Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Travel books

When packing for a trip, before I’ve even started gathering clothing, I make a stack of books. Complex calculations follow. How many books am I likely to read in x days? By what factor does that number decrease for each niece or nephew on the trip? By how many books should I overestimate that number in case I rabidly dislike a book or two that I’ve brought? Is it worth bringing a recently purchased and much looked-forward-to hardcover despite it being significantly heavier and larger than paperback options?

The answer of course always turns out the same: too many. But I don’t mind. It’s better than the alternative, though my shoulders might disagree. Stacey laughs a little, I pack the books back home, and a few of them go on the stack for the next trip.

For the trip we just returned from, I carried nine books. And I read six, which doesn’t sound like a bad ratio to me—though one, John Grogan’s Marley and Me (2005), was brought (and pressed into my hands) by my mother, so I was really only five for nine. I spent much of the week reading Peter Guralnick’s recent biography of Sam Cooke, about which I hope to write a full post eventually.

But the other four? Hard Case Crime. Small, lightweight, and, now that I’ve ironed out the problems with my subscription, stacked six deep on my kitchen counter, they were the perfect traveling companions.

I started with Dominic Stansberry’s The Confession (2004), in which a forensic psychologist tells of a series of murders that may have been committed by a serial killer—and for which the psychologist himself is under increasing suspicion. Stansberry plays throughout with the reader’s trust in the narrator, even briefly reaching Ishiguro-level heights of uncertainty, in a scene where the psychologist breaks into the district attorney’s home in search of exculpatory evidence. Did the psychologist really find what he says he found? Did he even break in at all? At other points, Stansberry’s attempts to imprison the narrative so completely in the psyche of one character works less well, but he kept me off-balance and guessing most of the way, and the truly creepy end made the book well worth the read.

Next up was Day Keene’s Home Is the Sailor (1952), a very quick read and an excellent example of the average-Joe-in-over-his-head genre. A sailor who has forsworn the sea goes on a multi-day drunk, marries a beautiful, wealthy woman, and, to no reader’s surprise, finds himself involved in a murder. Keene writes sharply and efficiently, and he succeeds in one of the areas I view as essential to good crime writing: giving a good sense of the setting, which in this case is the San Diego area. In addition, he presents a scene in which a woman explains how her gender (with the help of bad luck) has more or less entrapped her in an unsatisfying marriage, locale, and life. Without overplaying the moment, Keene thus takes at least a small step towards balancing the gender scales in what is often tagged a misogynistic genre.

Misanthropy, rather than misogyny, animates Ken Bruen and Jason Starr’s spectacularly fun Bust (2006), which opens with a New York businessman hiring a hit man to knock off his wife. But the hit man isn’t really a hit man, and he’s dating the businessman’s mistress, so as you can imagine, things rapidly deteriorate. Soon, half a dozen or so people are involved in the murder plot and/or cover-up, all looking out exclusively for their own interests, but all more or less incompetent. Not a single person involved is sharp enough to think more than about a move and a half in advance—which Bruen and Starr use to great advantage, plotting tightly but maintaining the impression that the book really is being driven by the poor decision-making of the dopes involved. It’s quite an achievement. Meanwhile, their misanthropy is leavened by what seems to me to be a genuine affection for their characters, grotesque and despicable as they are. How could an author not enjoy the company of a character who freaks out far more about herpes than about being executed for murder? Bust is great (and horrible) fun. I wish I had it here to quote from, but I lent it to my dad, who reads far more mysteries than me, and who, by lending me Stephen King’s The Dakota Kid (2005), introduced me to this series.

The last crime novel I read on the trip, Madison Smartt Bell’s Straight Cut (1986), is a New York novel, too, set in the run-down early 80s city. The narrator, a film editor with a somewhat shady past, also travels to Rome, London, and Brussels, and each city is distinct and memorable, not just exotic window dressing. Bell writes excellent prose, striking a balance between noir spareness and world-weary reflection, and while the central relationship—a vexed male-male friendship—doesn’t come to life as completely as it should, the narrator himself is strong enough to carry the book. He knows his friend is entangling him in something dangerous, but he’s ambivalent about his life anyway (reading Kierkegaard will do that to you) and just curious enough to let himself get sucked in. Straight Cut is the best novel I’ve read in the series so far, atmospheric, and compelling. Bell is someone I had never read, despite the tremendous praise his books generate; liking Straight Cut may lead to me tackling his Haiti trilogy.

But now it’s time to pack books for another trip, this time to Portland. I’m taking two books on Spinoza, Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist, Phillip Caputo’s Acts of Faith . . . and two more Hard Case Crime novels, Allan Guthrie’s Kiss Her Goodbye and Richard Stark’s Lemons Never Lie. Surely that'll be sufficient. And if I should I run out, well, what better re-supply depot could I ask for than Powell's City of Books?

Between travel, work, and the holiday, I probably won’t post until after the 4th of July holiday. Don't set too many things on fire.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Well-designed books

From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (1977)
All these kindnesses were crowned with a dazzling consummation. I had said that my books, after the lost diary, were what I missed most. I ought to have known by now that mention of loss has only one result under this roof . . . What books? I had named them: when the time came for farewells, the Baron said: “We can’t do much about the others but here’s Horace for you.” He put a small duodecimo volume in my hand. It was the Odes and Epodes, beautifully printed on thin paper in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century, bound in hard green leather with gilt lettering. The leather on the spine had faded but the sides were as bright as grass after rain and the little book opened and shut as compactly as a Chinese casket. There were gold edges to the pages and a faded marker of scarlet silk slanted across the long S’s of the text and the charming engraved vignettes: cornucopias, lyres, pan-pipes, chaplets of olive and bay and myrtle. Small mezzotints showed the Forum and the Capitol and imaginary Sabine landscapes: Tibur, Lucretilis, the Bandusian spring, Soracte, Venusia.

When I was younger, and a Star Trek fan, I enjoyed that Kirk and (more believably), Picard were fans, in that distant future, of antique printed books. Even as a kid I knew what the writers were trying to convey. A well-designed book is more than the words it contains, and I too rarely note that in this blog about books. So, a moment to appreciate as objects some books I’ve read recently.

The passage that opened this post is from a book in the New York Review of Books classics series, which are smartly designed, hearty paperbacks, printed and bound to last. At the other end of the spectrum, but no less well-designed for their subject and audience, are the lurid, pulpy Hard Case Crime volumes, with their original cover paintings by R. B. Farrell and others. The Hesperus Press, too, has a memorable, effective series design, with French flaps, an elongated trim, and well-set type.

Then there are the tiny volumes of the Library of America’s American Poets Project, with their luxurious, creamy paper and their sandy-textured, matte-finish jackets, designed by Chip Kidd. Or Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them, designed by Darren Haggar, which wonderfully weaves photos into the narrative, which is itself set in the appropriately elegant Centaur MT. And along those lines, there’s the most extravagantly beautiful design I’ve seen the past few years, the three-volume, illustrated, slip-cased New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.

All of these books are instances of designers adapting art to the needs of commerce, and thus enabling commerce itself to be put to work passing on stories, disseminating knowledge, continuing an argument. It’s complex, difficult work, and its successes—the many, many books that are a joy to pick up, open, read, and lend to friends—are the reason our house will keep getting more and more crowded as the years go on.

Posting will be sporadic through the Fourth of July holiday, as work and travel and such things intervene.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in England in 1915, and in 1933 he set out to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople. More than forty years later, he wrote the first of a pair of books about his journey, A Time of Gifts (1977), recently reissued by the New York Review of Books. I'm not going to write much about it now, in part because I'm busy, and in part because Anthony Lane's article in the May 22nd New Yorker about Fermor, "An Englishman Abroad" is hard to top. It's not online yet, but it's worth seeking out the magazine for.

Instead, I'll just give you a couple of passages that convey some of Fermor's eye for detail, his pleasant nature, and the rich texture of his writing. Here he tells of one of his first days of walking, through a wintry Dutch landscape:
In less than an hour I was crunching steadily along the icy ruts of a dyke road and the outskirts of Rotterdam had already vanished in the falling snow. Lifted in the air and lined with willow trees, the road ran dead straight as far as the eye could see, but not so far as it would have in clear weather, for the escorting willows soon became ghost-like in either direction until they dissolved in the surrounding pallor. A wooden-clogged bicyclist would materialize in a peaked cap with circular black ear pads against frostbite, and sometimes his cigar would leave a floating drift from Java or Sumatra on the air long after the smoker had evaporated. I was pleased by my equipment. The rucksack sat with an easy balance, and the upturned collar of my second-hand greatcoat, fastened with a semi-detachable flap which I had just discovered, formed a snug tunnel; and with my old cord breeches, their strapping soft after long use and the grey puttees and the heavy clouted boots, I was impenetrably greaved and jambed and shod; no chink was left for the blast. I was soon thatched with snow and my ears began to tingle, but I was determined never to stoop to those terrible earpads.

He continues into Germany, meeting, and sharing the surprisingly free hospitality of, many people of all ages and social classes along the way. Though he sees the signs of the growing grip of fascism--signs which were much more fateful by the time of writing, forty years later, than they were when the eighteen-year-old Fermor was travelling--the Germans are overall extremely friendly, giving few signs of the horror that was already taking hold in their midst.

But then Fermor gets to a real beer hall in Munich. A brownshirt is vomiting on the stairs, and a room of S.A. men chant and slam beer steins on the table. It is the civilians, however, that he finds most grotesque:
One must travel east for a hundred and eighty miles from the Upper Rhine and seventy north from the Alpine watershed to form an idea of the transformation that beer, in collusion with almost nonstop eating—meals within meals dovetailing so closely during the hours of waking that there is hardly an interprandial moment—can wreak on the human frame. Intestine strife and the truceless clash of intake and digestion wrecks many German tempers, twists brows into scowls and breaks out in harsh words and deeds.

The trunks of those feasting burghers were as wide as casks. The spread of their buttocks over the oak benches was not far short of a year. They branched at the loins into thighs as thick as the torsos of ten-year-olds and arms on the same scale strained like bolsters at the confining serge. Chin and chest formed a single column, and each close-packed nape was creased with its three deceptive smiles. . . . The youngest of this group, resembling a matinee idol under some cruel spell, was the bulkiest. Under tumbling blond curls his china blue eyes protruded from cheeks that might have been blown up with a bicycle pump, and cherry lips laid bare the sort of teeth that make children squeal. . . . Hands like bundles of sausages flew nimbly, packing in forkload on forkload of ham, salami, frankfurter, krenwurst and blutwurst and stone tankards were lifted for long swallows of liquid which sprang out again instantaneously on cheek and brow. . . . They were followed by colossal joints of meat—unclassifiable helpings which, when they were picked clean, shone on the scoured chargers like calves’ pelvises or the bones of elephants.

The book is full of such carefully wrought descriptions, whether Fermor is telling about the people he meets, the landscape, or the architecture. And despite the above grotesquerie, Fermor does like and get on well with nearly everyone he meets. As he explains, when telling of friends from his pre-travel days in London,
They were very nice to me, because I was the youngest and because genuine rashness, linked with a kind of clownish exhibitionism, whose secret I had learnt long ago and sedulously cultivated, always won a dubious popularity. I was even forgiven, after diving into a lake at a ball, for only remembering when climbing out covered in slime and duckweed that my tails were borrowed.

Within ten years of Fermor's trip, the Europe he wandered had been largely destroyed by war. But through his ability, all those years later, to remember and relate it so clearly, he not only preserved it, he brought it back to life in the way that only great writing can do.

Now it's on to the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water. As Anthony Lane points out in "An Englishman Abroad," we're still waiting for the ninety-one-year-old Fermor to publish the third volume. I know he made it to Constantinople, but I certainly want to know much, much more about how.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Greene (and a little Waugh)

[Sorry--no links tonight because I'm going out of town and need to pack. And it's late and the Internets are being slow.]

Reading about the hapless foreign correspondent in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1937) made me decide to reread Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1956) for the first time in about ten years. Doing so highlighted the contrasts between the two men’s essentially dark visions. Both are troubled by the state of the world and deeply doubt human motivations and aspirations. It would be easy to point to their shared Catholicism as the cause, but Waugh, at least, was a pessimist before he converted, as Decline and Fall (1928) demonstrates.

Even if Catholicism were at the root of their similar outlook, it wouldn’t explain the utterly different lessons the men draw from their view of the world. Waugh, it seems, thinks the world’s failures so far beyond meager human powers to ameliorate that, really, one ought to just laugh. And drink. And hope not to die of a tropical disease. Nearly all of his characters are horrible (at least up until his post-war turn to the serious, which may be to his credit as a person, but was to his detriment as a writer), and therefore there is almost no hint of guilt or responsibility. That’s not to say he’s going to let us be horrid without pointing it out, but when everyone is making the world worse, it’s hard to blame any particular person.

Greene, on the other hand, presents a world similarly flawed—and probably just as unlikely to get better—but he suffuses it with guilt. We are responsible for the terrible conditions around us, but nearly everything we try to do makes things worse. Yet knowing that we are going to fail doesn’t absolve us of the duty to try, nor of the guilt of failing. There may ultimately be redemption through suffering, but it is uncertain and, at the very least, long-deferred.

Waugh and Greene are also two of the most distinct prose stylists in English, and Greene’s language is at its best in in The Quiet American. He makes wonderful use of the past tense, turning a generally unobtrusive convention into a tool for conveying inevitability, loss, and decline. The opening paragraph, as the narrator, Fowler, waits for Pyle, the “quiet American,” gives as good a sense of Greene’s technique in The Quiet American as anything:
After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat’ he had said, “I’ll be with you at latest by ten,” and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street. A lot of old women in black trousers squatted on the landing; it was February and I suppose too hot for them in bed. One trishaw driver pedaled slowly by towards the riverfront and I could see lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes. There was no sign of Pyle anywhere in the long street.

Even as we’re being told, everything’s already happened. It’s over. There’s nothing we can do. The American agent has gotten himself killed by a revolution he can’t even begin to understand.

The book’s structure feeds that hopeless tone by opening with Pyle’s death and slowly doling out information and incident until we are back where we started. But despite that air of inevitability, The Quiet American is a tense book; uncertainty and danger hover over even the quotidian details of life in war-torn Vietnam . It has its flaws, certainly—ranging from the underdevelopment of Fowler’s (and Pyle’s) girlfriend, Phuong to Greene’s seeming ambivalence about Fowler’s self-assigned guilt—but it’s as exciting and thought-provoking as any of Greene’s novels.

Most of the time these days when people write about The Quiet American, they write about its portrayal of American international meddling, usually to demonstrate that America has learned little in the intervening fifty years. And though such uses diminish the book, it’s hard to disagree with the argument. Pyle, in his murderous ideological blundering, could easily report to Rumsfeld, and Pyle’s ideological mentor , York Harding, could be replaced by Kenneth Pollack, Robert Kaplan, or any of a number of others.

But I think Greene goes slightly awry in his portrayal of Pyle’s actual, destructive innocence. Though Pyle has accepted that casualties are inevitable on the road to democracy, he still believes they are intentionally minimized and that there are things we and, by extension, anyone fighting for freedom with us, will not do. When confronted with civilians murdered by his ally, General Thé, he says,
“Thé wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists . . .”

I have trouble imagining anyone in Pyle’s position being quite so naïve—it’s hard to imagine Rumsfeld or Cheney caring enough to try to believe in their ally’s essential goodness. To that crew, if someone is on our side, their actions are, de facto, acceptable. And if they’re against us, god help them.

Though maybe Greene’s right—maybe in the mid-fifties a field operative like Pyle would have been that innocent. Or maybe the fifty intervening years of American foreign policy have made me more cynical about our intentions than even Greene was. Or maybe Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al. are simply that much worse.

Actually, that’s probably the answer. For five years running, it’s been your best bet in any question of incompetence or nastiness or corruption, or even evil. So they probably are that much worse. As Brad DeLong puts it, the Bush administration is worse than you imagine, even after you’ve taken into account that they’re worse than you imagined.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Waugh (and a little Wodehouse)

To properly appreciate Evelyn Waugh, it’s best not to read him too soon after reading Wodehouse. Otherwise, it’s impossible to fully enjoy a description like this one from Waugh’s Scoop (1937), which I read last week:
[The meal] was a great, white fish, cold and garnished; the children had rejected it with cries of distress; it lay on a charger of imitation silver; the two brown thumbs of the coloured steward lay just within the circle of mayonnaise, lozenges and roundels of coloured vegetables spread symmetrically about its glazed back. William looked. “It is very dangerous,” said the administrator. “In the tropics one easily contracts disease of the skin.”

If Wodehouse is fresh in my mind, I read those sentences and think they could be tighter, more rhythmic, more precise, and thereby funnier. No one has ever wrung more comedy out of the careful polishing of sentences than Wodehouse; for comedy, Waugh isn’t in his league.

But judged by a non-Wodehousian standard, the paragraph is sharp, funny, and effective. It conveys the horror the hard-luck central character sees looming ahead of him as, due to a case of mistaken identity, he sets out to cover a war in Africa. Waugh follows it up wonderfully twelve pages later—an interval just long enough for the fish to be forgotten by the reader—with a reaction on the part of the one journalist who did partake:
Corker began to wriggle his shoulders restlessly, to dive his hand into his bosom and scratch his chest, to roll up his sleeve and gaze fixedly at a forearm which was rapidly becoming mottled and inflamed.

It was the fish.

Waugh, of course, has merits that Wodehouse does not. Whereas Wodehouse aimed solely at laughter, Waugh was a satirist, turning his dislike—verging on hatred—of contemporary society into unsparing attacks on its manifold faults. He shares with fellow Catholic Graham Greene a sense of the fallen nature of the world, and at times his writing is so bleak that he’s hard to read even when he’s being funny, which is quite an accomplishment. (The ending of A Handful of Dust, for example, though perfectly in keeping with the tone of the book, is astonishing and horrifying.)

Scoop may be my favorite Waugh, because it manages to balance the elements that always vie for control in his stories—critique, satire, physical comedy, and eccentricity bordering on lunacy. On top of that, Scoop features a likeable main character in nature-writer-turned-accidental-war-correspondent William Boot. Most Waugh novels seem designed to make us, by their end, agree with the Old Testament God’s decision to open the floodgates, but William, through his incompetent efforts to return home, manages to generate sympathy not just for himself, but for all the weirdoes he encounters as well.

And, oh, there are a lot of them. Describing half-lunatics may be what Waugh is best at, and in Scoop he shines. Take the following exchange between William and Eriksen, a heretofore mild-mannered Swedish missionary:
“That absinthe is very dangerous. It was so I killed my grandfather.”

“You killed your grandfather, Erik?”

“Yes, did you not know? I thought it was well known. I was very young at the time and had taken a lot of sixty percent. It was with a chopper. . . . When I was very young I used often to be drunk. Now it is very seldom. Once or two time in the year. But always I do something I am very sorry for. I think perhaps I shall get drunk tonight,” he suggested, brightening.

“No Erik, not tonight.”

Weeks later, as Eriksen stands before a shattered bar, drinking the sixty percent from the jagged edge of a broken bottle, a colleague asks William,
“Your friend here—does he become more or less pugnacious with drink?”

“I believe, more.”

Then there’s William’s Uncle Theodore, greeting a guest:
Mr. Salter hobbled down the steps, clear of the porch, and saw framed in the ivy of a first-floor window, a ruddy, Hanoverian face and plump, bare torso. “Good evening,” he said politely.

“Good evening.” Uncle Theodore leaned out as far as he safely could and stared at Mr. Salter through a monocle. “From where you are standing,” he said, you might easily take me to be totally undraped. Let me hasten to assure you that such is not the case. Seemly black shrouds me from the waist down. No doubt you are the friend my nephew William is expecting.”

“Yes . . . I’ve been ringing the bell.”

“It sounded to me,” said Uncle Theodore severely, “as though you were hammering the door with a stick.”

“Yes, I was. You see . . .”

“You’ll be late for dinner, you know, if you stand out there kicking up a rumpus. And so shall I if I stay talking to you. We will meet again shortly in more conventional circumstances. For the moment—a riverderci.”

And, despite my opening this post with an unfavorable comparison to Wodehouse, toward the end of Scoop, I should say that with that scene, Waugh ventures directly into Wodehouse territory—the unhinged country house—and succeeds. He even handles the butler well:
“I regret to say, sir, that your luggage is not yet available. Three of the outside men are delving for it at the moment.”


“Assiduously, sir. It was inundated with slag at the time of the accident.”


“Yes sir, there has been a misadventure to the farm lorry that was conveying it from the station; we attribute it to the driver’s inexperience. He overturned the vehicle in the back drive.”

“Was he hurt?”

“Oh, yes, sir; gravely. Here is your room, sir.”

Assiduously. Now that's a word choice worthy of Wodehouse.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Conversation as combat

Simply by chance, I followed Stephen Miller’s Conversation with A House and Its Head (1938) the first novel I’ve read by Ivy Compton-Burnett , who wrote almost entirely in dialogue, telling stories of utterly self-involved, ethically bankrupt turn-of-the-century English families. Compton-Burnett is in her singular way a descendant of Jane Austen, brutally analyzing the gap between what is said and what is meant in polite society, baring the cruelty underlying banal pleasantries. But whereas in Austen there’s always some hope, and a heroine, Compton-Burnett’s world is utterly unredeemed. Power and self-interest trump all.

Anthony Powell, in an obituary appreciation in the Spectator in 1969, wrote:
She saw life in the relentless terms of Greek tragedy, its cruelties, ironies, hypocrisies—above all its passions—played out against a background of triviality and ennui.
Dead-on, but awfully bleak. So why read her? Well, she can be as perceptive as Jane Austen, more brutal than Evelyn Waugh, and, at times, as precise and funny as Wodehouse. For example, in this exchange, some friends are talking about the central family in A House and Its Head, the Edgeworths, which has just lost its matriarch:
“Ellen’s family! What a beautiful and intimate sound! That is how I shall think of them. I shall not feel it presumptuous, kept to the confines of my own mind.”

“It will be narrowly restricted,” agreed her brother.

Later, the widower’s daughter, speaking to the governess about her father’s grief, says:
“Well, I would rather be myself than him just now.”

“Why?” said Cassie.

“Cassie, you must know he was not kind enough to Mother. It does no good to pretend to forget.”

“I should have thought it would do a great deal of good.”

After the father remarries, the neighbors, who serve as an impressively uninformed Greek chorus, discuss the new bride:
”Did Mr. Edgeworth seem very attached?” said Miss Burtenshaw at the same moment.

“Yes,” said the men together.

“As much as to the first Mrs. Edgeworth? “


“How could you tell?” said Miss Burtenshaw.

“Well, you must know of ways, to ask the question,” said Oscar.

That’s more or less how the manner of the whole book. Line after line of cutting dialogue, veering from funny to horrifying to painful, the difference sometimes being as little as a change of a word or two. The dialogue—like the situations themselves—is too stylized to be realistic, yet it has a fractured quality that feels particularly modern, even contemporary. Characters mutter under their breath, interrupt, don’t listen, and talk over one another. With each exchange, even between supposed friends, points are scored—and kept. Barbara Pym, in a 1938 letter to her friend Robert Liddell, asked,
Does one ever make consciously Compton-Burnett remarks in situations where they would be most fruitful I wonder? I must have the courage to try someday.

Instead, she would go on to write some.

Only two of Compton-Burnett’s twenty novels are currently in print, with the New York Review of Books continuing its heroic publishing efforts by reissuing recently her Manservant and Maidservant (1947) and A House and Its Head. Not being part of any real school or fashion has probably played a part in her falling out of favor, as would not being known for any one particular book above others.

But I think the most important reason she is little read these days is that, as Arnold Bennett put it in reviewing her third novel, Brothers and Sisters (1929), she is “by no means easy to read.” Like Jane Austen (or Penelope Fitzgerald, who took after both Austen and Compton-Burnett), she demands that her readers pay very close attention or risk missing everything. Important shifts in emotion—and even key plot points—are conveyed only through dialogue, buried beneath exaggerated late-Victorian indirection.

Yet, as Arnold Bennett argued later in that same review, Brothers and Sisters was “original, strong and incontestably true to life.” Odd and claustrophobic as Compton-Burnett’s vicious, astringent world is, after twenty or thirty pages it comes to seem very real. I think Anthony Powell was right when he wrote, later in that same obituary,
My reason for thinking [the world of her novels] is not wholly extinct is partly on account of the vitality of the novels themselves—if people were ever like this, there must be people always like this; partly because one will suddenly be confronted—in a railway carriage, for example—with a great burst of overheard Compton-Burnett dialogue.

And, as Barbara Pym put it in another letter to Robert Liddell, two years later,
The influence of Miss Compton-Burnett is very powerful once it takes a hold, isn’t it? For a time there seems to be no point in writing any other way, indeed, there seems not to be any other way, but I have found that it passes (like so much in this life) and I have now got back to my own way, such as it is. But purified and strengthened, as after a rich spiritual experience, or a shattering love affair.

It’s worth picking up one of her novels and reading a few pages. You’ll know pretty quickly if she’s for you.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Conversation: A Declining Art?, Part Two

Part one, which is full of praise for the first two-thirds of the book, is here.

In the last third of Conversation: A Declining Art , Stephen Miller attempts to track what he perceives as the decline of conversation in twentieth-century America. He begins with a flat and fairly perfunctory consideration of the laconic hero in twentieth-century American literature and film. But while he points to Hemingway and John Wayne in order to demonstrate that the strong, silent type was the American ideal in this period, he ignores substantial contrary evidence, everything from screwball comedies to the golden age of radio to Dorothy Parker.

He uses evidence selectively like that throughout the closing chapters. The worst is when Miller attempts to blame the most recent downturn in the quality and place of conversation in American life on fifties and sixties counterculture. He considers Easy Rider at length, then spends more time than anyone ought to spend these days on Norman Mailer. His critique boils down to this: neither privileging visceral experience nor doing drugs makes for good conversation. That’s not news (Garry Wills, for one, manages a much more interesting and nuanced critique of those aspects of sixties youth culture, in passing, in Nixon Agonistes), and by using that as the crux of his argument Miller takes ignores the fact that the late sixties were also a time of contentious private and public discussions about how society should be structured. Serious conversations, in groups large and small, were central to that reconsideration.

Then we get pages and pages on possibly the most over-analyzed subject since Madonna, talk shows, and suddenly we’re back to “conversation avoidance mechanisms.” I’ll spare you the details; as I said before, anyone who willfully misrepresents the purpose of an iPod as a barrier to conversation has no authority to speak on the subject.

But once Miller gets to the present, the details are less important. The real reason his arguments about conversation’s decline fail is that he's writing about our era, and I think he’s flat-out wrong. I live in a world of great conversation. No, I don’t want to talk to strangers on planes, or on the L (though I'm a shameless eavesdropper), and I don’t spend time chatting with strangers in coffeehouses or bars. But within my circle of friends and family, conversation is the basis of our relationship. When my friends get together, we talk. We cook and talk, we eat dinner and talk, we have drinks and talk. We tell stories, discuss work and family life, talk politics. When we go to baseball games—or when we watch the playoffs at my house throughout October—we analyze the game, gossip about the players, and chat. Even when we watch a TV show, it’s frequently a group event, and we talk and talk about the show afterwards. I don’t think we’re that unusual.

One of my favorite adult memories is of a night in January of 2005 when my parents were in town and we invited half a dozen friends to dinner. Dinner turned into an hours-long conversation, running well past bedtime, about our perplexity over George Bush’s reelection. My parents brought a downstate, rural perspective; most of their neighbors had voted for Bush. My friends and I came at the question as residents of the city that had given Kerry his largest plurality. The conversation was impassioned, serious, and interesting. It was a real attempt, by all of us, to understand something we feared was inexplicable. I think we all experienced the exhilaration that Hazlitt describes following a good talk, “feelings lighter and more ethereal than I have at any other time.”

And, while there are plenty of times when I am an awkward conversationalist, I have friends whose conversational facility, with everyone and in every situation, regularly amazes me. This description by Hazlitt of his friend, painter James Northcote, could easily apply to my friend Becky:
He lends his ear to an observation as if you have brought him a piece of news and enters into it with as much avidity and earnestness as if it interested himself personally. . . . His thoughts bubble up and sparkle like heads on old wine. The fund of anecdote, the collection of curious particulars, is enough to set up any common retailer of jests that dines out every day; but these are not strung together like a row of galley-slaves, but are always introduced to illustrate some argument or bring out some fine distinction of character.
I greatly admire, deeply envy, and hopelessly aspire to her talents as a conversationalist. And I have many other friends like her.

Maybe Miller doesn’t have such friends. Maybe he’s stuck in an academic environment, where talk, as in the novels of Barbara Pym or Ivy Compton-Burnett, can be more combat than conversation. Maybe he is paying too much attention to young people and teenagers—as, it seems, do many cultural commentators—forgetting that, while they’re certainly different from us adults, they’ll also soon, as adults, be different from what they are now. They might turn out to be able to have good conversations, even with a curmudgeon like Miller.

I’m not saying the state of conversation in America is perfect, but just as the golden age was never that golden, the fallen present is certainly brighter than Miller makes it out to be. If he’s ever in town, I’ll gladly introduce him to people who, I hope, will make him see my side. I’ll gladly make the martinis and sit back and listen.

Conversation: A Declining Art?

In the Introduction to his Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller decries the rise of “conversation avoidance mechanisms,” by which he means such devices as iPods and video games. I picture his grandchildren rolling their eyes as he tells them, “Don’t bring any of those conversation avoidance mechanisms to my house!” Such an intentional, perverse misunderstanding of the reasons people use—and like—such devices served to make me skeptical of Miller’s credibility from the start, which is not how you want to start reading a book.

For more than two-thirds of its 300 pages, however, Conversation is great fun, a digressive, anecdotal history of the role of conversation in Western society. Miller begins in ancient times, with the Bible (which is nearly devoid of actual conversation), then the Greeks and, in particular, Plato’s Symposium, which tells of a drunken conversation after a dinner party gets out of hand: “There was noise everywhere, and all order was abandoned; everyone was forced to drink vast amounts of wine.” I’ve been to a fair number of parties like that, but none has produced any conversation as odd and fascinating as the one recorded in the Symposium. Socrates seems to be a necessary catalyst. As Miller says,
Socrates is an unsettling conversationalist. . . . Alcibiades describes his mixed feelings about Socrates: “Often I’ve felt I’d be glad to see him removed from the human race; but if this did happen, I know well I’d be much more upset. I just don’t know how to deal with this person.”
You simply never knew where a conversation with Socrates might end up. In that regard, Plato’s reconstructions of his dialogues frequently resemble late-night dorm-room conversations, with vastly more rigor, and without that one evangelical Christian kid who always ruined everything.

The discussion of Greek conversation is really just a prelude to the heart of the book—and Miller’s area of expertise—the eighteenth century, “the age of conversation.” It’s the era of the Paris salon and of the coffeehouse in Britain. It’s the time of Dr. Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, and William Hazlitt. For the intellectual men of London, coffeehouses were second homes, offices, and debating halls, and Miller gives a good sense of their place and their ambience. A French visitor to London writes,
Some coffee houses are a resort for . . . scholars and for wits; others are the resort of dandies or of politicians, or again of professional newsmongers; and many others are temples of Venus.

As that suggests, coffee wasn’t the point of the coffeehouse, of course, just as in coffeehouses today. The men were there to talk, hash out ideas, and engage with the thinkers of the age—and often, it seems, to complain about them to one another. Of the poet Thomas Gray, Horace Walpole says,
He is the worst company in the world—from a melancholy turn, from living reclusively, and from a little too much dignity, he never converses easily—all his words are measured, and chosen, and formed into sentences; his writings are admirable; he himself is not agreeable.”
And Johnson agrees,
Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.

It’s hard not to assume that most coffeehouse conversations were, like most bar conversations today, full of blowhards spouting ill-informed opinions. But there was clearly greatness there, too, at least on occasion. As Johnson, no fan of fools, told Boswell, “For spending three pence in a coffee house, you may be for hours in very good company.” On a good day, the company must have been impressive, from Hazlitt, with whom, it seems, everyone eventually quarreled (“Hazlitt suffered for his lack of politeness. He once said: ‘I want to know why everybody has such a dislike of me.’”) to Thomas De Quincey, of whom Jane Welsh Carlyle said, “What one would give to have him in a box, and take him out to talk!”

Throughout this section, Conversation is a truly wonderful book. Miller isn’t trying very hard to make an argument; he simply wants to plunge us into the intellectual and social life of the eighteenth century, and he does so with the texture, color, and goofy detail available only to someone who’s read deeply and widely in the period. We learn that John Adams described the life of Benjamin Franklin as “a Scene of constant dissipation,” and that Boswell, to cure a hangover, went to the King’s Arms Coffee House and ate “a basin of gravy soup, and a basin of pease soup.” Conversation is exactly the sort of writing that made me start this blog; without the blog, I would at some point have been unable to avoid reading aloud to friends the argument of an anti-coffee pamphleteer, who wrote that
The excessive use of that newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee . . . [has] so eunuched our husbands, and crippled our more kind gallants, that they are become as impotent as age.

But then Miller enters the twentieth century and begins to attempt to put forth an argument rather than just retailing anecdotes, and the book goes off the rails. As this post is already too long, I’ll explain more tomorrow.