unrealizable (and, I suspect, fundamentally masculine) utopia. DeWitt writes the more chillingly plausible story of what happens when sex is run through the grinder of corporate jargon, masculine privilege, and capitalist nonsense. In telling the story of an entrepreneur who finds success selling companies on the value (to their bottom line) of offering their sexual harassment–prone alpha male salesman types an anonymous sexual outlet at the office--the "lightning rods" of the title--DeWitt never breaks character, never lets on that this jaw-dropping fairytale of a simple problem and a simple solution just might have more personal, social, and political valences than dreamed of in her salesmen's philosophy. In fact--and here's where I stand in awe--to my memory she doesn't write a single phrase that couldn't have come from the mephitic bowels of a corporate strategic messaging office, as-told-to business memoir, or Successories calendar.

Take this self-assessment by one of the lightning rods:
Lucille had always thought of herself as pretty unflappable. The way she saw it was, she was the kind of person who could take things in her stride. She didn't let things get to her. Whatever might be going on around her, she just got on with whatever it was she had to do. Also, she prided herself on her attention to detail More specifically, she prided herself on paying attention to detail without getting obsessed about it. Basically she was the kind of person who could just get on with the job without making a fuss about it. Give her something to do and she would get the job done.
Or this, from the salesman himself:
For the next couple of days Joe tried to put a brave face on things. He tried not to think about the PVC with a slit in the crotch which the Equal Employment Opportunities Act was going to force him to implement. If he thought about it he was just going to get depressed, and in sales you can't afford to get depressed. You can't afford to go around thinking What's the point? That negative take on the product will communicate itself to the customer, and before you know it all the hard work you put into getting your foot in the door will be down he drain.

Sooner or later, though, we all have to face the facts.
Such is the shorthand, and the shortcuts and short-circuits of thought, with which corporate life implicitly encourages us to mask the reality, and real consequences, of what we're doing as we blithely type away at our workstations every day.

Baker, most often, and particularly in House of Holes, is playing--though from his playing, as from all play, real emotion and real, lasting meaning can and do emerge. His play, because he cares about it so much, is in its way serious. DeWitt, however, is hunting--and bagging--bigger game. Lightning Rods is an astonishing book: funny, smart, vicious, and effective. It paints a picture of a future--hell, a present--where corporate culture's goal of making us all slides in a perfect problem-solving PowerPoint presentation has reached one of its logical end points. It may be funny--at times enough to make me laugh out loud--but damn, is it bleak.

Monday, February 04, 2013


I'm about 100 pages into Peter Ackroyd's Tudors--Anne Boleyn has just given reluctant way to Jane Seymour--and while I'm very much enjoying Ackroyd's fleshing out and backing up of the drama so lately familiar from Hilary Mantel, the passage that has struck me most thus far is this one:
The White Horse Tavern was nicknamed "Germany" as the Lutheran creed was discussed within its walls, and the participants were known as "Germans." They were, however, an eclectic group; among them were Thomas Cranmer and William Tyndale, Nicholas Ridley and Matthew Parker. Two of them became archbishops, seven became bishops, and eight became martyrs burned at the stake. This was an exhilarating, and also a dangerous, time.
Such always seems to be the way in revolutionary times: an exceptional group comes together and, more often than not, dashes itself to pieces, leaving behind that sort of roster of achievement and bill of mortality. If your only exposure to Hilary Mantel is her books about Thomas Cromwell, try her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, and you'll see that cruel, brilliant, lightning volatility in action. It's simultaneously seductive and chilling.

But those are revolutions concerned primarily with power (even if that power claims to be primarily over souls), and, as Ackroyd writes, "Power may be glorious, but it can quickly turn fierce." The illustrious, doomed group at the White Horse found their gentler echo this weekend as I was reading the entry for "Embraceable You" in Ted Gioia's The Jazz Standards. Look at the concatenation of talent brought together by this song:
Gershwin abandoned East Is West but managed to recycle the song in his 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy, where Ginger Rogers performed "Embraceable You" in a dance number choreographed by Fred Astaire. This landmark show not only made Rogers into a star but also featured the Broadway debut of Ethel Merman (who sang "I Got Rhythm"). No other Gershwin production intorduced more jazz standards in its score. Even the pit orchestra boasted top-notch jazz talent, with Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and Gene Krupa within its ranks.
The revolutions of art may be catty, even vicious in their way, but rarely does anyone leave with their head in a saddlebag.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The call of duty. Unspeakable duty.

Some duties in life we choose. Some watches we take up intentionally, fully aware of the demands they will make on us, the sacrifices they will require.

Other duties, however, are thrust upon us. They seek us out on sneaking feet, and before we realize it we are press-ganged and enlisted, on the ramparts with a weather eye to the horizon, lives in our hands, like it or not.

The former is how I would characterize my interest in and cataloging of instances of fictional characters being compared to beloved movie bigman Sydney Greenstreet. It is but an expression of my Sydney Greenstreet–sized passion for that noble object of comparison.

The latter category? Well, that would include a beat to which I hadn't, until this week, even realized I'd been assigned: reporting on { . . . sidelong glance . . . . whisper . . . } grandmotherfuckers. Ahem.

I did, a few years back, report on D. J. Enright's inclusion of that--thankfully rare--category of person in his list of causes of vampirism:
The sins and misfortunes reckoned to lead to the condition have included some weird items: committing suicide, of course, but also working on Sundays, smoking on holy days, drinking to excess, and having sexual intercourse with one's grandmother; more innocently, those born on Christmas Day are doomed to the same fate in punishment of their mothers' presumptuousness in conceiving on the same day as the Virgin Mary.
That, I thought, 'twould be the end of it. Like many a horror movie protagonist, I was wrong.

Earlier this week, reading Tristram Shandy, I came upon an account of a complicated and nonsensical argument that concluded with a proof that parents are not kin to their children, in part because while their "blood and seed" are mixed in the child, his are not mixed in them. Innocently, I read on:
It is held, said Triptolemus, the better opinion; because the father, the mother, and the child, though they be three persons, yet are they but (una caro) one flesh; and consequently no degree of kindred--or any method of acquiring one in nature--There you push the argument too far, cried Didius--for there is no prohibition in nature, though there is in the levitical law,--but that a man may beget a child upon his grandmother--in which case, supposing the issue a daughter, she would stand in relation both of--But who ever thought, cried Kysarcius, of laying with his grandmother?--The young gentleman, replied Yorick, whom Selden speaks of--who not only thought of it, but justified his intention to his father by the argument drawn from the law of retaliation--"You lay'd, Sir, with my mother, said the lad--why may not I lay with yours?"
And with that, let us leave this topic and hope never to be called to vigilance regarding it again.