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.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Journeying with Maqroll

The past week has seemed determined to demonstrate all the fickleness of Chicago spring weather: from a visually impressive but ultimately ineffective snowstorm Thursday night to bright sun and shirtsleeve weather this morning . . . which was overtaken midday by drizzly rains that, in a reverse of the cold rains of autumn, brought up from the pavements and easements not the smell of must and decay but of dirt in its richness. Chaucer was right:
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
I will be doing just that soon, heading off on an intercontinental voyage. And the combination of the unsettled weather and the impending trip sent me today to a book I'd long kept in reserve: the last novella by Alvaro Mutis relating the adventures of Maqroll the Gaviero. I've read 600 pages of stories about Maqroll, and I would gladly read 600, or even 6,000, more. Alas, all that is left unread is this final story, 100 pages of world-weary, fatalistic, foredoomed, yet beautiful, engaging, even magical travels. I've written about Maqroll before--if you've not read him, this post is probably the closest I've come to a good introduction. Here's how I put it on first reading Mutis's stories nearly eight years ago:
I have spent the weekend under Alvaro Mutis's spell. Some ingredients are familiar from other sources: the demimonde of the world's merchant marine; the shady, half-glimpsed characters in Conrad who gather around Marlowe as he tells another tale; the dirty dealings we'd discover if Signor Ferrari allowed us into the back room at the Blue Parrot; the ever-present ladies, lovely and dark, and their ever-present secrets; all washed with a stately imperturbability reminiscent of Borges. Other components are less familiar: inland seas and towns and rivers and wharves and estuaries that we will never see in reality, whose names-- festooned with diacritics and full of meaning for the multilingual--are redolent with mystery and, more important, distance. In Maqroll's desultory, disastrous adventures, Mutis offers us the drama of Indiana Jones and the splendor of the Arabian Nights--but tarnished by reality, screened through a personality and an odd semi-realism that translates the exoticism of those tales into the ennui of a world that is winding down.
Tonight's story, Triptych on Sea and Land, begins promisingly, with the narrator running into a friend who has recently run into Maqroll (whom he knew of from the narrator's books):
With the first glass of rum the conversation began to flow between these two old veterans of life's adventures and narrow escapes, and the ancient craft of human tenderness.
Maqroll starts to talk of the cats of Istanbul (which, as any visitor to that city can tell you, are one of its most distinctive features):
"The cats of Istanbul," explained the Gaviero, "possess absolute wisdom. They exercise complete control over the life of the city, but they are so prudent and secretive that the inhabitants are still not aware of the fact."
Maqroll tells of two cats he sees every time he arrives in Istanbul, who answer to the names he has given them:
It would take too long to enumerate all the hidden corners these two friends have revealed to me, but each is intimately related to the history of Byzantium. I can tell you some of them: the place where Andronicus Commnenus was tortured, where the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, fell dead; the house in which Empress Zoe was possessed by a Saxon who had been ordered to put out her eyes; the site where the monks of the Holy Trinity defined the doctrine that cannot be named and cut out one another's tongues so the secret would never be revealed; where Constantine Copronymus spent a night of penance for having harbored impure desires for his mother's body; where German mercenaries took the secret vow that bound them to their gods; the mooring of the first Venetian trireme that brought the algid plagues. And I could list many other places that shelter the hidden soul of the city and were shown to me by my two feline companions.
That passage hints at one of the essential pleasures of the Maqroll stories: the Gaviero and his companions tell their stories in such a way as to suggest that for every story we hear, there are countless more still to be told. Everything and every person in Mutis's world is worn and hard-traveled; each of those miles would offer up a story if only we had time to listen to them all.

I was thinking along those lines after reading the passage above, so I was pleased to find an echo of it later when I flipped to Francisco Goldman's introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Mutis's tales, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Goldman writes:
All of Alvaro's friends know that he speaks of Maqroll the Gaviero as of a living person, whom he sometimes has news of, sometimes not. "He accompanies me," Mutis told me last year, "but we are no longer side by side, but face to face. So Maqroll doesn't surprise me too much, but he does torment me and keep me company. He is more and more himself, and less my creation, because of course, as I write novels, I load him up with experiences of actions and places which I don't know but which he of course does. And so he has become a person with whom I must be cautious."
What better companion could I have for the final days before a long journey?