Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Shhh! Alan Furst has a secret

For nearly twenty years, Alan Furst has been writing well-regarded espionage thrillers set in Europe in 1930s and 1940s. A few years ago, on the recommendation of a friend from Oxford University Press, I read one, The Polish Officer. It left me kind of flat. It wasn't bad—it just didn't ever quite engage me. But my regard for my friend's taste was such that when I was browsing recently in a used bookshop near my house, I picked up another one, The World at Night, and my faith was rewarded. It's a solid thriller, in a fully realized setting, managing to convey the frustration, anger, and sadness of France just after the start of the war without forcing the issue.
Furst's writing is good enough that he doesn't fall victim to that. Clunky sentences didn't stop me, and he didn't push too hard for emotional effect; the one fault he's guilty of is over-romanticizing his protagonist, Jean-Claude Casson, a film producer who stumbles into espionage. Casson is conflicted and uncertain, wondering, like all his friends, where the line falls between collaboration and merely attempting to get on with one's life under occupation. He's not a trained agent, and he makes mistakes. Yet he shares with James Bond the ability to always remain an idealized image of manliness—casually good-looking, well-dressed, irresistible to women. For example:

He ran in to the bathroom down the hall and stared into the mirror above the sink. Shit! Well, not much he could do about it now—his shirt was tired, his jacket unpressed. But he'd shaved carefully that morning—he always did—his hair simply looked vaguely arty when he avoided the barber, and his shoes had been good long ago and still were. It was, he thought, his good fortune to be one of those men who couldn't look seedy if he tried.

It's the bit about shaving that ruins it for me, the "he always did." It's too much. Let the guy just look lousy for once. It's the early days of World War II, for god's sake.

But that minor sin is more than balanced by Furst's ability to conjure up a believable wartime atmosphere, a complex plot, and real tension. Both this book and The Polish Officer successfully give the sense of wheels within wheels, layers of secrecy and knowledge that extend, and overlap, the circumscribed world and actions of Furst's protagonists. When Casson happens across an Englishman on a train platform in Spain who's surprisingly helpful, we're left to wonder whether the man was an agent of some sort—and we never learn. Much is left unknown. Characters enter and disappear. Maybe some die; maybe some are double agents. Furst resists the temptation to reveal, to tie things up neatly.

That's a part of what's best in the books, the sense that while the events of the book were, as they happened, matters of life and death to the characters, they might not have actually accomplished anything—probably didn't, to be honest. The war will go on, and more people will die, in public and in secret. People are small and insignificant when nations go about mass killing. But the characters continue risking their lives, much like believers continue to pray without demonstrable results, because to do otherwise ultimately becomes unthinkable.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

For Thanksgiving

The title essay in Edmund Morgan's collection of (mostly) writings from the New York Review of Books, The Genuine Article, is about George Washington. Morgan, like many, has clearly grappled with Washington for a lifetime, yet he still admits to uncertainties about what it was that gave Washington the aura of greatness that nearly all his contemporaries attested to. In a period of eloquent writers and inventive, brilliant thinkers, he was neither. As a general, he lost nearly every battle he commanded. As president, he provoked serious opposition and left as his primary legacy his refusal to seek a third term.

Yet it seems that few who look into his life come away unimpressed. The most perceptive and interesting bit of "The Genuine Article" presents a convincing semi-explanation of Washington's appeal

Washington seems to have been born with a thirst for public respect of a special kind. He wanted nothing more than honor, and he had identified its ingredients so clearly that he knew he would miss getting it if he showed himself wanting it as badly as he did. He wished to be honored by deserving it. If his neighbors placed a high value on graceful ballroom dancing or fine horsemanship, he wanted not simply to have the reputation but to be the most greaceful dancer and the finest horseman. If they honored physical courage, he would give them courage, leading Virginia's militia against the French when he was only twenty-two. In the contest with England, he found the larger cause he needed to gain larger honor and deliberately placed himself in a position to win it by command of the Continental Army. In the end, his own successful quest won him the prestige to honor the cause that had honored him. . . . Washington continually sought to make nature imitate art, to make his life conform to the perfection of character and conduct that was his ideal.

Take a moment and compare that approach to that of our current president. Do you think the 18th-century Karl Rove, powdered wig and all, would have suggested that he step down voluntarily after two terms?

Morgan's whole book is interesting and worth reading, a here-and-there tour through early American history, a type of book I find particularly pleasant, wherein a smart author reads through all sorts of very specialized books and picks out the best parts on our behalf.

Have a good Thanksgiving. Don't forget to thank Tisquantum!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dr. Johnson

At work recently, I temporarily mixed up Dr. Johnson and Ben Jonson. (Ben Jonson: 17th-century dramatist, rival of Shakespeare, poet; Dr. Johnson: 18th-century lexicographcr, writer, poet, crafter of bons mots (“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," for example.)) That led me to wondering a little about how Johnson went about making his Dictionary, which led me to a new book from FSG, by Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary.

In under 300 pages, Hitchings manages to present a brief biography of Johnson and a detailed look at his Dictionary and its creation. Hitchings is an engaging writer, and he has spent enough time with the Dictionary and with Johnson that he is able to bring both the man and the book to life. Hitchings’s greatest strength, however, is his ability to understand--and balance--both what the reader needs to know to understand the topic and what he will flat-out enjoy learning, regardless of need.

For example, in explaining the many deficiencies of the several English dictionaries that preceded Johnson’s, he explains

The best work of this period was An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, compiled by Nathan Bailey, a schoolmaster from Stepney. First published in 1721, Bailey’s dictionary went through thirty editions over the next eighty-one years. It was more useful and wide-ranging than its predecessors, but its definitions were often poor: “cat” was defined as “a creature well known,” “to get” was defined simply as “to obtain,” “cool” meant “cooling or cold,” “black” was “a colour,” “strawberry” “a well-known fruit,” and “to wash” meant “to cleanse by washing,” (though “washing” was not defined).

The book is sprinkled with such examples--many from Johnson’s own definitions, for in the course of his Herculean task, he did sometimes come up short. Hitchings covers such omissions, mistakes, and useless recursions (“A ‘poet’ is in essence ‘a writer of poems’; a ‘poem’ is before all else ‘the work of a poet.’”) Most entertaining--and most interesting--for me are the words Johnson defines while admitting he is unclear or uncertain about their meanings.

Commonly judged a dictator--a colossus of authority--he is here, we can see, a more tentative creature. “To swelt” is “to puff in sweat, if that be the meaning.”. . . “To clink,” he informs us, “seems in Spenser to have some unusual sense”; we are provided with the relevant passage so we can work it out for ourselves. Having included the unusual word “urim,” which occurs in Book VI of Paradise Lost, he defers to the authority of Milton’s editor Thomas Newton: “Urim and thummim were something in Aaron’s breastplate; but what, critics and commentators are by no means agreed.” The verb “to worm” means “to deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.” Even more puzzling was “trolmydames,”a word which Shakespeare put in the mouth of the meddlesome pickpocket Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. The defeated lexicographer confesses simply, “Of this word I know not the meaning.”

I’ve emphasized the failures here, primarily because I find them so entertaining, but also because they are a vivid reminder of the true novelty of Johnson’s approach: he was inventing the rules of lexicography as he went along. His dictionary was both the most comprehensive and the most systematic to have been published; he settled on a method, culling words--and supporting quotations--from all the best writers in all fields, and he followed it through. Yet today, the result appears remarkably haphazard--especially to someone like me, obsessed by system and consistency. Certain words appear in definitions but not as headwords, despite Johnson’s having grasped the principle that every word used to define must also itself be defined. Many words that, according to Hitchings, were in fairly common use (for example, athlete, port wine, and nemesis) do not appear at all, while Johnson makes space for words that were (and are) extremely obscure, from scientific terms (ophiophagous, brontology) to Shakespearean insults (jolthead, garlickeater). Some terms have multiple supporting quotations and lengthy etymologies, and some have almost no support. Words are spelled differently as headwords and as components of definitions.

But such lapses are mainly of interest as reminders of the limitations within which Johnson was working--they barely lessen his achievement. Working almost entirely on his own, fighting melancholy and ill health, Johnson composed a dictionary defining nearly 43,000 words, many of which definitions were adopted by the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century later. By the end of Defining the World, the immensity of Johnson’s achievement is clear, and it’s hard not to become one more in the extremely long line of the Doctor’s admirers.

I’ll end with one last word, “tarantula,” and Hitchings’s explanation of Johnson’s definition. It, as well as anything, serves to set Johnson in his own time—and remind us of how impressive it is that, all these years later, we’re still using an English that Johnson would understand, and we’re still talking and reading about his Dictionary.

Johnson tells us that a tarantula “is an insect whose bite is only cured by music.” This curious belief is recorded by Samuel Pepys among others, and had recently been confirmed by a Neapolitan violinsis, who had described in the Gentleman’s Magazine his success in curing a man who had been bitten under the lip of his ear. Johnson, with a touch of self-mockery, quotes Locke: “He that uses the word tarantula, without having any idea of what it stands for, means nothing at all by it.”

Maybe this winter I’ll read Boswell. Oh, and for those who want more Johnson, but don’t want to tackle Rasselas or Boswell’s Life, David R. Godine has a great little book book of Johnson bits, A Johnson Sampler

PS This book is much, much better and more interesting than Simon Winchester's surprisingly popular (and surprisingly poorly written) book about the making of the OED, The Professor and the Madman. Not that books about dictionaries are directly substitutable goods, but if you're picking one . . .

Personal growth

I am taking it as a good sign that, although my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary was brought out not once, but twice, at a party at the Rocketship Saturday night, I was not responsible either time.

Neither was I the person who started talking about Jesus at 2:15 a.m.

Maybe this blog is doing me good already!

I did learn that the Shorter defines "Shuddup": Be Quiet! Shut Up! (Yes, the exclamation points are in the definition. Really!) Bob suggested that the definition should include "usually with 'Aw'", but I pointed out that that would be more appropriate for "Shaddup." Sadly, while the Shorter does define "Shaddup," it fails to note it association with "Aw." I suppose for that, I might have to consult the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang--if it ever gets to "S", that is.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What I'm up to here

I’ve been thinking for a good while about starting a new blog, which will probably come as no surprise to people who know me. While I was sure I would enjoy writing one, I didn’t for a time for a couple of reasons. First of all, a diary blog wouldn’t really suit me because, well, nothing very exciting ever happens to me. Which is how I like it. But it seemed that all other possible topics that I might be interested in writing about on a blog were already being written about by people who are much better at it--and more dedicated--than I would be.

In that regard, the Internet reminds me a little of the first weeks of undergraduate life: if you learn nothing else from it, you should learn that for every topic, there are a lot of people who know more than you do, have thought more about it, and who write better about it. Clearly, that shouldn’t stop you from trying to join their ranks, if there’s a topic that sufficiently exercises your passions. Everyone starts from ignorance.

That’s not really my style, either, though. I’m an intellectual dilettante at heart. Part of that is due to laziness—one look at harried graduate students when I was working in a scholarly bookstore was all I needed to convince me that grad school wasn’t for me. But just as much of my dilettantism is due to there being just too much that I’m interested in for me to be able to settle on one topic. Husain Haddaway, in the introduction to his second volume of translations from the Arabian Nights, says, in explaining why he couldn’t comply with the wishes of many readers and translate the whole corpus of tales, “There are other fair creatures in the world.” The thought of concentrating on one author, period, or even area of knowledge to the point where I could consider myself an expert is a deflating, depressing thought. My nature is much more suited to dabbling here and there, learning little bits about many areas while relying for deeper knowledge on those who are single-minded—and dedicated and hard-working—enough to be scholars. Oh, and I'm lazy.

But I still wanted to write a blog. I liked the idea of a regular venue and a reason to work on my writing. I liked the idea of building even a tiny, single-digit community of readers to interact with, like what Jim and I have at our baseball blog. I liked the idea of being able to alert people to interesting pieces of writing or news or information I’d come across.

And that last thought was what decided me. I am known among my small circle of friends for having a bad habit of reading aloud at parties and dinners. I try not to do it much, and I try not to read lengthy passages, but someone will mention something that triggers a thought of a book I’ve been reading, and off I go. My friends are fairly tolerant of this ridiculous behavior--way more tolerant than they should be.

So in a sense, that’s what this blog will be: an attempt to put online all the things I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been reading lately, in an effort, in part, to keep me from being such a tool at parties. After all, one topic that no one—to my knowledge—is currently covering online is What Levi Is Reading Now. And the blog could also serve as a sort of disorganized commonplace book, which is something that only my terrible handwriting has kept me from keeping in the past, as it’s one of my favorite forms. (The one in the American Scholar each quarter is reason enough to subscribe to that journal.)

I envision this blog being a mix of semi-reviews of books (both fiction and non-fiction), interesting bits from those books (always falling under the doctrine of fair use, of course), and the occasional non-book item. I hope to post at least a couple of times a week, depending on what I’m reading, how interesting it is, and how much time I have. I hope you enjoy it.