Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"My comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard," or, Paul Collins brings Poe to life

A life of Poe should be short. Not so much because Poe's own life was short, but because it was so rackety, so filled with loss, failure, destitution, and disgrace that it's a hard life to spend much time with. It's difficult enough to know that Poe's talent was deformed by the pressures of his life; to be reminded of it at length is painful.

That alone would make Paul Collins's new brief life of Poe, Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, worth seeking out. When you add Collins's eye for anecdote and ability as an archive sleuth, you've got a real treat. Collins proves to be a judicious analyst of Poe's life and talent, offering thoughtful readings of his successes and failures in both, including his mystifying (to modern eyes) wedding to his thirteen-year-old cousin.

But, just as we go to Poe for his gothic wonders, for his excesses and intensities, rather than for his overarching narratives, what's most fun in Collins are the many rich anecdotes, often built on accounts from Poe's friends and acquaintances, that bring Poe to life on the page. Here, for example, is a moment from his youth:
His foster father, apparently surprised by a fifteen-year-old's capacity to turn moody, quickly blamed Edgar's friends. "He does nothing & seems quite miserable, sulky & ill-tempered to all the Family," Allan wrote that autumn. "How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception. . . . I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking & acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England."
Edgar Allan Poe, typical moody teen.

A few years later finds Poe at the University of Virginia, which also didn't quite suit him:
The end of the school year, though, was not a happy one. Poe crossed paths with William Wertenbaker, a fellow student who also served as the campus librarian--a sympathetic ear on a campus where the young poet had never entirely fit in. He found "Gaffy" so ready to abandon campus that he'd smashed up his dorm-room furniture to save on buying firewood for his final nights there. 
"It was a cold night in December," Wertenbaker said, "and his fire having gone pretty nearly out by the aid of some tallow candles, and the fragments of a small table which he broke up for the purpose, he soon rekindled it, and by its comfortable blaze I spent a very pleasant hour with him."
Institutional life never would sit well with Poe; West Point, too, was a bust. When he was drummed out, however, the superintendent thought well enough of him to allow him to take up a collection from his fellow students. Instead of that, however, Poe sold them advance rights to a copy of a book of poems he had in contemplation: "Of the class of 232, 131 cadets paid $1.25 each to raise the money for it." But what they thought they were getting--a book of the mocking verses he'd become known for at the academy--turned out instead to be a collection of fervidly Romantic serious poems. And it was poorly produced:
It arrived poorly printed on coarse paper with the widest of margins--"a miserable production mechanically," Poe's roommate wrote later, "bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale." Finding one brings a small fortune today, but a very different valuation survives in what one classmate scribbled on his copy.

"This book," he wrote, "is a damned cheat."
Collins is also good at conveying Poe's self-destructive perversity. His account of Poe's performance at the season premiere of the Boston Lyceum in October 1845 is jaw-dropping:
Poe found himself unable to versify; by the time he reached the stage in Boston's Odeon Theatre, he'd stayed sober, but still had no poem ready.

The crowd's patience was exhausted even before Poe opened his mouth, as a previous speaker had droned on for over two hours already. When Poe departed from the advertised poem to give an impromptu twenty-minute speech on American poetry, it drove out many patrons. Among those who stayed were Emily Dickinson's future preceptor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who recalled how Poe then "abruptly began the recitation of his rather perplexing poem, [and] the audience looked thoroughly mystified." Well they might, for Poe had resorted to a poem that was decidedly not new at all: it was his obscure 1829 farrago ""Al Aaraaf." While Higginson was won over by it ("walking back to Cambridge my comrades and I felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard"), the few left by the end were only mollified by a recitation of "The Raven." Boston newspapers did not fondly recall Poe afterwards, and the feeling was mutual.
As October nears, you couldn't do better to prepare for proper Poe season than picking up The Fever Called Living.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The perils of soldiering

As I put together Monday's post about World War I, I was reminded of a footnote in Andrew McConnell Stott's excellent new book on Byron, the Shelleys, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont, The Poet and the Vampyre. Though it's hard to dispute that the experience of the soldier in World War I was likely the worst in human history, the footnote from Stott is a reminder that the lot of the soldier has always been fairly awful:
A similar fate befell Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, the brother of Byron's former lover, Caroline Lamb. Wounded in both arms and lanced in the back, he fell off his horse and spent most of the battle [of Waterloo] lying helpless on the field where he was robbed, used as cover by a rifleman, trampled under the hoofs of Prussian cavalry, and robbed again. Despite lying out all night and suffering seven major wounds, he lived for another twenty-two years.
Jesus. I'd like to think that he at least was able to shape his experience into the kind of story that would get him stood drinks for the rest of his life.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The outbreak of World War I

One of my distractions while running lately has been the World War I episodes of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. Two-and-a-half episodes in, Carlin has barely reached the Battle of the Marne, but that's a good thing: the months leading up to and just after the outbreak of the war are the most complicated and important, and he's giving them their due, doing a good job of showing how reasonably sane people--products of their time, but not evil or ill-meaning--boxed themselves in so thoroughly that war became unavoidable, and almost instantly assumed a scope and deadliness until then unimaginable. The casualty figures from the first few months of the war are still breathtaking; to think that any nation could absorb deaths in that quantity and continue to fight is almost unfathomable today. (In fact, I take it as one of the few unquestionable signs of legitimate human progress that the nations of the West are, a century later, much less willing to countenance widespread bloodshed in war. For all the indefatigable bellicosity of our hawks, life is not quite so recklessly thrown away now as it was then.)

The greatest strength of Carlin's podcast is its conversational quality. Though it's hard to imagine the whole three-plus hours of each episode isn't fairly closely scripted, the effect is not of something read, like an audiobook, or even a delivery of prepared notes, like a lecture, but of someone telling you something. It's thus perfect for a long drive or a long run, engaging moment to moment, yet not so intense as to be thrown wholly off course when you have to look up to leap out of the way of a snarling chipugpug, or brake to avoid one of those hideous three-wheeled motorcycles.

The other great strength of the podcast is that Carlin loads it up with direct quotation. We hear firsthand accounts from soldiers, diplomats, generals, journalists, and more, and they help immensely in bringing immediacy and uncertainty to events that we can't avoid seeing at least to some extent as distant and predetermined. The most striking, for me, in the first episode was a story filed for Scribner's by America's greatest reporter of WWI, Richard Harding Davis. Davis was on the scene as the Germans marched into neutral Belgium, and he filed a long, richly descriptive report:
At eleven o'clock, down the Boulevard Waterloo came the advance-guard of the German army. It consisted of three men, a captain and two privates on bicycles. Behind them, so close upon each other that to cross from one sidewalk to the other was not possible, came the Uhlans, infantry, and the guns. For two hours I watched them and then, bored with the monotony of it, returned to the hotel. After an hour, from beneath my window, I still could hear them; another hour and another went by. They still were passing. Boredom gave way to wonder. The thing fascinated you against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed. No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman; a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this earth, but mysterious, ghostlike.
What fascinates me in that passage is that Davis compares the German army to natural forces. We're so used to explaining the horrors of World War I through the lens of runaway technology--an ability to kill that vastly outstripped our ability to understand, let alone harness or defend against it--that to hear the vast extent of the German army (bigger, in tiny Belgium alone, than Napoleon's Grande Armee as it entered Russia) called uncanny . . . yet compared not to a machine, but to natural forces. But then he turns. By the end of the third day, he's shifted metaphors. Overnight, the Germans were like "the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon," but by the fourth day, they have become
a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steamroller.
They are "a cataract of molten lead," their "perfect unison" the "blows from giant pile-drivers." Then,
When at night for an instant the machine halted, the silence awoke you, as at sea you wake when the screw stops.
It is no longer any sort of natural force--for there is a sense in which we can accept power and destruction in that form, even if we cannot understand it. This, it has become clear, is some other order of thing entirely.

But in his closing, Davis finds a way to bring the two metaphors together. This "monstrous engine,"
is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death. Those who cast it loose upon Europe are military-mad. . . . And like Frankenstein's monster, this monster, to which they gave life, may turn on them and rend them.
And that does seem like the perfect metaphor for what World War I unleashed: a harnessing of technology, with little thought to its ends, looses a force that can no longer be controlled, and that wreaks havoc wherever it roams. A century later, we're still sorting through the ashes it left behind.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A cop in search of a partner

In her Dublin Murder squad series, Tana French has featured a new protagonist in each book, taken, cleverly, from the many minor characters in earlier books. This time around, for The Secret Place, she's chosen Stephen Moran, whom we met back in Faithful Place when he was a beat cop. He's since worked his way up to Cold Cases--in part because of the scratch of the protagonist of that earlier novel, a well-placed cop who was grateful for his help. This book opens with Moran seeing his chance at latching onto the murder squad, as a case drops into his lap.

As with all of French's novels, the prose and sensibility in this book are distinctive: you always know when you're reading a Tana French novel. While the plots can sometimes let you down--and this, in its relatively limited complexity, isn't one of her best--her broader interests in contemporary Irish society, and, in particular, in the deleterious effects of the rapidly receding boom, rendered in richly detailed prose, make her books something I look forward to every time. Hell, they'd almost be worth it for the Irish slang alone. I'd happily read about things being "banjaxed" in many more novels.

What brings me here tonight, however, isn't the book itself--who hasn't covered this novel already? It's a single passage of reflective wistfulness early on:
Your dream partner grows in the back of your mind, secret, like your dream girl. Mine grew up with violin lessons, floor-to-high-ceiling books, red setters, a confidence he took for granted and a dry sense of humor no one but me would get.
It's not the perfect fit, but it does sound as if in some ways he may be pining for our old friend Saul Panzer. Here's Archie Goodwin's description of Saul's apartment, from "Fourth of July":
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.
What other detective is more casually, unostentatiously cultured as Saul Panzer? Alas, Saul's neither Irish nor contemporary--nor, let's be clear, likely to be amenable to working with an organization like the Dublin Police Department. It would pay poorly, work inefficiently, and tolerate incompetence and corruption on a scale no operative whose favored employer is Nero Wolfe would ever tolerate. The dream partner remains but a dream. 'Tis a fallen world we live in, after all.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Byron, the Shelleys, and the rough wake of cruel genius

How many times can we read again of Byron, the Shelleys, Lake Geneva, and the Year without a Summer? Surely the topic has been exhausted by now?

Perhaps. Perhaps there's nothing truly new to be discovered from that stormy sojourn. But that doesn't keep me from hungrily devouring yet another account, if it's well told--which Andrew McConnell Stott's The Poet and the Vampyre certainly is. Stott improves on the usual tale of hothouse creativity by simultaneously broadening his lens--telling of the months leading up to and following the Lake Geneva stay--and focusing it on characters usually seen as peripheral, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. We've always known that Byron and Shelley are, in their distinct ways, largely monsters, but close attention to Polidori and Clairmont renders the poets' darkness and insensitivity utterly comprehensible. Neither Polidori nor Clairmont is anywhere near wholly sympathetic as a character--indeed, while Clairmont has a certain magnetism, it takes an act of serious historicization, of remembering the limitations he faced in society, for us not to find Polidori almost entirely unlikeable, short-tempered and full of ill-founded self-regard. Yet Clairmont and Polidori are both, importantly, familiar: we all know that feeling of wanting, more than anything else in the world, to have a secure place in the orbit of someone more popular, charming, and talented than we are--and of having that person capriciously tack from friendship to dismissal. In Stott's hands, the desire that fuels both Polidori and Clairmont becomes palpable, its off-hand rejection cruel beyond belief.

At the same time, the reason we come back to Byron again and again is that charm, that heedless, headlong selfishness, that insistence that the world is there for him to play with. And the book is full of that, too: anecdotes, scenes, and quotations that further cement Byron as a larger-than-life figure, a man of whom it seems reasonable of a woman who meets him in Rome to say to her daughter, "Don't look at him, he is dangerous to look at."

Today, however, I'll turn away from Byron and focus instead on Polidori and medicine, the field to which he ill-fatedly committed himself young. First, I'll share this jaw-dropping anecdote from Polidori's time at the University of Edinburgh:
The neglect of practical studies was responsible for some of the worst abuses at the university, specifically in the case of anatomy. Edinburgh's professorship in this key area had been occupied for a total of 126 years by three men, all of whom had been named Alexander Munro: father, son and grandson. This was not unusual in a nepotistic age when, of the ten professors hired in the two decades prior to John's arrival, eight were the sons of professors already in residence. By sheer good fortune, the first two Alexander Munros had been men of parts, but by the time John was there, the post had devolved to Alexander Munro III, who treated it as a tiresome inheritance. Appearing in class with his clothes in runkled disarray, Munro mumbled through the notes his grandfather had written almost three-quarters of a century before without even bothering to omit such obvious anachronisms as the phrase "when I was a student in Leyden in 1714"--a passage that took on such a mythic status that its annual utterance became something of a fete, the students showering the professor with peas when they heard it while Munro sputtered on.
Extra credit to Stott for using "runkled," which I was pleased to have to look up.

After such stellar instruction, Polidori graduated from the University of Edinburgh at twenty . . . only to discover that he couldn't practice medicine in London until he passed the boards, which no one under twenty-six was even allowed to sit. Thus, when Byron was looking for a physician to accompany him on his European exile, Polidori jumped at the chance, income and idol-worship creating a compelling combination.

After Byron fired Polidori, largely because of his irritability, profligacy, and jumped-up pretensions (which Byron alternately encouraged and scoffed at), Polidori attempted to latch on with a number of nobles as a personal physician, without much luck. In Pisa, he briefly succeeded in building a practice, but either his Edinburgh training or his faulty stars showed through:
None of [his patients] lasted long. Lord Guilford died first, falling to chronic alcoholism and such tumorous guts that John had to remove his intestines and embalm the body before it could be sent back to Britain for burial. In February 1817, Francis Horner succumbed to a heart condition, followed shortly afterwards by Thomas Hope's young son, who died of scarlet fever.
Byron was no more understanding than usual, writing to his friend Scrope Davies that Polidori was
on his way to England with the present Lord Guilford--having actually disembowelled the last at Pisa and spiced and pickled him for his rancid ancestors.
"Rancid ancestors"--it's phrases like that which bring me back, again and again, to Byron's letters. In another letter, Byron suggested to John Cam Hobhouse that Polidori might suit Lady Westmorland, whose service he hoped to enter. Her eye for young men was on Byron's mind as he offered a vulgar assessment:
He suggested to Hobhouse that John might be on the verge of securing his fortune, the key to which lay in his handling of "Lady W's Clitoris, which is supposed to be of the longest", and ability to talk her into a quick marriage, "if only to fill up the gap which he has already made in the population."
I'm now about 100 pages from the end. Byron, untouched by anything as always, is resident in Venice, drunkenly swimming its canals. Clairmont, meanwhile, is in despair, having borne Byron's child and surrendered it to him; Polidori has returned to London, tail between his legs, and is trying to figure out his career from there. Will they recover some equilibrium, or will they be more like the suicides strewn in the Shelleys' wake? Even knowing the outcome, I find I want to race through Stott's telling to learn more. If you're half the sucker for this story that I am, you should grab this book and do the same.