Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving biibliomancy

In the days before I'm to travel, I usually find myself in a delicate dance with my reading. Weeks in advance, I've already started mentally stockpiling books for the trip, but as the days dwindle, I have to, as it were, prepare for takeoff: I don't want to be midway through a book that I'm enjoying, thus forcing the tough decision of whether to table it midway or carry a book that will be nothing but dead weight two hours into the trip. So I haul down my books of essays and short stories, extract the bookmarks from where they rested after the last trip, and while away a few days.

This time, though, I found myself turning to James Boswell's inexhaustible Life of Johnson, which can be picked up or put down at any point. Almost every page has something of interest, some line of wisdom or wit from either the subject or the author. Which led me to think of the classical tradition of the Sortes Vergilianae: the consultation, at random, of the works of Virgil in hope of finding advice or fortune. Sanctified by Hadrian--who in 808 saw foretellings of his accession to the throne--it has, with Virgil and the whole classical tradition, fallen out of favor these days, as has, one suspects, bibliomancy in general. But as we're on the verge of a holiday, and all the history and tradition it brings in its train, I thought it would be fun to close out November with a bit of perhaps less time-honored bibliomancy.

Let us start, however, with the proper sources. First we'll turn to the only competitor, historically, for Virgil in this regard: the Bible. I don't actually have my King James to hand, so we'll do this old-fashioned trick a new-fashioned way, via the Sanders Family's random Bible verse page. We get Proverbs 3:11-12:
My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
Ah, already we're getting a bit of family conflict around the table. Sounds like someone's getting scolded. The verse immediately puts me back in mind of Johnson, who in a passage I read yesterday tells Boswell,
Power, in whatever hands it is placed, will sometimes be improperly exerted; the courts of law must judge, though they will sometimes judge amiss. A father must instruct his children, though he himself may often want instruction.
And now to Virgil, in the wonderful translation by Robert Fagles. We get a verse from Book Six, "The Kingdom of the Dead." That doesn't sound promising, does it?
Attendants run knives under throats and catch
warm blood in bowls.
Good lord. Let us hope not to have that be our Thanksgiving.

From there, we move more into the realm of I've Been Reading Lately favorites. First up, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a book that's surely suited for post-turkey lethargy:
The Persian kings themselves drank no other drink than the water of Choaspes, that runs by Susa, which was carried in bottles after them whithersoever they went.
Now Chaucer, from the Canterbury Tales. We get "The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue":
Why is thy lord so sluttissh, I thee preye?
Oh, my. I suspect the family member who said that had been drinking something a tad stronger than the water of Choaspes during dinner, no?

Speaking of sluttish, here's Byron, from his journals:
It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.--A year impairs, a lustre obliterates.--There is little distinct left without an effort of memory,--then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment--but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?
That's for those of you unfortunate enough to have lots of cousins: remember to brush up on who's who before you sit down on Thursday!

Sei Shonagon, from her Pillow Book:
148. These weapons were used mainly for ceremonies, processions, and the like.
In other words: whatever you do, do not draw your sword at the table on Thanksgiving! It's only for show!

Now Milton, from Paradise Lost. We get Book VI:
Servant of God, well done, well hast thou fought
The better fight, who single has maintain'd
Against revolted multitudes the Cause
Of Truth, in word mightier than they in Arms:
And for the testimony of Truth has borne
Universal reproach, far worse to bear
Than violence.
Uh-oh. I'm not sure I'd recommend Milton as your guide. Thanksgiving, if it is to remain hospitable, is probably not the best place to declare oneself a warrior for truth.

Fortunately, it seems that Montaigne might agree. From his longest work, the Apology for Raymond Sebond:
What does truth preach to us, when she exhorts us to flee worldly philosophy, when she so often inculcates in us that our wisdom is but folly before God; that of all vanities the vainest is man; that the man who is presumptuous of his knowledge does not yet know what knowledge is; and that man, who is nothing, if he thinks he is something, seduces and deceives himself?
In other words: if you're about to call a family member an idiot, you might consider having a piece of pie instead. Everyone will be happier.

With that, we creep a bit closer to our own era, and Melville. Moby-Dick, almost as inexhaustible as the Life of Johnson, delivers:
Yet their doubting those traditions did not make those traditions one whit the less facts, for all that.
The Thanksgiving meal can certainly be improved upon (says this vegetarian), and I'm sure Slate has a host of recommendations. But there is something to be said for the memories evoked by stuffing, and sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows, and Presbyterian green bean casserole. Tradition may not taste as good as innovation, but there's other value there.

From Melville, we go a bit afield, to the book in this batch that is my newest acquaintance: The Element of Lavishness: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. Maxwell has long been a beloved, admired favorite, but Warner has only recently stolen her way into my heart, via her empathetic biography of T. H. White and these clever, kind, smart letters. Randomness presents us one she wrote to Maxwell on January 11, 1962:
And of course, with the exception of hermits, saints have had to spend a great portion of their lives in the company of pious and religious people, and we all know how disheartening that can be, and even, so to speak, disfiguring.
May your table have around it a family that is light of heart, and quick of wit. Let there be prayers, if that is how you or they are constituted, but let them be followed by jokes.

It wouldn't be right to send you into the holiday without drawing on my two old standbys, Anthony Powell and Donald E. Westlake.Here's Powell, from his notebook:
"They are casting lots for my raiment at this moment," someone remarks.
That sounds unpleasantly like Thanksgiving at the Lear residence.

And to send us home, here, from The Getaway Car, is Westlake:
Except for those who hit it big early, the only writers who stay with writing over the long haul are those who can't find a viable alternative.
Or, if we allow Robert Frost to put it in a Thanksgiving context:
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Thanks for reading along with me for yet another year.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penelope Fitzgerald's notebooks

This week has found me happily reading Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, after the UK edition inexplicably mouldered on my shelves for almost a year. Maybe it's because, at more than four hundred pages, it at first seemed excessive, for the wholly silly reason that surely Fitzgerald, that master of leaving out, ought to have a slim life?

Halfway through, I'm so, so glad for the length--and for Twitter, which has allowed me to share line after line that Lee has dredged up from Fitzgerald's many working notebooks and diaries. In her novels and nonfiction, Fitzgerald was such a good writer of sentences, marrying elegance, concision, and meaning, and her presumably far less polished notebooks turn out to have their share. A quick selection:
The whole art of happiness consists in staying in one place.

Borges likes to keep complications, but reduce them to their most economical form.

I've come to see art as the most important thing but not to regret that I haven't spent my life on it.

One is only middle-aged once.

I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost.

To live in the country with dog cat an apple tree books a listener--not only good but the only good.

Even evil spirits keep in touch with themselves.
I could go on and on. The impression Lee gives is that Fitzgerald didn't maintain a single, long-term notebook, like Anthony Powell, or a system, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rather, she seems to have kept a working notebook for each book, and other notebooks throughout the years for other reasons. When teaching, for example, she had notebooks in which she worked and planned. (That's where the Borges quote comes from.) One of Lee's great achievements in the biography is to make clear how much groundwork Fitzgerald was laying in those notebooks for here eventual, late, arrival as a fiction writer. It ends up being tremendously exciting, watching Fitzgerald making notes for teaching that are at the same time notes for herself on how novels work, or sketching a character in her notebook and clearly beginning to develop some of the precision and judgment that would mark her fiction.

The reason this blog exists is that rocketlass suggested I start one so I would stop reading aloud at parties. (Which she was right to do. Good god.) But the true initial spur to whatever writing about books I've done in the past decade was Fitzgerald's posthumous collection of nonfiction, The Afterlife. Looking back, I have no idea why I picked it up: I knew her name, but I'd read nary a word of her novels. Yet I bought the book and was instantly won over by her perceptiveness and sensibility. Within weeks I had read all her novels and written my first book review, which, submitted cold to the Bloomsbury Review, would also be my first published review. I wrote then,
What comes across most clearly is her appreciation of hard work, craft, and dedication.
Yesterday, ten years later, in an interview about my collection of Donald Westlake's nonfiction, I talked about Westlake's dedication to craft, and boiled down the lessons I learned from close engagement with his writing to these:
Be clear. Be concise. Be concrete. And the work will not do itself.
Thus are laid out the continuities between these two favorite writers, the points of connection between two wildly disparate worlds and aesthetics. Taste is no respecter of genre; attentive reading discovers links between separate spheres.

And now to hope for an edition of Fitzgerald's notebooks--a book I would turn to again and again over the years. A boy can dream, right?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

T. H. White on Guinevere

I want to share one last piece of T. H. White's writing from Sylvia Tonwsend Warner's biography of him before I turn to something else. White's thoughts on the other crucial character in the Lancelot story, Guinevere, are less astute, and, frankly, less interesting, than his thoughts on Lancelot. At great risk of oversimplifying, I would say it's not unreasonable to attribute his relative lack of perception to a mix of the simple fact that White wasn't a woman, wasn't drawn to women romantically or sexually, and had a complicated, painful relationship with the most important woman in his life, his mother. Nonetheless, his thoughts about Guinevere are far from without interest:
She must have been a nice person, or Lancelot and Arthur (both nice people) would not have loved her. Or does this not follow? Do nice people love nasty ones? Arthur was not a judge of nice people or he would not have had a child by Morgause. And Guenever hardly seems to have been a favourite of Malory's, whatever Tennyson may have thought about her.

She was insanely jealous of Lancelot: she drove him mad: she was suspected of being a poisoner: she made no bones about being unfaithful to Arthur: she had an ungovernable temper: she did not mind telling lies: she was hysterical, according to Sir Bors: she was beastly to Elaine: she was intensely selfish.
So much taken on faith there! And on the word of men, honor-obsessed men who have agendas of their own! While Lancelot's infidelity, even as he chooses it, is described by White as "wrong and against [his] will," Guinevere's is something she "makes no bones about." This court is beginning to seem a bit unfair (and, in the question of whether nice people love nasty ones, impressively naive).

It does get a bit better for Guinevere, who
had some good characteristics. She chose the best lover she could have done, and she was brave enough to let him be her lover: she always stuck to Arthur, though unfaithful to him, possibly because she really liked him: when finally caught, she faced the music: she had a clear judgment of moral issues, even when defying them, a sort of common sense which finally took her into a convent when she could quite well have stayed with Lancelot now that her husband was dead.
But White instantly backtracks:
Was this a piece of clearsightedness or was it cowardice? One way to put it would be to say that she grasped the best of two men while she profited by it, but afterwards betrayed them both. When there was no more to be got out of the Arthur-Lancelot situation she preferred the convent. The other way to put it would be to say that she finally recognized her ill influence and thought it best to shut herself up.
Not a lot of generosity there. No acknowledgment of the limited choices available to a woman, even a former queen, no sense that her heart might actually have been in conflict, a conflict that, rather than being settled by Arthur's death, was made more violent, even toxic by it.

White goes on in that vein for another couple of diary pages, giving with one hand ("She was brave, beautiful"; "She exercised control, demanded return, felt jealousy"), then taking away with the other ("Could she be a sort of tigress, with all the healthy charms and horrors of the carnivore? Is she to eat Lancelot as Morgause ate Arthur?"). Warner describes White's equivocations well:
Like a man on boggy ground, who leaps from tussock to sinking tussock, he zigzagged from conjecture to conjecture.
What I don't recall at this remove--a decade since I last read The Once and Future King is what Guinevere he ultimately ended up with? I don't remember her being a monster, but is she described convincingly? With any sympathy or understanding? Do we see why the two men would fall for her, and what it costs her to be the cause of their rupture? Don't suppose any of you folks have read the book recently and want to offer an opinion?

Monday, November 10, 2014

T. H. White, notes on Lancelot

Last week, when I drew on Sylvia Townsend Warner's biography of her friend T. H. White, I mentioned that one of its strengths was the extravagance of her quotations from White's letters and diaries. Today, I'll indulge in some extended quotation myself, because a passage from White's diaries that Warner cites offers an excellent window into how White thought about Lancelot, the most interesting character in his one lasting masterpiece, The Once and Future King. So, with apologies in advance for its length, here's White's diary entry for October 4, 1939:
What kind of person was Lancelot? I know about half the kind of person he was, because Malory contented himself with stating the obvious half.

Malory's Lancelot is:

1. Intensely sensitive to moral issues.
2. Ambitious of true--not current--distinction
3. Probably sadistic or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle.
4. Superstitious or totemistic or whatever the word is. He connects his martial luck with virginity, like the schoolboy who thinks he will only bowl well in the match tomorrow if he does not abuse himself today.
5. Fastidious, monogamous, serious.
6. Ferociously punitive to his own body. He denies it and slave-drives it.
7. Devoted to "honour," which he regards as keeping promises and "having a word." He tries to be consistent.
8. Curiously tolerant of other people who do not follow his own standards. He was not shocked by the lady who as s naked as a needle.
9. Not without a sense of humour. It was a good joke dressing up as Kay. And he often says amusing things.
10. Fond of being alone.
11. Humble about his athleticism: not false modesty.
12. Self-critical. Aware of some big lack in himself. What was it?
13. Subject to pity, cf. no. 3.
14. Emotional. He is the only person Malory mentions as crying from relief.
15. Highly strung: subject to nervous breakdowns.
16. Yet practical. He ends by dealing with the Guenever situation pretty well. He is a good man to have with you in a tight corner.
17. Homosexual? Can a person be ambi-sexual--bisexual or whatever? His treatment of young boys like Gareth and Cote Male Tale is very tender and his feeling for Arthur profound. Yet I do so want not to have to write a "modern" novel about him. I could only bring myself to mention this trait, if it is a trait, in the most oblique way.
18. Human. He firmly believes that for him it is a choice between God and Guenever, and he takes Guenever. He says: This is wrong and against my will, but I can't help it.
Of particular interest in the passage is White's uncertainty not so much about Lancelot's sexuality, but about the very options available for conceiving it. White, who to all appearances was gay, reveals his naivete (and, to be fair, some of the naivete of the period) in that passage--a naivete that surely wasn't helped by a life that, through a combination of choice and unavoidable aspects of his character, he spent mostly in the company of his beloved dog.

More interesting of course is the overall picture of Lancelot the list offers, and the precision with which White's numbered points allows us to picture the knight. This is the essence of the mythic character being drafted into our contemporary, psychological stories: his deepest-rooted characteristics are beginning to be pulled and pressed in ways the let us read back into the past and start to suss out the mind and personality that could generate them. When it comes time to turn that analysis into scene and action, White's depiction of Lancelot is wholly convincing, and our ability to understand and sympathize with his predicament drives the best, most affecting part of the novel.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sylvia Townsend Warner on T. H. White

Some recent library browsing--I went there to pick up one book and returned to my office with eight--led me to read Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1965 biography of her friend T. H. White this week. It's an odd book in that way that a certain strain of earlier British biography can be odd: it's deeply rooted in quotation, largely from White's letters and diaries, and it's more interested in giving an overall sense of White than of enabling us to understand a timeline or trajectory.

For a writer like White, who is primarily known for one book (The Once and Future King, which I rank with Watership Down as the most interesting and rewarding of the small subset of books that live on the knife edge between childhood and adult reading), such an approach works well: we see, clearly, how White as a person enchanted and exasperated; how his energy, intellect, and charm drew people in, but his reticence, drinking, and rebarbative tetchiness pushed them away. His was a lonely life, but it's not entirely clear that it was an unhappy one; Warner's great achievement in the biography is to let that ambiguity remain while allowing us to feel we've known the man.

People who follow me on Twitter will have noticed that the book is full of quotable lines, as both Warner and White can reliably turn a phrase. But one bit is far too long to quote there, yet far too good not to share: it's an early passage about a summer in White's undergraduate years when he visited Lapland with a friend, and Warner uses it to give a clinic on how to write in compact but memorable fashion:
Both of them now wanted to visit some uninhabited desert; neither of them could afford to spend a great deal of money getting to it. Studying maps of population densities, they decided on a walking tour in Lapland. They consulted a travel adviser and learned that in midsummer the snows are melted, the climate temperate, the rivers teeming with trout, the moors rich with game-birds feeding on cranberries. They could camp where they pleased and live off the country; some measure of protection against mosquitoes was advisable. It was the travellers' own good idea to add meat concentrates and some chocolate to their 80 lb. weight of equipment. They set out--a handsome high-spirited pair, all laughter, enterprise and romantic friendship. But the climate of Lapland cannot be vouched for, and in 1926 the flush of summer was belated. The snow had not melted, or only melted into freezing slush. The trout were torpid in the icy streams. The game was scanty and evasive, the cranberries not ripe. Only the mosquitoes lived up to their report. Veiled and muffled, hungrier and hungrier, tormented by inflamed insect bites, their faces swollen as though with mumps, their tempers strained, the two young men wandered over the waste in search of food and fuel--for a camp fire was essential, both to keep off the mosquitoes and to save them from dying of cold. The rationed chocolate was almost exhausted and they were barely on speaking terms when White with a long shot brought down a merganser--a species of duck with rudimentary teeth. He threw it across a stream, and while he was searching for a place where he could ford the torrent pictured his companion devouring it raw.
Either Warner polished this one unimportant paragraph multiple times or she was a savant: the rhythm, feel, and sound of it are so effective, even as none of those aspects gets in the way of the primary goal of relating a whole travel adventure in less than a page.