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.