Thursday, November 29, 2007

Step right up!

Do you sometimes worry that you've run out of new ways to misuse office resources? Do you already only call your trans-Atlantic sweetie from your work line? Do you already bring in your iPod, laptop, telephone, and digital camera to charge on the power strip under your desk? Do you already fedex yourself home every afternoon?

Well, don't despair! Instead, subscribe to The New-York Ghost, the Free Weekly Newsletter You Print Out at Work! Four or so pages, arriving in your e-mail box every Thursday, ready to be printed on your employer's dime!

Curated, proprieted, kiss-of-lifed, tuckpointed, and zookept by Ed from the Dizzies, the New-York Ghost (along with its hitherto reclusive editor) was profiled in the New-York Times over the Thanksgiving weekend, which surely led to an avalanche of subscription requests. You've thus missed your chance to get in on the ground floor, or even the mezzanine--in fact, were this a Ponzi scheme, I'd suggest you hold on to your wallet and keep moving, mister--but as there is no limit to the number of electrons that can be devoted to the New-York Ghost, there can still be a copy waiting for you if you want one!

By not subscribing before now, you have, however, missed the first installment of my Brief Lives of the Hip-Hop Stars (in the manner of, and with apologies to, my beloved John Aubrey), which appeared in the November 6th issue. But never fear! If you subscribe now, you'll surely be in time for installment two--and meanwhile, here is installment one, appearing for the first time on the Internets:
Levi Stahl's "Brief Lives of the Hip-Hop Stars"

Ol' Dirty Bastard

Though strictly speaking neither old, dirty, nor a bastard, young Russell Jones took that name when he began rapping with cousins and friends as part of the Wu-Tang Clan; his later change of moniker to Big Baby Jesus was similarly unrelated to facts of his size, age, or divinity. However suspect ODB's personal nomenclature, he was always sound on such disparate (and sadly little-bruit'd) topics as penguins and space aliens. He fathered thirteen children, and he once saved a little girl who was not one of them from being run over by a speeding car—an act of heroism for which he made sincere attempts to avoid being publicly lauded.

Subscribe now! Ed here will tell you how:
For a free subscription or sample, write to newyorkghostATgmailDOTcom, with a non-spam-sounding subject line and your e-mail address in the body of the message as well.

No salesman will visit your home!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Consigned to the Flames II: Henry James

Following yesterday's dream evocation of the James brothers, a reminder that Henry James was quite an enthusiastic burner of letters, draft manuscripts, and personal papers. Philip Horne lays out the case in his introduction to Henry James: A Life in Letters (2001):
In the following letters, James mentions as friends or familiars a number of people he seems very likely to have corresponded with, people he knew well, or had business relations with, like his relations the Tweedys, J. M. Barrie, Charles Milnes Gaskell, Alice Bartlett (later Warren), Auguste Laugel, J. Comyns Carr and Charles Frohmann. Yet no letters to any of these have been traced, while in the letters that survive there are numerous references to further (still untraced) letters that James has written or means to write. It may be that some recipients acted on the instruction to "Burn this" (or some comic variation on that formula) that James attached to frankly gossiping letters--letters that are often of particular interest to later readers. Having delivered himself on the subject of the play Votes for Women (1907) by Elizabeth Robins, James commands his correspondent Lucy Clifford, "Only repeat me, quote me, betray me not--and burn my letter with fire or candle (if you have either! Otherwise wade out into the sea with it and soak the ink out of it.)" In 1910, moreover, after his health had begun to decline, James, who was deeply concerned with privacy, had a large bonfire in which he burned a great number of personal documents and manuscripts, doubtless including letters from him that he had retrieved from the effects of correspondents who had died (notably his sister Alice and his close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson.)
The final bonfires, in 1909 and 1910, were reportedly prompted by the shock James received from studying a batch of Byron's letters and papers. Though one assumes James's personal peccadilloes couldn't have held a candle to Byron's extensive transgressions, the fear of their exposure was enough to send him, match in hand, to the burning barrel. As James himself explained to an inquiry from his friend Annie Adams Fields about some letters from Sarah Orne Jewett,
I kept almost all letters for years--till my receptacles would no longer hold them, then I made a gigantic bonfire and have been easier in mind since--save as to a certain residuum which had to survive.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A neo-Jamesian folkmeos

{Ford Madox Brown, The Dream of Sardanapalus, 1871}

When I started this blog a bit more than two years ago, I didn't specify that I would only write about reading I did while awake . . . so today you get a post about a dream. There was actual reading in the dream, and it included some figures who've figured prominently in this blog already, so it seems relatively justifiable, but I still feel as if I should apologize to the large percentage of the population that has the good sense not to share its dreams.

The origin of the dream is simple: before bed, I spent an hour or so engrossed in Richard Stark's The Man with the Getaway Face (1963), the second of his many novels starring Parker the bank robber. The Parker novels are essentially novels about work, wrapped up in mundane detail--but because most of us readers work office jobs, we enjoy watching Parker go through all the planning and overplanning that underlies a successful heist.

Because I tend to take the tone and language of whatever I'm reading before bed straight into my dreamlife, soon after turning off the light I found myself in the midst of planning a heist. I was working with Parker, who was his usual hyper-professional self, and we were ticking off all the set-up elements that were incidental--yet crucial--to our heist. We had created false names, rented cars, stolen license plates, bought unregistered guns, timed police shifts and guard routes. More unusual, though, was that for this heist to work we'd had to create and produce an issue of a highbrow literary magazine.

Parker's every action in Stark's novels demonstrates that he knows what any conscientious worker learns at some point: that one cuts corners, however seemingly minor, at one's own risk. Rushed or incomplete efforts have a way of coming back to bite you--and in the case of a bank robbery, those unpleasant surprises are likely to lead to prison or death. It should therefore be no surprise that under Parker's direction our heist team produced a first-rate literary magazine. No faking here. It was well-planned, well-edited, well-designed, and full of interesting articles.

Which was good, because our heist went sour in the planning stages, and we called it off. Dejected, I sat in what ought to have been the getaway car, and my only consolation for the wasted money and time was the thought that I could at least read our magazine. So I opened it to the lead article, a double interview in which Anne Carson and a male contemporary American novelist (whose name I knew during the dream, but whose identity was lost to me on waking) walked through a forest and talked. Though I remember flipping through the magazine hoping to find a photo of the notoriously camera-shy Carson--to no avail--I recall nothing about the article except for the following passage, which I reproduce more or less as I read it in my dream, editorial notes as they were in the dream magazine:
CARSON: So in what way would you say you're most nineteenth-century?

MALE NOVELIST: [Chuckles sheepishly] Well, to be honest, it's probably my belief in a neo-Jameseian folkmeos. [A neo-Jamesian folkmeos is a belief that a male artist's domestic concerns naturally ought to be addressed by the women of a household. One can surely assume that the Alice Jameses, especially were they alive today, would have had some sharp comments about that belief.--Eds.] And how about you? How are you most nineteenth-century?

CARSON: Oh, goodness--I never even quite make it to the end of the eighteenth century!

"Folkmeos" appears to be a wholly made-up word--what it has to do, really, with William or Henry James I have no idea. More interesting is that despite the fact that I concentrated very hard on remembering all the details of the dream--and in particular that word--and even described the whole dream to my coworker Carrie, highlighting "folkmeos," by early afternoon I couldn't recall the word without Carrie's assitance. The mind really does want--and, presumably, need--us to forget our dreams.

I don't know that there's any other lesson here, other than to be careful what you read in bed. I do, however, promise not to turn dream reading into a regular feature of this blog.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Your whisky has made you original."

Jenny Davidson's's great post a week or so ago at Light Reading on Lord Byron's letters about swimming (specifically, as you may have guessed, about swimming the Hellespont) led me to pick up, on her recommendation, the one-volume distillation of Harvard University Press's twelve volumes of Byron's correspondence, Selected Letters and Journals (1982).

On receiving the book, I turned to the index in search of some name that had recently been on my reading list; settling on James Hogg, I thumbed my way to a letter the twenty-six-year-old Byron wrote to the forty-four-year-old Hogg on March 24, 1814. After an introductory paragraph acquiescing to Hogg's request for some verse for a journal he was printing, Byron gets right down to the good stuff: strongly held opinions, exuberant scurrility, and wonderful bombast. I'm going to quote at more length than I usually do, simply because each paragraph contains at least a couple of lines so creative or ridiculous as to be well worth sharing.
You seem to be a plain spoken man, Mr. Hogg, and I really do not like you the worse for it. I can't write verses, and yet you want a bit of my poetry for your book. It is for you to reconcile yourself with yourself.--You shall have the verses

You are mistaken, my good fellow, in thinking that I (or, indeed, any living verse-writer--for we shall sink poets) can write as well as Milton. Milton's Paradise Lost is, as a whole, a heavy concern; but the two first books of it are the very finest poetry that has ever been produced in this world--at least since the flood--for I make little doubt Abel was a fine pastoral poet, and Cain a fine bloody poet, and so forth; but we, now-a-days, even we (you and I, i.e.) know no more of their poetry than the brutum vulgus--I beg pardon, the swinish multitude, do of Wordsworth and Pye. Poetry must always exist, like drink, where there is a demand for it. And Cain's may have been the brandy of the Antediluvians, and Abel's the small [?] still.

Shakespeare's name, you may depend on it, stands absurdly too hight and will go down. He had no invention as to stories, none whatever. He took all his plots form old novels, and threw their stories into a dramatic shape, at as little expense of thought as you or I could turn the plays back again into prose tales. That he threw over whatever he did write some flashes of genius, nobody can deny: but this was all. Suppose any one to have the dramatic handling for the first time of such ready-made stories as Lear, Macbeth, &c. and he would be a sad fellow, indeed, if he did not make something very grand of them. [As] for his historical plays, properly historical, I mean, they were mere redressings of former plays on the same subjects, and in twenty cases out of twenty-one, the finest, the very finest things, are taken all but verbatim out of the old affairs. You think, no doubt, that A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! is Shakespeare's. Not a syllable of it. You will find it all in the old nameless dramatist. Could not one take up Tom Jones and improve it, without being a greater genius than Fielding? I, for my part, think Shakespeare's plays might be improved, and the public seem, and have seemed to think so too, for not one of his is or ever has been acted as he wrote it; and what the pit applauded three hundred years past, is five times out of ten not Shakespeare's, but Cibber's.

Stick you to Walter Scott, my good friend, and do not talk any more stuff about his not being willing to give you real advice, if you really will ask for real advice. You love Southey, forsooth--I am sure Southey loves nobody but himself, however. I hate these talkers one and all, body and soul. They are a set of the most despicable impostors--that is my opinion of them. They know nothing of the world and what is poetry, but the reflection of the world? What sympathy have this people with the spirit of this stirring age? They are no more able to understand the least of it, than your lass--nay, I beg her pardon, she may very probably have intense sympathy with both its spirit (I mean the whisky,) and its body (I mean the bard.) They are mere old wives. Look at their beastly vulgarity, when they wish to be homely, and their exquisite stuff, when they clap on sail, and aim at fancy. Coleridge is the best of the trio--but bad is the best. Southey should have been a parish-clerk, and Wordsworth a man-midwife--both in darkness. I doubt if either of them ever got drunk, and I am of the old creed of Homer the wine-bibber. Indeed I think you and Burns have derived a great advantage from this, that being poets, and drinkers of wine, you have had a new potation to rely upon. Your whisky has made you original. I have always thought it a fine liquor. I back you against beer at all events, gill to gallon.

By the bye, you are a fine hand to cut up the minor matters of verse-writing; you indeed think harmony the all-in-all. My dear sir, you may depend upon it, you never had name yet, without making it rhyme to theme. I overlook all that sort of thing, however, and so must you, in your turn, pass over my real or supposed ruggedness. The fact is, that I have a theory on the subject, but that I have not time at present for explaining it. The first time all the poets of the age meet--it must be in London, glorious London is the place, after all--we shall, if you please, have a small trial of skill. You shall write seventeen odes for me, anything from Miltonian blank down to Phillupian [sic] namby, and I a similar number for you, and let a jury of good men and true be the judges between us. I name Scott for foreman--Tom Campbell may be admitted, and Mrs. Baillie, (though it be not exactly a matron case.) You may name the other nine worthies yourself. We shall, at all events, have a dinner upon the occasion, and I stipulate for a small importation of the peat reek.

Dear sir, believe me sincerely yours,
There's so much fun stuff there I don't even know where to begin. I've noted before Byron's slagging of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey in Don Juan:
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.
It's amusing to note that in the poem he dismisses Coleridge for being drunk, while in the letter he dismisses Southey and Wordsworth for not being drunk. And what great phrases Byron casually tosses off throughout! Homer the wine-bibber; gill to gallon; when they clap on sail, and aim at fancy; the brandy of the Antediluvians; the peat reek-- by which I assume (correctly?) he means whiskey.

This letter alone has made the purchase of the whole volume worthwhile. I'm sure I'll share more in the coming months, but a more extensive reading will have to wait, as I'm hip-deep in Tom Jones. Until then, I'll leave you with this line from a letter Byron sent his publisher, John Murray (whom I like to imagine receiving letters of a very different sort from one of his other authors, Jane Austen), on October 15, 1816:
[B]ut poetry is--I fear--incurable--God help me--if I proceed in this scribbling--I shall have frittered away my mind before I am thirty,--but it is at times a real relief to me.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Elementary, my dear Vladimir

When Stacey and I travel by car, we read Sherlock Holmes aloud during the drive. One story on the way there, and one on the way back. When packing, I sometimes wonder whether it's worth lugging the large hardcover of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes rather than a more manageable paperback. It's the same stories, after all, and since you can't really enjoy the illustrations while driving, all you gain are the notes, written from a Sherlockian perspective--the Sherlockians being the branch of fans that treats the Holmes stories as history rather than fiction. Today I was reminded why it's always worth the extra weight.

The reminder took the form of an editorial note near the end of "The Speckled Band." (If you've not read the story and would like to avoid learning about its solution, you should immediately go somewhere else--perhaps here--instead of continuing to read). One of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Speckled Band" is also one that has over the years generated some questions among Sherlockians about its solution, in no small part because of some minor questions about the details of the case. (How could the adder live in the safe if there were not ventilation holes? Why would the Doctor whistle to recall the snake when it hadn't had time to perform its murderous duty? etc.) The note rounding up all these alternative theories--note #44 for this story--convinced me that this edition is worth lugging to the ends of the earth; even if you're not a Holmes fan, you might find it worth your time to read through to the end.
44There are some revisionist theories respecting "The Speckled Band." Several argue that Helen Stoner murdered Julius and Dr. Roylott, and probably her mother as well. Vivian Darkbloom, in the self-described "somewhat revisionist" essay "Holmes Is Where the Heart Is, or Tooth-Tooth, Tooties," suggests that Holmes murdered Dr. Roylott, to clear the way for an illicit liaison with Helen Stoner. Roylott's behaviour, the essay contends, was not that of a murderer, but of a man attempting to scare off a suitor. The essay appeared in the December 1976 issue of the Sherlockian journal Baker Street Miscellanea, and the editors reported that "the anagramatically pseudonymous Vivian Darkbloom has not seen fit to furnish us with any personal data, and consdering the scandalously icononclastic thrust of her principal thesis, we are not surprised. The author appears to be California-based, also engaged in medical studies, and a student of the works of Vladimir Nabokov as well as John H. Watson's . . . " A character named "Vivian Darkbloom" appeared in Stanley Kubrick's 1961 film adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita, for which Vladimir Nabokov wrote the screenplay, and in "Vladimir Nabokov: In Tribute to Sherlock Holmes," Andrew Page analyses references and images in Nabokov's Lolita,The Defense, Pnin, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Despair, and Pale Fire that demonstrate the author's familiarity with and affection for the Canon.
Now, perhaps more serious fans of Nabokov than I already knew about this revisionist theory--and, granted, it's not even certain that the article is by Nabokov--but I didn't know about it, and it made my day. Of course Nabokov is a Holmes fan, and of course he would have enjoyed sitting around thinking up alternate solutions to Holmes's cases!

His solution to this particular case is, you'll note, insane.

[Correction, 11/28/07, 12:10 AM: Ed at the Dizzies notes, quite sensibly,
I don't think it's VN's handiwork—I don't think he'd be so obvious as to offer that "Vivian Darkbloom"—an anagram he's dropped into several of his novels—was a fan of Nabokov...i.e., of himself!
That seems likely. Even the title of the article seems a bit too blunt an instrument for Nabokov. I think my critical sense was overwhelmed by my joy at immediately recognizing the Vivian Darkbloom anagram--that, and my fervent desire to imagine Nabokov scribbling out articles for Sherlockian publications under pseudonyms! A Holmes fan can dream, can he not?]

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Elementary, my dear Wilson

To follow yesterday's post about crime novels that are all far more about the people involved in the crime than about the solution to the mystery, I'll turn to a pair of pieces about standard detective stories. First, there's interwar puzzle novelist Anthony Berkeley musing on the popularity--and future--of the genre in "Why Do I Write Detective Stories?", collected in The Avenging Chance:
The reason why detective stories are so popular is simple enough. They are, after all, only a glorified puzzle; and everyone enjoys a puzzle. To read a detective story as it should be read is really a test of intelligence; in fact one might say that whereas the ordinary novel appeals only to the emotions, the detective story appeals to the intellect, which surely should be the more important. . . . How long can the detective story expect to maintain its present popularity? Always, I think, provided that it moves with the times. This is, so long as those who write them will recognize that the convention of yesterday will not suit the requirements of tomorrow. In other words, the days of pure puzzle story, without living characters, an interesting setting, or some kind of resemblance to real life are over. Already, without sacrificing the puzzle element, authors are paying more attention to character and atmosphere. Already the detective story is becoming altogether more sophisticated.
Berkeley's clockwork puzzle stories would seem exactly the sort that would irk Edmund Wilson, who in a late 1944 article called "Why Do People Read Detective Novels?" argued--with reference specifically to Agatha Christie--that
You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, for they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader's suspicion.
The dozens of dissenting letters he received about that article led to the wonderfully titled follow-up "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Wilson gave no ground to the mystery lovers in that piece, saving the sharpest sting for near the end:
[M]y final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.
Ah, but maybe Wilson was not so immune as he thought. Mere weeks later, he was admitting that,
I have myself become addicted, in spells, to reading myself to sleep with Sherlock Holmes.
Though he tries to argue that Conan Doyle's stories are different from typical detective stories, closer to fairy tales than puzzles, that seems like nothing more than an ex post facto justification for the pleasure he derives from the Holmes tales. It's that sort of half-admission of enthusiastic fallibility, turning up occasionally in Wilson's writings, that humanizes him for me, transforming him from a distant statue of expansive critical acumen into an actual person, experiencing and thinking about literature as he encounters it.

Wilson will thus be a silent passenger later today in the car, as Stacey and I continue our traveling tradition of reading Sherlock Holmes aloud. I believe that "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" is up next. May your Thanksgiving contain at least as much satisfyingly solvable mystery as that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Checking the Police Blotter

Given that I've just returned from a trip, and I know better than to travel without a Hard Case Crime novel or two, it's time for a Crime Novel Roundup!

A couple of months ago, I mentioned how much I was enjoying the early pages of Robert Terrall's Kill Now, Pay Later (1960), which is rife with exchanges like this one:
"A very nice-looking dish was waiting for him. Dark hair, glasses. She had a raincoat on that was too big for her, and she kept it on."

"No wonder," I said. "It was my raincoat, and all she had on underneath was one of my drip-dry shirts."

"Now you tell me."
I quoted a bunch of other favorite bits in my earlier post. Though it was a lot of fun--I laughed out loud several times--Kill Now, Pay Later was ultimately a bit disappointing--I kept waiting for the pile of deaths and very bad things to matter to someone, but they never really do. The whole remains extremely light, reminding me a bit of Kyril Bonfiglioli's Mortdecai books, where the crime seems to exist only to enable the drinking and the wry commentary. But maybe I'm being unfair: I came to Kill Now, Pay Later straight from a couple of Lawrence Block novels, where consequence and culpability are never far from the foreground; had I brought to the book a different set of expectations, maybe I would have been able to fully settle in and enjoy it.

The other crime novels I read that same weekend, Cornell Woolrich's Fright (1950) and Georges Simenon's The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938), both hinge on unexpected turning points in otherwise ordinary lives--but that's where the similarities end. Woolrich's novel is about a man who accidentally kills a woman who attempts to blackmail him on the eve of his wedding. In the ensuing years, while remaining in some ways completely sane, the man's ever-deepening paranoia drives him to commit hideous acts. Fright is a straightforward crime novel, a study of a weak character deformed by circumstance, and while it lags at times, Woolrich's chilling accounts of his protagonist's coldly violent attempts to cover his tracks pretty much compensate for any longueurs.

Simenon, on the other hand, plunges the reader right into insanity, as his protagonist, Kees Popinga, after discovering that the company he's worked for all his life is bankrupt, throws up his middle-class life completely. He kills a woman, then another, and he's soon on the run from the police, yawing between arguing with himself that all he needs to do is find a sympathetic person to listen to his story and positing himself as a near-Nietzschean superman, beyond all petty social strictures. Simenon's study of curdled normality is unsettling, yet at the same time often grotesquely funny: Popinga is an incompetent, intolerable megalomaniac, and as he sinks further and further into paranoia, his plight becomes cartoonishly ridiculous; what began as a character study ends as a bizarre social comedy.

Megalomania serves as a good transition to Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's Slide (2007), as it's the defining trait of Slide's best character. A follow-up to their great Bust (2006), Slide follows the two survivors from that book's band of incompetents, Irish-American slut Angela Petrakos and nasty, murderous, pathologically self-regarding businessman Max Fisher. In Bust, Bruen and Starr achieved something rare and impressive: they set a half-dozen or so distinct characters loose in pursuit of various ends, and succeeded--without undercutting any individual characters' motivations--in bringing them all together in a spectacularly complicated, satisfying, and funny plot. Bust was nasty and violent and deeply misanthropic, and it was one of the best crime novels I've read in recent years.

Slide, though a lot of fun, reads like a slighter sibling: aside from Max Fisher--who, having become a crack-addicted drug dealer, has renamed himself The M.A.X.--the other characters are less vibrant than those of the first novel, and their desires less intricately intertwined. The M.A.X., however, is so funny that he almost singlehandedly redeems the book: his mixture of arrogance, incompetence, and brutality are hideously hilarious. An example, taken nearly at random:
He put the Glock down the waistband of his trousers, in the small of his back, and went, "Ouch." Jesus, it was cold. Did he have time to warm it up? Could you microwave a gun? And it pressed against his bum sacroiliac, shit. He took the piece out, got his black suede jacket. It had that expensive cut, you saw it, you whistled, it said taste and platinum card. Yeah, after today, it was platinum or bust baby.

I'll close with the best crime novel I've read in recent months: David Goodis's The Wounded and the Slain (1955). A thumbnail description sounds formulaic to the point of offensiveness: trying to salvage their failing marriage, a couple vacations in Jamaica--but the husband drunkenly kills a man in the Kingston slums, and the repercussions force the pair to re-evaluate themselves and their relationship. Yet the book works. The man's struggles with alcoholism, guilt, and failure are believable and compelling, while his wife--despite some strikingly dated references to frigidity--by the novel's end has been presented as an independent actor, more than the equal of her husband in decisiveness and action. It's a nice reminder that while noir features more than its share of misogyny, it also is the source of some female characters who are far stronger than the men who surround them--and not all of them are femme fatales.

Anyone else putting The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps on their Christmas list?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Consigned to the Flames I: Emperor Shi Huang Ti

Under my belt for the long weekend trip to my grandparents from which I've just returned:
1,618 miles, 276 pages of Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task, 222 pages of Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's Slide, 215 pages of Mickey Spillane's Dead Street, 140 pages of Tom Jones, and much pleasant time with my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncle, cousins, great-aunt, and great-uncle.
Thus I have no time for a proper post tonight.

Instead, I'll inaugurate a New Feature! (Oh, for blinking, scrolling, multi-colored, music-playing text there! Oh, World Wide Web of the early aughts, how I miss thee! Oh, Henry Fielding, how you infect and deform my prose!)

This feature will recur every time I come across an account of an author burning any sort of written work: unfinished novels, letters, diaries, notebooks, etc. Though other forms of destruction--particularly, say, by tiger--may be in themselves interesting, I will only include destructive acts that involved fire. If a form of destruction is unspecified, I will assume fire to have been employed, fire being, the evidence of paper-rock-scissors aside, the natural enemy of paper.

Because the Internets are by their nature totalizing, I will set no other boundaries and anticipate no other limits to this series: I will instead pretend that the series will one day encompass every instance of authorial immolation. Limits can therefore be set only by authors themselves deciding to disregard their fears of a potentially prurient posterity and eschew the temptations of the torch.

I'll begin by already stretching the minimal boundaries I've just now set out; you'll please simply disregard those for today. Think of this as an establishing shot. Zippos to the ready.

From "The Wall and the Books," by Jorge Luis Borges, collected in Selected Non-fictions (1999), Eliot Weinberger, editor:
I read, a few days ago, that the man who ordered the building of the almost infinite Chinese Wall was that first Emperor, Shi Huang Ti, who also decreed the burning of all the books that had been written before his time. That these two vast undertakings--the five or six hundred leagues of stone against the barbarians, and the rigorous abolition of history, that is, of the past--were the work of the same person and were, in a sense, his attributes, inexplicably satisfied and, at the same time, disturbed me. . . . Perhaps hi Huang Ti walled his empire because he knew that it was fragile, and destroyed the books because he knew that they were sacred books, books that teach what the whole universe teaches or the conscience of every man. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the building of the wall are acts that in some secret way erase each other.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Boswell the Spy

{James Boswell, engraving by E. Finden after a sketch by George Langton.}

I wrote briefly yesterday about James Boswell's genius for self-promotion. The following passage in Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task will give you a good idea of his skill--and shamelessness--in that arena. Following legal studies in Utrecht, Boswell set out on a European tour, in the course of which he befriended Rousseau and Voltaire, and which closed with a visit to Corsica, an island whose recent overthrow of its Genoese rulers, followed by its annexation by France, had caught the English imagination. While on the island, Boswell met and befriended the deposed Corsican ruler, General Pasquale Paoli--who initially though Boswell was a spy because of his note-taking. That suspicion must have planted an idea, for
As [Boswell] made his way back through Europe, he sent a series of unsigned letters to an English newspaper. These anonymous letters, a skilful blend of fact and fantasy purporting to come from a correspondent with insider intelligence, suggested that Boswell's visit to Corsica might have profound consequences. Corsica was described as being of strategic importance to Great Britain; Boswell, they hinted, was more than a tourist; he was in fact on a secret mission. The letters alluded to clandestine negotiations, concealed papers, and diplomatic intrigues. The Genoese were said to be seriously alarmed by Boswell's activities. One letter even suggested that he had gone to the island to explore the romantic possibility of establishing the Stuart line on the throne of Corsica (a rumour which rendered [Boswell's father] Lord Auchinleck apoplectic.) This was all nonsense, of course, but it was effective in whipping up public sympathy for the cause of Corsican independence. It also served to publicize the book about his travels which Boswell planned to write. Boswell was pleased to portray himself as a man of both mystery and importance.
Boswell's subterfuge worked: his Account of Corsica (1768) sold out three printings and was translated into four other languages, while Boswell himself became a celebrity, accosted by strangers wanting to meet "Corsican Boswell."

While Boswell's actions in sending the letters, though brazen, are understandable (and really not that different from contemporary viral marketing), another component of his Corsican adventures, described well by Sisman, provides a better example of the combination of self-importance, vainglory, and absurdity that make Boswell such an irresistible figure:
Boswell decided he should share his Corsican expertise. He sought an interview with [former Prime Minister William] Pitt, still an influential figure in Parliament though he had been out of office since 1761. Pitt replied to Boswell's request by suggesting that a meeting with the current Secretary of State might be more effective. But Boswell would not be denied: the opportunity to appeal personally to the Friend of Liberty was irresistible. He was ushered into the statesman's presence dressed as a native Corsican chief, armed with stiletto and Paoli's pistols in his belt, and wearing a cap complete with a tuft of cock's feathers. It was a ludicrous display--though perhaps no more ludicrous than Byron dressing in Greek costume half a century later. Pitt received Boswell politely enough. Later Boswell appeared at Garrick's spectacular Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon wearing the same outfit.

Were I as self-dramatizing as Boswell, I'd explain now that I'll be away from the blog for a few days on a secret mission; since I'm not, however, I'll admit that it's just a visit to my grandparents. I'll leave you with a recommendation, a question, and a note of thanks.

The Recommendation
Check out Jenny D's recent post at Light Reading that features entertaining excerpts from Lord Byron's letters.

The Question
Boswell wasn't really a spy, but there have been quite a few English writers through the years who were. Kit Marlowe (maybe), Graham Greene, and Ian Fleming come immediately to mind. But who else?

The Note of Thanks
Saturday marks the end of the second year of I've Been Reading Lately. Three hundred-forty-five posts and I'm still enjoying it. I hope you are, too. Thanks for reading.

Norman Mailer and Boswell fistfight in heaven

{Norman Mailer, by Carl Van Vechten, 1948.}

From "A Review of My Contemporaries," by Neal Pollack, collected in The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature (2000)
"Bring it, Mailer," I said. "Give me your best shot."

He launched himself at me like a jackal that had skipped breakfast. He grabbed my shoulders. I slipped in a pool of blood and saliva, momentarily dazed by the swirl of lights and smoke and laughter.

Mailer threw punches and kicked at my groin. I struggled, feeling, for the first time in my literary career, pure terror. My arms were leaden, my legs unhelpful.

"Die forever in hell!" said my eternal adversary.

"Four hundred dollars on Mailer!" I heard from the crowd.
Though I think of Neal Pollack as pretty much a one-joke writer, I do enjoy the above piece, wherein he engages in a rough-and-tumble fistfight with the literary giants of Mailer's generation, finishing by besting Mailer himself. It's the one time when Pollack's faux arrogance seems appropriately deployed, reducing the whole question of literary greatness to a goofy gladiatorial bout, fueled by the same mix of self-promotion and pugnacity that defined Mailer nearly as much as his writing. The obituaries for Mailer this week have been full of similarly ridiculous stories of fistfights and rages; my favorite is this one from the Telegraph in which his fists prevail, but he is defeated nevertheless:
Seven years later, at a party, he threw a glass at [Gore Vidal] and, by some accounts, including Vidal's ("I saw this tiny fist coming at me"), punched him. Still on the floor, Vidal announced: "Words fail Norman Mailer. Yet again."
Aside from a bewildered high school reading of Tough Guys Don't Dance (the only Mailer our local library owned), I've actually read very little of Mailer's writing. Every time I think I might want to read him, what stops me is thinking of this exchange from Murray Kempton's account of the 1968 Democratic Convention in his "The Decline and Fall of the Democratic Party." Mailer is arguing that they must force Mayor Daley's hand, make him to take an action that will register with everyone as inexcusable:
"Why is it," [Mailer] said to me, "that I have never hit you? it is because you represent the face of decency." I thought, first, that he might have chosen a better example, second, that such distinctions among faces cannot have inhibited Norman at every moment in his prior experience, and, last, that I must explain to my son that the recognition that you are in the presence of a truly large personage is not hampered but completed when you understand that you can laugh at him a little. I said none of these things and went on listening. We must raise the ante, Norman continued, we must make him hit the face of decency.
Kempton goes on to get at exactly why I find Mailer's public persona uncongenial, despite all the undeniable intermingled good qualities:
Norman said that if I would go alone, I had more guts than he did. And I wondered again, as I often did, how insubstantialities like guts can worry men so much more intelligent than I. I remember the war and its few patrols, and that acceptance of death that occasional soldiers know just once or twice and real soldiers know many times before it kills them. I remember coming out of the hills in that state of peace possible only to a man when he has known the enemy, and assured that I would never again fear gunfire. Then I was asleep in my tent, and some lonely Japanese Betty came over and began firing those silly white tracers and I, with nothing to fear, ran panting, almost gibbering, from tree to tree. The one thing that guts is not is a quality that can be depended on. That is why it is useless continually to test it, because there is always a time when it fails almost anyone. Bravery is irrelevant; unless you have the dangerous good fortune of not knowing you are in danger, the trick is to anticipate; as often as not, you will act badly any time you are surprised. Dignity, not courage, is all anyone can hope to keep; how odd that Mailer should so little understand his life as not to see that one of its more significant achievements has not come from its tests of his bravery but from its continual salvage of dignity intact.
Though I don't have the personal experience with danger that Kempton uses to back up his position, I am with him in being confused by those worries about toughness. The more that I associate Mailer with such questions, the less interested I am in reading him; whether that's secretly fueling my dislike of his prose style as well is an open question. But I am willing to be told that I'm mistaken, and I've not given up on the idea of finding something of real value in his work. My friend Erin swears by The Executioner's Song, which she's read many times (maybe even many times in succession back in high school?), so I have it on my shelves awaiting the right day.

Tonight as I was reading about Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptious Task: The Making of "The Life of Dr. Johnson" (2000), I was reminded of one of the most notorious episodes of Mailer's life, his championing of convicted killer Jack Abbott. Abbott's letters to Mailer had convinced the writer of his repentance; Mailer helped him publish a prison memoir, then he advocated for Abbott's release. Six weeks after being paroled, Abbott murdered a man. Mailer later described the incident as "another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in."

The Abbott case came to mind while I was reading about James Boswell's legal career. Having grudgingly acceded to his father's wishes and begun to practice law in Edinburgh, Boswell quickly
acquired a reputation for defending the hopeless and the helpless: drunken soldiers, forgers, horse-thieves, and sheep-stealers, rioters, brawlers, arsonists, the poor and the needy, clients that other, more prudent advocates avoided.
To his great credit, Boswell vigorously defended his clients, in the process sabotaging (perhaps intentionally?) his long-term career prospects. He grew particularly attached to his first criminal client, John Reid, who stood accused of the capital crime of stealing sheep. He succeeded in getting Reid acquitted, but eight years later Reid faced a similar charge and
Despite Boswell's advocacy being conducted "in a very masterly and pathetic manner"--so much so that he was applauded by several members of the jury when they convened at a tavern afterwards--Reid was this time found guilty.
Overwrought, and presumably feeling the sentence of death a grave injustice, Boswell huddled with Reid in his cell for hours, then walked with him to the gallows:
Desperate to save Reid's life, he planned to have the body cut down, carried into a stable, and there resuscitated with the aid of a surgeon. But when the moment came, Reid was beyond recall. This failure, and the pity Boswell felt for his hapless client, affected him deeply--though it must be admitted that he relished the drama of the occasion.
Though the cases are, to be honest, not all that similar--it's hard to view Boswell's actions in a very bad light--the commitment and determination of both Boswell and Mailer are undeniable. And though I'm not sure I'd have made the connection had I not just been reading Mailer obits, the men resemble each other in other ways, too: their genius for unrelenting self-promotion, their vanity (that presumably hid self-doubt), and their seemingly insatiable hunger for the spotlight.

What would they have made of each other? How likely is it that, like Vidal and Mailer, Jimmy Breslin and Mailer, the world and Mailer, they would have come to blows?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tangentially Connected Things (with apologies to Sei Shonagon)

1 Maybe Sei Shonagon's ghost was flitting around the Internets this weekend, because I wasn't the only one writing about her. While I used her words primarily as window dressing for a post about Iris Murdoch, selfdivider actually wrote well about her and her Pillow Book. The opening of his post is irresistible:
I have no doubt that Walter Benjamin, in his previous incarnation, was a Japanese woman named Sei Shonagon, born in 966 AD, serving in the court of Empress Teishi.

2 If you've not read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. It's a real treat, the occasional diary-like entry about her life at the Imperial court mixing with more general appreciations of the details (and frustrations) of everyday life. Her greatest form--and what causes selfdivider to link her with Benjamin--is the list. On Saturday I mentioned in passing her list of "Pleasing Things," but that list is so ordinary as to be unrepresentative. She's often far more unexpected in her choice of categories--as in this one, for example:
Squalid Things

The back of a piece of embroidery.

The inside of a cat's ear.

A swarm of mice, who still have no fur, when they come wriggling out of their nest.

The seams of a fur robe that has not yet been lined.

Darkness in a place that does not give the impression of being very clean.

A rather unattractive woman who looks after a large brood of children.

A woman who falls ill and remains unwell for a long time. In the mind of her lover, who is not particularly devoted to her, she must appear rather squalid.

Or this one:
Things That Should Be Short

A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.

A lamp stand.

The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.

The speech of a young girl.
There's an intimacy to Sei Shonagon's self-presentation in The Pillow Book that's stunning, born not from the revelation of private details but from the single strong sensibility that informs every entry. As with Hazlitt or, to a lesser degree, Montaigne, I close the book feeling as if I've met a person; to read it is, in a way that is astonishing considering that more than a millennium separates her from us, to feel that one knows its writer.

3 Speaking of selfdivider, I meant to link to his blog months ago when he posted a translation of an interview with Haruki Murakami that he found in a Korean magazine. If you're a Murakami fan--and especially if, like me, you find yourself responding to his cryptic clarity with an effort to divine larger authorial statements--it's well worth your time.

4 In my post Saturday about Iris Murdoch, I mentioned how much I like her first novel, Under the Net, largely because of its energy and the love of London that comes through in Murdoch's detailed descriptions. In one of the interviews collected in the book that prompted that post, From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch, Murdoch talks with her husband, critic John Bayley, and others at a 1986 symposium on her work, Murdoch explains that she would like to think that she's been getting better at her craft over the years, then says,
Someone told me this morning that they thought Under the Net was the best one, which I found very distressing!
In response, John Bayley points out one of the best aspects of that novel, the sense it gives throughout of being utterly contingent, of the possibility that the ultimate resolution of the plot could take any of a number of forms:
BAYLEY: Curiously I think Under the Net is the only one of your novels where you can feel that the novelist doesn't know how it's going to end, if you see what I mean. Actually, this is an important criterion about novels, historically speaking, that a great many novelists did write quite genuinely not knowing how to end the thing; when novels came out in installments, of course, it was quite common. I may be quite wrong about Under the Net; you probably did know how it was going to end, but it has a kind of freshness that is very mysterious, and that we strangely associate with something that is not planned.

MURDOCH: Well, yes, I did know how Under the Net was going to end. But I think this is a matter of style. It is quite an interesting point, isn't it, that some novels can seem like that, and it may be better if you have that feeling. I mean there can be a sense of too much presence of the author, a feeling that the author is going to bring the thing through to the end, come what may, in a particular way.
How could I--a partisan of the baggy and organic, a lover of the carefully arranged formlessness of Penelope Fitzgerald's best novels, a raving fan of Moby-Dick--do anything but agree? (And yet I love form, too, whether it's the jeweled perfection of The Great Gatsby or the interpenetrating circles of John Crowley's Aegypt cycle. At least I've never pretended to be consistent.)

5 Since Iris Murdoch and Jane Austen wrestled for my reading attention this weekend, it seems right to take note of something Murdoch told Simon Price in 1984:
I think my two favorite characters in literature are Achilles and Mr. Knightley in Emma. Perhaps that represents two sides of one's character, or something, but I find that I identify with both of them.
Knightley is easy to understand: he's a strong, interesting, good character. (Side note: though I know I long ago offered evidence that I was never a teenage girl, the fact that I find him far more compelling than Darcy surely provides more, right?) The choice of Achilles on the other hand--rage personified,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses
--surprises, even perplexes me. What did Murdoch see there to identify with? His rage? His ambition, which caused him to willingly choose an early death rather than forego the only eternal life he could imagine, that of lasting fame for his exploits?

As an even-tempered, unambitious sort, I've always had a bit of trouble with Achilles; for me Achilles--and the values he represents--serves as a reminder of how distant Homer's world was from ours. His values, his cares, are almost as far from mine as is possible to imagine. Yet at the same time, I've always felt an affinity with Odysseus. Sure, he's possibly the least trustworthy person in literature, but nearly every subterfuge is entered into with the same goal: keeping him alive another day. While I'd like to think I'm more scrupulous, it would require an inappropriate level of self-regard to think that I wouldn't appreciate some of Odysseus's tactics were I to find myself in similar situations.

6 All of which leads me to a larger question: just who are my favorite characters in literature? Oddly enough, I hadn't thought about that question, really, until I read about Murdoch's choices. Unlike her, I think if I put together a list it won't consist of characters with whom I particularly identify; rather--like Odysseus--they'd be characters who I can't stop thinking about, who seem forever capable of revealing new surprises. So to add to Odysseus, here's a list that came more or less off the top of my head during tonight's run:
Bjartur from Independent People

Tess from Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Lieutenant Amanda Turck from James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor

Bartleby the Scrivener

Jayber Crow, from Wendell Berry's books about the Port William Membership

King David

Barnby, Uncle Giles, and Tuffy Weedon from A Dance to the Music of Time

First Sergeant Milt Warden from From Here to Eternity

Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy

Sir Lancelot

Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky from Anna Karenina

Huckleberry Finn

Philip Marlowe

Mrs. Aubrey from Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows

Rose Ryder from John Crowley's Aegypt series

And who are yours?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Iris Murdoch joins the list of Pleasing Things

{Sei Shonagon by Kikuchi Yosai}

In one of the lists of Pleasing Things in her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon includes:
Finding a large number of tales one has not read before or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed.
If it were my list, I'd add getting a call from one's local bookstore saying that a book one ordered long ago has come in. More pleasing is getting that call having forgotten that one had even placed the order. Even more pleasing than that is to get that phone call having not only forgotten that one had ordered the book, but having in addition forgotten that the book even exists! O frabjous day indeed! Such was my reaction to the phone call informing me that my copy of From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003, Gillian Dooley, editor) had come in.

Of the bits and pieces I've read already, there are a few worth sharing from a 1963 interview by Frank Kermode. He opens the interview by talking about Murdoch's opposition to myth as a distraction from reality, even within the confines of fiction:
KERMODE: You didn't want myth to the degree that it interferes with the representation of character in a rather old-fashioned sense?

MURDOCH: Yes, this is perhaps my main thought in that article you referred to ["Against Dryness," in Existentialists and Mystics (1997)]. I think that it would be coming back to character in the old-fashioned sense which would save one from being too readily consoled.
If there is a single moral point to Murdoch's fiction, it's that one, conjured up from some mix of Plato and the Buddha: one must pay attention, for much consolation is false and we are inherently self-deluding rather than truth-seeking.

A bit later in the interview Murdoch comes out with a lament that is common to writers, yet seems to have been an even more pernicious problem for her than for many:
[One] way of putting it would be that one isn't good enough at creating character. one starts off--at least I start off--hoping every time that this is going to happen and that a lot of people who are not me are going to come into existence in some wonderful way. Yet often it turns out in the end that something about the structure of the work itself, the myth as it were of the work, has drawn all these people into a sort of spiral, or into a kind of form which ultimately is the form of one's own mind.
The most common argument against Murdoch--which I think is overstated, though containing a grain of truth--is that she wrote the same novel over and over, with the same characters. It's interesting to see her already in 1963 fretting about not being able to give her characters the full freedom they deserve.

Finally, in discussing Under the Net (1954), her first novel and one of my favorites, she responds to Kermode's question, "Is it a philosopher's novel?" with:
MURDOCH: In a very simple sense. It plays with a philosophical idea. The problem which is mentioned in the title is the problem of how far conceptualising and theorising, which from one point of view are absolutely essential, in fact divide you from the thing that is the object of theoretical attention.
What that explanation neglects, however, is the liveliness and fun of the novel--especially the sense given by the richly detailed London setting of a young writer who has fallen head over heels for a place and is determined to set that place down for everyone to enjoy. Kermode picks up on that:
KERMODE: And you set this novel quite deliberately in places which are given a good deal of actuality, in London and Paris, for example, as I remember rendered in some detail.

MURDOCH: That was just self-indulgence. It hadn't any particular significance.
An interesting response, seeming simultaneously true and a dodge, indicative in its way of Murdoch's whole career. She never did choose one or the other--ideas or characters, freedom or constraint, realism or the romantic pleasures of plotting--instead mingling them all into a shambling, joyous mess, as if she stood at the lip of Plato's cave, knowing that reality was outside, but unwilling to completely forsake the story told by the shadows.

Friday, November 09, 2007

On not reading Boswell

{Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra.}

I'm sorry, Dr. Johnson, but Boswell's Life is going to have to wait. You see, I made the mistake of opening a book that was not by Boswell yesterday, in which I read the following:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Surely you'll understand: how could I possibly not continue to read about that young lady?

Emma, by the way, takes a perfectly anti-Johnsonian approach to reading: she both makes a plan rather than reading where fancy takes her and she fails to stick to that plan. Her friend Mr. Knightley, much vexed by her for other reasons, explains:
Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through--and good lists they were--very well chosen, and very neatly arranged--sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen--I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing. --You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished.--You know you could not.

All of us for whom reading is a central fact of life know people like that: the ones who sincerely do mean to do some reading soon, but just haven't gotten around to it--and most likely never will. I tend to agree with Anthony Powell's narrator Nick Jenkins, who remarks in The Valley of Bones,
I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.
As I've commented before, people are open to being given that asset at a few key points in life--childhood, high school, college--and if those opportunities are missed, there's little chance of a real love of reading developing later. And while I know there are plenty of other pleasures (and sources of knowledge) in this world, I count myself extremely fortunate to have been given books at the right age, and I feel a real sadness for the unbooked, one that I imagine is similar to what religious believers feel for those of us who are without faith.

Ah, but that's too much pessimism for a Friday morning--and who knows how it will go with Miss Emma? Perhaps she will learn a little something after all.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"I am now getting into the habit of sitting at home all the morning and reading."

{A detail from Thomas Rowlandson's Vauxhall Gardens (1784) showing Boswell, Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Oliver Goldsmith}

From James Boswell, I've learned that ever since leaving college I've unwittingly followed a Johnsonian approach to learning--with today's day off from work falling particularly in line with his precepts:
He said he would not advise a plan of study, for he had never pursued one two days. "And a man ought just to read as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good. Idleness is a disease which must be combated. A young man should read five hours every day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge."
And all along I just thought of it as the life of a curious dilettante!

Speaking of curiosity, in noting Boswell's fear of ghosts yesterday, I neglected to mention Johnson's position on the matter. Being of a cast of mind that required him to examine every conceivable question, he of course had one:
He talked of belief in ghosts; and he said that he made a distinction between what a man might find out by the strength of his imagination, and what could not possibly be found out so. "Thus, supposed I should think that I saw a form and heard a voice cry, 'Johnson! you are a very wicked fellow, and unless you repent you will certainly be punished.' This is a thought which is so deeply impressed upon my mind that I might imagine I saw and heard so and so; and therefore I would not credit this, at least would not insist on your believing it. But if a form appeared, and a voice told me such a man is dead at such a place and such an hour; if this proves true upon inquiry, I should certainly think I had supernatural intelligence given me."

I also should add some meat to my earlier note that part of what makes Boswell so much fun is his ear for the oddities of everyday speech. An account he gives of the woman who cleaned and cooked for him and his roommate ends with one of the best examples:
[Mrs. Legge] is perhaps as curious an animal as has appeared in human shape. She presents a strong idea of one of the frightful witches in Macbeth. . . . She . . . owns that she married Mr. Legge for money. He is a little queer round creature; and claiming kindred with Baron Legge, he generally goes by the name of The Baron, and fine fun we have with him. . . . To give a specimen of Mrs. Legge, who is a prodigious prater. She said to Bob this morning, "Ay, ay, Master Robert, you may talk. But we knows what you young men are. Just cock-sparrows. You can't stand it out. But the Baron! O Lord! the Baron is a staunch man. Ay, ay, did you never hear that God never made a little man but he made it up to him in something else? Yes, yes, the Baron is a good man, an able man. He laid a married woman upon the floor while he sent the maid out for a pint of porter. But he was discovered, and so I come to know of it."

One unanticipated pleasure of Boswell's journal is the passing acquaintance it gives us with David Garrick. Garrick, the most celebrated actor of the age (or any age?), is an inescapable presence in the letters, journals, biographies, and histories of the eighteenth century, and Boswell gives us occasional glimpses of both his fame and his personality. This note of Boswell's attendance at one of Garrick's performances as King Lear gives an idea of the extent of Garrick's popular success and of the power of his acting:
So very high is his reputation, even after playing so long, that the pit was full in ten minutes after four, although the play did not begin till half an hour after six. I kept my self at a distance from all acquaintances, and got into a proper frame. Mr. Garrick gave me most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears.
No Proustian dashing of too-highly-raised hopes to be found there. Meanwhile, though he and Boswell never become more than casual acquaintances, Garrick comes off well in their meetings, seeming friendly, interested, and kind. Once when Boswell calls on him at the Drury Lane Theatre, he delivers a memorable line to seal an invitation to tea:
"And pray, will you fix a day when I shall have the pleasure of treating you with tea?" I fixed next day. "Then, Sir," said he, "the cups shall dance and the saucers skip."
The pleasantly individual cast of that image helps make clear why Johnson called Garrick, "the first man in the world for sprightly conversation."

Finally, because the weekend approaches, a reminder that though the perils of drink are many, they can often be an utterly reasonable price to pay for the company to which they admit one. Following a two-bottles-of-port night with Dr. Johnson, Boswell records:
A bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and a very inflammatory dose. I felt it last time that I drank it for several days, and this morning it was boiling in my veins. Dempster came and saw me, and said I had better be palsied at eighteen than not keep company with such a man as Johnson.
Were I a more capable drinker, or had I just a tad fewer readers, I could offer individual toasts to each of you. As is, prudence dictates that I raise a single glass: here's to rambles with Boswell, which I hope you've enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Some letters, some ghosts, and other Boswell odds and ends

{James Boswell by Thomas Lawrence, ca. 1790-95}

There's just so much good stuff in Boswell's London Journal that I can't help but share a bit more.

1 Though Boswell as a young man had met David Hume, a fellow Scot who was at that time known better for his History of England than for his philosophy, their acquaintance was slight. So when Boswell's friends played a prank on him by forging a letter from Hume inviting a regular correspondence, Boswell's excitement at the prospect made the joke a grand success. Boswell decided that the best way to get back at his friends would be to succeed in striking up an actual epistolary friendship with Hume. What he failed to realize was that Hume, though barely remembering Boswell, was peeved at him, for in a pamphlet Boswell and friends had recently published for the purpose of slagging playwright David Mallet (known as Malloch) they had quoted derogatory comments about Mallet that Hume had made to them in a private conversation long ago. Got that? All of that is utterly unimportant three hundred and fifty years later except that it sets the scene for this bristling, astonished letter from Hume:
You must know, Mr. James Boswell, or James Boswell, Esq., that I am very much out of humour with you and your two companions or co-partners. How the devil came it into your heads, or rather your noddles (for it there had been a head among you, the thing had not happened; nor are you to imagine that a parcel of volatile spirits enclosed in a skull, make a head)--I repeat it, how the devil came it ito your noddles to publish in a book to all the world what you pretend I told you in private conversation? I say pretend I told you; for as I have utterly forgot the whole matter, I am resolved utterly to deny it. Are you not sensible that by the etourderie,, to give it the lightest name, you were capable of making a quarrel between me and that irascible little man with whom I live in very good terms? Do you not feel from your own experience that among us gentlemen of the quill there is nothing of which we are so jealous (not even our wives, if we have any) as the humour of our productions? And that he least touch of blame on that head puts us into the most violent fury and combustion? I reply nothing to your letter till you give me some satisfaction for this offence, but only assure you that I am not, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant,
The sputtering anger brings Hume to life in a way that the metaphysical rigors of his philosophy can never come close to doing I particularly like the way that he turned the period's formulaic string of meaningless pleasantries on its head at the letter's close.

In the face of what must surely have been a shocking rebuff, however, Boswell demonstrated his usual quick wit. Though he opened his response with a fairly lame joke about having written about a different man named David Hume, he followed it with a much stronger effort:
As to the consequences of this affair, we are very sorry that you live in good terms with Mr. Malloch, and if we can make a quarrel between you, it will give us infinite pleasure. We shall glory in being the instruments of dissolving so heterogeneous an alliance; of separating the mild from the irascible, and the divine from the bestial.

We know very well how sore every author is when sharply touched in his works. We are pleased with giving acute pain to Mr. Malloch. We have vast satisfaction in making him smart by the rod of criticism, as much as many a tender bum has smarted by his barbarous birch when he was janitor of the High School at Edinburgh.

As to the giving you satisfaction for the offence, you may receive full gratification by reading the Reviews on our performance [that is, their pamphlet]. You will there find us held forth both as fools and as knaves; and if you will give us any other abusive appellations, we shall most submissively acquiesce. I hope this affair is now perfectly settled. I insist upon your writing to me in your usual humane style, and I assure you most sincerely that I am, my dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant,
That brashness--the vigorous confidence of a smart young man finding his feet in an exciting and challenging world--runs throughout the London Journals and provides a good deal of its charm.

2 Given all the ghost stories I've featured lately, I couldn't very well not share this one with you, from the entry for March 12, 1763:
I stayed supper, after which we talked of death, of theft, robbery, murder, and ghosts. Lady Betty and Lady Anne declared seriously that at Allanbank they were disturbed two nights by something walking and groaning in the room, which they afterwards learnt was haunted. This was very strong. My mind was now filled with a real horror instead of an imaginary one. I shuddered with apprehension. I was frightened to go home. Honest Erskine made me go with him, and kindly gave the half of his bed, in which, though a very little one, we passed the silent watches in tranquility.
Even better, editor Frederick Pottle notes:
In the sketch of his life which he wrote later for Rousseau, Boswell confessed that he had been so much afraid of ghosts that he could not sleep alone until he was eighteen. The fear, though somewhat moderated, persisted throughout his life.

3 Speaking of the editorial notes: following an evening at Lord Advocate's, Boswell complains:
Mrs. Miller's abominable Glasgow tongue excruciated me. I resolved never again to dine where a Scotchwoman from the West was allowed to feed with us.
To that statement, Pottle appends what must surely have been the most fun note to write in the whole book:
Yet he later married one.
It shows admirable restraint not to end that sentence with an exclamation point.

4 Also in the notes, taken from Boswell's other papers, is this bit of dialogue between Boswell and his erstwhile (though dissipated and unreliable) patron, the Earl of Eglinton, revealing the Earl's unfavorable reaction to the recent publication of Boswell's correspondence with his friend Erskine:
EGLINTON Upon my soul, Jamie, I would not take the direction of you upon any account, for as much as I like you, except you would agree to give over that damned publishing. Lady N___ would as soon have a raven in her house as an author. . . . By the Lord, it's a thing Dean Swift would not do--to publish a collection of letters upon nothing. Nor Madam Sevigne either.

BOSWELL My Lord, hers are very fine.

EGLINTON Yes, a few at the beginning; but when you read on, you think her a d__nd tiresome bitch.

5 I'll close with the journal's most famous episode (aside perhaps from the time Boswell has sex with a prostitute on Westminster Bridge?)--and the one towards which, from our distant vantage point, the whole journal is building: the fateful meeting with Samuel Johnson on May 16, 1673:
Mr. Davies introduced me to him. As I knew his moral antipathy at the Scotch, I cried to Davies, "Don't tell where I come from." However, he said, "From Scotland." "Mr Johnson," said I, "indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." "Sir," replied he, "that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." Mr. Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of impression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.

And with that, what can I do but pull down the Life of Johnson from the shelf? I think that's next . . . though there's a chance Jane Austen might intervene.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Catching a Tartar, or, An Encounter with Signor Gonorrhea

Having been enjoying the eighteenth century the past few days, I decided to prolong the fun by reading James Boswell's London Journal (1950). Begun when he was twenty and was living in London on his father's sufferance while attempting desultorily to secure a commission in the Guards, the journal is a carefully composed record of Boswell's daily activities. He is irresistibly good company: sincere, revealing to the point of self-deprecation, utterly unashamed, and always able to convince himself that his bad traits (ranging from lustfulness to idleness to misogyny to self-regard) are ultimately forgivable. All the while he demonstrates his sharp ear for the witty, amusing, or absurd in conversation that would lead him to be the perfect biographer for Dr. Johnson.

The period of the journal I read today covered the rise and fall of his amours in the winter of 1762-3 with the widow Mrs. Louisa Lewis, a lovely young actress, and they displayed all of what makes Boswell so compelling (and at times endearing) as a narrator of his life. Boswell initially endures a few months of coyness and playing--including a moment when, with relative delicacy, Louisa touches him for a couple of guineas. He comes through with the money, comforting himself with the thought that,
It cost me as much to be cured of what I contracted from a whore, and that ten guineas was but a moderate expense for women during the winter.
Throughout these months of cooing and petting, Boswell continually attempts to convince Louisa to allow him the "consummate bliss" of sleeping with her. He pushes; she pushes back. But each time, he makes a bit more progress, finally securing, on January 1, 1763, her promise to yield the next day when her landlady is out. On the 2nd, he writes:
[A]t three I hastened to my charmer.

Here a little speculation on the human mind may well come in. For here was I, a young man full of vigour and vivacity, the favourite lover of a handsome actress and going to enjoy the full possession of my warmest wishes. And yet melancholy threw a cloud over my mind. I could relish nothing. I felt dispirited and languid. I approached Louisa with a kind of an uneasy tremor. I sat down. I toyed with her. Yet I was not inspired by Venus. I felt rather a delicate sensation of love than a violent amorous inclination for her. I was very miserable. I thought myself feeble as a gallant, although I had experienced the reverse many a time. Louisa knew not my powers. She might imagine me impotent.
He need not have feared, for eventually,
I began to feel that I was still a man. I fanned the flame by pressing her alabaster breasts and kissing her delicious lips. I then barred the door of her dining-room, led her all fluttering into her bedchamber, and was just making a triumphal entry when we heard he landlady coming up. "O Fortune why did it happen thus?" would have been the exclamation of a Roman bard. We were stopped most suddenly and cruelly from the fruition of each other. She ran out and stopped the landlady from coming up.
Dejected, Boswell slinks off to church, consoling himself that at least he "saved my credit for prowess." He quickly arranges an assignation for the weekend at a hotel, but that, too, is not to be:
[Louisa] informed me that Saturday could not be the hoped-for time to bestow perfect felicity upon me. "Not," said she," that I have changed my mind. But it cannot be." In short, I understood that Nature's periodical effects on the human, or more properly female, constitution forbade it.
Even such a straightforward reason for delay sets Boswell to worrying again:
I was a little uneasy at this, though it could not be helped. It kept me longer anxious till my ability was known. I have, together with my vivacity and good-humour, a great anxiety of temper which often renders me uneasy. My grandfather had it in a very strong degree.
The next week, however, all goes as planned. His efforts meet with success--so much, in fact, that Louisa, impressed with his stamina, "declared me a prodigy, and asked me if this was not extraordinary for human nature."

Boswell doesn't get to enjoy his complacent self-satisfaction for long; less than a week later, he's beginning to worry that he might need those ten guineas after all:
I this day began to feel an unaccountable alarm of unexpected evil: a little heat in the members of my body sacred to Cupid, very like a symptom of that distemper with which Venus, when cross, takes it into her head to plague her votaries. But then I had run no risks. I had been with no woman but Louisa; and sure she could not have such a thing. Away then with such idle fears, such groundless, uneasy apprehensions!
The next day he writes,
I this morning feel stronger symptoms of the sad distemper, yet I was unwilling to imagine such a thing,
but later in the day he confesses to friends that he fears he's been given the clap:
They really sympathized, and yet they could not help smiling a little at my catching a tartar so very unexpectedly, when I imagined myself quite safe, and had been vaunting most heroically of my felicity in having the possession of a fine woman, to whom I ascribed so many endearing qualities that they really doubted of her existence.
By day's end, he's given up hope:
When I got home, though, then came sorrow. Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhea.

He visits his friend Douglas the surgeon, which leads to an amusing exchange wherein Boswell drops joking hints about a possible break on the price, which Douglas studiously pretends not to catch:
To these jokes he seemed to give little heed, but talked seriously in the way of business. And here let me make a just and true observation, which is that the same man as a friend and as a surgeon exhibits two very opposite characters.

Anyone who's read Casanova's memoirs (If you haven't, go do so! You won't regret it!) knows what comes next: a scene with the lady, wherein she denies any knowledge, followed by weeks of mercury and idle seclusion, the pains of which he alleviates by sending Louisa a rude, even cruel note demanding the repayment of his little loan. The note ends,
Call not that a misfortune which is the consequence of your own unworthiness. I desire no mean evasions. I want no letters. Send the money sealed up. I have nothing more to say to you.
Even Boswell realizes that the tone is too harsh, but he convinces himself that he is "only sacrificing at the shrine of Justice." Her return of the guineas a week later closes the episode by sending him into a typically self-regarding and entertaining path, begun in doubt but ending in confidence:
I felt a strange kind of mixed confusion. My tender heart relented. I thought I had acted too harshly to her. I imagined she might--perhaps--have been ignorant of her situation. I was so foolish as to think of returning her the money and writing her a letter of atonement. I have too much of what Shakespeare calls "the milk of human kindness." I mentioned the thing to [his friend] Dempster. He said it was just a piece of deep artifice in her. I resolved to think no more on the matter, and was glad that I had come off two guineas better than I expected.

So now the question is: should I tackle the Life of Johnson? I do love Johnson, and I'm clearly a fan of Boswell's style. The only thing stopping me is the length. Anyone read it and want to weigh in?