Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Six months of reading

Last week marked six months since I started writing this blog. I've now written directly about forty-six books that I read in that time, and I've quoted from or referred to dozens of others that I thought about or dipped into. I've read five or six others that, for one reason or another, never made their way into the blog. To be honest, it doesn’t seem like that many books to have read in half a year, given how much of my time I spend in my chair in the sunroom.

Last week, on a work trip to New York, I got to visit a good friend I rarely see who writes about movies and is a publicist for independent films. We had a great conversation, but during it I had to confess that I don’t see nearly as many movies as I would like to. I read reviews, I think about seeing a couple of movies each month . . . and then they come and go, and I stay at home, reading. There’s just not enough time. My friend said he felt the same way about books.

I’ve felt the press of time, with varying degrees of intensity, ever since I left college. Some weeks, a forty-hour-a-week job is perfectly manageable: it supports me, but it leaves me enough time to read, see friends, cook, run, watch baseball. Other weeks, it seems an unacceptable imposition. But even in the good weeks there’s not really enough time. I think of this as the Living Arts problem, after the culture section of the New York Times. We can all agree that Living Arts doesn’t cover everything. It’s hit and miss, too trend-driven (and despite that, always a bit behind), and it takes notice of only a tiny portion of the art and culture being produced in America, let alone the rest of the world. But at base it’s a serious attempt to take stock of what’s worthwhile in our culture. And if a person limited himself, culturally, only to what was mentioned in its pages . . . he’d never be able to keep up. Music, movies, books, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture—it would be utterly impossible.

Another way to think about the problem came to me one day while reading The Onion’s AV Club. Now, I somehow knew that in certain hip-hop circles, people drink cough syrup for the lazy, cloudy buzz it gives. What I didn't know, but learned from the AV Club, is that there’s a whole subgenre of hip-hop, called "chopped and screwed," that caters to the stoned-on-cough-syrup crowd. Of course. Maybe it sounds a bit like super-slow dub? Presumably, before too long, the Living Arts section will casually drop references to chopped and screwed tracks. And the thing is, since I’m just as much of a genre slut with music as I am with books, if my friend Rory recommends a screw track, I’ll probably like it.

Good god, how do we operate in a world this full? How do we choose what to focus on? In my apology for starting this blog six months ago, I more or less explained that such abundance is one of the main reasons I could never be a proper scholar: there’s too much out there that I’m interested in for me to ever focus sufficiently on one topic. But even once I accept dilettantism, there’s still too much. I could—and probably will—spend whole months over the course of my life just reading War and Peace or A Dance to the Music of Time or watching The Rules of the Game or Yi Yi. Some works of art, like good friendships, are inexhaustible, deeper at each reacquaintance. Those would be months inarguably well spent.

But what am I not reading? What am I not seeing? I’ve already more or less written off whole areas of knowledge, accepting that I’ll never know more about them than I will have to in order to function effectively at work. Classical music, science, theatre, dance, and most visual arts, for example, I’ll probably never have more than a nodding acquaintance with. And most days that’s okay. But then I think of the few areas that I do tend to focus on—English lit, for example—and I see the holes that gape even there. I’ve never read The Faerie Queene. I’ve never read Tom Jones. The same for Pope, and most of Donne and Wordsworth. Much as I love Dr. Johnson, I’ve never read Boswell. And despite my fairly extensive acquaintance with twentieth-century English literature, I’ve never even cracked what many consider its crowning achievement (though I have trouble imagining myself ever joining that club), Ulysses. There’s just too much, way too much.

Yet most days that doesn’t bother me. So long as I have a couple of hours to read something interesting, I’m okay with the fact that I’ll only ever read a minuscule portion of the world’s offerings. I’ll enjoy what I do get to, and I’ll take recommendations from trusted sources seriously. I’ll keep thinking about what I read and drawing connections between it and other books and authors I know. There’s no other way. Accept limitations, love what I can get to, listen closely to people who tell me what to put on top of the stack. I can do that.

And I’ll keep writing this blog, at least for the foreseeable future. It takes time that I might otherwise spend reading, but writing about books makes me more careful, more attentive, a better reader. For six months, at least, it’s seemed worth the time to write. I hope it’s been worth your time, at least most days, to read. Thanks for joining me thus far.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Carrere's razor

Emmanuel Carrere’s unnerving novella The Mustache (1986) begins with a husband asking his wife:
What would you say if I shaved off my mustache?

She ignores him, knowing he’s not serious. On a whim, he goes ahead and shaves it, but his wife acts as if she sees nothing different. She then refuses to acknowledge that he has ever worn a mustache. His friends and coworkers, as well, seem to see nothing different about his clean-shaven face. He starts questioning himself. Are they putting him on? He did have a mustache, didn’t he?

Within less than a hundred pages, the missing mustache has led the man, step by unexpected step, to the point where he can’t be sure that anything in his life is what it seems. His wife disagrees with him about where they were two nights ago. She swears they didn’t vacation the previous year in Java; he’s sure they did. Is she putting him on for some nefarious reason? Is she losing it? Or is he?

Carrere, who recently published a biography of Philip K. Dick (under the magnificent title of I Am Alive and You Are Dead), is working in territory Dick mined for his Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a man reaches for a light pull in his closet, only to be confronted with a switch, the first misfire in a slow unraveling of his whole world. There are elements of Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), too, once true paranoia begins setting in. But whereas Time Out of Joint is ultimately a variety of sci-fi, and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte resolves itself as a gothic thriller, The Mustache is more interested in the questions such losses create. How reliable is memory? Can it even be said to exist if it’s not shared with anyone? Without corroboration, there’s simply never enough evidence to prove any memory:
One should always hold on to everything, never overlook the slightest bit of evidence. Like that animist tribe in the village where they’d bought the blanket. The tradition was disappearing, but they’d been told that once upon a time, the inhabitants fastidiously collected their fingernail clippings, their excrement, their hair—their facial and body hair as well—everything that was a part of them and that would allow them to enter the gates of paradise in one whole and unmutilated piece.

In the United States, The Mustache is packaged with another Carrere novel, Class Trip (1995), which deals with similar questions from the perspective of a young boy, in similarly creepy fashion. The boy in Class Trip is young and insecure enough to be constantly overwhelmed by his manifold fears of the unknown in everyday life, whereas the man in The Mustache has replaced those fears with the confidence, acquired by most capable adults, that he has the elements of his life under control. Carrere wants us to entertain, at least for a couple of hours, the unsettling possibility that the boy knows better than the man.

He succeeds, at least with me: the night after I read the first thirty pages of Class Trip, I had several very creepy dreams. Maybe I should only read Carrere in the morning, leaving the nightstand to The Bedside Book of Birds.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Useless Window

How to—
it must mean remove or open

Extract and yet signify,

Those lines appear in the middle of a poem sequence, “Vermilion,” from a new chapbook by my friend and coworker Carrie Olivia Adams, A Useless Window, and, as much as anything, they encapsulate the essence of her poetry. I imagine an object, held in the hand, its origin and purpose unclear—but the holder’s purpose, the need to understand and assign meaning, insistent and unflagging.

The poems are filled with such objects—the detritus of our lives, but seen from an angle, the light shading around them, adding an air of ineffability and mystery to their everydayness. Gifts are given, maybe received, boxes are wrapped with twine, letters are sent, unsent, go missing. Objects get wedged in couch cushions, roll under bureaus, forgotten, restless and fugitive like understanding itself. Paint chips, boxes, radiators, thread—all have their places, though the why and how of their being will remain forever uncertain, no matter how much we push to make them share our meanings. The best we can hope for, and what A Useless Window frequently, wonderfully provides, is
the brilliance of the moment
in which the invisible gleams
from the edges.

The poem that opens the book, “On Leaving: An Essay”(which is available in its entirety here), begins by attempting the impossible: to order, in outline form, the elements of a leaving. So we get what remains (the dust of the luna moth), what is taken (twine), what cannot be kept despite a desire to do so (an inverted tongue placed between pages of a dictionary, but, unlike a flower, unpreservable); and a complete absence representing that which we have forgotten. Our forgettings in this poem are the only elements that are truly lost, as even excisions and revisions are retained, accorded a page of their own at the closing. It’s a powerful poem, its spareness emphasizing its many strong images and ideas. “Hands ask what eyes can’t. They lead the leaving.”

Throughout the poems, moments of potential tranquility are disrupted by an insistent desire to communicate:
A pause.
I wanted to rise, believing
this was the moment in which you knew.
Instead, I looked up from my waiting,
toward you. Yet there wasn’t.
Not a movement.
Not an angle of light.
I kept pressing the look.

And for all that their imagery is sometimes oblique, not always transparent, these poems implore us to understand, to allow their meaning to bridge the seemingly insurmountable distance between independent beings. And the dangers of failure are clear:

are you hearing this?
The night sky dims:

We will lose our way
in these red chambers.

Our palms with the look of blood already.

That urgency carries through every aspect of the poetry. There is a sense of ground gone over and over, precision hunted relentlessly, lines honed in the knowledge that soon they will have to be turned loose, released like a bird from the hand. Control must be surrendered; the book must be sent out into the world:
If you could look at me
when my words find you;

If you could tell me
that they have arrived.

I think the most appropriate response to A Useless Window would be for me to leave it on the subway, or in a shadowy booth at a restaurant. Or I could pick an address from the phone book and mail it there, using old, forgotten stamps. Perhaps I should leave it anonymously in a rented room,
Tucked somewhere underneath the mattress, tight to the box springs.

I’d thus transform it into a mysterious relic, left for a stranger to find and interpret. The book deserves at least that much. But I am greedy about books, and I like this one a lot and will return to it, so it will stay in my house, among the ordinary things of life. Which Carrie clearly understands, for
The commonplace might be miraculous

and never enough.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Conan Doyle, Holmes, and copyright

Learning today from Google's front page that it was Conan Doyle's birthday reminded me to post these few, limited thoughts on copyright.

Mitch Cullin is lucky that he was able to work with a character from long ago, before recent changes to U.S. copyright law extended copyright almost indefinitely. No one could seriously dispute that Holmes is a deeply embedded element of our culture, but it's only the result of good timing that he's not recent enough to be fully protected by copyright law and thus unavailable to someone like Cullin, who is far more interested in what Holmes can bring him as a character than what Holmes can bring him as a property.

Yet, due to what I clearly see as congressional malfeasance (through kowtowing to the intellectual property lobby) other, similar characters will, under current law, more or less never become available for later creators to appropriate. Mickey Mouse, for all his . . . boringness . . . could possibly inspire artists working outside the aegis of Disney. But he won't be available. Odysseus, sure. Holden Caulfield, no. Is there sense in that, once Salinger's dead? The Supreme Court has more or less said that current law, though constitutional, is dumb. The U.S. Constitution provides Congress the power to:
promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
I'll be very surprised if anyone can mount a credible argument that copyright lasting well beyond the creator's lifetime is a real inducement to the progress of Science and useful Arts.

Though I know arguments can be adduced in favor of heirs sharing in the bounty created by their ancestors, and for creators having control over their properties, I'm far more easily swayed by the argument that we all, having as a society lavished more than a hundred years of attention on Holmes and Watson, have at least as much claim on them as a long-dead Conan Doyle. They have, regardlesss of Conan Doyle's wishes, become a common property; the fact that only the happenstance of copyright law enables us to use them is of no matter. Luke Skywalker should, within my lifetime, be equally available, though there's almost no chance he will be.

That said, this has pushed me to think more seriously about something I've long meant to do. As soon as I can figure out how to manage it within Blogspot—or as soon as I can figure out how to move this blog to a more congenial site—I'll begin producing this site under a Creative Commmons license. The decision is one of principle, not of effect; after all, no one is clamoring to reproduce my posts. But I agree fundamentally with what Lawrence Lessig and his compatriots are pushing with Creative Commonns, so I should join them. Soon I will.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sherlock Holmes

I’ve written before about the joy that Stacey and I take from Sherlock Holmes stories, which we read aloud to each other on road trips. Holmes and Watson are the perfect company for such trips, reliable and unchanging. Holmes will always be a bit showy and arrogant, sometimes downright rude, unwilling to bother with the niceties and incidental politeness of human interaction. Watson will be astonished and a bit slow, but loyal, brave, and more human than his calculating friend.

Mitch Cullin’s astonishing novel A Slight Trick of the Mind takes a real Holmes as its central character. Without ever betraying the Holmes we know, Cullin transforms him utterly, leaving us with a man much more interesting, complex, and sympathetic. It is 1947, and Holmes is 93 years old and living in retirement in rural Sussex, having outlived the small circle of people he cared about. He remains famous, due to Watson’s still-popular stories (and embellishments) of their cases, some of which make him uncomfortable through their reminders him of his youthful arrogance. Nowadays, his life is much quieter. He walks in his garden, supported by two canes, tends bees, and makes notes for a new edition of his textbook on detection.

Yet he knows his faculties are beginning to go, and, given that for Holmes, his knowledge has been his person, the realization that loss is inevitable suffuses him—and the book—with melancholy. He puts an unscientific, vain faith in the health-giving properties of a byproduct of honeybees, royal jelly (which echoes Conan Doyle’s embrace of spiritualism late in life), and he keeps thinking, analyzing, and working. But the thoughts are sometimes fugitive:
Once settled in his chair, he stared intently at the handwritten pages covering the desktop, each filled with a multitude of hastily conceived words, inked characters like a child’s scrawl, but just then the strands of his memory began unwinding, leaving him unsure of what those pages might actually pertain to. Soon the receding threads floated away, disappearing into the night like leaves whisked from the gutters, and for a spell, he remained staring at the pages, while not questioning or recalling or thinking anything.

He is old, and for the first time, he has become unsure. An unsure Holmes should be jarring; it is a testament to Cullin’s skill that, instead, Holmes, his doubts, and the melancholy they bring become utterly real. Loss pervades the book—through a trip to Japan, ruminations on beekeeping, and a rudimentary but satisfying recounting of an earlier case—and as Cullin visits and revisits images, ideas, and themes, we are left with a full and surprising portrait of someone we thought we already knew, someone who still notices every little detail but is no longer sure about the larger picture they add up to.

I have little patience for people who would use theory to reduce culture to an impersonal outgrowth of material or cultural conditions, and books like this one are a primary reason. Why did Cullin bring together the strands of thought that he’s chosen? Why Holmes? Why a trip to Hiroshima? Why beekeeping? Why lost fathers, questioning sons? Once Cullin hit upon the idea of a Holmes faced with the crippling loss of the very facts and logic that have enabled him to come to terms with the world, how and why did those other elements become part of the story? The choices are strikingly individual, but they cohere magnificently, the parts weaving into a whole that feels utterly organic, ultimately seeming less like a set of choices than a complete vision, fully realized. It serves as a reminder that art, even when taking up and reusing elements already present in the culture, is a deeply individual undertaking—yet if it’s successful, it communicates powerfully to others.

I fear that the presence of Holmes in A Slight Trick of the Mind will forever condemn this book to a lesser status, somewhere well above fanfiction, but well below that of literature. It deserves far better. Cullin is an extremely good and thoughtful writer, fashioning occasional sentences of epigrammatic precision, like this one:
In that moment, he doubted if there could be any mental state more relentlessly cruel than the desiring of real meaning from circumstances that lacked useful or definitive answers.

And the elegiac tone of the book, assisted by the restrained, descriptive, and patient prose, creates a true melancholy, far more penetrating and believable than the somewhat affected meanderings of W. G. Sebald, for example. Throughout my life, I’ll keep reading Conan Doyle’s stories of Holmes, but I will never be able to forget the Holmes that Cullin has shown me.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Marlowe and Millay

The way I ended up reading about Edna St. Vincent Millay is fairly typical of my reading habits. I was reading some bits of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, and that led me to thinking about Zelda Fitzgerald, so I went to my local bookstore looking for Nancy Milford’s acclaimed biography of her. It was out of stock, but I happened to see Savage Beauty and, since Millay had recently popped up in my mind while I was thinking about Christopher Marlowe, I picked it up.

And now I realize that “First Fig” wasn’t quite the right poem to refer to when writing about Marlowe. On leaving Cambridge, Marlowe most likely had the option of using his connections and degree to get himself a comfortable living in some country parish, performing his church duties and having plenty of time to write, as Swift and Sterne, among others, would later do. If, as David Riggs would have it, Marlowe’s refusal to pretend belief caused him to choose the rackety, uncertain life of the theatre instead, then the appropriate poem, really, would be “Second Fig”:
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Savage Beauty

The biography that started all my musing about life stories, Nancy Milford’s spectacular Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, is a dense, complex portrait of the most famous and successful poet of the Jazz Age, thickly woven of letters, diaries, poems, and news clippings. Though Millay’s sharp, ironic poems captured the tone of the early 20s, her fame was as much due to her role as a captivating, sexually adventurous woman who seemed to embody the most outrĂ© ideas of what young women, freed from convention, might be able to achieve. As such, she terrified and titillated in equal measure and became a celebrity, selling tens of thousands of books, writing hit plays, performing her work on national radio, and embarking on national speaking tours of an extent and success to rival those of Dickens. Along the way, she persistently—and willfully—refused to understand why her many lovers (including Edmund Wilson, doing his best emotionally fuddled Henry James impression) needed to fully possess and contain her.

By all accounts, Millay bewitched nearly everyone who met her. Rare is the person in Savage Beauty who fails to fall under her spell—and even those realize that everyone else around has succumbed. Photos show her to be striking and unconventionally pretty, but they don’t give much hint of the force she clearly radiated. However, even eighty years later her determination to take life on her own terms, consequences be damned, is both thrilling and unsettling. I can all too easily imagine being in Edmund Wilson’s position, or that of the putative lover to whom the speaker in this sonnet says
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Or the one who is told
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever

Savage Beauty, as so many biographies do, moves from excitement and passion and achievement to sadness and solitude. Nearly all of us live, it seems, not too long for life itself, but too long for biography, the drama of our lives mostly complete before the book can be. In Millay’s case, we follow her through ill health, addiction, and steadily decreasing poetic output, until, at fifty-eight, she falls down the stairs of her home to her death. It’s a sad and solitary end to a life and a work that, in the words of her lover Arthur Ficke,
made girls feel that passion was clean and beautiful. . . . She appeared at a moment when American youth had need of her. . . . [for] the lesson of beauty she taught them: for the revolt she expressed was not merely away from a stuffy prison and also toward an open window. . . . there was an unmistakable wind of pure dawning in what she did.

In her hand when she died was a notebook with a penciled draft of a poem. She’d circled three lines:
I will control myself, or go inside.
I will not flaw perfection with my grief.
Handsome, this day: no matter who has died.

Though her reputation took significant hits, especially from the Modernists, who found her work too personal, her poetry does survive. “First Fig” remains possibly the most-quoted lines of American poetry (vying only with “I, I took the road less traveled by (unless you count “You say tomay-to, I say tomah-to.”)) In his introduction to her Selected Poems in the Library of America’s American Poets Project, J. D. McClatchy mounts a convincing argument that, just as much of Millay’s initial fame came because she was a woman (Think of the effusions of a certain stratum of male rock critics over Liz Phair singing “blow job.”), much of the later critical reaction was due to plain old sexism. He quotes a contemporary review that, after reminding readers that “women live for love,” cited her for a “deficiency of masculinity.”

And while some of her poems are dated, and others are a bit flip, or too arch, many remain powerful and effective. Despite its ubiquity, I find “First Fig,” with its mix of bravado, irony, joy, and just a hint of weariness, completely effective. “Second Fig,” meanwhile, is downright cheeky:
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Several of her sonnets, meanwhile, are absolutely breathtaking in their ruthless honesty and force of feeling, harnessed by a careful, effective rhythm. I think my favorites are two of her earliest. One is this untitled sonnet of loss:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

And the other is “Bluebeard,” where she adapts a well-known story of female curiosity and male violence and makes it, while less horrifying than usual, much more haunting:

This door you might not open, and you did’
So enter now, and see for what slight thing
You are betrayed. . . . Here is no treasure hid,
No cauldron, no clear crystal mirroring
The sought-for Truth, no heads of women slain
For greed like yours, no writhings of distress;
But only what you see. . . . Look yet again:
An empty room, cobwebbed and comfortless.
Yet this alone out of my life I kept unto myself, lest any know me quite;
And you did so profane me when you crept
Unto the threshold of this room tonight
That I must never more behold your face.
This now is yours. I see another place.

But when I want to think of Millay and her poetry together—as, for better or worse, the poetry so often tempts us to do—I think of this couplet that closes one of her sonnets:
Pity that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.

The Millay that emerges from Savage Beauty understood all too clearly that her heart would never learn. Many people don’t ever even understand that much about human nature; fewer still leave us such a clear statement of the problem.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Life stories

I spent two days flying last week, and as I read Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2001), I remembered why I like to pack biographies when I travel. With nothing to distract me except the occasional, accidental sight of Martin Lawrence parading around in a dress on the screen above me, I can fully sink into the details of a life. Immersed for hours, uninterrupted by work or the need to listen for my L stop, I’m able to fully enter the subject’s world. Friends, relatives, acquaintances, peripheral as they may be, become firmly placed; I don’t have to consult the index to remind myself of who’s who. For a while, I nearly live the life I read.

I had already been thinking about completed lives, and what remains of a life. Even the quietest of us leaves a lot behind—stories, letters, legal records, collections—and a good biographer can fashion those elements into a coherent narrative of a whole person. Some biographies, like Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys (2002) (the best biography I’ve read), reveal a subject livelier, wiser, and more likable than we expected; others, like A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy (1986), lead us—and the author—from admiration to astonished disgust. Regardless, a person’s life is rebuilt, assembled from scattered pieces and presented anew, giving us here the perspective of a close friend, there that of a secret diary, and elsewhere that of history. An anecdote gives a glimpse of a moment in time, and someone forever gone is returned. It’s hard to imagine a greater honor.

But most of us are never the subject of biographies. Our letters remain unread by anyone but the recipient, our diaries (unless we put them on the Internet) gather dust, and our secrets, successes, and failures remain, as we would surely prefer, our own. What lingers after us are the stories people remember and retell, the stories they repeat to each other over the years, and maybe, if we’re lucky, pass down to their children and grandchildren. For the promise that such stories would live on, Achilles was willing to sacrifice his life. Few of us are as needy as Achilles; we don't have to sacrifice our lives. We just have to live them.

So I learn that Stacey’s grandmother, on discovering that a young Stacey had managed to climb onto the roof of the garage, admonished her, not to get down, but to wear shoes up there, because the roof was dirty. And that, when asked about the internment camps that she and other Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed to in the early years of World War II, she spoke not about the deprivation, but of the people she met there and the crafts they made. And that she darned Stacey's father's socks, and she turned his collars, so that he assumed for years that everyone practiced such economies.

Or I remember that I’ll have to tell my nephew about my Great-Grandpa Colonel, an auctioneer, born late in the nineteenth century, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, but who, living his whole life in Kansas, experienced a very different twentieth century. I've been told that once he bought a new shed at an auction and, knowing that Great-Grandma Inez would not agree that they needed a second shed, attempted to hide it by placing it behind the first shed. The ploy failed. When my father first met him, on an unbearably humid Kansas night in the late 1960s, Colonel offered him ice cream, then revealed a reach-down freezer holding a dozen different flavors. My father knew from that point that he and Colonel would get along just fine. And I remember that into his early nineties Colonel, an inattentive but enthusiastic driver, delivered meals-on-wheels to housebound old folks.

Then there was my Great-Grandmother Marie. Elegant, patrician, and a bit imperious, she never seemed quite certain about children, though she was always kind to us great-grandkids. Her daughter, my Great-Aunt Mary, had a labrador retriever named Gator, who had a pet rock that he carried in his mouth. He removed it only to eat, and if it somehow went missing, the whole household was enlisted in a careful search. Years of carrying the rock wore the teeth on the right side of Gator's mouth to nubs.

And thus we keep our past and its people with us. Near the end of Wendell Berry’s elegiac novel Jayber Crow (2000) Jayber, who, being younger than most of his friend and acquaintances, has outlived most of them, thinks

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

But the rest of us remain, and we speak of our friends.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

On monarchs, in spirit if not in fact

From William Hazlitt’s “On the Spirit of Monarchy,” published in The Liberal, 1823, collected in The Pleasure of Hating (2005)
We make kings of common men, and are proud of our own handy-work. We take a child from his birth, and we agree, when he grows up to be a man, to heap the highest honours of the state upon him, and to pay the most devoted homage to his will. Is there any thing in the person, “any mark, any likelihood,” to warrant this sovereign awe and dread? No: he may be little better than an idiot, little short of a madman, and yet he is no less qualified for king.

From an an interview the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag conducted with George W. Bush on May 7, 2006, Bush's response to the question, "What was the most wonderful moment in your terms of being President so far?"
The best moment was—you know, I've had a lot of great moments. I don't know, it's hard to characterize the great moments. They've all been busy moments, by the way. I would say the best moment was when I caught a seven-and-a-half pound large mouth bass on my lake. (Laughter.)

From William Hazlitt’s “On the Spirit of Monarchy”
There is a cant among court-sycophants of calling all those who are opposed to them “the rabble,” “fellows,” “miscreants,” &c. . . . Whatever is opposed to power, they think despicable; whatever suffers oppression, they think deserves it. They are ever ready to side with the strong, to insult and trample on the weak.

From the New York Times, December 20, 2005
Mr. Bush strongly hinted that the government was beginning a leak investigation into how the existence of the program was disclosed. It was first revealed in an article published on the New York Times Web site on Thursday night, though some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists had been omitted.

From William Hazlitt’s “On the Spirit of Monarchy”
The worthlessness of the object does not diminish but irritate the propensity to admire. It serves to pamper our imagination equally, and does not provoke our envy. All we want is to aggrandize our own vain-glory at second hand; and the less of real superiority or excellence there is in the person we fix upon as our proxy in this dramatic exhibition, the more easily can we change places with him, and fancy ourselves as good as he.

From Hardball, May 1, 2003, collected at
CHRIS MATTHEWS: The president there—look at this guy! We're watching him. He looks like he flew the plane. He only flew it as a passenger, but he's flown—

PAT CADDELL: He looks like a fighter pilot.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: He looks for real. What is it about the commander in chief role, the hat that he does wear, that makes him—I mean, he seems like—he didn't fight in a war, but he looks like he does.

From William Hazlitt’s “On the Spirit of Monarchy”
The more absurd the fiction, the louder was the noise made to hide it—the more mischievous its tendency, the more did it excite all the frenzy of the passions. . . . There was nothing so odious or contemptible but it found a sanctuary in the more odious and contemptible perversity of human nature. The barbarous Gods of antiquity reigned in contempt of their worshippers!

From USA Today, October 1, 2005
[Bush’s] sunny presentation of the situation in Iraq is part of a renewed push by the administration to win support for the war effort from an increasingly reluctant American public.

It conflicts with the news from Iraq and some assessments from top commanders.

From William Hazlitt’s “On the Spirit of Monarchy”
Really, that men born to a throne should employ the brief span of their existence here in doing all the mischief in their power, in levying cruel wars and undermining the liberties of the world, to prove to themselves and others that their pride and passions are of more consequence than the welfare of mankind at large, would seem a little astonishing, but that the fact is so.

From Time, May 1, 2006
Presidential advisers believe that by putting pressure on Iran, Bush may be able to rehabilitate himself on national security, a core strength that has been compromised by a discouraging outlook in Iraq. "In the face of the Iranian menace, the Democrats will lose," said a Republican frequently consulted by the White House. However, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll this April 8-11, found that 54% of respondents did not trust Bush to "make the right decision about whether we should go to war with Iran."

Witches, ghosts, and fear, part two

Part One is here.

Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black also concerns a young woman entering an unfamiliar world, though in this case, it’s a contemporary suburban London world of low-level psychics and fortune tellers—sensitives, as they call themselves. Fresh out of a broken marriage, Collette signs on as factotum and aide-de-camp to a female psychic named Al. She quickly meets a coterie of psychic professionals, who appear to be mostly well-meaning fakes. There aren't nearly enough novels about work, so I particularly enjoyed the psychics' detailed conversations about aspects of their jobs: Are crystals still in this year? Have you tried offering Reiki? They're believable and funny, and it’s fun to watch Collette attempt to bring sensible management principles to such an odd business. The scenes of Al in performance are fantastic, too, the best part of the book, conveying the intimate bond between fortune teller and audience that is created as Al attempts to satisfy both their ordinary curiosity and their deeper desire to better understand the world and their lives.

For Al, however, psychic readings are by no means just a business. She sees ghosts and hears voices from her youth, and while Mantel leaves it a bit unclear whether Al’s visions are manifestations of another world or aspects of some mental illness, they are both her entrĂ©e to the spirit world and a constant, psychically damaging burden, delivering a mix of revulsion and fear. Collette’s inability to see or hear the spirits strains what should be a close relationship and sows seeds of bitterness and resentment that Collette, because of her own uncertainty about her place in life, tends carefully.

In Mantel’s suburban London, like in Salem, uncertainty and fear seem general—Al’s not the only one suffering. In the midst of great prosperity and worldly success, everyone is tense. The neighbors are worried about disease, environmental contamination, global warming, asylum seekers, hooligans, and unattached teens,
like those kids you see on sink estates hanging about parked cars—you don’t know if they’re going to break in and drive them away or just slash the tyres and scratch the paintwork. But why find out? Just don’t go there!

But really, it’s a non-specific, free-floating fear and worry, a way of dealing with the emptiness of contemporary suburban life, which Mantel paints perfectly:
She saw the full moon snared in the netting of a football field, caught there bulging, its face bruised. When a traffic snarl-up brought them to a halt, she noticed the trudging shopper with her grocery bags, leaning into the wind. She noticed the rotted wood of a balcony, London brick weeping soot, winter mould on a stack of garden chairs. A curve in the road, a pause at traffic lights, brings you close to another life, to an office window where a man leans on a filing cabinet in a crumpled shirt, as close as some man you know; while a van backs into the road, you halt, you are detained, and the pause makes you intimate with a man stroking his bald head, framed in the lighted cavity of his garage beneath the up-and-over door.

As with the Puritans, there is a hint of danger in the spaces between people. Everyone is near, but separate, prevented from making meaningful connections. In their individual houses, in their own selves, everyone seems alone, trapped by their fears of the unfamiliar, the unknown, their pasts. Al may be stuck with her ghosts, but in Mantel’s eyes, we’re all just as entangled in our emotional histories, wrapped up in our own minds, without escape. Mantel plays with such dualities throughout, setting the fat Al alongside the thin Collette, the dark spirit world against the bland real world, the awful past against the frightening future, but at the same time, she highlights the slippage between categories, the world’s refusal to align neatly and be understood.

Ultimately, Beyond Black fails to fully deliver on the promise of its early chapters. Al’s emotional life and Collette’s response to it are interesting, but a bit too much of the book is given over to revelations of details of Al’s terrible childhood that were just as effective and menacing when vaguely recollected. Collette’s solution to her uncertainty seems simultaneously pat and unlikely, and, in service of an overall point about the comparative horrors of the unknown spirit world and the all-too-well-known real world, Mantel sacrifices much of the oddness and mystery that propel the book’s opening.

But I suppose the ultimate test of whether a book’s imperfections are outweighed by its successes is whether I’d read another by the author, and in that regard, Beyond Black was clearly a success. About two hours after I finished it, I was at my local bookshop buying Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. I’m sure you’ll read about it soon enough.

Witches, ghosts, and fear

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lois the Witch (1856) and Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005), which I happened to read back-to-back this week, make a good pair. Both are essentially books about fear and the ways we conceive of and attempt to deal with life’s uncertainties. And both come at those questions through the unseen and the supernatural.

Lois the Witch, originally published in Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round and republished a few years ago by the wonderful Hesperus Press, is a novella set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1691, right before the witch hysteria. From its opening pages, when Lois, a vivacious English girl, arrives to live with unwelcoming relations, we can see how the tragedy is going to unfold. Gaskell presents a Salem whose existence is somewhat precarious: the colony is estranged from English protection, surrounded by increasingly hostile Indians, and suffering through the hard New England winter. But the fear those dangers engender is unacknowledged, transformed instead into a formless fear of the unknown:
Sounds were heard that could not be accounted for; they were made by the evil spirits not yet vanished from the desert palaces of which they had so long held possession. Sights, inexplicable and mysterious, were dimly seen—Satan, in some shape, seeking whom he might devour. And at the beginning of the long winter season, such whispered tales, such old temptations and hauntings, and devilish terrors, were supposed to be peculiarly rife. Salem was, as it were, snowed up, and left to prey upon itself. The long dark evenings; the dimly lit rooms; the creaking passages, where heterogeneous articles were piled away, out of the reach of the keen-piercing frost, and where occasionally, in the dead of night, a sound was heard, as of some heavy falling body, when, next morning, everything appeared to be in its right place ; . . the white mist, coming nearer and nearer to the windows every evening in strange shapes, like phantoms—all these, and many other circumstances, such as the distant fall of mighty trees in the mysterious forests girdling them round; the faint whoop and cry of some Indian seeking his camp, and unwittingly nearer to the white man’s settlement than either he or they would have liked, could they have chosen.

Add in Puritan refusal to acknowledge desire or passion—to the point that people can’t even speak openly (“Hush! you know not who may be listening; you are putting yourself in [Satan’s] power.”)—and the end begins to seem inevitable.

Gaskell’s psychology is acute, her descriptions powerful, and her story convincing. In less than a hundred pages, she presents the horrors of Salem and, without reducing their complexity, offers an explanation. It’s quite an achievement, and thanks are due to Hesperus Press for making Lois the Witch readily available.

Since this is a long post, and it breaks fairly naturally, the rest will wait for tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Two for the Money

Hmm. Maybe the folks at Hard Case Crime heard my complaint about Witness to Myself, because they didn’t send me any in April. So they should know that I liked the other one they sent back in March, Max Allan Collins’s Two for the Money.

You may know Collins as the author of The Road to Perdition, the movie of which featured my friend Sandy Weisz as an extra. Two for the Money collects Collins’s first two novels, Bait Money (1981) and Blood Money (1983), Both feature as protagonist an honorable bank robber named Nolan. Collins explains in an afterword that he started writing the second novel the minute he heard the first had been accepted, figuring a sequel would be easy to sell, which was correct. He also explains that, though to him, Nolan never had a first name, an inventive copywriter at his first publisher, writing back cover copy, decided to call him Frank Nolan. I’ve written lots of copy with insufficient information, but making up a name for the lead character seems like going a bit far. That’s when you take five minutes and check with the author.

Bait Money and Blood Money are both solid crime novels, the first built around a bank heist in Iowa City, the second around the consequences of that heist. Collins does a particularly good job of depicting the Quad Cities and the remnants of hippie culture lingering there. The problem with them is one common to a lot of crime novels: it’s not completely clear why the protagonist is the one we’re rooting for. Oh, there’s no doubt he’s better than his Mafia opponents. When they’re not being untrustworthy or unduly violent, they’re being crass and opportunistic. Nolan, on the other hand, is not unduly violent, He’s extremely good at every aspect of his job, he cares about the safety of those working with him, and he appears to be a nice employer. He’s honorable so long as the people he’s dealing with are trustworthy, but he doesn’t take it to self-destructive extremes. He’s been doing this a long time, becoming a bit of a fogey, bordering on legend, along the way.

But beyond that, we have to just trust Collins that this guy, despite being a bank robber, is worth rooting for. I’m willing to do so—but knowing all the while that it’s not like following Philip Marlowe, whose primary concern is protecting the person he’s taken into his care, keeping his promises, and shifting the balance of this fallen universe just a tiny bit back towards the just. Nolan, on the other hand, may be good company, but he’s somewhat disreputable company.

It’s similar to Nolan’s characterization of his relationship with a comely young waitress he met at a restaurant . . . that he owned and managed:
However, he liked the feel of her in his lap, and before long Sherry was back on the carpet, but in a different sense, and out of her waitress uniform both temporarily and permanently. By that afternoon her name was listed on the payroll as “Social Consultant.” And so began a relationship that was clearly immoral, entirely corrupt, and wholly enjoyable.

Sure, I can ask more from a crime novel, but if once in a while all I get is something clearly immoral, entirely corrupt ,and wholly enjoyable, I won’t complain too much.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Coping with the Nazis

One of the greatest strengths of Richard J. Evans’s The Third Reich in Power is the detailed picture it presents of German society under Nazism. Evans is interested in whatever he can learn about how people felt, thought, and talked about life under the Nazis, whether they supported the regime or were, to whatever degree, disaffected.

One way Germans expressed dissent—or even simple dissatisfaction with the regime—was through humor, and Evans provides some good examples. The President of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, Adolf Ziegler, who organized the Degenerate Art exhibition at Hitler’s behest, was “a painter of classical nudes whose pedantic realism earned him the popular nickname of ‘Reich Master of Pubic Hair.’” Similarly, Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, whose high-handed manner helped scotch German hopes to keep the British out of the war, was known in London diplomatic circles as “Von Ribbensnob.”

Some other jokes that made the rounds in Germany during the early days of the Nazi crackdown on freedom of expression:

At the Belgian border crossing, huge numbers of rabbits appear one day and declare that they are political refugees. “The Gestapo want to arrest all giraffes as enemies of the state.” “But you’re not giraffes!” “We know that, but try explaining that to the Gestapo!”

In Switzerland a Nazi bigwig asks the purpose of a public building. “That’s our Ministry of Marine,” says the Swiss man. The Nazi laughs and mocks him. “You with your two or three ships, what do you need a Ministry of Marine for?” The Swiss man: “Yes—so what do you still need a Ministry of Justice in Germany for then?”

In the wintertime, two men are standing in the tram making strange movements with their hands under their coats. “Look at those two,” says one passenger to his fellow, “what are they up to?” “Ah, I know those two, they’re deaf-mutes, they’re telling political jokes to each other!”

But, as Evans notes,
The authorities themselves realized that humour was usually a way people found to live with the regime; it seldom indicated real opposition to it. . . . Those arrested for disrespectful humor were often released without charge if they had no previous convictions. Only where they had an oppositional record were matters taken further, often ending in a short spell in prison. What mattered in the end was the identity of the joker rather than the nature of the joke.

I suppose the Gestapo figured that people who were telling jokes weren't plotting revolution.

It’s good to be reminded that, around here, despite the totalitarian tendencies (and bad senses of humor) of some of our leaders, you don’t get arrested for telling sharp political jokes. You just get pouty looks.