Monday, December 19, 2016


One of the great, if less heralded, discoveries of the literary world of Twitter and blogging is that, yes, those of us who read all the time are also always reading in all times. For every new novel being championed, there's someone out there ready to chat about diving back into Trollope, or just discovering P. G. Wodehouse. And, because there's little cachet in keeping up with the non-new, encountering company on the journey always feels extra special: you're there because you want to be there. This year more than ever, as the news insisted on being bad, the past between pages exerted a powerful pull.

Which brings me to my year-end list, such as it is. As usual, it's all hither and yon, disorganized and atemporal. There are new books here, certainly, but, as in any given year, the majority of what I read was by authors long dead, and they deserve a place, too. It's also incomplete, I'm sure. I read many, many very good books this year, books that surprised me or taught me things or opened new ways of thinking. They're not all here, probably because I didn't happen to spy them as I scanned my bookshelves tonight, but they were appreciated as I read them, and I'm sure they'll surface again, as good books do.

Herewith, some of the books that defined my year.


Autumn: An Anthology of the Changing Seasons, edited by Melissa Harrison
This is the first I read of a series of four little paperback anthologies from the UK that bring together contemporary nature writers--of which that isle has plenty right now--and older works. The selections are short, making it a perfect bedside or morning coffee book. Perhaps the latter is better, because like all good nature writing the book leaves you more alert to the world you inhabit; as you step out the door on the all-too-routine walk to the office, a reminder that nature is never routine can be a blessing. (And now that winter is here, I've just started delving into that one, more as solace, perhaps, than in celebration.)

Silver Ley, by Adrian Bell
Having grown up in a farm family in a rural community, I've always been extremely skeptical of people who talk of going back to the land. What I always see ahead of them is shock at the labor and isolation, followed by failure in the face of the uneasy relationship between nature and commerce. This memoir, published in 1931 and brought back by Slightly Foxed, won me over despite. A young man from a genteel family of some modest means takes over a farm, along with the position in the town that accompanies it. It goes better than my dire predictions, but that's not the point. Rather, this is a quiet book about coming to terms with who you are, what you can do, and what you want from life and the people around you. It's beautiful and quietly sad.

Terms and Conditions, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
I have come to trust the editors at Slightly Foxed to the degree that I now simply pick up whatever is new from them whenever I'm in London, regardless of author or subject. Terms and Conditions was my reward: a new history, rooted in countless interviews, of life at English girls' boarding schools from the 1940s to the 1970s, it is hilarious and shocking and strange and occasionally sad. Any reader who grew up pining to be shipped off to a glamorous boarding school or any Anglophile who simply can't ever get enough of the weirdness of the English will likely enjoy it. I recommend reading it in public or at family gatherings, because the looks people give when you reply to their questions about what you're reading are priceless.

William Morris, by Fiona MacCarthy
This is a classic of doorstop biography, and it earns its length and detail by presenting a compelling, complicated, largely admirable William Morris firmly ensconced in his historical, political, and cultural moment. This is one of those books that you're brought to by a thread from elsewhere--in my case, from Penelope Fitzgerald's book on his close friend Edward Burne-Jones and A. S. Byatt's short book on Morris--and that then sends you off in a dozen new directions. Thanks to MacCarthy, I feel I understand the Arts and Crafts movement like I never have, in all its ambitions, good intentions, and contradictions. This is the kind of book that makes me speak of biographers with awe.

Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies, by Alexandra Harris
I wrote a bit about this book for Open Letters Monthly already. Suffice it to say that I read it in March and find it still, nine months later, affecting my reading--yesterday, in the face of below-zero temperatures, it sent me to the Anglo-Saxon poets and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Harris offers far more than simply a run through the history of writing on the weather--instead, we feel we understand how the weather actually infuses English literature, all but inextricable from it. And Harris is splendid company: authoritative and confident yet welcoming, and consistently reliable in zeroing in on the most interesting parts of a story. It's a landmark.

Henry James, by Leon Edel
This really is just a lead in to . . .


This year was dominated for me by Henry James. I read some new books that I liked very much (Elizabeth McKenzie's off-kilter The Portable VeblenMegan Abbott's fierce, obsessional You Will Know Me; Nina Stibbe's wonderfully comic Paradise Lodge, to take just three), but from the moment I dove into Edel's biography in February, I couldn't get James out of my mind. The James we meet in Edel's book is powerfully alive, and once I'd made his acquaintance I couldn't resist delving more deeply than before into his letters, masterpieces of the form, and then into his fiction--reading some previously unread novels, re-reading others, and recently embarking on what will be a long straight read-through of all his stories. This was the year that I finally knew I would eventually read all of Henry James.

Amid all this, I was proud to discover in Google Books The Henry James Year Book, a 1911 page-a-day book of James quotes that I was able to get republished by the University of Chicago Press as The Daily Henry James. It's been a source of consistent joy ever since, and a spur to continue every day to think about and engage with this man of great heart and great loneliness whose audacity in fiction was matched only by his caution in life. Few other writers draw my interest so powerfully to both their work and their lives--perhaps, in fact, only Virginia Woolf, who, like James, rarely put a paragraph to paper, fiction or nonfiction, public or private, that doesn't reward attention.

As the holidays approach, and I endeavor to replace frustration and tension and worry with the relative simplicity of gratitude, I'm grateful to these authors. They've been good company this year.

I'll leave you with a pleasingly dire quote from a letter James sent on January 1, 1893:
The year's end is a terrible thing, and the year's beginning is a worse.
And you? What did you read in 2016?

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Elsewhere . . .

In recent weeks, when I've mostly been failing to write in this space, I have at least made a couple of contributions to Open Letters Monthly. The first was a sheer pleasure to prepare for and write: a review of Ruth Jackson's excellent new biography of Shirley Jackson, the writing of which gave me an excuse to re-read the Jackson books I'd read before and dig up all the ones I hadn't.

One thing that's always surprised me about Jackson is that people have had trouble reconciling the light, loving manner of her family memoirs and the darkness of her other fiction. And perhaps I would have, too, fifty years ago, when boundaries between genres were more rigidly policed, preventing serious fiction and the light diversions of women's magazines from ever polluting each another. Seen from our vantage, however, the two styles are clearly kin: humor is shot through both--rarely do even Jackson's most frightening novels fail to have moments of black comedy--and they share an appreciation of oddity and an attention to language, and in particular its rhythms.

At the same time, though, there is a distinct difference in prose style, one that I didn't have room to get into in my review. Take a look at this, from early in one of Jackson's creepiest, least explicable stories, "The Man in the Woods":
The cat had joined him shortly after her entered the forest, emerging from between the trees in a quick, shadowy movement that surprised Christopher at first and then, oddly, comforted him, and the cat had stayed beside him, moving closer to Christopher as the trees pressed insistently closer to them both, trotting along in the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit when they are frightened. Christopher, when he stopped once to rest, sitting on a large stone at the edge of the road, had rubbed the cat's ears and pulled the cat's tail affectionately, and had said, "Where are we going, fellow? Any ideas?", and the cat had closed his eyes meaningfully and opened them again.
You can find pleasantly showy passages throughout Jackson's writing; this one is fairly sedate, but it serves my purpose. The sentences are long and fluid, clause following on clause as cause on effect, and an aphoristic phrase ("the casual acceptance of human company that cats exhibit") is thrown in with the air of an afterthought.

Now look at this, chosen all but at random from Raising Demons, Jackson's second volume of family memoir:
Usually, whenever Beekman drove, Sally wanted to come too. And whenever Sally came, Jannie thought she had better come along. And when Beekman and Sally and Jannie came, Laurie figured that we might just sop in at a movie or some such, and if we did he wanted to be along. As a result, whenever I went shopping in the new car, everyone came except my husband, who could not, for a long time, look at the new car without telling me how we were going bankrupt in style. One Saturday morning I almost got off without Beekman, who was learning from Sally how to cut out paper dolls, but before I was out of the driveway they were calling to me to wait a minute, and by the time I finally tuned the car and headed off toward the big supermarkets I had all four of them with me, Sally accompanied by her dolls Susan and David and Patpuss, all dressed entirely in cleansing tissue, and carrying--though I did not know it when she got into the car--a pocketbook containing four pennies and a shilling stolen from her father's coin collection.
Oh, how it builds! As each child is added, the sentences get longer and longer, trailing more impedimenta in their wake. Whereas the sentences in the previous passage were long, but explicit in their structure, these pretend to embody chaos: they just go. The book is like that throughout, written as if in the rush of conversation with children and the confusions of parenting, a hard task of writing made to look casually effortless. If you're looking for light entertainment this holiday season, you could do far worse than Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages.

The other bit I wrote for OLM was much less involved: a brief note on my year in reading, focused on Alexandra Harris's wonderful Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies. "English summers take their identity from the stretches of grey on either side," writes Harris. In the depths of a gray and dark Chicago winter, I feel strong kinship. If you're looking for a holiday gift for a bookish Anglophile, your shopping may be done.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reading is bad for your social life, kids.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a cab heading to the airport early on a weekday morning, when I heard something on the radio that I think you folks will enjoy. The driver was listening to an FM top 40 station, and their wacky morning crew was on, being, well, wacky (as distinct from, you know, funny). Apparently they have a regular segment where someone calls in to tell them about a date that went wrong, and they then call the other party to get their side; today, the caller was a guy, Dan, who said he'd been on a couple of dates with a woman, Anna, he'd met through work. He'd thought they were getting along well, but then, after an evening when they went back to his place and fooled around a little, she'd abruptly stopped responding to his calls and texts.

As they dialed this poor woman's number, I was, quite frankly, dreading the next ten minutes of the ride. What could this exchange be except deeply awkward at best, crude and mean at worst? Initially, it seemed like my fears were coming true: they got her on the line, explained who they were and why they were calling, and, after establishing that the guy was on the line, she said, "Well, I guess we're doing this live on the radio, then."

This was not a promising opening. But then everything changed:

ANNA: "Do you remember, Dan, when you left the room to go to the bathroom? And you had a book on your bedside table? Do you remember what it was?"

DAN: "No?"

ANNA: "It was called House of Holes."

DAN (and ME, simultaneously): "Oh, no. No, no, no."

For those of you who don't know--and I'm assuming 98% of the radio audience that day fell into that category--House of Holes is a work of pornography. Sort of. See . . . it's by Nicholson Baker, a strange, wonderful, brilliant, sui generis writer who cares as much about words and sentences as anyone I've ever read and who seems determined to make each book he writes completely different from everything that he's written before.

What led him to write a novel about a futuristic, gleefully perverse pleasure resort where, to be crude about it, everyone and everything is DTF? Who knows? But while it's porny AF (might as well stick with the internet abbreviations what brung me), it's also goofy and funny and wide-eyed. It's not a great novel; I'm not even sure it's a successful one. But it's also nothing like the midcentury men's whack books that people like Donald Westlake were hired to write--whereas those tend to be soul-draining, Baker's book is, even if ultimately a bit of a mess, vivifying. I've written about it before--and even had a kindred experience to Dan's, of worrying about someone who didn't understand the book seeing it.

None of which, of course, can be explained on a Top 40 station to a woman and two DJs who are wholly unfamiliar with Baker. After Anna explained, in reasonably family-friendly language, what she'd discovered in flipping through the book, the DJs were cackling and Dan was left sputtering, with evident regret and sadness, "Didn't you notice that I have all kinds of books?"

It didn't work. You could tell he knew it wouldn't as he was saying it. Rarely have I felt such unexpected, powerful sympathy for a total stranger. Careful what you read, kids--or, at least what you leave on your bedside table when you might be sharing your bed.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Robert Aickman

With apologies for being remiss throughout October--hosting crowds of 20ish people every night as the Cubs romp to the championship does tend to throw off one's planning in other realms--I'll open November with a quick post on Robert Aickman, a subject more properly suited to the month just past. Aickman was one of the greatest writers of strange stories, turning out nearly fifty, all so good that for a while earlier this year, when most of his work was out of print in the States, I was scheming to find a way to publish a complete collection. His stories can be hard to describe--or, more properly, hard to describe in a way that gets across the discomfiting, uncanny, almost physical strangeness they convey.

A quick attempt at a generic outline: A man, often a low-end salesman or businessman, takes a wrong turn or encounters some travel difficulty in an area unknown to him, a vague semi-suburban landscape that's a bit down-at-heel, forgotten or bypassed. He makes reasonable decisions about how to handle this, like taking a room; there are hints even as he's securing lodging that something is off, but they're no more than hints, flashes of odd behavior by the proprietor, for example. Later, almost without us realizing it, things get supremely weird, and there is a sense that the man may have become trapped, subject to forces beyond his control. There are hints of sex, and even some Freudian imagery, but they're balanced or neutered by attention to other aspects of physicality, like eating or tiredness or bodily discomfort. Sometimes these events are recalled from a later time, or they happen only to have an unexpected sequel years later.

That description, I realize, is simultaneously vague and very specific, but that's almost the point: Aickman traffics in specific details about places and people and events that are fundamentally vague. A strong personality wouldn't ever quite fit in Aickman's stories, nor would a lavishly described locale. These are stories about what happens elsewhere, in the spots we pass through, to the people we don't think about, in the hours of the night we sleep through. There's a palpable air of menace, and of age--of an ancient quality to the land and its accretions that somehow has failed to bring them dignity or value, but instead has rendered them unfit for today, strange, dangerous. At the same time, this is almost all implied rather than stated: these aren't stories of atmosphere, quite, but they're also not really stories of action. They're stories, more, of  deterioration, of the quiet breakdown of logic, assumptions, even cause and effect. The protagonist thinks he's in one, fairly clear situation, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, he finds himself in another, wholly new and inexplicable situation. And you, the reader, have trouble even pinpointing when or why it all began to go wrong. I came across a telling line in Aickman's memoir The Attempted Rescue today:
I learned reading . . . very literally at my mother's knee. I remember having particular difficulty with the word "because." Much could obviously be made of this significant block, but I abstain.
If this intrigues you at all, I recommend you get the collection Cold Hand in Mind, which includes the masterpieces "The Swords," "The Hospice," and "The Same Dog," and also Sub Rosa, for "Into the Wood" and "The Inner Room," the latter of which is my favorite Aickman story. I also highly recommend the recent episode of Backlisted, an excellent books podcast, that focuses on Aickman--the two hosts and guest offer a similar take to mine above, but with a lot more analysis and back-and-forth, and some real insights into Aickman's work.

That podcast was what led me to Aickman's memoir. The hosts discuss it at length, and they read out a long section about Aickman's father that is truly, beautifully, unsettlingly strange. Even though I'd heard it read just over a week ago, I was still astonished when I read it last night:
My father, as I knew him, was impossible to live with, to be married to, to be dependent upon.

This is a vast subject, the framework and colouring of my universe. As I approach it so nearly, I warm and chill at the same time.

In the first place, there was his unpunctuality.

At the beginning of my life, he would rise from bed at ten or eleven, and even then, like me today, with much emotional agony. He would protest, non the less, every night, that he would be down for breakfast, and be indignant if this were doubted, but my mother soon learned that the only hope lay in bringing him breakfast in bed. Risen, he would potter for several hours with the problems and difficulties of his toilet, and then, in the early afternoon, he would struggle away to his office. Daily he would say that he would be back for Dinner, not by seven, he had to admit, but, absolutely, positively, by eight, or perhaps nine. Nightly, he would return at ten or ten-thirty, to find Dinner spoiled and my Mother in sulks. Quite often he would even miss the last train (which reached Stanmore at 12:10 a.m.), and appear in the small hours, having walked the four miles from Wealdstone (later the three miles from Edgeware, when the Underground was extended thereto), while my Mother's anxiety and resentment rose in the silent house, each time as if he had never done it before. As I grew older, even these times began to slip. On most days, he would not depart for work until the evening, and the last train back became his regular one. He always came back in the end, even if he had to walk all the way from London, which he did not infrequently.
Of such is the soil made in which weird tales grow, no? Trust me: try some Aickman.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Daily Henry James, suitable even for October 1

The calendar has turned to October--which means, in these parts, a reacquaintance with the fine art of the ghost story, broadly defined.

First, however, I must beg an indulgence. This past week, a book arrived on my desk at work that I've been impatiently awaiting for months: The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master. It's a book I'm incredibly proud to be able to bring back to the world: originally published, privately, in 1911 as The Henry James Yearbook--with James's approval and, to the extent of a brief prefatory note, participation--it sank into obscurity almost immediately. When I stumbled on it in Google Books last winter, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. A quick e-mail to James biographer Michael Gorra confirmed my suspicion: this book was essentially unknown, and thus ripe for retrieval.

And it's such a pleasure. I'll confess to being, at this point, not wholly sound on James. The past five years or so have seen me go from someone who has read and enjoyed quite a bit of James to someone who thinks about and reads James a lot, who's visited James's house and read biographies and much of the letters and most of the novels and many of the stories. I'm now to the point where I expect I will eventually read it all, which, given James's decades of productivity, is saying something.

Yet I'm not sure I would have said that James would adapt well to the quote-a-day format. It's not even that his sentences are too long; rather, his thoughts are. How would a serpentine Jamesian thought hold up in isolation? I was wrong. James turns out to work wonderfully in this format. The book, which was assembled as a form of therapy after a breakdown by the adult daughter of a friend of the James family, mixes short and long passages, aphoristic insights and description, short stories and novels, fiction and nonfiction. It draws on an impressive range of James's writings--one of the many pleasures it offers is that even a dedicated James reader will almost certainly encounter lines they've never read before, from obscure stories or essays. And it's such fun to open the book each day and find something new; not for nothing does Michael Gorra, in the foreword he wrote for the University of Chicago Press edition, call the book a "little charmer."

A search on my Twitter feed will turn up a number of entries I've enjoyed and highlighted. For today, I'll give you the entry that opens October. Each month begins with a slightly longer passage, before the entry for the first day of the month; this one, for October, is from "New England: An Autumn Impression," in The American Scene:
It may be an ado about trifles--and half the poetry, roundabout, the poetry in solution in the air, was doubtless but the alertness of the touch of Autumn, the imprisoned painter, the Bohemian with a rusty jacket, who had already broken out with a palette and brush; yet the way the color begins in those days to be dabbed, the way, here and there, for a start, a solitary maple on a woodside flames in single scarlet, recalls nothing so much as the daughter of a noble house dressed for a fancy-ball, with the whole family gathered round to admire her before she goes. One speaks, at the same time of the orchards; but there are properly no orchards when half the countryside shows, the easiest, most familiar sacrifice to Pomona. The apple tree in New England plays the part of the olive in Italy, charges itself with the effect of detail, for the most part otherwise too scantily produces, and, engaged in this charming care, becomes infinitely decorative and delicate. What it must do for the too under-dressed land in may and June is easily supposable; but its office in the early autumn is to scatter coral and gold. The apples are everywhere and every interval, every old clearing, an orchard. You pick them up from under your feet but to bite into them, for fellowship, and throw them away; but as you catch their young brightness in the blue air, where they suggest strings of strange-colored pearls tangled in the knotted boughs, as you notice their manner of swarming for a brief and wasted gayety, they seem to ask to be praised only by the cheerful shepherd and the oaten pipe.
As I've written before, for an American, New England is autumn, source of our ancestral stories and images and dreams of the season, and James conjures beautifully this one aspect of it, which in itself calls to mind both labor and leisure, beauty and utility, history and the everyday.

Here in Chicago, autumn came in a rush this year: summer, having lingered with its heat and sun too long, beating an overnight retreat about ten days ago. Instantly, it seemed, leaves rustled along the edges of the sidewalk in the breeze, and the park was patchworked with color. Jenkins, our still-new dog, turns out to like to chase leaves as the wind draws them from him; his energetic joy in the activity gives me yet another reason to love this turning of the year.

With the arrival of autumn, however, we also get the dark mornings, and the rapid drawing in of evening after work. What better, at either end of the day, than to leaven the loss with some Henry James? The Daily Henry James will be in a bookstore near you within about two weeks. You won't regret bringing it into your library.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Someone's got to do it: On Saint Sebastian and Aubrey Beardsley, with just a bit (of course) of Anthony Powell

We open today's post with the entry on Saint Sebastian from Foxe's Book of Martyrs:
Sebastian being born in that part of France called Gallia Narbonensis, was a Christian, and was lieutenant general of the vaward of Dioclesian the emperor; who also encouraged many martyrs of Christ by his exhortations unto constancy, and kept them in the faith. He being therefore accused to the emperor, was commanded to be apprehended, and that he should be brought into the open field, where by his own soldiers he was thrust thro' the body with innumerable arrows.
Martyrological legend has it that Sebastian survived the arrows and was given a chance to harangue Diocletian in person, only to then be clubbed to death. In the world of art, however, that death has almost no place, while Sebastian, looking calm, pious, even beautiful under a hail of arrows has been a common subject for centuries now, familiar from any number of works and artists.

I was not, however, familiar with this engraving of the scene by printmaker Jacques Callot.

What I like about this is the spaciousness of it: Callot chose to depict not merely the moment of death but the organized process of bringing it. This is an execution more than a martyrdom, Sebastian a small figure at its center

I doubt I'd ever have seen this engraving--being not a believer, I don't spend a lot of time on saints--had I not been flipping through a volume of Aubrey Beardsley's letters and found this reference to it in a letter to his friend Andre Raffalovich, a Catholic, of May 5, 1897:
I suppose Gray knows of Callot's singularly interesting eau-forte of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian. There is a charming soldier in the background picking up the arrows that have missed the Saint.

Had you noticed the soldier? I can't say I would have without Beardsley as my guide. I'm not sure I would describe him as charming. That feels like Aubrey being deliberately casual, decadently arch. There is, nonetheless an unusual quality to him. Does his awkward step signal caution? (Are there more arrows coming?) Delicacy? Even goofiness? Looking at his almost mincing manner, you can imagine him as a character from a Monty Python sketch, trying simply to do his job and finding himself utterly beset.

My first thought on encountering Beardsley's letter, and being led to the image itself, was that Anthony Powell would have loved this detail. I quickly turned to a pair of Powell's reviews of volumes of Beardsley's letters from the 1970s in hopes of finding a comment, but alas: it goes unremarked. Nonetheless, the whole of it seems to his taste: the discovery and highlighting of an inessential background figure; the realization that the artist put him there deliberately, and seems to have even perhaps taken some pleasure in doing so; and the acknowledgment he signifies that even the most dramatic moments of life retain their humdrum characteristics--there is always someone around just doing their job. I realize that an alternative response to this scene would be one of horror: a man is cooly going about his job as another is being murdered. But the bloodless quality of centuries-old tales of martyrdom, and my sense of Powell's own sensibility, suggests he'd take it lightly. As he once wrote of Beardsley, without obvious judgment, "He was without sentimentality.

A line from Powell's notebooks came to mind: "They are casting lots for my raiment at this moment." The gallows humor is kin to that arrow-gathering soldier, no? I also thought of a more sentimental way of reading a not-dissimilar scene, this one from Roger Ebert's 1983 review of Return of the Jedi, praising George Lucas's inclusion of small details:
Here is just one small moment in "Return of Jedi," a moment you could miss if you looked away from the screen, but a moment that helps explain the special magic of the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker is engaged in a ferocious battle in the dungeons beneath the throne room of the loathsome, Jabba the Hutt. His adversary is a slimy, gruesome, reptilian monster made of warts and teeth. Things are looking bad when suddenly the monster is crushed beneath a falling door. And then (here is the small moment) there's a shot of the monster's keeper, a muscle-bound jailer, who rushes forward in tears. He is brokenhearted at the destruction of his pet. Everybody loves somebody.
All drama has a center, which means it has a periphery, and on that periphery are a lot of people simply trying to get through their day. That Callot paused to think, "Not all those arrows are going to hit," then followed that thought out and had fun with it, makes me happy.

 Beardsley, meanwhile, can be forgiven a bit of gallows humor, even a shade of deliberate affectless decadence: read more than a handful of his letters and you'll begin to realize how awful tuberculosis must have been. Letter after letter is little more than a patient, mostly uncomplaining recital of symptoms and hoped-for routes to respite. His death didn't have the drama of a martyrdom, but he was able to see it coming for a long time.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

On weather, at this change of seasons

I've lived in or around Chicago for nearly twenty-five years now, but autumn still belongs to the land and climate of childhood.

I grew up in a pocket of gently rolling hills in southeastern Illinois, farm country, stitched to southwest Indiana and southwestern Kentucky by the Wabash and Ohio Rivers (the latter of which also forms the region's only real tie to American history, serving as it did as the principal highway into the pathless west for decades). In that part of the world, autumn comes late, and as an explicit hinge, or perhaps a down-shifting gear, linking the bounty of summer with the post-harvest austerity of winter.

In a new anthology of writings on autumn from the UK edited by Melissa Harrison, Horatio Clare writes that "autumn has a summer and a winter." Sinead Gleeson writes that "tendrils of summer heat creep into these months." That's unquestionably true for the autumns of my growing up. Early September was like crossing from sidewalk to grass, the fading heat of the day radiating from the one, a vegetal coolness gentling the other. The autumn sun downstate is strong and golden, offering hints of our fate only at the ends of days--the mornings with a curious flatness to their light, the evenings burnished, almost liquid.

But then the leaves start to gather--we burned them still, out in the country down there--and then, the moment of true transition: the combines take to the field. I'm too young to have seen the harvest brought in by hand. I know it only from Wendell Berry, and, going farther back, Thomas Hardy, and, farther still, Tolstoy. I expect the distant prospect of men moving in rhythm across a field, slicing away at the summer, would be remarkable if seen without familiarity. But a motorized combine has its drama, too: at a glance, you see speed, precision, innovation, a robotic clarity brought to what had been the carefully constrained chaos inherent in nature. In motion, it is autumn: in front of it, summer; behind it, winter.

As the crops disappear, we see the bones of winter emerge. There's nothing quite so explicitly wintry as a harvested field. The dirt remains humped up in skeletal rows, soon to freeze in that position and hold all winter, chaff and stubble scattered about. But the overwhelming impression is of absence. Something was here and has been taken. Like the trees at the end of autumn, like the people at the end of autumn. Winter will bring its pleasures--one of them, curiously enough, gazing across an expanse of open fields sprinkled with snow--but at that moment we feel the turn as loss.

Melissa Harrison's Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons is the perfect book of its type: the light seasonal companion. It presents a mix of new work from contemporary nature writers alongside excerpts from figures like John Clare, Gilbert White, Shelley, Coleridge, and others far more obscure. Each piece is deliberately short, no more than a few pages; it's a book to set beside your cup of coffee on the porch and pick up here and there. Throughout, the emphasis is on observation: what do we see when we look closely at our landscape at this season? How do we suss out the changes underway? What can we tell of what the animals know? "Swallows are gathering on the telegraph wires," writes Alice Hunter. "Everywhere, our native wildlife is preparing to hunker down for the colder months." As are we, and I'm glad to have this book as a companion. (Note: it's only available in the UK now, but easily enough obtainable from there.)

On a grander scale is the book that might be my favorite nonfiction book of the year thus far: Alexandra Harris's Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. Harris's book is as ambitious as its title--no less than a tracing of her theme throughout the whole history of the island. Within pages, you believe that she will be able to pull it off. Her voice is simply so confident, clear, compelling, and, crucially, welcoming. These paragraphs from the introduction will give you a sense of her assuredness:
Our thoughts will be affected by the kind of weather we're in. Dark clouds are liable to engender gloomy feelings. The weather can be responsible not just for our own mood but for the mood of a whole town or country. Our weather-talk has a special grammar. "What's it like today?" we ask, replacing the specific noun "weather" with a cosmically generalizing "it." What is it like--the weather, the day, the world? Weather is one of the most powerful threads holding us together: it is what we share with everyone else who is in it, or under it. Rainy days turn people in upon themselves--hat pressed down, chin tucked in--but there are common rhythms in the dodging and splashing and weariness. in the park on the first warm day of the year people of all kinds will be drawn into cheerful fellowship. When a bad day suddenly clears to late sun the thoughts of individuals all over a city, intent on thousands of different tasks, will take a momentary united leap. Still, each among those thousands will feel something different. The thermometer may be the same whoever reads it, but our experience of weather is more than statistical. The naturalist Richard Mabey, a lifelong observer of the weather's effects on us, describes a a "complex weave of metaphor, ancient association, and real physical experience." Our weather is made up of personal memories and moods; an evening sky is full of other evenings; a mist may be given its identity by a line from a song or a half-remembered film. The weather is made for us partly by writers and artists who have set down permanently their response to a fleeting effect. This is all interwoven with the practicalities of being hot or cold, wet or dry, while the world around us is blotted out or lit up, a brass handle or a shopfront suddenly picked out by the sun.
Weatherland is full of pleasures, and familiar names: Austen, Milton, the Brontes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Woolf, Wordsworth, the Pre-Raphaelites. From almost every one, Harris manages to extract something new. It's partly the effect of a tightly focused lens--close-ups in unexpected areas are bound to yield insight--but it's also a credit to her eye, and her quickness of insight and association.

My favorite section comes early, in the book and in time. It's Harris's look at early Britain, of the Romans and the Saxons. There's a wonderful analysis of surviving mosaics featuring human figures representing seasons:
The Winter who survives at Chedworth in Gloucestershire is more vigorous. He is well wrapped in leggings and tunic and a cape blowing out in the wind as he bears two seasonal totems, a dead hare in one hand and the essential branch in the other.
I don't know that I've ever come closer to feeling the Roman Britons as actual people than when reading Harris's account of their commemorations of the seasons.

And then we come to the Anglo-Saxons:
English literature begins in the cold. The elegy now known as "The Wanderer," usually dated to the eighth or ninth century, introduces the figure of an exile who finds himself completely alone in the world, adrift on an icy sea and haunted by memories of the life he used to lead.

he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea:
he must follow the paths of exile.

Whether or not he is actually out at sea, the Wanderer feels the solitude of a single oarsman alone with the elements and without any prospect of shelter . He was once part of a community, owing allegiance to a lord who in return gave warmth, protection, and loyalty. This man's lord is dead, "covered by earth," and it seems that his comrades have been killed in battle, leaving one desolate survivor without home or human comfort. "I left that place in wretchedness, / ploughed the icy waves with winter in my heart."
The opposite of cold for the Anglo-Saxon poet, Harris tells us,
is not the warmth of the sun, but the warmth of the communal indoor fire. Sunshiny days barely feature, and when the sun is mentioned at all it is often known as the "candle of the sky."
Good to know that some things about England and the English character never change . . .

You leave Weatherland absolutely invigorated--it's one of those rare books that makes you see things, both in the world and in other books, differently and better.

I also came away from it deeply envious of the English. We have had our share of nature writers, of course, many of genius, but both the relative youth and breadth of America work against us. In Weatherland, Harris can say of a summer that it was wet, or hot, or dry, and know she's right for nearly all in the realm; America can never be encompassed that way. In addition, the strength and duration of the nature writing tradition has given the English accounts, it seems, of nearly every county, every little pocket of land. Adding Harris's book to Melissa Harrison's you feel like you could almost lay out the writers in their places and come up with a nearly complete map of the island.

The region where I grew up has no writers telling of its seasons or nature. In the scheme of America, it's unimportant--of no larger cultural value, and too ordinary in topographic and biological terms to merit attention. But when I think back to the warmth of an October sun through closed eyelids as I lay back on a pile of leaves, it feels distinct, and beautiful, and I wish for a writing tradition that could encompass it.

"There is an air of fulfilment and rest in the landscape and the brooding weather of October," write Adrian Bell in his wonderful memoir of 1930s farm life, Silver Ley, which Harrison anthologizes. "It is like a ghost of summer evening all the time." October is still a few weeks away, but that's very much where we are. Year after year, I'm grateful for it, beyond words.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

William Morris and Co.

Ever since reading Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones last year, I've been vaguely circling the Arts and Crafts movement and their predecessors cum fellow travelers the Pre-Raphaelites. A. S. Byatt's lovely little new book-length essay on William Morris and the (essentially unrelated) artist and designer Mariano Fortuny pushed me a little further on the path, and now I find myself flipping back and forth between Fiona MacCarthy's bio biography of Morris and a volume of Morris's letters.

Both are rewarding in exactly the way that reading about that period and group tends to be: even when presented with warts, they're hard not to admire--serious but not self-serious, dedicated to beauty yet aware of its practical limits in the world, looking backwards for what could be reclaimed even as they (or at least Morris) tried to build a better future. And then there are the books: they loved, loved, loved books. Morris would buy them for his friends, a typical extravagance generated by his discomfort with his inherited wealth. Here, from MacCarthy's biography, is an account of how the set, in their Oxford years, received the publication of Ruskin's Edinburgh lectures in 1854:
"I was working in my room," wrote Burne-Jones, "when Morris ran in one morning bringing the newly published book with him: so everything was put aside until he read it all through to me. And there we first saw about the Pre-Raphaelites, and there I first saw the name of Rossetti. So for many a day after that we talked of little else but paintings which we had never seen."
At a time when it wasn't possible to simply look up an image of a painting after hearing about it, books were the next best thing--the fire Ruskin's descriptions kindled is palpable in Burne-Jones's account. No wonder the book was revered. As Fitzgerald wrote in her Burne-Jones book, "Without the concept of the book as hero, Victorian idealism can hardly be understood." In Morris's Novel on Blue Paper, a character "long[s] so much for more and more and more books." Little wonder that Morris turned to book making and literary translation.

Morris's designs, and particularly his wallpapers and stained glasses, continue to enchant more than a century later, drawing us in with their clear lines and repeating patterns, then surprising us with singular details. His letters, personable and lively, are also full of such detail. Complaining about the town of Lewes, he says that as you approach,
you can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills: the ride is very pleasant: Lewes when you get there lies on a ridge in its valley, the street winding down to the river (Ouse) which runs into the sea at Newhaven: on the whole it is set down better than any town i have seen in England: unluckily it is not a very interesting town in itself: there is a horrible workhouse or prison on the outskirts, and close by a hideous row of builders' houses: there are three old Churches in it, dismally restored, but none of them over-remarkable: there is the remains of a castle, 14th century: but it is not grand at all. Never the less it isn't a bad country town, only not up to its position.
Though I'd quibble with him about Lewes, at least as it exists today, there is a clarity of expression here that calls to mind a line I came across in Joseph Conrad's writing recently: "To take a liberty with technical language is a crime against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech." Morris isn't using technical language here, of course, but he is deploying a technical eye, one that sees detail that he then carefully conveys in words.

Here he is applying the same analytic clarity to the difficult-to-explain work of creating, in a letter to Georgina Burne-Jones:
I have perhaps rather more than enough of work to do, and for that reason or what not, am dwelling somewhat low down in the valley of humiliation--quite good enough for me doubtless. Yet it sometimes seems to me as if my lot was a strange one: you see, I work pretty hard, and on the whole very cheerfully, not altogether I hope for mere pudding, still less for praise; and while I work I have the cause always in mind, and yet I know that the cause for which I specially work is doomed to fail, at least in seeming; I mean that art must go under, where or how ever it may come up again. I don't know if I explain what I'm driving at, but it does sometimes seem to me a strange thing indeed that a man should be driven to work with energy and even with pleasure and enthusiasm at work which he knows will serve no end but amusing himself; am I doing nothing but make-believe, then, something like Louis XVI's lock-making? There, I don't pretend to say that the conundrum is a very interesting one, as it certainly has not any practical importance as far as I am concerned, since I will without doubt go on with my work, useful or useless, till I demit.
In one long paragraph, we have a version of the struggle that would define Morris's life: what does a man whose greatest skill is creating objects of breathtaking beauty--but often of little utility--do if he also believes powerfully that social and economic difference should be leveled? How to be for beauty in a world of utility? A century later, surrounded by far, far more objects of limited utility--and, for all the dross, a hitherto unimaginable access to beauty--we've not come close to answering that question.

Friday, September 02, 2016

On a return to blogging, and Joseph Conrad

It's been a bad summer for blogging. I'd blame Jenkins, our new dog--named, naturally, after Nicholas Jenkins from A Dance to the Music of Time, an aspirational name that reflects our hopes that Jenkins the dog will carry at least some of Jenkins the character's generosity of spirit--but that's a cop-out. Yes, time with Jenkins has taken away from other activities. But many's the day I've sat on the porch with him and a book, and could as easily have had the laptop and been typing away to you all.

Rather, it's more that the ongoing decline in the frequency of my blogging has fed on itself so that in a crucial way I've lost the blogging sense: I find I'm no longer reading quite like the blogger I was--the connections I would have made (and that I see myself making when I come across old posts) aren't readily coming to me; the mental note-taking I habitually engaged in for nearly a decade has atrophied.

And I miss it. I miss thinking and reading that way. So this post marks an attempt at a new start. I'm going to start modestly: my goal for the rest of the year is to post once a week, even if some (or many) posts are brief. I won't promise to hold to it--I believe promises should be kept, and I know the vagaries of life could easily disrupt this plan--but I'll do my best to make it happen. Come the new year, we'll see where things are at. And with all this, certainly implicit but deserving to be made explicit, is an apology from me: if you've bothered to check in here with any regularity, only to be dismayed by the Havisham-esque cobwebs burying memories of glory, well, I'm sorry to have been so remiss.

As for the substance of today's post, I'll keep it simple. I've recently returned to Joseph Conrad after some years away, reading Chance, Youth, and The End of the Tether. It's been wonderful, reminding me of the clarity of expression and thought that drew me to Conrad in the first place. But what's perhaps struck me most was Conrad's own assessment of his work, offered in a preface to his memoir A Personal Record in 1912, and included in the mid-1990s Penguin Classic edition:
Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests notably, amongst others, on the idea of Fidelity. At a time when nothing which is not revolutionary in some way or other can expect to attract much attention, I have not been revolutionary in my writings. The revolutionary spirit is mighty convenient in this, that it frees one from all scruples as regards ideas. Its hard, absolute optimism is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and intolerance it contains. No doubt one should smile at these things; but, imperfect Aesthete, I am no better Philosopher. All claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and anger from which a philosophical mind should be free . . .
Fidelity. That really is what it's all about with Conrad. It's most obvious in Victory, which I remember nearly twenty-five years after reading it as all but a monument to the importance--and costs--of holding to one's ideals. But it's there in so many of the books, situation after situation where someone is ruined either by the impossibility of reconciling their ideals with the reality of a situation or someone is utterly, and ultimately, undone by a momentary, even reflexive, self-preserving deviation from those ideals. Writing at the end of an era and an empire that frequently honored those values more in the breach than in reality--and on the cusp of a war that would in many ways show them up to be breathtakingly destructive, where not hollow--Conrad kept his subject narrow but powerful, and firmly held before him.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

James Boswell in his journal

"A man much alone . . . to whom every word heard is precious."

That's V. S. Pritchett, writing about James Boswell. It's an aspect of Boswell's character I too often forget. I smile in appreciative amusement when I think of how he hoped his Corsican "adventure" would lead to his being known as Corsican Boswell, or at his combination of self-reproach, self-regard, and grasping ambition. (Pritchett catches that middle quality in a line plucked from the journal: "I think there is a blossom about me of something more distinguished than the generality of mankind.") But I too rarely think of Boswell the young man loosed on London, late of an uncongenial home, trying to make his way on little more than a family name and letters of introduction. We've been there, most of us, in some sense: just out of university, say, and attempting to build the foundations of our adult life. It can be lonely, tentative, frustrating. Pritchett depicts Boswell as "knocked off his balance by a severe Presbyterian upbringing," his will destroyed by his unappreciative father, to be
replaced by a shiftless melancholy, an abeyance of spirits.
No wonder, then, that when Boswell did meet Johnson, he glommed on to him. Pritchett, rightly, credits Johnson--whom he goes so far as to call "saintly"--with "the steadying of Boswell's fluctuating spirit and . . . the sustaining of his sympathetic fancy." Boswell can frequently be ridiculous; he's never wholly unsympathetic, and never more so than when we view him through that lens.

From Pritchett I wandered to Cyril Connolly, a review of a volume of Boswell's journals on its publication in the 1950s. The first volume of the journals had, at that point, only been widely available to the public for about ten years, the reassessment of Boswell precipitated by its keen observations and self-awareness barely underway. "There has been a tendency to patronise him," wrote Connolly, "or find him a bit of a bore." Connolly, though acknowledging that the journals covering Boswell's time abroad aren't of the best, wasn't having it:
In the life of Johnson, Boswell subordinates himself to his hero who epitomised the age he lived in. In the journal, he allowed his own forward-looking sensibility full scope.
And while Johnson, a figure who can make a reader's heart ache in sympathy with his internal and external struggles, can also be irritatingly self-important, Boswell is accessible. "It was his friend Johnson," writes Connolly, "who struggled so hard with the tragic sense of life. Boswell could always get drunk."

All of which led me back to the Journal, which is in its own way as inexhaustible as the Life of Johnson. Flipping through it, I hit upon an entry that followed a successful dinner party—success, for Boswell, meaning that the guest list was of a reasonably high standard, the conversation sparkled (and included him), and he didn't wake with a hangover. Reflecting on the evening, Boswell wrote, "I felt a completion of happiness. I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind."

Is there a better example of Pritchett's characterization of the Journal's genius, "the accidental and unforeseeable quality of life" it has, "which better organised, more sapient or more eloquent natures lose the moment they put pen to paper"? That simple expression--"hugged myself in my own mind"--is not one I'll forget; those two lines, now, will be how I, too, think of a good evening with friends.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Summer's for traveling . . . or reading about traveling, at least.

Summer, with its travels and porch sitting and distractions (like getting a dog!) has flown by, and suddenly here we are in mid-July. Which means I'm overdue to point you to a very short piece I wrote for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly.

When Steve Donoghue asked me to write on a favorite travel book, I knew immediately which it would be: H. R. Tomlinson's The Sea and the Jungle, from 1912. Why? The explanation is at the link, along with recommendations by a number of other writers.

The only other real contenders were Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs and C. M. Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta. The former, however, is as much about returning as about traveling--it's about a summer spent in one place, a coastal village in Maine, the kind of place that a person visits only with plans to return again and again:
When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a life-long affair.
The latter, meanwhile, is the book of a traveler who determinedly sinks into a culture with no eye towards ever leaving again. T. E. Lawrence, in his introduction, writes of Doughty,
His seeing is altogether English, yet at the same time his externals, his manners, his dress, and his speech were Arabic, and nomad Arab, of the desert. . . . His record ebbs and flows with his experience, and by reading not a part of the book but all of it you obtain a many-sided sympathetic vision, in the round, of his companions of these stormy and eventful years.
So Tomlinson it was: a book by an Englishman setting out on an adventure of the sort that occupies the imaginations of childhood summers, a book on which to set dreams of faraway lands from your porch.

"A pleasure it is," writes Doughty, in a paragraph that could stand for the pleasures of travel writing, "to listen to the cheerful musing Beduin talk, a lesson in the travellers' school of mere humanity,--and there is no land so perilous which by humanity he may not pass, for man is of one mind everywhere, ay."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Wodehouse on Wodehouse

I'm grateful to the Overlook Press for publishing a complete set of P. G. Wodehouse not merely because my growing collection of hardcovers look lovely on my shelves, but also because it means some of the less well-known books are regularly brought to my bookstore browsing attention. This week, what caught my eye was the memoir (of sorts) that Wodehouse published in 1956, Over Seventy.

You need not have read Robert McCrum's biography to realize that Wodehouse was not likely to reveal himself to any significant degree on the page, and that is the case: the book, structured as a response to some questions about his life and work put by an American magazine, is mostly a series of extended comic riffs on various subjects. As you read it, you feel sort of like you're dipping in and out of various of his novels--there's an exchange between two American heavies here, a discussion of the pains of the musical theater there. Some bits are less that wholly successful, with the air of the after-dinner speech hanging about them, but most work, and the book offers many pleasures.

Unexpectedly, amid the comedy we here and there get a glimpse of what seems to be genuine feeling. The following bit, though presented in the same light tone as the rest of the book's material, feels honest, and, by the time the last line arrives, even poignant:
I am a mass of diffidence and I-wonder-if-this-is-going-to-be-all-right-ness, and I envy those tough authors, square-jawed and spitting out of the side of their mouths, who are perfectly sure, everytime they start a new book, that it will be a masterpiece. My own attitude resembles that of Bill, my foxhound, when he brings a decaying bone into the dining-room at lunch-time.

"Will this one go?" he seems to be saying, as he eyes us anxiously. "Will my public consider this bone the sort of bone they have been led to expect from me, or will there be a sense of disappointment and the verdict that William is slipping?"

As a matter of fact, each of Bill's bones is just as dynamic and compelling as the last one, and he has nothing to fear at the bar of critical opinion, but with each new book of mine I have, as I say, always that feeling that this time I have picked a lemon in the garden of literature. A good thing, really, I suppose. Keeps one up on one's toes and makes one write every sentence ten times. Or in many cases twenty times. My books may not be the sort of books the cognoscenti feel justified in blowing the 12s. 6d. on, but I do work at them. When in due course Charon ferries me across the Styx and everyone is telling everyone else what a rotten writer I was, I hope at least one voice will be heard piping up, "But he did take trouble."
Were Wodehouse with us today, I would reassure him that Charon--who, having held the same job for eternity, with no suggestions heard from any quarter of slacking, or that another ferryman could perform its duties with more vim, appreciates, one assumes, hard work and craftsmanship--surely has whiled away one of the long, dark nights of the soul (the only kind on offer down there) with a story or two of Bertie and Jeeves. He might even tip his cap at the Master as he disembarks.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Twilight thoughts, twilight haints

On a recent visit to my parents in the twice-failed utopia of New Harmony, Indiana, I experienced something I'd not seen for a long time, yet not really realized I'd lost: true, nearly unadulterated shimmery blue-dark summer twilight. "As daylight recedes," A. Roger Ekirch writes in At Day's Close: Night in Times Past,
color drains from the landscape. Thickets grow larger and less distinct, blending into mongrel shades of gray. It is eventide when, say the Irish, a man and a bush look alike, or, more ominously, warns an Italian adage, hounds and wolves. The darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive, it "thickens."
Winter twilight, Thoreau observes, is white; summer's is a "fading world of slate-blue, smoke, and umber," as Peter Davidson calls it in The Last of the Light: About Twilight.

When in that advancing obscurity, it is best to be with those you know, your family and friends--who, visible and audible near you, help you orient yourself and your ancient fears in that neither dark nor light world. Even more so when that is walk through the streets of New Harmony--streets that have seen some of the most unusual history in all of America ("Almost every citizen is aware of New Harmony's strangeness," wrote Marguerite Young in 1945). It's not a place of violent death or dark secrets, but any community with a history of enforced celibacy and religious fervor can't help but generate some residual shivers when the darkness begins to rise and spread from the surrounding fields.

All of that perhaps primed me for my encounter with the following account of a creepy twilight experience related by Harold Owen, brother of the famous war poet Wilfred Owen, in his 1963 memoir, Journey from Obscurity, which Peter Davidson shares in The Last of the Light.


Doesn't that have everything one wants in a creepy twilight story? Inexplicable sights and movements, a feeling of another world encroaching inexorably on our own, the recourse to companionship as the only solace. Wonderful.

For all but the most recent era of human history, "daily experience," Davidson writes, "would have included the slow fall of the light, an awareness of the slow process of twilight." We've all but lost what Nabokov (via Davidson) called the "gradual and dual blue" which "At night unites the viewer with the view."

I am a morning person, at my best in the gentle yet vigorous light of the earliest summer hours. But I see the value of twilight, and I can't argue with Thoreau:
For what a man does abroad by night requires and implies more deliberate energy than what he is encouraged to do in the sunshine. He is more spiritual, less animal or vegetable, in the former case.
Hie thee to your campsites and fields and wildest parks sometime this summer, folks. Watch the buzzing dragonflies at dinner give way to the dramatic swirl of the swallows, then the awkward swoop-drop-recovery of the bats, and the sleek stealth of the nighthawk. Watch the light fade, and see what it reveals.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Darwyn Cooke (1962–2016)

What to say about Darwyn Cooke?

He's dead, and that is awful. That's the first thing, the reason I'm writing this. He was only fifty-four. Cancer. I can't imagine what his family and friends are going through. My heart aches for them.

For the rest of us, well, it's a version of that pain many of us felt recently when Prince died. The grief that can't help but be awkward because it's simultaneously real and attenuated--it's genuine grief felt about a person we knew only through their work. Yet . . . I have no qualms about calling it actual grief. We develop a relationship with the people who make the art we love, the art that gives our world so much of its depth and richness. The "they" whom we love may ultimately bear only a passing resemblance to the person grieved by friends and family, but if the art is genuine, there's nonetheless a reality there: the self bleeds through; the artist, if we take engage with them seriously, takes on a form and role not wholly dissimilar to that of once-close friends who are now distant, encountered mostly in virtual spaces. I have no trouble saying that I love, actually love, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Rex Stout, Barbara Pym, Henry James, Anthony Powell, and on and on. I wouldn't have wanted to spend a country weekend with Tolstoy, let alone be married to him, but lord, I love that man despite. It's real, and it is a powerful force in shaping the world--so much of it constructed, moment to moment, by my own reflections on it--in which I live and act every day. Darwyn Cooke made my life better, and I'm my grief that he won't be able to keep making beautiful, creative art is genuine.

I never met Darwyn Cooke. We exchanged e-mails a couple of times in the course of his work illustrating and designing the cover of my dreams for The Getaway Car. But mostly I knew him as any fan did: through his wonderful comics art and stories. Let's start with Parker.

In the fifty-plus years since Donald Westlake sat down at the typewriter and discovered Richard Stark's voice, there's been no one who translated Parker into a visual medium as effectively and faithfully as Cooke. His clean-lined midcentury style, redolent of both the silver age and, in its backgrounds, architecture, and use of watercolors, midcentury magazine illustration, put Parker squarely in his era. And Cooke's creativity in storytelling and narrative technique, which saw him combine panel-to-panel comics, fake magazine stories, cartoony comic strips, and more, enabled him to turn Stark's brilliantly clockwork plots into suspenseful pages.

At the same time, he captured an aspect of the Parker novels that is often overlooked: their humor. Richard Stark was Westlake's hardboiled voice, but like a recidivist criminal, he wasn't a man who could ever go wholly straight. I love these two panels from The Score on that front--we've all wanted to say this to Grofield at one point or another.

The Parker adaptations were wonderful. But they're not even Cooke's greatest achievement. I've been reading comics off and on for thirty years. I have a deep and abiding love for superheroes, and a considered awareness of what they can be at their best--and of what we all too often find ourselves accepting as good enough, through some mix of nostalgia and appreciation of comfort food. I'm the twelve-year-old boy who wore out issues of The Amazing Spider-Man with re-reading and can still access reverberations of those feelings, yet knows, to quote (let's imagine) Ben Grimm, that most of it ain't Proust.

The New Frontier, a six-issue miniseries written and drawn by Cooke and published by DC in 2004, is better than that. It's the best comic I've ever read. Hands down. In it, Cooke re-tells the story of DC's Silver Age--of the characters and the moment that people still think of when they hear "comic book" or "superhero," the birth of the Justice League and team-ups between Batman and Robin and Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and all.

Cooke does so in a visual style that honors, without wholly aping, the style of the 1950s comics he's drawing on--and setting it within the larger visual and design sensibility of the period. An attentive reader of The New Frontier stares at least as much at furniture and signage as at super-sculpted physiques.

This was a beautiful era visually, among the cherished remnants of which we live today, and Cooke gives us that almost casually throughout the series. But that's only part of his period aim. His larger point was to put these stories themselves, and the characters who powered them, into the actual context of their era.

Written out that way, it sounds like a terrible idea, a recipe for tendentious tales of nuclear fears and the Red Scare. In Cooke's hands, it becomes something different, something that feels honest and organic. Re-reading it now, it calls to mind the later seasons of Mad Men, when the writers had gotten past the first season's tendency to superciliously gawp at history and instead were telling actual stories of a time now lost--which enabled them to generate the only nostalgia that's not toxic: an honest, clear-eyed nostalgia, one that acknowledges that every passing of time entails loss, no matter how it's balanced by gains.

That tug, the pull of the imperfect past, is powerful in The New Frontier. We feel the energy, hope, and technocratic drive of postwar America, even as we acknowledge its darker side.

At the same time, Cooke avoided two major contemporary pitfalls, darkness and irony. His Silver Age is beset by actual problems, the Cold War being the source of most of them. But the tone of the comic is light and hopeful: these are superheroes, people who can do things we can only imagine--and the whole point of imagining them in the first place is to give us people to look up to, to trust in, to thrill to. Cooke lets them be heroes. And he also lets the relative simplicity of the era remain untroubled. Look at this full page, where Robin meets Batman for the first time.

That's powerful earnestness, and Cooke is letting it stand. Throughout the series, he shows us the 1950s inflected by our own time-shifted understanding, but at the same time he lets the era be itself, with nearly all its relative innocence. These are that rare thing: comics that adults and kids can enjoy alike. It's a genuinely thrilling, exhilarating series.

Nearly seventy years after the creation of Superman, sixty-five since Batman, and half a century after the creation of the Justice League, who would have thought there would be anything new to say? There will always be new adventures, of course; that's the beauty of mythological-style characters and serial narrative. But who could have imagined that there would be anything to say, especially looking backwards, that feels as fundamental as what Cooke created in re-telling the story of these heroes? With due deference to the giants, not just from DC but from Marvel and indies, on whose shoulders it was built, The New Frontier is the greatest comics series ever written.

Rest in peace, Darwyn Cooke. You made something truly special, and we'll never forget it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bakewell on Montaigne

I'm currently reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, an account for the smart generalist of the roots, thought, and key figures of existentialism. I'm not deep enough into it to share anything more detailed than good impressions thus far: if the existentialists interest you at all, it's probably worth taking a look.

What brings me here today--breaking an irritatingly long work-driven hiatus--however, is what I found when I pulled Bakewell's book off my shelf: the handful of pages that I tore out of the galley of her excellent book on Montaigne, How to Live, after I read it in 2013. Torn-out pages, you gasp? I had a reason: I read the book while traveling in Japan, and I was carrying so many books that I was ready to lighten my load any way possible--including throwing out the galley after I'd read it. But . . . what was I to do about the pages I'd dog-eared to share with you folks later? Rip!

So here, four years, a change of address, and another trip to Japan later, they are. First, there's this, from a section that compares Stoics and Epicureans, emphasizing their interest in thought experiments that involved imagining the last day of your life:
Some Stoics even acted out these "last moment" experiments with props and a supporting cast. Seneca wrote of a wealthy man called Pacuvius, who conducted a full-scale funeral ceremony for himself every day, ending with a feast after which he would have himself carried from the table to his bed on a bier while all the guests and servants intoned, "He has lived his life, he has lived his life."
Which, we can all surely agree, seems a bit much.

Though if we're honest can we say that's any worse--for the servants, at least--than this silliness?
[Montaigne] was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition--sleep--that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him.
Then there's this, on Montaigne's dislike of small talk:
As well as banishing formal etiquette, Montaigne discouraged tedious small talk. Self-conscious solo performances bored him too. Some of his friends could keep a group rapt for hours with anecdotes, but Montaigne preferred a natural give and take. At official dinners away from home, where the talk was merely conventional, his attention would wander; if someone suddenly addressed him, he would often make inappropriate replies, "unworthy of a child." He regretted this for easy conversation in trivial situations was valuable: it opened the path to deeper relationships, and to the more pleasant evenings where one could joke and laugh at ease.
While I am frustrated by small talk in theory, Montaigne here hits upon one of the reasons I admire those who do it well: it puts others at ease, and it begins the labor of opening a space of comfort in which, down the line, we might place more meaningful conversation. Sports and the weather have been the first steps in many a friendship.

In the following passage Bakewell identifies one of the most lasting, important aspects of Montaigne's genius: his "sense of how one could survive public catastrophe without losing one's self-respect":
Long after the sixteenth-century Stoic Montaigne was forgotten, readers in troubled times continued to think of him as a role model. His Essays offered practical wisdom on questions such as how to face up to intimidation, and how to reconcile the conflicting demands of openness and security. . . . Just as you could seek mercy from an enemy forthfrghtly, without compromising yourself, or defend your property by electing to leave it undefended, so you could get through an inhumane war by remaining human.
Throughout the twentieth century, Bakewell points out, readers--Stefan Zweig one of the most prominent among them--found in Montaigne a shelter and a guide, a reminder that troubled times pass, and that extremism is always best opposed by openness and moderation.

Part of that openness comes down to a willingness to accept that one's own knowledge has limits--as in this passage, which Bakewell glosses nicely:
"If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know."

That final coda--"though I don't know"--is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.
Indeed. And it's better to live with it alongside Montaigne than without him. If you've only read some Montaigne, or none, or even if you'd already count yourself a fan, I heartily recommend How to Live: it transformed me from an occasional thoughtless dipper-into the Essays to someone who finds them endlessly readable and--perhaps more important--thinkable, and Montaigne himself from some forbidding, white-ruffed figure from the distant past into someone with whom I feel we're having a conversation. It's a remarkable achievement.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

He Knew He Was Right

"I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story."

That's Anthony Trollope, writing in his autobiography about his 1867 novel He Knew He Was Right. Given how prolific Trollope was, that's surely sufficient reason to stay away from it, right? I'm here to tell you otherwise.

Here's how Trollope frames his failed intention:
It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. The man is made to be unfortunate enough, and the evil which he does is apparent. So far I did not fail, but the sympathy has not been created yet. I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad. It is redeemed by certain scenes in the house and vicinity of an old maid in Exeter. But a novel which in its main parts is bad cannot, in truth, be redeemed by the vitality of subordinate characters.
He's right--to a point. Louis Trevelyan, the gentleman whose prideful obstinacy and jealousy of his wife (whom he puts away from him over unfounded fears of infidelity) set the events of the book in motion, never garners more than our incidental sympathy. He is almost bereft of compelling qualities or congeniality, and the changes his character undergoes are all significantly for the worse: stubbornness becomes mania as self-inflicted emotional wounds become septic. Yet even as we can't quite sympathize with him, his decline nonetheless manages to take on a genuinely tragic hue. There's an fatal inexorability to the novel that feels more like the work of Hardy than Trollope, and it generates its own fascination, fascination that adheres to Trevelyan. Trollope may have failed to achieve his specific goal, but that goal seems secondary, inessential, when considered alongside the story he ended up telling.

Even leaving aside Trevelyan, however, the book is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that no male Victorian novelist wrote about women with anything like the seriousness, care, and honesty of Trollope. And while Trevelyan may not command our sympathy, the women who orbit him--his estranged wife, her sister, and some friends--certainly do. More than anything else, He Knew He Was Right is an examination, and indictment, of the place of women in Victorian society, and of the severe limits that placed on their choices.

I'll share just a couple of examples. This one comes soon after an intelligent and attractive, but poor, young woman has realized that she'll soon be asked for her hand by a young clergyman . . . who could not be more dull, and whom everyone assumes she'll accept:
Was it then really written in the book of the Fates that she, Dorothy Stanbury was to become Mrs. Gibson? Poor Dorothy began to feel that she was called upon to exercise an amount of thought and personal decision to which she had not been accustomed. Hitherto, in the things which she had done, or left undone, she had received instructions which she could obey. . . . But when she was told that she was to marry Mr. Gibson, it did seem to her to be necessary to do something more than obey. Did she love Mr. Gibson? She tried hard to teach herself to think that she might learn to love him. He was a nice-looking man enough, with sandy hair, and a head rather bald, with thin lips, and a narrow nose, who certainly did preach drawling sermons; but of whom everybody said that he was a very excellent clergyman. He had a house and an income, and all Exeter had long since decided that he was a man who would certainly marry. He was one of those men of whom it may be said that they have no possible claim to remain unmarried. He was fair game, and unless he surrendered himself to be bagged before long, would subject himself to just and loud complaint. The Misses Frenches had been aware of him, and had thought to make sure of him among them. . . . That Dorothy herself should have any doubt as to accepting Mr. Gibson, was an idea that never occurred to them. But Dorothy had her doubts. When she came to think of it, she remembered that she had never as yet spoken a word to Mr. Gibson, beyond such trifling remarks as are made over a tea-table. She might learn to love him, but she did not think that she loved him as yet.
For as much as Trollope deploys the metaphor of the hunt with the Gibson as the game, he also lets Dorothy feel the panic of the hunted as well. This, he says, is what it feels like to be cut out from the herd by the eye of the predator--and, worse, to be told you mustn't fight it.

Later, Trollope gets even more explicit about the limitations placed on women. Nora, a young woman who has decided to marry a man of limited means, finds herself looking for a home to bridge the brief gap between when her parents are departing England for their colonial home and when her future husband will likely be able to welcome her into his. This causes no end of consternation, as one option after another turns out to be unworkable. Finally, in a discussion with her parents and sisters, Nora is fed up:
"If papa will allow me something ever so small, and will trust me, I will live alone in lodgings," said Nora.

"It is the maddest thing I ever heard," said Sir Marmaduke.

"Who would take care of you, Nora?" asked Lady Rowley.

"And who would walk about with you?" said Lucy.

"I don't see how it would be possible to live alone like that," said Sophie.

"Nobody would take care of me, and nobody would walk about with me, and I could live alone very well," said Nora. "I don't see why a young woman is to be supposed to be so absolutely helpless as all that comes to."
Nora's response is so simple, so sensible, that reading it today is almost painful. Of course she could do what she says--everything we know about her to that point has established her independence and strength. But . . . nice girls don't do that. They can't.

As much as anything else I've read in a long time, that scene sent me into the past, recent and distant both. I remember being 18, then 22, and the excitement that came with striking out on my own. And I remember the rush of freedom that came with realizing that I could pay my bills myself by working in a shop. Imagine knowing deep in your bones that you could do those things . . . and being bluntly forbidden. Then think on the vast, incalculable waste to intellectual, cultural, and economic life of a society that controls and relegates women like that. A century and a half on, from the viewpoint of our still imperfect society, it's staggering--and it's too Trollope's credit that he saw it, and built a novel around it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Trollope and the day job

The 930 pages of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right contain a lot of letters. It was a letter-writing culture, after all, and, given the option, what author who cares about plot wouldn't make as much use of the convenience of letters as possible?

With Trollope, though, we can always amuse ourselves by thinking that there might be more going on. Trollope, after all, spent years working for the post office. And in this novel, he tips the knowledgeable reader a quick wink:
Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which,--a most hateful thing to her,--stood almost close to her own front door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination. She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump,--as she called it,--out in the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post.
Trollope, famously, invented that hated pillar box.

T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, did Miss Stanbury one better--this story comes from The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, related by William Empson:
There was a party (I forget everybody else in the room) where Eliot broke into some chatter about a letter being misunderstood. "Ah, letters," he said, rather as if they were some rare kind of bird. "I had to look into the question of letters at one time. I found that the mistake . . . that most people make . . . about letters, is that after writing their letters, carefully they go out, and look for a pillar-box. I found that it is very much better, after giving one's attention to composing a letter, to . . . pop it into the fire." This kind of thing was a little unnerving, because one did not know how tragically it ought to be taken; it was clearly not to be taken as a flippancy.
Letters never sent would do fine for a novel, but I suspect Eliot's method is a bit too arid for actual life.

Friday, April 01, 2016

On Widmerpool and Ted Cruz

Those of you who are my Twitter friends may have already seen this--and at least some of it is rooted in writing I've done here already--but I thought it was nonetheless worth sharing a Twitter essay I embarked on the other night, prompted by New York Times columnist Russ Douthat's comparison of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz to Anthony Powell's character Kenneth Widmerpool. I'll be curious to hear what you folks think of the linkage.