Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Time for some Jacobean slang!

Peter Ackroyd's multi-volume History of England series has reached the English Civil War, a period I know primarily through the not-always-reliable lenses of John Aubrey and John Milton. Like nearly of Ackroyd's histories, it's a book for a reader rather than a scholar--trying to trace Ackroyd's sources, in the absence of notes or a proper bibliography, would be all but impossible. But for a lay reader, his rich fund of anecdote and quotation is, as always, a great pleasure.

My two favorite individual details thus far are, first, the fact that the people used to call Lord Buckingham, Charles I's much-loathed right hand, Lord Fuckingham, and, second, that James I, sick with gout and a "shrewd case of the stone," having heard that deer's blood was good for the health, would sit with his feet stuffed inside the bloody carcass of a newly killed deer. (To which I say, respectively, Of course they did, and, shades of Luke Skywalker and the tauntaun there.)

Tonight, though, I'll share some Jacobean slang that Ackroyd has harvested from Ben Jonson's "teeming" play of London life, Bartholomew Fair:
A "hobby-horse" was a prostitute. An "undermeal" was a light snack. To "stale" was to urinate. When one character discloses that "we were all a little stained last night," he means that they were drunk. "Whimsies" were the female genitalia. A "diet-drink" was medicine. A Catholic recusant was derided as "a seminary."
Some words ripe for revival there, methinks! You could use "stained" in that context today without, I expect, having to explain. "Whimsies," too, if set in a reasonably clear context. "Stale" would require more groundwork, however, while I doubt "undermeal" would ever take--it sounds too much like one of those terms one might innocently search for on the Internet only to discover some thriving and graphically depicted sexual subculture.

So there's your assignment: let's get the usable ones from that list out there in the world, folks. Report back with your successes!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Fowlers End

Some books you describe. Others, you shove into a person's hands and say, "Trust me. Just start reading."

Gerald Kersh's Fowler's End (1957) is the latter. So let's briefly pretend I'm still a bookseller, and you're a familiar customer. Open it up--skip past the glossary of Cockney slang for now--and start reading. I'll be over here, slowly making my way to the till to ring you up.
Snoring for air while he sipped and gulped at himself, talking between hastily swallowed mouthfuls of himself, fidgeting with a little blue bottle and a red rubber nose-dropper, Mr. Yudenow said to me, "Who you are, what you are, I duddo. But I like your style, what I bead to say--the way you wet about applyig for this 'ere job. Dishertive, dishertive--if you get what I bead--dishertive is what we wat id show biz. Arf a tick, please--I got to take by drops."
Sorry--I said I wouldn't interrupt, but I cant help it. Let's look at this a bit. That string of gerunds--"snoring," "talking," "fidgeting"--and their accompanying plain-old past-tense friends "sipped" and "gulped" give that opening sentence such momentum. We're well into action, described with apt and unusual verbs, before we even know the where or what or who. And then, while we're still trying--like Yudenow himself--to catch our breath (and get acclimated to this unusual narrative voice), we are without warning presented with another wholly unusual manner of speaking, an idiom rendered even stranger by what we slowly suss out as a stopped up nose. We're one paragraph in, yet it feels like we're already up to our eyes in oddity. Gerald Kersh has grabbed our lapels.

Paragraph two:
He filled the dropper with some pale oily fluid, threw back his head and sniffed; became mauve in the face, gagged, choked; blew into a big silk handkerchief, and then continued, sighing with relief, "Wonderful stuff. It's deadly poison. But it loosens the head." He showed me the contents of his handkerchief, which might have been brains. "Confidentially, catarrh. Yes, I like the way you went about applying for this 'ere job. Millions of people would give their right 'and to manage one of Sam Yudenow's shows--the cream of the biz, the top of the milk!"
Learning that a character is the sort of person who shows a near-stranger the contents of his used handkerchief . . . well, that tells you a lot in a compact way, no?

Let's keep going. This bit comes from the next page, as Yudenow, who runs a silent cinema where your narrator is applying for a job as a manager, is, unprompted, offering a bit of detail about the job. I'm going to quote at unusual length, because the extensiveness of Yudenow's perpetual monologue is part of the point:
"Can you use your 'ands?"

"Box a little," I said.

"You won't need to--don't worry about that. They don't understand that stuff rahnd Fowlers End. If somebody gets rorty and buggers up the show, so come up be'ind 'im like a gentleman; put a stranglehold on 'is thvoat miv the left arm, pick 'im up by the arse from 'is trousers miv the right 'and, and chunk 'im into the Alley--one, two, three!--in peace and quiet. My last manager but two got punch-drunk, kind o' thing, and lost 'is nerve--tried to clean up the Fowlers End Health and Superman Lague miv a fire bucket, and I was the sufferer. Keep order, yes, but leave no marks. I want my managers should be diplomats. Look at Goldwyn, Look at Katz. Odeons they started miv nickels, not knuckles, and you should live to see your children in such a nice position like they got. Remember, the Pantheon don't cater for royalty, and Fowlers End ain't Bond Street--not just yet it ain't.

"In the first place, everybody's unemployed--which is the opium of the people rahnd here. The rest, so they work in factories--which is the scum. Rahnd the corner is the Fowlers End Pipe Factory. They make gas pipes, water pipes--d'you foller? Well, all these loafers do, instead of making pipes, they make coshes: so they'll get a foot of gas pipe and fill it up with lead. One of them threatens you, don't call the police to give the show a bad name. This is a family theater. Warn him. If he 'its you to leave a mark, then the law's on your side. Put the left 'and rahnd his thvoat, the right 'and in the arse of his trousers, and chunk 'im out. And don't give 'im his money back. That is the opium of the working classes. Stand no nonsense if you want to be a showman. . . . Whereas, there's a mob kids from school, so there's a new idear they got. So they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you 'ave it. Discourage 'em. Threaten to tell their teacher. Lay one finger on 'em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children--and I'm the sufferer. . . . It's nothing; like a lion-tamer, just be cool and nobody'll 'urt you. Remember, this ain't the New Gallery in Regent Street, not already, almost."
Ready to shake Yudenow's hand and take over the management of the Pantheon?

I expect a lot of readers reach the end of that passage, and, exhausted, close the book and quietly back away. But if you're like me, you find the sheer kinetic energy of Yudenow's peculiar voice, with his tics and obsessions, as funny and exhilarating as it is wearing, and utterly captivating. If so, you should seek out Fowlers End posthaste (and thanks be to Valancourt Books for bringing it back into print recently): what I've quoted is what you get, page after page after page of it. Oh, it's not all Yudenow--there are other characters, other voices. But they're all oddities, and most of them obsessives, cranks of one kind or another whose combination of self-absorption and logorrhea leads to cascades of words, passionate outpourings in little need of interlocutors.

There's a plot, of sorts, or rather a couple of them, but they barely raise the book above the level of a picaresque; Kersh makes little pretense to caring about anything beyond watching these lunatics buzz around each other, self-obsessed and yammering. Fowlers End is all about the peculiar power of words, and the pleasures of attending to the nuances of a deformed personal argot. The manic intensity recalls Tristram Shandy, some of the stranger rhapsodies in Moby-Dick, and the explanations from Casi's clients in A Naked Singularity, but its closest spiritual kin are the novels of Charles Portis. Portis's best books are more successful than Fowlers End--at no point in reading Portis did I ever want to put a book down to rest, which I think is inevitable even for a reader who loves Fowlers End--but like Fowlers End they exist largely as vessels for unforgettable voices relating strange obsessions. Portis's cranks are a bit more of the idee fixe sort, and their obsessions are essentially an armor against the world, whereas Fowler's characters are firing a barrage of words into the world to clear a space for themselves. Down at heel in a place luck left long ago, they're using the only tool they have--pell-mell personality poured into words--to try to get back up. Fowlers End is far from serious, but there's nonetheless a moving quality to the tenacity of its characters. Rejection will never, ever take with this crowd, so long as they still have words with which to protest.

Have I sold you? If you're teetering, I recommend digging up a copy and opening it at random. Like so:
"Have you eaten bubble-and-squeak?"

I had. If you are very young and desperately hungry you can eat it practically without nausea. In Soho, in the small hours, the cafe proprietors used to give it away--this being a benevolent way of cleaning their kitchens. It is made as follows: Procure leftover potatoes. Add to them anything you like which, somehow, always happens to be yesterday's cabbage. Take a heavy instrument--any heavy instrument--and beat this mixture without mercy until it is quite flat. Put the resultant cake into a pan which you are heating to burn off coagulations of old fat. Fry until you can no longer see through a blue haze. Then give it to a passer-by. He will, most likely, hurl it into the street, thus saving you the cost of an extra garbage bin. When cold, a portion of bubble-and-squeak can be thrown a great distance, like a discus, and has been known ot inflict grievous bodily harm--for which purpose it is better than brickbats or bottles because, if charged, the thrower can always plead: "I was only offering him a midnight snack." Bubble-and-squeak has been known by various nicknames, such as "poor man's leavings," and "lump-in-the-stomach," and "constipation tart." I did not dare to tell Sam Yudenow that I could write a brochure about bubble-and-squeak and its various uses--I felt that if I did so, he would tell me where to find the pencil and put me to work at once.
A trained salesman, I return to the key question: have I sold you? Oh, good. I'll let another character close the deal, then:
"My cut, if you like, will be: Terms to Be Mutually Agreed. Gentleman's agreement. . . . Happen, by any chance, to have a spare white handkerchief?"

Thursday, February 19, 2015

In spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball

It was -6° when I left the house this morning. It was still dark. I was wearing a balaclava over most of my face, which meant I had to take off my steamed-up glasses, so the world through which I trudged to the train was a bit vague. It was no great loss: the hip-high mounds of two-week-old snow are showing their age, and the salt stains on the pavements call to mind the last days of Carthage. Winter grips mercilessly.

Yet I take some comfort from the fact that this week also marks the beginning of spring. Oh, not in any climatic sense--it's a spiritual one: for right now, pitchers and catchers are making their way to camps. In Florida and Arizona, catchers are lacing up shinguards and pitchers are playing long-toss. Baseball is on its way.

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I don't write a lot about baseball here, simply because I don't read all that many baseball books. But it's a constant in my life, the reliable background of every spring and summer. In April, after our annual Opening Day party, we attend to it closely: we'll have the radio on when we're cooking, turn on a random game on the TV while folding laundry. It's new and alive again, and we can't get enough. By May, it recedes: Cardinals radio broadcasts hum along in the background while I'm writing, and we'll wander to the ballpark every couple of weeks, but the majority of the season from that point is experienced more casually, through checking in on scores and trawling for highlights.

It's that very dailiness that makes baseball the perfect sport for me. You don't have to pay too much attention to any one game, because there will be another tomorrow. That's part of why actually going to the ballpark is such a pleasure, too: even for a serious fan, it's a fundamentally casual experience--and that casualness throws the moments of genuine surprise and drama that do emerge into strong relief. I've got a book of scorecards upstairs from ten years or so of games, and even if I were to flip through it, the number of games I would genuinely recall would be tiny. But I remember moments: Orlando Palmeiro leaping against the ivy to make a game-saving catch; Kerry Wood, seemingly firing nothing but fastballs, outdueling Roger Clemens at Wrigley on a beautiful summer afternoon; Jim Edmonds skywalking the wall to backhand a would-be home run ball.

In some ways, the meaningless games are baseball. If you want to play in October, you've got to go out and get the work done every damn day in April, May, and so on. It's what makes baseball most like life, or like an ordinary job. The same is true for the long arcs of its careers: I learned more about aging from watching Jim Edmonds fight the fading of his incredible talent than I've ever learned from Philip Roth.

But then there are those days when you go to the ballpark and you experience magic. Being reminded of one of those yesterday is what sent me down this path: September 21, 1997, the final home game of a dismal Cubs season. The team had opened the year with fourteen straight losses, and they were easily the worst team I've watched regularly. And I was watching regularly: that spring, I'd returned from a sojourn as a bookseller in London and taken a job at a bookstore in Evanston, the first job I'd ever had that didn't have a fixed end point in sight, and the first time when that job was my only obligation. I was, finally, an adult for real, trying to build a life to go with my job (in a way that no one describes better than Anthony Powell in the early volumes of Dance)--which meant choosing what that adult life would contain. Perhaps the only choice that was as easy as books was baseball.

So by the time late September rolled around, the idea of spending one last beautiful early autumn day at the ballpark, even watching that utterly forgettable Cubs team, was irresistible. Accompanied by three friends (two of whom would go on to careers working for or writing about baseball), I watched the most meaningless of games: a pointless contest between the Cubs and another last-place team, the Phillies. It was Ryne Sandberg's last home game, but even that felt almost like an afterthought, as if we'd already all made our peace with his leaving way back when he announced his retirement. No, this was simply a day to be out at the ballpark. We wandered from section to section, seeing the game from different angles--and at one point getting shooed from the far left field corner of the upper deck, which wasn't needed for this far-from-capacity crowd. (Yes, we'd gone there in part so that one of my friends could sneak a smoke.) As the Cubs offense came to life, hanging 11 runs on the Phillies, it was baseball pleasure at its purest: being at a game simply to be at a game.

Then the ninth inning arrived, and, unexpectedly, it got better. I'll let Ted Cox of the Chicago Reader, whose account of that day is worth reading in full, tell it:
There had to be 20,000 people still in the stands; the bleachers were full right up to the center-field scoreboard. . . . They had stayed to cheer a 66-90 team and to exact the last bittersweet drops of pleasure from the baseball season on the north side. That is what I had come to the game for, to get all there was to be gotten of baseball at Wrigley Field this year, but I had no idea so many other fans felt the same way.
With everyone standing, the Cubs hauled in the last out . . . and then we didn't leave. We didn't plan to stay . . . we just didn't go. Again, Ted Cox tells it better than I could:
Even after the last out no one went anywhere. The Cubs lined up to shake hands with each other, as they do after every victory, and then gathered on the pitching mound as if to decide how to respond to this crowd of 20,000 crazies who wouldn't be vacated. What they did was march first to one side of the screen behind home plate, near the visitors' dugout, and shake hands and throw a few caps into the stands, and then to the other side of the screen to do the same, before descending into their dugout and their clubhouse. Sosa took one last longing look at his loyalists in the right-field bleachers, then suddenly dropped his glove and went sprinting out there at full speed, the way he does at the start of each game. Let's leave the season right there, with Sammy Sosa tracing a rapid, graceful arc near the right-field wall and 20,000 Cubs fans insisting that no 90 losses--that's 90 this year, and 86 last year, and 89 seasons without a championship--are enough to chase them away.
What Cox doesn't note is what's stayed with me most powerfully: eventually, the organist began playing "Auld Lang Syne," and we all sang. Baseball was leaving us once more, but it would be back.

Nearly twenty years have passed since that game. I've seen hundreds of games since then, and thousands more have hummed along in the background as I've taken the little and big steps that together build an adult life. I'm a different person in some ways than I was that day in 1997, but I'm still in touch with those friends, and I'm still in love with the game.

As I braved the bite of the cold this morning, thinking about baseball, I remembered a line from Thoreau's journals, and it was true: "I felt the winter breaking up in me."

It's almost time again. Let's play ball.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Up and away with The Once and Future King

Most readers won't come to Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk quite the way I did: fresh off reading books by and about T. H. White, whose account of mostly failing to tame a goshawk, The Goshawk serves as a sort of model, doppelganger, and nemesis throughout both Macdonald's book and the experience it chronicles: learning to train a goshawk while at the same time coping with the unexpected death of her father. If you've just been reading White--and are still abuzz with what a complicated, difficult, compelling, often difficult, and mostly unhappy man he was--the book is incredibly powerful: you see Macdonald struggling not just with the hawk, and with her own history and personality and emotions, but with White's, too, with his shortcomings and achievements, and, perhaps foremost, his loneliness. The result is captivating, a moving book that makes you understand the appeal of this relationship with something utterly alien and other, and, if it doesn't make you share White's and Macdonald's obsession, at least enables you to understand it.

I picked up H is for Hawk when I was in London: having already bought nine other books, I was sure I was finished overloading my suitcase--but then two different friends told me it was the best thing they'd read all year, an assessment that jibed with the shower of accolades the book received, so I broke down. As usual when I buy a book on the recommendation of a friend, I'm glad I did. Those of you who are Stateside should be able to get it early next month; consider this my recommendation.

Today, I'll share a passage that I still can't quite believe--it's simply too unexpected, too close to perfect in its strange dislocations of space, time, and experience. Here's Macdonald, early on, when she's just started telling the reader a bit about her youthful obsession with White's The Goshawk:
A few years ago I met a retired U2 pilot. He was tall, flinty and handsome and had just the right kind of deadly stillness you'd expect from a man who'd spent years flying at the edge of space in a dusty-black American spy plane. The geopolitical aspects of his role were truly disconcerting. But as a day job it was absurdly cool. At eighty thousand feet the world curves deep below you and the sky above is wet black ink. You're wearing a spacesuit, confined to a cockpit the size of a bathtub, piloting a machine that first flew the year James Dean died. You cannot touch the world, just record it. You have no weapons; your only defence is height. But as I talked with this man what impressed me the most weren't his dead-pan tales of high adventure, the "incidents" with Russian MiGs and so on, but his battle against boredom. The nine-hour solo missions. The twelve-hour solo missions. "Wasn't that horrendous?" I asked. "It could get a little lonely up there," he replied. But there was something about how he said it that made it sound a state still longed-for. And then he said something else. "I used to read," he said, unexpectedly, and with that his face changed, and his voice, too: his deadpan Yeager drawl slipped, was replaced by a shy, childlike enthusiasm. "The Once and Future King. By T. H. White," he said. "Have you heard of him? He's an English writer. It's a great book. I used to take that up, read it on the way out and the way back."

"Wow," I said. "Yes." Because this story struck me as extraordinary, and it still does. Once upon a time there was a man in a spacesuit in a secret reconnaissance plane reading The Once and Future King, that great historical epic, that comic, tragic, romantic retelling of the Arthurian legend that tussles with questions of war and aggression, and might, and right, and the matter of what a nation is or might be.
A man on the edge of space, reading a book rooted in a largely imaginary past, conjured up to comfort and explain amid a world ever more new and strange, a book that explicitly grapples with questions of morality, force, war, and loyalty as if they were as new as the world, and as essential as anything. Amazing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Nabokov the bad Samaritan?

A tip from Dan Visel sent me to the library today, where I secured a couple of volumes of Guy Davenport's letters. The most immediately interesting was the one from 2007 collecting his correspondence with New Directions founder James Laughlin, a figure who's long been of interest to this blog. Even a cursory flip through the book offered up some gems, like this passage from Davenport:
Both Hemingway's tight style and D. H. Lawrence's sloppy one are now in the attic. Neither had any sense of humor whatsoever; this tells a lot. The Terribly Serious writer is serious in relation to his age and the eternal verities wear very different clothes from one age to the next.
And there's a line from Laughlin that I'll never forget:
Shadow are useful in love poems.
The most striking discovery thus far, though, is a brief, almost tossed-off story Laughlin shares about Vladimir Nabokov in a letter from July 30, 1989:
You're so right about Nabokov. He had beautiful manners but his blood was icy. One day that summer when he was staying with me in the mountains of Utah he came in for dinner and told me that he had heard what sounded like groaning in Grizzly Gulch. What was it? He hadn't gone to investigate because he was chasing a lepidopteroid he had never seen before. Next day some hikers found the body of an old prospector who had fallen in the steep gulch and cracked open his head and bled to death.
Davenport doesn't seem to take the story very seriously, replying only
I forget what I said about Nabokov. I think the old prospector was lucky to be desamaritanized by him.
Now, even if one, not necessarily unreasonably, wants to more or less let Nabokov off the hook here (Was he sure about what he was hearing? Would we all definitely have investigated, butterflies or no?), it's odd that the story seems never to have gone anywhere beyond Laughlin. It doesn't appear in Brian Boyd's biography, and while I initially thought that could be an artifact of timing, as the Laughlin letter wasn't published until 2007, sixteen years after Boyd's book, I later found a slightly different version of it, also credited to Laughlin, though (at least so far as I can tell from Google Books) without explicit footnoting, in Clifton Fadiman's 1989 anthology The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (which was picked up verbatim by Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes in 2000).

But that's basically it: the literary world, which generally is ready to hyperventilate over any Nabokov-related news, seems to have completely missed this chilling-if-true story. And while a single-source anecdote is always eligible for substantial discounting, Laughlin would seem tough to impeach: while the pair had their differences over the years, Laughlin was nonetheless one of Nabokov's biggest supporters, and while there may have been an edge to their interpersonal relationship, it's hard to imagine him inventing such a damning story out of whole cloth.

The anecdote has lived on, it seems, in one way--and this is perhaps the strangest part of the whole story. A search on "Nabokov prospector gulch" turns up . . . sermons. Laughlin's story has, it seems, been folded into standard sermons on selfishness, become one of those brief bits of filler that a desperate minister might turn to when his text needs some fleshing out. Could there be a more bizarre outcome of this tale?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Guy Davenport's journals

Despite years of reading Patrick Kurp's praise for Guy Davenport, I've only very recently started reading him, earlier this month picking up The Guy Davenport Reader (2012). As is my wont, I turned immediately to the ephemeral and unintentional, the writings made for the self or friends rather than for publication: had there been letters, I would have started there; as is, a selection from Davenport's journals sufficed.

Davenport's journals, as excerpted in the Reader, remind me a lot of D. J. Enright's "kind of commonplace book" notebooks: they're collections of fugitive thoughts, often inspired by reading or travel, that have obviously been honed a bit, if not fully polished into aphorisms. The notebook feels less like a storehouse for later writing than a thing in itself, a way of supporting a particular type of thinking: mordant, epigrammatic, hither-and-yon, unconnected. Some quickly harvested gems:
This paradox: that where exact truth must be found the only guide thereto is intuition.

The hope of philosophy was to create a tranquility so stable that the world could not assail it.

Hemingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?

Kinship is one of the most primitive of tyrannies. Our real kin are those we have chosen.

Avoid the suave flow of prose that's the trademark of the glib writer. An easy and smooth style is all very well, but it takes no chances and has no seductive wrinkles, no pauses for thought.
"Pauses for thought" is a good enough way to think of the journal: a considered response to an external trigger, stretched and shaped and stripped down to a judicious jotting.

One slightly longer entry in particular caught my eye:
In our century the great event has been the destruction of the city, and therefore of public life, by the automobile. Next, the obliteration of the family by television. Thirdly, the negation of the university by its transformation into a social club for nonstudents. Finally, the abandonment of surveillance by the police, who act only on request and arrive long after their presence could be of any use. All of this can be blamed on the stupidity, moral indifference, and ignorance of politicians and public alike.
Davenport is right about cars, and TV (to say nothing of smartphones and tablets). I'm a bit surprised that, as a Kentuckian, he didn't also include air conditioning, another innovation that pushed life indoors and closed off avenues of community. But the university has become something different from what he laments: if anything, today's push for relevance and ROI and vocational training could make a person nostalgic for the old assumption that a lot of personal development (and a not-insignificant part of intellectual growth) in young people emerges through socialization.

Finally, there's the line about the police. The journals are, frustratingly, undated, but if we assume that they were written before 2000 (Davenport died in 2005), then Davenport was viewing the question from at best the tail end of the long postwar crime surge. In the years since, that wave has subsided so much that American cities are safer than they've been in living memory (and you could probably mount an argument that Manhattan is right now one of the safest places in the history of humanity). When Davenport was writing, police forces seemed overwhelmed, and, in some locales, resigned to failure; now, if anything, the opposite of his statement is true. Surveillance is common, and, in the face of plummeting crime rates, probably overdone.

None of which is to take away from Davenport, or the pleasures of reading his journals. Just a reminder that even the sharpest-eyed among us are often wrong, either about what we're seeing at any given moment, or about what that sight portends.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Jeet Heer and Joseph Epstein

Today's post emerges emerges from an e-mail exchange I had recently with Canadian literary and cultural critic and journalist Jeet Heer, whose impromptu numbered Twitter essays have quickly become one of the platform's most interesting innovations. On Twitter, Heer is most often responding, with remarkable clarity and knowledge, to events in the news, and usually drawing on his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of both the left and right through the twentieth century, but his new book, Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays, and Profiles, is, as its subtitle suggests, wider ranging.

The book is full of interesting, well-written pieces on writers, intellectuals, public figures, cartoonists, and more. Even the briefest of Heer's book reviews often reveal a startling, yet seemingly always apposite, range of reference, and his crate-digging (as when he's discerning the influence of cartoons on Updike) and unexpected angles (such as a look at Keynes through the lens of the sexuality of economics) make for wonderfully surprising, engaging, and thought-provoking reading. He's a writer whose process of thinking is apparent on the page; he takes the reader with him, not so much as he's figuring things out but as he did figure things out through the course of writing.

The piece that Heer and I ended up discussing via e-mail is an attack on essayist Joseph Epstein. Heer opens with compliments:
Joseph Epstein is the most congenial of neo-conservatives, perhaps the only major one. He is a top-notch personal essayist, who has revived the ruminative, free-ranging tradition of Montaigne and Hazlitt. Among more modern essayists, he's the peer of Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, and Gore Vidal (not company he'd be completely comfortable with, sadly).
While the praise is genuine (I'm not sure there's anything in the book that's not genuine), the parenthetical is a warning: Heer is about to stick the shiv.

And, as he presents the case, it's a well-earned shiv. Epstein is a conservative, which even to a man of the far left is no sin. What Heer can't abide--and makes a damning case against--is an intelligent person letting his politics overwhelm his judgment, especially when it comes to culture:
If you know a writer's politics you can pretty much figure out how Epstein will react to him or her. If a writer is right wing or politically quiescent, Epstein will give him or her at least a respectful hearing and often high praise: the Epstein nod of approval has gone to Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin, Henry James, Barbara Pym, Max Beerbohm, James Gould Cozzens, Somerset Maughum, George Santayana, V. S. Naipaul and others of their ilk.
Heer goes on to enumerate writers of the left who have drawn Epstein's scorn, including Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Edmund Wilson. On a personal level, those lists amuse me because they're a reminder that though my politics are of the left, my tastes are fairly conservative: nearly all the writers on the first list are favorites, while most of the ones on the second I either dislike or am left cold by. Hell, my favorite writer in the world, Anthony Powell, was a dyed-in-the-wool Tory who copped to finding Margaret Thatcher sexually magnetic.

But that's what Heer says should be the case, essentially: my politics and my tastes, while not wholly separate, aren't dangerously infectious of each another. With Epstein, he quickly shows, largely through close analysis of an Epstein essay on Forster, the politics and the taste align too closely to leave us confident in either. By the time Heer has finished dismantling Epstein's essay--and in particular its overt nostalgia for the British Empire in India and its undercurrent of homophobia--it's hard to disagree with his contention that Epstein's politics have distorted his ability to actually see art (and, more important, the world) as it actually is.

Having allowed those points, which are, in their way, unanswerable, I do feel I should defend Epstein. I won't defend him on his own ground except to say that I agree with Heer that he can be a wonderful essayist. (I wouldn't class him with Woolf, but that's no slight--she gets her own tier in my pantheon.) And even last year's volume of correspondence with his friend Frederic Raphael, a largely distasteful book in which both writers come across as too self-regarding by half, offers, along with the not-to-be-dismissed pleasures of gossip (like his gleeful evisceration of his late Northwestern University colleague and former friend Alfred Appel, who "wished to be thought brilliant, suave, metropolitan, none of which he truly was"), some memorable turns of phrase (sticking to Appel: "He courted humiliation, and frequently won her"; "He is the only person I know who it is possible to imagine might have begun a composition with a parentheses."). Where I will, however, defend Epstein is as I knew him twenty years ago: as a teacher.

When I was a student at Northwestern, Epstein taught a class in the English department on prose style and essay writing, aimed at the students who, like me, were getting degrees (foolish youth that we were) in either fiction or poetry writing. I came to his class at twenty, knowing so, so little--including who he was and what his politics were. What was most striking about him from the first moment of the first class was that he treated us as if we were adults--and, crucially, fellow participants in an ongoing conversation about books and literature. In reality, we were at best just starting to rehearse a few very limited, very cliched lines in that conversation. But the sense he gave that this was a possible way to be--unshowily erudite and fully engaged--was enticing. I remember distinctly that the letters of Elizabeth Bishop had just been published, and Epstein talked about the book as if 1) we would know who she was, 2) we would know her milieu, and 3) we would also be aware of the volume's publication and significance. That his conception of that world and that conversation itself had strict, possibly even unpalatable, political limits was something that wasn't evident, at least to my ignorant eyes, at that point.

I came from a bookish, but unintellectual household. My parents were smart, educated, were readers, and it was always assumed that my siblings and I would go to college, but neither they nor the tiny rural town in which I grew up were part of the world of ideas. My high school of four hundred people gave me the tools to dive into college, but it couldn't give me the foundation of knowledge, of the literary and cultural world, that I take for granted now, and that I see comfortably assumed by the student employees I hire at the University of Chicago. So, like a lot of other students from modest backgrounds who end up at an elite university, I was figuring it out as I went, and even by the time I reached my junior year and walked in the door of Epstein's class, I had caught but glimpses of what that world could be like. And rather than standing atop the ramparts and challenging us to make an assault with the pitiful weapons of our limited knowledge, he was instead welcoming us into it by simply leaving the drawbridge down and acting like we had always been there. He was kind and engaging without condescension, and it was an act of generosity for which I remain grateful.

On top of that, he was a good teacher, at least from where I sat. I was a lousy essay writer then (you can make the call yourself about today), but I was at least capable of writing clear sentences, and Epstein recognized and encouraged that. He spotted, and praised, the truly good work that was done in the class (I still remember lines from a male student's essay on becoming more or less anorexic while a wrestler in high school: "I learned you could spit away half a pound before weigh-in.") even as he acknowledged--without the deflating gesture of explicitly saying it--that, given our youth, if he could but help us learn to build the forms we would need, experience would eventually supply credible content. I can't think of many more thankless teaching tasks than reading stacks of personal essays from twenty-year-olds week after week, but he managed to approach it with care and attention.

I don't intend to suggest that my experience outweighs the written record, or that Heer is wrong to call Epstein on out for incoherent thinking--especially when that incoherence leads him to painfully bad judgments that dismiss whole categories of experience, as with his praise for the Raj and suspicion of homosexuality. Rather, I place it in the balance, knowing that in reality there is no balance, no ultimate weighing. We all contain complexities and disagreements, all offer different sides. There's one to Joseph Epstein, or at least there in that classroom twenty years ago, that to my mind is unquestionably good.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Virginia Woolf, meet John Dortmunder

As the snow blows and blows outside, making me glad to have stacks of unread books surrounding me, let's take one last dip into Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf before I leave it behind. In an undated, unpublished manuscript, Woolf described watching police cars chase a thief in the Tottenham Court Road, then reflected:
What does it feel like to be chasing a criminal? What does he say about it when he gets home and takes off his heavy boots and jacket? In all modern fiction there is not account of this that convinces one that the writer knows.
Well, if Westlake's Dortmunder is any guide, what he does when he gets home is goes to the fridge and gets a beer, Then, when May asks what went wrong, he says, "I don't want to talk about it, May." Then Andy Kelp tells her. At length.