Thursday, April 26, 2007

Some final London notes on people, places, and literature

Closing this week of posts about books and what I read here and there on my trip to England last week are some notes on people and places and literature.

1 Literature drove me to the British Isles on my first trip eleven years ago when I moved there for a time, fresh out of college--specifically literature of London, from the pens of Charles Dickens, Iris Murdoch, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. I wanted to see--and more, know--the place that so enchanted them. And literature has remained a driving force behind my English travel since, this time taking me to Dorset to see the country that inspired so much of Thomas Hardy's best writing.

Stacey and I spent a day and a half in Dorchester, visiting the Dorset County Museum, where we were reminded that Hardy's often-difficult mother raised him on a diet of stories "seamed with fatalism." Hardy's heroines, from Tess to Eustacia Yeobright, wouldn't be surprised. The town, which Hardy renamed Casterbridge, while in no sense preserved in amber, retains enough of a feel of the village Hardy would have known that it's no stretch to imagine his characters walking its streets.

The hike between the Hardy family's cottage and the town--which as a young man Hardy made every workday--through fields and woodlands along the River Frome, is sufficiently rural to allow a hiker to pretend to be, for a while, in Hardy's time.

There are points on the final approach to Dorchester where the only visible signs of the city, raised slightly above the floodplain and silhouetted against a wide, open sky, are buildings Hardy would have recognized. Lambs bleat in the pasture, crows proclaim from the trees, baby ducks quack worriedly on the Frome, and all that is required to let a century slip away is imagining thin columns of smoke rising from chimneys. For Hardy fans, that walk alone is worth the trip.

2 On the walk between Dorchester and the Hardy family cottage in Lower Bockhampton, we crossed a small stone bridge, on which was the following sign:

In case you can't read it in the photo, here's what it says:
Take Notice that this Bridge (which is a County Bridge) is insufficient to carry weights beyond the ordinary traffic of the district; and that the owners and persons in charge of Locomotive Traction Engines and other ponderous Carriages are warned against using the Bridge for the passage of any such Engine or Carriage.
E. Archdall Frooks
Clerk of the County Council of Dorset

3 A few nights later, walking through Russell Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury, I saw a young man on a bench reading The Communist Manifesto. Such a young man has surely been there, in more-or-less down-at heel versions of the prevailing fashions, since soon after the days when Marx himself frequented the British Library.

4 When I lived in London, I worked at a branch of the bookstore chain Books, Etc. (which is now owned by Borders). My shop was in Bayswater, in the old Whiteleys department store, which had been turned into a shopping mall in 1989. William Whiteley's first store, opened in Westbourne Grove in 1863, was a great success, claiming to provide "everything from a pin to an elephant," but it burned in 1897 and the new flagship in Bayswater was built in 1911.

While I worked there, I heard the story, likely as not to be apocryphal, that the architect who designed the store committed suicide after realizing that he had mis-designed the grand central staircases: they led patrons the wrong way, pushing them out of the center of the store rather than back in for more shopping. But it wasn't until I read The Book of Lists: London (2006) on this trip that I learned the fate of Whiteley himself. According to The Book of Lists:
Whiteley made many enemies and, in 1907, was shot dead in his private office by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son.
Despite Whiteley's untimely demise and the conversion of the store into a mall, Whiteleys of Bayswater can still give you a sense of early twentieth-century department stores at their most ornate. If Harrods and Selfridges are too crowded for you to bear, Whiteleys will do just fine.

5 Finally, to close a fortnight of London blogging, I'll return to the Horniman Museum--whose founder, perhaps rightly distrusting the philanthropy of future generations, set in its stone facade, alongside the museum's name, the words "Free Museum."

Stacey and I and our English friends spent a wonderful day of picnicking, juggling, sketching, and drinking wine in the pleasant, hilly park that adjoins the museum. It wasn't until our next visit there, a week later, to check out the museum, that I spotted a sundial whose inscription read:
The hours run like mad
E'en as men might.
Our vacation, too short, too busy, was winding down as I read that. With friends and places as with books, there's never enough time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More London notes, these having to do with the drink

Today, as promised, some notes on beer, drink, pubs, and the perils thereof, derived from Hogarth and others while I was in London last week.

1 On our first night in town, our friend Gideon led us through crowds of happy drinkers who were spilling out of pubs into the warm air of a lovely spring evening to Rose Street, a narrow, roofed alley, in the middle of which is a side door to the pub that was our destination. I should have placed the alley myself, but I didn't until Gid pointed it out: in 1679, it was the site of the Rose-alley ambuscade, when John Dryden was set upon and beaten by a group of thugs thought be in the pay of Lord Rochester, who was avenging a literary slight. Like so many literary sites in London, the alley remains, as does the pub where the hired muscle surely secured the necessary measure of Dutch courage. It has, however, changed its name: what is now the Lamb and Flag was, in Rochester's day, the Bucket of Blood.

2 In 1751, Hogarth contributed a pair of engravings to a growing public campaign against gin drinking, a reaction to the Gin Craze, which saw the working classes consuming low-priced, low-quality gin at unfathomable rates. The more immediately arresting of the pair is Gin Lane, in which the evils of gin drinking (and, as Dickens approvingly pointed out, of the ill effects of allowing people to suffer in poverty) are depicted in reliably shocking Hogarthian fashion.

Though it traffics far less in the grotesque, the accompanying engraving, Beer Street, which shows the stalwart British turning to beer, rather than gin, and thus establishing themselves as solid, upright citizens, is worth taking a look at, too. Any Hogarth, after all, contains a wealth of entertaining detail; check out, for example, the trader copping a feel from a female peddler.

And then there's the poem underneath the image, which is enough to win Beer Street a place on this blog:
Beer, happy product of our Isle,
Can Sinew and Strength impart,
And wearied with Fatigue and Toil,
Can chear each manly Heart.

3 Another pub that received some of our custom while we were in London was the Toucan in Soho Square, which pours primarily Guinness. Hanging behind the basement bar is the following letter, which was clearly printed at some point in a newspaper, though I haven't been able to figure out where or when:
I will read with interest Mr Lomax's letter (Viz. this issue) re: lager commercials. I personally am a fan of the clever Guinness adverts, with their challenging visual imagery, their air of illusion, and the maturity and mystique which actor Rutger Hauer provides. If I have one criticism it is that they fail to mention that Guinness turns your shit to treacle.
P. McMurphy, Derby

4 The Toucan also featured the following quotation about alcohol from Ian Paisley behind the bar:
I would be happy to see the devil's buttermilk banned from society.
I knew I didn't like that guy.

5 I'll close this group with a sticker that my friend Jen and I marveled at when we saw it stuck to a wall:
Specified Risk Material

What, Jen and I wondered, could this sticker signify? And how scary is a Specified Risk Material? Less scary, Jen argued, than an Unspecified Risk Material. Perhaps it ought to be affixed to a bottle of fine gin, or my martini shaker.

Tomorrow, I'll close this week of London reading with a couple of brief notes on people and places.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some notes on what I read while looking at paintings in London last week

1 Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has the distinction of being England's first public art gallery and which adjoins Dulwich College, where both Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse were educated, features the hands-down best explanatory captions I've come across in any gallery. They're explanatory without being dry, and they frequently employ quotations from outside sources to bring the subjects or creators of particular paintings to life. Accompanying a portrait by
William Hogarth, for example, is a note that Hogarth disliked straight portraiture, dismissing it as "phiz-mongering."

2 The note beside a portrait of poet William Hayley by George Romney reveals both that Hayley wrote a biography of his friend Romney and that English poet laureate Robert Southey once said of Hayley, "Everything about that man is good, except his poetry." Take that for what you will: according to Anthony Powell, Southey also complained about Wordsworth's "entire and intense selfishness," while in Don Juan (1824) Lord Byron commanded
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthey.
The closing rhyme is so good it makes me doubt its veracity; is it wrong of me to suspect Byron of characterizing Southey in a way more convenient than truthful? He's going to force me to go read some Southey to be sure.

3 A lovely portrait of the Linley sisters by Thomas Gainsborough is annotated with an explanation that work on the portrait was interrupted when the elder sister, Elizabeth, eloped with Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The families must ultimately have reconciled at least a bit, for a few years later Sheridan partnered with Elizabeth's father in the running of the Drury Lane Theatre.

4 Best of all, though, is the note that accompanies a painting of shaggy-haired young William Linley by Sir Thomas Lawrence, which reveals that George III, on being shown the portrait, exclaimed, "Ah! Ah! Why doesn't the blockhead get his hair cut?"

5 Staying on the topic of paintings, at the extensive and wonderful
Hogarth show at the Tate Britain, I saw for the first time the painting Francis Matthew Schultz in his bed, which Hogarth painted in the late 1750s, allegedly at the behest of Schultz's long-suffering wife in the hope of shocking him into leading a less debauched life. According to the Tate Britain's guide to the show, the painting
proved too indecorous in its imagery for Schutz’s Victorian descendants. They hired an artist to paint in a newspaper over the chamber-pot; only a recent programme of restoration returned the painting to its original state.
The show really was marvelous; if you're in London and can get to it before it closes Sunday, it's well worth your time.

Tomorrow, a few notes on beer, drink, and their perils, from Hogarth and others
encountered on the trip.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dickens on London

Finally, to wrap up my week of light blogging on a London theme, is a bit of Dickens. One can't, after all, write much about London without consulting the master. I leave you with his celebrated opening to Bleak House (1853); the fog may have been banished from the capitol, but the essence of Dickens's depiction still holds true on gray winter afternoons:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time--as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

I hope you've enjoyed this trip to London as much as I have.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Helen DeWitt on London

Most of the London writing I've featured in my week of limited blogging has been from long before our time, so today I jump to the present and draw from Helen DeWitt's rambunctious, captivating novel The Last Samurai (2000), which features more pointless travel on the Tube than any novel I can think of since Iris Murdoch's A Word Child (1975). In this passage, Sibylla, the nearly overwhelmed young single mother of a five-year-old genius tells about her day. Driven out of the house by the cold--which action in itself draws a straight line from her to her drunken interwar forebears and their own eighteenth-century, coffeeshop-frequenting ancestors--she rides the train with her son, Ludo, and has an encounter that, though presented in very different prose, itself could be traced to Dickens's insights about the surprise intimacies of city living:
Another day on the Circle Line, house too cold to stay in. An icy rain sweeps the city, underground it is warm and dry.


Far too young.


Etymology so helpful.


At St. James's Park a woman gets on and sees the tiny head bent over a book, pudgy fingers dragging a blue Schwan Stabilo highlighter across the page. Twinkling eyes share the joke, she longs for adult bonding. He looks up & gives her an enchanting smile, all chubby cheeks and sparkling black eyes & tiny milk teeth. He says: I've almost finished Book 15!

She says: I SEE you have! You must have been working very hard.

Another Shirley Temple special for the nice lady. L: I only started it yesterday!

Isn't He Adorable: Did you REALLY?

Adorable: Today I read this and this and this and this and yesterday I did this and this and this and this and this and this! [tiny fingers flip back through pages covered with fluorescent pink and orange and blue and green.]

Isn't: Isn't that wonderful!

Wonderful: I've read the Iliad and De Amicitia and three stories in Kalilah wa Dimnah & one Arabian Night and Moses & the Bullrushes and Joseph and his Manycoloured Coat and now I have to read the Odyssey and Metamorphoses 1-8 and the whole Kalilah wa Dimnah and 30 Arabian Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantellation, and do 10 chapters in Algebra Made Easy.

Slightly Taken Aback: Why do you have to do that?

All Innocenc: Sibylla says I have to.

Appalled: Isn't he rather young etymology so helpful of course for spelling inflected language so helpful of course for grammar not taught in schools but classics after all part & parcel of old divisive educational system wouldn't he really be better off playing football I think you are making a terrible mistake.

Standard reply.

Don't let them get to you, Ludo: The Arabian Nights and I Samuel are great reading, if you're not too crowded on the Tube.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Penelope Fitzgerald on London

Staying with a London theme for my week of light blogging, Hampstead, with its hills, the Heath, and the old Everyman Cinema, is one of my favorite places in London. No one I know can afford to live there, of course, but it's splendid for a stroll on a spring morning, one of those locales, like the tonier parts of San Francisco, that finds me looking in windows of flats and wondering what living there would be like. Is there a place by the window to read and watch birds? Could I cook in their tiny kitchen? On a Sunday morning, would I tire on my jog before reaching the top of the heath?

Continuing my light blogging week, and staying on the London theme, here's Penelope Fitzgerald on the Hampstead of her youth, from a collection of her nonfiction, The Afterlife: Essays and Criticism (2003), which I reviewed for the Bloomsbury Review when it was new:
Hampstead Village, London NW3, is now such a desirable residential area that you can't find anywhere to buy a reel of cotton or a stick of licorice. When I was a small girl in Hampstead in the Twenties, there were sheep grazing on Hampstead Heath, chair menders, knife grinders, and muffin men in the streets (the muffin men, like the sheep, were seasonal, lamplighters who walked at dusk from gas lamp to gas lamp, and small shops that sold pennyworths of licorice and Phillips soles, with which you repaired your own shoes. Milk came round in a pony cart. There were still plenty of horse-drawn vans.

At 11 A.M. on Armistice Day, no matter what day of the week it was, the traffic stopped dead for two minutes. That was hard on the horses if they were on one of Hampstead's steep hills, and the drivers sometimes threw out a drag, like a kind of anchor, to keep from slipping. But during those two minutes, you really listened to the silence. Not that Hampstead, in those days, was in any way a noisy place. Today, it is very different, full of cars and bustling shoppers.

I'd end the excerpt there, on a pleasantly nostalgic note, were it not for my weakness for tales of those oh-so-matter-of-fact English ghosts:
Well Walk [the street on which Fitzgerald's family lived] has always been a place for writers and painters. No. 40 was No. 6 when the great English landscape painter Constable lived there with his two motherless daughters (who, at times, got out of hand and put a broomstick through one of his canvases). D. H. Lawrence lived at No. 32, and eloped from No. 40. I don't pretend that as a small girl I had heard of him, but because poetry was read to us at the earliest possible age, I did hear of John Keats. He and his brother Tom lodged, in 1817-18, at No. 46, just past the pub on the corner--once the Green Man, no, rather more grandly, the Wells Hotel. Their landlord was a Mr. Bentley, at that time the only postman in Hampstead. He was kindness itself, when poor Tom died of TB, and helped John to move his books out, carrying them in a clothesbasket.

In my Well Walk days, No. 46 had long since been knocked down. The trouble was Keats's ghost. Two doors from us lived a quiet, well-established actor, Leslie Banks. His life was made intolerable by taps (gas and water) being turned on and off by unseen hands and a rich, mysterious smell of cigar smoke in the garden. Why Keats, who didn't smoke and could never have seen a house with gas and water laid on, should have been blamed for the haunting, I don't know. A priest was called in to exorcise the unwelcome presence, but the cigar smoke continued to drift.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Peter Ackroyd on London

Continuing my light blogging week focused on London, we now get to what is doubtless the most ambitious book on London in recent years, Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography (2000), an 800-page stew, in typical Ackroyd magpie style, of seemingly every anecdote, legend, and fascinating fact about the history and life of the city. He's plumbed the histories, novels, diaries, letters, and newspapers of centuries and collected them all in a breathless, headlong history that you can't help but read aloud to friends. Here he is on silence--a quality not usually associated with London, but one that is familiar to anyone who has wandered its streets early on a Sunday morning, when one's only company is church bells, or through the glass towers of the City on a winter weekend:
Yet, on Sundays and public holidays, Lombard Street falls quiet. Throughout the old City, silence returns.

The history of silence is one of London's secrets. It has been said of the city that its most glorious aspects are concealed, and that observation is wonderfully well fitted to account for the nature of silence in London. It comes upon the pedestrian, or traveller, suddenly and unexpectedly it momentarily bathes the senses, as if going from bright light into a darkened room. Yet if London sound is that of energy and animation, silence must therefore be an ambiguous presence within city life. It may offer peace and tranquility, but it may also suggest absence of being. It may be a negative force. The city's history is striated with moments of silence: the silence of the surrounding country when the anonymous poet of London Lickpenny leaves Cheapside in 1390, the silence of the civic assembly when Richard III was first proposed as king in 1483, the silence of desolation after the fire of 1666.

There was the silence of sixteenth-century London, after the day's last cry at the stroke of midnight:
Looke well to your lock,
Your fier and your light,
And so good-night.

Of course the London night was not wholly quiet. What London night is, or ever will be? It is the contrast that is significant, in an almost theatrical sense, because it marks an interdiction upon the natural ardour of the citizens. In that sense the silence of London is indeed unnatural. There is a mid-seventeenth-century poem by Abraham Cowley which intimates that, on the departure of all the wicked and the foolish, the city would become "a solitude almost," the implied silence suggesting her that noise and bustle are indistinguishable from sinfulness or folly. In that sense London could never be a silent city.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Virginia Woolf on London

In 1931, the London edition of Good Housekeeping asked Virginia Woolf to write a series of essays on London. The Ecco Press recently published the set of six for the first time in the United States under the title The London Scene, a lovely little hardcover with maps and illustrations. She may have been writing magazine ephemera, but her sentences are no less well-crafted than in her novels; a passage from The London Scene therefore follows comfortably from V. S. Pritchett in my light blogging week.
Down in the Docks, one sees things in their crudity, their bulk, their enormity. Here in Oxford Street they have been refined and transformed. The huge barrels of damp tobacco have been rolled into innumerable neat cigarettes laid in silver paper. The corpulent bales of wool have been spun into thin vests and soft stockings. The grease of sheep's thick wool has become scented cream for delicate skins. And those who buy and those who sell have suffered in the same city change. Tripping, mincing, in black coats, in satin dresses, the human form has adapted itself no less than the animal product. Instead of hauling and heaving, it deftly opens drawers, rolls out silk on counters, measures and snips with yard sticks and scissors.

Oxford Street, it goes without saying, is not London's most distinguished thoroughfare. Moralists have been known to point the finger of scorn at those who buy there, and they have the support of the dandies. Fashion has secret crannies off Hanover Square, round about Bond Street, to which it withdraws discreetly to perform its more sublime rites. In Oxford Street there aer too many bargains, too many sales, too many goods marked down to one and eleven three that only last week cost two and six. The buying and selling is too blatant and raucous. But as one saunters towards the sunset--and what with artificial light and mounds of silk and gleaming omnibuses, a perpetual sunset seems to brood over the Marble Arch--the garishness and gaudiness of the great rolling ribbon of Oxford Street has its fascination. It is like the pebbly bed of a river whose stones are for ever washed by a bright stream. Everything glitters and twinkles. The first spring day brings out barrows frilled with tulips, violets, daffodils in brilliant layers. The frail vessels eddy vaguely across the stream of the traffic. At one corner seedy magicians are making slips of coloured paper expand in magic tumblers into bristling forests of splendidly tinted flora--a subaqueous flower garden. At another, tortoises repose on litters of grass. The slowers and most contemplative of creatures display their mild activities on a foot or two of pavement, jealously guarded from passing feet One infers that the desire of man for the tortoise, like the desire of the moth for the star, is a constant element in human nature. Nevertheless, to see a woman stop and add a tortoise to her string of parcels is perhaps the rarest sight that human eyes can look upon.
Oxford Street today, seventy-five years later, may be tortoise free, but it still has its street performers and its garish deals. And, from what I can tell of wandering elsewhere in London, the fashionable still avoid it just as intently as the young folks and the tourists flock to it.

V. S. Pritchett on London

I'll be busy and distracted for about a week, so blogging will take a slightly different, lighter form than usual. I'll start with a brief piece from a book I recently ordered from the United Kingdom, V. S. Pritchett's London Perceived (1962). It pairs a meditation by Pritchett with striking black-and-white photos by Evelyn Hofer. The photos--a mix of architectural shots and snapshots of Londoners, usually pensive--are the perfect complement to Pritchett's prose, the words and images supporting, expanding, and inflecting each other. Pritchett's prose, as always, is sterling; he cares deeply for the sound and rhythm of words and sentences, but always in service of specificity and the clarity of meaning that such care can bring. Pritchett's fiercely attentive eye for detail and character, on which the wide variety of characters and voices in his fiction are built, in London Perceived brings us a harvest of overheard conversations, hidden dramas, and idiosyncrasies of buildings and streets, past and present..
This weight of the city and its name have other associations, mainly with the sense of authority,javascript:void(0) quiet self-consequence--known among us as modesty--unbounded worry, ineluctable usage, and natural muddle. These are aspects of a general London frame of mind. If Paris suggests intelligence, if Rome suggests the world, if New York suggests activity, the word for London is experience. This points to the awful fact that London has been the most powerful and richest capital in the world for several centuries. It has been, until a mere fifteen years ago, the capital of hte largest world empire since the Roman and, even now, is the focal point of a vague Commonwealth. It is the capital source of a language now dominant in the world. Great Britain invented this language; London printed it and made it presentable. At the back of their minds--and the London mind has more back than front to it--Londoners are very aware of these things and are weighed down by them rather than elated. The familiar tone of the London voice is quick, flat-voweled, and concerned. The speaker is staving off the thought that hope is circumscribed and that every gift horse is to be looked at long in the mouth. He is--he complains--through no fault of his own--a citizen of the world.

London, like New York, is the subject of many a wonderful book. London Perceived resides near the top of the list.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Notes on such disparate topics as small towns, murder, Dougie Baseball, and predestination

It's a catch-up, notes sort of day.

1. Something I didn't mention when writing about Richard Powers's The Echo Maker (2006) Saturday is how well he captures the mix of hopelessness and comfort that composes life in a small town. Now, the Nebraska town in which he sets his story isn't nearly as small as the town I grew up in, but I recognize the similarities: for some people--especially for anyone wishing to escape pernicious family ties or unsavory aspects of personal history--the gravitational pull of such towns can be astonishing, drawing back even those who've thought themselves long escaped, and crushing those who never reached orbit in the first place. Yet others--smart, capable, interesting people--are able to find complete happiness there, taking real comfort in knowing and being known. A line could be drawn from Hawthorne (if not earlier) through Thomas Wolfe to many a present-day author, in which small towns are depicted as hopeless cesspools of gossip and stunted personalities. The reality is far more complicated, with plenty of goodness, liveliness, and open thought leavening the insularity; Powers gets the combination just right.

A similarly strong sense of place pervades Russell Hill's Robbie's Wife (2007), a novel from Hard Case Crime about an American screenwriter who, stymied in both writing and life, flies off to rural England to attempt to get himself and his work going again. He winds up staying at a farmhouse in rural Cornwall owned by a Shakespeare-quoting sheep farmer, Robbie, and his wife and son. I suppose it's not a spoiler if I tell you that in a crime novel named Robbie's Wife--which features the following lines on its cover:
"Come on, Jack Stone, dance with me again," she said. The jukebox was playing another Sinatra song.

"Go ahead, Jack," Robbie said. "Warm her up for me."

I think that, at that moment, I could have killed him.
--the visiting screenwriter does in fact kill Robbie for his wife? And that things go downhill from there? The how and the consequences, of course, are the reason to keep reading, but along the way author Russell Hill draws some memorable characters and strikingly evokes the sheep-dotted Cornish countryside, from its down-at-heel bars to its slashing, chilly rains to its opportunistic tinkers. If there's not quite the full examination of guilt that I might have expected, the plot twists more than make up for it--and if guilt and compulsion are what I'm looking for, there's always some Dostoevsky on the shelf, isn't there?

3. Speaking of plotting, the newest book from Hard Case Crime, Gil Brewer's The Vengeful Virgin (1958), which I read today in the hours that I didn't spend watching a snowy Opening Day at Wrigley Field, is tightly plotted throughout. It's a flawless crime novel, starting with a simple story--take an old man dying of a respiratory ailment, his hot young stepdaughter, and a television repairman, stir--and adding plenty of unexpected complications. I was reading in the rocking chair in the front room, and as the final plot twist unfolded, I actually stopped cold in my rocking--the equivalent of gasping with my rocker--unable to pay attention to anything but the book. Now that's good crime writing.

4. The Vengeful Virgin features a scene wherein characters have sex on an absurdly large pile of money, something that happens also in Scott Smith's A Simple Plan (1993), another novel that gets small-town life just right. The narrator and his wife are doing all right in their rural midwestern town until, by sheer accident, they see their chance at escape. One simple decision, easily reversed, leads to another, irreversible, and Smith sets his contraption of a novel in motion. Along the way, he ratchets up the opressive small-town claustrophobia--it's yet another goad to his characters, another indicator that, as they commit bad act after bad act, the doors behind them are now slammed shut, while the doors ahead are not ones that any right-thinking person would ever contemplate opening. Though Smith's view of causality, and even destiny, can seem mechanistic, both here and in his follow-up, The Ruins, A Simple Plan, is, like The Vengeful Virgin, not a book you can easily put down once you've started it.

5. Returning to baseball: Sam Walker's Fantasyland (2006), which I wrote about briefly a few weeks ago, is exactly the sort of fun that I look for in a season-opening baseball book. It tells the story of Walker's finagling his way into the nation's toughest fantasy baseball league, then spending a summer doing nothing but trying to win it. He hires two assistants and makes shameless use of his sportswriting connections in an attempt to get inside dirt on players' health, attitudes, and prospects. The best parts of the book are when he talks to actual players about their roles on his team. At one point, he accidentally upsets Jacque Jones by letting on that he doesn't think Jones is all that good a player; at another, he makes Jones's day by giving him a t-shirt and a Player-of-the Month trophy. But my favorite scene in the book is this exchange with then-Twins first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz:
Most players, when I tell them they're on my Rotisserie team, respond with a nod or a smirk or something diplomatic like "cool." But after listening to my standard spiel, Mientkiewicz says something unusual.

"Sorry to hear that."

I laugh, assuming it's a joke. It's not.

"I tell everybody the same thing when they say I'm on their fantasy team," he says. "I'm like, 'Well, you're an idiot.' There are so many guys I'd take over me."
. . . . .
"I'm going through a stretch right now where I look out from the plate, and I see a big glove," he tells me. "Unless I hit it over the fence, it seems like everyone's catching it." Still, he says, he's sixty points ahead of where he was this time last year when he finished at .300, "so let's not panic."

A this I dig through my notes and pull out something I never intended to show him: a list of possible Mientkiewicz trades that I've been kicking around. In general, the idea of asking a professional athlete to help you expunge him from your fantasy roster seems like a good way to get smacked in the head. But for some reason I get the feeling Mientkiewicz is the exception.

I hand him the list.

"What do you think," I ask, tentatively.

"If you want power, Jody Gerut's a good one, he's going to hit twenty homers," Mientkiewicz says, scanning the list. "Jose Cruz is going to hit, too, not for average but a lot of pop. Lawton's having a great year, too, as long as he stays healthy."

When he's finished, I hand him a jersey.

"Team T-shirts? All right!"

As I turn to go, Mientkiewicz returns to his Gatorade spittoon but not before shouting out some parting advice. "Hopefully you'll get me traded sooner rather than later."

Up to that point, I'd never been a Mientkiewicz fan, but how can I not be one now? Go, Dougie Baseball!

6. Finally, appropos of nothing, two bits from Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of her father and his brothers, The Knox Brothers (2000). Fitzgerald's father, Edmund Knox, was a longtime editor of Punch, while his brother Dillwyn was a classicist and codebreaker who figured out the German's Enigma machine and his brothers Wilfred and Ronald were, respectively, prominent Anglican and Catholic clergymen. Her joint biography of the four is a wonderful, loving portrait of lives and times, a celebration of both particular people and of a deeply intellectual and questing way of life that seems, at this remove, to have been surprisingly common in the Edwardian era.

I thought I'd share two parts that stood out for me. The first is a limerick written by Ronald, later to be a Catholic priest, when he was young:
There was a young man who sad: "Damn!"
I have suddenly found that I am
A creature that moves
On predestinate grooves,
Not a bus, as one hoped, but a tram.
According to Fitzgerald, Ronald, a railfan as a boy, "used to say later that he supposed he must have written this, but regretted the implied betrayal of the Birmingham tram system."

And then there's a story about Arthur Conan Doyle that I think you Holmes fans might enjoy. The boys, when young, developed
a keenly critical spirit, [and] they detected a number of inaccuracies, even downright contradictions, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and sent a list of them to Conan Doyle in an envelope with four dried orange pips, in allusion to the threatening letter in The Sign of Four.
Conan Doyle, to their dismay, did not respond. But years later, after Ronald published Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes (1911), which began the Sherlockian study of the Holmes stories, he did write:
I cannot help writing to tell you of the amusement--and also the amazement with which I read you article on Sherlock Holmes. That anyone should spend such pains on such material was what surprised me. Certainly you know a great deal more about it than I do, for the stories have been written in a disconnected (and careless) way, without referring back to what had gone before. I am only pleased that you have not found more discrepancies, especially as to dates. Of course as you seem to have observed, Holmes changed entirely as the stories went on. In the first one, the "Study in Scarlet," he was a mere calculating machine, but I had to make him more of an educated human being as I went on with him. He never shows heart save in the play--which one of your learned commentators condemned truly as a false note.

One point which has not been remarked by the learned Sauwosch . . . is that in a considerable proportion of the stories--I daresay a quarter--no legal crime has been committed at all. Another point--one of the few in which I feel satisfaction but which I have never seen mentioned--is that Watson never for one instant as chorus and chronicler transcends his own limitations. Never once does a flash of wit or wisdom come from him. All is remorselessly eliminated so that he may be Watson.

On days when insight seems far or fleeting, perhaps it would be good to remember that even Watson, artificially stunted as he was, got to enjoy going along with Holmes on his investigations. There are certainly worse ways one could spend one's days.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Echo Maker

Richard Powers is one of those novelists whom I'd always stayed away from because I lumped him in with "idea" novelists--guys like Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, or Jonathan Franzen in the worst parts of The Corrections--novelists in whose works the mass of legitimately interesting information in the world tends to obscure or overwhelm character. When I want information, I turn to nonfiction; when I open a novel, I'm looking for people. But when I heard that Powers's newest novel, The Echo Maker (2006), focused on a character with capgras syndrome, I couldn't resist. Capgras, a mental condition which leads a person to believe his loved ones have been replaced by near-perfect simulacra, seems ready-made for a novelist, a springboard for unusual explorations of identity and character. I bought a copy for my friend Luke, both because I figured he'd like it and because he'd be a good guinea pig; I was right, and he lent it to me with his hearty recommendation.

The Echo Maker is about a man who develops capgras syndrome following a terrible auto accident in his native Nebraska. He comes out of a coma with no memory of the accident and convinced that his sister has been replaced by a replicant; an inxeplicable note at his bedside, as well as some evidence at the crash site, suggest that there is some mystery afoot that even the mentally sound can't write off. The brother's confidence in his assessment lends a Philip K. Dick-like aura of paranoia, which Powers layers on top of deeper questions: who, after all, is mentally sound? What do we even mean by that? Who's to say the sister is really herself? Is she the same her as she was as a teenager? What is personality, after all? How much of it do we control actively? How much of it is created by unspoken, shared agreement between people to accept our multiple selves, over the years and in different situations, as a single, comprehensible entity?

Those are all fascinating questions, but on their own, they're not the stuff of fiction. Where Powers succeeds brilliantly is in working such considerations deeply into the lives and minds of his characters--without undermining the characters, he calls into question the very idea of character, both fictional and real. His very prose is alive with buried questions--doubles, trace memories, shared histories--to the point that basic metaphors of self and mind begin to stand out, problematic or even dishonest. Seemingly every aspect of the novel, while part of a realistic and convincing world, adds to a rich pattern of thought--from the migrating cranes who unknowingly replicate millennia-old patterns, calling into question the roots of knowledge and the beginnings of consciousness, to the mix of books that characters are reading, from Aldo Leopold to Willa Cather, with their different approaches to understanding people and their place in the world.

It's a heady, propulsive novel, as hard to put down as it is to distill. Reality, Powers forces us to admit, is inherently slippery, since we have no choice but to define it as we go. Look away and you risk having everything change on you; look too closely and you risk seeing that none of it was what you thought it was in the first place--even your very self.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Can You Forgive Her?

When winter makes a surprise reappearance, is there anything more pleasant than sinking into a big Victorian novel? For the past week, I've been immersed in Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? (1865), which has one of the best titles in the history of the novel. Years ago, a favorite English professor introduced the book to me by saying, "Of course you can forgive her! She's the most forgivable creature ever!" The "her" of the title is a young woman, Alice Vavasor, who spends the novel vacillating between a pair of starkly different suitors: John Grey, a quiet, respectable, impressively steadfast country gentleman to whom she has been engaged in the past, and her cousin George Vavasor, an ambitious, fiery sort who, though without means, hopes to make his way in politics. From our vantage, her sin--uncertainty and an unwillingness to be trapped into a marriage, and a life, about which she's unsure--seems at worst minor, but Alice herself, seeing the deep contradictions of her nature, her fear of living with the consequences of a decision, feels that she is unworthy of the forgiveness that John Grey unstintingly offers.

Trollope offers none of the high drama, energy, or, most obviously, the inventively captivating prose of Dickens; the action of the book is mostly domestic and staid. While he is frequently funny, his humor is essentially gentle, neither the caricature of Dickens nor the vicious, even hateful, satire of Thackeray. And, though he is not afraid to speak up and comment as a narrator, he is not given to the sort of pronouncements about human nature that make George Eliot's work so fascinating. Instead, Trollope focuses closely on the individuals in his story, suborning general ideas to particular people and circumstances, and, most importantly, being willing to present his characters' motivations as a very real jumble of frequently contradictory impulses, deeply rooted in half-understood, half-rational desires. No one is entirely clear, to himself or to us, and, Trollope presents that understanding with gentle irony, an acknowledgment that we all suffer from these failings to some extent.

A good example of Trollope's willingness to allow his characters the full range of their contradictions is in this description of one of the novel's most unpleasant characters, Mrs. Marsham, who serves as an unasked-for spy on the behavior of one of Alice's impulsive friends, Lady Glencora Palliser. In true Victorian narrative style, Trollope introduces her by laying out, in detail, the basics of her character--but he does her the courtesy of beginning with her good qualities:
Mrs Marsham was a woman who had many good points. She was poor, and bore her poverty without complaint. She was connected by blood and friendship with people rich and titled; but she paid to none of them egregious respect on account of their wealth or titles. She was stanch in her friendships, and stanch in her enmities. She was no fool, and knew well what was going on in the world. She could talk about the last novel, or — if need be — about the Constitution. She had been a true wife, though sometimes too strong-minded, and a painstaking mother, whose children, however, had never loved her as most mothers like to be loved.

The catalogue of her faults must be quite as long as that of her virtues. She was one of those women who are ambitious of power, and not very scrupulous as to the manner in which they obtain it. She was hard-hearted, and capable of pursuing an object without much regard to the injury she might do. She would not flatter wealth or fawn before a title, but she was not above any artifice by which she might ingratiate herself with those whom it suited her purpose to conciliate. She thought evil rather than good. She was herself untrue in action, if not absolutely in word. I do not say that she would coin lies, but she would willingly leave false impressions. She had been the bosom friend, and in many things the guide in life, of Mr Palliser’s mother; and she took a special interest in Mr Palliser’s welfare. When he married, she heard the story of the loves of Burgo and Lady Glencora; and though she thought well of the money, she was not disposed to think very well of the bride. She made up her mind that the young lady would want watching, and she was of opinion that no one would be so well able to watch Lady Glencora as herself.

Trollope's interest in complexity of motive--and his resulting willingness to accept that there are many different ways to approach the business of life--makes him particularly capable of studying the complicated realities of marriage. Can You Forgive Her? presents not only the indecision surrounding Alice's marital decision, it accompanies that situation with two other tales of relationships, one presented as comedy and the other beginning what would become Trollope's greatest project, the series of Palliser novels. The comic relationship concerns Alice's aunt, a wealthy widow who is choosing between a pair of goofy suitors who all but trip over each other in their race for her wealth. Trollope's generosity to the trio raises their scenes, which could easily be a distraction, from mere comedy to an actual reflection on the reasons and rewards of marriage. The other marriage presented is that of Lady and Lord Palliser, about whom Trollope would eventually write five novels.

From the moment the young, impulsive, vivacious Lady Palliser enters, she is the heart of the novel. Deeply tempted by a former lover to leave her upright husband--whom she was, essentially, forced to marry by her wealthy family--we watch as she is brought to realize and understand her husband's love for her, quiet and unspoken as it is. Her husband's character is slower to reveal itself, but Trollope's presentation of him is no less profound, and the testing of their marriage is compelling and believable. I've not read the later Palliser novels, but I am certain to do so now. Trollope, having already in this single novel shown his deep understanding of these characters, is sure to be fascinating on the ways that people--and the bonds between them--change and grow with time.

The following passage, though I think it carries more than a hint of disingenuousness, is a good way to end, focusing as it does on Trollope's sense that the human heart is a changing thing, and that though what we think we want today may not be quite what we want tomorrow, we are also inherently flexible, accommodating beings--if we will only remember that.
People often say that marriage is an important thing, and should be much thought of in advance, and marrying people are cautioned that there are many who marry in haste and repent at leisure. I am not sure, however, that marriage may not be pondered over too much; nor do I feel certain that the leisurely repentance does not as often follow the leisurely marriages as it does the rapid ones. That some repent no one can doubt; but I am inclined to believe that most men and women take their lots as they find them, marrying as the birds do by force of nature, and going on with their mates with a general, though not perhaps an undisturbed satisfaction, feeling inwardly assured that Providence, if it have not done the very best for them, has done for them as well as they could do for themselves with all the thought in the world. I do not know that a woman can assure to herself, by her own prudence and taste, a good husband any more than she can add two cubits to her stature; but husbands have been made to be decently good — and wives too, for the most part, in our country — so that the thing does not require quite so much thinking as some people say.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Play ball!

I became a baseball fan the summer I turned eleven. My mother was taking classes towards a degree in social work at a college about an hour's drive from Carmi, and my brother and I would ride along with her a couple of nights a week to the campus. On the drive, we would tune in to the Cardinals, carried at that point on the clear-channel powerhouse of KMOX. The Cardinals were very good that summer, holding off a tough Mets team to win the division and then the pennant before a disappointing World Series performance. Jack Buck and Mike Shannon described it all, and made us fans.

Sometime in the next few years, as my baseball fandom turned into the sort of obsession that only preteen boys, it seems, are capable of, I discovered on an out-of-the-way bookshelf in our house a musty, digest-sized baseball magazine previewing the 1974 season. Opening it, I discovered on the first page a nearly inscrutable scrawl, one bearing no little resemblance to my own:
June 1974--Play Ball, Boy! Love, Col.
It was a gift, given at my birth and no doubt tucked away at the time and forgotten, from my great-grandfather, Grandpa Colonel, about whom I've written before. Living his whole life in rural Kansas, he spent a lifetime enjoying baseball--and the Cardinals--the same way I grew up enjoying them: on the radio, far from the ballpark. Jack Buck may be gone--as is Grandpa Colonel--but the radio is still my favorite way to experience the game if I can't be there, and sound of baseball on the radio is still, for me, the heart of summer.

I never was much of a ballplayer, but I find myself thinking of Grandpa Colonel's admonition every spring. Last Sunday, I spent the morning playing catch with my nephew at Montrose Beach, throwing until our arms ached. Tonight, Stacey and I open the house to friends--several of whom haven't visited since October--for chili, brats, cornbread, and beer, all in honor of the return of spring.

It's the Cardinals and Mets. The last time we saw these two teams, they played one of the most exciting, stressful, and rewarding games I've ever seen. Tonight, like every spring, it starts all over again.

Play ball.