Monday, February 29, 2016

London, fog, cities, winter's melancholy

I spent some time Sunday flipping through Cyril Connolly's journals, which offered up some nicely Twitter-length stray thoughts:
Idleness only a coarse name for my infinite capacity for living in the present.

Never has there existed so large a mass of floating appreciation willing to be mis-directed as to-day.

Told Noel I exist only to celebrate my sense of guilt.

What kind of cure is writing? Give me the disease any day.

Abroad at least I am interesting to myself, in London I wasn't even that.

To love life is to have the curiosity to search for the occasions when life is lovable—or rather the enterprise to create them. In London they are damn few.
It's those last two that bring me here tonight. Connolly had a grumpily schizophrenic relationship to London. To take but the most extreme example, here is a diary entry from 1928:
One cannot really love London. It is disappointing in every way. A foggy, dead-alive city, like a dying ant-heap.
A mere month later, however, the city's Cupid had struck again:
A wild month, intoxication of London as before.
{For more on this front, you can check out this old post.}

The reference to fog led me to pull down from my shelves a recent book that I'd only flipped through: Christine L. Corton's London Fog: The Biography. Sadly, Connolly doesn't make the index, but Corton does have some interesting observations about how writers of his period saw the fog:
In the Victorian era London fog had been linked to crime, immorality, transgression, and despair, but the association of fog with death in the minds of so many writers in the interwar years is notable.
You can see how both conceptions worked for their eras--the Victorians worried about the upheavals of urbanization and the constantly denied proximity of the desperate poor, while the interwar writers, even those young enough to have escaped service in World War I, were shadowed by its vast losses. One veteran, Corton writes, said that "walking through no-man's land was like walking through a fog." She quotes Henry Green, from Party-Going:
Humming, he likened what he saw to being dead and thought of himself as a ghost driving through streets of the living, this darkness or that veil between him and what he saw a difference between being alive and death.
Even now, however, long after the fog has been conquered (though the air of the Thames Valley remains noticeably lacking in freshness), London in the wrong season--in the drizzly heart of winter--can be a gloomy, dispiriting place. But is the problem peculiar to London, or is it a quality of cities in general, when we approach them at the wrong season of the calendar or the heart? Here's Connolly again, from his journal for 1928:
(1) Always to express your depression in appropriate surroundings--e. g. to avoid London whose gloom is squalid, and which, consequently, squalidifies and degrades the form of depression by introducing an element of despair and futility not proper to the natural melancholy of a historic sense linked by self-dramatisation with a love of beauty. In general, if the surroundings are depressing, feel depressed--the chief cure for depression, drink, is unreliable, it removes the symptoms without curing, it staunches a mood rather than heals it, a piece of premature midwifery instead of letting nature take its way--often too, it intensifies the gloom.

(2) The other cure, people, is equally unreliable. People with a greater vitality than one's own will jar, unless they are so well known that one is not ashamed to be dumb among them--or else so exhilarating to one's snobbery that one forgets everything else in the desire to shine (see drunkenness). People especially with sad voices, sex repressions, or little ambition are usually more depressing than soothing to a melancholy man--contrive instead to make surroundings suit your mood, when the melancholy vanishes as gently as a boil under a hot poultice.
Here at the Leap Day whimper-end of winter, what are cities but people and squalor? A month from now, when grass is peeking green and trees are budding, the city--London, Chicago, New York, wherever--will seem a wonderful place, Dr. Johnson's own patented cure for melancholy. But today, even the even-keeled among us could be forgiven for feeling a bit of the undertow Connolly describes so well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2666 on stage

Roberto Bolaño's posthumously published novel 2666 is more than 900 pages long, and it's broken up into five individual books that are only tangentially interrelated. In a sense, each of the five books is a standalone novel, though some characters—and, more importantly, many themes—recur. And, like nearly all Bolaño's works, it adamantly refuses to resolve neatly, either at the level of the individual book or as a complete novel. When I reviewed it for the Seminary Coop bookstore back in 2008, I wrote,
We close the book wrung out, strained, confused. And what are we left with? What, after all, is this novel? On the one hand it is, as I’ve described above, an investigation of violence, and specifically of male violence, bound up as it often is with another primal force, sex; it is about the hiding places we offer for savagery within our societies and ourselves, the veneer of civilization that only hides the horror because we are complicit in its deceit. And, like The Savage Detectives, it is about the tenuousness of human life—about how the only thing we can be sure of is that all those we love will some day disappear, and whether it’s into the wider world or into the void we may never even learn.
How could this giant, deliberately shaggy mess of a book possibly be staged? That was the question Robert Falls and Seth Bockley took upon themselves when the Goodman Theatre committed to making the attempt, and the result, playing now, is, if imperfect, nonetheless an astonishing piece of theater, one that does honor to the book and to the essence of Bolaño's bleak, horror-filled, yet powerfully vibrant vision. The staging is inventive, the performances remarkable, and the whole an unforgettable night of theater.

To squeeze 900 pages into even the five-and-a-half hours the play runs of course requires pruning and alteration, and much is lost. Some of the losses are simply a result of the shift in form: the most compelling of the novel's five books, "The Part About Amalfitano," which offers an excruciating close look at the mind of an academic and father who is slowly losing his sanity—and fighting tenaciously to hold onto it long enough to get his reckless teenage daughter to safety away from the violence of their hometown of Santa Teresa—can only be approximated onstage. Even remarkable performances by Henry Godinez as Amalfitano and Alejandra Escalante as his daughter can't overcome the fact that in shifting from prose to stage necessarily costs their story a level of intimacy and access.

Other losses are understandable, if nonetheless painful. The greatest of those for me was the removal of the more cryptic, hermetic aspect of Bolaño's story. The novel is full of references—to nightmares, shipwrecks, deserts, and, especially, to the unexplained mystical year of 2666 toward which all things seem in some vague way to be tending, perhaps catastrophically—that tie it in overt and oblique ways to the rest of Bolaño's oeuvre, and give the violence that suffuses the book a near-mythological, fatalistic tinge. Though the staging does a remarkable job of replicating that atmosphere of inescapable doom, I missed the more mystical element, such a fundamental part of Bolaño's obscure cosmography.

At the same time, the staging of the novel improves it in unexpected ways. The most straightforward comes with the third book, "The Part about Fate." It's the least successful in the novel, primarily, I suspect, because it deals with two things—crime fiction and African American culture—that are in themselves incredibly potent and distinctive, and Bolaño seems less sure-footed with both than he is, say, with tales of Mexican bohemians or the tropes of horror. But on stage, that book comes to life, told through a mix of film footage (some of it flat-out frightening) and live action. Whereas African American reporter-turned-unexpected-detective Oscar Fate never quite convinces on the page, when we see him portrayed on stage by Eric Lynch, we buy him completely. And from there, we begin to buy the framework of his obsessive, wayward investigation.

More impressive than that, however, was the way that the compression of the story for the stage—the fact that it's experienced in less than six hours rather than in the week or more of reading the novel—enabled me to see linkages and themes and recurrences that had previously passed me by. I thought I knew the novel well, but as I watched the play, I felt that, perhaps for the first time, I was beginning to understand how Bolaño intended the pieces to fit together, how he meant for his ideas to ripple through the whole, reflecting and amplifying one another as the contexts changed. And it was an effect that was enhanced by the standard theater technique of having actors double roles. Seeing the same face and body in a wholly different situation, acting and talking differently but confronting remarkably similar problems of human violence and death, in scene after scene had a powerful effect.

I can't imagine going into the show having not read the book. But for someone who has, and to whom Bolaño's work speaks, I can't imagine missing it. I came out of it, well, like I came out of the novel: wrung out, strained, confused. But also exhilarated, and incredibly glad people had been willing to take a dare this big, and that I'd been there to watch it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some half-formed thoughts on Virginia Wool on Lord Chesterfield and the eighteenth century

In 1927, Virginia Woolf wrote a short essay on Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. If you're not familiar with the letters, here's a thumbnail: they consist of a witty, elegantly conversational program of instruction in how to become a gentleman and be successful, largely through social graces and dissembling. Here, for example, is Chesterfield at his most amusingly detailed:
In your person you must be accurately clean; and your teeth,hands, and nails, should be superlatively so; a dirty mouth has real ill consequences to the owner, for it infallibly causes the decay, as well as the intolerable pain of the teeth, and it is very offensive to his acquaintance, for it will most inevitably stink. I insist, therefore, that you wash your teeth the first thing you do every morning, with a soft sponge and swarm water, for four or five minutes; and then wash your mouth five or six times. Mouton, whom I desire you will send for upon your arrival at Paris, will give you an opiate, and a liquor to be used sometimes. Nothing looks more ordinary, vulgar, and illiberal, than dirty hands, and ugly, uneven, and ragged nails: I do not suspect you of that shocking, awkward trick, of biting yours; but that is not enough: you must keep the ends of them smooth and clean, not tipped with black, as the ordinary people's always are. The ends of your nails should be small segments of circles, which, by a very little care in the cutting, they are very easily brought to; every time that you wipe your hands, rub the skin round your nails backward, that it may not grow up, and shorten your nails too much.
And here he is in a slightly more abstract mode:
There are people who indulge themselves in a sort of lying, which they reckon innocent, and which in one sense is so; for it hurts nobody but themselves. This sort of lying is the spurious offspring of vanity, begotten upon folly: these people deal in the marvellous; they have seen some things that never existed; they have seen other things which they never really saw, though they did exist, only because they were thought worth seeing. Has anything remarkable been said or done in any place, or in any company, they immediately present and declare themselves eye or ear witnesses of it. They have done feats themselves, unattempted, or at least unperformed by others. They are always the heroes of their own fables; and think that they gain consideration, or at least present attention, by it. Whereas, in truth, all they get is ridicule and contempt, not without a good degree of distrust: for one must naturally conclude, that he who will tell any lie from idle vanity, will not scruple telling a greater for interest. Had I really seen anything so very extraordinary as to be almost incredible, I would keep it to myself, rather than by telling it give anybody room to doubt, for one minute, of my veracity.
Woolf's essay, like nearly all her essays on other writers, is generous, perceptive, and even, by the end, deeply empathetic as she imagines Lord Chesterfield's unexpressed disappointment that his son's career turned out noway so glittering as he'd foreseen. But what caught my attention particularly today was her early setting of the scene. I'll quote it at length because its internal development is so nicely linked, sentence by sentence:
When Lord Mahon edited the letters of Lord Chesterfield he thought it necessary to warn the intending reader that they are “by no means fitted for early or indiscriminate perusal”. Only “those people whose understandings are fixed and whose principles are matured” can, so his Lordship said, read them with impunity. But that was in 1845. And 1845 looks a little distant now. It seems to us now the age of enormous houses without any bathrooms. Men smoke in the kitchen after the cook has gone to bed. Albums lie upon drawing-room tables. The curtains are very thick and the women are very pure. But the eighteenth century also has undergone a change. To us in 1930 it looks less strange, less remote than those early Victorian years. Its civilisation seems more rational and more complete than the civilisation of Lord Mahon and his contemporaries. Then at any rate a small group of highly educated people lived up to their ideals. If the world was smaller it was also more compact; it knew its own mind; it had its own standards. Its poetry is affected by the same security. When we read the Rape of the Lock we seem to find ourselves in an age so settled and so circumscribed that masterpieces were possible. Then, we say to ourselves, a poet could address himself whole-heartedly to his task and keep his mind upon it, so that the little boxes on a lady’s dressing-table are fixed among the solid possessions of our imaginations. A game at cards or a summer’s boating party upon the Thames has power to suggest the same beauty and the same sense of things vanishing that we receive from poems aimed directly at our deepest emotions. And just as the poet could spend all his powers upon a pair of scissors and a lock of hair, so too, secure in his world and its values, the aristocrat could lay down precise laws for the education of his son. In that world also there was a certainty, a security that we are now without. What with one thing and another times have changed. We can now read Lord Chesterfield’s letters without blushing, or, if we do blush, we blush in the twentieth century at passages that caused Lord Mahon no discomfort whatever.
There's unquestionably some kicking against the Victorians—her parents' generation, still around and in the way—here, with which I can to some extent sympathize. When I view her preference for the eighteenth century in that context, I think I understand it better: we see our immediate predecessors' blind spots and hypocrisy up close and writ large, and—crucially—far more clearly than they do. Earlier ancestors, on the other hand . . . well, our relation to them is more gentle, less vexed. We see their failings at just enough distance that we forgive them; we wish they had known better, and we tell ourselves we somehow would have had we been in that position, but none of it presses against us and our own attempts to establish identity and correct the world with the same force that more recent generations' mistakes do.

What's particularly interesting in this passage today, however, isn't even so much the generational conflict (though the struggle between Bloomsbury and the lingering Victorians is never not interesting) as Woolf's statements of the present day's uncertainty. The eighteenth century was "settled and circumscribed." "Masterpieces were possible." "It knew its own mind; it had its own standards." There was security and certainty, "a security that we are now without."

Though I would be willing to grant that there may be a kernel of truth here—any era that produces epics and rediscovers the Greeks seems more likely to be solid than one marked by World War I—at the same time, that's not the impression I've ever had of the eighteenth century. Cyril Connolly called the first half of it "a transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness"; I think of it as an era of a slight, but important opening up, at least in the world of letters, with all the insecurity that would almost necessarily accompany it. Samuel Johnson is my touchstone here: a truly self-made man who found a place for himself in the burgeoning world of print, which demanded (and, at least to an extent, rewarded) a constant supply of new material. The picture you get of that world from Johnson's writings—and even from Boswell's own journal, as despite coming from money and position he approached life as if it were an act of creation and he needed to make his own way—is of a far from settled civilization. Johnson was certain of one thing, heaven, and he proclaimed with certainty on many others, but his own career and its restless inquiry suggest a complicated world that Woolf's description of a self-satisfied, static era doesn't really support.

At the same time, isn't it always the case that the present feels unsettled, usually in an unprecedented way? Don't we feel that now? The golden age was never so golden as we remember; in fact, there was never a golden age at all. Yet knowing that never seems to make the ground beneath our feet feel any more solid.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Crane, and Christmas at Brede

There's so much I could share from Leon Edel's Henry James: A Life--and in fact, if you follow me on Twitter, you'll find plenty gleaned from it over the past ten days--but today I'll stick to two bits. The first is brief: a parody by Virginia Woolf of Henry James in conversation:
My dear Virginia, they tell me, they tell me, they tell me, that you--as indeed being your father's daughter, your grandfather's grandchild, the descendant, descendant of a century--of a century--of quill pen and ink, ink, in pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me ahmmmm, that you, that you, that you write in short.
Wonderful, isn't it? As my Twitter friend Marly Youmans points out, however, it would be interesting to see a similar parody by James of Woolf's conversation. Though we know her lively personal voice from her letters, journals, and even her essays, I don't have a great sense of what she was like in conversation, to say nothing of what her conversation with this representative of an older generation, a friend of her parents, would be like.

The second story is more extended, a tale of amateur theatricals and drafty, possibly haunted manors. It occurs in December of 1899, when Stephen Crane, deep into the process of dying of tuberculosis, had recently moved to Brede House with his paramour, Cora Taylor. The move was not a good idea:
At Brede, Crane too sat daily in the tower, trying to write tales in order to provide money for the improvident Cora. James was fascinated--and pained--by the spectacle of the Cranes. They were living out his tales--about old english houses in need of repair let to Americans; about ambitious American women with a "past"; about talented writers struggling to do the successful thing in order to dress their wives and pay for food and rent. The situation at Brede had also a touch of the eerie, as in James's ghostly tales. There was a legend that Brede had an ogre, a consumer of children; he had ultimately been done to death with a wooden saw. There were said to be underground passages which served generations of smugglers. But aside from its ghosts, its drafts, its creaking boards, its tree-consuming fireplaces, Brede was clearly the last place in the world for a malaria-ridden consumptive to spend a cold damp English winter. Wells remembered Crane as "profoundly weary and ill." Cora Crane did not notice--what everyone else saw--that he was destined to be very soon one of the ghostliest of Brede's ghosts.
That passage is worth sharing for its details (the ogre! secret passages!), but also for the sense it gives of Edel's approach to that sort of detail, and his ability to weave it into effective, even novelistic prose. I can imagine a less confident biographer hovering over that last line, considering removing the reference to ghosts; it stayed, and it makes the paragraph.

From there, Edel shares the story of the near-disastrous theatricals:
H. G. Wells has told the story of the great Christmas-week party Cora organized to welcome the year 1900. The guests were asked to bring their own bedding. There were few furnished bedrooms in Brede House and Cora created a dormitory for the ladies and another for the men. There was an acute shortage of toilets. Crane tried to organize American-style poker games which his English guests did not take seriously. On Christmas Eve a play was given in the local school house written in part by Crane, who asked James, Conrad, Wells, Gissing, and others to add a few words to the script, making it the most "authored" play of the century. It was about the Brede ghost--the child-eating ogre who was sawed in half. . . . The party had a painful finale at just about the hour when Henry James, in nearby Lamb House, was invoking the "gruesome" year of 1900 in his letter to Rhoda Broughton. [Ed.: "This dreadful gruesome new year, so monstrously numbered."] Eight miles away Cora was waking up Wells. Crane had just had a lung hemorrhage. Wells's final memory of the party was a ride into the drizzle at dawn on a bicycle in search of a doctor.
In his recent biography of Crane, Paul Sorrentino offers a bit more detail about the play and the party:
The principal, and only, performance of the play--titled The Ghost--took place [in the Brede schoolhouse] on December 28. Newspaper reviews suggesting it was an original musical comedy written by distinguished authors prompted Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a leading actor-manager in English theater, to inquire whether it might be performed after A Midsummer Night's Dream at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. [A. E. W.] Mason quickly told him no.

On the evening of December 29, a three-day celebration climaxed with a gala ball replete with elegant waltzes, a "quadrille of the Lancers," a country barn dance, and a game devised by H. G. Wells that consisted of racing on broomsticks. The guests reveled late every night throughout their stay, then would feast the next morning on a brunch of bacon, eggs, sweet potatoes, and beer. The weather, unfortunately, was not cooperative. Snow, severe thunderstorms, and icy roads prevented many local residents from seeing The Ghost and made travel to Brede Place hazardous. The omnibus transporting guests often got stuck in the mud, forcing them to get out and push. Crane himself seemed out of sorts. When he tried to teach some of the men poker, they chatted idly instead of paying close attention to the rules. "In any decent saloon in America," he complained, "you'd be shot for talking like that at poker." Abruptly he left, sulking. During the ball, he sat silently in a corner of the huge fireplace in the hall, bewildered by the frenetic pace of his life. He knew he was dying. After everyone had gone to bed, he tried unsuccessfully to hide from Cora the fact that he had just had a severe lung hemorrhage. Distraught, she awakened Wells, who, having once been diagnosed with tuberculosis, understood the gravity of the situation and cycled seven miles in freezing rain to bring the local physician, Dr. Ernest B. Skinner.
What I'm not entirely clear on is how much sense the other guests had of Crane's condition. Surely at least those who were close to him knew he was tubercular, but did they realize more than Cora how far along he was? Either way, it's hard to escape a Masque of the Red Death sort of feel when you read about the party. Crane would be dead before six months were out.

And so is James, again, now that I've turned the last page and closed Edel's book. In a world where Colm Toibin has so brilliantly, empathetically imagined James's inner life, Edel's biography feels perhaps less revelatory than it should. The necessary opacity of the honest biographer's art can't quite match up to a brilliantly rendered fictional account, so we leave Edel's book feeling we know James less well than we expected. That, however, is an unfair critique, and one that will fade with time as my memories of Edel's facts and Toibin's fiction quietly meld. Edel did achieve the remarkable: he helped us to know a man who let very few people know him, let us get close to a man who preferred to keep us at a pen's distance.