Sunday, December 20, 2015

The best of the year

This has, I'll admit up front, not been my best year as a blogger. In fact, in ten years of blogging, it's been easily my weakest, both in amount and quality of output. In the neverending struggle to divide the day, blogging this year lost out time and again to piano practice and work. When I do make time to turn to it, however, I still enjoy writing in this space, and I remain grateful to everyone who continues to visit. I do aim to write more, and better, posts next year; until then, I'll leave you my thanks--but also, my best-of-the-year list!

There's no real order to this list, and it's about as far from scientific as it's possible to get: I cast my eyes over my shelves, thought back through the year, and herewith is the list. I do, however, think it legitimately represents most of the highest points of my year as a reader. It's a mix, you'll see, of old and new--my day job may require me to constantly attend to the new, but outside of that I'm like all serious readers, constantly shifting between past and present, and an old book can easily alter the complexion of a reading year as much as a new one.

The Other Paris, by Luc Sante
A new book by Luc Sante is sort of like a Terence Malick film (which I've further heard compared to a dog--stay with me here): you're only going to get so many in your life, because he's not a quick worker, but when they come, they're wonderful things. The Other Paris is no exception. I've not even been to Paris, but you don't need to have: the book is so rich in description and detail that you never feel lost, and it's at the same time so much about urban life in general, the pleasures of the shaggy, un-sanitized city, that any urbanite will find echoes in their local experience. I quoted extensively from the book on Twitter as I read it, but the line that will stay with me longest isn't even in the book: it's something that Luc said at his reading at the Book Cellar. "I feel an obligation to the dead," he said. "Especially to the unmemorialized dead." The book is about what's been lost, both actual urban figures and ways of being and the potential they represent.

Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson
Another book about cities, and while Anderson's book has affinities with Luc Sante's work, it's distinctive: Sante's is an expedition afoot, whereas Anderson's is a journey of the mind--and, crucially, the library. It's about cities as they have been, but also as they've been imagined, through utopias or fascist dreams or capitalist redevelopment schemes; it's also about our imagined cities, how living amid so many people alters your thinking and opens up possibilities that the countryside never can. And it's full of compressed gems of thought and insight:
We begin relationships in raucous bars and clubs and end them in stations and airports.
With time, horror becomes heritage.
It's a huge, ambitious book, and it was one of the most exciting reading experiences of the year.

John Aubrey: My Life, by Ruth Scurr
I praised this book when I was a mere 100 pages into it, and it only got better. In the face of Aubrey's "tumultuarily" organized papers, and the relative lack of detailed information about his life, Ruth Scurr took the daring step of writing the book as if it were Aubrey's own journal--and she did so almost entirely using his own words, jigsawing them together with minor bits of her own integument and wrapping the whole around the skeleton of what is known of where he was and what he was doing at any given moment in his life. The result is hard to believe: it really does feel as if we're reading a book built by Aubrey, and the emotional weight Scurr generates through that device, the extent to which we empathize with Aubrey's struggles, goes beyond all but the very best biographies I've ever read. It's a masterpiece.

The Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens
This was the last unread Dickens novel for me, and I'd left it this long because it has such a bad reputation. No one can stand Little Nell. But it turns out to be quite fun, and while not an example of Dickens at his best, it offers so many of the charms that are found only in his works. It's rambling almost to the point of being a picaresque, but for the most part Dickens is able to hold it together, and the cast of characters include a number of typically unforgettable Dickensian types.

Then there are passages like this, a throwaway chapter opener:
The throng of people hurried by, in two opposite streams, with no symptom of cessation or exhaustion; intent upon their own affairs; and undisturbed in their business speculations, by the roar of carts and waggons laden with clashing wares, the slipping of horses' feet upon the wet and greasy pavement, the rattling of the rain on windows and umbrella-tops, the jostling of the more impatient passengers, and all the noise and tumult of a crowded street in the high tide of its occupation: while the two poor strangers, stunned and bewildered by the hurry they beheld but had no part in, looked mournfully on; feeling amidst the crowd a solitude which has no parallel but in the thirst of the shipwrecked mariner, who, tossed to and fro upon the billows of a mighty ocean, his red eyes blinded by looking on the water which hems him in on every side, has not one drop to cool his burning tongue.
Keeping with the urban theme: no one understood cities at that moment like Dickens, and no one, then or now, wrote prose like him. There's a reason they called him The Inimitable.

The Brother Cadfael series, by Ellis Peters
This was easily my extended reading find of the year. It's a series of twenty very cozy historical mysteries, published between 1977 and the author's death in 1995, starring a lay brother in a monastery on the border between England and Wales in the twelfth century. The basics of Cadfael's character, and the feel and tone of the series, are laid out in the opening paragraph of the first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones:
On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensational affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime, pricking out cabbage seedlings before the day was aired, and his thoughts were all on birth, growth and fertility, not at all on graves and reliquaries and violent deaths, whether of saints, sinners or ordinary decent, fallible men like himself. Nothing troubled his peace but the necessity to take himself indoors for Mass, and the succeeding half-hour of chapter, which was always liable to stray over by an extra ten minutes. He grudged the time from his more congenial labours out here among the vegetables, but there was no evading his duty. He had, after all, chosen this cloistered life with his eyes open, he could not complain even of those parts of it he found unattractive, when the whole suited him very well, and gave him the kind of satisfaction he felt now, as he straightened his back and looked about him.
Mysteries, and particularly cozy mysteries, have always been designed to appeal to our sense of order--that while things will go wrong in the world, they will ultimately be put right. The Brother Cadfael books are like the Nero Wolfe books in that they offer a self-contained world that welcomes the reader back each time--but they differ from Stout's books in that the world they describe is explicitly one of removal from everyday cares. Wolfe may in his odd way be a sort of monk, but Brother Cadfael actually is one, and the contrast between the order of the Order and the disorder of the world is explicit. Cadfael, like the reader, has seen a bit of the world, and, as with us as readers, the mysteries he solves are a bit of an escape, a way of participating in lives other than the one  he's chosen. I've taken to carrying a Cadfael on any extended trip, and I've been grateful for it every time.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell This is another novel where I just want to quote the opening, which is what sold me:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
Mary Doria Russell seems to get Doc Holliday like perhaps no one but Val Kilmer, whose portrayal of him in Tombstone is a masterpiece. Her prose is delicate and distanced and calm, but its effect is moving, even devastating: Doc Holliday emerges from wisps of truth and legend to be a real, achingly believable person. I read Doc by chance right before Russell's sequel, Epitaph, was published. In Epitaph, at the point when the Earps and Holliday started walking to the OK Corral, I had to put the book down and go for a walk before I continued. I had lived too long with Holliday and his friends to watch them walk into that life-changing, life-destroying moment without pausing first.

Everybody's Lamb, by Charles Lamb
My friend Steve Donoghue sent this to me when I expressed surprise on learning that there had been a volume of Lamb's writing with illustrations by E. H. Shepard. I'd long been a fan of Lamb, whose generosity of spirit and ability to rise--with at least a facade of lightness--above despair I found winning and admirable. But this book, which jumbles his essays, letters, articles, and miscellany under the (surely even dubious in the 1920s?) idea that this is a Lamb for all readers, is the perfect way to experience him: his voice is consistent throughout, but the varying shades of style and thought, and the shifting masks of essayist and letter writer, together gave me a sense of Lamb as a more accomplished, more varied, more exciting writer than I'd previously realized. And there are so many good lines!
We dealt about the wit, or what passes for it after midnight, jovially.

Write, and all your friends will hate you--all will suspect you. He sets himself up prima facie as something different from his brethren, and they never forgive him.

What a dead thing is a clock.

Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever lays one down without a feeling of disappointment.

A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us that we know the topography of its blots.
And then there are the Shepard illustrations . . .

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins
Nearly ever year, there's a novel I buy multiple copies of to give to friends--and it's always the novel I've already lent out the most. This year, that book was Scott Hawkins's debut novel, The Library at Mount Char. I wrote about it in October a bit, but it seems to have largely passed under the radar in the general book world; I only spied it because a staffer at 57th Street Books dubbed it "the book you wanted American Gods to be."

And she's right. This book, like Gaiman's, deals with ancient knowledge and magic, and a secret other world of power that lives invisibly alongside ours, but it does so in a way that feels like an organic whole, fully thought through and understood. It's creepy and surprising and violent and dark, but also surprisingly powerful, even moving, by the end. It's an incredibly good book, and one that leaves me excitedly looking forward to what Hawkins might do next.


And that's it. You? What were your favorites this year? What will you be lending?

Thanks for reading, folks. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving thoughts

To take us into the Thanksgiving holiday, in this, one of those Novembers when the ever-parlous state of the world seems more juddery than usual, some thoughts from Stefan Zweig's book on Montaigne, written in the middle of World War II:
It is vital to understand that ample proof exists to show man can always be free, whatever the epoch. When Calvin encourages the witch trials and has an adversary slowly burnt alive, when Torquemada condemns hundreds of men to the stake, their eulogizers put forward the plea that they could not have acted otherwise, being yoked to the held opinions of their epoch. But the human being is resolute. Even in those times of fanaticism, in the period of the Malleus Maleficarum, of the Chambre Ardente of the Inquisition, it was always possible for humane people to persist; not a single moment of all that horror could muddy the clarity of spirit and the humanity of an Erasmus, a Montaigne, a Castellio. And while the rest, the Sorbonne professors, the counsellors, the legates, the Zwinglis, the Calvins proclaim: "We know the truth," the response of Montaigne is: "What do I know?" While, through the Catherine wheel and banishment, they want to impose their "This is how you must live!" his counsel is: "Think your own thoughts, not mine! Live your life! Do not follow me blindly, but remain free!"

He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom.
Go hug your families, folks, and tell and re-tell all your stories. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Heart of the Order

Now that the skies have crumbled into gray and the late-autumn storms have finally stripped the trees of most of their beauty, I'm finally forced to admit that winter is coming. Alas.

Really, though, winter came on November 1, when the Royals beat the Mets to claim the championship and end the baseball season. But even October, as much as our household watches its baseball with enthusiasm, is at best a fake summer, its games wonderful for their drama but lacking the casual pleasures of the regular season. Every year, Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk laments the transition from the everyday grind of the regular season to the intensity of the playoffs; here he is from this year:
And with that another regular season is in the books. Another season of 8, 12, or (usually) 15-game days. Of flipping TV channels or radio stations or clicking between websites and between games. Games which, compared to the other 2,400 or so that happen during a season, mean nothing. But mean everything. Games which can be enjoyed and savored for a bit if your team won and enjoyed and easily forgotten if your team lost. The easy listening soundtrack of the past six months now fades away and in its place comes a 30-day burst of hardcore intensity.
That's why I love baseball: because for six months of the year, it's always there, humming along in the background, idly occupying an inessential corner of your mind, like a friend you know well enough just to sit with in contented quiet.

That feeling is captured beautifully in Theo Schell-Lambert's baseball novel, The Heart of the Order (2015), and spending a few minutes with it today seems like a good way to say goodbye to summer and autumn. The book is the first-person account from an MLB outfielder who is rehabbing a knee injury in Florida through the heart of the season. Every day, he's got some exercises he needs to do, maybe an appointment with his doctor or physical therapist or nurse, and . . . well, that's about it. He keeps an eye on his teammates (and, worried about being Wally Pipped, pays particular attention to his replacement in the lineup), and he watches some games here and there. But mostly he's got free time. As he puts it early on:
My entire life as an employee right now is dedicated to the incremental mending of my own body, which becomes a stranger notion the more you dwell on it.
And, unlike pretty much every other moment of his life to this point, he's not surrounded by teammates. Which leaves a lot of space for thinking.

That's what leads to the book we're reading. Day by day, when he has an idle thought, he puts it down, and then he follows it where it leads. Here, for example, is the opening of an early entry:
You might be wondering why ballplayers are such suckers for routines. I think it goes to the whole boredom thing. Baseball is boredom, if you want to think of it that way. Boredom cut up into shapes and sizes, summer evenings of boredom beginning at appointed hours, staged on fields of specific dimensions. Boredom reclaimed from the gods via the sale of hot dogs. Go to enough ballgames and you start to realize that the plays aren't the real game, they're just the organizing principle. The real game is the stretching for the plays.

So the thing you have to do, to make all those buckets of boredom make any sense at all, is use the powers of superstition. You surround the game with activities and get obsessive about them.
Or here he is on arriving a bit late for rehab:
The PARC team didn't look thrilled when I appeared, but I couldn't tell if it was because I was late, or because I hadn't been late often enough. When you're a pro athlete, people assume you have other important things to be doing. They can't believe that the thing you're scheduled to do with them is actually all you've got on your calendar. And I've gotten used to the look you receive when you were supposed to be famous, and then you arrived at the restaurant at 7 sharp. There's always a startled little "Oh . . . " emitted by the host, who had been told to set aside a fine table, and you can see the wheels turning in his head, he 's now wondering whether to give it to someone else. It frankly embarrasses people when a celebrity arrives on time.
Or his reaction to being told to take a walk:
I'm sure taking a walk seemed like a simple enough instruction to a rangy Scandinavian born with Vibram rubber on his feet, but I've been having some trouble finding my rhythm. The issue is, there are so many kinds of walks, once you start thinking about it, and I have had a hard time deciding which applies to me. . . . So it sounds like a crazy problem to have, because what's more natural than ambling, but its' like being a ballplayer at this moment in history kind of messes up your instincts. Motions that are athletic but also part of a lifestyle--when are they which? You exist in a sort of Los Angeles of the mind, in which you lose sight of how and when to use your body as a source of horsepower. Only those Manhattan athletes seem to keep it together. They stroll to the bagel shop on Saturday morning. The jog around the scenic Central Park reservoir, even if they do have a Town Car drop them off. They are New Yorkers of a certain standing whose job happens to be baseball. I seriously feel that if I were on the Mets, I wouldn't be giving this a second thought.
That style of meandering thought, on baseball and other subjects, characterizes the book, all related in a voice that feels convincing, like we're watching a believable combination of an actual on-the-fly thought process and an unexpected undamming of a river of observations that has hitherto had nowhere to flow. The prose isn't as perfectly polished as that of Nicholson Baker, but the attention to and love of the quotidian calls him to mind--as if, say, Baker had written Ball Four. It's funny and companionable, and every once in a while it flashes with surprise or insight, much like everyday regular-season baseball itself. If you're missing the game right now, The Heart of the Order is a good way to get that easygoing summery feeling back, no matter what the calendar says.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anthony Powell and the occult

In an otherwise very appreciative and insightful short essay on A Dance to the Music of Time in his new book, Latest Readings, Clive James writes:
New readers should be warned, however, that there is the occasional dull stretch. At the opening of volume 6 (The Kindly Ones) there is far too much about servants, ghosts, and the occult. Defending himself against charges that he was too interested in Burke's Peerage, Powell said that he would have been equally interested in a book called Burke's Workers* But the truth was that the toffs, or would-be toffs, were what he was best at. And no writer dedicated to showing life as it is should give even fleeting acknowledgment to the occult. The real reason why Scorpio Murtlock, the sinister, hippie-ish cult leader in the last volume, is such an unlikely figure is that Powell gives him a measure of the telepathic power that he claims, whereas in fact the typical counterculture hero was fake. Evelyn Waugh would not have been fooled for a minute. Nor, probably, would Olivia Manning.
Though I think James is wrong, I'll start by saying that a man who is openly, publicly facing his own impending death is allowed to be a bit dogmatic about whichever side of the spiritual divide he comes down on. How one harrows or hallows one's own soul--or determined lack thereof--in the face of oblivion is a personal decision, and I could see how a determination in one direction or the other could easily inflect other areas of analysis. (All of which, of course, is the rankest speculation. It's entirely possible, even likely, that James has always found Powell's occult subjects objectionable.)

But I think James is wrong here, not just about Powell, but in general, when he says there is any specific way that a writer "dedicated to showing life as it is" must handle the occult. For the reality is that occult interests, feelings, ideas, and tendencies are all around us--and were far more so in Powell's youth and young adulthood, as the post-WWI spiritualist craze rippled through society. By presenting people engaging in fortune telling, playing planchette, or hinting at telepathic powers, Powell is very much presenting "life as it is."

What seems to rankle James isn't so much that Powell includes these elements--though one senses that he'd prefer Powell hadn't--but that he seems to lend them credence. Mrs. Erdleigh is most likely a fraud, but she does say one or two things that stick, and, interpreted broadly, seem to come true. Billson, the parlourmaid, has a breakdown after seeing a ghost. And, yes, Murtlock does appear to have, if not telepathy, some sort of psychic magnetism.

In none of those situations, however, is Powell (or his narrative stand-in, Nick Jenkins) definitive. All these are interpretations that could be put on events--but their opposites remain entirely in play. The ambiguity is deliberate, and is of a piece with the ambiguity that Powell allows to shroud so many of the important moments in Dance: while we see some crucial events directly, through Jenkins's eyes, we more often are the recipients of stories retailed at second or third hand, with the lacunae and hazy interpretations of motive and outcome that such distance engenders. Powell is using the occult in the same way he uses coincidence, or patterning, or repetition: it's a fact of our world that events present themselves in these ways, and while we tell ourselves we can plumb them, we rarely achieve anything like certainty. We live in a fog that we interpret as best we can. You can view these instances as James does, with disapproval of Powell's seeming approval of an occult interpretation, or you can see them as simply more furniture in the mostly realistic fictional mansion that Powell is kitting out.

Or, to put it another way, by bringing it back to coincidence, that kin of the occult that is one of Powell's favorite tools, and one that also has earned him complaints about unlikeliness or the tax it levies on our credulity, we can take what James himself writes in that same essay:
He is sometimes accused of overdoing the device of coincidence, but life does, too.
You can interpret the string of coincidences (or the occult moments) in the books as having meaning, as Powell himself certainly seems to do at times--making it, as Marvel Comics hero Doctor Strange once put it, a sign that "the universe is tugging at our subconscious." Or you can see them as yet another attempt by our pattern-making brains to impose order on the universe, in which case, we can let E. F. Benson have the last word: "The nature of coincidence is to be odd. . . . Unless coincidences are startling they escape observation altogether."

Monday, October 26, 2015

The ghosts? Oh, they all moved out long ago.

In my October wanderings, I've drawn before from A. Roger Ekirch's history of nighttime, At Day's Close, because of course when there is darkness there are ghosts. But their number, it seems, varies with time.

Though 1762 was the year of the celebrated Cock Lane Ghost, Ekirch notes that the same year, nonetheless, also brought a bit of rationalist cheerleading from the Public Advertiser:
We experience every day, that as science and learning increases, the vulgar notions of spirits, apparitions, witches and demons decrease and die of themselves.
By 1788, the Daily Universal Register was ready to take it a step further, making the bold claim that
Not a single building in all London is perhaps now to be heard of, which bears the repute of being a haunted house.
Methinks the editors of the Daily Universal Register, even granting that they were accurate at that moment, may have been extrapolating too much into the future. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his introduction to The English Ghost, the best, ghost-wise, was yet to come:
Nineteenth-century England was perhaps the golden age of the ghost. It may have ceased to have any messages or any advice for the living, but it was everywhere. The yearnings associated with the Romantic movement of English poetry found fruition in the spectacle of the melancholy ghosts. There as much popular interest in spirit-rappings and in spirit-tappings. The fashion for mesmerism, in the middle of the century [Which, let's not forget, swept up Dickens!--ed.], provoked belief in some form of plasma or magnetic fluid that might harbour the forms of spirits. Technological progress also seemed to affirm the existence of spectral bodies, with the appearance of photographs intending to reveal the ghostly occupants of rooms and chairs. The Society of Psychical Research, founding in 1882, lent seriousness and credibility to the quest for spirits. A questionnaire sent out by the society in 1894 revealed that out of seventeen thousand people, 673 claimed that they had seen a ghost in one form or another. It is perhaps curious, however, that the majority of them did not know the identity of the spirit in question. The manifestation appeared arbitrary and purposeless.
Beyond that--and setting science, rationalism, and facts aside--the Daily Universal Register's assertion seems questionable. Has there ever been a human settlement of more than about 100 souls where someone wasn't claiming to be haunted? It seems a basic condition of a species that lives with the awareness of mortality. I can't think of any haunted houses in my small hometown, but I know second-hand of such a claim in London (to say nothing of the many post-1788 accounts found in Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts), and third-and-beyond-hand of countless claims in Chicago. And, on this autumn evening, blessed with the full moon: what about you and your hometown?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Add The Library at Mount Char to your October library

I've committed what must be one of the cardinal sins for a blogger: I lent away a great book before I got a chance to write about it. In most circumstances, I would deal with the problem by putting off posting about it, but this book is so well suited for October reading that I can't bring myself to wait. So, with apologies, a post built around memory and Google Book Search. There'll be less quoting and more vagueness than is ideal, but I hope I'll at least be able to give you enough of a sense of the book to convince you to give it a try.

The book is The Library at Mount Char, a debut novel that reads nothing like one. When I reached the acknowledgments and learned that its author, Scott Hawkins, had written and thrown out multiple books before this one, I wasn't surprised; it has the feel of something thought through extensively, its convincing account of a distinct imagined world earned through time and labor. I picked it up after reading a staff pick shelf talker at 57th Street Books, my much-loved local, in which the bookseller called The Library at Mount Char "the great book that you wanted American Gods to be." That's a big claim, as the bookseller acknowledged. American Gods, like all of Neil Gaiman's books, has a staggering number of passionate fans. But I was sold: I've always felt that Gaiman's book was more exciting in its conception than its execution, a book of great ideas that doesn't quite fulfill its promise.

The Library at Mount Char does. Like American Gods, it presents a world of ancient knowledge and power hidden behind the ordinary American life we know, and from its very first pages, it plunges the reader into a surprising, almost wholly convincing story of the latter days of that power. Here's the first paragraph:
Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone down the two-lane stretch of blacktop that the Americans called Highway 78. Most of the librarians, Carolyn included, had come to think of this road as the Path of Tacos, so-called in honor of a Mexican joint they snuck out to sometimes. The guacamole, she remembered, is really good. Her stomach rumbled. Oak leaves, reddish-orange and delightfully crunchy, crackled underfoot as she walked. Her breath puffed white in the predawn air. The obsidian knife she had used to murder Detective Miner lay nestled in the small of her back, sharp and secret.

She was smiling.
Compelling, no? Hawkins plants so many little seeds in a few short sentences. The combination of quotidian detail and ordinary, almost slangy language--the guacamole, the Path of Tacos, "Mexican joint"--balances the elements that signal something strange, starting with the blood; then "the Americans, phrased so oddly that it makes us pause, if not stumble; then the "obsidian knife," and the murder.This is our world, he's saying, but with a twist. It's intriguing without being off-putting, effective and propulsive while still being just a tiny bit showy.

All that's set up in that paragraph, and much, much more afterwards, ends up paid off in the book. As Hawkins unveils his invention, we meet the librarians, and we slowly figure out that they're students of a nearly omnipotent tyrant whom they call Father, a force who acts with all the violence, if a bit less of the capriciousness, of the Old Testament god. His disappearance, and presumed murder, has set off a chain of events that, it quickly becomes clear, could destroy the librarians, and possibly even the world.

If this all sounds a bit airy, blame my failure to have the book to hand rather than Hawkins's writing. His scene-setting and revelations of the history and backstories of his characters are incredibly skillful, enabling him to maintain suspense and surprise the reader without ever having us feel that we're being manipulated. The combat, overt and covert, among the various forces (including the American military) vying for power is dramatic and exciting, its outcome feeling genuinely in doubt for long stretches. And the whole book is full of creative ideas and unforgettable details, from the casualness with which the librarians dismantle the grave of one of their fellows and, without explanation, begin to dig up her corpse to the plethora of lore and spells, which feel convincingly ancient in their names and effects. Here's my favorite example of the latter, from late in the book. Carolyn is remembering a time in the past when Father cast a spell, alshaq shabboleth, which changes the relationship of people to time, enabling them, essentially, to move with super speed, which in this case would allow Carolyn to escape disaster:
She looked at [name redacted to avoid spoiler]. He was saying something, or his lips were moving, but she could hear nothing. We were too fast, she realized now. The alshaq shabboleth made us too fast for sound.
A few paragraphs later, Hawkins develops the idea still further:
When she moved, the parts of her skin that were exposed to the air felt hot, like the time she had held her fingers over the outflow nozzle on a hair dryer and had burned her fingers.

Now, today, she understood what was happening. Friction with the air. Under the influence of the alshaq, her speed was such that even the air burned.
It's a small detail, but an effective one, instantly making the impossible spell seem grounded in actual reality. Then Hawkins gives the alshaq another twist:
Later, when she learned to make the alshaq shabboleth for herself she understood why it worked on her but not him. The effects of the alshaq are felt first by the dead, then by the young, and last by the old.
Why? No reason is given, but we don't really want one: it just feels right that such a disordering of the known universe would have its own logic, and it makes the spell, and the world it comes from, feel just that tiny bit more real.

Even in its last pages, The Library at Mount Char continues to surprise, offering a couple of moments so inventive and well-conceived that they achieve the rare goal of feeling simultaneously wholly surprising and, once we read of them, inevitable. The result is an often creepy, action-oriented dark fantasy novel that ends by being genuinely moving.

The Library at Mount Char is a book I'll be telling people about--and lending to friends--for a long time to come. Your October will be the better, and the shiverier, for giving it a try.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Entering October

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I'm a bit late this year welcoming October, but rest assured: that eerie silence you've heard is the sound of me reading weird tales in honor of the month.

To break the silence, then, how about two different approaches to bringing the reader into the realm of the strange--into the month of October, in a sense? Here's the first, which serves as a sort of preface to Ray Bradbury's October Country:
October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .
A list, incomplete but suggestive, of the touchstones of Bradbury's fiction. At his best, he generated mystery, chills, and wonder from the edges of the stuff of everyday life--and particularly those bits of it that were already showing their age, withering into disuse, in his own childhood, those interwar years where the modern world was tantalizingly imaginable, but the Depression kept pushing it ever further out of sight. It's a world where small towns were still isolated, their streets still dark; where leaves were burned at the edge of the yard, their smoke marking summer's pyre; where the idea that there might still be secret, unknown places down the cracked, root-tilted sidewalks of a little-used street didn't, in the darkness of a crisp October night, seem all that far-fetched.

At the other end is this, the opening to Clark Ashton Smith's "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," which was published in Weird Tales in November of 1931, when Bradbury was eleven:
I, Satampra Zeiros of Uzuldaroum, shall write with my left hand, since I have no longer any other, the tale of everything that befell Tirouv Ompallios and myself in the shrine of the god Tsathoggua, which lies neglected by the worship of man in the jungle-taken suburbs of Commoriom, that long-deserted capital of the Hyperborean rulers. I shall write it with the violet juice of the suvana-palm, which turns to a blood-red rubric with the passage of years, on a strong vellum that is made from the skin of the mastodon, as a warning to all good thieves and adventurers who may hear some lying legend of the lost treasures of Commoriom and be tempted thereby.
You probably don't need me to point this out, but Smith was an acolyte of Lovecraft, and this story was praised by Lovecraft as "close to being your high spot in prose fiction to date." Interestingly, what Lovecraft identifies is not his own influence, but that of Lord Dunsany: "You have achieved in its fullest glamour the exact Dunsanian touch which I find almost impossible to duplicate."

It hasn't, however, held up as well as Bradbury's formulation. Oh, there are nice touches: the passing note about the lost hand, the mammoth vellum, the "lying legend."But it's hard to read the cascade of portentiousness and not start to wonder whether Smith isn't perhaps writing with tongue in cheek. When you realize that he's wholly serious, you have to thoroughly recalibrate as a reader. Fortunately, once you've done that, the brief story is fun and satisfying.

No big point to make about this pairing beyond that, aside from the reminder it gives that a fan of weird and ghostly tales has a panoply of styles and approaches to choose from. It's part of what makes October such a pleasure. If I read about gods like Tsathoggua all the time, I'd go insane (and not for the reasons Lovecraft and Smith might adduce), but here and there, interspersed with Robert Aickman and Arthur Machen and Edith Wharton and Kelly Link, it's great fun.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Mann and Trollope disagree on plot

On my recent trip to England (about which more soon), I packed the second volume of Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, Barchester Towers, because if there's one rule I've established about overseas travel, it's to take a Victorian novel, and if there's a second, it's that it's best if that novel is one of Trollope's. At risk of sounding too much like the marketing person I am in my day job: there are few more reliable brands than that of Mr. Trollope. A novel of his in one's carry-on guarantees house of pleasantly diverting in-flight entertainment.

Right before and right after the trip, however, I was making an ascent of Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, urged on and accompanied by my Twitter friends Caille Millner and Stephen Sparks. While you could make a case that Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901) is, in a sense, the last great nineteenth-century novel, The Magic Mountain could hardly be less Victorian. Oh, it mostly retains the realism and narrative omniscience of the Victorians, and it even carries a whiff of humorous irony not wholly foreign to Trollope's narrative voice. But in terms of its aims, structure, and plot--or lack thereof--it could hardly be more of a statement of something new, of a new idea of what novels might aim at and be. It is a novel less of people and social situations--though it presents plenty of both, frequently in amusing fashion--than of ideas and deep oppositions: between action and contemplation, vigor and lassitude, life and death.

All of which made me particularly interested, and entertained, when I hit upon a passage that linked Mann's book and Trollope's--and set the pair of authors on different sides than one would expect on a particular issue. To wit: plot, withholding, and readerly patience.

The passage from Barchester Towers is reasonably well known, to some extent a marker of Trollope's breakthrough as a writer: the confidence established by not just the choice to have his narrative voice offer the following statement, but also by the very tone, serious, yet loving and playful, of the voice itself, is what readers would come to think of as vintage Trollope. This, we think as we read it, is a voice we trust; it will neither mislead nor disappoint us. This passage comes fairly early in the novel, when pieces are by all means still in motion, fate's plans still obscure:
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realised? . . .

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian. Otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.
Trollope here is not merely reassuring us: he's expanding the role of the narrator--no longer does the narrator, because of his willingness to share his omniscience, give us more information about any given moment than the characters in the novel have, but he also gives us his knowledge of the future. We are allies, says Trollope's voice here, and we agree that the point is the people, not the plot. It's a daring move, and one that works brilliantly. (It's also sly: it's not as if Trollope won't be withholding plenty from us--he's shown us one card, and by doing so distracted us from the rest of his hand.)

Mann, meanwhile, very late in his nearly plotless novel, makes the opposite case. Time has been one of his themes: how we understand it, experience it, relate it to others, and how dependent the sense of its passing is on our activity and attention. Here, at a well-judged moment of readerly impatience, he turns that theme explicitly to the art of storytelling:
But why this impatience? Not everything can be known right off. That must still be taken as one of the conditions of life and of storytelling, and surely no one is about to rebel against God-given forms of human understanding. Let us honor time at least to the extent that the nature of our story allows. There is not that much time left in any case, it's rushing by slapdash as it is, or if that's too noisy a way of putting it, it's whisking past hurry-scurry. A little hand measures our time, minces along as if measuring seconds; and yet, whenever it cold-bloodedly moves past a high-point without bothering to stop, that still means something, though God only knows what.
It's not that Mann is actually arguing for plot here, of course, but the effect is similar: let events happen as they will, without fast-forwarding or asking for oracles. Time reveals all, including not merely the day when the outcome of this novel is known, but the day when our reading itself ceases. Why rush ahead?

As a reader, much as I love Doctor Faustus, appreciate Buddenbrooks, and frustratedly admire The Magic Mountain, my affinities and my heart are with Trollope. As a person, watching autumn quietly settle in upon the land? I'm siding with Mann.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Wharton on James--always good

Just a quick post tonight, as I find myself distracted by baseball ('tis that time of year). I'll just share a bit from Simon Nowell-Smith's wonderful collection of anecdotes of Henry James, The Legend of the Master 1948). The book is full of unforgettable glimpses of James the man, but the best, hands down, come from Edith Wharton, a dear friend who saw him clearly and loved what she saw. This account of James's reactions to parody shows both aspects:
Still more disastrous was the effect of letting him know that any of his writings had been parodied. I had alway regarded the fact of being parodied as one of the surest evidences of fame, and once, when he was staying with us in New York, I brought him with glee a deliciously droll article on his novels by poor Frank Colby, the author of Imaginary Obligations. The effect was disastrous. I shall never forget the misery, the mortification even, which tried to conceal itself behind an air of offended dignity. His ever-bubbling sense of fun failed him completely on such occasions.
I've had James more and more on the brain lately, both leading up to and after our visit to his house in Rye earlier this month. It may finally be time to read Leon Edel's biography.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Summer fades

From Edmund Wilson's notebooks of the 1920s:
The first cold blue of autumn and the melancholy of the shore provoking thoughts not only of the end of summer, but of the pressure of time, the wavering of ambition, the disappointments of love--the period of life that approaches its close like the period of the year.
August is usually a betwixt-and-between month for me: summery, yes, but often too hot, tainted by long-distant yet still potent memories of the too-early return of school. It's the month when you start to lament what you've not done in the summer, while still not having any of the consolations of autumn.

This year, however, August was an unexpected glory. It was hot enough here and there to clearly be summer, yet pleasant enough overall to reward porch-sitting and park-walking. It had five full weekends, and we were actually home for all but one of them. Baseball, well played for the dog days, was a soothing backbeat. Hummingbirds visited, the first time.

September's arrival, therefore, is less bittersweet than usual. Summer in Chicago is a fleeting, untrustworthy, regretful thing; this year, somehow, it escaped its own nature. I look to autumn now not with the melancholy of Wilson, but the joy of Thoreau, writing in his journal on October 14, 1857:
Another, the tenth of these memorable days. We have had some fog the last two or three nights, and this forenoon it was slow to disperse, but this afternoon it is warmer even than yesterday. I should like it better if it were not so warm. I am glad to reach the shade of Hubbard's Grove; the coolness is refreshing. It is indeed a golden autumn. These ten days are enough to make the reputation of any climate. A tradition of these days might be handed down to posterity. They deserve a notice in history, in the history of Concord.
May your autumn this year bring similar shimmering pleasure.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Anthony Powell's Venusberg

I mentioned a while back that I had written a foreword to the new edition of Anthony Powell's second novel, Venusberg, that my colleagues and I at the University of Chicago Press are publishing this fall. That book--which has the lovely cover above--will be available in early October, but you don't have to wait to read the foreword: the good folks at Open Letters Monthly have published an extended version of it in their September issue!

Longtime readers of this blog may recognize some aspects of the foreword that got an initial working out in this space; it was fun to revisit my earlier thinking about Venusberg and translate it into the more orderly, more expansive form of a foreword.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't say what an honor it is to see my name on the cover of a book alongside Anthony Powell's. To have my years of reading and thinking about Powell formalized, in a sense, in this way, makes me happy beyond words. If my praise for the book brings it some new readers, it will be modest recompense for the countless hours of pleasure that Powell has given me.

Hope you enjoy it--and while you're there, check out the rest of OLM's offerings. Month after month, they put out a strong magazine, full of interesting voices writing about unexpected books.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Powell and Fitzgerald

Though he never transformed it into fiction--saying in a 1975 Paris Review interview that "you really never know what things are going to be suitable material for books. And for some reason I've never thought it was suitable material"--Anthony Powell's brief sojourn in Hollywood in 1937 has long been an object of fascination for me. What might have happened had he managed to latch onto A Yank at Oxford and begin to make a name for himself as a reliable writer of screenplays? Would we have had no Dance? Without the war years--and the particularly English perspective on them--the sequence is hard to imagine. Could we somehow have had a US-focused version, inflected with the strange mix of Hollywood falseness, wartime boosterism, and almost unfathomable industrial growth that was Los Angeles in the 1940s?

Nowadays, to the extent that Powell's Hollywood period is known at all, it's for his brief meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Side note to those possessing a time machine: some of us would really appreciate a bit more detail about the time he met Douglas Fairbanks. Was Fairbanks wearing a shirt? Were his arms akimbo? Did he laugh with insouciance? (No, yes, no, I presume.)) Powell goes into it a bit in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling, an account that includes a brilliant aside that I've quoted before:
One could not fail to notice the tone in which people in Hollywood spoke of Fitzgerald. It was as if Lazarus, just risen from the dead, were to be looked on as of some doubtful promise as a screenwriter.
What I didn't realize until recently was that Powell had written about the encounter, and his Hollywood time in general, at much greater length. The piece, originally published in the Times Saturday Review on October 3, 1970, was included in the Hemingway-Fitzgerald Annual for 1971, and it's well worth seeking out if you have access to a good library.

Powell's account of his own experience is as droll as you'd expect:
Of efforts to become a Hollywood script writer there is little more to say than that they were unsuccessful. My American agent had died during our weeks on the high seas. The replacement was antipathetic. This was getting off to a bad start.
The meetings that followed, Powell, says, were "pursuing the mirage":
One became familiar not so much with the bum's rush, to use an old fashioned expression,as that stagnation of movement, total inanition where any action is concerned, to some extent characteristic of all theatrical administration, more especially when the art of the film is in question.
"To some extent characteristic" feels like the most fundamental Powellian phrase: he's categorizing, which is one of his essential modes, but at the same time he's leaving a gap--individuality, even as one necessarily sorts by type, is what matters.

What follows is a brief account of the accommodations, the lifestyle (as glimpsed by a more or less determined outsider), and the people--and then he gets to Fitzgerald:
He was smallish, neat, solidly built, wearing a light grey suit and lightish tie, all his tones essentially light. Photographs--seen for the most part years later--do not do justice to him. Possibly he was a person who at once became self-conscious when before a camera. Even snapshots tend to give him an air of swagger, a kind of cockiness, he did not at all possess. On the contrary, one was immediately aware of a sort of unassuming dignity. There was no hint at all of the cantankerousness that undoubtedly lay beneath the surface. His air could be thought a trifle sad, but not in the least broken down, as he has sometimes been described at this period. In a railway carriage or bar, one would have wondered who this man could be.
Powell and Fitzgerald seem to have hit it off, apparently monopolizing the conversation to such an extent that Fitzgerald eventually realized that neither Violet Powell, or their other luncheon companion, Elliott Morgan, had gotten a word in, a situation he good-naturedly tried to remedy.

What's of particular interest is Fitzgerald's assessment, at that moment, of his legacy. He was at low ebb, and knew it:
We talked of his own books. He dismissed any idea that they would ever be read in England. It certainly seemed unlikely then--a good example of the vicissitudes of authorship--that within 10 years and a world war everything Fitzgerald had written would be in print in a London edition.
In the Paris Review interview, Powell credits Cyril Connolly, who was for a time all but the sole champion of Fitzgerald in the UK, for insuring that he knew of--and admired--Fitzgerald's work.

In the original article, Powell notes something that he only alluded to in the his memoirs: this was a moment--in fact, the very day--when a lot was happening in Fitzgerald's life. That evening, he would have dinner, for the first time, with Sheilah Graham, the woman who would be his companion in the final years of his life. Despite the emotional upheaval that surely accompanied the success of that dinner, Fitzgerald followed through with a note of thanks to the Powells for a pleasant lunch, and the gift of some books.

Even late, rackety Fitzgerald could regularly come through with some class.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

On the books, read and unread, on my shelves

One of the first rules you learn if you work in food service is "First in, first out." When, bleary-eyed at 5 AM, you greet the truck that brings the racks of ready-to-boil bagels and vats of cream cheese and load them into the walk-in cooler, you have to rearrange everything, every day, pushing yesterday's supplies to the front and making space to wedge the new stuff in the back. (If you're like I was at twenty, you'll also eat about half a dozen pickles from the man-sized pickle bucket while you're at it. Yum.)

The first in, first out rule is often in the back of my mind when I'm looking over the shelves of my library. I certainly don't come close to practicing such an approach. Does anyone? Though I know there are diligent, focused readers, I have never been of their party, tending more to be in the camp Samuel Johnson describes here:
Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise rigorous adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.
Combine that with an inveterate habit of haunting bookstores and libraries, and the result is a situation where older books--good, interesting books, books that were brought into the house in the full intention that I would read them--get buried under newer books, and at least some of which will doubtless soon find themselves buried by specimens still more fresh.

Most days, I don't mind this. I'm no scholar; I have no duties to these books or any others. And while it's not wrong to say that there is at least some risk that a new novel left too long may transform, in a was not wholly dissimilar an aged vat of cream cheese, into something less appetizing, it seems far from unreasonable to think that a novel that can't patiently wait its turn is probably a novel that didn't need reading in the first place. If a new book buries a nearly new book, it's a small sin.

Yet there's no question that a pathology, however modest, underlies this. I do not, in any sense, need all these books in my house; I bring them home to read, but I also, no doubt, bring them home . . . simply because I like knowing they're at hand? I'll share one symptom, trusting that it will speak for the whole problem. This photo shows the bookshelves in my office, to which I recently carted all the books I currently have on loan from the University of Chicago Library.

Ahem. I trust I stand convicted. While I do hold to the belief that one's shelves should feature a large proportion of unread books--they are a to-do list and a wish list as much as they are a repository of personal knowledge--there are times when the situation in my library does seem a bit out of hand. Holbrook Jackson, in his Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950), offers citations for both the damning and the defending of a reader who finds his library in a state like mine:
That book-colletcors read not what they buy is a common observation. Every age furnishes evidence of those who hoard books without reading them. One such is reproached by Lucian: "Nobody who knows you," he complains, "would think you do it on account of their helfpfulness, or use, any more than a bald man would buy a comb, a blind man a mirror, a deaf-mute a flute-player, an eunuch a concubine, a landsman an ora, or a seaman a plough." There are many who insist that this is a prime symptom; others stoutly contest the view: "some books are to be read, others are to be collected" (A. Edward Newton); and [Sir Adam] Ferguson as boldly maintains that "the larger number of books are not for reading; their improtance does not depend upon their contents, but upon themselves."
Edmund Gosse, meanwhile, in an essay about his own library, asserts:
Books are not entirely valued or intimately loved unless they are ranged about us as we sit at home.
But then there are those days when by chance I turn away from the stacks of new books and walk my shelves. On those days, after I inevitably discover a forgotten volume that, on its initial entry into my life, brought a shiver of excitement, I resolve, however weakly, to curb my pathology and cut back on new books for a time.

I'm in the midst of one of those spells now, and I'm pleased to say that the first half of August has seen the balance between read and unread books in my house tip ever so slightly to the former. One of the books I dug up, which had been left in a partially read state for years, was Clive James's monumental, staggeringly learned Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. In his introduction, James writes,
It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.
In a lighter vein, Holbrook Jackson concludes The Anatomy of Bibliomania with:
Go then, choose your book and your time. There is no compulsion. Reading is not a virtue--unless the enjoyment be virtuous.
I agree with both, though I also hope they'll both forgive me if, for this brief late-summer span, I ascribe the tiniest bit of utilitarian virtue to my reading. The situation is still absurd, of course, the balance still deeply tilted to the unread side, but as with so many things in life, merely demonstrating to oneself that one's will can be imposed feels like a victory.

Friday, August 07, 2015

One last thought on utopias, with Ellis Peters

In last week's post about utopias, I quoted from Ellis Peters's Monk's-Hood, the third in her series of medieval mysteries starring Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century monk from Shrewsbury Abbey. In that post, I likened the appeal of Peters's novels to that of Rex Stout's: that they're less about a mystery to be solved than an opportunity to spend time in a familiar, congenial setting and atmosphere that, unlike the rest of our lives, is all but unchanging--that last being one of the characteristics of a utopia.

At the end of a lovely vacation week largely spent sitting on my porch reading, I find myself thinking of a passage from Monk's-Hood that considers a slightly different aspect of potential utopian ideals. An aged local noble has just deeded his estate to the Abbey in exchange, essentially, for a life tenancy just outside its walls, which sets Cadfael thinking:
Another curious theme intruded itself persistently into Cadfael's musings. This matter of the occasional guests of the abbey, so-called, the souls who chose to abandon the working world, sometimes in their prime, and hand over their inheritance to the abbey fora soft, shielded, inactive life in a house of retirement, with food, clothing, firing, all provided without the lifting of a finger! Did they dream of it for years while they were sweating over lambing ewes, or toiling in the harvest, or working hard at a trade? A little sub-paradise where meals dropped from the sky and there was nothing to do but bask, in the summer, and toast by the fire with mulled ale in the winter? And when they got to it, how long did the enchantment last? How soon did they sicken of doing nothing, and needing to do nothing? In a man blind, lame, sick, he could understand the act. But in those hale and busy, and used to exerting body and mind? No, that he could not understand. There must be other motives. Not all men could be deceived, or deceive themselves, into mistaking idleness for blessedness.
Though I genuinely love my job, time away from it, and from work, period, is always appreciated. And while I would never choose idleness--else why type this when I could be basking in the park?--the draw of a world where needs are supplied, and time is thus freed for non-remunerative pursuits, is strong.

Would the illusion last? Though I'm far from certain it wouldn't, I do think Peters is on to something here--a point that could be applied to her books, and which differentiates the pleasures they offer from the seductions of utopia. What such cozy mysteries, executed with the skill of Peters and Stout, offer is not a perfect world we can imagine moving into, but rather a retreat--a conventual realm, where we can briefly set aside the cares of the world and take up a new, ordered, reliable, unchanging life. They're less pernicious than true utopias both because they don't intend to hold us forever: we're to while away a few hours, then close the book and return to the everyday.

And with that, I'll close my week and start the weekend by opening some Rex Stout. You could do worse than join me . . . and Archie and Wolfe and Lily and Fritz and . . .

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Thinking more about utopias with Darran Anderson's Imaginary Cities

After I wrote last week's post on utopias--need I even append "failed," or does "utopia" imply that these days?--I began reading Darran Anderson's idiosyncratic, vertiginously referential, overstuffed, pleasantly oracular and fascinating new book Imaginary Cities, and I almost immediately encountered some reflections on utopias that seem like a necessary addendum.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The impossibility of utopias could be reduced to the fact that it's impossible to describe--and therefore fully to plan--a real city. "Cities," Anderson writes, "are never entirely finished, knowable or singular." Planning can only ever get you so far. Life requires avenues for the unexpected, ability to cope with what emerges--good and bad--without intention from our deliberate actions. Just as no system is wholly self-sustaining, no system is wholly efficient. "It is," writes Anderson, "the by-products that undermine utopias, even unbuilt ones." Those by-products aren't merely the obvious ones--physical waste, dead matter--but the more insidious as well, the stray thoughts, the individuals who can't or won't play along, the unintended consequences of innocent decisions. I wrote last week that every utopia contains its doom; every utopia also is perpetually poised somewhere on the continuum between anarchy and totalitarianism, with the middle ground the hardest to hold. "The future not only has side-effects, it is side-effects," writes Anderson: the death of a utopia will almost always come not through dramatic action, but for simple want of a nail, or, perhaps more commonly, for refusal to accept that a nail is needed.

 Yet at the same time, the opening to Anderson's discussion of Plato's Republic offers a useful sketch of the appeal of utopia to a certain kind of mind:
One of the attractions of the utopian island city is that there need be no excess or dissent. . . . To the ominously ordered mind of the pedant, the urge to decide on everything is too much to resist. The all-too-human difficulties and complexities would be forced to yield.
Indeed, while my post last week focused primarily on the inevitability of failure in utopias, the question of their appeal is at least as interesting. I find myself thinking of something a friend's kid said a few years ago, a "fact" he stated built entirely on observing his parents: "Girls drink coffee. Boys drink Coke." The world, to a child, can be ordered, and neat, if only enough knowledge is accumulated. Categories apply.

And to some, the pull of order never lessens--the utopian vision is about believing in perfection, yes, but it's also about believing in categorization, and perfect information, and, ultimately, stasis. If, as Donald Pitzer argued in America's Communal Utopias, both adapting to change and failing to adapt to change can be deadly for utopian communities, that is specifically because both decisions reflect the presence of disorder and uncertainty--both cause questioning of one of the bedrocks of the utopian vision, the idea that control, of any sort, can be perfectly maintained. Perfection isn't a state of becoming; it has no past, no future. As Anderson writes, "the price of the future is that you leave the past, never to return." Though it may be unstated, the first thing utopians must banish from their perfect cities is time.

The draw, nonetheless, remains. Anderson quotes Oscar Wilde:
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
"The journey and the direction, rather than the destination, are the key," Anderson writes. Knowing imperfection, and seeing it everywhere, should lead us to accept it, and halt out thoughts there. Instead, it shadows forth its opposite, perfection, and we obsess. Next time will be different, and next time, and next time . . .

All of which leads to the inevitable elusiveness of acceptance, and contentment, and brings to mind another passage from another book I read today, Monk's-Hood, the third in the series of Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. The Cadfael series, which I'm so happy to have embarked upon recently, is an example of the genre of book, and, specifically, of mystery, of which Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels are the exemplar: the comfort mystery, where, for all the crime and murder the books may contain, the point is that each one returns you to a setting, a group, an atmosphere that is reliable, congenial, and therefore, in its own largely unchanging way, even utopian. For Stout, it's the largely self-contained world of a brownstone in 1930s Manhattan; for Peters, it's a twelfth-century English monastery.

Yet neither makes a pretense to presenting an actual utopia, and in fact the first page of Monk's Hood specifically plumps for the virtues of good enough:
Men were variable, fallible, and to be humoured. And the year, so stormy in its earlier months, convulsed with siege and slaughter and disruptions, bade fair to end in calm and comparative plenty. The tide of civil war between King Stephen and the partisans of the Empress Maud had receded into the south-western borders, leaving Shrewsbury to recover cautiously from having backed the weaker side and paid a bloody price for it. And for all the hindrances to good husbandry, after a splendid summer the harvest had been successfully gathered in, the barns were full, the mills were busy, sheep and cattle thrived on pastures still green and lush, and the weather continued surprisingly mild, with only a hint of frost in the early mornings. No one was wilting with cold yet, no one yet was going hungry. It couldn't last much longer, but every day counted as blessing.
Acceptance, contentment, the slow turn of the calendar page. These imperfect glories are our lot. We could do worse.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On the twice-failed utopia of New Harmony, Indiana

With apologies for the longer-than-usual blogging hiatus (vacation, work, the usual), today I'll start with a Twitter essay I wrote a couple of weeks back on the eve of making my first visit to my parents' new home in New Harmony, Indiana.

I really enjoy the Twitter essay--pioneered by New Republic editor Jeet Heer--as a form because of the way it forces internal brevity on a piece of writing. As you'll see above, while thoughts do continue from line to line, the form works best when a line is self-contained, yet at the same time advances the argument or example. And, because of the way Twitter allows sharing and replies, the form can also be malleable, participatory: a reader, for example, canmake a good point about the topic and that point can be incorporated, more or less in real time, within the essay itself.

What you give up in the Twitter essay, of course, is the option of length--and particularly length of quotation. And when a reader of the Twitter essay, my friend Dan Visel, pointed me at Marguerite Young's odd, impressionistic 1945 book on New Harmony and its history, I was glad I had this platform available so I could share part of it.

Young's prose is marvelously strange, moving to a rhythm and patterns of thought that at times seem clear only to her, yet that leave behind them a sense of beauty and a willingness to be lavish with time. Here, for example, is Young on the New Harmony she saw on visiting in 1940:
New Harmony has a charm escaping these and other categories. In 1940, it seemed like a good place to spend one's old age in or visit one's old Aunt Mary, the nonexistent character. School did or did not keep, and nobody cared, and the teacher was pretty, presumably. People did or did not wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday. There were old-fashioned flowers in abandoned lots and gardens--dusty blue morning glories trailing among stinkweeds, spires of yellowing lilies that seemed to flourish in neglect. There was a feeling of both tedium and voluptuousness.

Gradually, in spite of the ten-cent store, which was cobwebbed and insubstantial, the present faded, became of a texture with the past, as if today were only the conglomerate of all our yesterdays. Every item implied, however, desolation, since nothing lingers so like the memory of failure, especially if it has sought the extreme perfection.
At times it feels as if Young is simply letting you in on a portion of a conversation she's long been having with herself, in which some references will always remain a bit obscure. But the style can win you over, and it seems to suit this attempt to explain the inexplicable: the urge to create a utopia, and the entropy and human failings that guarantee its end.

Young's account of the difference between the Rappites and the Owenites is succinct and helpful, fleshing out my thumbnail version above:
It is difficult to visualize this secluded area as once the scene of two Utopias, like the Cartesian split between body and soul--the Rappite, a Scriptural communism, founded by Father George Rapp, a German peasant, who believed his people to be future angels--the Owenite, founded by Robert Owen, an English cotton lord, who believed all men to be machines. The end result of Father Rapp's community, a celibate order, was heaven--and the end result of Robert Owen's, while also incalculable, was the British labor movement.
The Owenite presence is the one that remains most palpable in New Harmony today: in large part through the philanthropy of his descendants and a partnership with the nearby University of Southern Indiana, the town's character as an intellectual outpost remains, in a sense. It's not, by any stretch, the great center of learning that Owen envisioned, but compared to that of other Midwestern towns of its sub-1,000-person size, its liveliness and culture are impressive: there's an art gallery and studios, public sculptures and gardens, and live music, indoors and outdoors, throughout the year. It's sleepy, sure, especially under the enervating humidity of late summer, but it's also charming and odd; I meant what I said about visiting--if you're in Southern Indiana, it's worth a modest detour.

For the final word today on Utopia, I'll turn to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, my favorite of his books (and one best read alongside Marco Polo's remarkable Travels). After Calvino's Marco Polo has described for Kublai Khan countless bizarre and unlikely cities, we reach the end of his travels:
The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria.

Kublai asked Marco: "You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favoring winds are driving us."

"For these ports I could not draw a route on the map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discotnniuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you can hunt for it, but only in the way I have said."
Polo continues, ending with a note of caution:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
A note of caution, yes. But also, even for this doubter of the utopian impulse, a note of hope.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Robert Burton and The Anatomy of Melancholy, always relevant

As I headed home from the office Friday evening, feeling momentarily overwhelmed by the events of the day and the week and the fortnight, from the horrors of the shootings in Charleston to the century-late acknowledgment of the reprehensibility of the South's cause to the juxtaposition of the terror killings in Europe and Africa and the celebrations that followed the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage, I found myself thinking of Robert Burton, and the showiest, most memorable passage from his endlessly fecund Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters & preparations, & such-like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarums. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, etc. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of princes, new discoveries, expeditions, now comical, then tragical matters. Today we hear of new lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed and then again of fresh honours conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned; one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, etc. Thus I daily hear, and such-like, both private and public news; amidst the gallantry and misery of the world—jollity, pride, perplexities and cares, simplicity and villainy; subtlety, knavery, candour, and integrity mutually mixed and offering themselves—I rub on, privus privatus; as I have still lived, so I now continue, status quo prius, left to a solitary life and mine own domestic discontents.
It's a "wonderful epitome of what life is like," as Anthony Powell put it. Life seen properly as a cascade, so vast as to be almost incomprehensible in the moment, barely less so in in retrospect, mingling the good and the bad, the important and the silly, the lasting and the fugitive. It's enough on the bad days to call to mind a line from Kafka's diaries:
With "Woe!" you greet the night, with "Woe!" the day.
But there's also Charles Lamb, who speaks I think for the odd mixture of--as Burton might have seen it--humors in many of us when he writes,
I cannot divest me of an unseasonable disposition to levity upon the most awful occasions.
Burton's rippling, rivering register of events reminds us that an admixture is all we're ever allowed.

As I read the Anatomy Friday night, I realized something further, and unexpected: surely this, this very passage from Burton, is where Antonin Scalia encountered the archaic word "mummeries" in proximity to "weddings," such that it stuck in his mind and ended up in his blistering dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges? Has Scalia, feeling the tides of history, this week at least, running against him, been seeking consolation in The Anatomy of Melancholy?

Burton offers countless consolations--he is, as Powell puts it, "never a bore," and "one of the first writers to grasp the innate oddness of human nature"--but I'd perhaps recommend that the good Justice, at the end of a long term closeted up with books of law, eager clerks, and crotchety colleagues, instead put the book down and seek some version of Burton's own remedy for melancholy, as related by Powell:
At Oxford, when plagued by melancholy, Burton, who seems always to have enjoyed a joke, used to go down to the bridge over the river, and listen to the bargemen swearing at each other. That would always make him laugh, and at once feel better.
As someone who spent most of his weekend (in, let's note, a much more cheerful and optimistic frame of mind than I'm ascribing to Justice Scalia) sitting on the porch admiring the chuntering nonsense of the local bird population around my feeder, I give such a prescription my heartiest support.