Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Now comical then tragical matters"

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From Best Thought, Worst Thought (2008), by Don Paterson:
There is no day. The sun interrupts a continuous night. Our ancestors were correct: the sun abandons us.
The new year has issued its summons, requiring our attendance, and whether we leap enthusiastically into its unknown reaches or grudglingly edge up to the starting line trembling with suspicion, it seems worth commemorating the moment with a passage from Robert Burton's evergreen The Anatomy of Melancholy. This passage, which Anthony Powell invokes near the end of A Dance to the Music of Time as almost a precis of what has come before, never fails to remind me simultaneously of the transitory nature of most human endeavor and the abiding fascination with which we follow it regardless:
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, firs, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged, in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c., daily musters and preparations, and suchlike, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances, are daily brought to our ears. New books every day, pamphlets, currantoes, stories, whole catalogues of volumes of all sorts, new paradoxes, opinions, schisms, heresies, controversies in philosophy, religion, &c. Now come tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villainies in all kinds, funerals, burials, deaths of Princes, new discoveries, expeditions; now comical then tragical matters. Today we hear of new Lords and officers created, to-morrow of some great men deposed. And then again of fresh honors conferred; one is let loose, another imprisoned, one purchaseth, another breaketh; he thrives, his neighbor turns bankrupt; now plenty, then again dearth and famine; one runs, another rides, wrangles, laughs, weeps, &c.
Burton's effusion puts me in the mind a couple of lines from poet, translator, and scholar D. J. Enright, who died on a New Year's Eve early in this decade. Taken from his Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995), they seem worth carrying with us to our various dinners and parties tonight:
One mistake: to suppose you are so different from other people; another: to suppose other people are just like you. Common v. uncommon: lifeblood of many a commonplace.
Here's to another year, different as it's sure to be, same as it's sure to be.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one," or, George Orwell, Bookseller

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From "Bookshop Memories," by George Orwell, originally published in the Fortnightly, November 1936
Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop. . . . Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.
Good to see that even the best prognosticators can be wrong sometimes--though it's somewhat depressing to realize that in this case Orwell was wrong because he shed his habitual pessimism about society's ability to dehumanize any activity. Actually, I suppose we can at worst give Orwell half-marks for this prediction: having in my time worked in a small, serious independent bookshop (as well as in a small London chain), I agree with the sense of his first statement, that an independent bookstore is still a viable proposition for a smart (and, as he later notes, hard-working) entrepreneur. And the combines--which do some things extremely well, it must be said--have certainly not wiped out the independents; though their ranks are considerably thinned, there are still good independents in most good-sized American cities, while those of us who work in Hyde Park in Chicago are particularly spoiled by the riches of the Seminary Co-op stores.

"Bookshop Memories," which I encountered in Books v. Cigarettes (2008), a new volume in Penguin's beautifully conceived and designed Great Ideas series, also offers some skewering of the typical bookstore customer that will still resonate with booksellers today. Take this, which would fit comfortably with the retail horror stories found at the Book Lady's Blog:
Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who "wants a book for an invalid" (a very common demand, that,), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover. . . . In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang around for a long time without spending any money.
None of this would have come as a surprise to a reader who had already encountered Orwell's first novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which had been published about seven months earlier. Its opening chapter paints about as unromantic a picture of bookselling--and, it must be said, of humanity--as is possible. On the second page we get this:
This was the lonely after-dinner hour, when few or no customers were to be expected. He was alone with seven thousand books. The small dark room, smelling of dust and decayed paper, that gave on the office, was filled to the brim with books, mostly aged and unsaleable. On the top shelves near the ceiling the quarto volumes of extinct encyclopedias slumbered on their sides in piles like the tiered coffins in common graves.
Later, two of the customers of the shop's lending library enter:
"Good afternoon, Mrs Weaver. Good afternoon, Mrs Penn. What terrible weather!"

"Shocking!" said Mrs Penn.

He stood aside to let them pass. Mrs Weaver upset her rush basket and spilled on to the floor a much-thumbed copy of Ethel M. Dell's Silver Wedding. Mrs Penn's bright bird-eye lighted upon it. Behind Mrs Weaver's back she smiled up to Gordon, archly, as highbrow to highbrow. Dell! The lowness of it! The books these lower classes read! Understandingly, he smiled back. They passed into the library, highbrow to highbrow smiling.

Mrs Penn laid The Forsyte Saga on the table and turned her sparrow-bosom upon Gordon. She was always very affable to Gordon. She addressed him as Mister Comstock, shopwalker though he was, and held literary conversations with him. There was the free-masonry of highbrows between them.
Little does Mrs. Penn know that Gordon holds her love of Galsworthy in as low esteem as Mrs. Weaver's preference for Ethel M. Dell. In fact, Orwell soon shows us ably fielding a request from the other end of the spectrum:
"Oh no, not her. She's too Deep. I can't bear Deep books. But I want something--well, you know--modern. Sex-problems and divorce and all that. You know."

"Modern, but not Deep," said Gordon, as lowbrow to lowbrow.
Gordon, we realize, has succumbed to that toxic mix of contempt and general misanthropy (always accompanied by a dash of the bitters of self-loathing) that perpetually tempts every retail drudge. It reaches its dizzying, soul-staining height in this exchange, which Orwell surely wrote from repeated personal experience:
A couple of old creatures, a tramp or a beggar and his wife, in long greasy overcoats that reached almost to the ground, were shuffling towards the shop. Book-pinchers, by the look of them. Better keep an eye on the boxes outside. The old man halted on the kerb a few yards away while his wife came to the door. She pushed it open and looked up at Gordon, between grey strings of hair, with a sort of hopeful malevolence.

"Ju buy books?" she demanded hoarsely.

"Sometimes. It depends what books they are."

"I gossome LOVELY books 'ere."

She came in, shutting the door with a clang. The Nancy glanced over his shoulder distastefully and moved a step or two away, into the corner. The old woman had produced a greasy little sack from under her overcoat. She moved confidentially nearer to Gordon. She smelt of very, very old breadcrusts.

"Will you 'ave 'em?" she said, clasping the neck of the sack. "Only 'alf a crown the lot."

"What are they? Let me see them, please."

"LOVELY books, they are," she breathed, bending over to open the sack and emitting a sudden very powerful whiff of breadcrusts.

''Ere!" she said, and thrust an armful of filthy-looking books almost into Gordon's face.

They were an 1884 edition of Charlotte M. Yonge's novels, and had the appearance of having been slept on for many years. Gordon stepped back, suddenly revolted.

'We can't possibly buy those," he said shortly.

"Can't buy 'em? WHY can't yer buy 'em?"

"Because they're no use to us. We can't sell that kind of thing."

"Wotcher make me take 'em out o' me bag for, then?" demanded the old woman ferociously.
Could there be a phrase more apt than "a sort of hopeful malevolence?" Nearly ten years after I left bookselling, there are days when I still miss it; a quick flip through Keep the Aspidistra Flying is usually enough to cure it. Forevermore, a browser and a buyer I'll be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Time to pour the egg nog.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

From Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1912, translation from 2007 by Robin Buss)
Rounds and rarandoles were being arranged int he corridors. From somewhere, there was thee sound of music: a minuet . . Meaulnes, whose head was half hidden in the collar of his overcoat, as though in a ruff, felt he was someone else. Caught up in the game, he too began to chase the great pierrot through the corridors of the chateau, as though in the wings of a theatre where the performance has spread off the stage. In this way, for the rest of the night, he mingled with a happy throng in fanciful attire. At times, he would open a door and find himself in a room where a magic lantern show was going on and children were applauding loudly. . . . Meaulnes cautiously put his head round the door. There was a kind of parlour, in which a woman or girl, with a large brown cloak over her shoulders and her back to him, was very quietly playing ditties or part songs. Side by side on the divan six or seven little boys and girls, lined up like in a picture and obedient as children are late at night, were listening. . . . After the party, where everything had been delightful, but crazy and agitated, and where he had so madly charged after the big pierrot, Meaulnes now found himself in the midst of the most tranquil happiness imaginable.
My family's holiday celebration will certainly be more subdued than the one Meaulnes stumbles into, but I'm willing to believe that a similar gentle magic will pervade it.

Here's hoping you and yours find some tranquil happiness as well this weekend.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"This might do," or, J. F. Powers and human frailty

From "A Losing Game," by J. F. Powers, collected in The Stories of J. F. Powers (2000)
Father Fabre, coming from the bathroom, stopped and knocked at the pastor’s door—something about the door had said, Why not? No sound came from the room, but the pastor had a ghostly step and there he was, opening the door an inch, giving his new curate a glimpse of the green eyeshade he wore and of the chaos in which he dwelt. Father Fabre saw the radio in the unmade bed, the correspondence, the pamphlets, the folding money, and all the rest of it—what the bishop, on an official visitation, barging into the room and then hurriedly backing out, had passed off to the attending clergy as “a little unfinished business.”

“Yes? Yes?”

“How about that table you promised me?”

The pastor just looked at him.

“The one for my room, remember? Something to put my typewriter on.”

“See what I can do.”

The pastor had said that before. Father Fabre said, “I’m using the radiator now.”

The pastor nodded, apparently granting him permission to continue using it.
Thus begins my favorite of J. F. Powers's stories, an opening that makes me laugh every time. Father Fabre, we know almost instantly, is up against a force stronger than he is: his pastor is a master of obstruction and obfuscation, instintively throwing up impenetrable roadblocks to any request while ever maintaining what in a more openly political context would be called plausible deniability.

Powers's stories, as well as his two novels, are almost exclusively concerned with priests, and Father Fabre's pastor could serve as an extreme example of the form in which Powers paints them: creatures not of faith but of habit, routine, and drudging vocation, believing in rules far more than in verities, and relentlessly focused on the here and now, the everyday, the earthly. Most of Powers's priests in fact are far more worldly than the pastor in this story: the main character of his enchanting novel More D'Urban (which won the National Book Award in 1963), Father Urban, for example, is as worldly as his overly symbolic name would suggest. He drives a fine (borrowed) car, gives talks to Chamber of Commerce sorts, and spends as much time in the company of successful businessmen as did any of the philistines who provoked Jesus' wrath.

For these men, though the priesthood may once have been a calling, it is now a job; they have surrendered not to faith but to the daily dictates of the hierarchy that stretches above them. They live on the verge of society (a very late-1950s society at that, whose clubs and restaurants and social groupings are of particular interest to a reader encountering them half a century later), respected yet at the same time never quite allowed in; it is an awkward position, and in many of Powers's priests we can see pure (or rather impure) yearning for that apparently simpler--and more obviously remunerative--life. James Wood, in The Irresponsible Self, writes,
[Graham] Greene is enjoyed by Catholics in part, one suspects, because his pessimism is not threatening. He tells us, in effect, that the religious life is more complicated than we imagined, which ultimately consoles us. But Powers is very threatening, and ought not to be easily enjoyed by Catholics, because the cumulative suggestion of his work is that the religious life, at least for priests, has become practically unattainable. Hardly ever, in over a thousand pages of fiction, do we see one of Powers's priests reflect spiritually on a spiritual matter. . . . [T]hey are slaves to what Kierkegaard attacked as "Christendom"--the business of priestly activity rather than the practice of Christian witness, love of the world rather than imitation of Christ.
Wood is right that Powers's stories are more about work than about faith, but at the same time I think he is a bit too quick to see despair of religion in them. Yes, Powers's priests spend their days worried more about their building funds than their parishioners' souls, about their frustrations with the housekeeper than the difficulties of faith, but his refusal to portray these men as anything but workers with a job to do affords their rare moments of actual testing--of principle, if not necessarily of faith, in action--all the more powerful. After a lifetime of mostly thoughtless self-indulgence, Father Urban achieves a certain grace when unexpectedly forced to make an ethical choice; similarly, in the moving (yet still hilarious) sequel to "A Losing Game," "The Presence of Grace," Father Fabre's pastor reveals that the very weapon of rebarbative inarticulacy that he uses out of habit against his curate can also be deployed in support of human love and kindness (of which he may know more, it turns out, than the inexperienced Father Fabre.)

I can't speak for Catholics, or even for believers, being neither. But as a reader, I find that Powers's priests--with their mix of daily spiritual failures and occasional moral triumphs--feel not just real, but inspiring in a way that, say, Tolstoy's self-denials and hectoring in the pursuit of the purity of Christ could never be. Their lives and the petty frustrations thereof are recognizable and familiar, a reminder that no matter our spirituality, we are all always compromised, could always be better, do more.

These questions of faith and grace should not cloud the fact that Powers deserves better than to be pigeonholed as solely a Catholic writer, a label that has been responsible, it would seem, for at least a part of the benign neglect into which he's fallen over the years. As I wrote above, these are largely stories about work, and Powers is as astute as any writer at understanding and depicting the relationships (good and bad) between bosses and employees, colleagues and contacts, and all the mistakes, compromises, and petty brutalities we can't help but encounter in earning our daily bread.

His prose is precise, even delicate, yet frequently very funny, his dry wit driven by understatement and irony. V. S. Pritchett is the first writer he brings to mind, Penelope Fitzgerald another. This passage from "A Losing Game," which finds Father Fabre and his pastor in the junk-filled basement, gives an idea of his eye for telling detail, as well as the elegance of his comedy:
It was impossible to decide what it all meant. In the clothes tree alone, Father Fabre noticed a cartridge belt, a canteen stenciled with the letters U.S., a pair of snowshoes, an old bicycle tire of wrinkled red rubber, a beekeeper's veil. One of Father Fabre's first services to the pastor had been to help John carry two workbenches into the basement. At that time he had thought the pastor must have plans for a school in which manual training would be taught. Now he felt that the pastor had no plans at all for any of the furniture and junk. A few of the unemployed statues when seen at a distance, those with their arms extended, appeared to be trying to get the place straightened up, carrying things, but on closer examination they, too, proved to be preoccupied with a higher kind of order, and carrying crosiers.
The last few lines, with their half-serious, wholly futile attempt to discern meaning amid chaos, remind me of no one so much as Anthony Powell, while the sheer exhaustion of Father Fabre's survey calls to mind poor Bartleby. Fans of any of the writers I've named could do far worse than picking up the three Powers volumes published by the New York Review of Books: the volume of stories and the novels Morte D'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green.

"Comic realism," James Wood writes, "attends to the human exception, . . scathes our pretensions and blesses our weaknesses." What better time than than the holidays for such generosity of spirit?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Too much liquid, even for two such large men

{Photos by rocketlass.}

This post began with the return of my grisly obsession with the horrors of medicinal bloodletting, prompted by this passage from Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson: A Life (2008):
[Johnson's] imagination was playing tricks on him, and he feared the worst for his lungs. "My physician bled me yesterday and the day before, first almost against his will, but the next day without any contest. I had been bled once before, so that I have lost in all 54 ounces." It was the third time he was bled that winter. Like many of his contemporaries, he was already well into phlebotomy, the surgical opening or puncture of a vein to draw out blood, a lifelong madness that he inflicted on his ailing body with more assiduity than most. Rather than wait on a physician, he often impatiently bled himself with grisly deliberateness for all manner of ailments: coughs and colds, flatulence, an "inflamed" eye, and especially breathing difficulties and shortness of breath. Fifty-four ounces is a great quantity of blood, though to the end of his life he believed that the practice was effective only if it were done in copious amounts.
I think Martin is understating the case: the entire human body only contains about 190 ounces. Blood donors often feel faint after giving a mere pint; I would describe a medicinal bloodletting that drained more than three times that amount as wildly insane, even by the standards of Johnson's day.

The memory of Johnson's copious bloodletting came to mind instantly Thursday when I encountered the following exchange between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance (1934):
"[W]e're licked as sure as you're full of beer."

[Wolfe's] eyes opened. "I'm going to cut down to five quarts a day. Twelve bottles. A bottle doesn't hold a pint."

Even for a man of Nero Wolfe's bulk (think Sydney Greenstreet, who, perhaps inevitably, was cast as Wolfe on the fun, but short-lived radio adaptation) five quarts per day of beer would seem to be a bit much. And that's the diet ration! A doctor hired to bleed Wolfe might be well-advised to get acquire a liquor license beforehand: then he could hang a neon sign and start pouring frothy pints straight from Wolfe's arm!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Archie Goodwin on Shysters, Shysterball on Archie Goodwin

From Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance (1934)
"Oh no." I shook my head. "That's not the way us geniuses work, you can't shake us empty like a bag of peanuts."
A couple of days ago, at the suggestion of Terry Teachout, I picked up a Rex Stout two-fer, containing the first two Nero Wolfe mysteries, Fer-de-Lance (1934) and The League of Frightened Men (1935). Back in high school, I read the couple of Wolfe mysteries that my local library carried, but they didn't make much of an impression. This time around, spending time with Nero Wolfe has been a sheer joy.

When I read Stout all those years ago, I was interested almost exclusively in crime novels of a hard-boiled bent--having just progressed from Robert B. Parker to Lawrence Block. Wolfe, however, is decidedly soft-boiled, a willfully eccentric Sherlock Holmes who wholly eschews the physical component of the detective's art, in part because of his hippopotamean bulk. "You must pardon me," he tells a client, "for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies."

All investigative activities that cannot be performed from the comfort of Wolfe's West 35th Street townhouse he leaves to his operative Archie Goodwin, who narrates the adventures in a voice that is somewhere between Huck Finn and Bertie Wooster, spinning a vibrant, slang-filled running monologue that offers a splendid contrast to Wolfe's lofty certainties. Here he is crossing off a suspect in Fer-de-Lance:
One look at Dr. Bradford was enough to show me that I had been wasting a lot of pleasant suspicions which might have been avoided if I had happened to catch sight of him somewhere. He was tall and grave and correct, the distinguished old gentleman type, and he had whiskers! There may have been a historical period when it was possible for a guy with whiskers to pull a knife and plunge it into somebody's back, but that was a long time ago. Nowadays it couldn't be done.
That's probably enough to give you a sense both of Archie Goodwin's mind and his voice--and also of the larger reason why I wasn't impressed with the Wolfe books back in high school: I simply wasn't attuned to the fun Stout was having with language and character. Revisit Agatha Christie's novels as an adult, and you find them almost murdered by their flat, even awkward prose and cardboard characters; revisit Stout's as an an adult and you find them offering pleasure after pleasure that simply didn't register when you were younger.

And now to explain this post's headline: in Fer-de-Lance, Archie describes the feeling of awe that always overtakes him when he enters the presence of Wolfe's enormous collection of orchids:
It was like other things I've noticed, for instance no matter how often you may have seen Snyder leap in the air and one-handed spear a hot liner like one streak of lightning stopping another one, when you see it again your heart stops.
Loving that image, I began to wonder what ballplayer Goodwin was talking about; when Baseball Reference turned up no appropriate Snyders, I appealed to Craig Calcaterra, proprietor of the wonderful baseball blog Shysterball. Craig was kind enough to put the question to his readers today, and you can read his post, along with his readers' thoughtful guesses, here.

In thanks, it's only right to share the following passage. Craig, as his blog's name indicates, is a lawyer, and it turns out that Archie Goodwin has a decided impression of lawyers:
When I consider the different kinds I've seen it seems silly to say it, but somehow to me all lawyers look alike. It's a sort of mixture of a scared look and a satisfied look, as if they were crossing a traffic-filled street where they expect to get run over any minute but they know exactly the kind of paper to hand the driver if they get killed and they've got one right in their pocket. This Derwin looked like that; otherwise he seemed very respectable.
I assume Craig has such a paper in his pocket at all times--unless, like Nero Wolfe, he's so powerful that he doesn't even need to leave the house?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"A very poor creeper upon the earth," or, Johnsonian gleanings for a snowy night

Tonight, after waiting an inordinately long time for the bus as the snow piled high and I slowly lost sensation in my feet, I opened Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008), to find that Johnson, as he so often does, afforded me a bit of consolation. I, after all, required only a few minutes of warmth to banish the pain from my feet; Johnson, on the other hand, had to endure protracted bouts with gout. Quotes Martin:
"I enjoy all the dignity of lameness. . . . I am a very poor creeper upon the earth, catching at anything with my hands to spare my feet." "It is of my own acquisition, as neither my father had it or my mother."
The thought led me back to a passage in Boswell's Life, in which, to support his contention that Johnson was the author of a couple of lines of anonymous doggerel, he asks,
Why may not a poet suppose himself to have the gout, as well as to suppose himself to be in love, of which we have innumerable instances[?]
But why, oh why would a poet want to put himself through that?

Other gleanings from tonight's reading of Martin's splendidly quote-filled biography:

1 In his final years, Johnson lived in a house at 8 Bolt Court, to which he welcomed a remarkable mix of friends and charity cases as free boarders. According to Martin, by 1777, they numbered seven, though I can only put names to six: Francis Barber, Johnson's manservant; Anna Williams, a blind poet who had lived with Johnson for years; Dr. Robert Levet, described by Hester Thrale as a "superannuated surgeon," and by Johnson as "a brutal fellow, but I have a good regard for him for his brutality is in his manners, not his mind"; Poll Carmichael, a Scotswoman who may have been a reformed prostitute; and an old friend of Johnson's late wife, Mrs. Desmoulins, who moved in along with her daughter in 1777. As Martin puts it,
She completed the recipe for domestic chaos in the house, for she and Mrs Williams despised each other and the normal bickering in the house increased exponentially. Mrs Thrale was both amused and horrified that Johnson's house was "overrun with all sort of strange creatures, whom he admits for mere charity," "but as they can both be occasionally of service to each other, and as neither of them have any other place to go to, their animosity does not force them to separate." None of the inhabitants, in fact, liked Mrs Desmoulins. "Mr Levet who thinks his ancient rights invaded, stands at bay, fierce as ten furies," Johnson grumbled to Mrs Thrale; "Mrs Williams growls and scolds, but Poll does not much flinch." After a year with all of them, Johnson summed up the turmoil in the house: "We have tolerable concord at home, but no love. Williams hates everybody. Levet hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams. Desmoulins hates them both. Poll loves none of them."
It sounds like either a logic puzzle or a 1930s screenplay, some sort of cross between Ball of Fire and You Can't Take It With You; I will admit to enjoying the image of Johnson as the grumbly patriarch on a sitcom, perhaps played by Jeffrey Jones.

2 Descriptions of Johnson's unusual physical presence are common, many of them highlighting the tics that most people now agree were most likely symptoms of a neurological disorder. Two that are quoted in the final portion of Martin's book seem worth sharing, however, for their language alone. First, from the Reverend Thomas Campbell, an Irish clergyman who, on meeting Johnson, was unimpressed:
[He] has the aspect of an idiot, without the faintest ray of sense gleaming from any one feature--with the most awkward garb, and unpowdered grey wig, on one side only of his head--he is forever dancing the devil's jig, and sometimes he makes the most drivelling effort to whistle some thought in his absent paroxysms. . . . [He] flew in a passion rather too much.
Then there's this description from the more appreciative Fanny Burney, who is known to us now as the author of Evelina:
He is, indeed, very ill-favoured; is tall and stout, and stoops terribly; he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost continually opening and shutting, as if he was chewing. He has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers, and twisting his hands. His body is in continual agitation, see-sawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet; and, in short, his whole person is in perpetual motion.
Martin writes that Burney's journals, "full and rich with the novelist's wit and vibrantly recorded scenes," deserve to be ranked with those of Pepys and Boswell. That's high praise; anyone out there willing to second it, and thus launch me on a library trip?

3 Johnson, as is well known, was at best opinionated, at worst downright difficult to get along with. The following exchange with his close friend Mrs. Thrale succinctly sums up Johnson's problem keeping his manners:
As he confessed to Mrs Thrale, "I am always sorry when I make bitter speeches & I never do it, but when I am insufferably vexed." "But you do suffer things to vex you, that nobody else would vex at."
James Boswell was often the source of that vexation. Though the more one reads about Johnson, the more on realizes that he really did feel warm friendship for Boswell, at the same time, his exasperation at Boswell's transparent attempts to draw him out on various topics regularly bubbled over. I can't resist closing with two of his complaints about his importunate friend that, though oft-quoted, still bring joy. First, to Boswell himself:
You have but two topics, yourself and me, and I'm sick of both.
Then, about Boswell to another friend:
Boswell's conversation consists entirely in asking questions, and it is extremely offensive.
Why is it that every time I see those lines I smile, loving both men more?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Not in time for Christmas . . .

{Painting of Gabriel Hunt in action by Glenn Orbik.}

. . . but still one of the things I'm most looking forward to next year: Charles Ardai, cocreator and publisher of Hard Case Crime, is starting a new series. Cast in the mold of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Hunt for Adventure series will follow intrepid explorer Gabriel Hunt as he traipses around the world in search of the sort of mysterious artifacts that have thrilled the hearts of adventurers from Doc Savage to Indiana Jones--not to mention me and my brother, as, swords in hand, we chased each other around the back yard all those years ago.

In a nod to the old Stratemeyer Syndicate and its ilk, the Hunt for Adventure novels will all be attributed to Gabriel Hunt himself, though presumably the writers behind the house name will include at least a handful familiar from the Hard Case line. While visiting my parents' house recently, I was looking through my stacks of old novels featuring Doc Savage and the Avenger; if Ardai can generate anything like the excitement I felt as a twelve-year-old on discovering those books, the Hunt for Adventure will be well worth my time.

The first book is scheduled for publication in May; if you want more information, you can sign up for a mailing list here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Paris Review

Following my George Plimpton post, it seems right that I praise the marketing department at Picador for the ingenious promotional scheme they came up with for The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III (2008): they arranged with a couple of blogs--including Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, and Mark Sarvas's Elegant Variation--to run contests through which they would give away sets of the three volumes.

The contests required readers to identify interview subjects through a snippet of an answer, which was not only fun but good marketing--after reading a few days of stumpers (and probably trolling the Paris Review archives to try to find the answer) you couldn't help but be impressed by the quality of the collections.

To make it even better, I actually won a set last week, by identifying the interview subject who gave E. M. Forster the back of his hand in this exchange:
E. M. Forster speaks speaks of his major characters sometimes taking over and dictating the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for you, or are you in complete command?

My knowledge of Mr. Forster's works is limited to one novel, which I dislike; and anyway, it was not he who fathered that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills, although of course one sympathizes with his people if they try to wriggle out of that trip to India or wherever he takes them. My characters are galley slaves.
Initially the savagery of "trite little whimsy" made me think of Evelyn Waugh, but I eventually decided that Waugh couldn't have so successfully avoided Forster's novels, settling instead on Nabokov--it was "whimsy" and "quills" that did it, along with the flat brutality of "galley slaves."

On receiving my set today, I was pleased to see that the topic of E. M. Forster does come up in the interview with Waugh in Volume III. Conducted in 1963, when Waugh was well into what Penelope Fitzgerald calls his "I am bored; you are frightened" phase, the interview features the usual Wauvian combination of crankiness and intelligence. At one point, he mutters, looking out the window over Hyde Park, "The horrors of London life! The horrors of London life!"

Forster's name surfaces when the interviewer asks about his famous distinction between flat and round characters. Having always had difficulty with the false simplicity of those categories, I appreciate Waugh's repudiation of them:
All fictional characters are flat. A writer can give an illusion of depth by giving an apparently stereoscopic view of a character--seeing him from two vantage points; all a writer can do is give more or less information about a character, not information of a different order.

Then do you make no radical distinction between characters as differently conceived as Mr. Prendergast and Sebastian Flyte?

Yes, I do. There are protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture. Sebastian Flyte was a protagonist.

Would you say, then, that Charles Ryder was the character about whom you gave the most information?

No, Guy Crouchback. [A little restlessly] But look, I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.
Would it be better to be Waugh's furniture or Nabokov's galley slave? And, to keep the theme running, when I think of a writer who is "obsessed with the use of language," I think first of Nabokov, but Waugh runs a close second

Finally, I can't resist closing with this exchange about writers Waugh likes, in part because it includes a couple of my own favorites:
What about Ronald Firbank?

I enjoyed him very much when I was young. I can't read him now.


I think there would be something wrong with an elderly man who could enjoy Firbank.

Whom do you read for pleasure?

Anthony Powell. Ronald Knox, both for pleasure and moral edification. Erle Stanley Gardner.

And Raymond Chandler!

No. I'm bored by all those slugs of whiskey. I don't care for all the violence either.

But isn't there a lot of violence in Gardner?

Not of the extraneous lubricious sort you find in other American crime writers.
"Extraneous lubricious sort"--now that could have come from the mouth of Nabokov!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Harry Mathews on George Plimpton

The pleasures of the new group oral history of George Plimpton, George, Being George come as much from the unexpected appearance of old favorites as from the multiple perspectives they offer on Plimpton himself.

So far, in my flipping through the book, the best of those has been Harry Mathews, who relates two instances when Plimpton took a gamble on some of Mathews's famously obscure (and essentially unsellable) early books. First, from 1966, this account of an aborted promotional plan for Mathews's second novel, Tlooth:
George created the first Paris Review Editions--another moneymaker, he hoped. And the first book they published was James Salter's wonderful A Sport and a Pastime, which was cover-to-cover sex and did well. The second was my second novel, Tlooth (1966), which was a totally weird book, but I worked on every sentence. The story that George always used to love to tell is that on pub day, they would hire a plane to inscribe the letters TLOOTH in the sky above New York to create wonder and bewilderment in the populace; but the winds weren't right, and it was too expensive anyway. Of course, the book--well, it didn't go nowhere, but it didn't do very well.
Bewilderment would have been the right tone to aim for in marketing Tlooth. It's hard to imagine following A Sport and a Pastime with Tlooth, a novel so odd that even its current publisher, the wonderful Dalkey Archive, is only willing to say that it has a plot, "of sorts." It opens with a baseball game in a Russian prison camp between the Defective Baptists, "whose love of baseball signified gentleness," and the Fideists, for whom the same signalled cruelty"; it gets stranger from there.

If anything, though, the novel that marked the next time Mathews's path intersected with the Paris Review was even more difficult. The Maxine to whom Mathews refers in this anecdote is Maxien Groffsky, with whom he'd run off to Paris in 1962:
It was fine, Maxine working for George, because they never had anything to do with one another. George had the final say on everything that went into the Review, but then Maxine took extraordinary initiatives on her own and confronted George with them. For instance, in once issue, I wrote a poem that incorporated lines from all the poems in that issue. I told her about this. I don't think George ever noticed, but one reader did notice, and wrote to the magazine. Her boldest initiative was--I had written The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, which was just unsellable, and Maxine, out of the goodness of her heart, published it in four issues of the Paris Review. I don't think that George minded at all her putting in the first installment, but I don't think he realized there were going to be three more installments. In George's memoir of those years, which he published several years ago in the Paris Review itself, the question around the New York office was "Is that shit still going down?"
Mathews's novel begins mid-sentence--
. . . confidence in words, Twang. I suck my tongue for your chervil-and-lavender flavor.
--then on page six begins its second section with
Pan persns knwo base bal. The giappan-like trade-for mishn play wit it in our capatal any times. To morrow to work be gin. It's cleen eccepts for the talk. The in-habits live in draems.
It's easy to undertand Plimpton's bemusement. I'll admit that The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is the only Mathews novel I've never been able to read; if any partisans want to make a case for me to give it another go, though, I'm willing to listen.

Mathews also offers a glimpse of why he, Oulipean and literary joker, would have found Plimpton congenial:
George had a funny reputation in Society. He was from a distinguished family on both sides, but he was too glitzy for those people, even before he became a celebrity. He was still a prankster, as he had been at St. Bernard's and Exeter. Rules, traditions, conventions were excellent things in his view, but never to be taken too seriously. Others might never know what they could get away with, but he did, and he did get away with it. He may have felt that the strictures of Society--what was left of it--were pour encourager les autres, not him. But I doubt it. He didn't have that sort of arrogance. Still, Society sensed something mischievous and anarchic about him and vaguely disapproved.
In honor of the joyous friendship so many people seem to have felt for George Plimpton, I'll close with a passage from Mathews's Twenty Lines a Day (1983). Though he's writing about a different friend, his words would by all accounts seem suitable for Plimpton:
With certain friends comes a euphoria that dissolves my doubts and reticences, so that I "give myself" unstintingly; and I give myself as much to me as to the others. The love that makes my giving possible is their gift to me.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Trollope's formlessness

Nathaniel Hawthorne once described Anthony Trollope's writing as
just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.
Hawthorne was referring to Trollope's broad canvas and commitment to a detailed realism, but as I was reading Phineas Redux (1873), I began to interpret his remarks in a different light. If Trollope's characters in Phineas Redux don't know they're in a novel, it may be because the book bears little of the shape or structure of a novel. Though the book begins with Phineas Finn's return to Parliament and ends with a wedding, the first two-thirds of the novel offers almost no sense of a narrative arc; the reader has very little idea what to expect next, or where Trollope might be taking his story.

Instead--without, I should say, being in any way experimental or un-Victorian--Phineas Redux offers a hint of the formlessness of everyday life. Incidents succeed one another--Phineas is re-elected, Parliament debates the disestablishment of the church, Phineas takes counsel with his passel of female friends--but until the murder of one of Phineas's political antagonists nearly 400 pages in, there is little sense that these developments are leading anywhere. Even the murder, which takes place between chapters, offers little in the way of traditional suspense: though Phineas is accused, Trollope tells the reader point-blank the identity of the real murderer, and even the outcome of Phineas's protracted trial seems a foregone conclusion.

All this should not, however, be taken to mean that Phineas Redux is a bad or uninteresting novel; it's decidedly neither. In fact, Trollope's reduction of plot to a mere succession of lived days is bracing--and surprisingly well-suited to the real aim of the six Palliser novels, of which Phineas Redux is the fourth: to demonstrate how people and societies change over time. Readers of all the Palliser novels will have spent more than 3,000 pages with some of the characters by the end of Phineas Redux, and at least 1,300 with almost all of them. Through the accretion of detail and the piling up of seemingly minor decisions, we have come to deeply know these characters, and the growth of that knowledge is the reason we keep reading; the erstwhile plot is at best secondary.

Along the way, the pleasures are countless. Though Phineas Redux does have its longeurs--what 600-plus-page novel doesn't?--Trollope's prose is always elegant and interesting. He is as capable of loosing a wicked generalization--such as
A man who is supposed to have caused a disturbance between two married people, of a certain rank of life, does generally receive a certain meed of admiration.
--as a powerfully compact character sketch, such as this one of Duke Plantagenet Palliser:
Our old friend Plantagenet Palliser was a man who hardly knew insolence when he met it. There was such an absence about his of all self-consciousness, he was so little given to think of his own personal demanour and outward trappings--that he never brought himself to question the manners of others to him. Contradiction he wuld take for simple argument. Strong difference of opinion even on the part of subordinates recommended itself to him. He could put up with apparent rudeness without seeingit,a nd always gave men credit for good intentions. And withit all he had an assurance in his own position--a knowledge of the strength drecived from his intellect, his industry, his rank, and his wealth--which made him altogether fearless of others. When the little dog snarls, the big dog does not connect the snarl with himself, simply fancying that the little dog must be uncomfortable.
Trollope's dialogue is also exceptionally good; his characters--especially the female ones, who tend to be strong-willed and outspoken--frequently speak to one another with a startling directness. Take this exchange between one of the sequence's most interesting characters, Palliser's wife, Duchess Glencora, and Mr. Maule, whose impending marriage she has just facilitated. As the Duchess opens the dialogue, it's important to remember that she is not one to be mean, merely--like so many of Trollope's characters--frank:
"People go on quarrelling and fancying this and that, and thinking that the world is full of romance and poetry. When they get married they know better."

"I hope the romance and poetry do not all vanish."

"Romance and poetry are for the most part lies, Mr Maule, and are very apt to bring people into difficulty. I have seen something of them in my time, and I much prefer downright honest figures. Two and two make four; idleness is the root of all evil; love your neighbour like yourself, and the rest of it."
That sort of directness--especially when set against the manic mannerisms of Dickens characters or the sour satire of Thackeray--can be remarkably refreshing. It strips away much of the natural distance between us and the Victorians, making us, however temporarily, their intimates, and forcing us to think as they think, ache as they ache.

In his Autobiography, Trollope wrote,
By no amount of description or asseveration could I succeed in making any reader understand how much these characters and their belongings have meant to me.
I think he sold himself short; his love is obvious, and infectious. With two more Palliser novels to go, I can already foresee the sadness to come when the last page is turned and their story is told.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

In honor of Repeal

{Photos by rocketlass.}

From Richard Stark's Plunder Squad (1971)
Ducasse made himself a gin and tonic without ice. He held the glass up, grinning at it as thought it were a foolishness he'd somehow become saddled with, and said, "You know how I got onto this stuff?"

The furniture tended to white imitation Italian Provincial. Parker sat in a chair with a comfortable back and uncomfortable arms and said, "No, I don't."

"Every time I'm in a hotel," Ducasse said, "sooner or later I'm in a conversation I don't want overheard. And that's when the ice runs out. In a motel, you just take the bucket and walk down to the machine, but in a place like this you've got to call room service. It takes half an hour, and in come a guy looks invariably like an undercover narcotics man. And everybody sits around not talking and not wanting their face seen. So I trained myself to drink this shit without ice." He took a swig and made a face. "It's like drinking iodine."
Perhaps that was what the Shadow meant when he warned that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.

Still better, I suppose, than drinking something that tastes like licking paperclips, which is how a character in Charles Ardai's Fifty-to-One (2008) describes a gin and tonic she's served by an overbearing mobster. I begin to think I should add a new axiom to my collection: Never trust a mobster who serves bad gin. Post-Prohibition, that is--during Prohibition, I suppose even an otherwise sound mobster might reasonably on occasion have been reduced to serving a gin of less than Platonic form.

But yesterday's seventy-fifth anniversary of Repeal surely deserves that we take a more warmly appreciative tone. Geoffrey Gates gets us partway there with this line from his account of his first visit to a party thrown by George Plimpton, collected in the wonderfully fun and ridiculous George, Being George (2008):
This was what I'd been waiting for since college: this waft of conversation, liquor, perfume, smoke, and the exact noise level I've always liked.
It's to Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954), however, that we should turn for a truly enthusiastic description of the art of imbibing:
In a moment he'd taken a bottle of port from among the sherry, beer, and cider which filled half a shelf inside. It was from this very bottle that Welch had, the previous evening, poured Dixon the smallest drink he'd ever been seriously offered. Some of the writing on the label was in a Romance language, but not all. Just right: not too British, and not too foreign either. The cork came out with a festive, Yule-tide pop which made him wish he had some nuts and raisins; he drank deeply. Some of the liquor coursed refreshingly down his chin and under his shirt-collar. The bottle had been about three-quarters full when he started, and was about three-quarters empty when he stopped. He thumped and clinked it back into position, wiped his mouth on the sideboard-runner, and, feeling really splendid, gained his bedroom without opposition.
Which, with a certain sad inevitability, brings us to the next morning. Jim Dixon's hangover is epic, but in deference to those of you who may have over-indulged yesterday, we'll pass over it in silence, choosing instead to check in with Bertie Wooster--for Bertie, though he finds himself at the opening of The Code of the Woosters (1938) in similarly dire straits, has the incomparable Jeeves to see him through:
He shimmered out, and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you're going to die in about five minutes. On the previous night, I had given a little dinner at the Drones to Gussie Fink-Nottle as a friendly send-off before his approaching nuptials with Madeline, only daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett, CBE, and these things take their toll. Indeed, just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head--not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.

He returned with the tissue-restorer. I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink Jeeves's patent morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like racquet balls, felt better. It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back again in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation.

"Ha!" I said, retreiving the eyeballs and replacing them in position.
So here's to FDR, who not only got us out of a Depression, but forever drained the bathtub of gin as well, letting us once again enjoy the good stuff instead. Bottoms up.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Fielding, Richardson, and Dr. Johnson, or, This one's for Maggie

Last Christmas I gave my friend Maggie a gift that was at least as much a challenge as a true present: Samuel Richardson's 1,536-page epistolary novel Clarissa (1748). Her letter to me in response--for Maggie is not one to back down from a dare--is nicely summed up in her line, "I would not say I didn't enjoy the book, but there is so, so much of it."

I thus couldn't help but think of her tonight when, flipping through The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (2006), I came across this deliciously nasty account of Richardson's self-regard, from Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (1791-1823):
The extreme delight which he felt on a review [revision] of his own works, the works themselves witness. Each is an evidence of what some will deem a violent literary vanity. To Pamela is prefixed a letter from the editor (whom we know to be the author) consisting of one of the most minutely laboured panegyrics of the work itself, that ever the blindest idlolator of some ancient classic paid to the object of his frenetic imagination. To the author's own edition of his Clarissa is appended an alphabetical arrangement of the sentiments dispersed throughout the work; and such was the fondness that dictated this voluminous arrangement, that such trivial aphorisms as "habits are not easily changed," "men are known by their companions," etc. seem alike to be the object of their author's admiration. And in Sir Charles Grandison, is not only prefixed a complete index, with as much exactness as if it were a History of England, but there is also appended a list of the similes and allusions in the volume.

Literary history does not record a more singular example of that self-delight which an author has felt on a revision of his works. It was this intense pleasure which produced his voluminous labours.
Even the staunchest partisan of Richardson have to admit that D'Israeli's vitriol has a certain fierce glory, no? It makes me think a trip to the library in search of that volume may be in order . . . what other authors suffered under his withering gaze?

In the interests of Richardson fans, such as Laura of Popscratch and Jenny Davidson of Light Reading, I feel that I ought to at least allow a defense of Richardson; since I'm not qualified, having not read him, I'll allow Samuel Johnson to enter the lists as his champion. In James Boswell's Life of Johnson we find this vigorous praise, wrapped up in a blast of denigration heaped on the wonderful Henry Fielding (with the role of Johnson's friend Erskine played, admirably, by Maggie):
Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, "he was a blockhead;" and upon my expressing my astonishment as so strange an assertion, he said, "What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren racal." BOSWELL. "Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?" JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson's, than in all Tom Jones. I, indeed, never read Joseph Andrews." ERSKINE. "Surely, Sir, Richardson is very tedious." JOHNSON. "Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."
Elsewhere in the Life, Johnson says of the pair,
[T]here was as great a difference between them as between a man who knew how a watch was made, and a man who could tell the hour by looking on the dial-plate.
Boswell, characteristically, prefers the livelier Fielding. Though in conversation with his hero Johnson he seems to have only tepidly argued the point, in the Life he offers a defense that I think truly touches the heart of the charm underlying Fielding's comedy:
Johnson used to quote with approbation a saying of Richardson's, "that the virtues of Fielding's heroes were the vices of a truly good man," I will venture to add, that the moral tendency of Fielding's writings, though it does not encourage a strained and rarely possible virtue, is ever favourable to honour and honesty, and cherishes the benevolent and generous affections. He who is as good as Fielding would make him, is an amiable member of society, and may be led on by more regulated instructors, to a higher state of ethical perfection.
Clarissa is of course doomed to die for sensibility; for my part, long live Tom Jones.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Trollope and politics

I picked up Anthony Trollope's Phineas Redux (1874) this week primarily because Trollope's careful plotting and Victorian confidence seemed like the perfect way to break, at least temporarily, the hold that Roberto Bolano's fractured narratives has exerted on me in recent weeks. What I didn't expect was that it would fit so nicely with another book I was reading, John F. Harris's The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House (2004). I grabbed The Survivor off my shelf the night after Obama's victory, and I've been reading it slowly ever since, ten pages here and there, as both a way to familiarize myself with the challenges Obama faces in shaping an administration and a reminder of the distance we've come--for both good and bad--since the last time a Democrat occupied the White House.

Harris's account is detailed and impressive, giving the reader a ringside seat at the often asinine battles of the mid-nineties, while also offering a memorable portrait of the complicated and frustrating man at their center. What's most striking, however, is the way it brings home the constant personnel churn of political life. I tend to think of political change as slow-moving, with the same Congresspeople holding office year after year, but the reality is that following politics is somewhat like following baseball: watch long enough, and you'll see every piece of your team replaced, but the process moves so slowly that you'll barely notice. When Clinton took office, his party's power was still anachronistically rooted in the South, and relatively conservative figures such as Sam Nunn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan had the power to make or break his agenda. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and the entire map has changed: Obama's majority, while broad, is based in the Northeast and Midwest, far less reliant on any fractious conservatives.

That sense of constant change, of politicians in and out of office, is what makes The Survivor resonate unexpectedly with the first chapters of Phineas Redux, the fourth in the series of Palliser novels, Trollope's insider account of the workings of British government in the mid-Victorian era. When last we saw Phineas, in Phineas Finn (1869), he had resigned his seat over a question of principle and retreated to his Irish estate. His political career was over, we thought, as did Finn himself:
He had told himself over and over again that that life which he had lived in London had been, if not a dream, at any rate not more significant than a parenthesis in his days, which, as of course it had no bearing on those which had gone before, so neither would it influence those which were to follow.
But the political sands are always shifting, and as Phineas Redux opens, Finn is offered a chance to stand once more for Parliament. He jumps at the chance, for once bitten by the dramatic world of government and the attractive social whirl of London--at that point, essentially the capitol of the world--he's flat-out bored by his rural isolation in Ireland:
There are certain modes of life which, if once adopted, make contentment in any other circumstances almost an impossibility. In old age a man may retire without repining, though it is often beyond the power even of the old man to do so; but in youth, with all the faculties still perfect, with the body still strong, with the hopes still buoyant, such a change as that which had been made by Phineas Finn was more than he, or than most men, could bear with equanimity. He had revelled in the gaslight, and could not lie quiet on a sunny bank. To the palate accustomed to high cookery, bread and milk is almost painfully insipid. . . . After five years spent in the heat and excitement of London society, life in Ireland was tame to him, and cold, and dull. He did not analyse the difference between metropolitan and quasi-metropolitan manners; but he found that men and women in Dublin were different from those to whom he had been accustomed in Dublin. . . . When in London he had often told himself that he was sick of it, and that he would better love some country quiet life. Now Dublin was his Tibur, and the fickle one found that he could not be happy unless he were back again at Rome.
Phineas's enthusiasm and naivete as he restarts his political life are, surprisingly enough, occasionally echoed by Harris's account of Bill Clinton in the early days of his administration. Master operator though Clinton was, in his early days he was nevertheless frequently surprised and even overawed by the intensity of the White House: everything in Washington was just so much bigger and more complicated than Arkansas, far more so, it seems, than he had ever expected.

It will be interesting to see whether any further similarities arise; surely Finn, at least, will have the Victorian good sense not to sleep with any interns. Meanwhile, after reading Phineas's lament, can you blame a certain media-hungry governor from Alaska for not wanting to simply settle back into the quiet duties presented by her far-flung state?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Whatever it is I think I see, seems like Roberto Bolaño to me.

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Those of you who've heard enough about Roberto Bolaño lately should take heart: I've moved Anthony Trollope's Phineas Redux to the top of my stack for this week, and if anything can help me detox from Bolaño's cryptic inventions and haunting weirdness, it's Trollope's general confidence in the things of the world and their proper places.

For now, though, I remain sufficiently dogged by Bolaño that even such relatively innocuous passages as this one from Patricia Highsmith's The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), encountered over the weekend, bring 2666 blazing back into my mind:
"You expect to meet the brother? And the detective?" Reeves laughed as if at the word "detective," as he might laugh at anybody whose job it was presumably to track down crime in the world.
If you're looking for writings on Bolaño of a bit more substance, you should check out the newest issue of the Quarterly Conversation, which just went online. I'm in there with a review of the new collection of Bolaño's poetry that New Directions has published, The Romantic Dogs, while Quarterly Conversation editor Scott Esposito turns in what is the most perceptive review of 2666 I've seen so far.

The Quarterly Conversation is also giving away a complete set of Bolaño's works in English; click here for details. Oh, and there's plenty of non-Bolaño content as well, including an article on William Gaddis and a piece by Barrett Haycock about freelancing alumni profiles, and what that did to his fiction writing; any writer who's turned out copy for a living will recognize the frustrations (and the occasional pleasures) that Haycock describes.

Speaking of work, you weren't really planning to get anything done at the office today anyway, were you? It's the end of a holiday weekend; you've got to ease back into this job thing; best to just go read the Quarterly Conversation until the coffee kicks in.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"The thing is to console without telling lies."

For those of you stuck in the office one last day this week, I offer a distraction that Maud Newton dug up this week: a five-part interview of Iris Murdoch on YouTube.

Part one is below, and parts two, three, four, and five are at the embedded links.

If that's not enough Murdoch for you, you should definitely check out From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003), a collection of interviews spanning Murdoch's whole career, edited by Gillian Dooley. I've drawn on the book before, but last night as I was paging through it again, a couple of passages struck me anew.

The first one comes from a symposium at the University of Caen in January of 1978. Murdoch is in conversation with editor Jean-Louis Chevalier, and they're talking about the handful of novels she wrote in the first person:
There probably is a more direct emotional punch if the thing is written in the first person. On the other hand, the danger of this is that it's harder then to create other characters who can stand up to the narrator because they're being seen through his eyes. And I think my ideal novel--I mean the novel which I would like to write and haven't yet written--would not be written in the first person, because I'd rather write a novel which is more scattered, with many different centres. I've often thought that the best way to write a novel would be to invent the story, then to remove the hero and the heroine and write about the peripheral people--because one want to extend one's sympathy and divide one's interests.
It could be that I've simply got Roberto Bolaño too much on my brain these days, but does that last idea sound like a rough description of The Savage Detectives?

Actually, though at first blush Murdoch and Bolaño would seem to be wildly different writers, the snippets of interviews I've read with Bolaño remind me a bit of Murdoch's interviews: like her, he seems to have had a habit of making grand pronouncements that he didn't necessarily mean, or that flat-out contradict the evidence of his work. I get the sense that, like her, there's a coyness (if not a caginess) running through the persona he projects in an interview.

I'll leave you with one last bit that could I think have led, in a different world, to a productive conversation between Bolaño and Murdoch. This comes from an interview with Jack Biles in 1977:
Some sort of drama must belong to the theater, where everything is highly significant and rather poetic and where there is a definite shape.

It seems to me that in the novel very often the novelist quite properly is destroying this shape, because ordinary life doesn't have shape. Ordinary life is comic and absurd. It may be terrible, but it is absurd and shapeless, and the novelist very often attempts to convey the shapelessness by having a dramatic shape, which if he is telling a story, he usually has to have. At the same time, he is fighting against it and blurring it--even destroying it.
That struggle between plot (which Murdoch loved, and at the making of which she excelled) and character, like that between authorial control and freedom, runs through, and animates, the best of Murdoch's work.

A happy thanksgiving to you all. May your holiday feature far less drama than a Murdoch novel--and certainly less than a Bolaño one!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Definitely something to be thankful for

{Photo by rocketlass.}

When rocketlass and I trek the 300 miles to visit my parents, I usually do the driving; long drives make her sleepy, so while she sleeps I sing along to Sinatra and Sam Cooke. The drive last Thanksgiving was different, however, because that was when I read my first Parker novel.

I picked up Richard Stark's Ask the Parrot (2006) on my lunch hour the day before Thanksgiving and dove into it as I sat in my office waiting for a call from rocketlass to say that she was ready to leave work. By the time she was free, I was 100 pages in, and as she pulled up in front of my office, I had to break the news that my driving services would be unavailable for the next 188 pages. Fortunately, she understands what it's like to be in the thrall of a book—we’d be a sorry couple if she didn’t—and she was patient with me while I followed Parker into and out of jams.

One year later, I’ve read twenty Parker novels and been involved in bringing three back into print (with three more on the way in the spring!), and each one has been a treat. But now I’m left with only four that I’ve not read, none of which I’ve currently got in hand. What am I to do when I find myself in need of Stark’s no-nonsense prose and Parker’s no-nonsense work ethic?

Saturday I chose the next-best thing: one of Stark’s novels starring Parker’s cohort Alan Grofield. Stark wrote four of them in the late 1960s and early ’70s, one of which, Lemons Never Lie (1971, reprinted a couple of years ago by Hard Case Crime), was my introduction to Stark himself. Grofield­—who pulls heists to support his career as a small-time, but serious, stage actor—shares Parker’s competence, but whereas Parker is all lethal business, Grofield is, well, goofy. He’s an ironic wit, a ladies’ man, and a deft reader of character who has a bad habit of shooting off his mouth at people holding guns. Though the situations in which he finds himself are no less dangerous than those that confront Parker, the tone is lighter, as if Stark has mixed in a dollop of the comic crime novels he writes under his real name of Donald Westlake.

There’s no better demonstration of the difference between Parker and Grofield than to read the Parker novel Slayground (1971) back-to-back with the Grofield novel The Blackbird (1969). Both books open with the same scene: the crash of a getaway car carrying both Grofield and Parker. Grofield is knocked unconscious and taken, under guard, to the hospital, while Parker, carrying the money, slips into a shuttered amusement park.

Slayground shows us Parker stripped to his essence: he becomes more than ever simply a machine for survival. Trapped by mob types in the amusement park, his every thought and action is bent on escape, his indomitable will his primary weapon. It’s one of Stark’s most brutal and effective novels, tense and inventive.

In The Blackbird, meanwhile, Grofield catches a break—sort of. A pair of federal agents offers him freedom in exchange for his help in a cracked espionage scheme, and though he’s sure it won’t work, he goes along because, well, it’s probably better than jail. Calamities of various sorts ensue, and he finds himself in the frozen wastes of far-north Canada, getting frostbite and being shot at by two or three different groups. But even as the situation makes him understandably grumpy, he retains a certain degree of humor, even nonchalance. This passage is a clear example of how his approach differs from Parker’s:
Grofield had no way of knowing where he was or who anybody was or what anybody wanted. He had never been so helpless in his life, and was tending to react to it by simply giving up, on the basis that if it won't do any good to struggle, don't struggle.
To some extent that represents Grofield's real philosophy, but at the same time, once his back is against the wall, he'll struggle almost as mightily, and almost as well, as Parker himself.

Just as Grofield's not quite as tough or dangerous as his partner in crime, the Grofield novels are slighter and less ambitious than the Parker novels. But they're fun nonetheless—and when you're out of Parker novels, they'll certainly do until a new one comes along.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

You may be done with 2666, but 2666 isn't done with you!

From Roberto Bolano's 2666:
Which in the final analysis was a good thing, because it's common knowledge that a conversation involving only a few people, with everyone listening to everyone else and taking time to think and not shouting, tends to be more productive or at least more relaxed than a mass conversation, which runs the permanent risk of becoming a rally, or, because of the necessary brevity of the speeches, a series of slogans that fade as soon as they're put into words.
The past week has seen a couple of worthy additions to the growing number of online resources for the reader of Roberto Bolano's 2666. First, Marcia Valdes, who has written before about Bolano's nonfiction, has a review of the novel in the December 8th issue of the Nation. Her review is unusual, less a description or assessment of 2666 than an account of how it came about: drawing from Spanish-language sources and interviews, Valdes offers insight into Bolano's research methods and sources, and the origins and growth of his obsession with the Ciudad Juarez murders. It's the sort of review I'd never recommend to someone who hadn't read the book yet--I think it reveals too much and, in the quantity of background information it offers, risks foreclosing a number of avenues of interpretation. But for a reader who has already grappled with Bolano's text, Valdes's review is a fascinating supplement.

A similar source of supplemental information is translator Natasha Wimmer's "Notes Toward an Annotated Edition of 2666", which Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading pointed out. As Wimmer's title would suggest, the notes are far from comprehensive, more tantalizing than totalizing. If what she's written already is any indication, should she ever decide to embark on a fully annotated edition of the novel, the result would be essential reading. Though I would disagree with some of her interpretations--as in her assertion that the characters in The Savage Detectives "endlessly plumb their inner lives" while the characters of 2666 don't--but her notes are a model of what notes to a contemporary novel can be, offering a mix of clarification, interpretation, and expansion, while drawing on a wide range of sources generally unavailable to the English-language reader.

Over the coming years, as more of Bolano's work--including, I hope, his nonfiction--is translated into English, the conversation about 2666 should only become more rich and informed.
There's nothing inside the man who sits there writing. Nothing of himself, I mean. How much better off the poor man would be if he devoted himself to reading. Reading is pleasure and happiness to be alive or sadness to be alive and above all it's knowledge and questions. Writing, meanwhile, is almost always empty.
And the result of that emptiness is material for an endless conversation, even an endless argument. Time for everyone I know to read 2666 so that they can join in!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

At the table with Dr. Johnson

{Photo by rocketlass.}

After a too-large dinner of beans on toast--the perfect antidote to the biting, blustery sleaze of a typical Chicago November--I find myself reminded of a passage from Peter Martin's Samuel Johnson (2008) about Dr. Johnson at the table. While on a trip with Joshua Reynolds,
Johnson nonplussed everyone by swallowing no fewer than thirteen pancakes at a single sitting. They stayed three weeks in Plymouth. . . . He is supposed to have amazed his hostess there, too--who was counting assiduously--by drinking seventeen cups of tea in one sitting. When he asked for more, she cried out, "What! Another, Dr Johnson?", to which he replied, "Madam, you are rude."
Though, strictly speaking, Johnson's reply was out of line, it does seem that, once one has poured seventeen cups of tea for a guest, to balk at the eighteenth smacks of churlishness.

As for alcohol, though Johnson once assured James Boswell that "there was no man alive who had seen him drunk," Johnson's friend Edmund Hector met that assertion with a laugh. Martin offers Boswell's account of Hector's rebuttal, a tale of a night of drinking with Ford, one of Johnson's relatives:
[Ford] was it seems a hard drinker and he engaged Johnson and Hector to spend the evening with him at the Swan Inn. Johnson said to Hector, "This fellow will make us both drunk. Let us take him by turns, and get rid of him." It was settled that Hector should go first. He and Ford had drunk three bottles of port before Johnson came. When Johnson arrived, however, Hector found he had been drinking at Mr Porter's instead of saving himself. Hector went to bed at the Swan leaving Johnson to drink on with Ford. Next morning he perceived that Johnson who had been his bed-fellow had been very drunk and he damned him. Johnson tried to deny the charge. Literally speaking Hector had not seen him drunk, though he was sure of the fact.
I don't really want to know on what grotesque evidence Hector based his assessment; the mention of their sharing a bed makes me fear the dreaded bed-puke. Regardless, I love the image of a young Johnson, laboring under the brutalities of a grisly hangover, yet remaining determined to split hairs and win the argument by clinging to the slimmest reed of fact.

Martin goes on to explain that
Boswell himself acknowledged elsewhere that even in later life, although Johnson could be "rigidly abstemious,", he was not "a temperate man either in eating or drinking." He could keep himself from drinking, but once he started it was hard for him to control it.
And he knew the dangers of giving in to drink; as he wrote of Addison,
In the bottle, discontent seeks for comfort, cowardice for courage, and bashfulness for confidence. . . . He that feels oppression from the presence of those to whom he knows himself superior, will desire to set loose his powers of conversation; and who, that ever asked succour from Bacchus, was able to preserve himself from being enslaved by his auxiliary?
In the presence of Johnson, we ought to find ourselves in the opposite position to that in which he paints Addison: we should be oppressed by his superiority. Yet Johnson's raging appetites--and the fact that for the most part he did control them, and thought less of himself when he failed to do so--like so many other aspects of his complicated personality, help to render him fully human and accessible, his accomplishments all the more admirable for their origins in a man whose flaws could at times be nearly as prodigious as his talents.